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Mellow Malaysia

Buy a bus ticket, for the Singapore-Malacca Express. Chock a block with baggage, directed towards a tumbledown, sooty bus. Contort into the last remaining seat. With Lilliputian limb room, next to a chubby Chinaman, knees in parallel. We glide through the faubourgs, towards the Johore Bahru causeway. All inhabitants are nattering merrily. In front of me, two young girls in competition to eat as many dry fish delicatessens as possible. Reaching customs, swiftly my co travellers disembark.

The sanitary cosmopolitan surroundings of Singapore have evanesced, as though they were never there. The carmine earth, lines the well kept roads and verdant palm trees meander. The coach hurtles along, outdistancing everything. Break at a local market town and as I reach the restaurant, the fat Chinaman, who sat next to me, is eating his second course, on a sticky plate, on a sticky counter, on a sticky stool.

Return to the bus, an uneventful journey brings us to the historic Portuguese town of Malacca. Many buildings are antediluvian and are constructed of crimson stone, sprinkled like children’s blocks. Peacefulness. My first trishaw trip with the rider is straining up the hill. I feel guilty, cubed between suitcases in the back.

A salmagundi of sweet tempered Malaysians, Chinese, Indians, Indonesians and Aborigines, with their own religions, living analogously. Try” Satay” a coconut and peanut spiced pork/lamb meal grilled on bamboo sticks, over a charcoal fire, served with rice and wrapped in coconut leaves. Served on skewers. Coffee follows and is thick and strong in large cups with tinned condensed milk. Ashtrays are filled with water, to prevent ash flying from the swirling fan. Looking out, schoolgirls pristinely dressed, so characteristically Asian; brilliant white blouses, turquoise skirts, with white plimsolls. A constant shower of rain. Ladies come into view with multi coloured, spinning, waxen umbrellas.

A shared taxi to the capital: Kuala Lumpur. The jungle soon impinges as we leave Malacca. A voracious growth of netted strangling creepers, with random villages, called ‘kampongs’. Through the clearing, cream oxen and water buffalo are set against the background of verdurous muted shades of banana trees and giant ferns. Coconut palms foster the stilted, wooden huts, with neat small gardens, where there are tubs of orchids, fixed onto wooden pillars.

A refreshing breeze comes in through the window. Incessant rubber estates, specked with kampongs and a sighting of a paddy field. The next town, open air barbers snipping away in tandem. Businessmen type under a tree. Soon Kuala Lumpur overshadows. By air to Penang Island.

Next morning the bus to Georgetown, then into a trishaw. The hood is very tattered, and gives the driver little shelter. We trundle along. Heat makes us leisurely. Pure indulgence of travelling. Your eye is a camera. Each blink could be a shot, in surroundings so unlike ours. A street vendor grates sugar cane. A wedding procession in taxis, with blazing gold and scarlet good luck emblems. Pink ribbons wave from the doors. The couple, dressed in similar clothes to our weddings, carry clumps of gladioli. I turn from time to time to see my driver’s brown knees rising and falling, in a measured, carefree rhythm. He is an old man, with a noble, lined, beaming face. I sign his book, pay and say goodbye.

Humorous shop names like Bang on, Hang On, See Fun, Fun Fatt Kok. Local language of Talipon for telephone, Bas sekolal for school bus and Buk for book. Outside the Chinese temple, in the early morning, see a man standing outside with a burning joss stick clamped between the hands. A silent prayer asking for evil to be kept away. Never a word or a stare. A youth only in pyjama trousers, is lettering the posters in green and red paint. He is observed by a very old man, who never stirs, but sits silently, crossed legged, absorbing the young man’s artistry. A long lane of shanty shops and cafes. Here are sold cakes, poultry, fish, batik sarongs, pots and pans. Young lads sweep, cook and tend fires.

The Indian community with shops selling gaudy coloured clothes and wares. The hot spiced and well-cooked mutton is served on a bed of rice, on top of a palm leaf, with three vegetables, chillies, pickled tomatoes and other delicacies. Like the Indians next to me, I wash my hands in a nearby basin. Eat the meal by taking the curried vegetable and mutton and mould it, with the rice to form a ball shape and putting it in your mouth. An occasional smile from them makes the challenge acceptable.

The Swiss Hotel; sit on the wooden veranda and swap adventures and write up notes. At night I find it is hard to sleep, with the noise of a large fan, spinning away. The feeling that I am going to be decapitated, by its three slogging blades. Very early in the morning a neighbour practising his Kung Fu, awakens me into reality. Time to pack soon.

It is always sad to leave a country you have enjoyed so much; last goodbyes, last packing, last souvenirs. Everlasting memories always remain.

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