12 January 2009

Selamat Tinggal KL! (Goodbye KL!)

I leave KL with a heavy heart. Disappointed that I could not stay longer in this beautiful country; disappointed I would have to save the Skybridge for another time; annoyed at the bad tide in Koh Tao and the full train from Thailand to Malaysia that altogether cost me three precious days from my Malaysia contingent. Two days longer and I would have had another chance at the Petronas Towers, would have seen the photography exhibit there and seen the Petrosains Museum. It probably promulgates the virtues of the petroleum industry and hence attempts to legitimise Petronas. But then I hate to be a prejudiced, over-idealistic student who does ot even allow room to understand what good uses the evolution of petroleum has, even if the evolution of new, sustainable and just as powerful industry is long overdue. So, I would have liked to learn more about petrol in a dedicated museum. Allows you also to peek into Petronas, the company giant the building is named after.

Continuing on and concluding my earlier trail of thought, I was also annoyed that day to have slept until noon without realising it (my room's only two windows open into the corridor), thanks to a carried over train lag from Butterworth to KL. Shame. Else, I would have liked to go to the Orchid and Hibiscus Gardens (1 hectare! when do you see them all in their natural habitat in all their splendour?). Red hibiscus, by the way, is also Malaysia's national flower and symbol. For example you see it in the logo of the "Visit Malaysia 2007 - Celebrating 50 years of nationhood" tourism promo that still is to be seen around even two years after! In Penang, they had the red hibiscus as fairy lights hanging down from the street lamps, similar to when streets in Europe get lined with fairy lights left and right for Christmas.

So, on my final day, I strolled around the other side of my local area. I realised I haven't been to the Central Market (famous for arts & crafts from around the country) yet, even though it's on the other side of the street crossing under the Pasar Seni MRT station I have used a few times. Guess which word of Pasar Seni means "market" and which "central"! ;). I see many cool things, sarongs, batik bags, coconut masks, Congkak (a traditional Malay game that I'm sure many of you have seen without knowing it; see picture below that I borrowed from someone's travel blog) and some let's say less traditional stuff on display, like a Super Mario Brothers Mushroom bedside lamp and a square lamp shade made of semi-transparent Lego pieces, it's great!

I have some more Nasi Goreng (one cannot have enough Nasi Goreng!), with beef and sambal (Chili) and a special spicy hot sauce - awesome! I feel like eating up every available dish in Asia while I'm here!

Just when I thought I'd move on, it starts to rain, as in R.A.I.N., not some Londonish trickle as a sparse as their seasoning! ;) I run from the main building of the market to the annex and - ye, behold! - discover an ethnographic museum newly opened and hidden away at the last corner. I nearly ran past it because it is actually in an antiques dealer's art gallery. I should go through my pictures first before writing about the many things I learned from the owner in the one hour or more I spent in that small room filled with artefacts, mainly from Borneo. Soul ships, grave poles, headhunter's skulls (all monkeys', after humans were banned by the government), hand-woven garments, burial procedures, lots of shaman's masks... I feel like I stumbled into anthropologist heaven!

To my regret, I have to rush out after having every single item explained to me in depth, in order to see Merdeka Square (Independence Square) and ideally pop into the National History Museum before I have to catch my night train to Singapore. Merdeka Square is like a football pitch, and actually used to be the cricket green of the Royal Selangor Club on its West side, a former club for British colonial officials. On the North side you find St Mary's Anglican cathedral, the National History Museum right opposite and on the East side, in its impressive grandeur, the Sultan Abdul Samad building, interestingly built by an Englishman in moorish design in the 1890s (!). It used to house the Supreme Court (renamed Federal Court) until it moved to the new administrative capital near KL and today the building is used for the Commercial Division of the High Court. Next to the Court, 100m down the street is a big mosque, Masjid Jamek. What an interesting arrangement altogether, around the square where the Malaysian flag was hoisted for the first time in 1957 (the 95m flagpole is the highest in the world!) and were subsequently, the 50 year anniversary celebrations of independence took place in 2007.

Picture here, picture there and before I know it, I have to slowly make my way back, buying some mango and sugar cane juice on the way and - passing the HSBC building again. I can't help myself but have to pop into HSBC's foyer. Every country has foyers that are open after hours, only the UK refrains from letting people use a foyer! Anyway, it's beautiful inse. Most impressive are the large vitrines, displaying gifts you can get for free or purchase cheaper for reward points (!). Check out the wonderland catalogue here. You have the choice between grills, coolers, PC mice, a laptop and probably rice cookers and hair fans. The only thing I ever got for free with HSBC was trouble, haha! Until this day, I haven't even received my discount card I was supposed to get for opening an account with them.

10 January 2009

Selamat Datang Di Kuala Lumpur! (Welcome in KL!)

Kuala Lumpur - or "KL" as it is lovingly called by Malaysians - rocks big time!!!

After my less than timely departure in Butterworth (more on that in another post!), I am rewarded by the stunning architecture of KL Sentral. It looks more like an airport than a train station with its steel construction, glass roof with loads of natural sunlight and the BUZZ! I'm back in a city alright!
I walk up to the adjoined LRT to do the one stop to Chinatown where my guesthouse is. Taking the metro for this is totally worth it because it gives you the most WOOOW skyline view, especially for those who are new in town! I was struck with awe at the palatable and most impressive visual signs of the country's industrial development. Mission accomplished for the governors!
I realise for the first of X times during my first day of my very short stay how much I have yet to learn about Malaysia and Southeast Asia. I also instantly know that I want to come back soon! I just have to! But let me give you more of my first impressions!

It's 1RM (ca. 20 cents) for the one stop and 20RM (ca. 4€) for a single simple bedroom with fan (in Asia EVERYTHING revolves around fans and A/C whether it's train tickets, bus tickets or rooms - it needs some getting used to to quickly change from 16 degrees Celsius in a shop or mall to the humid 28 degrees heat once you stick the toe out of anything that has a door whether mobile or immobile). These prices confirm my thoughts that I could live over here.
I live in the very very heart of Chinatown, namely its main road Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street), famous for its night market and authentic Chinese eateries of course visited by many Chinese themselves. As you may (or should!) know, Chinese New Year is coming up soon, so it's like run-up for Christmas season, except for the red and gold bigger-than-human-head-lampions, the red and gold charms, the ueberdimensional red and gold wall fans, the traditional Chinese bakery (about the only thing NOT red and gold - almond cakes, pineapple cakes and rolls of the apparently the same dough as the fortune cookies but with a relief on them, making me wonder if it is baked money for prosperity...) stocked in high piles; and of course the people cramming through the tiny spaces in between shops, stalls, eateries, stalls, eateries, carts and shops. You get the picture! I vow to buy at least two if not more small packets of bakery later to try them out while I can and while it's the season!

What you'll also quickly notice in KL is that it's THE Mekka of shop-a-holics. If you can get 100€ suits (tailored to you after designer suits like Armani, Boss etc.) in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur is the capital of shoes, Batik, bags, electronics and - for the distinguished Carrie Bradshaws among you whose purse values more than my account - haute couture. Now I REALLY know the true meaning of membeli-belah ("to go shopping" in Malay)! If only my mother was here she would go crazy! No surprise customs regulations in Malaysia have a maximum export value of purchased goods.

Later that day, I proceed to do some more conventional sightseeing - the Muzium Negara (National Museum), conveniently located five minutes walk from my new favourite station but also inconveniently divided by a major causeway and no footbridge. Ergo the best and most ridiculous way is to catch a taxi for that short trip for 10RM one way. At first, I find this measure a bit unnecessary but the friendly driver knows Austria is the Austr*** with Vienna not Perth, so I don't care so much anymore. And the driver who later took me back knows Austria because he once chauffeured a pack of Lauda Air stewardesses with little time all the way to Singapore for "maybe only 100€! STRRRRRAIGHT to Singapore!" He gave me his card! If anyone is interested! ;)

As I will outline in another post (I hope), KL has a lot confusing traffic connections. The museum is only 2RM and the pass lets you see Malaysia's past from prehistory to today in a visually very appealing way AND it also allows you entrance to the current special exhibition on traditional weapons and the ASEAN gallery. For me, the most interesting period is the time from when the powerful and famous kingdom of Melakka flourished and prospered for a peak period of about 150 (I hope I get this right) years and how imperialist greed of course had to destroy everything.

For those of you who have not heard of Melaka before (ahem!):
It was an influential maritime trading kingdom whose strategic position made it an important entrepot during the 14th and 15th century for traders that, depending on the monsoon winds (East or West) came from as far as India, China, the Indonesian archipelago, the Philippines, the Arab world and eventually, Europe. There is a famous quote by Tome Pires: "Whoever has his hands on Malacca, has his hands on the throat of Venice", referring to the so-called spice race (spices were then what computer chips are today).

I really do put it on your hearts to patch up on these bits of history that was not covered even by an Austrian school curriculum for History as - my SEA bias aside! - I believe Melaka is just as significant as the ancient Pharaos and Greeks, Venice and the "discovery" and conquest of various places around the globe. Hint: You may find the first half of the history part of the Wikipedia article a bit too detailed but the second part when in 1511 the Portuguese invade Melaka might be more interesting.

There also is a section on the Malay headwear for men. Unfortunately the only seemingly good source I could find on the internet is this which briefly points out the most important points. As you can see on the images, they are folded in many different ways, also depending on the status of the respective person.

Then you see the colonial section with the Portuguese, the British and the Dutch East India Company and - believe it or not Aike! - I even found evidence of an Austrian entrepreneur, Baron von Overbeck (Strg + F him here) who apparently owned the North Borneo Co. or some such thing. Would that make Brunei and the surrounding area a former Austro-Hungarian colony?!?!

Another section is dedicated to tin mining, an important industry and how a purifying plant works like, followed by different editions of colonial paper money and pre-colonial money in form of animal statues (the one impressive 35cm lizard probably the equivalent of a 500€ note today).

The Malaysia Today part refers to the probably two most important dates in recent Malay history: Independence (1957) and the so-called communist "Emergency" (1940s-1960 I believe but I'm not quite familiar with that period). Kinda interesting to read about the first Malaysian party (which by the way, in its more controversial development, still exists today) and how the sultans of the respective Malaysian states got tricked into signing an agreement that basically gave up sovereignty for all matters (giving the British Parliament the last word) except religious affairs. I guess this is a practical example, a case study if you will, of typical British "Divide & Rule" policy.

The special exhibition on weapons is overwhelming and full blast: At least 1300 (no exagerration!) weapons, about 95% of them K(e)rises that come in all shapes and sizes with all kinds of handles made of a range of different materials, are on display! You might as yourself at this point, what is keris and why the bloody hell it deserves an exhibition of its own (or yet another paragraph on this already long and hopefully educational blog post): As you can see on the picture on the link, it is a dagger-like weapon usually worn by men. Like wands in Harry Potter (I know but it's a good comparison for those of you who are familiar with the novels), the material is of great importance for the vital match between keris and the bearer which is crucial for its power. Also, it is enveloped by mystical beliefs and many believe it has strong magical powers. The keris is ascribed not only protective qualities and serves for purposes of self-defense. Some even say that a keris can determine upon the success a person is going to have in life. So you better be patient about this and wait for "the right one", else it can influence your life in a negative way. This is also why not just any random person can make them. The keris maker is a person that not only possesses the manual skills to craft and adorn them but also requires vast spiritual knowledge. The raja's keris maker was in fact one of the most important people in the kingdom, so much so, that he often landed a VIP room in the court where he is in the vicinity of the king, upon whose keris depends the welfare and prosperity of his whole kingdom!

Some of the rules revolving around kerises:

- A keris should not be fooled around with or taken out of its sheath (which is nearly just as powerful; these things go together, like Excalibur and its sheath in the Mists of Avalon in the book version - there actually is a Malaysian legend that also involves a keris being sealed into a stone). In other words, don't take it out if you don't have a proper purpose

- A keris should never lie around uncovered and it cannot be covered in a rag

- A keris should not be stepped over

- A man without a keris is naked even if he is fully dressed

- It is better not to have one rather than have one that does not fit you

There also is all kinds of gory stories revolving around it like reports of kerises that could fly on their own and kill enemies and the legend of a fatal love triangle: Guy loves girl and wants to marry her, so he goes on sth like a walkabout in the wood for a longer period of time (a year I believe), a rite of passage, to gain the experience, knowledge and maturity to become a good husband. Guess what. The girl is so popular that another guy is queuing up and tricks her into marrying him. Guy 1 comes back only to find the whole village in the middle of wedding celebrations! Understandably, he was "not amused about this" (as the Queen would say) and went amok (as the Malaysians would say); his trident shot out again and again, killing 99 people in total resulting in a massacre including the groom. When the girl touched the keris, however, the keris lost all its power and the killing spree was over. That's what I call a rose war...

There also is a small section devoted to Indian and Chinese weapons. The latter are most prominently featured in Chinese opera (and movies I suppose), where the thumb rule is, the longer the sword or weapon, the higher up the hierarchy is the character.

Some skulls from headhunting tribes of Borneo, wrapped in Rattan strings; if I remember correctly to keep the spirit of the person they killed trapped (pretty much like in this picture). And then an impressive video showing a guy from the Orang Asli (the most famous and I think numerous indigenous people in Malaysia, hunter/gatherers) shooting a small green gecko-like reptile hiding among the equally green leaves on the top of a high tree with a blow pipe (see also here for the more cliche picture), that kills the animal with one damn well-aimed poisonous arrow!

I leave you guys here to let the many TRULY FASCINATING facts about Malaysia sink in properly, as I'm aware that some of the non-anthropologists or Southeast Asianists among you might need a break at this point! ;) More educational entries are following soon! It's all in my travel diary but I'll probably roll the trip up backwards. And I might even add some pictures once I organise them!

07 January 2009

Koh Tao - Of Sharks and the Effects of Man on the Island

OK, as you can guess, I'm working and working around to write up the perfect blog post which of course takes me forever. Now I thought I'd start with writing about our stay on the island of Koh Tao (near Koh Samui) off the Southeastern strip of Thailand - before catching up with the several days in Bangkok at a later time, else I NEVER catch up with my trip over here!

Since we've been lying lazily on the beach for days and roaming the streets of Tao (Koh meaning island in Thai and Tao meaning "turtle" as the 21m2 island not only - SUPPOSEDLY looks like a turtle but also because sea turtles used to come here to lay their eggs but not so often anymore, probably to do with the touristification of the beaches), we thought we'd go on a boat trip around the island to "see what the island we're on actually looks like" (Aike), as "just as well could be in Chumphong (me; Chumphong is the provincial coastal town where the boats to Koh Tao/Samui etc. depart from).

So for a couple of Baht (I'm really bad with numbers), you can hop on a boat at 9am, snorkel with some sharks, snorkel here and there, mask and fins provided, have refreshments on board and then later in the afternoon, have the option of A) Japanese Garden or B) Nangyuan Island (a small island off the NW coast of Koh Tao), the latter with a 100 Baht landing fee, before being returned to land in the early evebing.

So our first stop is Shark Bay with Shark Island (just a rock, more interesting for Scuba divers though). Maybe I've been living in England for too long but I kinda expected some kind of instruction of how to behave towards the whale sharks, what to do and what not to do lest it provokes them and how to tell if you just did. However, all the Thai guy said as he turned off the engine, popped us off the rear ladder with a jolly "See you tomorrow!" and tossed in the emergency ring was, "Shark: THIS way!", pointing in the direction I am supposed to swim in! I hold on to the ladder, shaking my head in disbelief that I actually PAID to go snorkelling with sharks. I send a Stossgebet to heaven, jump into the water and move my legs to keep me afloat, seeing in front of my inner eye a pair of yummy fresh lunch from the underwater POV of a shark, as feat. in "The White Shark" I think of holding on to Aike who, like everyone else, amazingly already swarmed out far. Then I remember his big open wound (motorcycle accident, a whole other story!) and suddenly don't find it such an appealing idea after all... But then I think, "They would not do this if it was dangerous. Get over it!", spit into my goggles and put my head underwater.

What you see down there is just amazing! You see schools of Zebra fish and even blue fluorescent fish. It's just great! It was my first time snorkelling too and I am surprised that you actually can SEE fish or so without the need of a scuba tank. I open my arms and just let myself float right there on the surface, surrounded by Zebra fish. I kinda lost track of time a little and when I pop my head back up, the boat is 60m away, all of the eight or so others on it plus the driver, letting his feet dangle off the side of it and beckoning me to come back to the boat. I swim focusing on reaching the ladder at the back despite the tide towards the bay. Next time I look at him, he had put his hands together in a prayer/greeting-like gesture and was mumbling sth to himself. I remember where we are and wonder if he's praying to get the last person (me!) safely on board. Hm... - But I make it to the boat. The comes aft and says, "Did you see shark??" I shake my head, not sure I should feel disappointed or relieved. Suddenly, he straightens up, his eyes go big and he points behing me: "Oh LOOK!!! Big fish! BIG FISH! SHARK RIGHT BEHIND YOU!" What a joker (I still peeped over my shoulder though, just to make sure). I come on board and he revvs the engine for the next bay. I ask Aike if he saw any shark. He says no. I reply, "Hm, maybe it's 200 Baht more if you want the tour WITH shark" (referring to the daily scams foreigners are exposed to on a daily basis). Just beautiful! Water is like 4-5m deep but there is an underwater rock ca. 3m high and ca. 10m2 and overgrown by corals so you can really see loads of stuff up close! Never seen corals myself before except from videos and pics and it's fascinating to encounter a landscape yet so different from what you can see on land. I get thje confirmation that I really want to learn how to scuba dive, the motivation that crucially outbalances your fears (if only by a little but that's all it takes). These underwater... plants that I saw look like gigantic underwater mushrooms. Small fish hide in between and the occasional school of fish passes by if you found a lonely spot in that bay (it's rather busy and there were around five boats there, some with 20 people, actually not so good for the environment and the integrity of marine life). You also see the occasional mimikry fish, lurking between sea flowers for prey. We go back on board and proceed to the next stop. It's around lunch time, getting quite hot but the sea now also reallyt starts to get a bit unco0m fy. We reach the final snorkelling spot. I pop into the water but can't see much as the waves shake up sediment and make it difficult to see anything at all. After only five minutes in the water, I climb back up, p[assing the Thai couple that I thought was chilling at the aft of the deck. I ask them if they don't want to come swim and tell them that the visibility is very bad for snorkelliung though. They smile and say that they are actually feeling seasick, especially the guy. I return to the middle of the ship and have some light steamed rice and then see the Thai BF puking into the water, where I've been seconds before, being gladf I got out of the water already. Aike comes back on board after that (HA HA!) and says that we haven't been asked for our options yet. Suddenly, a longtail boat taxi docks onto our boat and half the people on board climb onto it, among them a woman in her 50s who already looked seasick before we even had started the trip.

We don't go to the Japanese Garden anymore and I am surprised as I would not have thought that bad visibility or sea conditions would prevent anyone from seeing a garden on shore. Turns out, the Japanese Garden actually is underwater too... So our boat then takes course on Nangyuan. Although the guy ties the boat the the dock, it is so shaky because of the rough sea that the gap inbetween changes between 0.5 and 1.5m (and now imagine that for small people like me!). I get the feeling that this must be what it is like to land on an oil rig. Luckily, there's two guys that give us a hand or rather, an arm to haul us on the dock that moves wildly on a rack of empty gallon-sized containers. Fun! Nangyuan is sth of a double island, connected by a struop of beachg where the ocean washes corals ashore from both sides. On one side, you can climb a small hill and overlook Nangyuan, Koh Tao and the sea. Nice scrambling, some people even do it with their flip flops. You can actually also do rock climbing on Koh Tao, on granite. I just love to learn rock climbing and scuba diving and horse riding... The kinds of things I always wanted to learn as a kid but which my mother thought too dangerous and my father too expensive.

At the moment, I start to think that it could be fun to come back to Koh Tao, learn how to scuba dive (if by then it still is the cheapest place to do that in whole of Thailand), practice my rock climbing skills and take part in that marine conservation project I read about in a local leaflet. \

Having lived on this island for nearly a week now, one really does get a sense of the relationship of human life (lifestyle of locals and tourists alike) and nature. Recycling, waste management (they burn what they can but collect plastic bottles, probably to take them to the mainland for proper recycling), supply of clean drinking water, marine ecosystem, electricity (often streetlights go out at night, making it pitchdark to walk home, most restaurants and bars close at 10pm and the most electricity comes from private generators). If you are considerate, you save energy and then you find the islanders shoot this Gigawatt beam of light to pierce the clouds of the night sky , probably for the tourists and New Year's Eve mood. Or you see a 1000W turbo ventilator in a bakery/coffeehouse that blows on whoever ordered hot coffee...) and transport (motorcycles are as popular on Koh Tao as bicycles in Amsterdam. They are literally EVERYWHERE! And whoever does not have a motorcycle, has a Toyota cross-country jeep, taller than me (AND the average person in Europe), often those are Taxis to get people throught the difficult sand roads in the hilly terrain of the forest at the inner part of the island (mostly tourists arriving at the only pier that gets you to the mainland) and who want to get to their resort at the other end of the island with their bags.