Malaysia, truly Asia

That’s the tourist department tagline designed to pull in the tourist dollar. We’ve been here about a week now and it does seem an apt summary of this country. Although I’m not sure anywhere in Asia would not be truly Asia. Unless there are a few imposter states lurking around in corners, Brunei or East Timor perhaps?

We landed in Kuala Lumpur, you can never tell what level of development a country is at by the international airport. Airports are designed to be a deception that makes passengers imagine they’ve just landed in a plush utopian future world. KL airport follows suit. It’s an impressive place, even the low cost terminal we came in at is well appointed. Leaving the airport though it’s immediately clear that this is a clean, well organised place that’s had billions of investment pumped into it. This is a place that shows what can be done when the economy is carefully managed and foreign investment welcomed. In a nutshell from what we’ve seen so far it’s very impressive. The country intends to be listed as a ‘high income country’ by 2020.

Malaysia became an independent state in 1963. It has a British style parliament, and has a constitutional monarchy where the king is elected every five years by the leaders of the individual states. So it’s not quite the same as the UK where it’s a job for life and never voted on.

Life expectancy is 74, the adult literacy rate is 92% and the proportion of people living in poverty 3.8% (in 1989 it was 16%). The current economic growth rate is 4.2%, way above the UK’s. The economy is service based with 70% of GDP deriving from services. In short, it’s a country that’s going places. It’s not a bastion of democracy or open government, that’s well documented. but it has made great strides in uplifting the lives of much of the population, far more so than most of its neighbours. Huge infrastructure projects have been undertaken; the road and rail networks are impressive. The rail network around KL is far more modern and cleaner than London’s. Where a ticket on the tube for a short journey costs about £4, here it’s about 30p, and a less crowded more comfortable trip.

There are 28 million people here, and only about 1.5 million in KL, which makes a small capital city in Asian terms. What’s immediately evident is the mix of people here, I wouldn’t call it a melting pot as that implies all the different peoples intermarry and engage in each others cultures and religion. That’s not evident, but everyone does seem to get along and respect each others differences. Chinese temples, Hindu temples and mosques sit almost side by side on many streets. One street vendor can be selling Hokkien noodles while the guy next door is selling veg curry or pakoras. This is an Islamic state but it’s not in your face, only about 60% of people are Muslim. About 50% of the population are ethnic Malay (originating from Indonesia eons ago) and 24% are Chinese, the rest being mostly Indian or indigenous peoples.

All of this means that a walk down the street presents you with a wide range of peoples and their respective cultures. There is an amazing amount of diversity here which makes it really interesting. It’s like rolling three countries into one space, and generally most people get along. The official language is Malay, which is very close to Indonesian, but most people are at least bi-lingual. English is widely spoken which is handy for us. One benefit of this diversity is the food of course, it’s spicy food heaven. There must be more food outlets per kilometre here than anywhere, everything from Nandos and KFC, to curries served on a banana leaf. Food is also incredibly cheap compared to home, a few pounds can buy a good meal for two. I guess it’s this diversity of people that makes Malaysia ‘truly Asia’.

For our first couple of nights we went posh, big time. Using up the last of my Marriott points we got a couple of free nights at a 480 room 5 star place out of town. You can see it here. CM was impressed and said it was the poshest place she’d ever stayed. In comparison to some of the grotty places we’ve stayed this was in another universe. We of course turned up looking like bedraggled travellers, not the rich clientele they usually get. Luggage here is Louis Vuitton, not grubby backpack. The well groomed staff fawned over us though and we checked into our luxury room with all it’s refined splendour.

CM in her element in the Ballroom bar

One of the outdoor pools

A well known bar-fly

The room was free, but here’s the rub. The room is just the start, I know from experience the job of the hotel staff in these kind of places is to get you spending, and spend we did. Everything cost a lot, even by UK standards. You have no choice as there is nowhere near the hotel you can get to without a car. Of course they have a limo you can take, they get you on that too. The gym was good and the outdoor pools were opulent, we seemed to be the only guests during the day and had it all to ourselves. The only issue was trying to dodge the staff who appeared at every turn trying to sell you some additional goods or service. We sussed out the cheapest restaurant of the many in the hotel, and what drinks were the best value etc etc. On checkout the bottom line was that we spent just over £100 on two basic evening meals (Pizza) and a few drinks. When I used to stay at these places regularly in my former career it was all on expenses so you didn’t really think about the cost.

They had a pretty good resident band, a duo who could really sing and had a few funky dance moves up their sleeves. The guy could sing soprano and was really good at Bee Gees songs, here’s a short clip:

When not signing they came over and talked to us, here’s me getting all Saturday Night Fever with him:

Not sure who looks the most camp, me or the singer!

All the luxury stopped as we checked out and left the marble and gold leaf behind, it was time to leave this artificial cocoon  of extravagance and see the proper  Kuala Lumpur.

  • Digg
  • Del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Twitter
  • RSS

Rewind: A few short clips

We recently gained access to some faster internet and so was able to upload a few video clips shot previously. They’re not great but I post them here for posterity.

Here’s a clip of CM at the treetop adventure park in Bali, she loved it:

This one is me heroically tackling a zip wire at the adventure park:

This one’s a clip of the Legong dancing by the Mekar Sari troupe from Ubud in Bali. This is a girl doing her solo performance:

Going back a way now, this was our final campsite at Fraser Island in Queensland. We were right in the forest and it was a bit dark and creepy:

This clip is of where we stayed in Cape Hillborough in Queensland, this was one of my favourite campsites, a place of outstanding natural beauty:

Going back to the start of our trip in the north island of New Zealand, here is CM demonstrating how to quaff wine in our campervan:

This one is a short clip of us driving up the beach in Fraser Island, it was quite a exhilarating driving up the beach for miles as the tide came in:

That’s about it for now, hopefully a few more will be posted soon.

  • Digg
  • Del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Twitter
  • RSS

Our Indonesian journey concludes

Our final destination in Indonesia was Jogyakarta, a fairly small town that’s a tourist stop off point. It has a long street market with a thousand stalls selling fake everything, nice batik clothes, and bric-a-brac that no doubt heads straight for the charity shop bin bag once it reaches Europe. It has legions of becaks, that is the three wheel bicycle rickshaw taxis. Hundreds of them sit along the pavement and as you walk past they each in turn shout ‘becak!’. After you’ve said no thanks fifty times in a row it wears a bit thin, but I’m always a polite tourist and keep up the retort, trying to smile and let them down gently. We do use them now and again and it’s a no win. The drivers are usually old, malnourished and unfit. You feel very bad as he’s puffing away pushing you along on his gearless machine that’s older than him and weighs a half ton. But then if you don’t use them they might go hungry that day, right? At night you see the poor souls folded up on the seat with a bit of plastic sheet over them, it’s a taxi but it’s also their home. So our feel good compromise was to use then when it made sense, haggle them down to a reasonable tourist price before climbing in, and then pay them well over the odds at the end. Probably three times what a local would pay. We also took one each to spread the love around a bit more. Doing all this lessens the guilt you feel at harnessing a boney old man’s thin frame to get you a mile across town. These men are cycling in thick smoggy traffic all day at temperatures of over 30 degrees, and then they sleep beside it all night. They also smoke of course, I’m sure their life expectancy must be a good 20 years less than ours. So becaks are a moral dilemma, I wish they didn’t have them. Humans deserve an easier way to feed themselves in the 21st century, but as they do exist if we can make somebody’s day a bit brighter with a small windfall and some good humour then it seems like a reasonable compromise. Below are a couple of becak pictures:

The driver doesn't stop at red lights once he's moving, his paying passenger (me) is thrust straight into the oncoming traffic!

CM ready for the off

White van man is red trike man in Java

The train to Yogya was very impressive and looked quite new:

Very clean and comfortable

We found quite a nice hotel in Jogya, no mean feat in this grubby town. There are rivers running through town and every inch looks like a floating rubbish dump or sewer, at night big rats wander about, including across the restaurant floors. The food we ate was not outstanding, and you were counting the meals until you got food poisoning, which we both did, albeit in a minor way. As is usual, between the roads lay a huge maze of dark alleyways, this is where most people live. Doors and gates open onto the alleyways as do all kinds of small shops. It’s safe enough to wander through them, people are used to tourists and will often say hello. Especially the smiley children, who as usual seem to outnumber the adults. One night we walked down the alley beside our hotel in search of a beer. As we turned the corner there were a few dozen women, legs on show and hair brushed, sitting on the floor outside a makeshift room. In some dingy small rooms lay a fetid looking mattress, in others not even that. As I walked by they smiled at me in a beckoning confident way. Then they say CM behind me and looked away just as quick. They didn’t look like hardened career ladies of the night, more like local girls trying to raise a bit more money. We did notice that local young men were cruising the alleyways in numbers, looking like all hopeful like young Brit lads do when doing the equivalent in Amsterdam. Like the becak driver, it’s a shame that in the 21st century good people have to make living by rolling on a squalid mattress with a stranger. I don’t know what the girls charge but you can be sure it’s a pittance. And what else might they pick up along the way of course. It’s also interesting that all this happens a stone’s throw from several mosques.

Our street, the hotel and the alleyways are on the lefthand side.

We had a TV in our room. TV tells you a lot about a people, and what their aspirations are. Indonesian TV is aimed squarely at young people, half a dozen channels have the same programme format all day long. Trendy Jakarta teens and under 25’s on stage playing silly games, orchestrated by angelic articulate beauties, and sunglass wearing would be American young men. All this is interspersed with mimed music from heartthrob bands. It’s all very colourful and a lot of fun, everyone looks to be having a great time. It clearly entertains, but there’s little informing or educating to be had. In this vast country public health and safety messages could be quickly spread by TV. Short films like we had in the UK telling you to ‘Learn to swim young man’ were a great idea. Here, they could have ‘Never take a night bus unless you’re happy to die’ or ‘Don’t fall in the river unless you want cholera’. Instead of any of that you have adverts every five minutes, intrusive American style. Oddly almost every advert is for a hair or skin product. Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, and friends have landed, big time. These global brands are carving out big new markets in this developing country, by playing to western ideals and local hang ups, themselves probably a result of the former colonialism.

What do I mean?

The same few ads are repeated several times every hour. They are for Head and Shoulders, Lux, Dove, Oil of Olay, and Vaseline skin products, plus a few others. Indonesian women invariably have shiny strong long black hair, the envy of many Europeans I’m sure. Indonesians describe themselves as ‘tan’, they don’t feel black or white, but something in between. To European eyes they are indeed a very attractive race, and should have no hang ups about appearance whatsoever. Obesity is certainly not an issue either. Turn on the TV and every face on screen is white, or as white as a native Indonesian can become. The natural skin tone of Indonesians is nowhere to be seen. Cue the ad break and even whiter faces are advising their audience that by using this, that or the other whitening cream or soap, they too can become white. Have a look at this link, Dove whitening deodorant for heavens sake. Or have a look at this clip on YouTube for Ponds cream.

The shampoo ad’s have women putting special sticky cards in their hair to reveal the dreaded dandruff, their lives are ruined by dandruff of course. As if not being ghostly white wasn’t problem enough!  I’ve never noticed an Indonesian with dandruff, they have very healthy hair, but Head & Shoulders have it that all women need their product pronto. The supermarkets are of course crammed full of these products.

The icing on the cake was finding out that in Yogja there is a place called the ‘Micheal Jackson Skin Whitening Clinic’. Here women apparently spend lots of income on all kinds of whitening treatments. It’s also bizarre that anyone would want to look like Michael Jackson. Of course, this shows the power of all the relentless advertising of whitening products. So Indonesian TV is all about selling products to young women that they don’t need and shouldn’t want. The same multinationals that sell us bronzing cream are creating a market for the opposite in Indonesia. Indonesian youth is being slowly brainwashed that white is wonderful, every time they tune in to the endless cheap programmes that are full of pale white happy people. The programmes are really purely made to fit in around the adverts. It’s a real shame when TV could be harnessed to do so much good in terms of empowerment, national cohesion, and public health.

As we end our time in Indonesia my feelings for it are the same as when I first came here 20 years ago. I really like this country, it has huge problems and an indifferent government. Corruption is everywhere holding back development. But the man/woman/child in the street has integrity. The term ‘Friendly Indonesia’ has been around a long time and it’s absolutely true. Almost everyone you meet wants to engage you in conversation, there is usually a lot of humour and big smiles. People don’t try and rip you off by and large, even the haggling is good humoured and fun. You never feel scared to walk down a street at night (at least where we’ve been) and you feel that if problems arose locals would come to your aid. There is a huge amount of adversity facing most Indonesians and they have found excellent coping strategies, good humour being one of them.  It is an optimistic upbeat nation, yet still very much a developing country. The only thing that seriously puts me off this country is the perils that lie in wait on the roads, the roads are too damn dangerous and there are now too many vehicles. What will it be like in another 20 years? Hopefully I’ll still be able to find out.

Finally, I mentioned corruption earlier, this picture of a wall near our hotel sends a chilling message. It’s not the first time i’ve heard this sentiment. The fact that people are brave enough to write it, and that it wasn’t quickly removed tells you something. Although i’m  not quite sure what?

Powerful graffitti

The white square in the centre of the map below shows the roof of our hotel in Yogja. It’s a densely packed area.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

  • Digg
  • Del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Twitter
  • RSS

Solo or Surakarta?

Nothing beats driving through a Java shopping mall in a 60's split screen VW Combi van!

Smack bang in the middle of Java is Solo, a town of a bit under a million people. On the maps it’s called Surakarta, but it’s known as Solo. It’s off the tourist trail, rarely visited but it has a few things to see, so we took a minibus for the seven hour drive there. This time we drove through the day and I viewed the bus before parting with any money. It was still a scary journey but the driver was awake and although he took a fair few risks he did not seem to have a death wish. We just read that in the last couple of weeks 661 people died on Java’s roads, most going home to visit family for the holidays.  In the middle of last night a big bus hit a minibus, twenty people died. No doubt one of the drivers fell asleep. But we got to Solo unscathed and found a very new and modern hotel, great. It’s a busy working city with the usual heavy traffic but has some big wide roads courtesy of the Dutch imperial days.  The place is also a centre for Batik and furniture making.

It also has a big shiny new shopping mall, the ‘Grand Solo Mall’. The place was packed out with aspirational shoppers, mostly teenage girls, ‘hanging out at the mall’. It was a blissful thing to do actually, given the baking heat outside. There are hardly any westerners in Solo and we found ourselves quite popular. Some people stared curiously, many people said ‘Hello Mister’ and others just smiled at you. I felt a bit like David Beckham at Bluewater! People here outside of the tout ridden tourist hotspots that you find in Bali are so friendly and warm towards us foreigners. We’re also lanky pale giants in comparison to most Javanese, I’,m well above average height as the Javanese are really quite short.

I found a website for expats in Solo and sent an email to the author. He replied and a day or so later (once our bad stomachs had improved a bit) we met up with him and a few others at a local Indian restaurant (what could be better?). The food was good, and it was great to meet Michael and a few of his friends. They all made us feel very welcome in their adopted city and we learnt a lot about the place. Very few westerners live in Solo and they seem to have a tightknit community with regular meetups at various cafes, etc.  Micheal spent a day showing us around the city and a few projetcs he’s connected to. We visited an orphanage project and some furniture making cottage industries in the surrounding villages. The craftsmen here make everything from wrought iron gates and hardwood window frames, to more intricate marquetry and mirrors. The cost of production is very low here of course, but we certainly didn’t see any sweatshops and people looked happy in their work.

It was great to see all these places and people courtesy of Michael, he was an excellent host. Below is a picture taken at a beauty salon project he took us to, the next day CM went back there for an ‘ear candle’ treatment, not something you have every day!

Staff at the salon made us very welcome, Michael is at the back.

Micheal’s own business can be found here it shows the kind of new and antique items that can be bought in this area. On our last night in town we went to a local bar popular with English teachers and other foreigners, they had an excellent resident band with their own Bob Marley look/sound alike. Meeting these people who had made Solo their home really brought our trip to the town alive, had we a longer visa for Indonesia we would have liked to stay longer.

The orphanage we visited was called Gunungan and you can see their website here.  The staff there seemed very dedicated and they are doing great work enabling young people to complete school and aquire skills for the world of work. An English guy is the president of the organisation but was back visiting so we couldn’t meet him. Ha’s off to him though, what a wonderful thing to be doing.

Solo was a great city, the local people didn’t hassle you, but were only too keen to talk to you if they could. It was crowded and congested, and not without beggars, many of them in a very bad way physically. But it seemed like a city with a soul and a character of its own. Being off the tourist trail has an authentic feel, but that means that certain things i.e. beer are hard to come by. We spent one afternoon at the bar in the Novotel paying London prices for beer, while watching the fully clothed islamic women guests swimming in the outdoor pool. It’s a funny thing; belief and culture. As humans we all behave so differently. I’m sure they’d find the idea of wasting so much money on beer ridiculous.

Thanks again to Micheal and everyone else we met in Solo, we had a good time.

Tags: , , , , ,

  • Digg
  • Del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Twitter
  • RSS

Food glorious food (mostly)

One of the joys of Indonesia has been the food. Nice and spicy and so affordable compared to Australia. We’ve done no cooking and eaten out twice most days. There are virtually no Indonesian restaurants in the UK but the place does have a distinctive cuisine. Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and Mie Goreng (fried noodles) are the staples, they typically come with chicken and vegetables with a fried egg on top and prawn crackers (Krepuk) on the side. Western food is usually available but it’s not what you expect. The local option is better.  This is also a nation of snackers, people go around on bicycles or wheeling barrows all day long with a cornucopia of snacks. From sweet tea to ice cream, chiiled coconut milk to chicken legs, there are dozens of different snacks peddled (quite literally) to the locals, who lap it up. Add to that the food kiosks about every 100 meters along the street, all stuffed with nuts, crackers, satay, deep fried everything and the local (and original) Red Bull energy drink, see more about that here.

We’ve had some fantastic food here, the best is a fusion of Indian and Thai food; hot but aromatic and heavy on the vegetables. It’s possible to eat really well if you’re a veggie too. A good main course in a tourist restaurant costs around £2, which is about the same as one bottle of local beer. About 99% of the beer available is called Bintang, a flavourless weak brew, right down there with Coors and American Budweiser. The brewery is 51% owned by the government here which no doubt explains why it’s hard to get any other brand of beer in most places. There is another brand that’s much better, if you can find it. Australian tourists can’t get enough of the Bintang though, and it seems a rite of passage to buy the t-shirt, god knows why, see what I mean here.

I took a few food pictures to remind us of how tasty some dishes were. We ate at this bamboo construction in Ubud:

CM on the balcony

The place had a great view over the rice terraces:

Great curry, great view.

In the north of Bali  we had the below curry dish from a tiny place on the beach:

Pretty hot but very tasty, CM’s favourite

In Ubud we had the below curry dish in a Sumatran restaurant:

This Sumatran veg curry was my favourite meal, fantastic. Hot but flavoursome, and with about 10 different vegetables.

Here’s a typical street vendor, he’s steaming rice in bamboo tubes and then adding coconut and other bits and bobs.

Steamed rice cycle based vendor. The rice steamer had a whistle like a kettle, so was also his 'bell'

Here’s what he gave me, for about 20p:

Sweet and fruity warm sticky rice

Overall the food here has been scrumptious. There have been a few dissapointments, mostly in Java, and we did get a bit ill from it.  You can get KFC and McDonalds in the cities here but why would you? Although they are generally cleaner than the local cafe’s. We did go to Pizza Hut one day, and were reminded why we never go to Pizza Hut at home! Pizza Hut is an exotic upmarket treat here, and all the rage with the well heeled it seems.

It is a snackers paradise here though, you could chomp all day on all manner of finger food. For a country with such a huge population they seem to have no problem feeding everyone, I don’t recall seeing malnourished children in the places we’ve been. Although i’m sure they exist, perhaps on the less developed islands.

So Indonesian makanan (food) gets a thumbs up, it would just be a bit more reassuring if some of the kitchens looked as though they’d been introduced to Mr Muscle, or perhaps an occasional J-Cloth.

Tags: , , , , ,

  • Digg
  • Del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Twitter
  • RSS