Monthly Archives: August 2008

More Musings on Malaysia

August 28, 2008

Boxes and Behavior

Most people live their lives within a small box, seeking safety and comfort in the familiar.

But that’s another instance of the “attribution error.” Safety and comfort do not derive from familiarity, but rather more from things like having one’s wits about them, observing what’s going on around you, developing your instincts and confidence, and having a respectful, benevolent and friendly demeanor. The more I travel and explore, the more I believe that one can be safe and comfortable in strange places and situations. No adventure is without risk, however, but neither is staying put. It all comes down to doing whatever feeds one’s soul.

Discovering the “Straits States”

When I was a boy I had many hobbies. These included chemistry, model building, radio and electronics, and various things mechanical. That clearly put me in the nerd category. I spent hours alone building model airplanes from sticks of balsa wood and tissue paper, or putting together my own radio sets based on plans ordered from Popular Mechanics, or making various “products” from my collection of chemicals (including fireworks, of course). Another of my hobbies was stamp collecting. In those days it was almost conceivable, though still not practical, that one might possibly put together something approaching a complete set. The number of different stamps that have been issued since then must by now number in the millions.

I remember that amongst the stamps that I ordered “on approval” from ads in Popular Mechanics (you see a pattern here?) there were many that bore the name of “Straits Settlements.” I had no idea at the time what these “Straits Settlements” might be or where in the world they might be located. It turns out that they were some of the Malay states or “settlements,” then under British rule, that lie to the east and north of the Straits of Malacca. These included Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The independent country of Malaysia was formed In 1957 by uniting various states of the Malaysian peninsula with Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo. You might recognize some of the names of the peninsular states which include Johor, Selangor, Perak, Melaka and several others.

Hanging out here in Georgetown, the seat of the former British colony of Penang, now part of Malaysia, provides an interesting perspective on history. Fort Cornwallis, just around the corner from my guest house, was built by Sir Francis Light around the time of the American Revolution as part of the British strategy to control the Malay straits and the resources of Southeast Asia. Penang is diverse both ethnically and religiously. Unlike most other Malaysian states, it has a Chinese majority that is mostly Buddhist, but there are also Taoists and Christians (there is a strong Christian influence remaining from the colonial period). Penang also has a significant Indian population, which is mostly Hindu but many are Muslim. I suspect that it may be that long period of British control that is largely responsible for enabling Penang’s diversity.

Worlds in Contrast

A couple days ago I boarded a city bus, having no particular destination but with the expectation that it would take me somewhere I had not been before. I was wrong. While I may never have been at those particular geographical coordinates, the place where I ended up, called the Queensbay Mall a little way outside of Georgetown, was indistinguishable from so many other modern malls I’ve seen. It might just as easily have been in Tucson, Kansas City, Minneapolis, or London. It had the same stores selling the same brands at what amazingly appeared to be the same excessive (dollar equivalent) prices. Perhaps that’s why the place was relatively empty of shoppers. The Häagen-Dazs stand, for example, was offering two scoops of ice cream for something just over 15 Ringgit. THAT’S FIVE DOLLARS FOR PITY SAKE! That in a country where a good hearty meal can be had for as little as one dollar for breakfast, or two dollars for dinner. That’s exactly what I paid last night at a good restaurant in the “Little India” section of Georgetown. My two German friends, Bernie and Diane, and I each had a plate of Tandoori chicken with dal, mint chutney, a garnish of sliced cucumber and onion, with naan (Indian flat bread), plus a cup of milk tea. Total bill, 19 and a half Ringgit. That’s two dollars each.

I find the entire mall experience depressing. As lively, diverse, and interesting as the old city is, the malls to me are sterile and dead. I could hardly wait to get back to Georgetown. I rode the bus all the way back to Weld Quay (where the ferry boats depart for the mainland and Langkawi Island). There are numerous food carts and stalls in that area, so feeling a bit of a thirst I decided to sit down and order a drink. “What’ll it be?” There are, of course, all sorts of western carbonated, sugary soft drinks on offer, but fortunately, in these parts, one has other options.

“Would you please open up that cocoanut for me and hand me a straw and a spoon?”

“Three Ringgit.”

The cocoanut was so big and full of juice I could barely finish it. The cocoanut meat was a bonus that provided enough of a snack to hold me until dinner time.

Living Free and Living Well

Once you sort out your real needs from your conditioned and fear-based ones, it takes surprisingly little money to live well. You can get a family room in a guesthouse with A/C for around 10 to 15 US dollars per day. I’m alone so my expenses can be a bit lower but I have opted for the more deluxe accommodations: double room with A/C, shared bath for RM 35 (a shade above ten dollars US). This place is VERY clean, provides free internet access for guests on two computers, plus Wi-Fi if you have your own; free drinking water, coffee, tea. There’s an abundance of other similar places nearby but the SD Guesthouse is the best one I’ve found.

One correspondent from England wrote me recently expressing envy at my ability to travel and live as I do. He has a wife and two young children which does impose some additional constraints. Taking care of preschoolers is a mighty challenge, but in a couple years he should be able to take them around the world to everyone’s benefit. Just last evening, as I stopped in front of a side street puppet show, which a few minutes later attracted a family of four who told me they are on a 14 month world holiday. They are English and their two kids look to be about 5 and 8. What better school for them than the world? They are staying at another guesthouse just around the corner, for which they pay about the same as I do for mine.

Getting Beneath the Surface

Georgetown does not reveal itself easily. It takes some time and effort to get beneath the surface to see what’s going on here. That’s why I’ve chosen to stay on (I’ve already been here ten days and am considering making Penang my base in Asia). While many tourists visit Penang, and the official literature highlights the usual assortment of temples, museums and landmarks, Penang has a life of its own that does not depend on tourism. Unlike places like Bali, where so many ceremonies and celebrations are staged for the benefit of the tourists, Georgetown residents do it for themselves. I’m fortunate to be here during the Hungry Ghost festival which happens during the seventh month of the lunar Chinese calendar, and to have the guidance of Mr. Sun, a Chinese native of Penang, who is the day clerk at my guesthouse. While I noticed one of the outdoor stages that was set up for the celebration, and watched some of the performances there, I would never have known about another venue and the amazing events there if Mr. Sun had not told me about it. Last weekend I went there in the company of two French women who were also staying here. Except for a German couple, ours were the only western faces to be seen amongst the estimated crowd of tow t three hundred people. I felt as if we were crashing someone’s party, which we probably were, but we were shortly invited to join a table of Chinese who kept us well supplied with beer and food.

The Hungry Ghost festival can be loosely compared to our Halloween, but the elaborate rituals and activities designed to placate lost souls make ours look pale in comparison. I’m too lazy to write about it in detail, but you can see some pictures on my photo gallery: Imagine performance stages set up all over town, each providing entertainment for several nights running -singers and sexy dancers. Imagine elaborate decorations and a climaxing bonfire in which all are consumed, then everyone joining a parade to a nearby street at which each person receives multiple gifts. I ended up with 17 little packets, each containing a coin or two, which added up to about four Ringgit.

I could go on but I prefer to not burden either my readers or myself with lengthy descriptions. Sometimes a sketch is more appreciated than a portrait.

Here’s a slide show you can watch.

Musings on Malaysia

Sunday, August 17, 2008

In conventional tourist terms, Kota Bharu has little to offer aside from some large bazaars, quaint markets, and a few museums. But after more than a week of lazing on island beaches it serves my needs – a decent,
comfortable hotel at affordable prices, some good cheap ethnic food, and access to the internet. I’ve been here three days and will likely spend another day or two getting caught up on correspondence before heading off on a new adventure.

Exploring the islands in the South China Sea off the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsula has been a delight. Four days on Pulau Kapas and three on Pulau Perhentian Kecil provided an abundance of memorable experiences and many new friends (see my photo journal at The Perhentian Islands, Kecil (“small”) and Besar (“big”), lie within a national marine park and offer amazing opportunities to get up-close and personal with a great variety of beautiful sea creatures. I had to go no farther than 20 or 30 meters from my beachfront bungalow to swim amongst them in shallow water – anemones, mollusks, crustaceans, and more varieties of tropical fish than I can name, many in spectacular iridescent colors. This with only a snorkel and a facemask, which take no great skill to manage.

Petani Beach Resort where I stayed could not have been more ideal. While its isolation might have made it unsuitable for me long-term, it provided a fine opportunity for me to forget about work for a while. I might have stayed longer but their chalets were booked in advance and they could accommodate me for only three nights, and since I had already spent four days loafing at the Kapas Beach Chalets (KBC) on Pulau Kapas, I decided to return to the mainland rather than find other lodging on the Perhentians.

KBC was a lucky choice in that it lies pretty much at the center of a string of small guest resorts, has a fine sand beach, and seems to be the social center of this quiet little island – a happy place with friendly, helpful
crew and interesting guests.

Language is no problem in Malaysia since English is widely spoken in these former British colonies, and the Malays, like everyone else in the world, have recognized that English is becoming the universal language and it is being widely taught in the schools.

The Bahasa Malay language has borrowed many words from English but has given them more logical phonetic spellings. Examples:










And just to make things interesting water is air – that is, the word they use for water is “air” (pronounced ay-er).

One thing you don’t see in Malaysia is beggars. This is a place where the people are for the most part friendly and honest and well fed. In my dealings with vendors I’ve never had anyone try to cheat me. There does not seem to be the desperate poverty that one finds in other places like India, or the over-dependence upon the tourist trade that exists in Bali. People here in Malaysia do not pester you to buy things as they do in those other places. Sure, there are some touts around the bus stations and taxi stands trying to direct you, but I’ve found them to be more helpful than annoying.

I’ve not made a through study of the matter but it seems to me that the benefits of the national prosperity have been more widely shared here than in most places. Unlike many other governments, Malaysia has resisted pressures to privatize its resources. The country’s considerable petroleum wealth is government-owned under Petronas, the national oil company, which also has considerable real estate holdings. The national wealth has been and continues to be used to develop not only the physical infrastructure, but the country’s human resources, as well. My friend, Professor Kameel, who is
an Indian Malaysian, has told me that his education was provided entirely at government expense, including his PhD which he acquired at the University of Texas. This is not unusual. Malaysia prides itself on the fact that it is well on its way toward becoming a “developed country.” Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve seen evidence of government investment in roads, streets, marketplaces, public toilets, bath houses, and port facilities.

I’ve not tried to discover the extent of government subsidies and programs that might have more direct benefit to ordinary people, but I do know that food here is dirt cheap, especially at the night markets where dozens of vendors set up their food carts and portable kitchens too prepare an amazing assortment of ethnic treats. A typical meal might cost 3 Ringgit (about a dollar). That’s what I paid for last night’s dinner which consisted of a nice piece of curried chicken breast over a bed of saffron rice, garnished with a few cucumber and onion pickles, all served up in a brown paper packet for take away to one of the many tables provided by the drink vendors. Add another Ringgit and a half for a glass of watermelon juice and you have a satisfying meal for a dollar and a half. If you need something to satisfy your sweet tooth, you can find much to choose from without elevating the total cost for dinner above two dollars.

I’m one who enjoys tramping around. That’s something that hasn’t changed in the thirty years since I made my first trip abroad. While I can enjoy a brief stay in a five star hotel or resort, I just can’t see it as a steady
diet. Neither can I afford it, even here. Although my retirement income covers only bare subsistence in the US, I can live pretty well on it in a place like this. Privileged as I am, I want to experience some semblance of the gritty day to day life of the ordinary people who live in a place. There’s nothing like riding a public bus (say, “bas”) to give you a taste of how the less affluent among us live.

I’ve met quite a number of other western travelers along the way – mostly Europeans, a few Aussies, and surprisingly few Americans. It’s always fun to compare experiences and share recommendations of places to stay and to eat. The Lonely Planet Guide provides a good start but no guidebook can ever be comprehensive and up-to-date.

A couple more weeks of wandering, then back to some serious work for a while, but I don’t plan to leave Asia any time soon.

More later.

No More Privacy in America

Big Brother has recently been injected with a huge dose of growth hormones. I’ve just learned of some disturbing developments affecting travelers to the United States. U.S. citizens or others entering the US may have their laptop computer or other digital devices SEIZED without cause by Homeland Security. I first learned of this today as I explored a Thailand Travel Forum at the website
Is this credible? Read all about it in the Washington Post article titled,