Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Maleisuria or back to the future

Backpacker's fatigue struck me like a lightning in a bright day.I couldn't find any joy and energy,my body was unplugged,detached from reality.What's the point in pursuing new places?Why do I even chase futile travel satisfaction if all that's left in the end is memory of an ever changing landscape and shadows of people that only pass me by?It's a common and well recognized condition when your mind reaches critical level of capacity to absorb new data, demands vantage point and stabilization because it's been exposed to vacuum for too long and everything you see and experience seems the same, fruitless struggle with time and space. What do you expect from new places in the end? What does this experience give you if you can't focus, absorb and analyze it anymore? Does it really matter if you visit hundreds temples, climb dozen mountains or swim in all the oceans if it all melts in your memory into chaotic mixture of emotions and images like simulacra without reference? You only re-discover what you already suspected and your character is being affected only as much as you allow it. You're the Great Dictator of your own character and the only fire wall to your soul.

First impression of Malaysia is similar to discovering a motorway in the middle of the jungle especially if you happen to land straight in Kuala Lumpur without Penang decompression chamber. It's Dubai built in India or London after tuning implanted into Chinese soil. If you think you've seen it all Malaysia will mock your confidence to death and play on your stunned corpse. Everything is suddenly smooth, quick and easy to understand, even compared to Thailand. Vietnam and Laos seems to be a distant history stuck in a different dimension. I felt transported back to the future, to Europe or Hong Kong.

 Malaysia has more races than all other South East Asian countries combined - Malays (with all range of variety called Bumiputra), Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Indonesian, Thai on the Peninsula and indigenous tribes of Khmer, Chams, Burmese, Orang Asli, Iban, Bidayuh, Punan, Penan and Senai on Sarawak and Sabah speaking 137 living languages and practicing freely their own religion from Islam (which is official state religion and particularly dominant on the East Coast), to Hindu, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and animism. This variety explodes in your head but works perfectly (at least on the surface) in everyday life. Tolerance and understanding is absorbed with sun beams and fresh air here. It may look like chaotic demographic kaleidoscope ready to collapse with any hint of a social unrest, but in Penang and KL Indian restaurant overlap with Chinese shops, mosques face Hindu temples or share courtyard with Chinese pagodas, you can hear 10 different languages in one place but there is a mysterious balance, sealed by universal currency of smile and kindness. Malay are politically privileged but they don't take it for granted like Emirati people. You start understanding this jigsaw puzzle when you read history - Malaysia was always amalgam of separate states stapled by introduction of Islam in XII century, exposed to Portuguese, Dutch, English and Japanese occupation without holding a grudge to this day. It's hard to swallow for us, used to national uprisings, country borders and patriotism. Is it a weakness or sign of a higher consciousness, more virtual identity not desperately attached to the history and occupied land? It's hard to find more friendly and eager to interact people in all Asia. Hordes of tourists infesting like a locust Taman Negara, Perenthian Islands and KL every year seems to not spoil their open mind and natural curiosity  Curiouser and curiouser like Alice in Wonderland would say...

What is more fascinating is a contrast between ultra modern transport system, shopping malls and highways and ram shackles just behind next corner, food stalls neighboring expensive restaurants, black-ties seating on a bench beside homeless bums and eating with their bare hands from a shiny, silver plates. This is especially striking feature of Kuala Lumpur, modern yet chaotic, clogged in traffic and humidity capital city (and one of the three federal enclaves) of Malaysia. The only thing that makes you more confident is language, Bahasa Malaysia which uses the same alphabet - great relief after impossible to break enigma codes of Thai, Cambodian and especially Lao. It looks like a child mumbling though, like somebody randomly put English words into sentences - it seems to be familiar but your optimism collapses once you start deciphering it. Some words are hopefully taken directly, just spelled phonetically. Another benefit of colonialism and latin alphabet is that English is widely spoken, making it even too easy and definitely not truly Asian...No more french fried,berbecue or mistakes in spelling their own city names that corrupt your language skills when you spend too much time in Thailand. Suddenly you don't have to analyze information boards - you just read and it make sense!

One thing that Malaysia is definitely famous for (if not tolerance and Petronas) is food, taking the best from Chinese, Indian, Thai and European and putting it together into another unique mixture. Penang laksa, Koay Teow (equivalent of Pad Thai), Nasi Kandar, Wan Tan Mee, of course all types of Goreng (noodles or rice) and snacks like Roti Canai or Chee Cheong Fun can convince your stomach (great place to try it all is Gurney Plaza in Georgetown or Central Market in KL). Shopping is also rewarding as you get better quality stuff than anywhere else in Asia in a still great price (especially on a duty free Langkawi). Malay worship Western food to the higher extend than other nations though. It's cool to visit KFC instead of having sushi. Sitting in a night market, surrounded by traditional food stalls gets you rather American songs from 60's and 70's (echo of Saigon?) than local music - you feel bizarre, like staged in a Tarantino burlesque set, but muezzin call still penetrates cultural background reminding you of where you are or maybe adding another dimension to this postmodern, homogenized cocktail.

I came armed with reserve towards Muslim country labelled as too-developed to be backpacker's dream, but Malaysia just got me by surprise. It's a leisure time compared to Laos logistic trauma, Thai bargaining or Vietnamese scams - you don't need to be vigilant, fully focused or ready to defend your pride and wallet 100% of your time. People are honest, friendly and ready to help without expecting financial benefits. They will even chase you out of the shop if you forget your change. Striking kaleidoscope of nations, religions, traditions and culinary treats living in one place. It seems like a quintessence of Asia ready to become Europe. Truly Asia? I don't think so, but what an amazing and varied compound, an experiment initiated by a mad alchemist and then left alone to grow and it grows magnificently...

Sunday, 2 February 2014

L(a)ost in translation...

Laos has a classic backpacker charm which makes you grow a beard, dress in colorful harem pants picked up on a night market for 100 baht and jump into the jungle forgetting about hygiene and rush for weeks.Time slows down here proportionately to a public transport. Even your heart seems to be adjusting itself to surprisingly natural pace and you can only hear gasps of awe coming from your own throat when you look around at this stunning, uninterrupted beauty of Lao landscape. Forget motorways, pad thai and white sand beaches facing azure waters. You're now in the heritage park surrounded by mountains and covered in a thick layer of jungle and you may not see traces of civilization for a while. There is 6.5 mln people living in the country of the size of the UK (with population 10 times higher): same as Hong Kong only in the area over 230 times bigger.

Why do we even like escaping to nature I wonder sometimes? Like our soul as human beings is still attached to the environment and loosing leash of civilization for a while restores some historically (or even paleontologically) embedded rhythm. Is going astray just a matter of change from organized life ruled by the "tyranny of the moment" or it actually recharges some deeply rooted organic batteries neutralized by technological progress? We're still more depended on nature than we like to admit. Our animal heritage is permanently present within us despite long evolutionary effort but we let it control us only sometimes.Like there is unfulfilled thirst for an adventure which makes us believe we're still self-sufficient, we can survive on our own without collective brain of culture and unplugged from matrix.

Every city you've seen so far in Vietnam and Thailand will seem like overcrowded metropolis when compared to Luang Prabang. Traffic starts every evening at the night market. There is no hustle-bustle, nobody is rushing anywhere, it doesn't even resemble city - it's more like owners of restaurants and pubs created a guild, built few random roads between ancient temples to connect all businesses in one cluster and called for tourists to fill it in. Among must see places on the top of my list is Utopia, where you can play indoor volleyball, practice yoga on a terrace facing Nam Khan river or just chillout on the extremely comfortable pillows. Luang Prabang may be quiet and rural, but it knows how to attract and appreciate guests. Lao Lao Garden is a multilevel-ed bar/restaurant with pool table, real trees and fountains and La Pistoche has a pool. Mekong is a vain that cuts Laos in half and delivers life to it's every corner - you can take slow boat from Thailand that will take you right to the door of Imperial Palace in Luang Prabang and view on the way is spectacular.

There is a predictable pattern with food nomenclature. Every dish is Lao something (just like Khmer in Cambodia). You can get Pad Lao (equivalent of a flagship Thai noodles) and Lao rice soup, national drink is Lao Beer and rice vodka with even more sophisticated name: Lao lao. Food is generally good but customer service overshadows everything you get on a plate - Lao are the nicest people you may come across in Asia and they always make an effort to please you (skills probably honed by years of exposure to oppressive and demanding French bourgeoisie).

Road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane takes usually 15 hours and goes through the mountains where you either pray for your life, vomit at every corner (and there is a lot of corners!) or admire view outside the window of a struggling bus. This is one of the highlights of Laos - you can limit this torture by stopping in Vang Vieng for kayaking, rock climbing, cycling or tubing. Landscape is absolutely breathtaking and I honestly don't know why (and how) people drive there at night.

If you like being l(a)ost in a timeless dimension, practice some of the Bear Grills survival tricks you've seen in TV or forget yourself surrounded by super-friendly and arguably the most hospitable people in Asia - you've just found your paradise!