When I come to Singapore, I think of myself as coming not just to Singapore, but to Malaysia – or, in the highly useful Chinese phrase, 我去新马 (“I’m going to Sing-Ma”). Last year I went to the Cameron Highlands and travelogued it, but the trip was significantly impaired by the fact that I didn’t plan far enough ahead to rent a car and drive it myself. This year I secured a car very early, along with an invitation to spend Friday night at the home of friends-of-a-friend in Kuala Lumpur, and a hotel reservation in Fraser’s Hill itself for the Saturday night. And pretty much nothing but good came from the trip – a complete success in every way:
- Jade and Adam. My hosts for Friday night turned out to be absolutely delightful people, and my evening and morning spent with them was enjoyable from start to finish. Indeed, it was enjoyable even before it started – since I initially told Helen only that I was going to spend Friday night as a houseguest of a Singapore Airlines flight attendant. Just for the sake of seeing her reaction, I didn’t tell her that Jade was married and pregnant…at least not at first. She didn’t think that was very funny. She really didn’t think it was funny that I didn’t have time to buy a present for them before the five-hour drive up to K.L. (Local Malaysian advice is that the reason they allowed me to buy their breakfast Saturday morning without arguing, is that I was thereby fulfilling my social responsibilities as guest and that a present would have been overkill…though that advice may merely be meant to make me feel better rather than being strictly accurate.) And I haven’t even told Helen yet that it wasn’t until after I had driven away that I suddenly realized I had forgotten to take any pictures of them to show her. [sigh] My poor wife…I drive her crazy sometimes.
We had dinner at 11:30 at night, because I didn’t get there until 11:00, and I was feeling guilty about having gotten there so late until we got to the open-air food court and discovered that it was wall-to-wall people – Jade and Adam live right next to a university surrounded by college students, and it’s a lot cooler at night than it is during the day. So 11:00, I was surprised but relieved to discover, is more or less standard dinnertime. I might have thought they were just trying to tell a polite lie to reassure the guest, except that it was so bloody hard to find a seat at the food court. (And if you had wanted to find an empty seat amongst the at least two hundred spots in the internet gaming center next door…well, good luck with THAT.)
You have to be a local to really manage dinner at this food court properly. The first thing you do is claim a table. There is a metal disc embedded in each table with a number, and you make a mental note of the table number. Then you wander around and order whatever strikes your fancy, from as many different stalls as you like – sting ray (really, and it turned out to be delicious) from this stall, spaghetti with arrabbiata sauce (much better than I expected) from that one, a liter or two of Tiger beer from a third – and you just tell them your table number. Meanwhile the other people at your table are doing exactly the same thing. You meet back up at your table, and about two minutes later ten different vendors arrive simultaneously, each bringing some item that somebody at the table has bought and all requiring payment at the same time. Faster than the American eye can follow, money suddenly appears from all over the table and starts being passed back and forth, as your local host calculates how much change he should be getting from each of six different people simultaneously and accurately…I’m telling you, I only wish I had been warned in advance so that I could have videotaped it, because it was a heckuva bewildering and impressive thing to watch.
The next morning we got up and had breakfast, and I made this trip’s Great Discovery: teh tarik, literally “pulled tea.”
This is an Indian invention that the Tamils introduced to Malaysia, and it is awesome stuff. Apparently the particularly smooth texture comes from the fact that before it is served, it is poured back and forth from one cup to another – you start with the full cup just above the empty one, and as you start pouring it you pull (hence the name) the full cup up into the air away from the empty cup as high as your skill level will allow. There are apparently teh tarik-ing contests where the contestants try to outdo each other with tea-pulling acrobatics – behind their back or whatever, rather as if Meadowlark Lemon had found his calling as a barista.
That’s not the only drink they introduced me to. There’s also some sort of fruit drink whose ingredients I don’t remember, but which I am informed is called a “Michael Jackson,” for obvious reasons:
I mean, it starts out black, but…
If Jade and Adam ever visit Houston, they’ll be more than welcome in my home. For one thing, my wife would like to know what they look like. And also to buy them the present her husband didn’t get around to buying.
(Seriously, I liked them very much, and I’m more grateful to them for their hospitality than I can say.)
- Driving in the Malaysian mountains.Just as much fun as I had suspected it would be. And it wouldn’t have been any more fun in a Lamberghini, seein’ as how I spent most of my time behind other people anyway. It was a holiday weekend in Malaysia so lots of other people were going the same place I was.
The road up to Fraser’s Hill, in particular, is just wide enough for a single car. It used to be that it would be one-way going up for a while, and then one-way going down. So if you got there just after it switched into the opposite direction from the way you were trying to go, you had to just kick back and relax. Recently, however, they solved the problem. There being not enough room on the mountainside to widen the road to two lanes, they simply built a second road going down the other side of the mountain, and turned the old road into a permanent one-way-up route. So now you just drive in a big circle around the mountain and wind up within a few hundred meters from where you started.
By the way, I did not take the following video while driving; by means of certain ingenious arrangements that I am not liberty to divulge, I provided myself with an iPhone holder so that I could keep both hands on the wheel. Just want it to be clear that I was following appropriate HSSE protocol.
Now that’s a road.
The way down is almost as much fun:
While you’re actually in the Fraser’s Hill community itself, most of the roads call themselves “two-lane.” However, in order to fit two lanes into their roads, the locals sometimes have to pretend that people in Malaysia drive only very, very narrow cars:
- Impromptu wading under a waterfall. I just happened on a lovely waterfall on the way up Highway 55.
Naturally I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a bit of wading in the pool at its base. Also for climbing up…
…and sticking my head underneath it, which felt reallynice on that hot day.
Then I carefully backed down the rock face so as to keep the back part of me dry – since I didn’t have any towels with me.
Note that Helen can be proud of me for having actually gotten somebody there to take a pictures of ME (even when I do remember to take pictures, I’m generally behind the camera rather than in the picture).
The best part of that waterfall, though, were the children. Few things make me happier than happy children, and these sisters were having the time of their lives together.
- Peace and quiet and birdsong and scenery at Fraser’s Hill
- Golf in the mountains. There’s a nine-hole golf course that is described on wikitravel as being a “tight” course. Um…yeah, you could say that, considering that on several of the fairways you’d have to smear Vaseline all over your golf cart just to be able to squeak through the trees bordering the fairway en route to the green (if you hada golf cart, which on this course you most definitely don’t). I lost a lot of balls in those nine holes. But I had a blast. I hit three really good shots, and I’m bad enough at golf that I always get a huge kick out of the good shots and shrug off the bad ones as being par for the course, so to speak. In particular, the fifth hole is a par four from an elevated tee all the way across the valley and the stream in the middle, to a green protected in the front by a fairway bunker and additional bunkers on each side of the green. Plus there’s a road that runs out of bounds parallel to the fairway and about thirty yards left of the pin.
I almost drove the green – seriously, I caught that drive just right and drove a long straight screamer dead straight at the pin that came to rest thirty yards from the hole. I wish you all had been there; you would have been so impressed. On the other hand, because you were NOT there, I don’t have to tell you about my prior attempt from that tee box, which ended in an equally screaming shot’s bounding merrily up the pavement of the road out of bounds in search of a windshield to break. Nor do I have to tell you that from my lovely lie thirty yards from the pin it took five more shots for me to hole out. I can just tell you about that one killer drive and leave you impressed with Kenny the Golf God.
- Local ingenuity in the face of oppression. Chinese are discriminated against pretty openly in Malaysia, and Chinese schools in particular have to get by on very little resources. So I particularly admired one school I passed somewhere north of Bentung. In order to build their retaining wall, they had made use of old tires, including one large tractor tire. But then, in order to make them look pretty…
…they painted them pink. I’d never seen pink tires before. Give ’em an A for effort and ingenuity.
- Fresh coconut juice straight from the coconut.But this was not quite as good as I would have thought because I am amazed to discover that coconut doesn’t actually taste very much like coconut. (I wonder what it is I’ve been eating on coconut cream pie all these years?) Having drunk some, I don’t think it would be my first choice of beverage (unless the coconut had been genetically engineered to produce some rum in with the juice). But I can sure tell that if I had been out working in that Malaysian sun for a few hours, I’d be more than ready to get out my machete and whack the top off a fresh young coconut and drain it dry. So, not fabulous, but certainly good, and now I can say I’ve done it.
- Lovely photographs of the area from a very serious amateur photographer who must remain anonymous. As it happens, I’m not the only person to have gone to Fraser’s Hill recently and taken photographs, and some of those people are MUCH better photographers than am I. I have permission to show you the following photographs, which are not mine and which are copyrighted 2012 (you can contact me if you want to reproduce them and I’ll pass on the request).
This one I like, actually, because I’ve never seen anybody use a camera to produce an impressionist “painting” that looks for all the world like it was done by oil and canvas. I have no idea what technique you use to take a photograph that looks like this, but blown up big enough you could frame it and put it on a wall.
This photographer is good at taking shots of nature.
Very peaceful. Very quiet except for the birds. Liked it very much.
So there you have it: Malaysia 2.0.
And I really, really, really wish I could give credit where credit is due.