Our first stop in Malaysia was Penang and as we caught the ferry over from the mainland, I was a bit fearful – I’d been told crime was really bad and I’d need to ensure my property was safe in my rooms and on my boys; I was also warned about rats in the hotel and told not to go out at night unless I was with a big group of people. It was a bit daunting because in Krabi I was quite content walking around on my own. Here, I couldn’t be so blasé.
Despite all of the warnings, Penang is still called the Pearl of the Orient and is a paradise for food lovers with Chinese, Nonya, Malay and Indian cuisine reflecting the cultures that exist throughout the country.
My two nights in Penang were not as scary as expected. The hotel was a bit dodgy and it certainly wasn’t strange to see a few rats; prostitutes hung out just a few doors down; and I was right in the middle of China Town and Little India, so it didn’t really seem like the best location anyway, but no one in our group had anything bad happen to them or to their luggage. We might have just been lucky.
On our first night I went to an Indian restaurant where my meal was served on a banana leaf. It was the first time I’d eaten Indian food and my mouth and throat were burning as soon as the food touched my tongue. I soothed the pain with beer before racing back to the hotel’s toilet where I spent the next half an hour saying goodbye to the meal I’d just consumed.
If you’ve ever seen the movie The Beach, then you can imagine my room in Penang. The wall and the roof didn’t meet, with about a foot gap in between. Thinking of that movie, I kept looking up at the gap, waiting for some psycho to jump up there from the next room and start hurling abuse at me. Thankfully, although I did hear the voices of the people in the next room, there was no psycho that I knew about, but I swear I had one eye open all night – just in case.
I spent the next morning on a two hour, group rickshaw tour – men pedalling bikes with carts carrying us in the front. The men would have all been over 60 years old and I felt sorry for them, but they were obviously fit. The driver of my cart acted as tour guide and was an extremely well educated man. Not only could he speak six languages, but he’d also been a university lecturer around the world. I couldn’t understand why such a well-educated, well-travelled man would leave behind a life overseas and return to this world – to spend his days riding a push-bike around town for a very small amount of money – but he told me he loved it and after retiring from teaching, this was the only place he wanted to be.
After the ride, I went to Kek Lok Si Temple, at Ayer Itam – the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia. Construction of the temple began in 1893 and was initially completed around 20 years later; but the temple that stands today wasn’t finished until 2002. In 1930, the seven storey main pagoda – Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas – was built and, finally, 2002 saw the completion of a 30 metre bronze stature of the Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin) – the Goddess of Mercy, on the hillside above the pagoda.
Built in tiers, the temple is layered with Buddhas of every size and kind. The Pagoda is breathtaking with so much care taken to place each Buddha in just the right spot, the golden shine that comes off every statue, the obvious offering of a gift for the world to see – it offers an understanding of the depth of the belief in Buddhism and offers inspiration to give, in a world of take.
The massive statue of the Goddess of Mercy stands higher than the temple itself and you need to get a cable lift to see it at its best. The Goddess is simply beautiful as she watches over Penang, protecting it. Standing here, you can see the entire city and from this distance it looks much like Brisbane, although with a blanket of dirt and pollution.
I thought it was strange, knowing the main principle of Buddhism is “materialism causes suffering”, yet the temples are filled with gold and statues and obviously cost millions to build. I guess it’s like that as a true mark of respect to the Buddha – who lived on the kindness of others and never asked for anything. Perhaps this is the people’s way of honouring him in the afterlife – by presenting his temples with the jewels and lifestyle he gave up when he left his parent’s kingdom as a young adult. It’s interesting to see the dedication and obvious respect the people have for their religion.
As a whole, Malaysia seems friendly. The people give seemingly endless smiles – they don’t care they have no possessions, they don’t need them. I saw this in Africa and Thailand as well and it’s strange how different life can be when you grow up in a different world. While those in Australia and Europe are busy worrying about the new Ipod or Xbox, there are people of the world who are simply happy to live in what we term as “poverty”.
The thing is, although we may call them poverty-stricken, it seems as though they are truly the richest people in the world because from all my travels so far, the people who have nothing seem to be the happiest. I respect that so much and often think how much easier life would be if we all felt that way.
The tour continued on to the Cameron Highlands, where three small towns are surrounded by breathtaking scenery, dotting the winding road to the tip of highlands – lush mountain peaks, waterfalls, tea plantations and terraces of vegetable, fruit and flower gardens.
Around 150km north of Kuala Lumpur, the Highlands reach 5000 feet above sea level and is the highest area on the mainland. It’s a cool escape in the heat of Malaysia, with temperatures no higher than 20 degrees and rarely lower than 10 degrees all year round.
The area was named after William Cameron, a colonial government surveyor who discovered the plateau in 1885. During the 1920s, the British realised the potential of its fertile mountain slopes for growing tea, a prized commodity. It’s still Malaysia’s largest tea-producing region, as well as being the major supplier of legumes and vegetables through Malaysia and Singapore.
I went on a day tour around the highlands; including visits to Boh Palas Tea Plantation, a strawberry farm, honey bee farm, market square, a small Buddhist temple, a rose garden and butterfly farm. The rose garden was near the top of the highlands and allowed extraordinary views of the plantations and towns below us.
The cool weather and beautiful scenery was a contrast to the heat and bustle of the city – and after a short break, relaxing in every sense, we continued back into reality again as we drove off down the mountain side towards Kuala Lumpur.
The impending peaceful journey down the mountainside quickly became the bus ride from hell. To begin with, the crazy bus driver only filled the luggage holds half full, and piled the rest of the bags into the aisles so it was impossible to move from our seats. Within half an hour of driving, we stopped by the roadside. With no idea why, and the driver wasn’t tell us anything, we all just sat inside the bus, waiting, while the driver wandered around the roadside looking out into the tea fields.
Finally, 20 minutes later, he came to us and told us, or rather, acted out to us, that if the bus continued to drive this road, we would die. The brakes were failing. We were stranded for more than three hours while we waited for another bus to arrive from Kuala Lumpur.
Thankfully, the rest of the journey was smooth, although the driver chose the worst possible toilet stops. I would have preferred to do the same as we did in Africa – and just squat beside the highway – than use the disgusting holes in the ground we were taken to.
Toilets were the one thing I hadn’t been able to get used to in Asia. The most common type is Squat Toilets, which are all through Thailand and Malaysia, except at many hotels and restaurants where you’re treated to a normal sit-down western-style toilet. There are two types of Squat Toilets – one is basically just a hole in the ground, while the other sits around 15cm higher.
For those not used to relieving themselves on a squat toilet, it can be challenging. There is also no toilet paper – the waterways are in a poor state so to avoid further pollution you cannot flush paper. The local people use water and a bucket is filled next to the toilets with a scoop to get the water out. This water is also used for flushing the toilet if there is no conventional flushing system. If you do take your own tissue with you, you have to put it in a bin nearby. Some upper-class facilities have a “butt-spray” – a small nozzle attached to a hose at the side of the toilet. You point the nozzle and push the lever down to wash yourself.
Although while camping in Africa, and on many drunken nights as a teenager, I’d become accustomed to squatting, I couldn’t shake the horrible feeling I got every time I needed to go to the toilet; or the sick feeling every time I stepped in to the water beside the squat hole, wondering just how many germs from people’s anatomies were lurking there. I spent most of my time trying to balance and not fall over, or get my pants wet.
I’m almost positive of one thing though – you would never have to wait in the mornings for the man of the house to finish in the toilet while he read his newspaper or magazines – surely, it would be physically impossible to squat for such a long time.
Our stops along the road to Kuala Lumpur had the ground-level squats; and the stench and colour of the water around the hole was disgusting. Obviously days, perhaps weeks, worth of stench and leftover faeces – my stomach heaved. I walked in, busting to go to the toilet, but my need quickly disintegrated and I decided I would wait until we reached the city. Never have I wished I was a man more than at this moment – how much easier it would have been.