Palm oil plantations are everywhere. Massive forests of them all neatly arranged like a Roman Village. From the day I arrived I’ve seen them everywhere and it’s made me think. I don’t even know what palm oil is? Who could possibly need so much of it?
That’s pretty much all I saw on my ride yesterday – palm oil and palm oil support villages. The villages were a mix of improvised shacks and demountable food stalls or the complete opposite – grids of factory produced homes lined up like an even greyer take on American Suburbia. Both types had one spectacularly surprising thing in common – really epic schools. So many times I would ride through a palm oil plantation town and it would be all shacks or all grey-grid homes and then there would be this enormously colourful and ornamented monolith like building with immaculate sports grounds and endless space.
After a day’s work contemplating Malaysian education values and the mass production and consumption of palm oil I arrived at a highway town called Lanchang. It was just a few speckled homes and some typically Malaysian store fronts (facing the main road, peeling paint and the wear of being battered by daily truck smog). I’ve got a pretty shitty map and I was really confused where the next town (substantial enough to require a hotel) would be. I stopped at a batter-fried banana stall and asked a family hanging out behind the counter. They said the next town, Mentakab, would have some cheap hotels but it was about 30km away. If I stayed in Lanchang I could go to a homestay (a semi-commercialised and common b’n’b practice in Malaysia).
“how much for a homestay?”
“about 150 ringgit.” That’s about $50. I must have made some kind of appalling face because they all laughed.
“Too much?” said a large set man with jagged teeth, a scarred cheek and a beanie.
“Yeah that’s expensive.” I felt awkward saying that because I had obviously spent hundreds of $$$ just to get here and these guys run a fried-banana stall on the side of a highway.
“You stay at my house,” said the beanie man.
I had two thoughts:
1. This guy looks like fighting
2. Ah whatever, I’m probably prejudice anyway. I definitely want to stay in your house.
One of the others, the laughiest one, in a uniform and wearing a head scarf, said that she was his sister and he would look after me.
Lang, Inna and their son live in a small village surrounding one dirt road on the outskirts of Lanchang. It’s totally chaotic and beautiful. There are chickens, monkeys and cats running around chasing shit, there are kids all over place and all the houses are constructed by so many different materials they look like they’ve fortuitously landed that way following a rather charitable hurricane. Their house was at the end of the village on the edge of the river.
As soon as I walked into Jang’s house he apologised for how small it was. It was like three times bigger than John Street and with way more legit (if somewhat older) furniture. All the rooms looked like they’d been assembled from very different places; the walling was different on every side and there was like five different kinds of lino. When Jang told me this was his Grandmother’s house I felt embarrassed for being astonished.
Jang took me and his five year old son for a swim. This was a very enjoyable moment for me. It had been a really dry day (despite being surrounded by rainforest, central Malaysia is in a drought and hasn’t received proper rain for 2 months) and I spent too long riding during the middle of the day so flopping my dirty, sun licked skin into water felt pretty orgasmic.
I spent the rest of the afternoon try to teach the kid how to skip rocks and talking to Jang about Malaysia while I worried about what kind of parasites had crawled up my urethra. All for the best I guess, I could do with a bit more hunger.
That night Jang’s sister Linda and her family (she had the cutest two girls ever) came over and we had an excellent meal:
Bitter melon, tomato and prawn curry with lemongrass and unidentified sour black leaf like thing (maybe organ?)
A wet salad with cabbage and tiny octopus heads
Crispy skinned fish
All of which I ate with my hands (my right of course, I was so paranoid about offending them by eating with my poo hand). They taught me words in Malay and asked me questions about Alice (they loved saying her name), Australia, my job and money. I felt weird talking about money, for all the obvious reasons but I tried to be straight forward and grateful. There were a few awkward moments like when I stupidly said I will cook for them in Sydney and they simply said plane tickets were too expensive and that could never happen. By the end of the night everyone was just laughing and having a good time so it didn’t matter anyway.
Linda and her family tried to leave a few times saying that I needed to sleep but they were mostly unsuccessful. We chatted in broken English for a while, Linda and Jang insisted I must come back with Alice to visit next year and then Jang made me a bed and said I could watch TV, I didn’t.
The next morning Jang made us fresh nasi lemak with pandan, coconut, a sweet sambal and last night’s curry. For some reason it was only us who ate. Lucky, because I wanted a good opportunity to thank him properly.
“Out of my whole trip this has been the best. I don’t know how I can thank you.”
“You just did.” He smiled, told me I wasn’t allowed to clean up and then he showed me the way to Mentakab.
I felt so good I rode the next 87km without stopping, well almost. It was about 34 degrees and there weren’t any clouds so every time I saw some shade I drank about a litre of water and smothered myself in so many layers of suncreen my arms looked like potato scallop wrapper. The only other stop was at a fruit stall to buy some bananas in case I didn’t get to the next town by lunch time. An old lady with a face like a topographic map waved for me to try one and when I held out some money to pay her daughter laughed, pushed my hand away and gave me a whole bunch for free.
I must have looked really exhausted or dirty or sad or something because when I got to Maran these three Chinese guys invited me for lunch in their restaurant. They insisted I get chicken rice, a peppery soup and some ice tea. When I tried to give them money they laughed and said they had already paid for me.
Now I’m lying naked on a warm bed in an overpriced hotel in Maran, gorging myself on tropical fruit* while waiting for my air con to not suck. This is the only hotel in Maran, I contemplated riding another 58km to the next town with a hotel but seeing as I’ve been given so much free stuff I can’t be fucked, I’ll pay the extra $10.
Bit I couldn’t fit anywhere else: I bought some Durian on the way out of Raub, ate some and left the rest in my bag. I forgot about it of course and now all my clothes smell like rotten onions, candy and old custard. I’m not sure where the durian ended up. I’m worried it’s still at Jang’s house, stealthily stinking up a storm. Jang told me he hates durian.
*see food diary