Some pictures from my recent trip to Malaysia.
In January 2015 I flew to Bangkok. Six weeks later I flew back from Singapore. Here are some pictures from that trip.
I spent just four days in Bangkok. Even so, there is no single image that can possibly capture the complexity of this city. I have plenty of photographs of the Palace, all glitter and magnificence. I have photographs of markets crammed with everything from lentils to false teeth to dildos. I have photographs of streets crammed with tourists and tuk tuks. I've photographs of the river, with the water taxis and shacks clinging to the waterside. But I've chosen one image of a little altar on a street corner. Because - in the middle of all the exploitative mayhem that is Bangkok there are still contemplative corners. Which is, maybe, why I love it so much.
Why just four days, if I love it so much?
Because the main focus of this trip was a return to Malaysia. I first visited Malaysia during my long trip, and have vivid memories of my time there. I met kind, generous people and travelled to some fascinating, out-of-the-way places. This trip was a chance to revisit places that had excited me the first time round.
And so, four days after I arrived, I took the night train to Penang.
My first reaction, on coming back to Penang, was to worry about the traffic. Last time I was here it was easy to get about by cycle rickshaw. Now an explosion of traffic ensures rickshaws are confined to one or two tourist streets.
But of course it's busier. Much happens in eight years. For Penang, with Malacca, has acquired World Heritage Site status in that time.
Because of the collision of cultures here, and the way that has informed the architecture and the food and the goodwill among the people. For when the British arrived they found a few Malays, busy with their fishing but too small a workforce to build a port. And so workers were brought in from China and India.
Conditions were hard. But some made a home here, married local women, put down roots and built clan houses and temples. In time some became rich.
The result is a truly multicultural city. Mosques rub shoulders with churches and temples. There's halal food and Chinese food and strong Indian curries. There's also Nonya food - cuisine that has grown from the interweaving of Malay with other cultures. It is food heaven!
But they don't rely on their history alone to bring in the tourists. Recent years have seen the emergence of street art in Penang. This image (which hides on a corner in a narrow street) is my favourite. The chair is dusty, and some wag has put a cardboard coffee cup on the shelf above him. But this little boy, his feet bare but still reaching for the sky, speaks of the dreams of so many children in developing countries.
From Penang to Ipoh. I've not been there before. But last time, as I passed by on the bus, I caught a glimpse of the cave temples. It was enough to bring me back.
There are many caves in the hills around Ipoh, and most of them have a temple of some kind in them - Chinese, Buddhist, or Hindu. And often an amalgamation of the three.
They are all slightly different. It has been hard to choose just one image to represent these temples. But I've chosen one that gives you some idea just how vast they are. Climb those steps and you'll find a huge golden Buddha. Make your way down a little passageway and there is an altar with Chinese gods looking fiercely back at you.
These temples are not just for tourists - indeed, there were very few tourists there. But they are living, breathing places of worship. It was a privilege to visit them.
(But did I not go to the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur? Were they not equally wonderful? I am sure they are marvellous, but no, I didn't go. I made such a mess of my planning that I left KL on the day of the big Hindu festival of Thaipusam. One of the several planning mistakes I made on this trip!)
From Ipoh to Cameron Highlands - and the tea plantations. The air is clean here, and the birds sing. Hillsides are checked with tea trees. It is quietly beautiful.
Except in valleys littered with polytunnels. I read, in a local newspaper, that some of these farms are illegal. The government recognises that tourists turn away from valleys covered in plastic. I don't know the whole story. I am sure food grown under plastic helps feed people, as well as making money for farmers and landowners. It's not for me, as a visitor, to challenge other country's farming methods. But I might not hurry back, of the polytunnel expansion continues.
I didn't take any pictures of the polytunnels. I'd rather share these green hillsides.
I had planned to go to Taman Negara after that. But floods meant there was no accommodation and I had to find a last-minute alternative. And so I went to Fraser's Hill - a hill station about 100Km north of KL.
It is tiny. A taxi driver told me that they had built several hotels but, even in the height of the season, the place was quiet. Which, for me, made it all the more wonderful.
For I spent my days walking in the rainforest. Leaflets claimed the trails were 'easy, with occasional obstacles.' They have a different definition of 'easy' from mine. There was much scrambling and clambering and leaping (well, maybe not too much leaping) over small streams.
The reward - hours in the heart of the jungle. Hearing nothing but the birds and trickle of streams. Smelling mud and animals and sweet fragrant flowers. Stopping to watch a spider creep from its hole, or an army of ants march up a fallen tree.
And - finally - gibbons. I saw young gibbons playfighting. They were too far away to think of a photograph. I'm glad, for the magic of watching them would have been lost if I'd scrabbled for my camera. But how lucky was I, to see them?
And I was bitten by a leech. Which, I discovered, is not so terrible!
I couldn't put it off any longer. It was too long a detour - and one that was possibly flooded - to avoid Kuala Lumpur.
It's not my favourite city. It's hard to say why. I took its hop-on, hop-off bus and spent a fascinating couple of hours in the Islamic Arts museum, followed by a sojourn with the birds in the vast Bird Park. I got lost in the back streets of Chinatown and fingered the trinkets in the Central Market.
And I went up the Petronas Towers. I know this is the image that everyone posts from KL, and maybe that says something about how difficult it is to find restful, or photogenic, corners of this city. It feels to me like it is struggling for an identity. It doesn't have the roots of Penang and Malacca; but, as the capital, knows it needs to establish itself somehow. At the moment much of that 'somehow' seems to involve shopping malls. Hopefully, when the current wave of construction is done, we'll see some stunning modern buildings.
Phew, just a couple of days in KL and I could escape to Malacca.
I love Malacca for the same reasons I love Penang. The two cities were founded at about the same time, and both have a maritime history.
Malacca also has some Dutch and Portuguese influences, from the time they spent here. The city was, at one time, a strategic football as empires played with the spoils of the Far East. Those days are long gone. Now the city can celebrate the complexity of its past.
There are many solid colonial buildings. But most of all I love the old Chinese shophouses and mansions. Hotel Puri, where I stayed, was once a mansion and has been lovingly restored. Inside are a succession of courtyards giving way, at the back, to a space filled with palm trees and a small waterfall. This is where I sat for my breakfast, and often for a mid-morning cup of coffee, and a late afternoon mango juice ... it is a peaceful place and nobody would disturb my reading and writing there.
Meanwhile, in the streets outside, the Chinese community was preparing for the arrival of the Year of the Goat. And not just the Chinese - for who passes by the opportunity for a party?
Lanterns were strung across every street. Stalls were crammed with red and gold favours. Dragons practised their dancing (for there can be no Chinese celebrations without dragons).
Which left me with a problem. I had planned to head west, to Pulau Tioman, but uncertain weather meant unreliable ferries. At the same time, the buses and trains were filling with Chinese men and women heading home to their families for the New Year. On top of that a political trial in KL made me cautious. I took the safest, and possibly the least exciting, option. I left for Singapore a week earlier than I had planned.
I spent my first few days in a resort, flopping about by a pool, reading, writing, and thinking. There are worse ways to spend ones time. Besides, I had much to think about.
Away from the respite of my resort, Singapore was doing what it does best - make money. I am a dreadful tourist, as I spend so little. Which is probably why I feel uncomfortable in Singapore.
That said, Singapore sells itself well. Its shopping malls are bigger and brighter than almost anywhere else in East Asia. Its parks are swept and tidy. Its streets are cleaner and its lights brighter. And some of its architecture is extraordinary!
This, my final picture is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel - a three-tower hotel with a boat across the top. I am sure it has deep significance in Singapore, and resonates with local people. I just think it looks extraordinary.
There is a lot of new buildings under construction in Singapore at the moment, so maybe one day I'll go back to see if that is equally unusual.
But Singapore will not be the first place I'd return to.
Can you guess?
One day I'll go back to Malacca. To sit in the courtyard at the Hotel Puri. And I might stay there from breakfast till it's time for an early evening beer. Now there's a plan ...