there can be only one
2001.03.07, ipoh, malaysia
when I last left off, I was on my way to Kuala Lumpur. I spent two days there, in Ben Soo's Homestay which I picked out of the lonely planet "South-East Asia on a Shoestring" book. they quoted the friendly service and Rm28/night, and that much was true. it was also quite a bit like a scene of the undercity in Blade Runner: constantly running water outside, bright lights, music, and loud hawking/conversations outside the window. but it was friendly and safe, and I stayed there two days while visiting some friends.
I met up with randy, miza, and rich both evenings that I was there; but like previous trips to KL I wimped out early before everyone headed off to the after-hours clubs. I rather like Kuala Lumpur: the people are friendly, he food is good, the nightlife is exciting. but like most cities in asia I get a sore throat, dry eyes, and sinus problems very quickly: this happened to me occasionally in singapore also. I am sure the drinking and smoke-filled clubs does not help.
at this early point in my trip, I got my first lesson on 'cultural sensitivity' from randy. while we were drinking and playing cards, someone broke out bags of prawn crackers and dried sardines. I believe my comment was, "uh, people eat anything!" whereas, the correct response is "no, thanks." this is difficult to remember after several 'loser drinks' shots of Tequila Rose, an evil drink that tastes almost exactly like strawberry Quik/Milo. al's story of Purplesaurus Rex comes to mind.
I did spend a little bit of time sightseeing as well. KL boasts the largest buildings in the world, the Petronas towers; but I had seen them before. instead I just walked around and looked at some of the old government buildings (the courts?) in a hybrid european/middle-eastern style. I explored a couple of restaurants in chinatown, and in general pieced my earlier jigsaw pieces of geographical knowledge into a more unified picture.
on the third day, I moved on. I wanted to get out of the oppressive heat and had heard good things about the Cameron Highlands, so there I went: it took much more than the advertised 3.5 hours--more like 6--along curvy roads. the views were great, though, and I am not in any hurry. I hadn't arranged any place to stay, and there were several guest-house owners waiting at the bus to meet people just like me.
I held out for a room of my own, not a bed in a dormitory, and was very pleased to end up at the Twin Pines guesthouse. my room was barely big enough to hold a double bed, but it was clean and cheap (Rm12/night) and the whole atmosphere was very sociable. I ended up spending most of my non-exploring time sitting in front of the guesthouse talking to other travellers: from canada, england, australia, holland, poland, france... and also a lot of locals. I have not yet met any other americans on my trip. they had a campfire every night, sometimes with singing and music: it was an excellent place to land.
one aspect that I really liked about Cameron Highlands is the mixing of cultures that I saw. the locals who met around a cup of tea at Twin Pines and throughout town were Chinese, Malay, Indian... still, the mixing doesn't seem to have carried as far as it has in singapore, where there are quite a few people of mixed decent. I got the feeling that this is not considered desireable, and I think it comes down to religion.
on my first night in the Highlands I was freezing, and so slept into the day when it was warmer. in the afternoon, I took a bus tour of the area, seeing the tea plantations, flower and butterfly farms, and a large buddhist temple. the area seems to be a breadbasket, with a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables: we also visited a hydroponic strawberry farm.
the tea plantations were beautiful: similar to rice paddies in the way that the coat the sides of hills, but with a very different pattern of meandering paths through which the harvesters can walk. up close, the trees look like bonsais: at 70 years old, they are only 60cm in height rather than the 80m they can grow to naturally. the fields I visited will likely be harvested for another 20 years or more before being replanted. given the holiday (Hari Raya Haji) I missed seeing the processing factory, but was told in detail how tea gets from the hillside into little tins.
the flower farms were very nice--they reminded me somewhat of Camp and Son's farm north of the Bay Area in the sense that they are built onto terraced hillsides. the highlight of the tour, though, was the butterfly farm. they also had a variety of insects and small animals that I was able to photograph and in some cases hold: geckos, walking sticks, walking leafs, rhinoceros beetles, frogs, scorpions, other sundry beetles, and of course butterflies.
the final stop was the San Po temple. it is not too terribly different from many buddhist temples I have seen in Singapore, i.e., very chinese-buddhist, but the internal roofpiece was inscribed with tibetan/nepalese writing. apparently, the large central buddha was originally more indian in appearance, and was replaced by the fat, long-ear-lobed, lucky guy as the local buddhist community became predominantly chinese.
most of my knowledge of buddhism comes from excerpts of the sutras I read in college and two books: "What the Buddha Taught" and "Essential Teachings." in comparison to this, the way it is practiced seems very superstitious to me. in particular, I find it crazy that the buddha is worshipped (as opposed to respected and revered), and think that the idea of karma has often been turned into a concept of 'luck' that violates basic principals of cause and effect. in effect, my esteem for the religion took a big nosedive when I encountered how it is practiced. this is not the first religion with which I've had this experience: I am ready to give up on the concept entirely.
whoops, there I go with the cultural sensitivity again. time to go catch my bus.
2001.03.10, hat yai, thailand
what a crazy past couple of days. let me continue where I left off.
the other full day that I spent in the Cameron Highlands I went on a jungle trek. there are all sorts of paths around, but I didn't listen very well to how to get to them so I never found the signs that would've taken me along the more travelled paths. I did run into a french couple I'd met the day before though, henri and elizabeth, and they had some idea of how to get to some waterfalls nearby.
the forest was beautiful. very dense, with root systems everywhere. it is easy to see how the trees hold the soil to the hillsides: the ground in most places was extremely springy, like rubber, from all the roots and leaves and such underneath. there were little flowers, and moss everywhere: very much a rain/cloud forest.
we seemed to be on a real path, but there were trees and such over it that made me think perhaps it hadn't been used in a while: parts of it were also near vertical, so we had to proceed by pulling outselves up roots. after a little while, henri and elizabeth decided that we were on the wrong path, and they turned back; I decided to keep climbing to see what I could see from further up. every time I thought I might be near the top, it turned out to be a short ridge that lead to an even higher path up. I climbed for about three hours before I thought to myself, "jesus, my glasses are fogged up!" I took them off and the view was still foggy: I had climbed into the clouds! very shortly thereafter I seemed to get to the top and start heading downwards, so I turned back. I didn't get the view from high up that I had wanted, but the sights directly around me were very interesting and mysterious.
it rained most of the way down, followed by a lovely swarm of mosquitos. I am not taking malaria medicine, so I chose at this point to beat cheeks downhill and very nearly fell several times. once I got to a 'road' I ran for about a half klick to get away from them: it seemed to work, no bites at all.
that afternoon/evening, I met cal and eden, an awesome canadian couple from vancouver. cal and I immediately alienated everyone by geeking out about computers and digital cameras and the internet... until he discovered that I am using a mac. platform differences aside, though, we got on famously. they spent quite a while in the highlands, and have become fixtures at Twin Pines. check out their journal updates at http://www.calandeden.com/