Kuala Lumpur, April 27, 2001
Close friends get to call it KL.
Bangkok happily juxtaposed gleaming futurism with the timelessly Asian; Kuala Lumpur is quite a different kettle of fish-head soup. Perhaps we got our wires crossed and were expecting a sort of Singapore, but we were surprised to find KL so run down and seedy. Quite pleasantly surprised, actually. OK, so it's not a city you fall in love with on first sight (or maybe ever) but it's a bit like being home - the twin towers, the garbage in the street, the junkies fighting their slow motion war against gravity - although it could just be the neighborhood we're staying in. Like every Chinatown everywhere, Jake, the transition from urban slum to quaint ethnic attraction has been somewhat fitful.
The strangest thing about Kuala Lumpur is its apparent lack of history. When the only buildings of historical note appear to be the squat, stolid leftovers of the British empire, you know there's something funny going on. Well yes, it's a city with its eye on the future - the Petronius towers prove once and for all that the Islamic dick is bigger than the American one, or at least until someone else builds something bigger. But why would they name it after an obscure Roman author? Or is it Polonius? Pandarus? Petruchio? Something like that, anyway... Petronas. That's it. So they named it after an oil company. How prosaic.
The general seediness adds, perversely, to the sense of affluence. Whereas Bangkok's modern bits were obviously brand-new, Kuala Lumpur has a comfortable, well lived-in look. This city has been doing quite well for quite some time, thank you very much, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future - Malaysia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources. And Mahathir Mohamad, their seemingly eternal prime minister, has apparently dragged the country into the 21st Century, increasing the average Malay's standard of living tenfold in the last couple of decades. So what if there's no free press?
And you know that this is a country teetering on the first world threshold when you notice that the motorbikes never carry more than two people. But it's all so mercantile - there are hardly even any mosques for chrissakes. After such physically devout cities as Istanbul, Kathmandu and Bangkok, this comes as a shock. It's like Norman Lewis said of Saigon, the city's origin as a center of colonial trade is still very apparent. (Quote taken from Lonely planet I admit it. But I really have read A Dragon Apparent, honest.)
Jungle hint #2: Eat all your cookies at once.
So guess what brought us to Malaysia in the first place? Yup, you got it, there's a ton of birds in these here parts. So off we went to Fraser's Hill, the latest in our long line of hill stations, and one of the nicest. It even had an authentically inauthentic English country pub (unfortunately charging New York prices, but never mind). It may even have been the inspiration for the great J G Farrell's last, unfinished book. I'll have to check when I get back home.
Our next stop was Taman Negara national park. Since 'Taman Negara' actually means 'national park', this is a quite brilliantly named place. Stuffed to the gills with fabulous bird species, of course, but since the all the park accommodation has been privatized, it was also obscenely expensive. (Wonder whose cousin got the franchise on that one, eh?) Perhaps this explained the weirdness of the clientele.
If you know us, or have been following our year in space-age trousers, you're well aware that Doreen and I are far from intrepid - we like our jungle experiences to have AC, cold beer, and preferably an IDD connection. We're not proud of these things, but there they are. So at Taman Negara it took us a while to figure out what was so disturbing about the place. Eventually, we realized that what was odd was how touristy is all was. As unadventurous as we really are, the lust for birding had been taking us to some rather off the beaten track places, and we'd become used to our only fellow foreigners being the odd nutter and the occasional birder (occasionally birders would double as a nutters when space was limited). When you habituate the back-ass of beyond, you get used to its strange initiates. Here at National Park National Park we were surrounded by northern European family groups kitted out in matching jungle attire, and shirtless public school ninnies whiling away the months before Oxbridge. We experienced our own kind of culture shock.
Malaysia, a place where English is the second language and malaria is eradicated (on the peninsula, anyway), seems to be a favorite destination for people who find the concept of Asia a little unnerving. You can even get high tea here, if you really feel the need for it . And Taman Negara is perhaps the biggest tourist draw in the entire country. So we felt a little out of place there. Or maybe it was just the astronomical rates being charged for the rooms. We spent a couple of nights on the cheaper side, over the river, but the rooms there were proportionately overpriced as well - somewhat cheaper, and a lot crappier. On the plus side, however, the cheaper accommodation was at least rat free.
While taking a shower at the swanky resort, I heard Doreen screaming something about a rat on the mirror. Well, the Lariam's finally kicking in I though, until I dripped into the other room and found her on the bed and, indeed, a large rat perched on top of the mirror. It seems she had reached for a bag of cookies and felt the furry presence of something else with a sweet tooth. They were both obviously rather alarmed by the encounter.
Now, I like rats. We both do, having been born under the sign of the metal rat, lo, these many years ago. But as we've said before, we don't like sharing our rooms with them. Not to mention our biscuits. Plus, they have nasty diseases - I really would have to get some rabies shots if one of those critters connected. Mice, fine. Bring on the mice, let them conduct their grand schemes to their heart's content. But let's keep the rats on the subway tracks where they belong.
So we changed rooms, got swiftly upgraded before too many other guests heard about the rat, and so on. The problem here was that a big storm hit that night and we went from being a one-rat family to having dozens of the little bastards in the room with us. It seems they didn't like the rain. And oh yes, they still wanted those cookies - like a pillock, I had rescued the non-nibbled package and taken it with us to the new room. Consequently, at around four, I was awoken by a distinctly rodent-like rustling. I chucked the offending sweetmeats in a bin and placed it outside for anyone who felt like it, and spent the rest of the night listening to the rat family squeaking and running about the rafters, presumably in furious pursuit of the vanishing victuals. The next morning, the cookies were still there in the bin. It seems the rats had spent the whole night indoors with us, hungry but dry.
A duck walk in the treetops.
Everyone comes to Taman Negara to see the wildlife - wildlife which doesn't like being seen (apart from the rats, who don't seem to mind). Presumably to give the tourists something to do, they have constructed a 'canopy walkway', a series of rope bridges strung between the treetops, affording a bird's eye view of the rainforest canopy. It's supposed to be the longest suspension bridge in the world. Sounds nice, eh? Well only if you're not afraid of heights, like what I am, partner. Scared shitless would be one of the more polite ways of putting it, as some of you know. So what, you might ask, was I thinking when I climbed up there, a steely glint in my eye, a determined smile playing lightly about my lips, and a maraca-like knocking in my knees?
Well god only knows what possessed me to do it, but I did it. What an idiot. This thing was several hundred feet off the ground, the walkway consisted of a couple of narrow planks, the handrails were made of rope, and they only offered protection as far as my waist. At times like that, oh how I envy the short people of the world, with their safe and happy height/barrier ratio. Oh yes, and the guy in the ticket booth had the pungent, appley scent of the full-time alcoholic. (Quite an achievement in a settlement where the beers are as expensive as at the Limelight - he must have had a good poteen connection somewhere). One hopes the maintenance crew do not share his vice.
So there I was, wobbling along on this creaking, swinging, assemblage of planks and ropes, suspended over the rainforest, hyperventilating too hard to even start the atheist's prayer. The only way I could make it was to creep along in a crouching gait somewhat reminiscent of Groucho Marx, a distant cousin of Chuck Berry's duck-walk. Anything to make myself shorter and increase the amount of rope between me and the thin air. Doreen was very kind and refrained from laughing at my crab-like scuttling until we were back on solid ground, bless her.
Why did I do it? Well, there are some species of bird that you only ever see in the treetops. You can bet I took plenty of time to search for them while trying not to look down, up, anywhere at all except off that damn thing. There was even some kind of bird fluttering around right next to the walkway, but I declined to spend any time examining it. I was too busy composing the headlines in my head - Coronary on the canopy walkway - English birder croaks on quest for elusive flowerpecker. Last words: ' Does that plank look a bit loose?'
Kuala Lumpur, May 13, 2001
The Borneo chronicles, part one.
Back again at the somewhat cheesy (and surreally named) Swiss Inn, nestling in the heart of Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown. The cheaper rooms have no windows, which wouldn't be so bad if they had HBO. But instead they have a weird, airplane type of programme sequence, presenting odd combinations of ancient sports biographies, terrible American TV movies and English documentaries they must have picked up cheap. I must admit we quite enjoyed the episode of Kenneth Clarke's Civilization, something I was a bit young for when it was originally broadcast. But with the weird assemblage of travelogues and commercials, I keep expecting the Pearl & Dean theme music to break out (sing along now, everybody).
We've tried exploring KL but the most exciting place we've found is a supermarket that sells Chinese mock-meat. I'm sure the city has many hidden treasures, but by now we're keen to get going on the final leg of this tour - the Antipodes beckon. (Is New Zealand technically part of the Antipodes? I'll have to look that up).
We've just returned from two wonderful weeks in Sabah, one of Borneo's two Malaysian states. The state capital, Kota Kinabalu, was apparently flattened by the Allies during WWII, so contains even less of historical note than you might expect. It does, however, have the excellent Wah May Hotel, so that was good enough for us. Conveniently located next to a supermarket, but far enough away that the smell of the durians didn't reach the hotel, thank god.
From KK, (as the acronym crazed Malays have taken to calling it), it's a short boat ride to Palau Manukan, an island noted for it's spectacular coral reefs - so naturally, we spent a couple of days there searching for the Tabon Scrubfowl, a bird that looks a bit like a dull chicken. You can imagine how delighted we were when we found them just a few yards from our room.
Palau Manukan is part of a national park, so once again all accommodation is privatized and very expensive, but at least they threw in free meals - and the beer was half as much as at Taman Negara, which cheered us up considerably. We spent a happy couple of days there, looking for non-existent frigatebirds and accosting any birders we came across so that we could consult their fieldguides. (We were stuck with a very nice but slightly archaic book from 1957. Despite an extensive search of KL and KK, we weren't able to come up with anything better - although we did find such treasures as A Guide to British Woodlice and several books devoted to Sundan lichen).
The Borneo chronicles, part two.
After Palau Manukan, our next stop was Mount Kinabalu national park, where the accommodation is located high enough for the temperatures to be clement and there are scores of endemic birds flitting around right outside your cabin. Our kind of place. Unfortunately, it's also Borneo's top tourist draw, with busloads of people queuing up to hike vertical granite into the thin air - go figure. This created something of an accommodation crisis, which we solved by a) spending too much money on a room designed for four, b) going to Poring Hot Springs in the middle of our stay at Mount Kinabalu, and c) getting hold of a cheaper room upon or return. The cheaper room came equipped with rats, but let's not go on about that yet again, OK?
Although the park accommodation was built in 1981, it all appeared to have been modeled on 60's bachelor pads and basement rec-rooms. The first one we stayed in had a sunken living room floor, creating a distinctly Help! ambiance which we enjoyed no end. The cheaper, ratty room was even groovier, with a retro-futurist octagonal ceiling, but got pretty cold when the mists rolled in, making it the cabin obscured by clouds. Cue Antonioni. (Or was it the other, less successful French avant gardist that directed La Valee? Answers on a postcard, please.)
Going down to the affiliated Poring Hot Springs in the middle of our stay was a bit of a time-waster, but unavoidable. After being smart enough to avoid the Nepalese mass slaughter of goats and the water dousing, week-long Thai New Year, we found ourselves in the middle of a Malay long weekend. Not so bad, except we had to share our hotel with a gang of rowdy teens on their equivalent of a spring break. Luckily for us, for rowdy teenagers they were incredibly well behaved - their rave ended at about eleven, and they would have been no trouble at all if it wasn't for their annoying habit of trying to walk into our room all night. Searching for the toilet? Sneaking around on illicit assignations? Who can say?
So. Farewell then, Borneo.
So. Farewell then, Borneo. We barely skimmed the surface of this vast and mysterious island, although we became adept at hoovering up the Heinz salad cream that was foolishly served with the green salads - ah, the rich English heritage that proudly lingers still! We would be the last people to complain about comfortable lodgings, but it was all so easy that, at times, you could forget you were in Borneo. At least until you bump into an Orang Utan.
On our last morning at Poring we were getting in some last minute birding along the road leading to the park entrance. Doreen commented that she was seeing something that did not quite resemble a bird and, after training my binoculars on something distinctly gingery, I suggested that we might be looking at an Orang Utan, not believing the words coming out of my mouth. After all, if we could manage to miss tigers during two months in India then there could be no chance of us seeing this rare, elusive man of the woods. We had considered visiting Sepilok, where rescued Orangs are reintroduced to the wild. They are, however, too smart to fall for this, and come back every day for their complementary lunch of bananas - why knock yourself out finding food when these crazy hairless apes feed you for free? The only downside would appear to be having to deal with the endless tourists and celebrities like Julia Roberts having life affirming moments, but they seem to cope with it well enough.
But Sepilok was too far, time was too short, and there were too many birds to look for. So it was with deep, deep joy that we realized we were being stared at by a young female Orang Utan, quietly going about the business of collecting her breakfast. The fact that she was, quite literally, born free made the experience even more profound. The quizzical way in which she regarded us will, I hope, stay with me always. It's also nice to know that they are not so endangered that bumbling birders can't run into them on the borders of a national park. How long this state of affairs will continue is anyone's guess, although not only is Poring an eco-tourist destination, it's also hugely popular with Malays who like to splash around in the, you guessed it, hot springs - so hopefully it will not be logged into oblivion in the future. And it was nice to see how excited the little kids on their way to school were when they saw the Orang as well. They got the picture, alright.