Sunday, 19 April 2015

Malacca, in all its finery.

I love Malacca for the same reasons I love Penang - both are like multicultural soup!

But when I showed you pictures of Penang is was not architecture but street art that filled the blogpost. (If you missed it, you can find it here.)

Not to be left out, Malacca has also painted some of its buildings - though not with similar images to that  decorate Penang but with big, bold, wonderful sweeps of colour. These buildings were once the backs of small homes. People hung their washing here, and threw slops into the river. Now tourism has brought a different look to the riverside, and in place of washing and the stink of effluent, we have painting!! (This picture is taken from a boat, hence the odd shapes in the corners, and the pole!)

Those homes were once shacks for the poor. At the other end of the income scale, wealthy Chinese traders build mansions like this:

It's lovely from the front - and inside it stretches back with internal courtyards, one of which - right at the back - is full of small palm trees and green shrubs, and a fountain playing in the corner. Tables and chairs nestle among all the greenery. It's where I lingered so long over breakfast it morphed into coffee time.

In contrast, the Portuguese build solid colonial buildings like this:

Many of these buildings are now museums - some more interesting than others. I have no idea what a museum of beauty is doing in Malacca, but the display of Chinese foot-binding placed next to a display of modern women's shoes asked an interesting question.

And then I hit the streets. It was coming up to the Chinese New Year - well, I could hardly miss that, could I, with streets dressed up like this:

I'm not a shopper, but needed to do my bit to support the local economy. What better way than take a trishaw ride. A trishaw- for those who've not met one - is a bicycle with a seat beside it. I don't know when Malacca's trishaw riders began to decorate their contraptions. Last time I was here most had a few flowers and streamers. Over the years these decorations have become more elaborate (or maybe ridiculous, depending on your point of view) until they look like this. And what's more they come with music - and so one can ride through Malacca's streets to the theme from Frozen, or Justin Bieber ... and yes, you do feel a bit of a wally. But there are worse things to feel.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Some pictures from KL that aren't shops.

Kuala Lumpur is not my favourite city. As Asian cities go, it's a baby - founded by the British in the nineteenth century. It has no stories of derring-do, nor ancient artefacts.

There are solid colonial buildings to remind me of its past, but even so it feels to me as if it struggles to find an identify as a capital city.

And, like so many cities, it looks for that identity in commerce. From the tourists' point of view this presents as shopping. I wonder if KL has looked over her shoulder at the success of Singapore and noticed that the proliferation of shopping malls appears to have brought prosperity. So, why not try follow the same path?

As a non-shopper, it all feels a bit pointless. There's little that I can't buy at home. Besides, what has shopping to do with cultural identity - and that's the bit I'm interested in.

Having said all that, I spent my few days in KL seeking out the most non-commercial corners. Beginning with the Islamic Arts Museum - which I love. It's light, and spacious, and cool. It is a place of reflection. I could meander among its quiet beauty and think. I began to understand why Islamic art is a genre in its own right - and what makes it different, and special. The Koran discourages any representation of a living form: the result is a sequence of exotic shapes and patterns.

For instance, I looked through a window to see this dome:

And this is what it looked like from the inside:

There's also a lovely bird park, where I could wander, and marvel, and not be pressured into buying anything other than bird food. I'm sorry I don't have pictures - I gave up, as it was a Saturday when I was there and it was impossible to take a picture that didn't have someone else's selfie stick in it! (Grrrrr!)

Not all the streets are lined with shops. However, I found it impossible to take pictures of some of the more impressive buildings without a skyscraper in the background. For me, this beautiful mosque is marred by that phallic construction perched behind the central dome.

And this row of colonial buildings doesn't need an apartment block behind it.

And not all the shopping opportunities were dull. This is the covered way beside the Central Market (full of tourist trinkets but better than most), with the Chinese lanterns all ready for the New Year celebrations. It must have been riotous in that passageway that night!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

One of Malaysia's secrets: Fraser's Hill

I'm reluctant to tell you about Fraser's Hill.

For one of the most wonderful things about it is there being so few other visitors. There are a couple of big hotels, and plenty of self-catering bungalows. And at weekends Malaysians drive up from KL for a couple of cooler days in the hills. But much of the time a tourist who strays there has the place to him or herself.

Though you're not quite alone. For you must share the space with birds. I've seen various estimates of the variety of birds seen here - numbers vary but it's definitely more than 250.

Imagine that!! Over 250 species of birds, twittering and squawking and cackling and generally making themselves at home in the jungle! Once a year there is a 'bird-race' here - nothing to do with lining them up and cheering all the way to the finishing line. Instead twitchers set themselves up with binoculars and notebooks and count the different species: the winner is the person who spots the most.

I don't have pictures of birds - even though they swooped around my hotel room from daybreak till the sun went down. I don't have pictures of the animals - I've mentioned the gibbons before, and I saw wild boar trot across the road in front of the hotel. I don't even have pictures of insects: tarantulas on the prowl, searching for an unsuspecting fledgling. Nor reptiles (there are snakes here).

I can't even identify many of the plants and trees, in spite of noticeboards telling me what to look for.

I only have pictures of the jungle.

Boards describe these paths as 'easy with occasional obstacles'. They fib. Some are steeper than others, but all involve some scrambling. But the rewards - being in the green of the forest, listening to birdsong and smelling the mud and whiff of animals. And this is why I'm reluctant to tell you about it, for the attraction - for me, at least - was being there on my own.

Below is a 'rest stop'. The noticeboard has plenty of useful information, and I read it - as a good tourist should. And then promptly forgot everything I'd read and just listened, and looked. You can't see the small spider holes in the bank beyond this rest stop - but I watched for a while, wondering if one would come out to play. Possibly a good thing that she didn't.

But Fraser's Hill is built for visitors. It cannot survive unless more people go there. This is the hotel where I stayed - and you can see the size of it. The staff were kind and the food good. But I rattled around, in almost-solitary spendour.

There is no easy answer. I'm not the only tourist who loves the peace and quiet. But without more visitors it's hard to see how Fraser's Hill can keep going - and then these precious paths will be left to the gibbons, and snakes, and spiders. And those who work here will have little choice but to join the migration to the city.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Cameron Highlands - beautiful or an environmental nightmare?

Cameron Highlands is on Malaysia's 'must-see' tourist trail. Every agent from Malacca to Penang can organise a visit there - hotels, transport, tours of the tea plantations.

I can see why. Rolling hills covered with patchwork tea trees are beautiful, in a gentle, undramatic way.

Yes, I did a tour - it is the easiest way to get into these hills and be sure you see them at their best. With photo stops at the most advantageous viewpoints:

There was the obligatory stop at a tea plantation, of course, with shopping opportunities and the chance to sample a cuppa while you enjoyed the view.

We were also led round the processing plant - which had changed since I was last here. Eight years ago we could wander alongside trays of drying tea leaves and soak in the bitter smell of their drying. Then into the factory where it was impossible to hear the guide for the din of machinery.This time I visited on  Saturday, and so the machines weren't working. Even so, we were safe behind protective plastic - looking at the workings from a distance, keeping our fingers away from that tempting tray of drying leaves. (So much more satisfying than pot pourri!)

From the tea station we went to a Butterfly Farm - which was, to be honest, a bit tired. Even this snake seemed to wonder if it was all worth the effort.

Having said all that, I enjoyed the morning.

I could have taken myself off along walking trails if I'd stayed longer than a couple of days. And I can't help wondering if the walking trails took the unwary traveller towards the less scenic corners of Cameron Highlands. For, while a few valleys are preserved by the tea producers, far more are farmed - legally and sometimes illegally - under polythene. Acre after acre of plastic tunnels - growing strawberries, and cauliflowers, and chrysanthemums. I stood on a hillside to gaze at plastic twinkling in the sunshine, stretching for mile after mile after mile. It isn't pretty - which is why I have no photographs.

The Malaysians know it isn't pretty. I read an article about it in a newspaper: efforts are being made to prosecute farmers who erect poly-tunnels illegally. But most, it seems, are owned by big companies and tenant farmers are given no choice but to comply. Corruption is a harsh word, but there does seem to be some serious rule-bending going on.

The conservationists, of course, demand a return to the tea plantations (itself a monoculture, and so of limited ecological value - but at least they are beautiful). The farmers point to the need to feed people, and to make a living. The world wants flowers - they can grown them here. If the tea plantations were restored hundreds would be out of work and families would go hungry.

There are no easy solutions. I only hope that Cameron Highlands succeeds in preserving the plantations they have left - or tourists will stop coming and people will be left with no alternative to those ugly plastic tunnels.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Ipoh and the caves

It is eight years since I was last on Malaysia. On that occasion I took a bus from Cameron Highland to Penang, and we stopped for what seemed like an age at some traffic lights beside one of Ipoh's caves.

That was enough to make me stay go back there for a few days, to find out more.

The city itself is only 200 years old, and so these temples relatively recent. But huge caves stretching deep into limestone hills was evidently a temptation to the temple-builders. There are four main temples, but countless more lurking in the hillsides.

Some are truly vast:

If you look closely there is a tiny woman towards the bottom of this picture - and no, she's not an Umpa Lumpa, she's a full-sized woman in an enormous cave.

And here is a huge Buddha that does not justice do the size of the cave - I failed in my efforts to get a clear picture of gods in the semi-darkness that show how how even the biggest images are dwarfed in these caverns.

In contrast, this Chinese gods, perched on a rock, are only about 40cm tall. They look to me like they are having a party while all the serious religious stuff is going on elsewhere.

In contrast, this temple is built into a cave with a front wall and open entrance and windows. Steps lead up to smaller temples - complete with monkeys - and views across and industrialised quarter of Ipoh. I decided not to take a picture of that.

Because this:

Is what excited me most of all. It is in the grounds of one of the temples, lurking in a corner like an apology. It is a wishing tree. All those colourful tags are strips of fabric that anyone can write on with a wish for someone else. So it's no asking the gods for money here. Instead you stop and think about those you love - who may be close at hand or far away - and quietly wish them well.

This is what it looks like close to:

No, I'm not going to tell you what I wished for. But my little yellow tag is still fluttering away, on its tree. Well - I'm sure you'd have written one too, if you'd been there.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Street Art in Penang

Banksy has started something. From the back streets of Bristol he has launched a movement that has seen the development of two clear strands - graffiti and street art. People have mixed feelings about graffiti - some see it as vandalism while others enjoy a bit of bright paint along grubby stretches of wall.

Street art is different. And it has found its own expression in the streets of Penang (I hesitate to say 'unique' - just because I've not encountered it before doesn't mean you can't find it anywhere else.)

Many of these images include a static object with the painting attached to it. For example: these children are perched on a real bicycle:

This is my favourite - although some wag has put a cardboard coffee mug on the shelf above this little boy's hand (carefully cropped from this picture) I like to think of him reaching for the stars.

And then there are some huge images, such as this cat, which is almost too big and feels a bit posed to me:

And this rather dreamy face which I love (you can get some idea of the size of this from the windows!)

These are all very modern. They are Penang's way of saying, 'We might be a World Heritage Site but we're not all old buildings and history.' But the history is there, and some of it beautifully preserved. This is the Blue Mansion - once the home of a rich Chinese businessman and now a hotel with tours for tourists.

Like many Chinese buildings it stretches back with a series of internal courtyards. The guide told us, at some length, about the beliefs underpinning the design of these buildings. Many of them revolved around the need to make money and display it, such as a conviction that by building steps up into your living quarters you could ensure that your income would rise. Any rain that fell into courtyards should drain away slowly - and then the family would hold onto its income and money wouldn't leak away. I confess it feels like superstition to me, but there's no escaping the fact that this mansion belonged to a very wealthy family. (And I've no doubt some of my belief systems look equally unlikely to some Chinese people.)

That said, I didn't take photos of the steps nor narrow drains, but instead tried to capture the ornate railings and sense of serenity in this little courtyard. Which, for me, was far more significant than any thoughts of money.

And that little boy is reaching up for something vital without the help of steps or slowly-draining water.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Thoughts of Bangkok.

Bangkok is a big, smelly Asian city and I love it. And instantly I have to qualify that - I always stay around Khao San Road, which is the backpacker enclave. The streets are heaving with young people, in young-people clothes. Tuk tuks hoot as they weave through the crowds. Stalls spill their wares into the streets. Street-food friers hiss from the hot oil. Massage chairs line the street behind them. Women in 'traditional dress' stroll up and down, trying to sell wooden tree-frogs. Restaurants and bars squash tables as close together as they dare; in the evenings young Thai women exposing too much skin stand outside to entice punters in with promises of two beers for the price of one (I suspect those who accept take more notice of the flesh on offer than the beer).

This picture was taken in a tiny passageway, stalls crammed each side, goods so tightly packed that you wonder how anyone could linger to select the one little image he or she must have to take home.

And yet, on the corner, is a small temple. Incense wafts around the entrance and stings my eyes. But inside - just a step away from the mayhem outside - is a quiet space where people come to pray and meditate. The contrast couldn't be greater. But it's a rejuvenating respite from Bangkok's pandemonium.

It's not all tourism. I did manage to get lost in a local market or two. Even there goods are crammed - and here is a picture of a trolley heaped with vegetables - pushed by one man with apparently little effort. (I'll remember that, next time I push a baby buggy up a slope!)

I didn't have long in Bangkok, so there was just one 'tourist visit' - to the Palace. It's sumptuous and extravagant - all glitter and gold - and here are a few pictures as a taster.

That night, back on Khao San Road, I wandered about after supper. Music blared from the bars and people jigged along the street. Most of the massage chairs are full as tourists bare their toes for the masseurs. Pink and orange lanterns swing high above the bars. The tuks tuks have almost given up trying to get through.

Across the street, outside the temple, a group of rough sleepers settle away from the glare of the lights and the music. To one side a small boy sits alone, his hands out and a pot in front of him. I slip into a corner to watch him. A few passersby drop baht in his pot. After about ten minutes a woman arrives and they greet each other with unmistakable affection. She checks his pot, puts an arm round his shoulder and they settle down together.

But what if ... this is Bangkok. Not everyone is here for the pandemonium of Khao San Road. Men come to this city for the children. This time this little boy was safe. But the next night ... and the next ..?