Monday, April 25, 2011

Blast from the past: Travels in Malaysia

Many years ago, I had visited Malaysia as the Features Editor of Dubai's Khaleej Times. On my return I wrote these articles, which are reproduced here from the newspaper's issue of January 30, 1997:

Kuala Lumpur is a popular stopover for package-tour tourists, who might then go on to Singapore, Bangkok and even Hong Kong. Very few travellers, especially from this part of the world, fly across to the island of Borneo, which is shared by three countries — Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. RAMESH PRABHU, who was in KL earlier this month in connection with the ASEAN Tourism Forum, spent four days in Sabah, on Borneo’s northern tip, and came back enthralled. Here, he explains why…

YOU HAVE heard of the Wild West. Fancy a trip to the Wild East?

Picture this: It’s late in the evening as we approach the eight wooded steps leading up to the porch of a traditional tribal longhouse built by the Kadazan people. When we reach the porch we are asked to take off our shoes. It is pitch dark as we troop into the house and gather around whispering inanities to each other for comfort. None of us in this group of 15 foreign journalists knows what to expect. All we have been told is that this house was once the abode of Monsopiad, Sabah’s legendary headhunter of the 18th century. It has been raining so there’s a chill in the air adding to the suspense.

And then the lights come on. There’s a hush as we look around.

Wenidy Moujing
Yuriko Watanabe spots them first: 42 human skulls grinning at us from the rafters. It’s an awesome sight rooting us where we stand. That is the cue for Wenidy (“It rhymes with Kennedy”) Moujing to begin his spiel. Wenidy, a direct descendant of Monsopiad, is in charge of research at this cultural village located on the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. He is pleased at our reaction and more than pleased to narrate the story of his feared ancestor.

Monsopiad was born and raised in a village where his maternal grandfather was the headman. Though he received special training as a warrior, Monsopiad was a peaceable farmer to begin with. While he was tilling his rice field one day, a group of women came up and started criticising him for working so hard, saying it was a waste of time as the harvest would soon be plundered by robbers who frequently attacked the village. The women also ridiculed the men of the village and called them weaklings for not being able to defend their homes. Monsopiad, angered by such mockery, vowed to eliminate the bandits and also promised to cut off the head of their leader and bring it back to his village as a trophy to be hung from the roof of his house. As the cliché goes, he kept his head while all around him were losing theirs and, as the years passed, Monsopiad collected the heads of 42 powerful warriors, all enemies of the village.

As we now contemplated those heads, it was easy to transport ourselves back through time into an era of animistic rituals conducted by the bobohizan (priestesses) amid munificent jungles brimming with exotic life.

Having set the mood, Wenidy then led us to the main building for a traditional tribal dinner followed by some splendid dance performances by a cultural troupe. Tourists are encouraged to join in the dances and are also given a chance to use the famed Kadazan blowpipe to pop… balloons.

A traditional dance performance for the guests from abroad.

It was Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammed who once called Sabah “the Wild East” and as Joshua Eliot notes in his Malaysia and Singapore Handbook, Sabah, in the popular imagination of West Malaysians, is the land of the Bajau cowboys, gun-toting pirates and one-horse towns. It could well be the setting for an oriental version of For A Few Dollars More. The state does indeed have a frontier feel to it; Jeeps and Toyota Landcruisers, as we discovered, are the only practical way of travelling long distances overland.

With its many and varied natural charms, Sabah is a dream destination for producers of holiday brochures: they all speak of an excitingly fresh and unspoilt land that has something for everyone from lazing on pristine white beaches to exploring the jungles in search of some of the world’s rarest plants and animals, from white-water rafting to a soothing bath in the hot springs and for once they are spot on.

One of the five tropical islands that form the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park.

Then there are the five tropical islands, off Kota Kinabalu, just 20 minutes away by speedboat. The waters around these islands, which make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, are clear, clean and calm. Sapi, the most naturally picturesque, is also the most alluring for snorkellers. Even first-timers, once they get the hang of breathing through the mouthpiece, and tube of the underwater mask, will revel in the sight of schools of multicoloured fish making their way leisurely across the coral reef or through an algal field. Giant clams, too, can be spotted on the seabed. Those who prefer not to venture into the water can join a tour of the coral reefs by glass-bottom boats.

The world's largest flower
For the traveller wishing to commune with nature, Sabah has another major attraction: Kinabalu Park, the centrepiece of which is Mount Kinabalu, at 13,455 feet one of the highest mountains in south-east Asia. The park is a two-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu through some spectacular country scenery, and if the rafflesia is in bloom the trip becomes even more rewarding because the tour bus will stop in the forest reserve to enable you to get a close look at the world’s largest flower.

The hardy and the energetic will find the climb up Mount Kinabalu a worthy endeavour. This granite massif, which the Kadazan people named Aki Nabalu or “home of the dead”, dominates the landscape and a trek to the summit to watch the sun rise is on the must-do list of a substantial proportion of the 200,000 tourists who visit Sabah every year.

And why not? When it comes to a holiday that combines culture, nature and adventure, Sabah is definitely hard to beat.

SAIFUDDIN ISMAIL is a bumiputra (son of the soil). Hailing from Malay stock he is representative of the young men and women Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammed is banking on to help realise his dream of transforming Malaysia into an industrialised nation with a home for every citizen within the next two decades, part of a grand scheme aptly named Vision 2020.

At 33, Saifuddin is the correspondent of a women’s magazine in Kuala Lumpur, the capital. He also freelances for a Hong Kong travel publication and that is how he came to be at the Putra World Trade Centre where the ASEAN Travel Forum was being held.

That is not all: he is also associated with a cable TV company to be launched next month and he is actively assisting in the start-up operations.

And that is not all either: as a ‘hobby’, he runs a chain of 14 jewellery shops, with plans to open six more by the end of the year.

“I like to keep busy,” he says modestly by way of explanation when wonder is expressed at his energy-sapping schedules.

Saifuddin, who writes under the pen name of Bill Bora, is a lawyer by qualification he completed a three-year course in London, he says, so that his parents could “save face”, a very significant concept in the East but his interests lay elsewhere. He couldn’t see himself pushing briefs or arguing cases “that was my parents’ dream, not mine” and eager to take advantage of the booming economy of a thrusting and confident nation plunged wholeheartedly into as many careers as he could manage.

Saifuddin may be a wealthy young man but he is not overly ostentatious. His only concession to his status is a jade ring worth Dh 57,000. He does not even own a car but that is because he prefers not to spend life stuck in KL’s notorious traffic jams. If he has to go a short distance, he walks. For long journeys he does not mind taking his chances with that other embodiment of big city life the uncooperative cabbie, to whom much newspaper space is devoted. The New Straits Times, one of the capital’s popular dailies, has a regular feedback column and readers are actively encouraged to write in with their complaints about recalcitrant taxi drivers.

But traffic jams and fussy cabbies notwithstanding, KL is very much a happening city, from the hustle and bustle of Central Market and Petaling Street’s Chinatown, where bargaining is an art form, to the frenetic nightlife of discos and karaoke lounges.

Tourists will have their plates full, and not just figuratively. There are museums and art galleries, parks and gardens. You can plan excursions to the Batu caves, a system of caverns set high in a massive limestone outcrop 13 km from KL, or Genting Highlands, 50 km from the capital, whose attractions include a theme park, an artificial lake and a horse ranch. KL also offers a culinary adventure that is difficult to surpass for value and variety.  There are countless Malay, Indian and Chinese restaurants to choose from and, as the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board asserts, you can have a different dish daily for a year and still not have tried them all.

No wonder, then, that 7.5 million tourists visited Malaysia in 1995 making tourism one of the top contributors to the economy.

NOT MANY will know that it was at a club in KL that the seeds of the Hash House Harriers were sown. The Hash, a cross-country chase, originated in 1938, informs Joshua Eliot in the Malaysia and Singapore Handbook, when the Royal Selangor Club was the watering hole of choice for colonials. It seems a G.S. Gilbert, having had one too many at the club, decided to jog around the Padang the cricket pitch in front of the club to clear his head. In no time, Gilbert’s Hash attracted new adherents. The run, named after the club’s dining room, the Hash House soon expanded into the countryside. The KL Hash, known as the “Mother Hash” to Hash House Harriers around the world (there are now more than 300 clubs in more than 60 countries, including the UAE) , involves runs of 3-8 km and they are usually jovial affairs. Most big Malaysian towns have a Hash and there are several branches in KL men only, women only and mixed.

ONE OF THE few Malay words to have entered the English language is amok, as in “to run amok (or amuck)”. According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, one of the earliest uses in English of amok, defined as “a murderous frenzy that occurred chiefly among Malays”, was in 1664.

On the other hand, English, which is widely spoken in Malaysia, has contributed many words to Bahasa Melayu, or the Malay language. To name a few: teksi, bas, tren, imigresen, mesin, doktor, klinik and restoran which are easily recognisable. Then you have exzos (exhaust), motosikal (motorcycle), kadfon (phone card) and kelab (club). Basic Malay grammar is simple: there are no tenses, genders or articles and the structure of sentences is straightforward. Plurals are also easy: one man, for example, is orang; men is orang-orang. One cat is kuching; cats is kuching-kuching.

“Can, la” is the Malaysian equivalent of “No problem”. When the guide aboard the tour bus was asked on the way back to KL from Genting Highlands if the media group would be able to make it to the hotel in time for the next appointment, “Can, la” was the confident answer. When some journalists in the party pointed to their watches and expressed serious doubt, the guide’s response was a very assertive “Can, can.” His confidence, one may add, was justified.
  • Ramesh Prabhu travelled to Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, by Malaysia Airlines, courtesy Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board (PR/Marketing Representative Office in AGCC Countries: Al Rais Travel & Shipping Agencies).

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