malaysia 2004

A Big Selmata From Malaysia

happy new year from southeast asia!  i'm currently in penang, a big, predominantly chinese city on an island just off the coast of western penninsular malaysia.  (and, to make it all seem a little less remote, the daughter of the internet cafe owners is currently watching the rugrats on nick off of a satellite? - amazing)


when last we left off, i was somewhere in remote northern thailand (where, oddly, many people dressed their dogs in small t-shirts...).  i spent new year's eve in nan, near the laotion border.  i learned there that the u.s. is not the only place in which new year's eve could be described as amateur night.  in fact, in the very remote hill country where i spent the day visiting the villages of a variety of tribes, several parties seemed to have started well before lunchtime!  this also had the unfortunate effect of making the drive home through the darkening hills a little bit nerve-wracking for me as i anticipted sharing the road with drunken hmong men driving their pick-up trucks home from town.  although i was sitting in the front passenger seat of a jeep, i comforted myself by noticing that it had a very small windshield.  i was comforted by this for all of maybe 30 seconds before realizing that the jeep also had no doors and no seatbelts.  DUH.  so much for that!  the good news is that we did (obviously) make it back to the city safely :)


the day in the villages was pretty amazing.  nan is know for its wide-range of hilltribes.  i visited 5:  the hmong, the yao, the thai lu, the mabri and the htin.  the hmong and the yao are very similar, both chinese in origin with similar looking buildings.   3 of the 5 tribes are also known for their textile work,  which made this textile collector very happy!  while wandering the villages, i got invited in to a number of family's homes where i got to see firsthand how they live - amazing: dirt floors, cooking fires inside (the hills get cold at night), maybe 10 people living in a 25x25 thatch and wood dwelling.  in one home, there was a 9-year old boy helping cook for his family.  he was making green papaya salad, a thai staple, and i swear the knife he was using was almost as big as he was! 


also, because it was new year's eve day, the hmong were, as previously mentioned, already celebrating.  in addition to the drinking, however, there were a lot of general festivities including singing and a courtship game:  the eligible women and men dress in their finest new year's clothes (with lots of silver ornamentation and embroidery and bright colors) and stand in two rows.  men in one, women in the other.  they then toss a ball back and forth and there's something about the man who lasts the longest with each woman will then date them or marry them or something (i was a little sketchy on that part).  while the game is primarily young men and women, i did see one small group of one older, widowed woman and three older men.  i will avoid any speculative metaphors at this point. 


the sadder, more eye-opening part of the day was my visit to the mabri.  they are a small, nomadic tribe which has had to become increasingly less nomadic as the countryside has become more populated.  (mabri means people of the yellow leaves because they move on when the banana leaves they used to make their huts turn yellow).  because they also don't believe in material possesions, they are very very poor - apparently some of the other hilltribes take advantage of their willingness to work for free and the gov't has had to step in to protect them from becoming virtual slave labor.  i have never seen such poverty up so close.  in this village, too, we were invited into people's homes.  it's hard for me to even describe how poor they are.  and their pet dogs were even more wretched than the people...definitely a thought-provoking way to go into the new year.  we left them with as much food as we could dig out of the jeep.


so after all of this rural-ness (to reach the tribes we drove on very very remote, steep twisty dirt roads way up in the hills - cool), i headed back down to bangkok and then on to malaysia.


my first stop in malaysia (after an oh-so-wonderful border crossing with unfathomable lines in 90 degree weather and a van with broken air con) was the island of langkawi.  to reach it required an hour-long ferry ride and i was in such a rush to make my ferry on-time (after the tiny delay at the border...) that i had no time to change money.  so here i am in malaysia, traveling alone without a ringitt to my name (sad, yes?).  fortunately for me, the nice luggage cart men in the ferry terminals took pity on me - the one on the mainland didn't charge me at all and the one on the island agreed to take thai baht instead.  whew - with bags stuffed full of hilltribe textiles, it would've been ugly slow going without wheels.


langkawi was beautiful and relaxing.  what bad things can you say about a tropical island with white sands, palm trees and beautiful, rick-rack-y islands in the distance?  (and, blessedly, air con rooms) the ocean was calm, the people were mellow and the sun burning hot (but only in the afternoon when the shade disappeared).  it was a nice break from all of the traveling hither and yon.  but all too soon i was headed off again first penang and then on to kuala lumpur tomorrow on the "nice bus".  a day+ there, a day in melakka (to which i will travel by train.  not, however, to my knowledge, the "nice train") and then an evening in singapore before heading home.


today i tooled around penang which is basically an enormous old chinatown with a little india, too.  i toured a cool old chinese mansion, ate some great indian food and wandered a malaysian hardware store, of all places (much more interesting than you'd think and home to, among other things, bobble-headed velveteen dogs and lingerie-like things to apparently dress up one's computer terminal).  i decided not to go to the "snake temple".  call me crazy, but going to a temple where the primary feature is stoned venomous snakes draped around the altar just plain gives me the creeps.  and, of course, all i could think of was "what if they stop being stoned for the first time ever when i'm there?!"  ick.


and with that, i'm off.  hope you all had a wonderful new year's!




ps - the coveted wooden elephant key ring with unevenly glued roll-y eyes goes to chris kirkham for helping to clarify the mystery of the 55 golf bags at the bangkok airport.  he pointed out that in korea (as in japan) golf games routinely cost $500 a shot and it's a big status thing to play (and, i'm imaging, significantly cheaper to play in thailand).  congratulations chris!

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