On the morning of Christmas Eve I went back to Bukit Mertajam, Malaysia with James. Jin Ai met us at the bus stop. She had arranged a complimentary acupuncture treatment for me at the clinic she attends. Once I arrived, I lay on the bed for the 30-minute treatment. The bed, the acupuncturist explained, has a current of negative ions flowing through it. It also has points that pulsate on the various meridian points of the body, which allow for the flow of the body’s natural energy. With this, its aim is to open up the veins and arteries of the body, improving blood circulation. This helps to prevent strokes and heart attacks, in addition to other benefits such as reducing chronic pain, anxiety. Jin Ai told me that she and her mother go most days. I came away feeling very relaxed.
In the evening I met Winnie, James’ great niece from London. I joined her for a beer at a crowded bar, which struck me as more of an off-licence. It was a place where folks congregated to chat over a cheap beer. We sat on our plastic stools and before long, we found ourselves in conversation with three polite young guys from Pakistan and a couple from Malaysia and the Philippines. This is perhaps what I enjoy most about travel: Meeting open-minded folk from all over the world, sharing experiences, and accepting strangers as friends. It reminded me of traveling in Pakistan in 2006, when I was often met with “Hello, what is your name, where are you from, and is there anything you need? It is our duty to look after you.“
I found it a refreshingly disarming greeting, especially in contrast to today’s climate, where it seems world leaders, backed by the propaganda and sensationalism of fake media outlets, seem hell bent on extremism, of power obtained by a ‘divide and rule’ mentality. It amazes me that people take the time to vote for these people. Whether its race, religion, or through the politics of fear, fear inevitably orchestrates confrontation. Finding common ground through mediation is easier and cheaper. But this does not make money for the global elite. Nor do they care, as all the costs of conflict are dumped onto the taxpayer. But in talking to these fellow travelers in a crowded bar, I was reminded of the sense of community that was so evident in Pakistan and amongst so many of the people I’ve met around the world and I was reassured.
Malaysia’s claim to fame is Tiger Balm. This ointment, which provides a cooling sensation when applied to the skin, is famous in Asia and is used for all sorts of treatments, from joint pain to chest congestion. The Tiger Balm logo can still be seen on the building’s facade at its old headquarters on Beach Street. Two blocks from the old Tiger Balm headquarters, I found a tranquil oasis where I could read in the relaxing and peaceful recently renovated Jing-Si Books and Cafe. It was set up in 2004 by the Malaysian Tzu Chi Foundation, an international human rights organisation that was founded by Master Cheng Yen, a Buddhist nun. For only five ringgit – or three ringgit if you bring your own cup – they serve several organic teas, or a hot chocolate that is made with soya milk. The staff often come around and top up your cup for free.
After I left the bookstore, I boarded the regional train for a visit to the former tin mining town of Taiping, now known as “the Town of Everlasting Peace.” But Taiping has not always been associated with peace. When Taiping was at its peak, it was a hotbed for the Chinese secret societies which fought each other for control over the lucrative tin industry. In 1883 Isabella Bird wrote in the book The Golden Chersonese And The Way Thither: “ The Chinese still need to be kept in check, for they are not allowed to go out at night without lanterns and passes.” Taiping also had several firsts for Malaysia: the first railway, museum, zoo, and the first newspapers in English, Malay and Tamil. Today, however, it’s a quiet backwater town. In the centre, there are grand colonial buildings that hint of its former importance. It’s also very pleasant to stroll around the Lake Gardens of Taman Tasik.
The next morning I met up with Winnie once again and we travelled by bus to Ipoh, the capital city of Malaysia’s state of Perak, which is named after the poisonous Ipoh tree that once grew in profusion in the area. Ipohs’ wealth was generated from the Kinta valley tin mines, and its grand old buildings attest to its wealth. These include the whitewashed town hall, courthouse, and the railway station. However, the streets lined with the old rows of Chinese shop houses are far more lively and atmospheric, enhanced by its imaginative interactive street art. We wandered down the infamous narrow alley called Concubine Street, which once housed brothels and the gambling and opium dens. Later, tycoons came and settled the area, creating a wealthy suburb. Today, it’s a busy tourist street selling food and souvenirs.
Ipoh is surrounded by jungle-clad limestone outcrops that are riddled with caves. We visited the Perak Tong Cave Temple, which is a mere six kilometres from the centre. While Winnie offered incense and prayers to the images of Buddha in one of the various grottos, I wandered around the cave to take in the superb murals that had been painted onto the walls.
That afternoon, I visited Kuala Kangsar. This is very much a Malaysian town and is the seat of the Sultan of Perak. I visited the beautiful former palace of the current sultan Azlan Shah. It now houses exhibits honouring his life. Gold and jewelled regalia sit on display, as well as swords, elaborate clothing, and four Rolls-Royce cars from the nineties that looked as though they’d been hardly used… as well as three Mercedes and a Porsche! It’s obviously a hard life being a sultan. Choosing which car to drive must be a headache.
In the morning I bought my train ticket and returned to collect my pack. Because it was only 500 metres from the station, I walked. Winnie had ordered a taxi and had to wait five minutes – almost the same time it took me to walk to the station. That left me with a ten minute wait for the train. When I got on, Winnie was nowhere to be seen. I later met her in Georgetown and she told me she had stood on the wrong platform (there are only three) and missed the train! She ended up taking a bus back to Georgetown with a monk who had also missed the train.
On the evening of December 31th, I went to an Indian restaurant. I started chatting to Dunnan, a 30-year-old from Sydney, Australia. He was on a three week “round the world” trip. He told me he owns four properties, works 12 hours a day for a construction company and has debts of $1,500,000 Australian. “I feel caught up in the rat race,” he said. I chatted about my life and travel experiences. At the end of the evening he came away inspired, knowing that he could opt out whenever he wanted and pursue the life he wants.
New Years Eve was quiet until midnight. I was awoken from my slumber by the sounds of the firework display from the Komtar, one of the highest buildings in Georgetown. Bleary-eyed, I strolled out to the balcony and watched the remainder of the fireworks to bring in the new year.
On January 2nd, I returned to Kuala Lumpur for the evening. Tomorrow I fly to Sabah, Borneo.