Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Art and History in northern Malaysia

Back on the mainland we wasted no time getting out of JB and heading north. We'd had notification that Evan's passport was ready so we hot-footed it back to KL, almost making it in one day but not quite. We stopped an hour outside the city in a forgettable hostel that charged far too much for far too little. The next morning we got moving early and made it to KL around 9am, just as the Canadian Embassy office was opening. Unfortunately, as in most large cities, actually reaching the place took us a further hour of u-turns and cursing before we finally found it, but the process was otherwise smooth and we were soon heading out of town with a huge sigh of relief, free to move around again as we wished.

Our next stop was in Ipoh, a town known for its street art and colonial architecture. There is a lot of street art in Peninsula Malaysia, murals around every corner. Some towns are famous for it. Sadly though, most lack the creativity and edge of the artwork of their roots. For something that is supposed to be spontaneous, underground and subversive, almost all the art we've seen in Malaysia is pre-planned and permission has been given, specially commissioned to create a vibe. That's not to say that some pieces aren't very good, they just lack something, and when you can follow a neat little trail with all the murals numbered on a pre-printed map it totally takes away from randomly discovering or having to search for it. Ipoh has a trail which includes more pieces by Ernest Zacharevic as well as some smaller lanes where local artists have painted. What I liked here was that a lot of these pieces have been painted on crumbling old walls and even after only a few months are starting to fade away, never intended to last.

We stayed in a new guesthouse in Ipoh run by a Chinese-Malay family and it was one of the nicest places we've stayed. It wasn't anything special to look at, comfortable enough, but the little things and the care with which our host tended to our every need was refreshing. It's hard to know where the centre of the town is in Ipoh so we'd ended up a little way out, but close to good local eateries, mostly Chinese-Malay. The local people there were friendly, curious about why we were there and what we were doing. One night we shared a table with a local Chinese-Malay family and talked well into the evening about life in Malaysia. The daughter of the family directed us to the best places to eat in town as well as giving us lots of suggestions of places to see heading north. Interestingly, it turned out that she works on a project with European volunteers that provides activities for those with dementia and Alzheimer's. Accompanying her were her brother who has a learning disability and her mother, visibly in the early stages of dementia. The mother was a delight to talk to, amazed that we were doing what we were doing and at the same time clearly a bit of an adventure seeker herself in her day from the stories she shared.

Being at the former heart of the local tin mining industry, there was a lot we wanted to see in and around Ipoh, so we settled ourselves for a couple of days. Nestled between the ever-encroaching palm oil plantations about 20km south of the city in Batu Gajah is Kellie's Castle, an unfinished, ruined mansion built by a Scottish planter in the early 20th century. During construction of the extravagant castle which was built from stone and marble imported from India and boasted Malaysia's first elevator, William Kellie Smith died suddenly from pneumonia during a business trip and so the castle was never finished. For many years it sat as the jungle surrounding it encroached and devoured it, before the decision was taken in recent years to clear it and make it stable and it is now a popular place to visit both by foreign and local tourists.  

Also near to Ipoh is a Tin Mining Museum and the Tanjung Tualang Tin Dredge No. 5, a monstrous mechanical beast, sadly sitting slightly skewed on the river bed after the pontoon on which it sits corroded and sank. Unfortunately because of this we were not allowed to go on board, but a kindly security guard allowed us into the site to get a better view and explained a little about the dredge, adding that it should be open again in June when the pontoon has been repaired. Reading a bit into the history of the dredge though it seems that promises of its restoration have been coming for years but the completion date keeps advancing. 

We also took the opportunity to do some much needed bike maintenance while we were in Ipoh. New chain and sprockets for Evan's bike and oil changes for both. I'd been having some trouble with the front end of my bike too and our best guess was that it was wheel bearing related, but try as we might, mechanic after mechanic assured us that it was fine and didn't want to change it, so I soldiered on. 

The island of Penang and Georgetown was our next stop, just off the west coast. Access to the island is via one of two bridges, a longer one to the south and a shorter one to the north. We decided we'd ride across the southern bridge and then ride up the coast on the island side. Unfortunately we became separated after Evan took a slip road off the main highway and I didn't, resulting in him not being able to make his way back to where I was. A few whatsapp messages later and we realised that meeting up again in Georgetown was the easiest solution. The roads in Malaysia are very good, motorbikes are exempt from tolls and they even provide little winding side tracks especially for bikes around the entire toll booth complex, but take a wrong turn and it's very hard to get back to where you want to be. Eventually, each having barely made it to a gas station along the way, we regrouped in Georgetown at the universal meeting point - McDonalds, before heading into the old town to find a place to stay the night.

Georgetown is an odd place. For weeks everyone we'd met had said to us 'Oh you'll love Penang!' so maybe our expectations were set a little higher than they should have been. Its old town consists mainly of Chinese shop-houses with their five foot covered walkways, built originally with the intention of allowing pedestrians to walk sheltered from the brutal effects of the equatorial sun. Nowadays though, they're mostly filled with parked scooters, tables and chairs and street food stands, forcing pedestrians to endure the relentless heat.

Penang's big draw is its street art and I was excited to see this. Upon arrival we checked in to a nicer than average Chinese shop-house guesthouse, with its central courtyard and large, wide wooden staircases. Walking around the town history oozes from the buildings, yet somehow we found the town lacking something and feeling kind of 'flat'. For a place that should have hidden gems around every corner, as in Hoi An, it has sadly been turned into a caricature of its former self, a tourist-filled town set up in such a way as to appeal to the masses of tourists who like their architecture and art easy to access. The murals dotted around the town come clearly mapped, painted to order to compliment the surrounding buildings. I didn't dislike the town and it is certainly very photogenic, but I got the feeling that every other person who has ever visited will have taken exactly the same photos that I have.

Aside from the visuals, the town also lacked in its food, which confusingly it is also famous for. Usually we have a pretty good nose for sniffing out the best street food, but on this occasion we failed miserably. Evan found a pretty good butter chicken in one place, whereas my claypot mutton was barely edible. In another restaurant Evan's food was awful and mine bland. Disappointing to say the least. A couple of days was enough for us and being so close to the border, we decided that as we could see anything we missed on our way back south, we'd head for Thailand and a change of scenery. Little did I realise that, a month later, I'd be looking forward to getting back into Malaysia so much.  

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