Back to Malaysia

Leaving Singapore, we were turning our backs on some of the best days of the trip. It had been fantastic living with Azra and getting involved with the Free Food For All Charity. Azra and Nico had already gone on a short vacation so that sad goodbye was at least over us yet it was still quite a wrench as we packed the bikes and rode to the border and another encounter with the wrong side of the ‘hedgehog’ (see last post).   Given the mass migration of two-wheelers that takes place every day at this frontier, there are custom booths for motorcycles at the border with a toll-type office on one side and then a knee high kerb on the other. Once committed on our laden mules, we were stuck in a one-way track, with no possibility of dismounting as there was simply no way to prop the bike to get off. I went first with the passports, to get them stamped and Maggie could then follow on through.

I moved forward, retrieved the passports from down the front of my jacket and slid them through the mouse-hole in the window. The frumpy girl on duty tutted and lifted each of them by the corner, like they were a pair of dead mice and frowned ‘what’s this?’ I explained the second passport was my wife’s who was just behind. She opened one of the passports, Maggie’s; ‘and who is this?’

‘I just explained, it belongs to my wife’… another tut.

‘Give it to her.’ She flung the passport back at me. I looked around. How the hell was I supposed to do that?

‘I’ll just set it here’ I said leaving the passport on the counter to the side of the mouse-hole. Another tut, this one louder. Maggie was listening to my end of this over the intercom. ‘Hey! Be patient. She’s just doing her job.’ ‘OK missy,’ I whispered back. ‘Can’t wait till it’s your turn…’

Troglodyte customs lady was flicking through my passport. ‘When did you enter Singapore?’

‘About a month ago?’ I replied, ‘the date is stamped in the passport.’ I sensed she was now looking for some reason to delay us. I really couldn’t see the point, as we just needed to stamp out and leave. She sat there in her air-conditioned booth, picked up the phone and made several calls, discussing something about my passport, while I sat outside slowly stewing in the rising heat off my engine. After about ten minutes of this, she stamped the passport and returned it with a dismissive wave. I moved on through the booth and waited for Maggie. A few minutes and she was stamped and through but her face was like thunder. “Ignorant cow! What was all that about?” she said as we sorted the carnets for stamping out. “I have no idea my dear. Just a minion flexing her pathetic power.” The contrast when we crossed back to Malaysia was incredible. Smiling officers, efficiently checking our documents, before granting us a 90-day visa, giving us directions to the carnet office and dismissing us with a singsong “enjoy your ride in Malaysia!”

The customs office, where the carnets were processed…

Singapore – a pointed finger instructed us to leave the carnets in the in-tray, then we were shooed away by a flick of the officer’s fingertips with ne’er a ‘good morning’ or any such pleasantry dispatched. Trying to find the office, we had been wandering around outside. When Maggie got up to go find the loo, the officer snapped ‘where are you going?’ Maggie explained she needed to find a bathroom. ‘Must be escorted!’ and a lady auxiliary marched with her to the bathroom and waited outside.

Malaysia – seats were cleared and provided and we were asked if we needed some water while the officers recorded our details, stamped the carnets and asked us about our journey. It was all done in a few minutes attended over a bevvy of beaming smiles that cost nothing but were priceless to receive.

We rode to the UNESCO world heritage city of Malacca, where we spent Christmas and the New Year. We had found a great deal on a Condo and spent a month mooching around this charming little city. Malacca is a layer cake of Malaysia’s colonial past; founded by the Portuguese, taken by the Dutch and finally handed over to the British after the Napoleonic wars, it was soon eclipsed as a trading post by Singapore one hundred miles to the south and George Town up in the north. Spices brought the Europeans to these coasts with Nutmeg, Mace and Cloves passing through from their sources in Indonesia. Then white gold followed by black gold and finally today; orange gold. The ‘white gold’ was tin, found in abundance on the Malay peninsular. International demand rose steadily in the nineteenth century due to the application of tinplate in the modern canned food industry (why we refer today to a ‘tin’ of beans, the biscuit tin, etc). By the end of the 19th century, Malayan tin exports supplied just over half of the world output with Singapore now a major centre for refining the ore.

Tin mining brought considerable prosperity to the country but it was clearly a non-renewable resource so it was with incredible good fortune that, in the early twentieth century, Malaysia’s ‘Black Gold’ came to the fore when demand for rubber as a raw material escalated for new industries in the West, notably to supply tyres for the blossoming automobile industry. Rubber originated from the output of scattered trees growing wild in the jungles of South America, an arrangement that offered poor yields. So, in the 1870s, the British government organized the transport of specimens of the tree Hevea Brasiliensis from Brazil to colonies in the East, notably Ceylon and Singapore, where the trees flourished and within the five years it took the initial batch of trees to mature the rubber boom began and fortunes were made. By 1921, Malaysian Peninsular rubber plantations covered an area of around 1.34 million acres, and accounted for some 50% percent of the total world production. As a result of this boom, rubber quickly surpassed tin as Malaysia’s main export product, a position that it was to hold until 1980.

Both of these industries were to have a massive impact on the population of Malaysia. The indigenous Malay people were few in numbers and scattered in villages across the country. Many were descendants of Arab traders who brought Islam to the region and introduced the Sultanates that are still present in the Federation of Malay states today. Yet these new industries needed manpower, both for the open cast tin mines and for the rubber plantations, where the process of bleeding the trees and collecting the latex run-off was very time-consuming and labour intensive. This manpower would be provided by a rush of Indian and Chinese immigrants, who flocked to Malaysia to satisfy the demand and whose descendants make up a huge proportion of the population today. All of this industry made a massive impact on infrastructure with a good road and rail network implemented to move product around.

Today riding, through Malaysia, this entire environment has largely disappeared. There are a few scars left on the landscape from the tin mines but the rubber trees are almost totally gone as the ‘white’ and ‘black’ have been replaced by ‘orange’ gold; palm oil. Vast tracts of the countryside are totally given over to palm tree plantations, which cover a staggering 77% of agricultural area in the country, making Malaysia the world’s second-largest producer of the world’s most common vegetable oil (after Indonesia). Since the 1980’s palm oil has become one of the world’s most versatile raw materials and palm oil based ingredients are found in approximately 50% of products on our supermarket shelves ranging from simple cooking oil and margarine to lipstick and soap.

Malaysians today, be they of Malay, Chinese or Indian descent, are some of the friendliest people in the world. They are mildly inquisitive, without being intrusive and keen to offer help at the first sign of confusion or hesitation. Yet we have suffered a rather curious confusion over our accents, which has left the pair of us baffled. Now we are no strangers to misunderstandings of the North Irish tongue, most notably in the French phrase for explaining where we come from; ‘Nous sommes de Irlande du Nord.’   At school I was taught to pronounce this as ‘Nou som de Ear-lawned du Nord’. I spent two hours in a campsite in Avignon one evening listening to a guy who, on hearing where I was from, told me how he had visited my country and loved it, especially the waterways and the flowers.  Now there’s me thinking ‘gosh the Newry canal isn’t that impressive but has clearly left an impression here’ and ‘he must have visited at the 12th July to see all the orange lilies.’ He went on and on and what could I do but agree? It was only about an hour later when he started talking about windmills and how flat the place was that the penny dropped and I discovered that to the French ear ‘Ear-lawned’ sounds remarkably like ‘Ol-lawned,’ which is of course Holland.

Yet here in Malaysia the latest confusion concerns the numbers ‘two’ and ‘three.’ Even speaking in our harshest ‘Norn’ Irish’ accents we find it amazing that the word ‘tu’ in the Ulster vernacular could sound anyway remotely like the word ‘three.’ The first occasion happened when we ordered ‘two’ cups of tea and ‘three’ arrived. ‘I thought you said three,’ explained the lass as she took the extra cup away… Then, shopping for some contact lenses, both of us clearly heard the young lady quote a price of two hundred and seventy Ringgits (the Malay currency). Seemed a reasonable deal only to be shown a bill for three hundred and seventy at the till, which suddenly made the lenses very expensive and we declined with a little embarrassment. It has happened five or six times now to the point where we spell the number out each time to avoid confusion.

Monsoon is upon us although we have only yet seen a few heavy showers arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon. We made a few exploratory trips on the bikes along the coast to Cape Rachado and on to Port Dickson. The coastline is fairly developed and not particularly scenic but the halts for white coffee and the odd Nasi Lemak have made it a fond memory. Our condo became a little haven with a few hawker stalls just outside the door complemented by a brilliant fishmonger stall, where the owners and customers have competed to show us how to select the best, fresh, seafood. Our table has been finely adorned with juicy prawns, succulent squid and seared seabass several times a week. We found contentment in wandering Malaccan streets and the fine riverfront with yet more of those fantastic wall murals endemic to Malaysia. We mooched shops stuffed with Santas and Snowmen in the windows just like home only we were clad in shorts and flip-flops rather than parkas and welly-boots. Supping a beer at a pavement table outside the splendid ‘Geographer’s Café’, we listened to Christian Christmas carols played in a Buddhist bar (in the heart of Chinatown) in this Moslem country. What a mélange of race, colour and culture… It was some compensation for missing friends and family over the festive season, which is never an easy time to be away from home.

2017 ushered a move to the big smoke; the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. After Bangkok and Singapore it wasn’t a place we looked forward to but duty called, as we needed to organise visas for Indonesia at the embassy there. And once again Malaysia would provide yet another delightful surprise in one of the most easy-going, laid-back big cities we have ever visited but that will have to wait for next time…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: ‘Back to Malaysia’

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