Category Archives: Malaysia

Adventures in Bako

Bako National Park occupies a peninsula that stretches into the South China Sea to the North of Kuching. The distance to Bako from Kuching is only 37 km, and Lonely Planet promised that getting there by public transport “is a cinch”. Without thinking much of it, we caught a regular bus not far from our hotel on a central Kuching street. The bus though grew to be somewhat particular: the air conditioning block had a leakage which created a sort of an internal rain, so a few rows were uninhabitable. Overall it was a sort of a village transport, stopping often and flexible in terms of route.

After one hour of jumping up and down in the bus we finally got to the so-called Bako Market, which is the entrance of the National Park whence the boats part. It is impossible to get there on land – there is simply no road in the jungle. At the entrance of the park a nice surprise awaited: the lady flatly told us that we came too late (it was midday) as the low tide would not let us reach the park’s Visitor Centre. It seemed a great pity to return at this point, particularly since the next bus would be in an hour and there was absolutely nothing to undertake in this geographical point bathed in midday heat. We circled the place for a bit and finally stroke up a conversation with the boatmen who assured us that the tide was not yet at its strongest and we could pass through if we rushed. We resolved to take the risk.

Bako Market is by the river, close to its mouth. The boat leaves from the Market and sails down the river, then on through the widening gulf, circling the peninsula from the West to finally arrive in one of the bays on the Western shore where the Visitor Centre is located. You could even stay there for the night, but it was not advised due to the poor quality of accommodation. The brown waters of the river (a peculiar detailed about them to be revealed at the end of the post):

First we head West, and so the Santubong mountain (not actually inside Bako NP) is in front of us:

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Kuching gourmet

As the plane approaches Kuching, its panorama appears somewhat unreal. Brownish serpentine rivers running their parallel ways, as if painted by a mad artist on the emerald jungle. Slowly they enter the city, the brownish zigzags still cutting it into pieces. You get out of the plane, touch the ground with your feet and repeat to yourself in disbelief: this is Borneo, Borneo!!!

Due to the abundance of budget airlines it is amazingly easy to hop around South East Asia. Particularly if you buy the tickets a little in advance, the prices may match or beat Ryanair. Hence from Penang we made a plane hop to Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Sarawak is no sultanate due to the fact that before WWII it was ruled by the so-called White Raja dynasty. These were (white) descendants of a British adventure seeker James Brooke, who got the title of a Raja from the Sultan of Brunei in 1842 in murky circumstances, mostly as a thanks for military help. WWII changed it all, after the Japanese occupation Sarawak was incorporated into the British Crown colonies and later moved into the Malaysian Federation as it was formed.

As you can see, it is an Airbus:

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Malaysia is an unusual country. It is a mosaic made up of regions and sultanates that still keep some aspects of self-governance. Even the head of state is rotating – each of the nine sultans becomes a head of state in accordance with a strictly defined order. Geographically Malaysia is comprised of two parts, West Malaysia, or Malaya, which is the long peninsula reminding of a paw of South East Asia, as well as East Malaysia, occupying the North of the island of Borneo.

When the European colonies gained independence like a domino after the Second World War, it was not at all obvious that Malaysia would exist in the form that it does today. Malaya was the first to obtain independence, in 1957. For Malaya to unite with the British colonies of North Borneo as well as with Singapore, it took the iron will and persuasion ability of its founder and first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, as well as Britain’s keen interest in the existence of the new federation, seen as a bulwark against the dominos falling into the Communist hands.

Initially it was foreseen that Brunei and Singapore would both be a part of the fledgling Federation too. But at the eleventh hour Brunei withdrew from participation and remained a British colony until much later. The explanation was that historically the Brunei sultan had the highest rank among all the regional sultans, a number of other dynasties actually being descendants of the Brunei dynasty, and he could not accept the rotation principle for the head of state of Malaysia, which suggests equal rank. Additionally, already then it was clear that Brunei had won the lottery in terms of large oil deposits.

Singapore on the other hand initially agreed to take part in the Federation. However, Singapore included, the proportion of the Chinese in the population reached 40%. The conflict between the Chinese and the Malays within the Federation became so strong that two years later Singapore was expulsed from the Federation and became independent. The separation happened to be in the interests of both Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Malay leader, as well as Lee Kuan Yew, the Singapore Chinese leader, so essentially it was a civilised divorce. Tunku Abdul Rahman drastically cut the number of the Chinese within Malaysia and gained his goal of Malay dominance; Lee Kuan Yew removed all limit on his power and obtained independence for Singapore.

Nevertheless the Chinese still play a major role within Malaysia, along with the third major ethnic group – the Indians. In every Malaysian city there is always a Chinatown and a Little India, and inevitably they rank among the top tourist attractions.

The main tourist magnets of West Malaysia, listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, are the town of Melaka and the town of Georgetown, the latter also known as Penang after the island-state where it is located. We had time to visit only one of the two, and we chose Penang, as the more remote and the less cheaply touristic one.

Penang is an island near the Western coast of Malaya, to the South of Phuket and Krabi. From Kuala Lumpuer we took a very comfortable bus to Penang, the journey takes about five hours. You arrive in the middle of the island, some 11 km from Georgetown, and need to take a taxi to get there – a surprisingly hassle-free process. Malaysia generally left me with the impression of being very well organised and sort of chilled out. The roads in Malaysia are in wonderful condition, and Penang is linked to the mainland with enormous bridges. I must say that I was overall pleasantly surprised by the development level of Malaysia, the quality of the local infrastructure exceeds say that of Thailand. I guess the uber successful Singapore next door must be a good stimulus.

The historical destiny of Penang is parallel to that of Singapore. Until the middle ages the island was uninhabited. Later it was superficially occupied by several coloniser waves, and each regime favoured the settlement of the merchant Chinese. The growing Chinese population over the centuries soaked in the local culture so that eventually a particular identity has been created, referred to as Peranakan Chinese or alternatively as Baba-Nyonya. Our guide in the Blue House, a local Chinese lady, told us that her Hakka language, spoken in her family, includes such a number of local expressions and vocabulary that it is no longer mutually intelligible with the Hakka speakers in China, which she found out first hand when visiting her ancestral land.

Much like in Hoi An, in Penang the Chinese settlers formed clans in accordance with their origin in particular places in China. There were five such large clans in Penang. The most proud of their clanhouses is for sure Khoo Kongsi. It is practically a small city within a city, walled off from the rest of Georgetown. This is the temple inside the Khoo Kongsi enclave.

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Kuala Lumpur

The next station after Saigon was Kuala Lumpur. Martin joined me in Kuala Lumpur and we celebrated the New Year there. KL covered us with unreal heat and humidity. A twenty minute walk outside necessitated an hour long recovery in an air conditioned café. Consequently I don’t have many photos from KL.

Kuala Lumpur’s urban tissue is quite unusual – it is a city on many levels, with many skyscraper-like tall buildings, and yet it is not built up very densely. It seems generally conceived with cars in mind, but surprisingly you can also walk in the central business district. Of course in Chinatown the streets are very narrow and walking is literally the way to go!

Kuala Lumpur from the top of Menara Kuala Lumpur – a tall communications tower in the centre. You get a 360 degree view of the whole city, including the landmark Petronas Towers. They are smack in the middle of this photo.

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