Malaysia – Blind man’s bluff

I play blind man’s bluff with Malaysia. I try to touch it, it runs away. I search for Malaysia because I’m not really sure where it is. It hides from me. It should be here! I do have a stamp in my passport that says Kuala Lumpur. But at first sight Malaysia hides behind the back of more expressive cultures of China and India. Was I fooled at the airport? I reach out my hand and wander. Sometimes I manage to grab its elbow or ankle for a moment.

An owl is sitting on a palm tree and hooting. I didn’t expect it here. It probably didn’t expect me either because it flies away disgruntled. I stand at night in an oil palm plantation so I’m at the heart of Malaysia. However, the heart moves along with me as plantations stretch nationwide. Endless rows of palm trees accompany me everywhere from the first to the last day. The trees are full-grown, died out or newly planted. There is ploughed-up land or nursery-gardens. Along smaller roads monkeys play in the trees. Lorries loaded with ripe fruit leave sweet and a little queasy smell behind them. Small villages hide among the palm trees. Sometimes they are entirely made of the plantation workers. Funny but I leanrt only three words in Malay: hello, thank you and plantation.

I’m lying on a table under a campsite carport and listening to the rain banging on its metal roof. It’s not banging, it’s hammering as it’s raining cats and dogs. Curious squirrels ran away, only mosquitos don’t give up. Sometimes a lightning shows for a moment the shapes of high trees around me. Behind the forest glade there’s an impenetrable wall of greenery. The jungle. You can only force your way through on tiny paths with all kind of leaves and lianas hanging above them. It’s worth it to come here and feel the pulse of the century-old forest. There’s not so much of it left. Although nowadays tropical forests are national parks, everyday, as I cycle around them, I can see a parade of trucks carrying huge tree trunks. Villages surrounding the jungle are inhabited by Orang Asli, descendants of tribes which lived in the tropical forest before. Today they stay in small farming communities. They sit in groups near the road with clouds of incense around them and sell whatever the soil produces. They seem not to notice the fact that their world is disappearing. In one stall there’s only a grandma with a granddaughter and a couple of bottles of honey. I wonder if the girl will still be here in twenty years or whether the rhythm of a big city will carry her away.

I didn’t mean to come here. Popular seaside destinations are something I avoid as much as I can. But it rained a lot and I arrive to Cherating for the night. Luckily, there aren’t a lot of people. The monsoon has started and the sky is covered with dark blue clouds for good. It’s this dark blue colour over the warm ochre of the sand that captivated me. I camp next to a beach bar and put my feet into the soft sand. In the dry season people come here to practice seaside laziness, in the monsoon season for surfing. I happen to come in between the two so I can see only a couple of Muslim women, covered from head to toes, wading in the shallow water and single tourists in swimsuits swimming in the warm sea. Somehow these two things don’t incommode each other. Behind the village there’s a river with a mangrove forest. Enlaced roots come out of the water and look like talons of an eerie sorcerer.

What I like the most in Kuala Lumpur is the building of the main post office. It’s a modern snow-white building with traditional Muslim windows. There are colonial edifices underneath it. Actually, they all match nicely here. Further, there are Chinese and Indian neighbourhoods and skyscrapers of the centre. It’s surprisingly cosy in this unusual mixture of styles and cultures. Other towns of Malaysia look similar.

I stop playing blind man’s bluff with Malaysia. I take away my blindfold because now I understand that Malaysia is a cocktail which is difficult to describe. There are so many ingredients! It’s this wealth, this untypical blend which is so appealing. And maybe also the incredible smell of tropical flowers.

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