Monday, December 04, 2006

Kota Baru

Ooh, it is hot, so I have taken refuge in an internet cafe - the first time I have had to do this. Mind you, until now, I have had a car or train to keep me cool, or in Singapore I could just dash into the nearest shopping mall and develop a sudden interest in electronic components or whatever to cool off. But I am in Kota Baru, in the far north east of Malaysia, and it is a bit lacking in air conditioned shopping facilities. Of course, my hotel room is air conditioned, but I am not quite ready to bar myself into my small green windowless room.

It is Monday, so that makes it about day 12: it is pretty much a week since I spoke to anyone, other than to exchange civilities or to buy something. After spending my working year focussed on communicating, it is actually quite a pleasant change to simply be on my own and not carry any kind of conversational burden.

My last day in Singapore, I was pretty whacked, I hate to think how many miles I had walked the day before (but how else was I going to randomly find a Viennese Coffee house in Singapore?). So, when I woke up, I was feeling a bit like the central character Sully in Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool after a hard day's work, where he'd feel fine at the end of the day but wake up in pain. I dont think I went more than a kilometre from the hotel, but it was still interesting. Just north of the hotel seemed to be Singapore's official hippy district, taking up the street for a block or so. Then there was a textile district, for another block, and around it was middle East Moslem territory, including a Yemeni restaurant which looked cool. In the evening, I went south, thinking I might take a drink in Raffles but feeling far too scruffy to enter its portals. Instead, I went into the Raffles shopping centre - a place which could have been pretty much anywhere in terms of its aesthetic and shops.

All, that is, except for the foodcourt, which seems to be a Singaporean institution - I hadn't actually been in one for an evening meal, and was surprised at its popularity. It seemed that this was simply the regular way for a lot of locals to get their evening meal, and when you're paying $2-3, why not? I wish we had some more like them back home (Auckland has started down that path, first with Food Alley and then several newer ones). I had wanted to carry on down to the river, as the night before I had noticed how spectacular the lights of the cluster of buildings were. My little digital wasn't up to the task of a photo, but I'm also carrying a film camera (one I bought off trademe the day before I left), so thought I'd experiment with night photography. Except that it doesn't work.

Last Friday, I left on a nearly all-stops train. For the first few hours, we were driving through land that was obviously cultivated; although I had trouble picking out what any of the various trees were, they were far too regular to be anything other than a plantation. Despite being third class, the train was pretty much brand new, air conditioned, and very comfortable - I was on it for 8 or 9 hours without a problem, although I suspect that on a particular down hill part just before dark, the driver was pushing it along a little faster than he ought to. It made for an exhilerating ride. The train was being slapped on both sides by the jungle, making noises trains really ought not be making and every so often it would actually jump into alignment with the tracks. The night was spent in a small town on the banks of the Lipis river; unfortunately it was raining almost the whole time I was there, so I didn't come away with a very positive impression.

On Saturday, the train was much older, a bit of a wreck in terms of furnishings, but still clean, comfortable and fast. This train really did make all the stops, but the landscapes were much more interesting than those of the day before - lumpy land, lots of jungle, weird rock outcrops and sudden cliffs. I took it as far as Gua Musang - maybe it was because the sun was shining, but it seemed like a very pleasant little town. Another train, even older and shabbier, brought me up here yesterday, where I am sure I got involed in some sort of scam but, since it didn't cost me anything except to get railroaded into a more expensive (and nicer) hotel than I had planned, I'm not worried. I wasn't planning to take a taxi from the train station, but I was waiting at the bus stop with another fellow, when a taxi driver offered to take us both into town for bus fare. Fine, I think. In town, the taxi driver has a mate, who wants to show me where the hotels are. I do shake him off, but then the taxi driver materialises and suggests I am heading the wrong way. I can see a hotel so, just to get rid of him, I head towards it - at which point his mate latches on to me and comes into the hotel as well. Damn sure he was claiming a finder's fee.

But my spirits were restored: I was out looking for food, and got talking to two very nice police officers, just talking, they weren't questioning me or anything, just wanting to be helpful. Then I had food, and I was fine again. Not that I am finding food buying particularly easy here: some cafes, you only know they're a cafe because there are a few tables, and maybe someone eating at one or two. Others have a few ingredients sitting in a glass cabinet, but I have no idea of what language I need to convert those things into dinner. Then there are cafes with menus: the things I recognise (like Nasi goreng) don't look like anything I've had at home and most things I simply don't recognise. Ah well, I haven't starved yet.

Tomorrow it is Thailand, which should be fun, as it is the King's birthday, and I have been warned that the train system nationwide is "full", to some destinations for a couple of weeks.

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Anonymous harvestbird said...

I couldn't get over the food courts in Singapore, when I was there five years ago. My friends who showed me around said that most young professional people (they were high school teachers) have nothing to speak of in their kitchens, and eat at the courts every night after work. I would have been quite content doing that myself.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

It is kind of what I do in Dunedin - I have failed to cook for myself for months. But, since we lack any sort of foodcoourt, it instead involves a wander around the various cheapo cafes, according to the desire of the day. You've actually got one in Christchurch, on High Street isn't it?

9:49 PM  

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