Friday, July 11, 2014

Malaysia diary: Langkawi Durian

We have our photos taken with the Sichaun clan, and I get to taste durian for the first time on a fruit farm. I'm a fan. Still no sign of "The Malayan Trilogy", or any decent bookshops yet for that matter. Swam at Pantai Kok among the sand crabs.

Air Terjun Temurun
Air Terjun Temurun, Temurun Waterfall

(In part 1 of the diary, we arrived in Langkawi and began to explore the island. I want to learn some Bahasa Malaysia while I’m here, as well as track down a copy of a certain trilogy. O ya, we’ve got some holiday friends: a family from Chengdu, China.)

Maria, our hostess, has left for Penang. Our friends from Chengdu however took up the slack, and did something quintessential to the travelling experience: they told us about wondrous lands to the North. I loved it: if I was better-read I would cite a well-loved literary classic where in an early chapter our hero learns in a kedai minuman of a mythical land full of riches from an itinerant Chinese sampan maker and resolves to work his way north in a picaresque adventure.

As it was my experience was in a resort pool, but nonetheless, our Sichuan friends were most keen to impress on us how very worthwhile it would be for us to visit this faraway paradise a few hours (in a plane, not a sampan) from Chengdu, to wit the Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) Valley National Park. If ever we felt like visiting it we could visit them too. Be careful what you ask for, I thought: I’m the sort of inconsiderate so-and-so to take them up on it; I’ve profited from flimsy connections before to see lesser sights. I was grateful to them for another reason. So far, this is the only place in China that Tina has shown the slightest interest in seeing, convinced as she is that it’s all Shanghai, Beijing, repression and smog. I checked on Wikipedia: yep, looks stunning. See how beautiful China can be? 中国很漂亮! We’re going there, when the timing is auspicious.

Breakfast photos
Betsy and her Dad with two Minecraft fans.

But we're in Langkawi for the time being. On the main drag of Pantai Cenang (Cenang Beach) I sought and I found a bookshop I'd heard about. Piled high with pre-loved stuff from all the countries represented by tourists to the pulau (Germany, Holland, and Finland were the big winners), it was also a place where your choice of which shelf to browse was mostly determined by its proximity to the fan. It couldn't hold Tina who fled the fainting humidity and went back to the car with the kids. Stubborn insistence that a cheap, perfectly preserved copy of Anthony Burgess's "The Malayan Trilogy" might be lurking behind each pile of Ian Rankin or Jo Nesbø bought me about ten more minutes before I finally looked up in sweat to see a framed picture of Dr. Mahathir, erstwhile Prime Minister, in this very shop on an evening walkabout, who probably would have said to me: "If only you were into formulaic crime thrillers, you could get what you want quickly, but you're not, so go back to your wife and kids in the stifling car and take yourselves to that nice Bon Ton restaurant she's been looking forward to. Look, the sun will set in about 30 minutes: you want to be there for that." I heeded his imagined advice and left empty-handed. It wasn't to be in this particular kedai buku.

As we were finishing up our makanan next morning Betsy approached us all sheepish with a request. Could they take a couple of pictures of our kids? Like any parents whose children receive a blast of attention, we were charmed. Of course they could. I sent the kids back to the hut to get their Minecraft toys, which they were only too happy to do. It was a strange thing the Chinese wanted from our perspective, but a lovely, innocent gesture that maybe only Chinese tourists could safely pull off. In our wisdom back home in Australia, we have managed to turn the perfectly innocent activity of photographing children into a thing of suspicion. I was sure quick to make fun of their photographic habits in part 1 of this diary, but this photo op they called for was an unaffected, generous gesture on their behalf, one that had left them open to the possibility of a sanctimonious refusal. But holidays are all about the possibility of photos, so we sat out in the heat and created some fresh memories.

Preparing the durian
Chef (left) and friend preparing the durian.

I’ve mentioned that on this trip I've got a couple of highfalutin' literary and linguistic goals, but there’s another one worth bringing up. In Malaysia one is in the court of the King of Fruits and we Irish respect royalty, if only when it's a poetic term for durian. I remember my friend Dave pointing out frozen durian fruit to me once in a supermarket in the predominantly Asian area of Sunnybank in Brisbane, intimidating bowling-bowl-sized spiky brown medieval-looking yokes in plastic string bags. He mentioned something about them smelling, too. Well now it was time to find out whether I loved or hated them; those are the only two options available.

Chef took us to a friend’s farm where rambutan, mangosteen, and durian were grown, none of which I knew anything about: what they looked like, what they smelled like, or what they tasted like. His friend was a retired policeman, and sadly his name escapes me now. Anyway, there they were, spiky like a hangover, mine to try. Chef cut one of them open, handed me a pulpy yellow segment and to my surprise, and theirs I think, I thought it was delicious. And that was that. I like durian. As far as I'm concerned it's delicious, Tina thought it was disgusting, arra some people just have no taste whatsoever. We left with a doggy bag of rambutan, mangosteen, and of course durian, the last of which I intended to enjoy for tomorrow's breakfast, smell be damned. And sure enough on the 20 minute drive home, what with this heat, it stunk out the car satisfyingly.

At the fruit plantation
Dokong fruit at the plantation.

We allowed ourselves to float on down the river of fruit. In MARDI Agro Technology Park we got a tame run around the grounds on an electric milk float thing and the chance to have starfruit and jackfruit, known here as nangka. Weirdly, well only because it was the first time I saw something that was to become a commonplace of the rest of our trip, they had durian coffee in the shop on the way out. By Georgetown, 3 days later, it was part of my afternoon schedule: iced durian coffee by the pool, please. In the course of this holiday I had durian in several guises, lovin' it more each time. I've imbibed it in solid (well, pulpy), fried, liquid, and of course in its signature gaseous form. In fact, the kids began to acquire the lamentably unmarketable (at least here in Malaysia) ability to tell when a car with some king of fruit drove by us even in smoggy KL, which says something about its regal ability to get up your nose.

Nasi lemak and durian for breakfast
Nasi lemak and durian for breakfast.

Pantai Kok was almost deserted, a long, narrow, warm-watered strip all to ourselves. Us and the rubbish. That was the crux: paradise has a litter problem. The warmest water outside of a bath I've ever been in had flotsam from nearby yachts and resorts and the occasional what looked like a washed-up coconut, which sounds very tropical - "A coconut on a beach!" - but was just one more thing that you had to investigate to find out what business at all it had being on the pantai. Fleet and tiny sand crabs fled at our footfalls, so well-disguised that initially I mistook them for scraps of pale paper-thin seaweed flitting in the breeze. Slowly, without particularly caring to work it out, an part of my brain that I just can't switch off brought it to the rest of my attention that they only seemed to be blowing away from me. There was agency involved. Sand crabs.

You will rarely see such well-camouflaged little critters anywhere. I sat down among them, David Attenborough among the gorillas, and close as I was I failed to snatch even one half-decent photo with Karl's DSLR. It's not that they all disappeared: they were there, peering out of their little foxholes, if I might mix my animal types thus. With an instinct that makes them ill-adapted for today's world, but which a lot of people I know might profit from copying, these micro-scavengers are determined not to have the minutiae of their lives shared on Google+ and Flickr.

Pantai KokPantai Kok, which surprisingly is not a nudist beach.

Four days into our Malaysian epic, and I've had more exposure to 普通话, courtesy of the Sichauners, than I have had to Bahasa Malaysia. And no sign whatsoever of "The Malayan Trilogy". I turned the last page this morning on part 1, "Time for a Tiger", and I didn't bring the others. Gazing at the bunga raya hibiscus plants surrounding our hut, flowers well-opened now by mid-morning, at verdant paddies in the middle distance leading the eye to the Gunung Raya, the Great Mountain (there's a great view from this toilet, in fairness!), enjoying the glow of satisfaction from a good book well read, I could think of no better segue to the next part of our trip, Penang, than to locate a copy of the trilogy post-haste. Although, as Pete McCarthy wrote in the classic McCarthy's Bar, "A sense of purpose occasionally has its place when travelling, but for the most part it's seriously overrated.", so maybe I should loosen up; tida' apa, read something else. Goals are probably anathema to holidays. But if I died in the morning at least it could be said of me that he had tasted the king and he had enjoyed the king.

(Part 3 of the diary: We catch a ferry from Langkawi to Kuala Kedah, a taxi to Penang...and so began a most fascinating three days in Georgetown, a sweaty mix of English colonial, Chinese and Indian.)