Monday, June 01, 2009

postcard from malaysia

Malaysia heralds the opportunity to shift down a gear. Cultural exploration is out, lazy days on beaches is in. And what of those beaches? They just happen to be perfect, white, 32°c creations. The accompanying sea is also cliqued: crystal clear, invitingly warm, and filled with psychedelic tropical fish to meet whenever one gets bored of static sunbathing.

After day one of such debauched activities, myself and Simon go our separate ways. He has traveled Malaysia and Thailand before - I haven't - so our planned itineraries differ wildly. Plus after two months on the road together, cabin fever has, somewhat inevitably, set in.

Due in part to me underestimating the size of Malaysian Borneo - and the complexities of crossing it - 24 hours after our arrival in Kota Kinnabalu I set out attempting to make the +600km journey from east to west in three days, in order to catch my flight to Kuala Lumpar, the story of which you can watch in videoblog format here.

The climate plays a major part in my traveling in Malaysia. The humidity is remarkable, the typical minimum nightly temperature is 25°c, and every few days a monsoon-esque storm arrives to batter the landscape for a couple of hours.

I've also become something of a sunset addict, they get some real classic sky-displays out here.

Kuala Lumpur then, is a curious city. Multicultural, but harmonious, it also has more crime than the middle eastern countries I visited, yet I suffer less from Walking Cash Machine syndrome (everybody wishes to make a withdrawal), and it's much less common that I suspect I am being overcharged for something.

Religion runs strong throughout the city, yet so does a remarkable consumer culture. The blasé Berjaya Times Square shopping centre in the heart of the city includes amongst it's eight floors and countless other attractions a fully blown rollercoaster. Each monorail station - and tram - is blanket sponsored by some brand or other, and this is typical of how deeply advertising has permeated the city. By-and-large, young people have gleefully bought into this culture.

So do I, mind. Drunk on elation at being in a shopping city where prices are 25-50% cheaper than they are in the UK, I dive straight in. Soon after I am bored though, and soon after that irritated.

Still, the culture of the city is wonderfully welcoming, ambitious (one need only look to the city's unique skline for evidence of that) and it deserves it's place in the top half of my major-cities-I've visited league table. Probably nestled between Tblisi and Tel Aviv.

One particular beach island deserves special mention. The idyllic backpacker island of Pulau Perhentian Kecil combines all the aforementioned beach features (sand, sun, fish) with a laidback, young culture. It would have been the ideal place to spend a week or two if it wasn't for Malaysia's crippling problem (in the eyes of this 25 year old at least) - the price of alcohol. Compared to the general cost of living (₤2 a night accommodation? Yes please!) alcohol is taxed to the hilt by the Islamic government. Craving more of a nightlife, it is time to head north towards Thailand.

A school holidays-clogged public transport network means it isn't easy however, and I spend a day in the conservative muslim town of Alor Setar awaiting a connecting train. This is a problem, as I have long since discarded the long trousers/sleeves that are appropriate clothing in such surroundings. It's certainly impolite to visit such a town in t-shirt and kneelengths.

Also, a combination of cheap sandals and heavy walking sessions mean that my foot is now in agony, and I am using taxis to make journeys for which I would never usually consider them. For the 6am journey from Alor Setar bus station to train station, the resident foot masseuse negotiates a bizarre multibuy deal with the taxi driver so that I can get my foot massaged then a taxi ride for ₤2.

Conversation continues, and the driver is dismayed to hear that my train is not until 4pm. To that end, he instead takes me back to his home, lets me sleep for 3 hours, shower, provides a light breakfast, introduces me to the family, before then dropping me off at the train station.

Imagine that happening upon entering a taxi in Nottingham. I board the overnight train to Bangkok with 10 days of the trip remaining, and a desire to fritter them away hedonistically...

Wish you were here,

Photos: click here.
Malaysia rating: 7.6/10
Friendliest person met: Taxi driver man
Scariest moment: Wondering if Malaysian Borneo can be crossed in 72 hours
Most beautiful sight: The sunset in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo
The Soundtrack: The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love
Still to come: Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

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