Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Month: November 2012 (page 1 of 2)

The Portugese Settlement in Malacca: Still Here

The Portuguese Settlement is about 15 minutes outside of downtown Malacca give or take. It is perhaps a 20 ringgit cab ride, probably less if you are better at negotiating than myself. The cab driver takes you through a gate and down a quiet, sun-washed lane, and deposits you at a cemented over square.

This looks straight into the Straits of Malacca, the world’s most busy shipping lane: there will be one or two huge cargo ships idling there, indefinable over the short sparkles of the water. Large palms stand over Portuguese Square, built in 1958 off a European model.

People primarily come to the Portuguese Settlement to eat Portuguese-style seafood: this is a worthy pursuit. But there’s more here than baked fish with sambal and spicy crabs, delicious as they may be.

The Portuguese arrived here in Malacca in 1511, long long ago, and it is something of a marvel that their descendents here have clung so tightly to their traditions. They have settled into the mainstream of Malaysian life, and many hold good jobs outside the community, especially in the IT sector. But they seem to find solace in hanging together, and maintaining their neat and pastel-colored houses, a bit bleached in the sun.

The little houses have little water-stained drawings of the Virgin Mary above the door, and some throw in a horse-shoe for good luck. Many of the Portuguese here keep noisy tropical birds, which chatter to one another in the heart of the afternoon.

I chose a small cafe to eat lunch, the only one open around 2:00 when I made my unceremoniously late arrival. It was November 6th and Obama had just been re-elected a world away: I ordered baked fish with sambal and sat and had muddy, contented thoughts about this while I waited for my food. Someone was playing Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton classics from somewhere down the alley, and a man sat at the same cafe as I did and quietly, methodically peeled oranges.

The light was so bright on the white tile event-area outside the restaurant, stretching to the sea, that I wished for a moment that I had the ability to retain a pair of sunglasses for more than a day. (A real pipe-dream).

After I ate lunch, I walked out by the ocean,and stood in front of a bank of shells interspersed with multicolored plastic trash, which the slightly blind might initially confuse for sea-shells. A small boat was tied to an apparently ancient jetty, and some equally antique fishing nets were strewn around. As is common in sea-side Malaysia, fat black crows barked at each other from the palms, and looked at me with the vaguest of interest.

Nearby, an enormous bank of sea-side condos was going up, and a crane moved slowly against the skyline. Malacca is growing larger every day, but the Portuguese here don’t seem inclined to give up their primo waterfront property anytime soon. They’ve grown accustomed to it.

They had a hotel in the Portuguese Settlement, named the Hotel Lisbon. It was part of a development scheme, and the people grudgingly accepted it: then the management turned out to be staffed by fools, and the place was bought up by the Limkokwing College as a satellite campus.

The locals were horrified by the notion—weird outside students? rabble-rousing?—and are fighting to have the place designated as a cultural center. It is certainly a huge white edifice made to somewhat simulate a Portuguese lodging house if you squinted at in the wobbly heat of a hot day: there was no one there on a Tuesday afternoon when I visited, and the lavishly mustachioed, uniformed guardsman turfed me out—with apologies.

I turned down the Portuguese-named streets and wandered, and soon ran into a big pack of Malaysian students, who appeared to be interviewing one of the local men. This was too good an opportunity for a bit of fortuitous snooping to be passed up, and I sat down beside the students, who were fanning themselves in the heat.

The local man helps to run the Portuguese museum—closed the day I was out there, much to my sorrow—and appears to be the person appointed to talk to student groups, errant tourists, and the media.

A little girl played around the doors of the houses and made occasional, shrieking feints at the students. She was playing Gangnam Style on her phone. All across Asia, as I have recently determined, everyone is playing Gangnam Style on their phones.

The Portuguese man—whose name I didn’t catch—was explaining why his people liked to place horseshoes over their doorways.

“For good luck,” said the old man to the students. “Of course, in your Buddhism, you do not have luck.”

“Do you have much interaction with other Portuguese communities?” asked one boy.

“We are the same all over, you know, us Portuguese.In Goa and in Malacca, and in Macau. We are of the same culture, and we are all Portuguese.”

One student found it somewhat impossible to comprehend why everyone was not sporting twee native dress. The old man assured him that they certainly did wear the elaborate traditional stuff, sometimes—and that before everyone had got into this curious pattern of wearing Western clothes, the Portuguese descendants stood out even more.
“Why do we not wear what the Malays wear? So they know who we are!” he said with emphasis, ashing his cigarette. He was wearing a white wife-beater and shorts with a US college insignia.

True: they do not want to blend in. They are Portuguese, and proudly so.

These Portuguese settlers are indeed part of Malaysia: a hodge-podge nation where a bunch of very variable people are both themselves and together at approximately the same time, which is no small feat in human history.

It is a nation of roti and chow mein and burgers existing at the exact same inconspicuous two-bit cafe: they (mostly) get along because it’s just more practical that way. And perhaps, significantly more interesting.

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Crackdown on monks – with fire – in Burma

One step forward, two steps back. That’s how it goes in Burma.

Brutal Protest Crackdown Injures at Least 27 Monks – Irrawaddy Magazine

Sad news after the vaunted Obama visit of less than a week ago: a peaceful protest by monks and civilians at a Chinese copper mine was broken up by police armed with incendiary weapons. At least 27 monks have been injured, and the images are deeply unsettling.

Aung Sang Suu Kyi, rather presciently, put it well last week:

“The most difficult time in any transition is when we think success is in sight, then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success, and that we are working toward its genuine success for our people and friendship between our two countries.”

Just because we’d like to believe that the Thein Sein government has instituted true and lasting reform does not make it so. Especially if one happens to be Rohingya.

As the New York Times piece pointed out, this crackdown will do exactly nothing to improve the status of China in the eyes of the Burmese people as an uncaring resource extractor, either.

 

 

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Golden Star Restaurant: Yangon’s Finest!

 

Burma is a tea culture, and it is also a snacking culture. Coffee may be king in Vietnam, but Burma is the middle-ground between South Asia and Southeast Asia: in Yangon, it’s always tea-and-nosh time somewhere.

People drink sweet milky tea reminiscent of India’s iconic masala chai,but they also are partial to clear Chinese teas, sometimes served with sugar. The second most important aspect of Burmese leisure time? The snacks. The snacks are key. (And perhaps a newspaper. Or two).

It was in the spirit of hunting down tea-snacks that we stumbled upon the Golden Star Restaurant, a noodle-tea-snack shop on 50 Street Lower Block, a bit off Maha Bandoola Road.

Like most Burmese noodle-tea-snack shops, it’s a small place with small tables, but unlike most, Golden Star is set under some appealing green trees and is on a relatively quiet side-street—no need to suck in exhaust fumes with your meal.

The very charming head waiter at Golden Star Restaurant.

We sat down, and as at most Burmese snack-shops, various plates of baked goods appeared within seconds. These baked goods usually are somewhat unremarkable, but we noticed immediately that the snacks here looked awfully nice.

The extremely friendly owner, who is named Nu Nu Wai, quickly noticed the foreigners perusing the (English! Shocking!) menu and informed us in English that her daughter studies medicine in Los Angeles, and we’d really like to try the Shan noodles, wouldn’t we? Well, of course. When you put it like that.

Shan noodles are sort of a soup-less, chilled version of the iconic Northern Thai Khao soi: spiced chicken, egg, some pickled vegetables, and curry spices. This is a simple and satisfying dish that seems to be ubiquitous (and often a bit mundane-looking) throughout Burma: at Golden Star, it was a remarkably good and appealing-look light meal, with a rich flavor and a rather unique texture.

Once Nu Nu Wai realized that we were quite gung-ho about the noodles, she immediately began plying us with more baked goods. “I bake everything here! All myself!” she said, as she continued to put multicolored plates of something in front of our noses.

I dutifully sampled a puff pastry stuffed with mutton, which was extravagantly good: a millennium away from the tragic specimens served on long-haul bus lines. And here I thought I was largely immune to the earthly delights of pastry.

Did you know the Burmese have a remarkable hand with flan? Bigger, less appetizing versions of the crackle-crusted Burmese flan above are dished out of big metal bowls on the street in Yangon: these delightful personal-sized versions were eggy, ethereal, and not too sweet, with a bit of crunch on top. You could quite easily sell these as exotic Burmese creme brulee in the dark heart of San Francisco’s hipster warrens for around $14 a pop. Ms Nu Nu Wai may want to contemplate a lucrative franchise.

We were then gifted a special tea-cake, containing red-bean paste and salted duck egg. “A gift for you!” said Ms Nu Nu, and although I was by then uncomfortably full, I was willing to take on the arduous task of finishing the thing. Unsurprisingly: delicious. A buttery, flaky exterior, juxtaposed with rich, creamy red-bean paste and the slightly salty kick of duck egg. Not a Mooncake, as Terry hastened to point out—something regular people who are interested in the welfare of their arteries might eat with tea, instead.

I got up to take photos, which meant the kitchen staff and Ms Nu Nu immediately began having fun posing and indicating what I should be taking photos of. Here she is with some of her baked goods.
The kitchen staff let me wander around and take photos of them, as the girls and boys chided each other, giggling, into posing. Much amusement over the final results when I pulled them up on my viewfinder.


On the way out, Ms Nu Nu inquired if we’d like to sample her lunch. “It is little Burmese fish,” she said: and so it was, a curry made of tiny, halved silverfish, served with rich and a side-dish or two in the typical Burmese fashion. It looked delicious, but as any more food would have likely inspired nightmarish gastric discomfort, we had to decline.

Golden Star Restaurant tucked in among some other noodle and curry stalls, and you’ll miss the place if you’re walking particularly forcefully—never a great idea in Yangon, Land of the Deadly Gaping Sidewalk Hole. Observe the figure above.

If you commit it to memory, you too may be wrapped into the warm embrace of delicious noodles and copious, nigh-on-deadly quantities of home-made Burmese tea cakes.

I am by no means a Yangon authority (though I did avoid plummeting feet-first into any of the aforementioned Gaping Sidewalk Holes), but for me, Golden Star Restaurant and the friendly presence of Ms Nu Nu makes this little joint just about the platonic ideal of tea-and-snack-shops.

May she become famous and featured in the Lonely Planet, or at least one of the more genteel episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s latest. She and her staff deserve it.

 

 

 

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I Got to See the President in Yangon, and Yes, It Was Awesome

So, as this photo I took may indicate, I did get in to see the President. Here’s my GlobalPost story on the visit.

(Play “Spot the Secret Service Agent/Milford Man in the above image!)

People have asked me how I got in to see the President’s Yangon speech without prior permission. The answer to this question is easy: Dumb Luck.

I in fact wandered over to the official press entrance with a couple of Financial Times reporters, and stood around looking a bit sad with two German students studying abroad in Switzerland. The Burmese volunteer took our names down and very politely continued to tell us to “keep waiting.”

Eventually, the very intense US press attache to Myanmar emerged and said something about how “there’s no space for extras.”

Then he let us in anyway!

I was issued my first-ever White House Press Pool badge, which I may or may not get framed.

Most of the photojournalists had already set up on the other side of the room from the stage at Yangon University’s Convocation Hall, so I went up to the balcony where they were putting the print journalists.

I set up and began tapping out a story on my Galaxy SIII (a useful little device)—as I hadn’t expected at all to get in, I was a bit behind on my background copy. Then we waited…and well, waited.

Eventually, Aung Sang Suu Kyi came in. I asked a Burmese journalists what all the commotion on the floor was about and she (also very politely) pointed out Aung Sang Suu Kyi in the scrum, looking, as one might expect, surprisingly elegant as she was mobbed by excited Burmese supporters and diplomatic types.

Hillary followed some minutes after, dressed in white, and she and Aung Sang Suu Kyi immediately began talking and laughing like old buddies. As a female political junkie, this was quite an exciting thing to see—two monumentally important women, obviously fond of each other. (Yes, I’d love to vote for Hillary in 2016).

I eventually noticed a number of photographers were setting up on a riser tantalizingly close to the podium, so I decided to see if I could find a way to get down there. I actually did, which meant I had pretty good access for some close-up shots of the POTUS. This was awesome.

Obama strode in, beaming everywhere (as he wouldn’t in Cambodia). No Presidential march played, which I willy freely admit depressed me a little, as that would have been awfully psychologically satisfying.

He greeted the crowd in Burmese, which made everyone extremely happy. He also gave a wai—a traditional Southeast Asian greeting which Burmese people don’t happen to do—but as I keep making the same mistake, I suppose he can be forgiven.

I liked his speech. I think most of us critical, fractious Southeast Asia watchers did, if I’m interpreting my Twitter and blog tea-leaves correctly. It was more of a lecture than anything else, perhaps fitting for a country that is in need of some advice on the usual operations of democracy. (Certainly the students liked it: a little lecture by the Leader of the Free World on the precepts of democracy, not exactly an every-day occurrence).

He speaks well, and powerfully: seeing Obama speak in person gives one an idea of the nervousness he engendered in the Romney camp when he was really on. I certainly felt that much better about voting for the guy a few weeks back: I’m finding it well-nigh impossible to imagine Romney executing a Southeast Asian visit with even a modicum of understanding or grace.

Obama was definitely on for the Burmese, as he explained Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms to the crowd, and as he emphasized that Burma was in need of national reconciliation—a statement that drew applause, which appeared to start with the ethnic minorities seated in the room, dressed in their native attire.

Obama extended the hand-fist metaphor that he began with Iran: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Much to some detractors relief, I belive, he didn’t act as if the battle was finished in Burma for democracy—which it isn’t. He emphasized that the Burmese government is merely beginning a long journey towards a less heinous government.

Further, he mentioned the Rohingya by name—with Aung Sang Suu Kyi in the room, who has been noticeably reticent on the matter.

“But there is no excuse for violence against innocent people. And the Rohingya hold themselves — hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.”

It was all quite good (I feel), and I noticed that the Burmese people I spoke with about the speech outside the venue kept coming back to national reconciliation and the import of it. Perhaps the audience for this event was unusually liberal—in fact,almost certainly so–but the fact that none seemed interested in defending the old divides is likely heartening. We’ll see what happens with Kachin state and Chin state and with the Rohingya and with Freedom of Speech.

Tellingly (as many have pointed out) Obama referred to Burma as Myanmar for the first time, using a spelling that the US government does not officially endorse, and which the Burmese/Myanmar government prefers.

Whatever happens, I feel proud to say I was in the room for that speech and for that moment. And I do feel that Obama’s speech marked a real sea change in Burma—when things that need to change changed.

Then Obama came to Cambodia and snubbed the hell out of Hun Sen.

More on that later, but here’s my GlobalPost story on the whole affair.

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Pak Putra: Remarkable tandoori in Malacca

 

Intense chicken.

In Malacca, you must try the tandoori chicken at Pak Putra, an Indian tandoori and curry house set in a residential neighborhood not far from the tourist center. It is a pleasant little walk, especially as the sun starts to go down: you will be joined by others.

Pak Putra is a small place where you can sit outside and drink watermelon juice: swarthy, rather handsome tandoori men slapping bread and chicken onto the walls of incendiary hot ovens, which resemble large clay jars.

I paid a princely 7 Malaysian Ringgit for my chicken, which is roughly $2.30. It was delicious: mint and chili chutney, lots of spices, very tender. (I might even chance white meat here—usually an unpardonable sin).

I sat in a little blue plastic chair and watched Malay people roll up to sample the wares: the owners walked through the crowd slowly waving menus. They walked up from the side-streets near the restaurant and emerged from gleaming cars: some tourists had also got in on the act, slurping down lime juice and watching the men ceaselessly roll out lumps of naan dough.

Like much of Malacca, Pak Putra is perhaps best defined by its geniality: this slow-moving tourist town appears to have retained quite a lot of its old charm, in tandem with the glitzy mega-malls and theme park developments. People here are happy to talk, to hang out, to shoot the breeze: perhaps most importantly, Malaccans are deadly serious about properly feeding you if you take the time to visit.

Friendly Malays outside Pak Putra.

The garlic naan held up to the expectations one might develop while watching it cook in the great glowing clay jars outside the seating area. It tasted rather like the best garlic bread I’d ever had, simultaneously smoky, buttery, and infused with a sharp, aromatic flavor. It was served with a spicy, electric-orange daal, which was silently refilled whenever I ate more than one or two bites.

I ordered the veggie tawa as well—usually something of an afterthought—and it was quite nice. A bit sweeter than I might anticipate, but a pleasingly light flavor, not laden with butter.

When I got up to photograph the tandoori ovens, the tandoori men swiftly moved into show-man mood, posing for me, slapping out naan dough with exceptional force, and flashing winning smiles for the lens. It is mesmerizing to watch a tandoor oven being worked: it must be a lot harder to do it all day, when you are losing pounds and pounds of sweat on the job.

A hefty cone-roti. They insisted I take a picture.

Pak Putra also has a delightfully aggressive take away policy.

To illustrate: I couldn’t finish my naan, and the concerned looking owner came over when I asked for the bill, and said “Oh, you don’t like the bread?”

I made the universal I’m-Full sign. “It was delicious, but I couldn’t finish it,” I replied. I felt distinctly bad about this. The naan truly deserved to be eaten. Would I be guilted over this? Would I lie in bed feeling terrible about my inability to consume a massive portion of naan, therefore insulting both the chef and legions of starving children everywhere?

“We will wrap it up,” he said. “No problem!”

Whew.

A boy was deployed to wrap the naan up, and unsurprisingly, it was accompanied by a small bag of that electric orange daal.

I stuck it in my backpack and promptly forgot about it until I got back to my hotel room hours later, when I pulled it out and immediately assaulted my small hotel room with the delightful scent freshly made garlic naan.

I have snacked on it a bit: I am not a bread-eater, really, but for some things one makes an exception.

 

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Obama in Burma – still in Yangon

Ferris wheel on Inya Lake in Yangon.

Obama is coming tomorrow. I will be spending the day chasing him around and hopefully mooning around Yangon University in the hope of being let in to hear his speech. The US Embassy nicely said they’d inform me if there were any “public” events, and as I’ve heard nothing, I’m presuming I am not included in this equation. (Shocking!).

My friends say Phnom Penh is a security zoo right now. I can’t say I’ve been near the airport today, but Yangon appears to be more sedate. There are probably a few reasons for this.

1. Merely the Leader of the Free World is arriving in Burma tomorrow, sans the entire ASEAN kit-and-caboodle. This might make things less tense. No one has waved a Uzi in my face, at any rate. I almost wish they had, it’d make for a great opener to a story.

2. The Burmese police and military have an awful lot of practice in the arena of covert operations. Perhaps they are better at not being seen.

Meanwhile, as another friend pointed out on Facebook, the Cambodian authorities tend to take any possible opportunity to remind their people, neighbors, and the world in general that they do have some muscle to throw around, and aren’t afraid to use it. Not to say the Burmese junta isn’t grandiose, but I wonder.

Anywho. I leave Burma on Tuesday morning for Kuala Lumpur. I feel embarrassed that I did not manage to leave Yangon on this first jaunt, but on the other hand, I met a lot of people, got to know Yangon rather well, and now know how to navigate in this occasionally challenging country.

Hoping to return sometime in the spring. I do really want to make it out to Bagan and the hill stations. And to try more Burmese food, which really is quite interesting—truly a crossroads between Southeast Asia and South Asia.

Some random Burma observations:

1. You take your life in your hands when crossing the street, even more so than in Cambodia, not known for its friendliness to pedestrians. Burmese drivers, so I’ve heard, are experiencing a bit of a weird cultural shake-up at the moment, which means I cannot detect any discernible traffic rules. Also, everyone has cars, and I’d really rather by smooshed by a puttering old motobike then by a Honda Civic any day. No notion of giving way to the foot-bound here at the moment. Be careful.
2. Getting online is not hard and not even that slow, at least in Yangon. The West shall probably have to retire the “Oh lord, I’m going to Yangon and I’ll never get on Facebook again!” hysterics.

3. The malls here are bigger, shinier, and more used than those in Cambodia. The supermarkets are larger and much nicer as well—and the primary clientele is Burmese people, not expats. This is very interesting—obviously, there IS some money in Burma, and quite a bit of it. But who is making it?

4. Asking Burmese people for directions is a pleasant endeavor, which will usually include passerby and an exchange about your well-being and nationality, and a lot of frenzied gesticulations and longyi-readjustment. Roll with it.

5. Never turn down free tea-cakes.

 

 

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In Yangon, Water Buffalo

Chinese temple on Strand Road in Yangon. Thank goodness for Instagram sometimes.

I’m in Yangon. It is truly the bastard child of Calcutta and Phnom Penh to my eyes: a weird, interesting place. More dilapidated landscapes than dreamed of in your philosophy.

Photos hopefully will ensue tonight – headed to Shwedagon Pagoda and will post then. I have mostly just driven by it and can say with certainty it is both very large and very gold. Such a travel writer I am. It also closes quite a bit later than you might think – around 9:00 PM.

Went to a Burmese party last night. Fun—tried some Kachin-style curry with tripe and coconut milk and runner beans. Those unfond of offal may want to be careful when ordering pork here. Good news is I like it fine. Will try to avoid making an “offal-y” good joke here oh crap wait dammit.

Biryani is a pretty good bet here. Mutton especially. Also enjoying butter-fish, Burmese style savory crepes, and water spinach soup flavored with tamarind. There is Western food but it’s rather pricy, although fairly prevelant in the Embassy districts.

Putting together my Day of Following Obama Around on Monday. May fly out that evening or the day after….not sure my funds will last much longer (though I did bring in more than I thought I’d need). I believe there will soon be a Western Union facility, but until then, it’s “bring in what you use.”

There are informal channels for wiring money, I’ve heard, but perhaps best reserved for emergencies. The remittance scene here will probably get a lot more interesting once WU opens.

Rumors of being unable to get online here: grossly overblown. Plenty of places to do so, at pretty reasonable prices.

Rumors of being unable to get a SIM card here: Also untrue. You can get a temporary pre-paid SIM for about $19. A pretty good deal, as it makes getting around here a LOT more convenient.

Rumors of being unable to get a reasonably priced hotel room here: 100 percent accurate. Adjust accordingly.

Oh, and here’s an interview I did over at Lina Golberg’s “Move to Cambodia.” I’m fond of it. There is perhaps a water buffalo theme.

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Heading to Burma, contraband porno

Heading to Burma tomorrow. The Kuala Lumpur low-budget terminal is rather in the middle of nowhere, so leaving at 1:00 AM for a 6:55 AM flight—c’est le vie. Have booked into a place in Yangon, successfully acquired shiny new money, and am getting excited.

This is a picture of J.V Lane.

I was walking through Malacca’s Customs Museums when I saw the photos, one of which I’ve uploaded above.

They were of young men in formal Customs attire, staring with great seriousness into the camera: they were all Malays, it seemed, except for one. The photo above is dated 1958, and perhaps it shows.

He was a white man with sunglasses, and he wore the popular shorts and knee-socks of the time, that emphasized his bird-like and skinny legs. He stares into the camera with a half-cocked smile: in fact, he has the same odd, mildly awkward expression on in all five of the photographs. His name, as I found out, was J.V. Lane.

J.V. Lane has largely been lost to history, or at least he might have been in a latter era.

Today, there is the Internet. I was able to identify him within 10 minutes: he comes up in a book a bit too-cleverly named “Asian Customs.”

His name, in fact, was James Vincent Lane, and he had been sent to Malacca in an attempt to teach Malays how to run an efficient British customs system, after Malaysia attained independence in 1957.

Vincent helped to set up a customs schools for Malays, and describes the attractive landscaping of the campus, and how he “resisted the temptation to ask for a tennis court.” (But there was badminton).

Highly amusing contraband porno at the Malacca Customs Museum. note the delicately hidden dildo.

Vincent also helped set up an exhibit on the “black arts” of smugglers for the students, remnants of which may make up the modern-day, public Customs Museum in Malacca. I would like to imagine J.V. Lane busily curating the displays of naughty bits and illicit Islamic items in his off-time.

He kept a diary, which I want to get my hands upon. This passage is all I could find on the man online, but I imagine more exists in dusty records somewhere in Malaysia or in London.

I would like to find out if he is alive or not, and where he ended up. Did he go back to England? Did he live out his days in Malaysia, or elsewhere in Asia? Has he continued to wear knee-socks and sunglasses, and will I run into a very old man somewhere in Myanmar wearing such an outfit, and immediately be able to say “Hey, I wrote about you on the Internet!”?

He interests me because he illustrates the strange power of the Internet: that I could Google this person, largely lost to the past, and find out about him is quite meaningful—at least, that’s how I see it.

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Trying to Like Kuala Lumpur

A long day of wandering around making plans and then re-jiggering them again in Kuala Lumpur. Have concluded I do not particularly care for KL. I see it rather like Hong Kong without the charm, and Singapore without the flash—and of course both cities have scenery, as well. Perhaps I depend on a monument or a Major Attraction to hold me over.

I have also kept getting myself into situations where I don’t have time to eat at regular hours, which means I have missed out on this city’s primary attraction—yes, extra embarrassing for me.

A torrential storm outside which has cut down somewhat on photo opportunities. TripAdvisor is also full of lies about Kuala Lumpur, which means I accidentally booked us into a literal hole-in-the-wall, which then refused me a refund when I came downstairs about an hour later, upon finding out the toilet only worked in the loosest sense of the word.

I believe one should be refunded your full hotel fee if you find a pubic hair in your bed, at least in the developed world. Also near a number of nightclubs, which I am too tired/cranky to avail myself of what with this trip planning, and which play loud, thumping house music throughout the night. Blargh. Well, Malacca is lovely.

Weaver ant nest in Lake Gardens.

Shopping… I bought a filter for my camera, but clothes and whatnot are really best purchased in Cambodia. Why go to Forever 21 direct if you can go straight to the source? (OK. Labor disputes and the abuse of workers. Well. I suppose the amorphous middle-man clothes you can buy at Cambodian markets aren’t really hurting anybody…are they? I may have to start worrying about that, too).

Have half-way sorted my money for Burma. Most of today was a jaunt all over KL in various taxis, driven by various friendly older gentlemen, trying to find a bank open on a Saturday. Finally found a whole hive of them in bowels of the Petronas Twin Towers. This was exciting. I was robbed very sneakily in New Orleans in May and was relieved of a lot of cash—carrying around cash fails to excite, but I’ve heard that Burma is quite safe.


Tomorrow: money-changers. The hunt for shiny, fresh new bills. I hope Burma gets over its curious affection for fancy new money soon.

Did see an impressive weaver ant nest today at the Lake Gardens—so, that’s something. They hold nests made of leaves together with their jaws – figure above! – and keep their larvae and queen inside. I believe they eventually do seal the nests with silk.

They are very rapacious, aggressive little creatures that will angrily wave antenna and mandibles at you if you invade their percieved personal space. It’s almost cute. I have been bitten by them before: as a friend said, it is less painful and more the perception of being attacked by “something very small, and very angry.”

Relaxing? Psh!

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Assorted thoughts on Malacca

Typical Malaccan pedicab.

I like Portuguese settlements, I suppose—not that I have visited them often, but there is something to the concept. They do not have the buttoned-down nature of British colonies, perhaps: there is a sort of wild Catholicism to them, the sort you might see in Spanish and Portuguese streets during a major religious celebration.

Malacca was once a major trading post, controlled first by the Malays, than shifting to the Portuguese,than the Dutch, than to the British—and finally, back to the Malays in the 1950s, after independence.

Trading ports attract all manner of strange people, and Malacca turned into an extremely cosmopolitan sort of place—illustrated by stiff Caucasian mannequins wearing the traditional dress of the area’s ethnic groups at the Sultan’s Palace museum. (Why only the Thai mannequin is grinning like an idiot…well, I don’t have a suitable answer for that).

The pirates and the havoc have gone, although there is a pirate-themed theme park and you will see small children waving around plastic cutlasses. Now, Malacca is a quiet, coastal town, with a rather interesting old district and big apartment and condo buildings sprouting like mushrooms on the edge of the historic area.

Old Malacca was designated a World Heritage Site a few years back, and it is worthy of the term: curving roads set off by ramshackle shophouses, some saved as museums, gutters with unidentifiable water running by them. There are little art galleries and cafes in them now, where you can sit and watch tourists from all over the world puzzle over which semi obscene t-shirt they’d like to buy.

But it is not a crass tourism, and there is not really much of it on the weekends: you can easily wander down a small path into an antiques store piled high with vintage money and carvings from Malaysia’s Hindu era, or find yourself very much alone in some back-alley bit of town.

The food is excellent here. Peranakans are Chinese Malays, and those Nyonya restaurant you see everywhere are well worth trying. (Baba refers to a male Peranakan, and Nyonya to a female, as I learned). There is also excellent Indian food, and Chinese food as well: much like the rest of Malaysia, Malacca is a melting pot. I went out the Portuguese Settlement today: that’s another blog post.

Friendly Malaysians at the tandoori shop.

I was thinking today about Malaysia’s identity. Most Malaysians could probably identify themself as having a heritage of something else – this is rather like the USA.

It is also interesting to contemplate how developed Malaysia is. The taxi drivers liked to discuss this with me, in the rather elegant English that seems to come easily to 60-something men here: two of the taxi drivers I rode with had been to Cambodia, and they hastened to described its poverty, its corruption. They also hastened to compare Malaysia with the rest of the world – and the rest of the world was generally found wanting.

“There is all this fighting in Syria, Muslim on Muslim,” one cabbie mused, as we drove in from the bus station. “I simply don’t understand it. Here in Malaysia, we have peace. We all get along with each other.”

Boy out with his grandmother at the fort in Malacca.

Well, I’m unsure about that -and I really am, my lack of Malaysia-specific knowledge is disturbingly vast – but there is certainly a pleasant lack of tension in the air here, at least to the casual observer. I enjoy watching the shoals of hijab-donning women in colorful costumes mixing with Chinese tourists and slightly head-addled looking Westerners: the Malaysian melting pot, united by tourist attractions and food stuffs flavored with sambal.

ONE FINAL OBSERVATION:

Malaysians are absolutely wild about John Denver. I hear Country Roads multiple times a day in various locales here. Kids play it on the street, taxi drivers play it in their cabs, restaurant owners hum it while they work…what in the name of God is going on here?

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