I just had my first meal in Thailand! A guava slobbered with a super sour tamarind syrup and fishy salt flakes. I thought I was ordering a Granny Smith apple. I laughed and thought to myself ‘welcome to Thailand’. I had been in Thailand for about 20 minutes and I had already had the most esoteric meal of my whole trip. It was so fucking intense I could barely finish it. I’m pretty into fishy/salty/sour/sweet stuff but this was too much for one man.
I’m in a border town called Sungai Kolok. It’s so immediately different to everywhere else I’ve been I feel a bit shocked. Like much of North-East Malaysia the majority of the residents here are Islamic and conservatively so but squeezing, rather loudly, into their daily life is a hysteria of alcohol, prostitutes and pork.
In Malaysia when I told people I was seeing my Girlfriend in Thailand most men would laugh and making hooting sounds as if we were all suddenly in a bachelor’s party. Now I understand why. Serving border-crossing Malays their annual dose of filthy sacrilege is big business here. Just on the block of my hotel are two dark store fronts laden with pictures of women with cartoon sized breasts and underwear that look the wings of tropical birds. My hotel room is constantly shaking because the ‘karaoke’ bar across the road has a truck sized bass amp. Even though I arrived at about 1pm, most of the other hotels I looked at had foyers full of bleary eyed men and teams of escorts.
The rest of the city is similarly hectic but in a much less sleazy way. When I arrived the roads were blocked by a nervous-system of winding market stalls breathing out equally disgusting and delicious smells. An hour later they were all gone to be replaced by swarms of motorcyclists and cats. If you looked at it from above I imagine it would look like someone rapidly progressing through frogger levels. In between it all are women in hijabs and men in taqiyahs walking right next to drunken men and their cosmetic entourages.
Initially, I thought both parts of the city seem to live harmoniously but I forgot there has been a spate of bombings and deaths here since 2005. From what I understand that is more a racial-political issue revolving around a Islamic-Malay insurgency. Most of the violence has occurred a bit north of here but regardless I’m getting the fuck outta here tomorrow morning on a train to tropical beaches.
My last night in Malaysia was spent it Kota Bharu with Leong, a lanky, shy Chinese-Malay guy with a smile befitting his dentistry degree. We spent pretty much the whole night together cruising through the city looking for a good dinner while talking about food and politics.
What I learnt: The Malaysian government is divided into local divisions much like Australia but for Federal elections Malaysian seats are based on area not population so entire cities are represented by just one seat while rural areas with one tenth of the population are classified with the same one seat. Quite a few young people here said this is one of the reasons why the current government has ruled uninterrupted since Malaysian independence. The rural areas traditionally vote for the government in power while the city seats go to the opposition. Corruption and media control have been big issues too but I found it harder to talk about those. I tried to tell Leong that Tony Abbot has control over the Telegraph and is ruining everything but when I tried to explain I felt guilty as if I was complaining my Mansion has a faulty window.
After a comprehensive search for a local specialty called Nasi Kerabu, which I understand is blue rice with roasted coconut and either sweet beef or chicken, we ended up at a roti store. The menu is how I like it – two choices, either roti canai or roti tempayan, served with either ayam (chicken), daging (beef) or kamping (mutton). I didn’t know what tempayan was so I got that with some mutton. Fucking excellent choice me. Tempayan uses the same dough as regular roti but instead of being stretched, folded and grilled, it’s stretched over a boxing-glove like hard sack and whammed onto the inside of a cylindrical charcoal oven. It sticks to the side of the oven so one side becomes crisp and charred and the other stays only partially cooked and doughy – kind of like a schizophrenic naan. It’s phenomenal. The mutton curry was fantastic too, rich like a rendang but thin and more Indian in flavour. In between spitting to Leong about how much fun I was having eating this marvellous bread I tried to explain how there is no concept of desert in Malaysia. He said people eat mostly sweets at breakfast time and between three and five in the afternoon but you can get them at any time, He then took me to another roti stall to get a roti bom – roti cooked with extra butter, sugar and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. Excellent.
I was sad to leave Malaysia. It’s so well suited to my idea of travel. Everyone is extremely friendly and wants to chat all the time, the food is excellent, everything is cheap and it’s wildly different from anything in Australia. It also feels very authentic, as if it hasn’t been treated to the kind of dramatic change caused by decades of hoarding tourists. That may not be the case in popular areas like Penang and the Perhentian Islands but most of the areas I went to were untravelled enough for my presence to be a novelty, which is something I haven’t really experienced before. It’s a great luxury to be surrounded by people interested in you. Regularly, people I met would invite me into their homes, their restaurants or, simply, to sit with them because they wanted to know more about me and what I was doing. Many more paid for my meals and told me to return to their city and visit them, which I would love to do.
My sadness for leaving Malaysia (and roti) behind is slowly being replaced by excitement for Thailand. Despite the best efforts of the gaudy shouts of the karaoke bar next to my hotel and the black-teethed sex tourists, the biggest impact Thailand has had on me so far was my lunch.
I ate in an open-air warehouse hosting a gathering of busy hawkers. As soon as I popped my head in I was faced with eager offers of fried rice and coca cola. Sadly, all the dexterity I had gained ordering in Malay is now defunct and I could only awkwardly point to what other people were eating.
I got pork stomach and shittake mushroom soup with pulled pork, bamboo shoots and blood jelly. It was rich, gluggy and peppery. It probably sounds as freakishly nasty as that weird Guava shit but it was the opposite. I thought the stomach bits might have been some kind of unfamiliar citrus fruit because they were so soft, sour and sweet. The whole thing was delicious, I loved every mouthful of it.
I’m so happy I have so much more of this to come.
A funny thing just happened. At dinner I was having another difficult time trying to communicate what I wanted to eat when a flamboyant Thai with an airy voice pounced on my inefficiency. He sorted out all my shit and invited me to sit with his friends, one of whom was spectacularly similar to a high-school friend of mine, Salvatore de Luca. My rescuer and I chatted through broken English while Salvatore made gesticulatey jokes with his friends (maybe at my expense, they kept looking at me giggling). I established that it was the king’s birthday and there was a festival on tonight. They paid for my meal and beckoned me to join the celebrations. I felt nervous but I went with it anyway and jumped on the back of my rescuer’s bike.
First they took me to a school dance. They all looked at their phones while I dutifully watched 30 kids clap some sticks and jump occasionally. It was repetitive and long but I enjoyed the novelty. It finished and I got back on the bike for a tour of the city.
These are some things I noticed:
Sungai Kolok has a worryingly large deployment of heavily armed military soldiers.
At night the local highway turns into a motorcycle derby where teenage boys test which high-speed motorcycle tricks will bring them closest to death.
Despite the stress of inner-city living, livestock and humans can live next to each other in peace (besides for sheep who all seemed quite distressed).
During the trip I found out my rescuer is a high-school dance teacher (which I guess explains the school dance) and tonight they are going to a disco in a hotel and they want me to join them. Because I’m so retarded at saying no we ended up having this really weird goodbye ending in ambiguity for everyone whether I was going to come or not. I was especially confused when the disco actually started – it was either 11pm, midnight or 2am. After dismissing some of my more paranoid thoughts I decided to go. I hedged my bets on 11pm and waited out the front of my hotel for a ride. No one showed up. Oh well, I’m buggered anyway, better go to sleep.
Then I remember I had given my them my room number so instead of going to sleep I just laid in my bed like a vigilant meerkat. My adrenaline must have worn-off eventually because sometime later when I was entangled in a deep sleep there was a loud knocking on my door. At first the sound just peacefully integrated into my dreams but then the knocking intensified and someone started trying to open the door. I sat up in my bed like a child prisoned by bed-monster fear. I was naked, it was dark and I had no idea what to do. When I finally decided to put some clothes and lights on and answer the door, they had gone.
For those interested in touring:
Malaysia is a great touring destination. It’s mostly flat and the roads are excellent, there’s usually two lanes or a wide emergency lane. Dirt roads are uncommon and during stretches without emergency lanes drivers are most often very courteous. While you ride the air resistance easily cools you down, the heat is only a problem when you stop. Almost every road is regularly flanked by food stalls and vendors selling water and other utilities. Accommodation is almost as common; there are enough hotels and homestays for you to ride unplanned and book as you go.