Sunday, July 6, 2014

Malaysia diary: Pulau Langkawi

"I don't bath very much here, but I had a bloody good wash on the boat coming over."
"Time for a Tiger" by Anthony Burgess.

A long-anticipated passage to Malaysia is finally underway. High clouds persist almost all the way making the flight quite bumpy, but with not much to see below I can get through a bit more of the Malayan language book I'm learning a few phrases from. The kids are in the seats behind me playing on the rented iPads, Tina's beside them reading, and I've got two friendly pre-teen girls for company who I take to be Malaysian (they wear keradung headscarves, and also to guess by the cut of their parents across the aisle). The clouds ease off for an hour or two and I look down at islands in a sea that could be the Arafura, Banda, Timor, or Java - who knows?

We touch down on Pulau Langkawi - a perfectly-timed sunset after an eight-and-a-half hour flight from the Gold Coast to KL, a four hour coitus interruptus in klia2, a one-hour flight up the west coast. From what I could see of klia2, the new low-cost terminal seems to be AirAsia's secret garden. It's so new, in fact, that it hadn't even been officially opened the day we transited. It was odd to read one morning during our trip, in our holiday paper of choice the New Straits Times, of the 'official' opening of this muggy, hazy hub.

Durian durian durian
Durian, the king of fruit!

One of my goals on this trip is to get a flying start with the Malayan language by absorbing as much as I can in the two weeks I'm here. I consider a similar jaunt to Bali two years ago when not a single word of Bahasa Indonesia passed my lips a missed opportunity, especially considering the huge amount of overlap between the two Bahasas (Malaysia and Indonesia). A language effort expended then would have paid dividends now, but sure... tida’ apa (it doesn’t matter/never mind). Tidak apa (silent 'k') turned out to be an indispensable Malayan phrase that I was able to use over and over on my travels, up there with Chinese's 没关系 (mei guanxi) in terms of versatility, and used as a motif in a book which is another one of my goals this trip, "The Malayan Trilogy" by the great English author Anthony Burgess.

Three books in one, but only published in collective form nowadays it seems, it would serve as a literary totem for this trip, an excuse for me to spend time in bookshops, something we all humans love doing. Arriving in Malaysia, I had just finished reading part one, "Time for a Tiger" (yes, as in the beer), but it was a knackered old library copy and I thought: what better souvenir to buy here than a spanking new copy of the trilogy? The idea was to scout it out in some second-hand kedai buku, maybe in Georgetown or Ipoh: a literary goal such as one might read in Umberto Eco, I grandly fancied. O ya, (by the way) it's called the "Malayan" trilogy because when Burgess lived and worked here in the '50s, there was no "Malaysia"; everything was still Malaya, or the Federated Malay States.

Congkak board
Congkak board, Fox Hill

We were picked up and driven to Fox Hill Resort by a guy called Chef, we stowed our baggage in the reconstructed traditional-style kampung hut which would be home for the next 5 days, and at last, at last, unwound with an evening meal of mee goreng and ayam (chicken), soaking up the humid jungle atmosphere. My linguistic beachhead with Malaysian would be established with food terms, from where I could easily make brief sorties into nature (e.g. pulau, island) terms, and towns/cities (jalan, road). A holiday has many dimensions, many ways it can succeed or fail, and one of those is the struggle with the words you see and read around you. It only stands to reason that if you put in a bit of effort to understand those, your experience will be enriched. The language ghosts of Bali and of last year’s flying visit to Catalonia would be exorcised, starting at the dinner table of the rumah makan, the communal dining quarters.

Maria, the estimable, reluctantly-retired businesswoman who owns Fox Hill, generously sat and chatted with us about our flight, Australia, this and that. I thought it a bit odd that she would fraternise with us like that: normally as guests in these places you get left to your own devices. But she was excellent company, no-nonsense but friendly, her English so good that she could relax with us unlike the diffident Chef, who actually was the chef here (although that seems to be his real name. Was that a coincidence?). It turns out Maria only answers enquiry emails for like ours Fox Hill when she's good and ready to have guests and when she’s good and ready to have guests she evidently wants to know more about them. Highly educated - a retired lawyer - she picked up my copy of Burgess like an old friend. We chatted about the pandas. Oh, you didn't know? China lent Malaysia a pair. According to Maria they were a token of friendship to patch up the damaged sino-malaysian relationship in the wake of MH370. Panda diplomacy, it's called. China strategically deploys its ursine resources to butter up its neighbours from time to time. And naturally we talked about the misteri MH370. She didn’t really have much light to shed that we didn’t already know - there's so little to know - other than to observe that, take it from her, she knew people in high places, the government had tried a lot of things that they couldn't reveal for fear of arousing false hope then failing each time.

The whole place was coming down with hibiscus, as we'd say in Ireland. The bunga raya, the national flower, came in pink, yellow, and red varieties here. And of course, there were frangipani trees throughout too, reminiscent of Bali, although we have them at home in Australia too. Gunung Raya hazy in the distance. In Bali I had at least learned gunung, the word for mountain, and since raya means great, that must be the main, or great mountain on the island, and hence bunga raya is indeed an important flower. A few simple words of Bahasa Malaysia start to lend the surrounds a meaning lost to suckers who don't bother. Frogs clinging to the edge of the swimming pool had to be fished out before young kids would get in: at least they're not cane toads. I found an old (1986) "Speak Malay!" book in the usual book swap shelf, literary detritus mainly in Dutch and German that you get in all hotels and resorts nowadays, which other than the physical guestbook and Trip Advisor reviews is where we are most likely to leave a mark on the ideological landscape. I find them the most potentially interesting places, and usually the most disappointing. And an intriguing artifact that must be a game. Only by asking on Google+ after leaving Fox Hill (I'd forgotten to while I was still here) did I find out it's a congkak (or congklak) board, and yes, it's a Malayan game.

Reticulated python
Reticulated Python at the Wildlife Park

And so we made like pirates and explored Pulau Langkawi. At the Bird Paradise Wildlife Park the flamboyance of the fauna was matched by the relentless whatthefuckery of many of the tourists, who have the temerity to juxtapose themselves in selfie after selfie with animals they’re probably not going to see for a long time outside of wikipedia. It’s a white peacock doing its courtship thing! Show some respect and get your same ol’ face out of the picture! 'Sacred' ibises, which I thought funny: in Brisbane, they scavenge rubbish bins in parks. Mousedeer, like cartoons whose illustrator got lazy after fleshing out the heads and bodies and gave them implausible stick legs. Raucous craggy macaws. Pensive hornbills.

Here’s a little piece of England on a dusty, roadside beach: Scarborough Fish'n'Chips was where I opened my holiday account with the first of many Guinnesses (640ml., Export Strength) of the holiday, while we stared lazily at Thailand. The black stuff flowed nice and free for me on this trip, that and the Tiger. From there we pressed on to a strangely quiet beach called Pantai Tanjung Rhu, exotically hemmed in by jungle walls and offshore islands. Why aren't there more people here? This is the stuff.

In Kuah, the capital of Langkawi, the Wan Thai restaurant seemed to be where all the action was. The kids will have to have Thai, it'll do them good, they're having spaghetti for dinner. As I ordered my pad prik ayam curry, my attention was drawn more and more to the petite, otherworldly person taking our order. I say person, because I couldn't be sure which of the two classical types they were. Women's shoes, guy's voice, perky boobs, in need of a quick shave around the mouth.
"Do you have Tiger beer?", I chanced.
"No beer. This is a muslim restaurant.", in a mildly scolding tone. I just gazed at the eyeliner, and was fiercely gobsmacked at the moral non-sequitur whereby - dude with tits: Allah be praised!, a glass of beer on a hot day: a fatwa on my western ass! On arrival in Fox Hill two days prior, I had immediately noticed that the minibar conspicuously lacked Tiger, which would not do at all. It's not as if it was haram, forbidden, since it was included in the drinks price list on top of the fridge. At that evening's meal Maria admitted to a certain ambivalence towards beer. They will serve it, but want no part of the profit that would normally accrue from it. Wholesale Tiger! She fetched a couple for us though, and sure enough next day order was restored, the fridge was beer-stocked like Oddbin's. But to get back to my pad prik, it was the green chillies that were nearly my undoing. One of the many young waitresses adorned with the ubiquitous kerudung noticed me sweating over this bastard curry, judiciously setting aside the red chillies.
"Pad prik very hot."
"Whew! Yeah!"
"Green chillies are hot. They make it hot."
"Ah!"

I better stop knocking them back like they were green beans then. The red ones weren't the problem all along. She saved my dignity, that round-faced angel of my intestinal integrity, who probably earmarked me for salvation as soon as she saw me enter. By the time I finished my curry, my tears had stopped, and the sweating...well, it's 32 outside with 80% humidity and only a ceiling fan for relief, what of it?

After a day or two of having the run of Fox Hill to ourselves a family group of 5 from Chengdu, Sichuan province (四川成都) arrived. Betsy, the daughter of one of the couples, in her twenties, had good English. I amused them a bit by giving the Chinese a lash.
"我是爱尔兰人,但是我们在住澳大利亚。 " (I’m Irish, and we live in Australia).
"Oh, you speak really good Chinese!"
Chinese-speaking people always say that. It's very kind of them. Communication was initially restricted to a lot of indulgent smiling on their behalf at the lovable behaviour of our lads in the pool, dive-bombing and shrieking their way into the Chinese tourists’ holiday nightmares. I like Chinese people - at least I haven’t met any I didn’t like yet. Probably because I’m learning the language, which often surprises and disarms them and gets me a good reaction. And that’s the idea: languages aren’t abstract mathematical exercises, despite the way they teach them in school.

Our Chengdu friends
我们的成都朋友. Our Chengdu friends

But the Rainman-like social autism that afflicts some people when there's a camera in their hand soon melted the ice. At breakfast the following morning I glanced up to catch The Camera Guy in the Chengdu group, a middle-aged, belted-slacks-wearing, ironed-shirt-sporting guy (in the already daunting humidity) aiming the standard-issue Asian tourist DSLR camera right at us. His determination to document the most mundane imaginable moment of his holiday - me, groggily skulling coffee - was in its own way inspirational. This man was Josef Koudelka, except unlike the Czech master he efficiently skipped the part about living with his subjects for weeks to gain their trust and just got straight in there with a zoom lens at breakfast. Perhaps because I'd noticed him, he came and stood over us in what he must have felt was a neutralising, friendly manner, but lacking any English he could only stand at our table mutely smiling, avuncular, sinister. I crammed roti canai into my mouth, avoided at all costs looking up, and waited for the weirdness to blow over.

And thus did we all settle into a Langkawi groove, we four travellers and our Chinese friends. A daily routine of curry or noodles (in general, stuff you’d normally have for lunch or dinner) for breakfast, sightseeing during the day, then back to the pool to shrug off the cruel humidity and breathe in the life-giving wifi, I photo-blogging on Google+, Tina on Facebook. Taking notes for this blog and organising my phone photos one evening after makanan (food), Maria stopped by with a tidbit from the nearby kampung night market. She unwrapped a package of rice, mixed in some dry coconut and sugar and bid me salamat tidur, leaving me to enjoy my traditional Malaysian dessert with the lazy house cats.

I'm used to warm and muggy subtropical Brisbane, but here there was no discernible drop-off in temperature at sunset - it might still be 30° with raging humidity late into the evening. Nothing for it but to sit out on the porch, read some Burgess ("He had had a confused coloured dream about Bombay shot with sharp pangs of unpaid bills. Over it all had brooded thirst, thirst for a warmish bottle of Tiger beer. Or Anchor. Or Carlsberg."), and have a Tiger. Unlike Burgess's Nabby Adams, who preferred them warm, I'll have mine cold.

(In part 2 of the diary, we had our photos taken with the Sichaun clan, and I got 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. We swam at Pantai Kok among the sand crabs.)