Without Time: Reflections on Malaysia

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Jason and I arrived in Malaysia by bus directly from Singapore. We were helped to the bus by Daphne after getting in a quick meal of Thai food. The lunch, at Golden Mile, a hub for Thai and Malaysian migrant workers, was a bit rushed, and a bit gritty. The contrast from the ultra contemporary comfort of the rest of Singapore was a welcome change, even if it wasn’t a long glimpse into a seedier side.

After getting on the bus it was clear a new phase of the Southeast Asia experience Jason and I were exploring was upon us. Gone were the luxury of English language and friends and Wifi all over the place. We were on a discount bus with only 5% of its seats packed and a driver who spoke not only no English but nothing at all. This was exciting, especially when we had to cross the border. We were immediately taken under the wing of a fellow passenger, Brian, a Chinese-Malaysian back to visit his family for the Malaysian New Year in Kluang, his hometown. Brian spoke great English and helped us learn a bit more about Malaysia, and ultimately got us a taxi from the mess of the bus terminal that is Kluang. If you want an adventure, visit a so-called “small town” in Johor, Malaysia. You’ll quickly learn how foreign you are. When we arrived, we took the cab (the driver another non-speaking, almost neutral individual in all senses and demeanor) to the Rail Hotel, and we were kindly greeted by Aziza, who really took care of us. She was the second of many, many ultra-nice people in Malaysia. Our room was swanky, had modern amenities, and was directly above the Rail Cafe, a restaurant offering the “best kopi-c (coffee) in Malaysia.” This place was charming. Unfortunately we were served a mutton dish instead of the cuttlefish curry, but fortunately the mutton and all other foods were damn good. And the coffee, complete with condensed milk, did us well.

While Kluang offered plenty of strange signs, dense buildings, curious English translations, motos everywhere, and a sense of place way unknown to us, we did not do much exploring. This is because of distance. While the town is huge, we were staying outside of its center, and didn’t have means of traveling far. Because it’s not a touristy spot, taxis were limited to the center. It wasn’t boring, though. We did visit a couple of stores nearby, and revelled in the Chuck Norris t-shirts, bins of dried fish of all shapes and sizes, a wild dog that followed us around, a sunset of daggers, and Moslem prayer projected into all pockets of space via megaphone. Ramadan in its final days was a most curious circumstance in Malaysia as many Malaysians are not followers of Islam.

After our experience in Kluang we were picked up by William, our rainforest guide. William, a 28 year old amateur naturalist, was the pinnacle of our trip to this country, by far. There is much to tell about visiting Endau Rompin and I fear I won’t be able to describe everything here. I will say this, however: Jason and I experienced the rainforest, experienced immense rain, experienced an aboriginal people still trying to make it in a village inside the protected park, and so, so much more. Unfortunately without pictures (they are on my camera and inaccessible) it is hard to show the world we discovered. But imagine a Native American reservation combined with the most wild ecosystem possible, and you might get a good idea. From cerulean kingfishers to ungodly loud cicadas to lizards and poisonous snakes and grasshoppers as big as your fist and the eyes of lemurs and huge spiders and waves of ants twenty feet long, our encounters in the jungle were primal and fantastic. After two days we felt a kinship with the people of Kampung Peta, especially our guide’s assistant, Lagom, a 20 year old heir to a huge patriarchal family. In any case, I need to write about our experiences here more in depth, but will have to wait and reflect on at a future point when I have more time and a full keyboard. I will say this: William was one of the greatest people we met on our trip because he was so present. He was the male version of Singapore’s Daphne, in a way. I will miss him.

Let’s see. After a couple of days in the rainforest, it was time to move on. Calvin drove us from the park to Mersing, a town I’d love to describe but can’t because we were only there for fifteen minutes. Just as we pulled up and ran to the ticket counter got our tickets, we learned a ferry would be leaving in five minutes. Not any ferry, of course, but the last ferry. We jumped on board, conversed with two dudes from Singapore (who were extremely into USA) and enjoy the ride to Tioman Island.

And now Tioman. Tioman is the kind of paradise you can only dream of. 20 kilometers from the Malaysian coast, the small island features maybe 20 resorts and several small villages on its perimeters. The coast is white sand and clearest waters and the center is towering jungle mountains with features like dragon teeth. We’ve been staying at Minang Cove, a delightful spot filled with all white tourists like us, but we are definitely the only Americans. And it’s paradise. The water warmer than air, the place not filled enough to be obnoxious, and the engagement with nature consistent. We saw monkeys here. We saw monitor lizards. Sharks the size of motorcycles. All manner of fish on our snorkel adventure. The biggest butterflies of our lives. The most red dragonflies and the most blue. And the Iist goes on. When we make it to Kuala Lumpur, I hope I’ll be able to describe in more detail the love for this place, this place where I don’t check my watch, don’t even know what day or date it is. Until then….

Next steps: Kuala Lumpur for three days, then flight to Phnom Penh.

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