Sunday, July 20, 2008

Malaysia - Kuala Lumpur, Sarawak and Sabah

Village Park Restaurant in Damansara Utama - famous for its nasi lemak, and crammed with customers eager to partake in that most Malaysian of dishes.

Below: Kuching's fabulous Sunday farmers' market.

So there I was, in Malaysia again. The mission this time: Eat lots of food, thereby getting inspired to cook, yet somehow without getting fat; attempt to burn some of that fat through jungle trekking; attend a world music festival; and of course catch up with friends and family.

Well, I definitely did gain 2 kg in less than 3 weeks. I've been trying to gain a bit of mass in the gym, unfortunately this is the wrong kind of mass - the kind inspired by consuming enormous quanitities of roti chanai, char kway teow and teh tarek in a country that is just too damn hot to exercise in.

In my 19 days in Malaysia, half in Kuala Lumpur and half in Borneo, I learned many new things worth sharing with you. Below are some of them:

Getting about in Malaysia, Part 1: Driving
When driving a car in Malaysia, a few important pointers should be remembered, as people go by different rules than in most Western countries.
* The white lines that mark the lanes on roads are there for purely aesthetic reasons only. Feel no obligation to actually drive witin them.
* Indicating should only be done when absolutely necessary, and even then, only if you REALLY, REALLY feel like it. For the most part, ignore the presence of the indicator, it will only distract you.
* If you are young Malaysian driver, it is apparently compulsory to drive while talking on the phone. My friend Manesh related to me a story of a friend who crashed his car only weeks after obtaining his license. When asked why, the reply was: "The sun was in my eyes while I was SMSing."
* Double parking all over the place may be terribly inconvenient for lots of people around you, but it's convenient for you, which is all that matters. So go for it lah!

Getting about in Malaysia, Part 2: Commuting
Observing commuters in Kuala Lumpur is a fascinating experience. The prospect of not getting a seat on the train and having to stand is apparently so horrible that it turns normally reserved Malaysians into complete barbarians. Just try to get off the train at a busy time - as the doors open, you will be gathered by an advancing wall of eager Malaysians who have no conception that anyone may wish to get off the train. If Malaysians could apply the same drive and ruthless determination they display in trying to get on a train to something constructive, this country could really go places.

Clearly eager to change this culture of uncivilised commuting, the transport authorities give periodic announcements to move aside for disembarking passengers, and post signs exhorting travellers to give up their seats for the elderly, the pregnant, and the otherwise needy. Unfortunately I am yet to see anyone actually do any of these things, even when the opportunity is clearly there.

Getting about in Malaysia, Part 3: Taxi
If you haven't gotten ripped off by a taxi driver, you haven't really been to Malaysia. It's gonna happen at some point, just accept it. I'm sure there are nice taxi drivers out there, but as a profession it seems to attract nefarious types. Thailand and Indonesia are no different. The best way to get around it is to know where you are going, and to seem confident about it. Then hope that the taxi driver knows where you are going also. I'm pretty clueless about directions in foreign countries, so I may as well have "sucker" written on my forehead.

The standard form of the Malay language, known as Bahasa Baku, is quite easily understandable by speakers of Indonesian, or anyone who has studied Malay at school. However, good luck trying to find someone who will speak it to you. As someone who speaks English fluently (I hope) and a bit of Indonesian, communication is an all-or-nothing affair. Educated Malaysians, especially Indians and Chinese, tend to be fluent in English so will speak to you in that tongue. Those who are less well-educated however, constantly address me in a rapid-fire, mumbled and colloquial version of Malay of which I can understand maybe 10%. As a contrast, I watched bits of the televised economic debate between Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and Information Minister Shabery Cheek, and understood about 50%.

Manglish (Malaysian English) terms I have learned:
* "Shiok!" - awesome, very good. Eg. "This mee goreng is damn shiok, lah!"
* "See first" - to investigate and then make a decision. Eg. "Let's go see first lah."
* "On" and "Off" - adjectives in standard English, in Manglish they are verbs. eg. "Hey can you on the fan, boss?" "Aiyah, too cold now, off it lah."
* "Can" - used instead of phrases like yes I can, or it is possible. Eg. "Go this way to the station, can or cannot?" "Can!"

One of the appealing features of Manglish is the way it takes standard English and then strips away much of the trimmings, leaving just the basic forms. Single words like "can", "have" and "dowan" (don't want) becoming entire sentences in themselves.

"Hey Boss! Boss!"One of the things I love about being in Malaysia is that you can refer to any male as "Boss". This is heard most frequently in Malay and Indian restaurants, but really you can use it anywhere. Don't call women "boss" though, it doesn't go down well.

Subcultures and stereotypes
Hanging around central KL on a weekend, I was struck by the sheer uniformity of the young mat rock males there. Almost all Malay, all seemed to have the same basic uniform: trainers, jeans, and black t-shirt with some slogan or band name. Don't get me wrong, it's not at all a bad look, I just wonder at the point of looking exactly the same as the next guy when you don't have to. You may as well be at school.
Malaysia, like any country, has its various subcultural stereotypes. Some, like the mat rocks (Malay rock fans) or hip-hoppers (Indian homeboys) are defined by their musical taste and the culture that goes along with that. In addition, here are three notables to look out for:

The Mat Rempit - Malay motorcycle hooligans. Can be found whizzing past you on the highway in their favourite "superman pose", and getting involved in various kinds of anti-social behaviour such as illegal street racing, robbery, assault and vandalism. The girls attached to this culture are called Minah Rempits.

The Ah Beng - the Malaysian Chinese equivalent of the British chav, or the Australian bogan or yuleh. Identifying features include shoddy English, brightly dyed hair (with matching mobile phone cover) hanging down to cover at least one eye, highly modified car, and tight jeans. The female equivalent is called Ah Lian.

The Macha - the Malaysian Tamil working class guy. Frequently spotted making roti chanai. Identifying features include moustache (starting at 11 years of age), gold chain, shoddy English, ambitions to be a Bollywood star, and a propensity for hassling passing girls by making kissing sounds and calling out "Hey, sveetie!"

Eating in Kuching
One dish I seemed to find myself eating frequently in Kuching was Kolo Mee, also called Mee Kolok. Not quite sure what was so special about this local specialty (essentially noodles with a bit of garlic oil and a few things on the side), but it certainly satisfied my hunger. Fried paku (fern) is the other everpresent dish in the local cuisine, while to wash it down try Teh C Special - it's a 3-layered drink consisting of tea, carnation milk and palm sugar syrup. Like every other drink in Malaysia it is tooth-rottingly sweet, but nice nonetheless.

Sarawak Laksa (right) is the local spin on that distinctive staple of Nonya cuisine. Compared to the peninsula's laksa lemak, its gravy is heavily spiked with the local black pepper and belacan (shrimp paste), with chicken and prawns resting atop vermicelli. We woke up at 7am one morning to drive across town just to sample the place that apparently makes the best Sarawak laksa in town. That's committment, and is the kind of food-crazed behaviour that is commonplace in Malaysia but considered strange elsewhere.

Sago Grubs
When we were in Kuching, one of my companions Woei Jiun had acquired an insatiable yearning to eat sago grubs. When you cut down a sago palm and dig out its starchy pith, you can come back a few months later to find big fat juicy grubs feeding on it. The grub is considered good eating in various parts of the archipelago, particularly in New Guinea. It can be eaten raw (and alive if you are brazen) - just hold the head and bite off the fatty body. But the guy at the market who sold them to us recommended frying them with a bit of garlic and kecap manis.

Grubs being sold live at the market.

Aveena, Woei Jiun and Sophia were all game enough to have a munch of fried grubs - apparently it's just like eating a bit of fat. Mmmmm! For me, I had to say thanks but no thanks - I'm vegetarian, after all. Is this what people mean when they tell me I'm missing out?

We spent a week in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak province. A sleepy riverside city of 500,000 people, Kuching has a certain laid-back charm that seems lacking in much of the rest of Malaysia. Our first clue that something strange and un-Malaysian was going on when a friendly passerby stopped his car to give us directions without even being asked. Compare that to Kuala Lumpur, where the only time a stranger will approach you on the street is to sell you something or rob you.

The populace of Kuching is made up of Malays from the peninsula, Chinese and local Ibans and other indigenous peoples. In contrast to peninsular Malaysia, there are hardly any Indians in Kuching; it took us several days before we spotted a local Indian. Strangely enough, he was working in a Hainanese Chicken Rice restaurant.

Kuching is notable for its waterfront area, where locals spend much of their leisure time eating, drinking, singing karaoke, dancing, playing soccer and generally chilling out; and its various museums and buildings of interesting cultural value. It has some pleasant parks in which to while away your time, such as the Malaysian-Chinese Friendship Park (pictured).

We stayed at Nomad B&B, a cheap but lovely place that I can't speak highly enough of. Hardly fancy, but with a soulful friendly vibe. It's run by a bunch of heavily tattooed young people, all local Ibans, some of whom would look scary if they weren't so friendly and full of smiles. They stay up late drinking tuak and playing acoustic guitar with the guests, crash on the floor of the common room and then get up and make you pancakes in the morning.

The main reason we were in Kuching of course was the annual Rainforest World Music Festival. Taking place over 3 nights at the Sarawak Cultural Village (just out of town), the various performers conducted workshops during the day, demonstrating their instruments and explaining their cultural significance. The artists were drawn from all over the world, from Sarawak itself to Portugal, India, Palestine and Trinidad & Tobago. Highlights included the Japanese taiko drummer-cum-rockstar Hiroshi Motofuji, and a pair of African bands - the brilliant Kasai Masai from Congo via the UK, and Yakande, with members from Gambia and Guinea.
Less wonderful was the mud. They don't call it rainforest for no reason, and a shower on the first night turned the area in front of the stage into a mud pit, which smelled vaguely of horse manure. Many in the crowd didn't care, and jumped and danced around in the mud with gay abandon. Gotta admire their spirit - I was too busy trying in vain to stay dry. However I can't say I admire those among them who figured they would throw mud at everyone else in the crowd.

The other drawcard of Kuching was Bako National Park, not far out of town. Reachable only by boat, its great natural beauty far outweighed the discomfort I felt from swollen waterlogged feet, spiny tree branches and sunburn. For some strange reason I got it into my head that I wouldn't need sunscreen, since Malaysian sun is not as harsh as Australian sun. I'm an idiot. If you don't believe me, check the photo.

We also spent a couple of days in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah province, where we went island-hopping just off the coast. Now, I know that 2 days is not a very long time to get to know a place, but I couldn't shake the feeling that there was a decidedly dodgy side to KK. That was largely in part to the local guys who would leer and make sexual comments to my female companions, but in general it lacked the feeling of friendliness that I got from Kuching. But there's only so much you can really pick up in such a short time. Someone I spoke to ascribed any dodginess to the large population of illegal immigrants in KK - most of them from Indonesia and the Philippines - but that's a little too convenient an explanation for me.

One thing I kept noticing at various kopitiams in Borneo was corn juice. The idea of such a drink plays havoc with my mind. Corn juice! I tried ordering it once, but this particular place was out of it; I had an opportunity to try it later on but I guess I decided it perhaps wasn't a good idea. I mean, come on, corn juice? Yet a part of me still remains curious. I've had corn icecream before after all, so how bad could corn juice be? Beats eating sago grubs.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Racists are out to get me! Aiyah!

I don't wanna come across like I think I'm being oppressed or anything, or that "The Man" has it in for me, but I've been a victim of racism this week. Twice actually, which is the weird thing. Pure coincidence I'm sure. One was kind of funny, the other was a bit more disturbing.
Anyway, the first incident involved some mofo drawing a swastika and writing "WHITE POWER" in texta on the back of my passenger-side rear-vision mirror. Because it was not in a part of my car that I look at frequently, I'm not sure how long it was there - could have been days before I noticed it. This also means I don't know where it happened, although most likely it would have been in the street outside my house.

Now as racist attacks go, writing a slogan on someone's car is fairly mild, but it's the sort of thing that can do your head in if you give it some thought. Questions flood your mind: Who did it? Why? Was it completely random, or did they actually know the car belonged to a person of colour and that's why they did it? Was it just some stupid kids with too much time on their hands trying to get a power buzz from committing an anti-social act - or something more sinister?

I've come to the conclusion that it's probably random senseless act of teenage bravado, but it's hard to shake those nagging possibilities.

My mate Sid suggested staking out my place with some baseball bats... except I don't own a baseball bat. Will a badminton racquet do?

The second incident was a week later. Having just had dinner (at the excellent Italian eatery "Mr Wolf" in St Kilda) with my parents and another Indonesian friend, we had just left the restaurant when a passing dodgy-looking guy starting ranting incoherently. Something about Asians taking over the country, a few swear words thrown in for emphasis.

Hardly threatening in this case. Funny if anything. I smiled and gave the standard response to being abused by random passing idiots: "Jesus loves you, my friend!"

No response to that, he just kept walking and raving. Something about Asians stealing jobs. I shouted back, "That's right, we're here to take your job!" since careers as drug-addled-vagrants are highly sought after by Asian go-getters. I think the irony was lost on him however.

Like this post? Try these:

"F***ing scum" - the phone call I received this week
Some f***er kicked my car! Why?

"Curry-bashing" on the rise in Melbourne - Indian students targeted

Your guide to the "F*** off we're full" Facebook group

Random comic genius: Uncle Sameer goes to Frankston