Category Archives: Malaysia
(Painting by Manuela Gouveia, in Lisbon’s Sofitel Hotel, Room 7-11, just like the convenience stores.)
Until November, Lisbon was uncharted territory for Monsieur and me, yet we’d decided to go and check out both Lisbon and Madeira for various reasons, being: (a) we’d never been to Portugal, (b) the flights and accommodation were insanely cheap as November is low season, (c) it’s not too far from us in London and (d) the weather would be considerably warmer than in England. We also had a bunch of leave to use up before the end of the year.
We’d heard unending positive reviews from those who’d been there before us. One colleague has a holiday home in the Algarve and another goes to Portugal for R&R every year without fail. The Epic Brother had visited friends there earlier in the year and raved about the Portuguese, how helpful and welcoming and warm they are without being flashy or in-your-face. Then others told me that to be in Portugal was like being in a world between worlds; that sometimes it seems modern and at others it’s quite medieval, but nonetheless enchanting. Monsieur and I were now keen to check it out for ourselves.
Our first good impression on arriving in Lisbon was created by the weather: for a Northern Hemisphere November, to find 18 degrees Celsius awaiting us at 7.30pm on a Friday night was an excellent way to start our holiday.
Customs was unusually straightforward, the luggage caroussel quick to produce our suitcases, and, as an added bonus for the traveller disembarking with a growl in their tum – all around baggage claim were opportunities to grab a snack. There were little shops selling food, a well-stocked café, and a woman with a trolley laden with crisps, drinks and plastic containers filled with fresh fruit. Now, that’s what I call civilised.
On a more romantic note, as we waited for our bags, a tall black man walked past us in robes of flowing gold. On his feet were pointy-toed slippers of cream silk and on his head sat a loosely-wound turban. Not only was the man a reminder of Portugal’s colonialist ties, he was the picture of orientalist elegance as he glided on by, a good head or more taller than anyone else in the hall, his robes glistening against the blue-black of his skin.
Once land-side, I noticed something rarer than a two-trunked elephant: a properly-stocked information desk with real maps, not just those freebie maps for tourists that only show one in four streets (never the one you’re actually looking for) and which never, ever show the routes to or from the airport. Here at Lisbon airport there were city maps, regional maps and maps of the entire country, stood on racks alongside guides from various publishers. This is just what’s needed at every airport in the world. I was impressed.
We didn’t wait long for a cab to our hotel on Avenida da Liberdade and our driver was patient with our novice attempts at speaking Portuguese, phonetic phrasebook in hand. The road leading away from the airport was lined with big, square houses, reminiscent of the architecture we’d seen in Melaka, Malaysia, where the Portuguese once ruled the roost. Many sported a deep rusty red colour, also familiar from our Malaysian travels. It struck me that we’d seen the effects of a country out there before understanding it’s background, which was now right here in front of us. It may be a back-to-front way to travel, but it works.
It was also soon apparent that the Lisboetas like their monuments, especially large ones parked at the centre of busy roundabouts. We circled two elaborate examples and spotted a couple more during the 15 minute ride to the hotel, and would see a lot more in the course of the next few days. Lisbon’s stonemasonry rocks.
(I’m terrible at night photography but this is one monument at Restauradores, on Avenida da Liberdade, and this monument is small compared to some of the others we saw!)
A modest €7.00 later, we arrived at the Avenida da Liberdade. It is a long, wide thoroughfare, with dual carriageway through the middle separated from extra lanes at either side by islands planted with mature trees. For November the branches were decorated with weepy drops of twinkling white lights and one corner building was wrapped like a gift box with a gigantic illuminated bow, a hint that Christmas would be upon us within a matter of weeks.
Monsieur and I like the Accor hotel chain when we travel. They always look after us well. This time we were staying at one of their Sofitels. The lobby was decorated in reds and blacks and golds in what would have been quite an asiatic style but for the pair of golden angels clinging to the wall behind reception. The concierge treated us to free welcome drink vouchers and a room upgrade as we checked in – another positive to travelling out of season, no doubt - and a few minutes later we were walking into our room overlooking the Avenida. Once again the décor had the hint of asia with dark wooden furniture of Japanese style and the walls hung with striking paintings of silhouettes on a red background – by Manuela Gouveia.
(a Sofitel bed. See how SOFT it looks? And it’s even better when you lie down on it. If you never go to Sofitel for any other reason, do at least go to try out their beds.)
There was also an unexpected surprise waiting for us: on the desk sat a cellophane-wrapped plate of half a dozen pasteis da nata, or the special custard-filled tarts for which Lisbon is famous. But best of all was that Sofitel bed. All you have to do is look at one to know that when you slip into it, the linens will be cool and their trademark mattress topper will support you in such luxurious comfort that you will dream of sleeping on marshmallow beds in a land constructed entirely of clouds. Monsieur and I are not the only ones who feel this way, either; next to the bed was a brochure outlining Sofitel beds and Sofitel pillows and the Sofitel bed linens and mattress toppers and everything you could possibly wish for when trying to recreate the Sofitel bed experience at home. Alas, the prices are steep. You’ll have to be an exceptionally good girl or boy for Santa to put Sofitel bed things in your stocking at Christmas. Either that or exceptionally rich.
(I’m not even into custard but these cunning little pastries foxed me into enjoying their sweet creamy wickedness. Note that there are only 5 on the plate in this photo. One has already been wolfed. I won’t say by whom.)
Before we could even think about sleeping, however, Monsieur and I had a date with a rotisserie chicken at the nearby Bom Jardim restaurant. It was time to see whether this bastion of Portuguese chicken was all it was cracked up to be.
Next on the last-day-in-Langkawi hit-list was Tanjung Rhu, an island shaped like a junk, as in boat. It appears in lots of advertising media, not just for Malay products, and the natural beauty of the area surrounding the island is definitely worth the visit.
On the way to Tanjung Rhu, we passed a couple of other popular Langkawi resorts: The Datai, reputed for its beachfront luxury, and The Four Seasons, hiding behind a formidable wall exuding the wealth of its guests (don’t ask me how a wall exudes such things; just trust me that this one does).
As we approached Tanjung Rhu beach, we first stopped at a fishing village where the boats were as colourful as the people were friendly. All we needed to do with our cameras was point and shoot. The location and subject matter took care of the rest.
At Tanjung Rhu beach, we were met with a clutch of beach-shack stalls, bright sarongs flapping away like curtains in the warm sea air, beachwear displayed next to ice cream vendors. We weren’t prepared for the beauty of the beach. White sand piled up in gentle dunes and the island itself, exactly like the silhouette of an old-style junk. We sat on the beach for a while. It was almost deserted until a group of teenagers walked near us; boys and girls laughing and chattering away. The only difference between them and teenagers anywhere else was their clothing – no bikinis or beach shorts here. They wore trendy jeans or trousers with tunic tops covering their arms. The girls looked fresh-faced and pretty in their pastel headscarves; one had used diamante butterfly barettes to hold hers in place. That’s one of the things I so like about Malaysia – the veil is a definite part of life here but its use is colourful, fun and feminine, as opposed to its dark, oppressive cousins elsewhere in the world. The girls of Malaysia can still be girls. They don’t have to hide themselves inside black curtains.
When visiting Tanjung Rhu, the habit is to walk to the island. Off came our shoes as we paddled out to the big junk, knee-deep in water at times. A scattered trail of people were making the same pilgrimage, splashing away on the seemingly endless trek. For ages the island didn’t seem to get any closer, in spite of the many footsteps taken towards it, but at last we got there and I have to say that on arrival it was somewhat of an anti-climax. At the island, there wasn’t much to do apart from say we’d been there, so back we trudged, sand softly squishing between our toes, making it onto the beach just in time before the high tide rushed in after us to snap at our heels.
Eventually, we made it to Kuah, parking near the sea terminal where ferries from Penang arrive. The massive eagle statue stood on a landing facing the sea, its wings aloft as if mid-flight. As far as tacky goes, this was pretty bad, yet girls were jostling for position against the bird’s giant claws, posing for photos as if born into a fashion shoot – hands on jutted hips, pouting lips, expertly tousled hair. Not me. SO not me. Those claws were for hiding behind, not posturing upon.
By now, the sky was growing dark with rain clouds and all that threat of storm water was making us jiggle so into the terminal we went, in desperate search of public conveniences. These we found, with a small Ringgit charge for use and a veiled woman, mop in hand, tending to the on-floor water leakage in the ladies. (Monsieur had a man with a mop in the gents, naturally.) Now that the jiggling and uncomfortable thoughts of waterfalls had subsided, Monsieur and I quickly browsed the terminal’s shopping centre. There were lots and lots of duty free shops, as Langkawi is a duty free port. Doesn’t that cancel itself out? Doesn’t duty free become regular local prices if the whole area is duty free? I wondered. Perhaps not. Showing the discounts from recommended retail prices must drive in the business.
As we hit the road again, headed for Pelangi, the clouds rolled together, thunder clapping above us and rain falling in sheets. This was real, drenching, South-East Asian rain, so vital for the land but rather stressful to drive in. Monsieur and I leaned close to the windscreen, trying to see the way ahead. The jeep’s windscreen wipers weren’t made for this sort of downpour. We couldn’t see much at all. Pot holes added to the adventure of our drive back to the resort, and probably added to the wear on the jeep’s suspension from the feel of it. There in the blur was the local night market, but we wouldn’t be visiting tonight. Not in this weather. It’s one outing we would not be crossing off our to-do-list.
Eventually, we turned into the Resort, thankful to be alive. We’d had a couple of near misses which are liable to happen when your view of the road has diminished to Mister McGoo standards. To celebrate, we booked into the Spice Market for dinner, our stomachs roaring, only this time we’d be avoiding local cuisine and tucking into European fare with a glass of wine or two (wine costs the earth in Langkawi so this was definitely a special occasion). Exhausted, we ordered fresh green salads and creamy salmon pasta as the rain played percussion on the roof above. The cats shivered in dark corners; just like cats everywhere, they’re not that happy in the wet. As for me and my dear, French Monsieur, we were safe from the rain, for now.
For our last day in Langkawi, Monsieur and I decided to rent a jeep so we could scout the island for anything we may have missed. Luckily, there weren’t any jeeps available for a couple of hours; the migraine that had been threatening to go full-blown, although still not an absolute head-cracker, had not reacted well to the previous evening with New Best Friend and free-flow beers in the Pelangi Lounge. I lay on a sun-lounger, closed my eyes and prayed for the Malaysian version of nurofen to work. Trust me to leave home without my trusty ibuprofen. Never again.
The rest and quiet did the world of good so I no longer felt like an axe was breaking through my skull by the time we jumped in the jeep. Off we went with a vague sort of tourist map of Langkawi, heading for Oriental Village. We drove past some sights which were now familiar following our chauffeur-driven tour – the falling-down resort, the airport, the marina and the three man-made islands. As we drove up into the jungle, leaving the coast behind, we hit a Langkawi traffic jam, holding us up all of about ten minutes (this is nothing if you live in London, so as we sat at a standstill, Monsieur and I sang along happily to Brady Bunch songs on the radio. Okay, well perhaps it wasn’t the Brady Bunch, per se, but happy songs all the same).
At the head of the jam, caused by roadworks turning a dual carriageway into a single lane, there was a roadsign I’d never seen before. It showed a group of monkeys, indicating that monkeys crossed the road around here and therefore constituted a hazard to drivers. Imagine this: you’re running late for work and call your boss to explain. The excuse?
“Sorry, I’m going to be a bit late. I ran over a monkey as I reversed out of the drive.”
Brilliant. I must try that one some time.
We pulled into the car park at Oriental Village, a purpose-built visitor complex at the base of the Mount of Mat Chinchang. As always, the hot, humid air hit us like a wall as we got out of the air-conditioned jeep. (Come to think of it, air conditioning and jeeps sound wrong together.) We were soon jetting up the mountain in a modern cable car to view Langkawi from high. At the top of the Mount there are viewing platforms from which you can take fantastic photos. There’s also a pedestrian suspension bridge like a snake of steel cables between peaks. I didn’t make it very far along the bridge because it trembled (as suspension bridges are liable to do) and seemed to hang in thin air. It was also a long, rocky, bushy way down to the ground below. Chicken-licken here walked back to the non-shaky platform and stayed there, feet firmly planted on a surface that did not shake.
Back at the village, we visited the gift shops. They were filled with everything you’d expect from such places – batik gifts, local craftware, prayer wall-hangings, breakables, souvenir spoons and the universally popular snow shakers, making me wonder why people insist on manufacturing snow shakers for places where it doesn’t snow. I was now on a mission to find tacky postcards to add to my collection. So far on this trip I hadn’t managed to find a single one; not even an ancient seventies picture of a hotel! Here I managed to find some sickly greetings postcards featuring soft-focus kittens and a whole lot of pink, but that was about as successful as my quest got.
Walking through the village, we saw an elephant taking people for rides. I’ve never ridden an elephant and I’d love to, but we didn’t have enough time so I’ve put this on the future adventure wish list along with swimming with dolphins. It was pretty quiet at the Village, considering. As we sat with a bite of lunch (fish ‘n’ chips for me, something resembling food called a chicken chop for Monsieur – everything else was closed), I noticed women in broad-brimmed straw hats quietly tending the gardens around the Village. There was something so humble about them but the plants all looked luscious so they must have been doing something right with the elephant dung.
Before leaving Oriental Village, I dragged Monsieur into the petting zoo, where huge bunnies lay sprawled out in the shade and deer sat watching us, calmed by the heat. It was obviously animal siesta hour. We could quite easily have curled up under a tree ourselves at that point, but it would have been a crime to leave Langkawi without paying homage to the giant eagle statue in Kuah or visiting the beach at Tenjung Rhu. We had places to go and photos to take. Back in the jeep we jumped, heading off down the road with two pairs of keen eyes watching for monkeys crossing.
Monsieur and I may have been travelling à deux through Malaysia, but we were never short of dining companions. One night, a waiter told me the name of the umbrella trees which were dotted around the resort, looking like something out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. ‘It’s a Rhu tree,’ he told us. ‘the native tree of Langkawi.’ So some nights, we learned new things from the hotel staff, who were tirelessly patient with our questions.
Every night we spent on Langkawi, the tail-less cats of Pelangi Resort skulked near the tables of diners. We chatted to them, coaxing them closer for a tidbit or two, but careful not to alert the waiters to what we (and others) we doing, lest they chase them away with a “Wah wah!” warning in Malay. We’d already seen it in action on several occasions and felt sympathetic towards the feline scavengers, but the waiters were under orders from management that the guests not be disturbed by anything with a tail, no matter how stumpy, so “Wah wah!” they did.
One evening, as we sat at a table on the beachfront at dusk, we watched what can only be described as a ballet of crabs. They danced all over the sand, braving the beach now that giant interlopers had left for the day. In and out of their holes they went, sometimes slow, often in a flash. The timid dancers edged out, suspicious head and goggle eyes first, waiting until they were sure the coast was clear before exiting the safety of their burrow. Others held claws, dancing together, or was that a crab fight we witnessed? There were chases up and down the sand, leaving little tracks, barely perceptible now the sun had gone. The performance mesmerised. This was the theatre of nature playing out before us.
The Female Bore at the table next to us would never have noticed such a spectacle as she definitely couldn’t see past her own nose, let alone as far as the lowly crabs. ‘Crass’ and ‘braggard’ spring to mind when I think of her. She and her husband foisted their uninvited conversation on the young couple to their other side, who obviously wanted to be left alone, but there was no chance of that happening. How lucky we were that night; it could so easily have been us on the receiving end of Female Bore’s monologues plural. First she talked about holidays.
“So is this your first time to Malaysia?” she asked
“Yes, it is. We’re on our honeym…” came the interrupted reply. Female Bore was only asking the question to seem vaguely as if she cared about someone other than herself. This was a waste of time, really. She was a dire act when it came to feigning interest in something. The young couple were trying to tell her (in vain) that they were on their honeymoon, but F.B. wasn’t interested in their story. Off she went:
“This is our third time in Malaysia but our first in Langkawi. We travel a lot and we’ll be back again next year. It’s quite nice here at Pelangi but I think the Four Seasons might be better next time. The chalets here are getting a bit tired, you know?” That plastic nose crinkled up in well-practised snobbishness.
The chalets weren’t ‘tired’ at all. MOST unfair to the resort, but the point wasn’t the condition of our rooms. Female Bore simply wanted to point out that they could afford the Four Seasons if they wanted to. Yawn. If she did but know it, F.B. was more effective than valium at bed-time.
There was no respite from our foghorn neighbour. We heard about every holiday she’d taken for the past decade and trust me, that’s a lot of holidays to get through without taking a breath. I started to worry that she wasn’t getting enough oxygen, but just as I was calculating how much brain damage she could do if she didn’t breathe soon, Female Bore changed the topic of conversation and I was about to see my jaw hitting the floor as she showed what a flashy cow she really was.
“Well, of course, we’ve been to Bali. Know it well, but it wasn’t right for this holiday. No, we haven’t been back since those dreadful bombings. Terribly tragic. Our friends lost their daughter in the attack and it took days to piece together her body parts. I mean, can you imagine? I think they identified her from her dental records in the end. What a horrible, horrible thing to happen. An arm here, a leg there, blood everywhere. Devastating for the families. Our friends went to that memorial in Bali recently. You know, it was on the news? Yes, well, they were there. With all those other poor, poor people who buried parts of their loved ones. I don’t know if there were any whole bodies to bury after that blast. Honestly. What is the world coming to?”
Took the words right out of my mouth. Just what IS the world coming to when people boast about knowing people who lost their lives in terrorist acts. I know that technically ‘boast’ isn’t correct in this context, but the one thing I can’t do on this blog is show the manner in which these words were spoken, and ‘boast’ would become a verb of great relevance if you could hear Female Bore in action, no matter what the subject at hand.
Luckily, not all evenings were like that. Far from it. But we did have a small issue with meal-crashing.
One night, we were at Niyom Thai, the Thai restaurant at the resort, when my New Best Friend from the island-hopping day, spotted us. He waved hello, jumped a low hedge and stood chatting to us about his day as our meal grew cold. The way that his eyes darted from our faces to our bowls of Tom Yam indicated that he wouldn’t decline an invitation to join us, and on another day perhaps we would have done just that, but that particular day my head was killing me with the threat of a migraine so making small talk wasn’t high on my list of priorities. We promised to catch up with him another night and eventually, he got the hint and left us to slurp our cold tom yam.
We kept our promise and caught up with New Best Friend on the night that we finally decided to visit the Pelangi Lounge. There he was, sitting at a table with a couple of free seats, staring expectantly at the stage. He waved us over.
“Come and join me!” he beckoned, “my friends are singing tonight. They’re a pair of Thai girls, so pretty, and so talented.” (My guess was that NBF’s idea of what consitutes talent might be a tad different to mine.)
NBF made it sound as if he and the Thai girls had known each other for generations, but the way they ignored him when they got up on stage indicated otherwise. They sang covers and they sang well, as the beer flowed and the lounge filled up. Soon, there wasn’t a spare seat anywhere and the barmen were shaking cocktails in an endless stream of alcohol and miniature paper umbrellas.
The set ended and NBF beckoned to the singers. With a slight shrug of ‘whatever’, they joined us for a couple of minutes, but just as NBF started his rave review of their performance so far, they excused themselves to fetch a drink and once that was achieved, sat with a group on the other side of the lounge.
Poor NBF. I almost felt sorry for him. He must have noticed that his interest in the Thai singers wasn’t exactly reciprocated, and instead of changing the subject, he instead continued his version of a Thai Singer Appreciation Society.
“Yes, well, the girls have their friends here tonight. That’s who they’re sitting with now. Mmmm. They told me they might not have as much time as usual to chat during their breaks. I’m sure they’ll be with us for the next one.”
NBF’s eyes didn’t leave the girls for longer than a few seconds. He reminded me of one of those cartoon dogs who salivate like Niagara Falls as they follow the perfect poodle with the pink ribbon all the way down the street, in spite of being the doofiest dog on the block. Feeling far from comfortable as we observed NBF behaving more like a seventeen year old than a seventy year old, Monsieur and I tried to leave on a few occasions, but each time NBF pushed us back into our chairs as he hailed a waiter to order another round of drinks. Just prior to the point where we risked falling under the table from that heady mix of local lager and fatigue, we finally managed to settle up and return to our room, by which time Monsieur and I were feeling more than a little buzzed. It would certainly seem we were turning into bar lightweights and the surreal evening we’d just experienced hadn’t helped. That was the last time we saw NBF because we left Pelangi the following day. I often wonder what happened to him. I think he meant well, even if he was annoying and more than a bit deluded about his attractiveness to women.
PS – in case you’re wondering why the singers at Pelangi were Thai and not Malay, it’s because Malaysia is a Moslem country so it isn’t deemed appropriate for Malay women to sing pop songs for a crowd in a skimpy outfit. However, Thai women are not Moslem, so the rules change. They hop across the border into Malaysia, where there is plenty of resort and bar work for attractive non-Malay girls who can hold a tune.
One day, Monsieur and I found ourselves suffering from Resort Fatigue so we decided to get out and explore the island on a chauffeur-driven jeep tour. We were collected from main reception before being whisked out of the complex and into Langkawi’s beautiful landscape. Our driver was friendly and full of advice regarding what we should see. As we drove down country roads bisecting the low-land paddie fields, we saw water buffalo grazing knee-deep in water and locals tending their crops. Little houses with chicken coops stood between the verdant fields and everything was lush with good health.
Our first stop was the Field of Burnt Rice, related to one of Langkawi’s many legends. A beautiful woman named Mahsuri was married to the chief of the island and subjected to the petty jealousies of her mother-in-law. When Mahsuri’s husband left to fight the Siamese, who were threatening Langkawi, Mahsuri’s monster-in-law suspected her of committing adultery with a travelling musician. Mahsuri was subsequently executed by sword, as sleeping around behind your spouse’s back was a sin punishable by death, as it should be but as Mahsuri died, her wounds gushed white blood, symbolising her innocence.
During the unusually long-winded execution which took a while to complete thanks to blunt swords, Mahsuri took some time to cast a curse on Langkawi:
“There shall be no peace and prosperity on this island for a period of seven generations.”
That was in 1819. The islanders soon had reason to believe this curse because shortly after Mahsuri’s death, in 1821, the Siamese army invaded Langkawi and Mahsuri’s father-in-law, Dato Karma Jaya, worried about what would happen if the island’s rice store fell into Siamese hands, so he ordered it all burned. The locals then suffered from food deprivation, again proving the curse’s validity in their eyes. It also seems relevant that anyone with “Karma” in their name should be wary of creating negative karma themselves by starving their people, even if you do achieve your aim of starving the enemy.
The Field of Burnt Rice is where the rice store once stood. To this day, grains of blackened rice still appear after rain in an area called Padang Mat Sirat. It’s believed that the rice was buried there before being burned. Nowadays, there is a small monument to Mahsuri and her curse at the Field of Burnt Rice, but islanders believe that the curse has lifted as the seventh generation descendant of Mahsuri, Wan Aishah, was born in Southern Thailand in 1980. The modern Langkawi thrives, thanks in a big way to property development and tourism.
Monsieur and I wandered through the market at the Burnt Rice Village, a thriving collection of stalls selling everything from colourful, beaded headscarves to typical touristy tees and shell jewellery, then looked at the giant Bonsai standing unceremoniously in the car park. It seemed a shame that such such a grande dame of the art of Bonsai should be growing there.
The driver then took us the Atma Alam Batik Village, where we saw the batik process in its various stages (batik is a method of decorating material by using hot wax outlines which remain white when dye is painted over them). The adjacent shop was filled with batik paintings, shirts (which were so splashy that Monsieur shied away instantly), scarves and sarong-style skirts with matching tops. I bought a few pretty headbands and some hand-made paper notebooks as gifts, but the disappointment of the staff that we weren’t Big Spenders was palpable, in spite of their smiles.
Back in the jeep, we drove further around the coast as the driver told us about the effect of the Boxing Day Tsunami on Langkawi.
“We were very lucky here,” he told us, “Only one person died and she was very, very old so she was probably going to die anyway, with or without the tsunami. When the wave came, the water flooded the coastal areas and the pools at the Pelangi Resort were filled with fish!”
Now there was an image for us. Click here for Langkawi tsunami photos.
We rounded a bend, following an inlet leading inland. Ahead of us was a modern village with shops and restaurants and a marina filled with gin palaces. This was Pantai Kok Harbour. We made a comfort stop at the marina and even in the brand new ladies’ room, the loos were Turkish-style and water and urine covered the ground. I pondered how safe such practices were, given the slippery floor. One thing cannot be disputed, however: going Turkish is definitely good for your leg muscles.
As we motored on, the driver pointed out to some islands at the mouth of the harbour.
“Man-made,” he said, proudly.
“Man-made?” we asked, like a pair of Doubting Thomases.
“Yes, man-made. Those islands are to make the bay prettier and give the boats somewhere else to moor.”
Now, the road was rising and the sides of the road were thick with jungle. We were going to see a famous waterfall and as we approached the car park, signs of the tourist were evident. At the many rubbish bins dotted around, families of macaques were sifting their way through the rubbish, looking for something to nibble and strewing anything inedible in a great mess on the ground. They weren’t in any way disturbed by cars or people. These monkeys were quite used to humans and far from intimidated by us, as we were about to see.
At a snacks kiosk by the car park, a group of visitors were buying ice lollies. One turned away with his refreshing twister, removed it from the wrapper and took an audible slurp. That was all the encouragement required for one old monkey. He jumped up, grabbed the ice lolly and returned to the curb where he polished it off at leisure. We all stood in amazement at this blatant theft. The tourist, a strapping chap, was completely thrown by the act.
“Can I get you another one?” asked one of his group,
“No way. I’m getting out of here.” he spat, casting a death glare at the monkey and stomping off to the waiting bus.
At just less than a mile long, the trek through the jungle was uphill in the intense humidity, but the path was new and wide, if a little slippery at times. The falls at the end were worth our effort, though. Called the Seven Wells Waterfall, or Telaga Tujuh, a freshwater stream cascades via six pools to a 90 foot fall dropping into the seventh. The legend of this place tells of fairies visiting the seven wells to bathe, drawn by the natural beauty all around. We could see their point.
Continuing our tour, we were next taken to a spring with healing waters called Air Hangat, or ‘Hot Water’. This is the site of yet another Langkawi legend, where two feuding families were hurling objects at each other until one side threw a pot of hot water. The pot fell on the ground and a hot spring immediately manifested on the spot where the pot landed. The area is geothermal so perhaps it just took the thump of a landing pot to set off the spring. Who knows? Ever since, the hot waters have been praised for their healing properties for the mind and soul and a cultural village has grown around the spring.
Monsieur and I weren’t really that interested in Air Hangat, if the truth be told. We were dying to get into Langkawi’s big town, Kuah, to do some shopping. Langkawi is a tax free zone, you see, so everyone shops here like it’s a sport. But our driver had been so good to us that we visited the complex to be polite. Inside, the hot spring is fed into modern channels in the typical geometric shapes of Islamic design. It was beautifully done, if a little sterile, but I admit I was more interested in the salad servers at the gift shop. They were a dark, speckled wood, so I bought a pair for home. For their exotic beauty, they were ridiculously cheap. Something like RM8 each! They’d probably sell for £30 or more in London. Hrmph. Perhaps I should go into business.
One morning Monsieur and I went for breakfast at The Spice Market, a large restaurant with both indoor and terraced seating and an impressive breakfast buffet. We ate various different things from the generous spread (spicy Malay food, boring old toast), but the one that sticks in my mind is the watermelon. Next to the platter of the sliced red fruit was a bowl of limes. Back at the table I squeezed a couple of the green segments all over the watermelon, ready to try something a bit new. The combination of zingy citrus and subtle melon crush was refreshing in the most tropical of ways. Now, whenever I eat watermelon, it has to be with a drizzle of lime juice over the top.
After breakfast, we went to the Business Centre to check our e-mails; something we’d not done for a while. There in my in-box was a message from Wise Woman telling me that Steve Irwin, that bastion of masculinity in khaki-shorts-wearing, crocodile and serpent-wrestling form, had been killed by a stingray whilst scuba diving. No. It could not be! Steve Irwin? The invincible? Dead? On reflection, when your life involves daily risk such as sticking your head into the open mouth of a croc for TV, I guess it wasn’t that surprising.
I insisted we return to the chalet to watch satellite news and sure enough, there it was: an international tribute to the now late Steve Irwin. His wife, Terri and children, Bindi (then eight) and Bob (then three) were understandably devastated.
In this case, the famed Croc Hunter had been shooting some film off the coast of Australia at the Great Barrier Reef. He reportedly swam over a ray hidden in the sand and the barb of the ray’s tail flung up suddenly, piercing him in the chest. Irwin was rushed to meet a medical evacuation helicopter on nearby Lowe Island, but died in spite of all efforts to save him. To hear such news in Malaysia, of all places, made it even more unexpected. The world would certainly be less colourful without Steve Irwin, whom I will always fondly remember unknowingly flashing his goolies as he sat wide-legged in his signature khaki shorts on Parkinson one Saturday night.
Having now seen the news and convinced myself that Steve Irwin was now in Croc-Hunter Heaven, we went for a swim in the Horizon Pool. The water was warm as we floated lazily under the Langkawi sun. Families of Arabic origin milled about at poolside, the women draped in their dark robes and veils, making me all the more conscious of wearing a bikini. I stayed in the water, refusing to get out until they had passed. In spite of the veils, I’d noticed their eyes staring at the Western women wearing beach clothes and swimwear around the resort. Whatever their beliefs, they must have wished, at least for one second, that they could strip off and feel the sun’s rays warm their skin. Although I respect the veil, I will never understand it.
The Arab children, meanwhile, screeched around unchecked on the resort’s bicycles, little princes and princesses enjoying the freedom of childhood, whilst occasionally riding straight into another guest. At least the little girls, for now, could play in shorts and tee shirts. I wondered how they would feel the first time they had to shroud themselves, to do so forever after.
At lunchtime, we grabbed a quick bite at the poolside snack bar – lebanese wraps filled with chicken fingers, salad and a mango salsa, before lounging in the sun with our books. I was reading The End of Elsewhere by Taras Grescoe, a fascinating history of tourism from pilgrimages through to the present day. It’s one of those books so cram-packed full of interest that you don’t want to turn the pages too quickly.
The afternoon heat stoked up so back in the pool we went for another dip. Just another boring paragraph in this travelogue? I suppose it could be, but when you consider that a lizard swam past us, squiggling atop the water’s surface from one side of the pool to the other, it was definitely one of the more unusual swims I’ve ever taken. The lizard seemed to walk on the water, ignoring our gaping mouths (it was no small lizard, roughly 16 inches long) as it reached the rocky wall by the pool bar, climbing it slowly to a plateau in the sun. There it froze still, becoming immediately invisible, its colour blending into the stone.
That evening, Monsieur and I wandered down to the beach to watch another Langkawi sunset. This time, the sea turned papaya and the clouds resembled candy floss suspended in the still, warm air. The sky was iced teal at the horizon, gradually deepening into a dark azure heaven. When the moon came, it was a jolt of titanium white against the palette of colours competing around it. The islands below became a furry black silhouette and we sat as nature performed its evening floorshow.
Interrupting the peace, a wizened and weathered old Malay man approached me, speaking a toothless gibberish as he prodded the air by my face. I think I was getting a lecture, but I couldn’t be sure. He was poor, that was obvious, so I exercised patience, hoping his message would become clear. He wasn’t holding his hand out, so he wasn’t begging, I don’t think, but a waiter wasn’t taking any chances. Out of nowhere he jumped, in crisp white uniform, shooing the old man away.
Down on the water, jetskiers made the most of the last minutes of daylight as fishermen hauled their catch up onto the beach. I wandered down to the nets, watching the men deftly pick out the fish of the day, whilst returning anything too small or unwanted to the sea. Their fishing method was ancient – there wasn’t even a boat involved; just men and their nets, cast out into the water and tethered there until it was time to retrieve Neptune’s spoils.
I stooped to pick some shells off the sand. Many were translucent, others were opaque limpets of varying shades of white and black. There were razor clam shells and tiny, empty scallops. Crabs scuttled sideways, in and out of their holes as my plodding human feet approached. The only people on the beach were Monsieur, myself and the fishermen.
Back at the resort, the umbrella-shaped rhu trees took on a fairy-tale quality in the darkening evening and stars popped out one by one. During these hours at the shore, my breathing slowed to the point that I barely felt alive; everything was so steeped in the stuff of dreams. At the same time I felt more alive than ever. The colours, the salt air, a swimming lizard, the strange toothless man, the umbrella tree, the fishermen, the crabs, the magic shells. Such memories remain clear in my mind, both technicolour and indelible to this day.
A few weeks back, Sheila Rahman of the Malay Mail contacted me to say I’d been blogspotted and would I like to feature in their Cyberspot page. Would I ever? As a result, Gabey Goh wrote me up and yesterday the Malay Mail featured Epicurienne.
Here’s the link:
If you want to read about some other bloggers who’ve been blogspotted, just google “Malay Mail Blogspot”. It makes for some interesting reading and an introduction to all sorts of blogs that we might not ordinarily stumble upon.
When Monsieur and I returned to London after our holiday in Malaysia, it didn’t take long before we were craving Malaysian food, so off we went in search of good Malaysian eateries in London. Before too long, we found ourselves eating at Nyonya, a restaurant in Notting Hill.
Nyonya is a word used to describe Peranakan women, that is, women who are the offspring of Chinese and Malaysian parents. The Nyonya culture is prevalent in Melaka, with food rich in distinctive spices such as tamarind, so we were keen to try it out.
Nyonya sits at the busy junction of two roads, within easy walking distance of Notting Hill Gate tube. Patrons can see the traffic and passers-by from their seats behind the floor-to-ceiling windows and passers-by can gawp back at them, if they have time to be interested. The wipe-clean tables and simple stools inside are not conducive to leisurely meals, however. This is an enter-eat-pay-and-leave type of place, but as it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, you can’t be offended by the brusque service. Nyonya is a restaurant which has absolutely zero atmosphere with a decor so incredibly practical that everything even FEELS a sterile white. So why do a pair of atmosphere-seekers like us keep going back?
The menu is one reason. From deep-fried dumplings to satay sticks of chicken with a delightful peanut sauce that has that ‘je ne sais quoi’ about it, or the coolness of the Kerabu prawns with a sweet chilli-imbued sauce. (‘Kerabu’ means ‘salad’ in Malay). The Hainanese chicken rice is a typical Nyonya dish, which arrives looking typically white and uninspiring, but transports us back to Malaysia in one taste. I usually go for a laksa or mee soup, using my chopsticks to fish for noodles and other ingredients in the steaming broth, whilst watching my neighbours consume their choices and making mental notes to order what they’re having on our next visit.
The freshness of the ingredients at Nyonya is a huge plus in its favour, as is the laid-back vibe (even if it is a bit bland). We also appreciate the speed with which the bill arrives once it’s asked for. We hate that moment where the table is cleared and you ask for the bill but suddenly the wait staff abandon you to twiddle your thumbs. It can be a case of the invisible patron the instant you stop ordering food. Well, there’s definitely no risk of that happening at Nyonya. Masses of warmth and engagement, no. Speed and efficiency, yes. So much so that we often combine a quick bite at Nyonya with a trip to the cinema because we know won’t be kept waiting.
Monsieur and I still haven’t tried the kuih-kuih, a traditional dessert made from a family recipe, but we’ll give it a whirl next time. For now, I remember the driver who took us to our hotel in Melaka. “what do you like to eat?” I asked him. His reply was a veritable menu of dishes made with pineapple. I know he’d approve of Nyonya. They use pineapple in at least two of their mains.
2A Kensington Park Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 3BU, T 020 7243 1800
Monsieur and I didn’t take long to unwind at the Pelangi Beach Resort, but we can’t sit still for long so soon we found ourselves reading the large, wooden activities board near the Horizon Pool. On the board hung signs bearing the names of the various activities that were available that day, with start time and meeting point information.
The list included windsurfing, kayaking, feeding the eagles for which Langkawi is known and named, and a kiddie club. There were also details for a number of tours including island hopping and a kayaking trip through the mangroves to visit a real, live bat cave.
I later found that the windsurfers were either broken or mismatched with ill-fitting sails, but that didn’t worry us as we’re not exactly World Champion windsurfers. Monsieur’s eyes had brightened at the thought of the bat-cave kayaking adventure, so we booked ourselves in, only to cancel at the last minute because we would have had to leave at the crack of dawn one morning, which defeated the purpose of winding down. In any case, the idea of puddling about in mud with mosquitoes aplenty and a visit to a cave full of scary bats with their ammonia-stinking urine was not particularly alluring, so I wasn’t exactly sorry, as it was already clear that boredom wasn’t to be an issue at Pelangi.
Monsieur booked a golf outing at one of the island’s courses while I bought a ticket for an island-hopping excursion. About a dozen of us squeezed onto a smallish boat with canopy and the skipper instructed us to put on life jackets. Then out to sea we went. The sea was calm until we were a reasonable distance out from shore and that’s when the motor revved and we started skipping across the choppy water like an unwieldy pebble. It was the sort of bouncing that pushed your breath out of you each time the boat thudded downwards and being a prepare-for-the-worst sort of person, I started to watch the current in case we capsized and I had to swim for shore. This didn’t feel safe at all. Even the lifejackets were faded with age. I thought of Monsieur and how wise he’d been to select a landlubber activity today.
After around fifteen interminable minutes we entered a large bay on our first island destination, slowing down as we approached the pier on Pulau Dayang Bunting. This name means ‘Island of the Pregnant Maiden’ and, although it’s the second largest island in the Langkawi archipelago, it is uninhabited. Only day-trippers visit here as there is nowhere to spend the night.
As we walked up a hill through the island’s jungle, an Englishman chatted to me. Sixtyish with a shock of short, white hair and the tan, lean body of someone who enjoys the tropics, he gave me a travel tip:
“I don’t bring a proper bag on these days out,” he began, shaking his white plastic bag at me,
“Just a towel and some basics in my wallet, like my room key and some cash. I leave everything else back at the hotel. That way, I have very little to lose.”
Hmmm. So much for the smug smile at the end of that statement. It would seem that the monkeys of this island were listening to my new English companion because, just as we reached the top of the hill overlooking the Lake, a light-pawed macaque jumped out of nowhere, grabbing the plastic bag out of the Englishman’s hand and carrying it deftly up a tree. Once on a branch safely out of our reach, he turned the bag upside down, spilling the Englishman’s few items all over the jungle floor. All, that is, except for the wallet. This monkey was smart.
The entire group stopped to help retrieve the towel, a spectacles case and a water bottle, but there was no hope of getting the wallet back. The monkey was now assessing its contents with the concentration of a seasoned thief. Receipts tumbled out of the tree, but no cash and no room card. Nope, he was keeping those. The monkey’s next trick was to nibble the wallet with relish. He wasn’t giving back his tasty new prize. No way. We waited some time to see if the macaque would grow bored of the wallet and let it fall to a place where we could retrieve it, but in the end the Englishman gave up.
“At least there’s nothing of importance in there,” he sighed, “just fifty Ringgits. The hotel can always make me a new room key when I tell them what happened.”
Down at the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden, people were already swimming. To one side of a timber platform bordering the dark green water was a small snack shop filled with soft drinks and plastic inflatable toys, providing a splash of synthetic colour in an otherwise natural haven. On a short pier, a man was hiring out canoes and pedalo boats, which looked like fun. All I wanted to do, however, was swim off the trickles of sweat coursing all over my body. First I had to get my clothes off without attracting too much more attention from my New Best Friend. The Englishman made me feel a bit uncomfortable but there was no shaking him off my trail. It was my fault. I’m not rude enough. It seemed he’d adopted me for the day and the lack of a Blatantly Direct gene in my DNA meant I found it impossible to tell him to go away. Luckily I already had my swimsuit on under my shorts and tee shirt as the way he was looking at me and the other girls in their swimwear was just a tad too interested. Trying not to attract any more attention, I whisked off my outer garments and jumped into the water without hesitation. For the moment was safe from pervy old eyes. Then I remembered the legends of the Lake.
The first concerns its magical properties which apparently make barren women fertile. The guidebook said that one couple finally conceived after nineteen years of trying, once the woman had swum in the Lake. The second legend says that a giant, white crocodile lives here and as the water wasn’t exactly transparent, I suddenly wanted out because I couldn’t see my feet and my feet couldn’t touch the bottom. I needed desperately to see my feet.
Hauling myself up a ladder and pulling a towel around me, I sat on the edge of the platform, chatting with some of the other island hoppers. As we shared our experiences of this fascinating country, I looked across the Lake at the dense foliage wrapping itself around the water. The tree shapes looked familiar, but why? Suddenly it hit me. They were exactly like giant florets of broccoli.
In the afternoon heat, I soon dried off and we returned to the boat to hop across to another island. This time, we wouldn’t be going ashore; we stayed floating still in the bay, watching a large group of eagles feeding. The skipper threw some food out into the water near our boat and suddenly the sky filled in a Hitchcock-esque way, with formidable, circling birds. Then, one by one, they swooped down to the water to pick up some food before swooping upwards again.
These were eagles, which have a special relationship with Langkawi, for the word, ‘Langkawi’ means ‘red eagle’. From the looks of things, these were white-bellied fishing eagles, not red eagles, but I wasn’t about to nit-pick. Seeing these intelligent birds in action was quite something.
The last island on the hopping list was known for its beautiful, white sandy beach. I wanted to read, but the Englishman wanted to tell me all about his life in England as a language books publisher. I went to the bar for beers. As the Englishman wasn’t going anywhere and had no money on him following the macaque attack, I shouted him a drink in the interests of anaesthetising myself against his drone.
It was hot on the beach. Having exhausted his life-story for the moment, the Englishman invited me to swim with him, but I declined, watching my companion with amusement as he stripped down to his shorts, sucked in his belly and strutted in the most macho fashion he could muster down to the water. He turned to flash an appraising grin at every girl he passed. Obviously, this was a man with the hormones of a teenager.
Eventually we made it back to the resort and I was relieved to bid farewell to the Englishman. On the final leg of our boat trip he’d been chattering away inanely about his ‘friends’ who sing each night in the Pelangi Lounge, suggesting that Monsieur and I might like to join him one evening to watch their act.
“Yes, of course!” I nodded, “that would be fun!” I lied, cursing my inability to tell him that never, ever would I knowingly inflict his superior inappropriateness on Monsieur.
On the way back to our chalet it struck me that there’s a live one like the Englishman wherever you travel: a bit lonely, a bit leery and a bit too full of Heinz baked beans. It’s impossible to put your finger on exactly what’s wrong with them, but there’s a vibe that goes with a whiff of testosterone, and instinct says that they’re travelling alone so they can take home a different sort of souvenir: a wife.
Following a week of city crowds, adjusting to the time difference and constant movement, the Pelangi Beach Resort offered us some relaxation before returning to ever-chaotic London. It was perfect and soul-soothing to be there. Gone were the honking cars and traffic jams, there were no throngs of people to contend with and the surrounds were stunning at worst. The relative silence of Pelangi was only broken by birds cawing for tidbits of food or the surf meeting the white sand of the beach.
The breeze from the sea was just right, too; not too strong, but cooling without being cold. The days were pleasantly warm but never overbearingly hot or humid. The resort staff were pleasant to deal with and as we walked about the grounds, not a single hotel employee hesitated to greet us with a cheery hello and warm smile. They answered any questions we may have with efficiency and genuine interest and we experienced no pressure to buy when asking about local trips and tours. For once, commission was not king.
From our beach loungers we watched planes coming and going from the nearby airport, but even they seemed to lack their usual peace-disturbing repertoire of engine thrust noise or the sounds of landing gear going up or down. Altogether, Pelangi was impressing peace upon us.
Following our first dinner by the beach, we decided to try out the mini-bar rather than sit in the hotel bar. This way, we could sit on the lanai overlooking the lake and take further advantage of the quiet here. The beer in the mini-bar cost a mere 4RM each so we settled into our chairs on the balcony to sip on a Tiger or two.
The soft light was a magnet for a family of lizards. I observed them, entranced, remembering a childhood home where there were lizards to play with. I’ll never forget the day my parents pulled up an old carpet, ready for replacement, only to find the skeletons of lizards that had found their way under it but perished there, unable to escape. Luckily, the Pelangi lizards stayed on the wall. If they’d come any closer to us, Monsieur would probably have sent them to lizard heaven with one clomp of his shoe. He has no time for cold-blooded creatures, preferring mammals, like me.
In the night air around us, black shadows flitted about at some velocity. These were the dreaded bats of the region, well, dreaded by me at least. Then strange splashing sounds floated up from the lake itself. They must have been fish rising to the surface for a gulp of air, but it was too dark to see. By day, the splashing sounds continued, although I never saw any fish myself, as the opaque green of the water hid them too well.
One morning, Monsieur and I decided to forego the breakfast at the restaurant in favour of room service on our lanai. As we were splurging, I chose pancakes with maple syrup and plates of watermelon and pineapple. Well, when the tray arrived the fruit plates were loaded up with massive quantities, not at all representative of the modest prices on the menu.
As I set the table for the breakfast banquet, a family of ducks spotted me from across the lake, speeding across the water to quack at us with what I imagine were duck-ese demands for food. Meanwhile, cheeky yellow-billed birds squawked as they jumped with their trampoline feet on and off the balcony.
Of all the lanais around the lake, ours was the only one being used for breakfast so it felt as if we had the entire place to ourselves. As for our neighbours, they were definitely missing a beat. How could breakfast elsewhere be more peaceful that on this beautiful little lake? It’s hardly surprising that Pelangi is the Malay word for rainbow, and this place is surely the pot of gold.