Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ipoh, Malaysia

Our final destination was Ipoh, which is north of Kuala Lumpur in the hills.  I wanted to see my old college roomie, Kurt, who is teaching there.  Our travel time coincided with Chinese New Year, or the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival (lets just refer to it as CNY) which is the second biggest travel time in Malaysia after Ramadan.  Ipohs population is about 70% Chinese descent, and the biggest feature of CNY is people going back to be with their families,  So we heading into a massive Chinese migration, and our arrival by bus was to be far from imminent.  Direct buses from Melaka to Ipoh were booked, finished is the Malaysian English word used.  Kurt suggested getting to Kuala Lumpur (KL), then seeing what we could do from there.  If worse came to worse we could hire a taxi for about a hundred dollars.
Let me talk about Malaysian bus stations.  There are a lot of carriers, and a seemingly endless array of windows representing a seemingly endless array of bus companies.  Touts wander about trying to get you to go their company, although they are not especially annoying.  Also ticket sellers are chanting out their windows destinations.   The passengers are fair representations of the varying ethnicities of this nation, women in head colorful head scarves, Indians, and Chinese.  White folks seem to be mostly flying or in tour groups.  There are food stalls aplenty with more of that yummy food, as well as bakeries and convenience stores.  The restrooms are fairly clean since you have to pay to use them, and that gives the potty purveyors a sort of obligation to keep you from gagging upon entry.  The Malay word for toilet is tandas.  It was the second Malay word I learned after hello which is hai.
Buses here mostly leave late, and ours was no exception, although it wasnt very late.  We landed in KL at the most modern bus facility Ive ever seen, rivaling most modern airports.  It had massive escalators taking us to the upper level, and was very shiny.  Apparently the modern, shiny place discourages touts and hollering, because it was very subdued in tone.  We discovered we couldnt get to Ipoh from this facility, and that we would need to get to another place where the buses go north.  Confusing directions were given for which city bus to take, so we wisely took a taxi.
Not so Modern

Most Malaysian taxis (teksi---this language is easy!) running out of a bus terminal are operated from a teksi stand, so you just tell the agent where you want to go, then they call a driver over to translate since none of them are able to speak English.  You pay them and off you go.
We were dropped at a terminal downtown that although big, was not as lofty as the new one.  The ceiling was about 7 feet high and it had all the charms of the other terminals.  To our joy, there were buses to Ipoh.  In fact, one was scheduled to leave in half an hour.  Our good fortune was greatly appreciated, and we had just enough time to stock up on some junk food at a convenience store, since a real meal would have been pushing the time line.  We went to our appointed loading dock which was located in the basement.  This was a massive area with idling buses aplenty.  It was open at the outside, and had some exhaust vents but this was inadequate for the amount of bus flatulence being exuded.   The departure time came and went.  And went some more.  It went a lot.  Eventually I began to suspect that they were waiting to sell enough tickets to fill the bus as people kept trickling down.  Eventually there were a lot of people down there, and after a few buses came and went our bus arrived.  It was yellow and said bas sekala on the side—school bus.  Some enterprising transport folks were pulling together whatever they could to make a buck during this peak travel time.  However the bas was a real express item with curtains, cushy seats and AC so we got onboard, well endowed with an hours worth of diesel fumes.  Drugs are very illegal in Malaysia, but this bus wait was a fair substitute, and it took me a couple of hours to come down.
About that time, we began to climb and the scenery finally changed from palm oil groves to jungle and mountains.  Very cool mountains.  Karst mountains of the kind you see in Guilin, China.  Although we did not see any monkeys, we knew they were there.
The journey north was very slow due to the Chinese migration to Ipoh, but we eventually arrived at the most Third World station to date.  It was old, poorly cooled, noisy and had a ceiling that was about six and a half feet high.  I got to use a Malaysian pay phone which has a great fuzz tone.  Conversations on these devices are a little like having your voices filtered through the guitar riff of You Really Got Me.  Anyway, Kurt had no idea where this Mecca for bus travelers was, so we looked for the teksi window.  They were out to lunch (5:30 pm?) so we went outside to find a ride.  It was hot.  We had to haggle with the drivers.  Some didnt want to go where we wanted because of the Chinese traffic.  We eventually found a driver who was willing for a price that was reasonable, and off we went.
Malaysian drivers are a lot better than those in China.  They mostly obey the laws, and are capable of staying in one lane.  They rarely honk.  They arent up to Western standards, but are refreshingly competent when compared to their counterparts in the Middle Kingdom.
However, our driver was Indian, so I asked him if Chinese Malays were bad drivers.  His grumpy demeanor changed and grin cracked his face.  "Oh yes, indeed!  Most awful!" he answered  As he maneuvered through the crawling traffic, including some spiffy shoulder passing, and even including a little dirt driving, we discussed the shortcomings of the Chinese driver, which are legion.
He got us to Kurts condo, which is really an apartment in a high rise building with an awesome view of the karst mountains.  His apartment is very nice, and well appointed, and even has a small balcony.  We had arrived at Ipoh at last, and were ready for beer and cocktails and catching up on the many years since we had last seen each other.

The next few days involved catching up, although when you havent seen each other for a few decades, you are mostly sharing broad swathes of your lives.  We also met some other expats, did some shopping, eating, drinking, and an afternoon of golf.
The teachers we met have it good, much better than the foreign teachers here in China. They are part of Kurts team, and all go into the mountain villages to train the English teachers there.  All have masters degrees.
They get a decent salary, a generous housing allowance and a car.  We met a few who used their generous bucks to set themselves up in some very nice housing.  They had large houses on real lots with trees, lawns and gardens.  That is something that just does not exist in my part of China, without the kind of income that a corrupt government official may have.

 Some Colleagues' Neighborhood

Malaysia has certain advantages to foreigners as well.  Because of the large European influence, including British colonial rule, a lot of food items are readily available in the supermarket, including good bread, lots of cheeses, real sausages, and proper American junk food. 
There are also night clubs with live music and dancing.  The only night clubs in our city in China are Karaoke clubs. ( Karaoke clubs in Zhanjiang are truly awesome if you enjoy ear shattering Chinese pop songs sung off key, in a smoky room, while drinking watery beer and sweet red wine.)   In a big change of pace for us, we went to a night club in Ipoh to celebrate Chinese New Year Eve.  We were entertained by a dreadlocked Philippine reggae band with a lovely lady singer that cleverly played mostly older pop songs to reggae and ska rhythms.  My favorite was the Carpenters Yesterday Once More.  We drank real European beer in pint glasses, but not very much because the prices that the Malaysian mullahs set in order to make heathen non believers suffer for their sins, were dear.
Another night we went out for pizza at a place that was owned by an American, and that pizza was better than most you can get in the USA.  Most of the customers were Chinese.
They have satellite TV that has expat appeal, at least if you like things like rugby and what the world calls football.
They also have golf courses.  Kurt and I also had an afternoon of 18 holes of jungle golf.  It was at a private club that allows general public, or at least they let us play.  First I had to buy a collared shirt, and scrounge some golf shoes, because if a member saw me in my Oregon t-shirt and sandals, there would be some kind of hell to pay.  The shirt was affordable and sporty.  The shoes were marginal and belonged to some poor caddy, but we were golfing!  We shared clubs and had a cart.  With the heat and humidity, walking 18 holes might have been a little too much like the Bataan Death March.
 Driving Range
 Clothing Fail

The greens were very lush and slow.  If you hit a ball into the woods it was best to leave it--cobras and such.  Monkeys are known to swipe balls, but there is no penalty to drop a ball where they took it.  Im not sure the rule if they move it.  Jungle golf requires lots of water.  I drank at least half a gallon, and still didnt need to pee until much later in the evening.  It also saps your energy, so that by the 15th hole or so, it begins to feel like Bataan Death Golf, but without the Japanese soldiers bayoneting you if you top the ball.
Since it was an upper crust golf club, the green fees included a shower and towel to cleanse oneself from the sweat and money dung, and to soothe the red ant and mosquito bites.
Our time in Malaysia was drawing to a close, so we booked a ticket on an ekspres bas (express bus-- easy language!!!) to Johar Bahru.  We were told it was a six hour trip, but we were becoming wise to the ways of Malaysian timetables.  A Malay will tell you it takes 10 minutes to make a one hour trip.  They either have no sense of time, or they just like to mess with your head.  We knew that it would take longer anyway since there would be massive traffic due to the Spring Festival exodus.
Our bus left 40 minutes late, then took an hour to get through town, stopping at 2 other stations before hitting the freeway south.  We crawled south through a lot of traffic, but things got faster once we passed Kuala Lumpur.  10 hours after departing we arrived at the Larkin Bus Terminal in Johar.  I had hoped we would arrive there early enough to go to Singapore for the night, but it was 9 pm, so I found some wifi at a KFC (they are everywhere in the world) and booked an excellent 3 star hotel for very cheap and we took a teksi there.
The next day was spent getting to our hotel in Singapore, then exploring around the hood.  We had Indian food for dinner, got to bed early then flew out the next morning for Hong Kong.
On the flight back, I had a chance to reflect on our trip, and what things really stood out.  First, the toilets—public toilets are cleanish.  You have both squatty potties and the sit down variety.  There is almost always soap, and water is abundant.  They really flush!  On Tioman Island, the toilets were so mighty, that you could flush a decent sized cat, and not have to call the plumber to unclog the system.
There are a lot of cats.  They are everywhere and seem unafraid and fairly healthy.  As a result, I never saw a rat.
People are very friendly and helpful.  This is true of all the ethnic groups we encountered.  When we appeared to be confused, someone would offer to unconfused us.  Directions we got from people were nearly always inaccurate, maybe they got them from the guide books.
Guide books, while helpful, can also be cunningly deceitful.
We never had any stomach problems.
We packed the perfect amount and type of things that we would need.  Everything fit into two smallish backpacks, and we used everything we brought, including band aids, pocket tool and mini flash light.  I guess I really didn't need the compass.
The buses, though not very punctual, are very comfy, and the bus stations are very entertaining.
If we return, which we would like to, I will take advantage of any opportunity to buy duty free booze.
Unless I really wanted to spend some time in Singapore, I would make sure my flight ended in Kuala Lumpur.  A lot of time was wasted crossing the border and traveling to and from there.
I would eat more Indian food.