Stardate 21.4.11. Our starship Enterprise (a rather clapped out but very serviceable Proton Wira) sits on the third floor of a nine storey car park, resting after the long journey down the East Coast. It’s early morning. I’m sitting in our hotel room on the 15th floor right in the heart of downtown Johor Bahru, looking out of a quarter circle window at high rise jostling with old shophouse streets, the Sultan’s palace, the Johor straits with Singapore island stretching away to the West, JB’s white elephant central station towering over the old colonial railway frontage. I still can’t really make sense of all that is going on in my brain. Analysis is well beyond my current level of competence. I’m just recording the experience. It’s been very hard to describe to Malaysian friends just how different, and how much poorer, Cambodia is. A lot of that seems to come down to public social and physical infrastructure: roads, education, health – even in the 1970s these were much more securely provided and structured than they are currently in Cambodia, with its dark destructive history. There is so much that could be quite similar..the wooden kampong housing – for example my friend Sudin’s house, which he inherited from his grandmother; the occasional cyclist heading the wrong way or family of four on a bike; the palm trees swaying above padi fields; the steamy blanket of wet heat that wrings sweat from every pore. Yet there’s so much that is different – so far I have not seen a single Lexus in Malaysia. That’s about the most significant observation I can make. It hints at so many layers of meaning regarding the peculiar hothouse culture of Phonm Penh and the way in which Cambodia is being developed, but it’s too difficult for me to draw a clear picture right now.
After visiting Sudin, we left Besut and ambled down the road to Kuala Terengganu, now a sprawling modern city, but with a nice laid back style, and many of the features I remember from the past, not least the warm generous hospitality of Spike and Khadijah in their family home, designed and built in the mid70s, but not dated. I remember the house when they built it, as the road wound its way out of town amid bright green padi fields; now they are surrounded by a mixture of wooden kampong houses and new shops, mosques and schools, not a field in sight! We sampled some of Khadijah’s beautiful cooking, ate roti canai and nasi dagang for breakfast; we lunched at a Malaysian lunch buffet stall with around 30 different dishes to accompany our rice, each dish more delicious than the last, for 5 Ringgit (£1) or so each; we walked along the beach, watching hundreds of young Malay families enjoy the twilight time after work, flying kites, playing in the sand, daring the crashing waves to wet their toes; we inspected Spike’s orchid collection, lovingly tended each day to ensure that there are always blooms outside the front door; we went down to the riverfront early morning, where Spike meets up with a small group who go through their slow morning Chi Kong stretches to the instructions of a gruff Chinese CD voice, echoed by the gruff diesel engines of the little fishing boats landing their catches from the night before at the jetty upstream, while the morning sun glints on the wide River Terengganu; we took a tour of Khadijah’s workshop where her ‘workers’ handstitch the placemats, bags and boxes which she sells round the world, chatting and laughing the whole time – they come back to work in the evening, as late as 11 or 12, to fill the order and to enjoy each other’s company. It was great to see them again in their home after all these years. I remember my first visit to their older wooden house, right in the heart of old KT next to the mosque, listening to the call to prayer early morning. The old mosque is still there, but all the houses were shifted to make way for new higher cost developments many years ago. KT has certainly ‘developed’ but it has kept some of its character in the process. With its big lazy river, its steeply shelving sandy front with views to Redang and Kapas and its laid back family ways of life, it could hardly be otherwise.
I was anything but laid back on the drive down to Mersing however, particularly the section north of Kuantan. I had been really looking forward to that part of the journey.. my memory was of sitting on buses looking out at the South China sea as it lapped against the pure white sands of the East Coast. There was a little bit of that, as Joan slept in the reclining front seat beside me, but it seemed there was a good deal more of obscured views and of traffic lights. Terengganu seems obsessed with traffic lights, lights at every junction, lights which run on a four-way cycle, so that you have a 75% chance of hitting red, or, in my case so it seemed, an almost 100% chance of hitting red. By the time we got to Kemaman, the heavy oil industry plant which has brought prosperity to the Terengganu and Malaysia was very much in evidence, while 8 or 10 large tankers sat well offshore, waiting to fill up with their expensive cargo. The journey through Pahang down to Mersing was as featureless as I remember it, mile after mile of oil palm plantations, but Mersing proved to be an interesting bustling little town, getting on with business and not showing much interest as might be expected in the (mainly Singaporean) tourists who pass through on their way to the beautiful collection of islands offshore.
All along we had thought we might go to an East Coast island, but the seas north of Kuala Terengganu were still quite fierce, while I was not looking forward to seeing how the deserted islands I had know in the mid70s had become the tourist honeypots of the 2000s. Once in Mersing, we decided, despite the wet weather, to head for Pulau Besar, partly because of the internet description, partly because of the Mirage resort, partly because of time (it is a 20 minute speedboat crossing). We took off our watches when we arrived and it might have been days rather than hours that we spent there. It gives a very good imitation of an island paradise, with its gentle tides, its clear water, its teeming underwater life (including some evil looking sea urchins that we steered our way round when snorkelling), its swaying coconut palms but, unfortunately, its mosquitoes and its sandflies! I am currently covered in a rash of horrible little highly itchy spots which are, I fear, the result of the sand flies’ depredations while I innocently sheltered from the hot sun under the shade of the casuarinas trees that line the beach.
All too soon we were back on the mainland and on to our penultimate destination of Johor Bahru, where Joan spent two years working in the mid70s, when I was in Besut. We have met: Jin Foo, as enthusiastic and positive as ever; some of Joan’s former students and friends still working at the Jaro workshop; Tai Meng and his nephew, Shen Juin, who took us for lunch to a very unique establishment, a Chinese vegetarian restaurant. We also followed a trail to find Hamzah, another friend of Joan’s from those days, who she had lost touch with quite recently. We traced him to flats well out in the sprawling outskirts of the city and left a message with a neighbour. Since Hamzah and his wife are both deaf, we were not sure that they would get back to us, but around 6.30 a text came in asking if we could go out to meet them at their house, so we boarded a taxi and within half an hour were back at their house. After lots of laughs and reminiscences and some imperfect signing, an exchange of accurate phone numbers and addresses and an exchange of gifts, we headed out to an upmarket eatery, really just the old fashioned stalls round some central seating, but gentrified and with prices to match. Of course they would not hear of us paying at all. I swear we could have done this entire journey without spending a penny if we had stayed with our friends every night, as they wanted – it is a mark of pride in Malaysia not to let your guests pay for anything, as we found out, despite our best efforts to get to the till first! All you can do is persuade them that if they come to Scotland, their generous hospitality will be returned. Unfortunately my camera began to act up at this point, so no more photos just now.. I may post again after we get back and dowload J’s photos.
Tomorrow we head north to KL airport and then from there, early Saturday morning, we fly via Stansted to Edinburgh, arriving late Saturday evening as the day travels ahead of us. I’m not sure what I’ll make of life in Stirling…. but I have some more thinking to do, to put the Cambodian experience into its proper perspective.
Update KL International Airport, 8.00am, Sat 23rd. Sitting enjoying a coffee while Joan is anxious we might miss the flight! Last night at Port Dickson. Joan phoned Ana to say ‘bye’ and ended up in tears when Ana said ‘Malaysia is your second home.’ I’ve not been back for 35 years but I also felt that… it is a special place to us and it’s been great to come back and visit so many great friends of our life. Now I feel I have a third home in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh no more, Cambodia no more, KL no more Malaysia no more…. I can feel a song coming on.