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 http://picasaweb.google.com/tomazhg). 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.