Breakfast begins with Malay Indian men stretching out roti in their hands by twirling it in the air and slapping it down onto a table. Again and again this is done until it’s almost a metre in size. Then it’s folded and dropped onto a hot plate. The repetitious action has been etched into the brains of these men. They do this day after day, year after year. Every morning serving up roti canai. As I watched a man go through the motions the modern cities behind him drifted out of view. With simple ingredients and simple actions, roti canai could have come from a thousand years ago. In reality the dish evolved out of the 19th migration of Indian people into Indonesia and Malaysia and is therefore only a few hundred years old. The flaky bread is best pulled apart with your hand and dipped into the side dish containing a regional curry. I want some. Now. Malaysia is a scrumptious place to travel.
Malaysia exists in two parts: Peninsula Malaysia that sits above Singapore and below Thailand and, Malaysian Borneo that shares Borneo with Brunei and Indonesia. The Borneo part is larger (~67% of the total Malaysian area) and more sparsely populated (~7% of the population). Malaysia is diverse. So diverse it is one of the 17 megadiverse countries on this planet. This diversity extends deep into each region where flavours, faces and façades all shift.
Malacca is a fascinating place and one that’s seen so much of Malaysia history. It used to be the capital of the Malaccan Sultanate, the main trading port and had rule over much of the southern Malay Pennisula and Sumatra. The Portuguese arrived in the 16th century and captured it. In doing so they pushed the trade away.
Like many cities in Malaysia it’s built on rivers and canals. One part of town has a tourist walk that skirts a canal shows you the back of shophouses all painted with graffiti art.
The best side to view the buildings is the far side of the canal. If you turn around you can see another part of this varied city: dilapidated wooden buildings on stilts. As always, wherever there is humanity, there is beauty.
The Dutch arrived in the mid 17th and took it off the Portuguese. All that is left of the Portuguese influence is in the local cuisine and a small population of mixed Portuguese and Malay people: the Kristang, who speak they’re own creole based on Portuguese. Not that I could tell as I speak nether Portuguese or Malay. The Dutch part of town is the Red Square providing contrast to the ubiquitous shophouses.
After the Dutch came the English in the early 19th century. It was part of the Straits Settlements with Penang and Singapore before being captured by the Japanese, then back to the English before finally becoming part of the Malaysian Federation where it’s now retired as a quiet town and a nice destination for a day trip from KL.
On Kuala Lumpur
Some people like KL. Other’s are not as enthusiastic about it. In 2012, I worked here for three weeks. Everyday we’d have to take a taxi to travel the 4km to the office. No footpath could take us all the way there. 45 minutes on the train could get us within 20 minutes walk of the office. Some days in the taxi it would take 90 minutes to make the distance.
KL is a true urban jungle. A gritty jungle of corporate towers, the city stretches out haphazardly, laced with rivers whose ferocious stench causes involuntary body motions. Straight lines are optical illusions and getting from A to B is never simple or even via C. Turning a corner may allow you to discover an abandoned building overgrown with trees, or a megamall or just more shophouses. I waited at a train station, turned around and was saw a stunning mosque that I had not seen before. The train network is like Melbourne spreading out from four central stations and with frequent delays. The trains set their own pace and one journey took me past a derailed train.
There is innovation here: sausage chicken donut is a thing.
There are multiple train networks, multiple ticket types and networks that ‘share’ stops in reality might require a ten minute walk. A journey from one line to another is a delicate balance between heading into the centre of town and experiencing a delay or, trying to cut across the lines changing networks two or three times in the process. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
On my last day in KL I had that choice between going to a 13 story megamall nebula that contains a roller-coaster and going to binary-megamall system where I could find this delicious Persian dish made from flat-bread, an eggplant puree and mint. I ate it a few times when I stayed here a few years ago. When I got there, I found that the shop had closed.
On Cameron Highlands
You know the stories that people have about riding on buses in foreign countries. You know the ones where the driver launches headlong into on coming traffic, overtaking another bus or tractor or performing circus while tracing the outline of a precipitous chasm? It was on the bus to the Cameron Highlands that I was on the bus that everyone’s bus-story overtakes. We stuck to our lane, we let others pass; we made terrible time. How pedestrian!
Up in the Cameron Highlands the air is fresh, the tea plantations stretch on and the flowers smell like the dead. Or it is claimed that they do. I couldn’t really smell anything unpleasant. But unpleasant is not this place. I spent my days walking here, ten to fifteen kilometres through jungle, up mountains, along roads in the cool highland air and in the rain. Some days I was accompanied by the sound of gibbons gibbering on the next mountain. Other times the air was silent except from the sound of condensation forming on leaves and dripping to the ground. It really is a beautiful place.
On Pulau Pinang
In George Town on the island of Penang I had the best Laksa of my life, twice. I returned to the vendor for a third time but he was closed that day. It is an Asam Laksa which is different from a normal laksa or what one might think of when the Penang curry comes to mind. It’s citrus and chilli flavours, sour, hot with shredded fish and lime. If you’re in Penang let me know and I’ll send you the GPS coordinates.
On Kota Bharu
Kota Bharu is a city where you can hear the sound of birds speaking into megaphones. It’s a strange sound that had me walking around the city trying to work out where it was coming from and why. I eventually discovered bricked up five story buildings with PVC tubing proving limited access to the internals. These buildings are for harvesting Bird’s Nests. The hope is the birds will come into the buildings that are meant to simulate caves, they will then build nests that can be harvested and sold for soup.
I laughed when I first saw the sign "Bird’s Nest Merchants Association". Is this industry big enough to require an association? White nests sell for $2000 per kilo and red nests can go for as much as $10,000 per kilo. It was they who should have been laughing.
Kota Bharu is the most conservative muslim city in Malaysia. The city has introduced some Islamic law including separate checkout counters for males and females in department stores. Although I never saw anyone manning the second counter when I was there. The city is also the site of the world’s largest and longest reclining buddha and the largest sitting buddha in Malaysia.
Kucing is Malay for cat. Kuching is a relaxed town, named after a now filled-in stream, snaking along the Sarawak river. Along the waterfront men navigate small water taxis across the hundred metre stretch of water. It’s 40 sen a trip (about 10 cents) but they’ll try to get a ringget from you each time. At night times the price does jump to a dollar. It’s all regulated by the official signposts. On a Friday night each trip has 20 people crammed in as the hordes scurry between the more touristy Chinese and Indian side of the river and the rural Malay side of the river. The Malay side is the best for dinner though as you get to see the lights of the city while you eat your curry noodles.
Because Kuching sounds like Kucing the Malay word for cat, Kuching’s coat of arms has two cats on it. Cat statues litter the town and there is a cat museum. The cat museum has just about everything you want to know about cats. I learnt that most of the cat breads are relatively new: post 1970. Also, many are based on the Siamese cat and are named after south-east asian places: Balinese, Burmese, Javanese, Oriental, Tonkinese (North Vietnam) and Mekong Bobtail. The Cat Museum doesn’t have a cat café. They do have a suggestion box, so when you visit, maybe there’ll be a cat café.
As I made my way across Borneo I spent only a single night in this town. So, I can’t speak much of it but I will leave you with this: The council of Sibu chose the Swan as it’s symbol. There are statues of a Swan throughout town. The locals don’t feel like the Swan truly reflects the spirit or vibe of the town. This is probably because there are no Swans in Sibu or anywhere in Malaysia.
In Malaysia, bottles of water have to specify where the water comes from. Most of the time it’s ‘reverse osmosis’, some times from a mountain stream with an elevation above 900m (yes, it is that specific). Other times it just says Tap Water or Treated Pipe Water Supply.
There are no lawn mowers in Malaysia. Only whipper-snippers and Malaysians dressed in protective gear maintaining the silhouette of a samurai. Broad strokes sweep back and forth, defending us from the ever charging green.
You can never find Jelan Sehala. Littered throughout the cities you’ll find arrows pointing you in the direction of Jalan Sehala. Jalan means street in Malay. I wondered if this was the main thoroughfare through each town. Then I started to see it in strange places. Places where it made no sense. Then I realised it meant one-way street.