I wake up alone for the first time in over a week, in the attic room that Robert kindly moved me to and charged me less for when I explained my mistake on dates. I sleep a long time and feel a bit empty. This will be a long day of just getting ready to leave.
Robert makes a tea for me and gets me a slice of sticky pink/white coconut cake, and I chat with him and his friend Mr Tan about the welfare state and cost of living.
I stroll to the internet cafe and print my boarding pass, then in the heat, make it to Simple Life (this time open) for a big lunch, which is similar to the one with Cyrus except for my main dish I have a medly of asian mushrooms, steamed luffa (not sure what this veg is) and beancurd sheet. i also have an apple/carrot/ginger/honey smoothie.
At the fountain there is a newly wed couple both in white having their photo taken. In fact everyone on this little square seems to be armed with some kind of camera, all of these being pointed at every conceivable view there.
I cross the bridge and spend a pleasant 15 minutes discussing Chinese birth signs and my personality type with the 2 ladies working there. One has a daughter married and living in Essex. I am told that my match should be a rabbit, horse or pig and that in times gone by when Chinese customs didn’t allow dating, a future spouse would be chosen according to their year of birth and their compatibility. These days there is more flexibility and people are allowed to adapt themselves and compromise to make themselves more suitable. That’s good news. Cyrus is a snake….
I question the description of my character, which funnily seems quite accurate. I’m told that I must be talented as I’m a teacher. That’s an interesting complement. I had already been told by the novice at Vientiane that I’m a good teacher and that I changed his life. Eyrique had said that he appreciated my conversation, and later when I say goodbye to Robert he tells me that I’m a great man and he has learnt a lot from me. Does this mean something? That I’m a a natural teacher? It’s given me food for thought.
I have one more cendol in the same place and at the same table, but no Cyrus. I find Robert watching the blacksmith hammering knife blades and we talk about the individuality of each blade. We have our photo taken together, looking like presidents posing at a summit meeting. Our goodbye is sincere and heartfelt.
The taxi to the bus station is a good idea (perversely costing more than a bus to KL), and gives me time to wander and spend my remaining ringett on some slices of fried tempeh and some sweet buns. I also bump into the Shropshire couple, which is nice, as it allows me to say goodbye.
It is raining a little as the bus pulls out and Cyrus and I speak, both missing each other. we speak again just as I enter Johor, then as I leave Malaysia and am on the Causeway. Our connection is cut as soon as I’m in Singapore. Separation becomes total…..
The bus drops me at City Plaza and from there I get the MRT, which is a block away, and this takes me all the way to the airport. Easy. It’s a big airport and I need to get a sky train to the right terminal. Having spent all my ringett, I then spend most of my remaining Singaporean Dollars on some duty free mango vodka (well, it’s kind of Asian). Back to reality with an email from UK about my video job with ALA. The brief has been radically changed without consultation and I need to give it some deep thought..
The flight on the Airbus (360 tons fully laden with 800 passengers) lasts 13.5 hours and is a bit arduous. Sleep isn’t easy, the movie choice is poor, and I give up on Cowboys and Aliens), though the CD selection does surprisingly contain Nils Peeter Moelvar. The food is stodgy and not well cooked.
I have a stopover at Frankfurt. It’s dawn. Asia and Cyrus feel far away. I feel a bit empty, a longing for belonging, and not feeling I belong back in UK. USA Today’s cover story is about the decline in deaths from lightning strikes. (compare 26 in 2011 with 432 in 1942). According to the paper I can expect 5 degrees in London. I have been used to 25-30 recently…..
The connecting flight is short and takes us over a wind farm before we cross the east coast of England and the rough geometric street patterns of villages and towns. And there is London as we circle waiting to land; the clear sky reveals a frosty early morning city. All the landmarks are visible, the soaring Shard, the dominant shape of the London Eye, Emirates stadium, Kew hothouse. I can even see troops of khaki clad recruits doing their morning jumps and exercises on the fields of Sandhurst.
It’s morning, but I feel I’ve lost a day. How can the train prices be this high? £24 from Victoria to Brighton. I could travel from Singapore to Bangkok for that price. By the time I get home its been 27 hours since I left Melaka.
What to do now?
This was to have been my last day, but actually it was just my last day with Cyrus. It’s a slow day with breakfast and cendol and souvenir hunting. We don’t buy anything beyond a massage comb which we try out later, leaving red lines on our backs! We planned to have lunch at Simple Life again, and excitedly walk the 20 minutes there only to find it closed….
I remember seeing an ad for a similar place nearby, but after a frustrating walk up and down the main drag looking for Melaka Raya 8, and discovering no numbering system in evidence, ask for help in a hotel, who even give me a map. It’s still no good, but we do find a pretty standard Chinese veggie buffet place…which is fine.
We have an emotional hour or so together before Cyrus’s departure. I go with him on the local bus to Melaka Sentral as I also need to buy my new ticket to Singapore. The bus takes us out of town in the wrong direction, turns around, goes out the other way then heads to the station, all in all taking around 45 minutes, for a journey I do in a taxi in 10 minutes the next day. The bus is crowded and most of the seats are broken.
Our goodbyes are made and we are both on our own again.
On getting back into town I wander around at dusk and visit the area of town near Discovery.
There is a small Chinese market where I have a cold drink, then hunt down an Indian restaurant. I find a very local one which is closing soon. No tourists inside, rough but friendly and the matriarch with her grey/blonde hair and red-dotted forehead rolling balls of sweetmeat. I want a masala dhosa, and to my joy they have this, and it turns out to be the best I’ve ever had with lashings of dhal for dipping. It costs about 30p!!!!! I spend a couple of hours updating my blog, then stroll back to China town.
I sit up with Robert and some other local hotel workers talking about racism, Top Gear and Mind Your Language. Amazing the TV shows they will watch here.
The complimentary breakfast at the cafe over the road is not inspiring. The staff are unfriendly and the service a bit rude. The cafe is soulless and the food mean: a miniscule sliver of melon, barely enough jam or butter for my toast, which is more like heated bread turned cold. The eggs are ok, but the next day I decide that the “local” breakfast of noodles might be a better bet (I was wrong!).
We rent some bikes which are a bit heavy to ride and are certainly not made for tackling any kind of gradient.
Our exploration of the outer lying areas of the city is quickly aborted as the busy roads with their open drainage ditches (a scary potential hazard) and the pushy drivers make the experience quite unrelaxing. We turn back to the water front and Cyrus takes me for a mille crepe cake, which is delicious, so too is the mango and basil seed smoothie. We cycle along the pedestrianised zone between the mall that looks like a mosque with its Islamic motifs and windows, and St Paul’s hill. The foot of the hill is ringed with museums, including a scruffy derelict “museum of enduring beauty”, and a fenced off display of planes and trains. The house where Independence was proclaimed can be found here, with its adjacent armoured vehicles from the state of emergency, and a Chevrolet limousine, along with the remains of the Dutch fortress. We climb the steps with the other tourists to the ruined shell of St Paul’s church. There are some buskers and a posse of Korean women wearing sun visors. We rest in the sun, which unexpectedly results in a little burning for both of us.
The trishaws come and go. A couple jump out of one to take a series of photos of each other posing before the ruined gateway, then jump back in and off they go. I don’t think they even looked at where they had been.
We return to the more sedate streets of the Chinese quarter where I buy a box of traditional pineapple tarts (look more like minature sausage rolls).
We take lunch/dinner at the gourmet veg restaurant we chanced upon on our bike ride over on Melaka Plaza. It looks expensive but is amazing value. The food is organic, unprocessed and without MSG etc. We both have set meals: mine a vege hotpot containing bitter gourd, okra and tofu, a soup with bamboo shoots, sesame/bean salad, mixed brown and wild rice…..it is spectacularly good, and Cyrus rates his mock fish curry too. A successful and satisfying meal.
It is dusk as we cycle over the bridge where hundreds of shrieking little birds are settling down to roost. We zip along the water front that I had walked the night before. The city is strangely reminiscent of Bristol: a floating harbour, a big sailing ship (the museum), modern apartment developments by the water, brightly lit bars.
After returning the bikes we take a rest then later walk the waterfront and find a row of houses with some great street art depicting the history of the city.
We toy with drinking at the reggae bar, which we guess has gay clientele, and Cyrus thinks I’m being eyed up as we pass. Instead we go back to Discovery Guesthouse, where we rented the bikes and have a jug of beer. The place is quite bohemian and has a lazy colonial feel to it.
A more restrained Chinese buffet breakfast, then Cyrus and I go to Puda Central to get tickets to Melaka. But, we discover that it’s the wrong station and I need to get the sky train to the edge of town from Plaza Rakyat. Cyrus comes part of the way then gets off to head back to Ampang. I get the bus to Melaka which takes around 2 hours and costs less than £2. Cyrus will catch a later bus.
First impressions: Melaka Sentral is a confusing sprawling bus station-cum-shopping mall and it’s not clear where anything is. I manage to book my onward ticket to Singapore after carefully checking the dates and confirming with Cyrus. This all turns out to be flawed as 2 days later when I’m mentally set for leaving and picking through my folder of documents looking for Cyrus’s id card, I discover that my dates are wrong and that I’m leaving a day later. This messes up my budget a little and necessitates some more cash withdrawals and another ticket (which fortunately only costs £4 anyway). Bus 17 into town doesn’t materialize but the tourist panorama bus is going that way anyway and I get a ride for 1 ringett. I get off at the Stadhuys, which is the red Dutch townhall building, positioned on a pretty little square containing a fountain and a lot of trishaws, the yellow-shirted drivers accosting new arrivals and offering a tour of the sights on their spectacularly decorated vehicles: each is individually and artistically wrapped with flowers and ribbons. Some even have (too) loud sound systems playing anything from techno to thrash. This is a serious bone of contention for local residents, as I find out from the ladies working in the charm shop I go to on my last day.
I cross to the little roundabout with its display of animal statues then over a small bridge which takes me over a small canal to the bottom of Jonker Street with its colonial and Chinese shop houses which tastefully house antique and souvenir shops, eateries and local food stores. I follow the canal then turn up a little street which contains numerous guesthouses and hostels. After a couple of ups and downs of this and 2 adjacent streets and having looked at 3 or 4 rooms I settle on a place called Harmony Lodge which a Glaswegian guest in reception raves about. He then goes on to compare the cities he has been to then switches to telling me about his success in finding prostitutes in all places bar Melaka. When he finds out I’m gay he even wants to recommend a place in Thailand to me…I just let him talk. This guesthouse does actually turn out to be a good find. Low key, well located with very friendly welcoming staff and cool clean rooms in an old heritage wooden floored building. Opposite the 2 surviving blacksmith shops, on this “Blacksmith Street”.
Cyrus calls: his interview has been postponed and he will be here soon. Actually he is slow to get here and messes up on the town bus, meaning he has to walk a little way into the town. When he has settled we explore the little streets in China town: lantern-strewn streets with mosques, temples, a whole range of local speciality food places. Cyrus takes me for a Cendol: a Malaysian dessert made from saved ice and fresh fruit syrups, often with beans or coloured glute strands added. The whole thing on melting ressembling a delicious chilled fruit soup.
Cyrus has a durian cendol. Durian being very big in Melaka, and being one of the smells on these streets. I have a taster, but in spite of my love for fruits, don’t really take to it. The pastries filled with durian we have the next day leave a sweet cheese and onion-like aftertaste on my breath. I have a mango cendol, which for some unnecessary reason contains sweetcorn too. The eating shop is in one of the traditional heritage Chinese houses which open onto an exposed courtyard, where we sit. The place is littered with curios and junk (a wall of Mao photos, old fans and typewriters, displays of banknotes on the walls).
Cyrus buys some mangosteens on the street. They are nicknamed the “queen of fruits” (durian is king) and have the most exquisite and succulent sweet flesh inside their dark red skin.
We pay a visit to the oldest temple in Malaysia (the temple of mercy) where people are lighting pink lotus-shaped candles.
After passing the Indian style mosque we encounter a convoy of trishaws on a tour of the city. After they have temporarily deposited their passengers at the temple I get chatting with Ramli and his friend who has a spider motif in the decor theme of his vehicle. He tells me he does the decorating himself and did it that morning, getting the ideas from the internet. I’m really impressed with the skill involved. Ramli’s is decoarted with a dragon in preparation for the Chinese New Year. They tell me there is an on-going competition between the drivers for the best decoration. When they learn I am from UK they are really keen to show me their cycles: they are made in England, by Raleigh, and they tell me about the reliability and strength of the build.
We come across a shoe-maker’s shop with a difference: here they make copies of the shoes made for the Malaysian princesses and queens: these are tiny and designed to restrict the growth of the feet, meaning these unfortunate ladies could actually barely walk with their deformities. The shop also exhibits some of the genuine items from the 1920’s. The shoemaker tells me the story of the shoes and his father tells me that they have had this business for 3 generations.
Cyrus tends to hang back when I have these conversations: I’m not sure if he is annoyed with my interaction and engagement or he is just shy.
Cyrus is hungry (me too, but he more) and we walk past a myriad of museums (one is housed in a replica of a Dutch sailing ship, another has a WW2 motorboat outside it) apparently in the wrong direction, and Cyrus is beginning to get annoyed with me. We end up back in China town at a westerner-centred cafe with an English menu, but with a waitress unable to speak either English, Chinese or Malay. This results in me ordering a dish I cant eat (tofu stuffed with….fish), and the spicy eggplant and rice doesn’t suffice. The lime and plum juice is delicious, but I’m a bit fed up with this failed effort to find a good meal in this town of culinary delights. I don’t feel like moaning. I feel like I’m a bit selfish imposing my dietary requirements on Cyrus and we sit in a silence which becomes quite uncomfortable. I ask him to suggest what to do next but nothing is forthcoming.
I want to buy some beer. A hustler from a hostel I looked at earlier in the day had pointed out the house of an elderly Chinese guy who sells (illicitly) the cheapest beer in town. I think I recognise the house and I see someone who fits the description through the unglazed window, but have that British reserve and do not feel confident knocking on the window to first find out that I’ve got the right place before then asking for beer. I dither. Cyrus disapproves and doesn’t want to hang around, and says he will see me back at the hotel. I’m exasperated with his lack of adventure. I circle the streets, and encounter masses of pink flesh being carved up in the streetsat the open front of a butcher under the eerie glow of neon. It seems quite incongrouous in this magical city. I pass the house a couple of times, then see a local woman engaged in a transaction with this man at the window of the house. She tells me she is buying meat from him. He then sells me some beer from his fridge!
Back at the hotel, Cyrus is distant and withdrawn. Neither of us want to speak. I write my diary and he falls asleep. I slip out with my beer and spend a reflective hour by the canal, wishing he was with me, but also not being able to understand what had happened (it later turns out he didn’t either. We had a complete breakdown in understanding the other). When I get back to the hotel I hang out in reception chatting with Robert, the well-spoken Chinese manager, who is keen to learn about UK, and inform me about colonialism, the Malaysians’ admiration of the British. He shares a big bowl of longan (a fruit with a rough green skin, a bit like a lychee but less syrupy). I also meet the couple from Shropshire who have had many adventures, including a hospitalisation in Cambodia with dengue fever….
Sleep is weird and lonely. I feel Cyrus wake me up, he seems worried about me and wants me to put on my green hooded top. He asks me if I’m OK. I’m not sure if I am.
We have to get back to KL for Cyrus’ job interview. After breakfast we trudge up the hill to wait for the local bus, though the location of the bus stop is guesswork. We stand by the clinic for no more than a couple of minutes when the driver of an NKS minibus waves to us, then comes over and offers us a ride to Jerantut (same price as the bus would have been, so a bargain).
The journey through the beautiful forest, passing cows in the shade and bright blue birds flitting across the road, is uneventful apart from a sudden sickening loud thud which jolts everyone out of their reverie. Apparently a bird struck the windscreen or the windscreen struck it and the impact has smashed the glass directly in front of the driver. I would be so shaken I wouldn’t be able to drive on, but he pulls over just for a minute to brush the splinters from his lap then drive on. Thank god for shatter-proof glass. I don’t think he could see too much through the windscreen for the bulk of the journey….
We don’t have to wait too long at Jerantut and by mid-afternoon we are once more in the heat, humidity and jungle of the big city of KL. Once more we try Le Hotel, but it doesn’t have any affordable rooms free. Cyrus is getting irritable and impatient, so it’s lucky that the next place we try (Etica guesthouse) has a room, and it’s peaceful and cool (it looks on to the back street market which starts up in the morning. No mosque!). After a shower Cyrus and I clear the air, and I tell him he needs to be more appreciative and patient, and less demanding. Everything is fine.
We go different ways: he back to Ampang to do my laundry (which turns out to be a big mistake as it doesn’t leave enough time to dry, and so I end up carrying around musty stinky damp smelling t-shirts for the remainder of my trip), and then to an education fair. I arrange to meet Eyrique, who I havent seen since he was in the UK in February.
He turns up in a car at Pasar Seni (a new experience for me in Malaysia) and takes me to the Institute of Performing Arts, where there is a buffet posh restaurant, but we are too early, it isn’t open, and anyway dressed in shorts, singlets and flip flops we wouldn’t be granted admission. We walk the main street in Brickfields, the road lined with bright green, red, orange painted Hindu-styled arches, and find an Indian Restaurant that does a great buffet and mango lassi. We talk about his life and relationships. He is in a similar position as Cyrus: back in Malaysia, not sure about staying. With an English boyfriend. Having to make decisions.
Eyrique wants to talk somewhere quieter and we end up at the temple on the hill that Cyrus and I walked to a few weeks earlier. The scaffolding is down and there are lanterns hanging in readiness for the Chinese New Year. A big gaggle of photographers is photographing some model. We talk at length about religious customs, re-incarnation, concepts of time and experience, spirits, aspirations of perfection and my dream about killing. It’s a sprawling conversation that covers a lot of ground. Temples do that to me.
Cyrus calls. He has gone back to the hotel to rest, as he feels a bit unwell. So, I stay out longer. We take a walk along Petaling Street and see a lion dancing troop doing some shop promotion. I get a mango dessert and then a kumquat and lime juice. Eyrique gives me a bag of fruits from his grandmother’s garden: rambutan and another fruit whose name I forget (like a less hairy rambutan, more like a conker or testicle..lol). i ask him about Chinese character (it’s helping me understand Cyrus some more). Eyrique walks me back to the guesthouse where we say goodbye. It was good to meet again.
Cyrus is sleeping, and I begin to edit my photos.
Writing this from notes and memory, now I’m back in the chilly brightness of UK, but at least I have a quick responsive Mac to type on again.
We got up with early intentions but not early enough to have the jungle to ourselves (wishful thinking). The park in the morning was full of chattering groups and so the magical silence was absent. After spying a very tame mouse deer at the resort we headed the same way as yesterday to get to the now open canopy walkway.
After 1km or so we climbed some steps to find the platform at the start of the walkway. In fact we heard it first. Due to the fact that the walkway bridges can only hold one person at a time, there is usually a queue to start the walkway. Today there was a group of Dutch and the Arabs from the boat. I suggest going for a trek and returning at lunchtime hopefully to miss the crowds.
Bukik Teresik is a 344m climb in 100% humidity over tangles of roots and leaves us soaked with sweat.
The summit is a cluster of boulders with a great view over the river and jungle. but too exposed and hot to linger.
I was right: when we get back to the walkway we are the only people there. It’s much longer and much more exciting than I imagined. There are around 7 rope bridges including one which is a ladder taking you higher, suspended 30-40m up in the tree canopy. The views are amazing, and Cyrus is having to deal with a fear of heights.
We walk back and cross the river for a mediocre lunch at the LBK jetty then rush back to change our clothes “prepare to get wet” for a “racing the rapids” trip: a hurtle along the river in a motorised sampan riding 5 series of rapids, where the maniacal driver rocks the boat from side to side getting us drenched. Cyrus again is inappropriately dressed, wearing canvas shoes which end up taking a couple of days to dry out. Exhilirating and fun. Safety is not really on the agenda: no compulsory life jackets or hard hats. Anyway nobody falls in. Oh, and I spy a kingfisher. The skipper takes the boat to a flat bank where there is a rope swing and drop into the river. He builds a little platform and then does the first swing and drop, egging us all on to try. I’m one of the few not to. Even Cyrus has a go. It looks fun, but I know I’ll get scared by the deep water. We have the option to stay with the group (European couples) but by now we are shivering a little and I don’t want to watch natives demonstrating traditional skills, and anyway we were just tagging along for this activity, and don’t feel like we are part of the group. We’d rather be alone. So we head back to base.
I’m still toying with going for a night trek: Cyrus doesn’t want to come (I guess he is scared), and I decide that I don’t want to be with a group, who I know will be firing flashes all the time.
We take dinner at Momo Chop’s as the night trek groups assemble, and watch a documentary DVD about the park.
We sit on the river bank with an ice cream. The sky once more is beautiful, with a bright moon. An eerie black streak (a vapour trail) then rips the moon and the glowing halo of clouds in two. It widens, fades and disappears.
On waking my insides hurt a bit. Blame it on the raw chilli. Breakfast at the LBK cafe is early.
Then we take a 1 hour mini bus to the jetty (full of Saudi guys talking loudly). The trip in the boat is 3 hours, gentle, hypnotic and beautiful. We sit at the front of the boat and let the view of dense forest, walls of dramatic soaring trees, and very occasional passing boats slip by. Its hot too…
Arrival Kuala Tehan is low-key. There are a few guesthouses visible through the trees, but the settlement is very small. We land at one of the many floating platforms which serve as restaurants (which, we soon discover all serve the same bland and uninspiring menus of “western food” – burgers. fried rice, fried noodles, tom yam, set breakfasts and shakes with minimal fruit and maximum water content. the quality varies, but overall can be said to be very poor), booking centres for all the same trips: night safari, trekking, racing the rapids), and landing stages for the sampans which ferry you across the river to the park headquarters and the sites of all the activities.
Here there is also a rather gentile resort of chalet like bungalows arranged around neat paths and manicured lawns. Though even here there is wildlife: later in the day we see a couple of monitor lizards and also a mouse deer.
After crossing a wobbly plank and clambering over a river bank of sand and boulders we climb through and past some rather grubby and seedy looking guesthouses which must be rife with mosquitoes. One even has a disused sign hanging n a toilet door worded “do not enter – snake”. we end up on the only road in the town and climb a hill, pass the police station and find Tahan Guesthouse, set in a pleasant little garden with painted hippy slogans scattered around, where a laughing woman shows me the rooms. We take a first floor room. The walls are painted with large ladybirds, a sliding door opens onto a little balcony , which comes in useful for drying our soaking clothes after the rapids trip, but……there is a squat toilet, which I prefer not to use (I like to sit). The location suffers from its proximity to the mosque which has a deafening tannoy which wakes us at 4.30 each morning. There are also a lot of bugs and mosquitoes, so we sleep under a net.
Surprisingly it is cold there at night and we have to ask for blankets on the second day. The first night requires us to sleep under towels, fend off bugs and refrain from swearing too much at the call to prayer.
We have lunch at one of the floating restaurants. The service is also appalling. Waitresses sitting around plucking their eyebrows, watching tv (dramas – they even switched the channel when we were watching badminton. Who is the tv actually for?). Mama Chop turns out to be the slightly better restaurant. When we go there on the second night the waitress actually suggests that Cyrus doesn’t take the Tom Yam (we make it, but it’s not very good”).
In the afternoon we go for a walk/trek of a couple of hours into the rainforest. The path is well trodden and well-used, so it doesn’t feel particularly wild, but it is beautiful.
We see some ferns which are green and blue and are called peacock ?????.
We see a black and white caterpillar, and an armour-plated one which is about 20cm long, and I find out later is poisonous.
Cyrus is edgy in the forest and is scared of the unknown. At one point he hears a sound which makes him think TIGER, the red caterpillar, is the turning point, as he retreats from it as I move in to take photos. He is also reluctant to walk beyond the sign which recommends the use of a guide. I try to reassure him that there is nothing to worry about. I guess this kind of adventure is beyond his comfort zone. He likes things to be more organized and more predictable. We bump into a German couple a few times on the trail, and chat at length.
The cold night is illuminated by a bright near full moon which breaks through a mackerel sky. The sky later is pitch black and full of stars and total stillness and silence when I wake up cold to close the sliding door. I wake up once more. This time, oddly, the silence has been replaced by the buzz and hum of a myriad of insects in the trees. The following night one of these makes it into our room. Cyrus hears a flap, I see a shadow and i gingerly investigate to find a moth the size of my hand settled on the water hose, brown, the same colour, obviously choosing this resting place as camouflage.