Thursday, July 03, 2008

Ghost of a steam train - echoes down my track / It's at the moment bound for nowhere


As you pass through Malaysia it’s hard not to be gobsmacked by the infrastructure. From the KLIA, to the Twin Towers to the bridge from Butterworth to Penang, it’s incredible and makes my home country look a little less developed than this developing nation. And then there are the roads.

Grand sweeping highways, often cut through seemingly impassable terrain and sculpted out of the mountains cross the country. True, the driving may be less than perfect at times and trucks still belch black fumes but after Indonesia it's still a relief and I have to say I really enjoyed driving in Malaysia…more so than Bali, Australia or NZ. Especially when filling up is less than US$30 (about the same price as Indonesia but roads everywhere in Indonesia are appalling and often filled with charming people who become lunatics when given a vehicle).

Leaving Kuala Lumpur, heading to the town of Ipoh, we drove north on the variety of ring roads intending to visit the world famous Batu Caves just north of the city, but in our rush to leave had not partaken in breakfast, thus our eyesight was blurred and we missed the turn off (true story: a guy that worked for us in Bali drove our car into an obvious wall once..his argument was that it was midday and he’d not had lunch yet…the logic works for me).

So we travelled further north, spinning past a variety of food Ipohoutlets (‘that looked good’) and made the split decision to flag the coastal route (it looked like it wound a bit) and make a detour up to the Cameron Highlands.

The Cameron Highlands are very famous. They are famous for their beauty, for their tearooms, market gardens, and, in my mind, even more famous as the place where the legendary Jim Thompson disappeared…offed, so speculation goes, either by the CIA, those damned Commies, or some corrupt Thai politician.

The thought occurred that perhaps we could figure out our likely scenario on Jim’s fate. I like a mystery, and this really was one.

Thus, off the six lane highway we went. The map said 45km to the central town of Tanah Rata which seemed do-able. And the road wasn’t bad as it goes…very windy, and quite narrow but better than large parts of State Highway One in my native land.

That said this relative ease was complicated by a few things. Firstly, we were all starving. Forget Jim Thompson, we need lunch…no make that breakfast. Secondly, we had some little shit on a cheap Japanese sports car lookalike who took pleasure in slowing down to 10km in the centre of the road for some extended periods then racing off…his Jim Thompson moment was about to come if we’d managed to get our hands on him. Thirdly…the road may have been ok, but it went on and on and on and on and on and on, and forever upwards. This was further complicated by the fourth factor: our petrol seemed to have gone from half a healthy tank to none almost in an instant. And there seemed to not be a petrol station. At least in Bali we have the alternative of those Absolut bottles full of watered down (often with vegetable oil) Premium on every corner as a last resort…but not Malaysia which seems to have left that past far behind.

But, it being a rental car, an Absolut bottle filled with anything (even Absolut) would’ve been helpful. Brigid suggested we turn back but Jim Thompson kept calling, as did the thought of some alpine café serving sates or something onwards we went with the clear knowledge that if there was no gas station in the first town, the oddly named Ringlet, we were, to use a kiwi-ism, profoundly rooted and wouldn’t make Ipoh that night.

As we went around the curve into Ringlet Blake spotted a Petronas sign and we cruised, ever so confidently, into that quite wonderful Pompa Bensin to fill’er up.

ipoh4I wandered around the back, noted that one of the toilets was flooding out the door but the staff member near seemed unconcerned so I thought I’d let it pass too..when in Rome…

In the interim our navigator at the time, Blake, had found a map which indicated that perhaps there was another route to the north out of the Highlands. The chap from the station spoke no English and seemed confused by the questions so in my Indonesian tinged Bahasa Malay I asked:

Jalan itu paling cepat ke Ipoh dari disini?

Ya he answered, and we were on our way north, towards Tanah Rata for that lunch and then a quick flash through on whatever road that was to our booked destination.

Sadly it was the highlight of the Cameron Highlands. I think Jim Thompson decided he’d had enough of this place and had taken flight to a better place. Any place would’ve fitted that description..the Cameron Highlands were a dank, grotty place littered with tourist traps and ugly pseudo Swiss Chalet styled hotels. The food in uglier Tanah Rata was shocking….I refused to eat it and decided I’d wait till Ipoh whenever it may be. I had a strawberry.

We moved north, past more grotty tourist traps and a garbage dump, quickly looking for the way out and before we knew it we were sweeping down the new, not on any maps, multi-lane Highway 145, clearly designed as an escape route from the unappealing Cameron Highlands. If only Jim Thompson had waited….

ipoh1And into Ipoh we went, past the huge Limestone mountains and the temples carved into their sides and down the boulevards of the former colonial mining capital to our pleasant, and pleasantly cheap, hotel.

A quick shower, still delirious from hunger we wandered down to the famous old railway station where the Raj sent tin trains south to fill the coffers of London’s merchant banks, for a hundred years or so, before the ore was depleted.

Clearly business there was still a little slow as the Station Hotel, listed in a few guides, was now a brothel. Well there you go.

After a wander around the station cum knock shop (if you will) we unwisely looked at the map and headed off for the Wooley Food Centre…much finally kill the delirium.


It was nowhere near the map location. Indeed, some of the roads on the map had never existed. It’s embarrassing how lost we were and how close we were the whole time and it may be better not to mention the nice Moslem family, with headscarves, running the saté cart who politely declined to sell Sandra the pork sates she tried to order.

The Tiger Beer arrived at our table and we were in Ipoh but where was Jim Thompson?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Ah come on all you lads, let's forget and forgive / there's a world to explore


We went to Malaysia.

On our third day there, we were lucky enough in Kuala Lumpur to bump into Peter Hoe. Brigid had written pages of notes for our ten days touring across Malaysia, most taken from the web, from TripAdvisor and the like. Some were not as helpful as we’d hoped they  might be (like the Dim Sim up by the Thai border, which was a bit of a drive from the Traders Hotel across from the Petronas Towers, although our navigator almost got us there a few days later but that's another story). Others, such as the tip about  Peter’s Emporium, just off Chinatown’s famous Petaling Street, were bang on. We’d wandered down, through Chinatown, past the intriguing T-shirt that asked questions about this strangely enigmatic country, stuck somewhere between a pre-medieval Arab world and the mid 21st century in South East Asia.


We’d decided (ok, I decided, based on a few guidebook or vague memories from a taxi drive a year earlier) to check out Central Markets. I like a noisy, overcrowded Asian market as much as the next over-heated tourist. Sadly KL’s Central Market was not it. Apparently it used to be but now it’s a very sanitised, clean, boring waste of space full of ‘ethnic’ knick-knack shops stocked with items from Bali.

So we left and wandering in ever increasing circles in the 35 degree mid-day sun (no you can’t stop for a drink…yes I know I should've bought a hat...ok I won't complain since it was my idea) looking for something until Brigid suggested we search out the recommended Peter Hoe (everybody say….) Emporium, and we found it, hidden away on the second floor of an old building, without a sign.


We actually stood outside it for ten minutes, smiling at the nice Indian girls, vaguely looking around and feeling lost, like the out of odds tourists we were, until we noted the building number. Gosh, this was silly. We went in, up to the second floor.

Peter’s place was an oasis, a refuge from the heat. And whilst Brigid and Sandra wandered around (looking at the items…mostly from Bali but very well selected) , Blake and I went into the café. I bought a Lemon drink.

Two actually.

And looked around for a hat (Brigid said I already had one in Bali so it was a waste..she bought me a travel iron instead, but that was later...)

And out came Peter. The building he said, was once the tallest in KL. So much so that the Japanese Kempeitai had used the place as their headquarters during the occupation. He pointed out the remnants of the room divides that once broke the large room down into smaller units and mentioned that the rooms were where the Japanese broke people down too. It was a chilling thought that sixty years earlier this oasis was once a place of screams.

Peter felt he’d exorcised the ghosts of those days by removing the partitions and filling it full of rather more beautiful rooms and we nodded but wondered all sorts of unhappy things anyway.

In a city like KL, or indeed any Asian city, you need a Peter Hoe, otherwise you spend your kl1time wandering wastefully around the likes of the Central Markets.

So we listened to his advice on things to do and food and headed off in the direction of the recommended Islamic Arts Museum next door to the imposing, although rather clinical looking National Mosque (there are some stunning mosques in KL but this, from the outside at least, is not one of them).

We quickly realised that as helpful as Peter was, clearly he was not one who walked. His instruction of a five minute easy stroll, under the wonderful old colonial railway station (although as Blake pointed out, perhaps not so wonderful to the deportees selected by the former tenants in Peter’s building, to go north to Thailand in 1942-3) was optimistic.

Half an hour later, through the tropical midday heat (which to be honest, I quite like…mad dogs and all that) and over the railway station, we arrived.

We wandered the museum for some hour or two, and the fabrics, calligraphy, weaponry and much more were inspiringly beautiful in their execution and detail. I particularly enjoyed the Islamic architecture room but was not alone in noting that the prophet’s palace in Medina (it’s the one at the front of the photo in the link) was quite massive and thinking that he was perhaps another religious ‘prophet’ who had decided that claiming a direct line to the lord was an easy way to a not insubstantial following and lifestyle. It seems to be the cornerstone of much religion especially when it doubles as a form of control.

And we wandered through the ‘Women in Islam’ exhibition but felt uneasy that 14 centuries of Islam seemingly are only able to produce some thirty women worthy of note and many of those profiled here were profiled as powerful wives or mothers of male rulers. It was uncomfortable and both Brigid and I commented that they did themselves few favours with this exhibition.

That evening we wandered to Peter’s next recommendation, a little Chinese hole in the wall just south of the Bukit Bintang strip. Amongst the best Chinese food in KL said Peter and he was not far off.


The Paper Chicken, as greasy and unhealthy as we knew it was, was just fine, and we compensated ourselves by reminding ourselves of our morning / afternoon walk.

The owner, Chinese-Malay, Jessica arrived and announced that she’d lived in Papakura for many years, with her Welsh husband. I don’t think many New Zealanders make it south of Jl. Impi to the small food district..or at least she said so and we talked for quite some time.

She was enthusiastic. She was also opinionated.

She tore into all sorts of people….Maori, Unions..well actually that was the gist of it…over and over. My very good friend, Blake, who is half Maori and a former Union negotiator, sat very quietly. I was quite proud of him as a lesser person would’ve taken her strongly to task…taken those gaping chasms in most of her rants and driven a Tokoroa Timber truck & trailer through them.

kl7But I guess she smiled so much and chattered so sweetly that he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

And then after all that she grinned and said she’d kept her NZ residency…just in case y’know…

But we wondered what happened to Jennifer?

You see, next door was a rather upmarket looking café…..’Jennifer: Taiwanese Food’. Somebody had put bit of money, effort and thought into the place. That said thought, it was a weekend night and the lights were off. Everywhere else in the precinct was busy but Jennifer was tutup…closed.

We asked Jessica but she was very cagey…something about an affair with the Myanmarese chef. But it didn’t wash, it sounded very non-committal. We looked and wondered but it seemed Jennifer had gone. Maybe she’d decided that the completion was too much and hopped it back to Taiwan with the guy from Myanmar. But it seemed strange that Jessica, who had an opinion on most things, had no real idea where her next door neighbour was.

Where is Jennifer?

Oh, and thank you Peter....

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