Sunday, 25 January 2015

Time to head for the hills

It was time to head for the hills.

I left the glorious mayhem of Penang and spent three days in Ipoh. The city is surrounded by steep-sided hills, and temples hide in the caves. Huge gold Buddhas sit alongside Chinese gods. Thai gods are next to Hindu shrines. And I went from cave to cave, understanding little but marvelling at the colours that can shine in these dark places.

Then - two days in Cameron Highlands. I've been there before and so knew what to expect, though the town is better organised for its tourists now, with plenty of well-signed walking trails. But I took a tour - I needed a guide through the slipperiness of the mossy forest, named because it is so old and the trees so gnarled and covered with moss. The trees echoed with the chorus of monkeys from across the valley; and there was a damp smell from the moss and the mud and the trees.

But it's all been very active, and I need a few quiet days. So I've made it to Fraser's Hill - the journey was an event in itself. The narrow road winds uphill for mile after mile, the forest dense on each side, with occasional surprises like mudslides from the recent rains and temporary bridges that rattle as you cross them.

And now I'm here - in the clouds. There was a view from my balcony when I arrived, across a golf course and the valley beyond. But soon I could see nothing but ghostly trees. A growl of a car was muffled by mist. A solitary bird twittered. It was blissfully quiet - a lull before the deluge. Rain hammered on leaves and tarmac and tin roofs. The rain stopped. Night fell; I fell asleep to a chorus of rattling tree frogs, scratching insects, the cry of a solitary animal. I woke to bird song.

I have five days here. I shall walk - there are trails here, too. I shall look at birds, with little idea what I'm looking at but hey ho, the world is a better place for having birds in it. I shall read.

I shall gather myself for the pandemonium of Kuala Lumpur.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Penang, in all its wonderfulness.

There are many things to love about Penang.

Dare I mention the weather? All right, I won't.

I can tell you about the architecture - the centre of the city is now a World Heritage site and UNESCO money has meant that many buildings that were crumbling last time I was here have been restored to their former magnificence. There are mansions and museums and lovely old temples at every turn.

And I can't resist telling you about the food. Because of the rich ethnic mix in the city, it is food heaven. Each culture is determined to demonstrate its culinary prowess, leaving the passing traveller (me) dithering at every meal. Should I have South Indian curry? A Malayan nasi lemak? Chinese noodles? Japanese sushi? Indonesian ... Thai ... Swiss ... Italian ...

And the origin of all this gastronomic wonderfulness? It goes back to the East India company setting up a trading post here, and needing more workers than they could find in the indigenous Malay population and so attracting immigrants from India and China. Followed by workers from all over Asia, also looking to escape from poverty.

The result - a truly multicultural city that works. Chinese lanterns swing in one street; turn the corner and there's the sting of incense from a Hindi temple. Confucianism and Taoism sit comfortably alongside Buddha. There are imposing Christian churches. The muezzin can be heard at regular intervals all over the city. (The synagogue closed in 1976 - but I don't believe there is no Jewish street or two here, fitting in with the rest of us.) Some women wear full Islamic dress while others flop about in jeans and tee-shirts. There are men in suits and men in kurtas.

So why, in the west, are we making such a meal of living together? It can be done - Penang proves that. I know there may be undercurrents and I'm sure it's not sweetness and light all the time, but nothing that leads to fisticuffs.

People here don't live in fear. They respect each other's differences and traditions. We have much to learn from them.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Why would you want to get your eyelashes permed?

Bangkok is a wonderful city. Oh I know it's polluted - diesel hangs in the air like soup, and there's the endless hiss and smell of frying street food. I know it's noisy - the honking of car horns, the music blaring from restaurants and bars. I know it's exploitative, of tourist and Thai alike. But I still love it.

There are so many things to do. On Saturday I visited the Palace - all gold and glitter and, to western eyes, possibly over the top, but even so it is sumptuous and there are unexpectedly peaceful corners. The city has parks - maybe not as green as those at home, but still places with scrubby trees where you can find shade on the hottest days. There are vast, air-conditioned shopping malls, though you won't see me there.

Instead I'm lurking in the backpackers heaven of Khao San Road. And here you can buy anything. You can choose material and have a suit made. You can have a foot massage, a shoulder massage. You can have your fungally feet nibbled by fish who have, just five minutes ago, been nibbling at someone else's fungals. You can buy skirts, t-shirts, baggy trousers, necklaces, pirated DVDs, scarves, knickers. You can buy a driving license and a degree certificate.

Go to Chinatown and, in the tiny market stalls, you can find wigs, fabric, gold (possibly fake), remedies for everything from alopecia to athletes foot.

Go to the Amulet Market and you can find old coins, artefacts (possibly fake), glasses, dildos, false teeth.

Make it back to Khao San Road in one piece and you can get a piercing, a tattoo, get your hair cut.

You can get your eyelashes permed ... What??

Why would anyone want to get his or her eyelashes permed?

And then, should anyone decide that his or her life is not complete without curly eyelashes, what is involved in the procedure? A smelly lotion and tiny curlers? (Pause to savour that image for a second.)

Am I missing something? It my life really incomplete without permed eyelashes?

(Sorry if I'm letting the side down heading for Malaysia with none of this stuff!)

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The year has turned. Time to pack those bags again.

The decorations are in hiding for another year. We are launched into January, a little older, no wiser, but hopefully with dreams intact after all the festive excess.

It's not an easy time of year. Winter stretches in front of us - the weather can delight or depress us, but always makes life hard work. All that putting in and taking off of clothes. The lost gloves. The heavy coats that get even heavier when they are wet. Soggy feet.

Hang on a minute - what am I complaining about? I'm off to Bangkok on Wednesday.

I'm not actually complaining - I'm trying to be empathetic. To show that I do understand that life isn't all log fires and crumpets while I'm away. That you are all keeping the show on the road while I'm ... swanning around the Far East.

You are unconvinced by my empathy? All I can say, in my defence, is assure you that I've done my share of British winters and know I'm just rubbish at them. I hate the cold, the dark, the wet, the lack of colour.

And I'm privileged - I know I am - to be able to turn my back on the seasonal horribleness and head for the sun.

Why the Far East again? Because I love it. Cuba was hard work (as some of you know) so I want to go somewhere I feel at home, where I know how to get about and look after myself, and maybe to look up a few of the people I met on my long trip.

Will I write about it - I know I say, every year, that I won't make promises. And then I come home and write. This year feels a bit different, because I know more or less what to expect and it doesn't include adventures like cyclones and tigers, nor the trauma of a terrifying history. This is a journey just for me, going somewhere I love.

Having said that, I shall carry on blogging, and there will be plenty of photos when I get back. And if I do stumble into an adventure or two (which is definitely not in the plan) I might revise my ideas about writing another book.

(Forgive me for rushing off, I have packing to do. And I hope you all have excitements of one shape or another to cheer these dark days.)