Two weddings and a funeral – and a blow to my ego

 

I feel that I’ve hurtled at breakneck speed towards the end of my final term at school here in KL.  The tempo increased when, sadly, I had to make a second flying visit back to England, just three weeks after Sam’s wedding, for my dad’s funeral.

Once back in KL, it was a sprint to the finish line, where I slammed on the brakes and then celebrated the first day of the holidays by going to my first Hindu wedding.

It was a huge, colourful spectacle, which took place on a stage in the temple.  There were henna’d hands for the bridesmaids –

and henna’d arms for the bride –

and lots of naked flames –

I was surprised that there were no words spoken during the ceremony, the couple on stage went through a variety of rituals – washing their hands, abasing themselves in front of their parents and having stuff chucked at them – I couldn’t really see what it was from where I was sitting.  But the spectators sat and chatted; there was no sense of hushed reverence as there would be in an English church.

The groom leads the bride three times around the stage –

and then they’re married, and all the guests queue up to have their photo taken with the happy couple.

And then another surprise – once you’ve had your picture taken, you go down to the dining room and you eat … without waiting for the bride and groom.

The bride and groom  didn’t appear until long after we’d finished eating, looking rather dazed, but definitely up for one more selfie –

So, a jolly good time was had by everyone, except possibly one of the bridesmaids –

– who definitely looks as though she’d rather be down the pub.

And now … my four-month holiday begins, which is  very exciting  – I haven’t had such a long holiday since I was a student.

However, my euphoria has been slightly dented by an end of term gift from one of my students.  It was a bottle of grapefruit essential oil, with an accompanying card –

What are you trying to say, Nicholas?

 

 

A week of Thai feasting – part two

Life lessons continued:

3.  When you go to visit a friend abroad and she asks what you’d like to do while you’re there, say that you’d like to do a food tour, thereby disguising greed as cultural appreciation.

That strategy found me on a food tour of Bangkok with Angel –

– here we are with some of our fellow gluttons, enjoying one of the  best dishes we tried, chicken with finely shredded deep-fried lemon grass.  It looked just like a badly-made birds’ nest, but tasted a whole lot better.  This was an Esan restaurant – food from the north east of Thailand, but extremely popular throughout the whole country.

This woman is preparing miang kam at her stall in the street –

They are made of little bits of chopped vegetables, spices, peanuts, dried fish, and many other things, coated in a zingy sauce and then wrapped in a wild pepper vine leaf and served on a stick.

I’m afraid I ate mine too quickly to get a picture,  but I found one online –

We also tried low-calorie duck –

– not quite sure what makes it low-cal, but our guide assured us it was, so we all scoffed extra portions to make the most of our one and only opportunity to try skinny-duck.

This stall sells banana, sweet potato and taro deep-fried in a sesame batter –

This one sadly wasn’t low-calorie, but it was very good.

The Thai Muslim food was very similar to Malay food –

chicken curry – called massaman in Thailand – and stuffed roti in the photo here.  The roti is called murtabak in Thailand just as it is in Malaysia.  The only thing I passed on was the ox brain … I’m adventurous, but not that adventurous.

We stopped to buy flowers –

and then headed off to the temple to make offerings and light incense sticks.

I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be giving thanks for good food, or asking for forgiveness for our gluttony –

– so I did both, just to be on the safe side.

Feeling absolved, we headed to a bakery for traditional buns filled with pandan-flavoured custard –

– served with sweet iced tea.  Pandan is an unfortunate mal-de-mer shade of green, but it is very aromatic and sweet and is considered to be the Asian equivalent of vanilla.

Our final stop was a restaurant which serves Thai green curry with fried roti, instead of with rice –

a definite advantage taste-wise, I felt, but unless you want to have your arteries dyno-rodded out on a regular basis it’s probably best to stick to rice except on very special occasions.

Finally, coconut sorbet, made with coconut water and little pieces of young coconut flesh, was my second favourite dish of the day –

– and then we waddled off to find somewhere to sit down and digest our gastric overload.

Thanks, Angel – it was a great trip!

 

 

 

A week of Thai feasting – part one

 

Life lessons:

  1.  When a chef brings a pot of his own Thai green curry to a potluck supper, you make a beeline for it.
  2. When a friend then invites you to dinner at that restaurant, you accept with alacrity

and Old Siam is even within walking distance for me … result!

Pad Thai is my favourite, and chef Glen makes his own sauce from scratch –

It was delicious, but it’s not the most photogenic dish, so I made sure I snapped everyone else’s meals too –

This is Thai green curry Laksa … delicious and beautiful.

And so was the mango with coconut rice –

Glen tells me that buys 700 kg of pork a week, and sells 40,000 plates of deep fried pork a year – which is a pretty impressive feat in a Muslim country.

Glen’s grandmother was from Phuket and he has inherited a lot of her recipes.  She oversees the whole operation from her place place high up on the wall –

She’s not smiling, but I’m sure I can see the approval in her eyes.

 

Crazy Rich Asian Parents

It’s not just Singapore that has Crazy Rich Asians – the Chinese Malaysian parents in KL are up there with the best of them.

The most ridiculous thing I’ve been asked to date by a parent, was whether I thought it would be a good idea for a five-year-old to start learning Latin ‘because it will be useful for him when he’s a doctor.’

‘But he’s five years old,’ I said.

‘And … ?’ her eyebrows seemed to say to me.

We also have a four-year-old at school with her own phone, which had Youtube installed, so she spent her evenings watching unsuitable videos instead of sleeping.  When it was pointed out to her parents that this wasn’t a good idea, they went away to think about their parenting responsibilities, and came back the next day and announced proudly that they’d uninstalled Youtube and given her Netflix instead.

And how do you ensure that you win any online game you play at school?

By bringing in both an iPhone and an iPad, of course.

Technology is also very useful for the crazy, rich Asian parents, not just their children.

So that they can secretly film their child through the fence while they’re at school.

One parent wasn’t even content with that; she wanted CCTV in the child’s classroom that she would have access to at all times.  Needless to say, her child is not at our school – English head teachers are far too sensible to accede to those sort of requests.

Then there’s also a need for our school materials to relect the lives of these families.  So we have reading comprehensions on useful topics like how to deal with your servants when you go on holiday –

How very different from the home life of our own dear Queen … although perhaps not, on second thoughts.

 

 

Wedding number one …

As I have recently learnt, having just the one wedding when you get married is SO last year – in fact a friend in KL is having three, so I wasn’t surprised when Sam and Alice announced that they would be having two weddings.

Wedding number one was yesterday – a beautiful sunny autumn day – at the Town Hall in Islington, a very right-on sort of place, where the wedding advertisement shows the sort of marriage that would get you 50 lashes and ten years in jail in Malaysia –

The art deco interior makes for some lovely photos

 

And anybody who’s anybody has to have their jacket lining to match their buttonhole –

We did manage to make it as far as the pavement outside before the celebrations started –

And then on to that crucial part of the day … lunch.

The East India Club doesn’t usually allow women into its hallowed halls, but as long as we remained three paces behind the chaps in our unseemly scramble for the Champagne, it seemed to be ok.

I do love a bit of theatre in the dining room, so was impressed with the carving of the cured salmon –

Delicious …

and roast grouse with all the trimmings –

– a thoroughly English meal.

So … wedding number two is scheduled for next summer. Bring it on, is what I say.

 

 

Feeding my addiction

Mindful that I will be leaving KL at the end of the year, and will be cut off from my new favourite foods, I put out a plea on the local residents Facebook page –

I got a few suggestions for using salted egg powder instead of the real thing, which just wouldn’t be the same at all – a bit like asking for authentic pasta recipes and someone suggesting that you open a tin of Heinz spaghetti hoops.  But then  I got a reply from a young cook who’s running a pop-up restaurant on the site of a former car wash, and he offered to teach me.

 

So off I went, with my notebook and my phone, ready to learn the secrets of salted egg.

When I arrived, he’d got the ingredients all ready, like a cookery demonstration, and we were away –

– the dish we were making was salted egg butter chicken.

Unfortunately, I have a real problem with chillis, and as soon as anyone starts frying them, there’s some irritant released which makes me cough uncontrollably – so I had to have my cookery lesson in a mask.

It was a bit embarrassing, but I’m sure I can’t be the only sufferer, as he had a whole box of masks in his kitchen.

We made a delicious sauce, and then added the all-important salted egg –

Whoever would have thought that such an unprepossessing-looking ingredient transform any meal into paradise on a plate?

I learnt that the all-important ingredients for making crispy fried chicken is wheatstarch, not cornstarch – and here it is in all it’s glorious, golden crispness –

along with the salted egg butter sauce –

absolutely delicious – thanks, Razali!

Am now planning to build a salted egg empire when I return to the UK, and I predict that  it will be the big food craze of 2019.  Let’s hope I’m more accurate than Nostradamus.

 

 

White Supremacist joins KL school

I’m constantly shocked by the number of spelling mistakes in the teaching materials at the language school where I work.  In a recent lesson on Sherlock Holmes, we had two creatively spelt names to contend with –

I can only assume that Dr Whatson is a relative of Dr Who.

Then we had a worksheet on an important key skill –

– good old gammar.

Not to be outdone, one of my students then devised a painful injury –

Don’t you just hate it when you accidentally leave your crotch in a restaurant?

I was also surprised to get notification that a potential white supremacist was joining one of my classes –

Luckily, he turned out to be neither a Danish Aryan (as we know, spellings are only ever approximate here), nor a white supremacist.

I still smile when I look at the register for my class of 9-year-olds, which makes me feel as though I’ve been transported back to the 1930s, with Gladys (sister of Bernice), Mervyn, Clarice and Brian.  Then there’s Muriel, Clive, Eunice, Marvin and Calvin dotted around in other classes, not to mention the very glamorous young woman in my Pilates class called Doris.  I just hope they all decide to stay in Asia, where these names are obviously very fashionable for the upwardly mobile middle classes.  In England they’re likely to be mistaken for an elderly charlady or a second-hand car salesman.

There was also a pleasant surprise this week, when I taught my weekly class at the Chinese School, and we looked at Irish myths about leprechauns.  They had to write what they would wish for if they met a leprechaun and, of course, there were the usual materialistic, grasping desires –

– although a terraced home seems rather modest in comparison with the other wishes here.

But then I came across this one –

– and my faith in humanity was restored.

 

A Walk in the Black Forest …

… no, not that Black Forest – this one was only black because it was dark, very dark.

It was a night walk held at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, and our volunteer guide was a self-confessed snake addict.  Here he is holding his special snake stick –

– I thought it was for prodding and beating snakes to keep them away, but it’s actually for catching snakes so that you can hold them, caress them, and lovingly take endless photos of them – as we soon discovered.

We saw quite a few creatures on our walk, but what we saw most of that night were leeches.  They were everywhere, dropping from trees onto us, clambering up over our shoes from ground level, determined to take a juicy bite.  When we shone a torch onto the ground the whole surface was moving like a bubbling pot – it was covered in writhing leeches.  As a result, we all became very twitchy, constantly brushing any exposed flesh to check for leeches, suddenly flicking a leg to the side to dislodge any potential blood-sucker, and prancing up and down on the spot whever the group stopped, trying to keep as little contact with the ground as possible.  I’m sure we all looked mentally disturbed as we wriggled, flicked and leapt in the air while we made our way around the forest.

Apart from leeches, we saw quite a few other animals, and I was impressed by our guide’s ability to spot a tiny creature in the dark and identify it immediately.

Like this spotted litter frog –

– which just looked like a stone on the ground until he picked it up and put it on a leaf for us to see.

Then I learnt all about eyeshine, which is fascinating.  To identify night creatures by eyeshine, you hold a bright torch under your dominant eye and look around.  If you see a small twinkling light reflected from your torch it’s a spider, and if you see a steady pale light, it’s a reptile.  Predators have red eye shine, and so does the slow loris, which was the only mammal we saw, hiding high up in a tree.  The quick loris had obviously scarpered as soon as it heard us approaching …

One of my favourites was the Malayan horned frog –

– which is also the symbol of the Malaysian Nature Society and featured on our guide’s t-shirt –

Although I have to say that the horned frog we saw looked a lot less pissed off than the one on the t-shirt.

Another favourite was Malaysia’s most poisonous frog, the poisonous rock frog –

– and this one has a cataract, as our guide noticed immediately.

Being a snake lover, he got very excited about this brown whip snake –

and the oriental vine snake –

– which he fearlessly patted from side to side to keep it on the leaf.

The walk finally ended at 1.50 a.m., while our guide was showing us this huge gecko –

– and he invited us all to feel the sticky pads on its feet that enable it to climb up vertical surfaces

Then he ended the walk with the unforgettable words, “I’ll have to put this gecko down now, I think I’ve got a leech in my pants.”

A quandary …

What do you do when your guide on a walking tour turns out to be an obsessive nose-picker –

– and then, when you get to a steep step down onto a narrow path between two rice paddies –

– he offers you his hand?

Do you … a) say breezily, ‘no thank you, I’m fine’, confidently jump down, and risk toppling straight over into the flooded rice paddy?

or … b) decide that touching his mucus-crusted hand is the lesser of the two misfortunes, and take hold of it with gritted teeth?

I chose option b, so I remained dry, but spent the rest of the walk wiping my hand surreptitiously on my clothes.

The rice terraces in Bali are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  But then so is pretty much everywhere in the world it seems – apart from anywhere I’ve ever lived. UNESCO has never shown any interest in Kuala Lumpur, Bedford or Tooting Broadway, as far as I’m aware.

But the rice terraces are spectacular –

At the moment they’re a brilliant green, as the rice isn’t ripe yet,

and men in conical hats work away in the water –

… no idea what they’re doing, but they look very picturesque.

The raised paths between them are just wide enough for two people to pass comfortably, and we saw plenty of people along the way, and my guide seemed to know all of them –

I thought this man had a bag of rice on his head –

– but it turns out that it’s rice straw, to feed his cattle.  Even if it’s not as heavy as rice, it’s still given him amazing abs for his age … and I don’t think he was breathing in for the camera.

In fact, most people in Bali look pretty damn fab … even with a basket on their head –

or half a ton of metal –

or even a whole ton of metal –

The only exception to this rule of fabulousness was a group of women I saw in one of the temples, and I have to admit that I became slightly obsessed with them –

There were six women, working in two groups of three, moving this huge pile of earth, basket by basket, from the bottom of the steps to a site at the top.  They worked in complete silence, digging, filling the basket, lifting it and carrying it –

They were as rhythmical as clockwork,with the two groups meeting and passing at the top of the stairs every time, and they were all hefting large sticks, in a way that made me think of Old Testament prophets

I wondered if this was some Sisyphus-like punishment, and when they had moved the whole pile to the top, they would then start to move it back to the bottom again.

But then I realised that it was lunchtime, and that was quite enough fanciful wondering for one day, so I left them to it.

 

 

 

 

Bali Highs and Bali Lows

After a 3-day weekend with a jaunt to Java last week, I had a 4-day weekend this week … gotta love the Malaysian public holidays!

I decided to make the most of my time off with a trip to Bali, as it’s just a hop and a skip from KL on Air Asia, and a return flight is only about £100.

I was given plenty of warnings before I left … what Magaluf is to young, boozy Brits, Bali is to young, boozy Australians, so you have to choose your destination carefully.  I chose Ubud, which is known for being artsy-crafty, with beautiful architecture and its own Royal Family.

Everything in Bali is beautiful … they have no truck with plywood doors from the DIY shop –

and no plain, flat, utilitarian brick walls for them either –

And anything that really needs to be plain and flat, for health and safety reasons, can always be decorated with fresh flowers –

As far as I could see, every single statue is also decorated with fresh flowers every day – our hotel had a member of staff whose job was to collect flowers from the garden and put them on each stutue.  His approach was rather unimaginative, I have to say –

I preferred those who went for the coquettish look –

or even raffish –

And if your head’s not actually attached to your body, it doesn’t mean you can’t embellish it florally –

There are beautiful gardens everywhere, and this was the view from my balcony –

I even had my own bat, which roosted on a nearby tree every day, and didn’t mind in the least if I walked up close to take a picture –

I’m assuming it’s a flying fox, and I’ve never seen a creature of such extremes before –  one half cute, furry mammal, and the other half emissary of Satan.

On the Bali downside … the Balinese monkeys are much worse behaved than the Malaysian ones –

This poor chap was in danger of having his backpack ransacked.

And I will never complain about the pavements in KL again.  In Ubud the narrow pavements have huge holes hacked into them every few metres, exposing what looks like a filthy sewer down below –

As the town is so full of traffic and pedestrians, at every step you risk toppling or being shoved down a hole, or if you step sideways into the road you run the risk of getting flattened by a speeding car or motorbike.  But on the plus side, I’m sure they rush over and strew flowers on you as you lie stunned and bleeding in the road.

 

Me and you and a cat named Lou

If there’s one thing you have to do in Java, it’s indulge in a cup of coffee –

And I decided to try coffee luwak, or civet coffee as it’s called in English.

Civet coffee is the foie gras of Asia … some people are willing to pay up to £60 for a cup, while others think it’s a cruel practice and should be outlawed.

I was assured that the civets that had predigested my coffee (to put it politely)  were free range and lived in the coffee plantations, foraging freely and not kept in cages and force-fed coffee beans.  But they would say that, wouldn’t they?

The civets I saw all seemed very tame and happy. People think they’re a type of cat, but they are actually a totally different species, although they seem very docile, just like cats.  They aren’t kept in cages; they  just doze away in the sunshine and each coffee luwak house has its own civets as pets to show the visitors –

And I bonded instantly with this one –

Do you know what this is?

It’s civet poo … full of coffee beans that are full-flavoured but much less acidic than coffee beans that haven’t been harvested from the faeces of a small mammal.

I tried the coffee –

– and it was very good.  Would I pay £60 a cup for it?  No, it wasn’t that good.  I willingly forked out £2.50  for a small cup, but balked at paying £20 for a small packet to take home and treat my friends to coffee luwak.  So … sorry folks, if you want a cup of civet poo coffee, you’ll have to come to Java and buy your own.

Java is also famous for shadow puppets, so I went to a workshop where they were making them for a performance at the Sultan’s palace on Sunday.

The puppet maker explained that they make them out of the leather from sacred buffaloes kept at temples for religious purposes –

– because the problem with working buffaloes is that farmers hit them with sticks which damages the hide.

He was keen to show me the tools he uses to make the puppets –

– which are all crafted from motorbike wheel spokes.

It takes a week to make one puppet –

– and when you I look at the detail, you can see why –

I had to leave before the performance (work getting in the way of pleasure, yet again) so the puppet maker gave me an impromptu performance, holding a fabric screen up underneath a ceiling light –

– I now have another skill on my wish list … to become a shadow puppeteer.

The Triangle of Life

I’ve seen The Lion King, so I’m up to speed on the Circle of Life but, never having lived in an earthquake zone, the Triangle of Life was new to me.  Luckily my hotel room in Yogyakarta, Java last weekend had a very helpful guide –

Unfortunately there was no large chair or sofa in my room, so I was wondering whether I’d have time to dash to Ikea and buy one in the event of an earthquake warning, but then I turned over the page –

and was relieved to learn that there is also a Triangle of Life next to the bed or … in extremis, I could prostrate myself in the corridor next to the lift – presumably once I’d realised there was no time to get to Ikea after all, but had locked myself out in my rush to equip myself with a Triangle of Life.

After reading all that, I felt very grateful that Malaysia has no earthquakes and no volcanoes either – its neighbour, Indonesia, has taken one for the team, and has both in spades.

In January alone, 44 earthquakes were recorded in Indonesia, and there are 127 active volcanoes.  I booked a trip to visit a volcano near Yogyakarta called Mount Merapi, and then found out that it is one of the most active of all, and has been named a decade volcano because of its nasty habit of erupting every ten years or so.  The last minor eruption was on May 11 this year, but they’ll be due for another biggie quite soon.

I have to say that it was an extremely uncomfortable experience, being jolted along extremely dusty roads in a knackered old jeep, which the driver stopped and started by pulling wires that were dangling down under the dashboard.

The fine gritty volcanic ash and soil gets everywhere –

and the whole landscape is bleak in the extreme –

There’s a museum showing some of the casualties of the last major eruption in 2010 when nearly 400 people died –

So next, I decided to go the the Sultan’s Palace for an altogether less depressing visit  –

This is the entrance to the Sultan’s baths, where he and his wives and his 150 children would go for a dip in strictly segregated areas –

I had a few problems in the Palace because, unlike Malaysia, English is not the lingua franca in Indonesia, so I was often left guessing what everything on display actually meant.

This portrait of the Sultan –

– was obviously painted while he was going through his elvish phase.

And this poor woman seems to have issues –

– I’m just not too sure what they are.

But I did understand, after overhearing a tour guide who was taking a group around, that the Sultan had to choreograph a dance as part of his coronation.  I felt that this made it sound more like a game show than a solemn ceremony, but here is a photo of the performance of his dance –

The palace guards might look a bit sissy in their long skirts –

but they all have a lethal-looking knife tucked into the back –

which they don’t have to leave behind in the armoury when they go home in the evening –

I travelled around in a pedal-powered tuk-tuk

– which was moderately terrifying as he puffed and wheezed his way through major junctions and down the wrong side of dual carriageways with cars and lorries hurtling towards me.

But I have to admit that they look much more picturesque than taxis –

– and I did make it back to the hotel in one piece every evening.

 

 

 

Being Intrepid – some successes and a failure

A perfect night to head off into the jungle to see fireflies –

“In a minute, you will see like Christmas tree,” our guide said.  And she wasn’t wrong – all the mangrove trees lining the river were filled with tiny twinkling lights.

I tried to photograph them, but just got a completely black picture.

Then, a man sitting cross-legged at the front of the boat began waving a lamp, making complicated patterns in the air which mimic the queen, apparently.  And all the fireflies left their trees and flew across the water like a cloud of tiny stars, towards our boat.

If you manage to catch a firefly, you can hold it in your hand and make a wish before letting it go.  Obviously I can’t reveal my wish, but do come and visit me at my villa on Lake Como once I’ve won the lottery.

Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in SE Asia, but it was romantically shrouded in mist the day I went trekking there –

In the National Park surrounding the mountain I saw the world’s smallest orchid –

I was rather surprised when I saw it, as it’s only the flower that’s small and not the leaves – I was expecting a sort of dolls’ house orchid.

Then at the other end of the scale we saw the world’s largest flower – the rafflesia.  But I was rather underwhelmed by it –

– it didn’t look much like a flower at all.  I thought it looked a lot better in the advertising material, where it had made a bit more of an effort to scrub up for the photos –

But being an exotic bloom called Keith is enough to make anyone stop caring, I suppose.

I had two fruit-related successes on my trip.

Firstly, I saw red pomelo in the market and wanted to buy one to try it.  But how could I peel it if I bought it, as the skin is as thick as rhinoceros hide?

This is the sort of knife the professionals use to tackle the job –

And my hotel had no restaurant, so I couldn’t even borrow a knife.

Well, I have to report that it is perfectly possible to peel a pomelo using a pair of nail scissors –

– and it was delicious, definitely worth the struggle.

I also ate my first proper durian, fresh from the pod, not just a tiny shrink-wrapped piece sold to tourists who want to show how fearless they are, in central KL.

I bought it at the Sunday market, and the stallholder assured me it was a small one, perfect for one person

She removed all the seeds and put them onto a tray –

– and I carried them around as if I was holding a time bomb, very aware of the terrible smell emanating from the bag.  Finally, I found a secluded bench –

– where I sat and ate it – having asked for an extra plastic bag so I wouldn’t have to touch the fruit – the smell can linger for days, so I’m told.

The verdict?

… I do like durian, but a whole one – even a small one – is a bit too much.

The waters of the South China Sea are beautifully clear and full of tropical fish, so perfect for an intrepid snorkelling expedition.

I went out on a trip to a remote bay –

With beautiful clear water –

– and I’m happy to be able to reassure you that Nemo is alive and well and living with hundreds of his relatives in the coral reefs off the coast of Borneo.

Not my photo – bizarrely, I found this pic on the wall of the ladies’ loo at KL airport.

My failure to be intrepid involved yet another attempt to complete a circuit along a treetop walkway without sweats and palpitations and an urge to whimper pathetically all the way round.

Here I am, clinging on in terror as I’m about to launch off onto a swaying plank forty metres in the air, with only a bit of netting on each side as a barrier between me and instant death –

The blurb says you can “enjoy the spectacular wildness of Borneo’s ancient rainforest”, but I can truthfully say that I didn’t enjoy a single second of it.

I’m determined to carry on being intrepid and expanding my comfort zone, but from now on I’ll concentrate on expanding it horizontally rather than vertically.

When my heart nearly stopped in Borneo

I’ve been on a jungle trekking expedition in Sabah – the furthest outpost of Malaysia, way out on the eastern edge of Borneo.

We spent our time either cruising down the river looking for wildlife, or manfully hacking our way through the jungle on what was euphemistically termed ‘jungle walks’.  I managed to rip two pairs of trousers to shreds and slide down a jungle-covered slope at high speed, rather than the slow and dignified descent that I’d planned.

The river cuts through the jungle with wildlife coming right up to the water’s edge, and we soon got to know the drill – when you see another boat that’s stopped, with everyone looking and pointing in the same direction –

– make a beeline for them, barge their boat out of the way and try to see what they’ve spotted.

Using this method, along with the phenomenal spotting skills of our cool dude guide –

– we managed to see proboscis monkeys, hornbills, pig-tailed macaques –

– not as elegant as the long-tailed macaques, but then they don’t seem to have the same thuggish tendencies either.

We saw a civet feeding in a tree on a night cruise, and even spotted a couple of wild orang utans, who are notoriously shy and difficult to see.  But one of them was apparently building a nest high up in a tree, so I think it must have been having an identity crisis – or else there’s a chronic housing shortage in the jungle.

It’s rather difficult to photograph the animals as they’re small and keep moving, but I did take a picture of a blue-eared kingfisher, as it was fast asleep  just a metre or so from our boat.

The sky changed constantly … from blue and serene –

to romantic –

to downright dramatic –

– I half expected the Angel Gabriel to appear from this cloud, wreathed in fire.  And if he had appeared, I would have sent him off to deal with a boatload of Russians, rocking precariously on the edges of their boat as they sat and smoked, ignoring the seats, which obviously weren’t macho enough for them, and who launched a drone at an orang utan.  Then when they were told it wasn’t allowed, they sent it whizzing off at top speed down the river, frightening everything within earshot.  If Gabriel had hurled fire and brimstone down on the drone and its owners, singeing them around their pot-bellied edges, justice would have been served.

This huge crocodile swam alongside our boat for a while –

– it’s apparently a caiman, and according to my new American friend Blyth, they make excellent handbags.

On our night hike the guide caught a firefly and it sat quite happily on my hand, glowing away –

It’s a female, I learnt, as it was flashing twice a second, whilst males only flash once a second.  Typical, I thought, the women working twice as hard as the men, but just getting on with it with no fuss.

And now to my heart-stopping moment, which didn’t involve crocodiles, poisonous millipedes or any of the other venomous creatures we came across.  It happened when I got out of bed in my little jungle cabin yesterday morning.  I was just adjusting to being vertical, when I noticed an ominous brown shape on the sheet where I’d been lying –

I shrieked and leapt into the farthest corner of the room.  How long had it been there?  Had I slept with a cockroach in my bed all night?

I knew I’d have to trap it before I did anything else – I draw the line at having free-range cockroaches in my bedroom.  I inched forwards with a cup to slam over it, but ready to take off like a gazelle again if need be … those things can really move.

But as I got within cup slamming distance, it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t a cockroach after all … it was in fact an Australian smoked almond –

I thought almonds had all kinds of health-giving properties designed to prevent heart attacks – but now I’m not so sure.

East is East …

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet …

… Well, Rudyard Kipling had obviously never been to Malaysia, is all I can say.

One of the things I shall miss most – OK, the one thing that I will miss the most – when I leave KL is the food.  There is everything here – not just the Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines of the local population – but anything else you could wish for too, and East most definitely met West for me last week.

On Sunday we went to a celebrity chef’s restaurant.  Chef Ismail has a Malay restaurant in town, and there are videos of his TV programmes on a constant loop outside the dining room –

So, of course I recognised him instantly when I saw him in the dining room, and asked for a photo for my blog –

Rather excitingly, the co-owner of the restaurant is Malaysia’s first astronaut, a very handsome man who is also an orthopedic surgeon –

Disappointingly, he wasn’t at the restaurant, he was probably in orbit or saving the life of a small child in an operating theatre somewhere.

Malay food is delicious, but it’s all fried and not very healthy.  This woman is making roti jala, a sort of lacy pancake that you eat with curry –

and there’s a plate of popia – Malaysian spring rolls covered in a sweet and spicy sauce – on the table too.  We also ate the best satay I’ve had so far, and an amazing beef rendang where you could really taste the fresh lemongrass and all the other spices.

Conseqently, we had to breathe in for our photo opportunity with Chef Ismail after dinner –

And then yesterday – about 100 metres from work – I came across this …

– a Swiss restaurant serving genuine raclette – and I was very excited –

For me, Malaysia is the ultimate example of East and West living side by side in perfect culinary harmony.

On a journey to enlightenment, also involving chicken feet

One astonishing fact about Malaysia is that there’s only one place in the whole country where it’s legal to gamble.  It’s astonishing because this is a country with 6.6 million Chinese inhabitants, and the Chinese love to gamble.  So why the government isn’t cashing in on this and setting up casinos in every town, I don’t know – but it may have something to do with the fact that gambling is banned for Muslims, so they can’t be seen to be actively promoting something which is prohibited for over 50% of the population.

Malaysia’s Las Vegas, as it’s known informally, is the Genting Highlands, and it’s about an hour’s drive from KL – high up in the wonderfully-named Titiwangsa Mountains, where the temperature is a refreshing 15 degrees; a world away from the 30-plus degrees of stickiness of the lowlands.

The cable car takes you up through the clouds

with some beautiful jungle views on the way up –

until you reach the summit, which is an area of built-up hideousness, with ugly hotels –

and an unfinished 20th Century Fox theme park, which has been 12 years in the building already, and is still nowhere near finished –

The whole place is intended to be appreciated from indoors rather than outdoors, and the windowless casinos, hotels and shopping malls all lead into each other with no walking trails to enjoy the views (‘eat can, gamble can, walk cannot’ as the locals say).

I’ve never been a gambler – I feel that I have enough vices already, without acquiring another one – so just enjoyed the understated decor inside the casino hotels, where you can see leopards –

and snakes –

dangling from fairy-lit trees – presumably to give the illusion of being outdoors, without any of the inconvenience of actually having to go outdoors.

Far more interesting was the Chinese temple, halfway up the mountain, where I went on a journey of enlightenment to learn about the Ten Courts, or Chambers, of Hell in Buddhist and Taoist beliefs.

The temple has a spectacular setting –

with all the views that are missing at the top of the mountain –

The Ten Courts of Hell are similar to Dante’s Circles of Hell, and ironically the Second Court includes all the gamblers, who are frozen into blocks of ice for eternity –

– obviously not a very effective deterrent in these parts.

There is also a special Court, or chamber, in Hell for children who show disrepect for their parents –

These ungrateful offspring are wedged inside a couple of giant stones and squashed –

– like a non-vegetarian Bourbon biscuit.

I shall be sharing these images with my children, to serve as a dire warning.

The second phase of my enlightenment that day took place at lunchtime, when I decided to try my first ever chicken feet –

– and I acquired the wisdom to understand that these gelatinous, bony extremities are not the most palatable part of the chicken.  When the Cockneys decided to refer to feet as ‘plates of meat’ they obviously didn’t have chicken feet in mind.

 

A week of firsts …

After a while, once you get used to your new surroundings, even somewhere as different as Malaysia can seem a bit same-old, same-old.  So it was very exciting last week to do a whole host of new things.

For starters, I went into Chinatown and had my first ever frog porridge –

I have to admit that I was a little trepidatious – but more about the porridge than the frog – we francophiles don’t blanch at the thought of snarfing down an amphibian or two.

It was jolly delicious, and I am now a convert to Chinese rice porridge, which I have avoided for ever, because I loathe English porridge so much.

See – I was even smiling afterwards.

I also tried hot tofu with sugar syrup for the first time, from a little man with a cart, next to the fake designer handbags –

I’ve been converted to this, too – Chinatown seems to be my personal road to Damascus at the moment.

We went to visit the famous duck stall, which has been in the market for decades, and I was surprised to see that it was really just a glorified trolley –

But the queue was huge and the duck was amazing –

 

And then, I’m proud to say, I cooked my very first Malaysian supper party, with an authentic Peranakan recipe, from the Straits Chinese repertoire, called Pongteh.  It’s a kind of chicken stew, so off I went to the special shop for more Mozart Listening Chicken – I like to think I’m dealing with cultured poultry when I’m cooking.

And here it is –

– all brown and ambrosial – with the roast duck in the foreground, reheated to prefection.  It’s just a pity that I don’t have any serving dishes, so it looks like a meal from the soup kitchen.

My next delicious first was Yuzu – a citrus liqueur that is so much nicer than limoncello –

And after the second glass, I sat murmuring ‘where have yuzu been all my life?’

Then, after pongteh came gula’pong.  I’m not sure what ‘pong’ means in Bahasa, I tried putting it into google translate, and it told me that it also means ‘pong’ in English, but I’m sure that can’t be right.  If it was, durian would be called pong, and it isn’t.

I was delighted to learn that although gula’pong is made from a type of palm sugar and cream, it is a healthy dessert –

with extra sugar poured over the top … just to make it even healthier –

And then to round off my food-related firsts this week, I was trapped in the lift with a trolleyful of durian yesterday –

The young chap was very apologetic about the smell, and explained that he was holding a durian-eating competition later that evening for his friends.  I was very glad that he got out of the lift a good ten floors below me – I felt pretty sure the pong wouldn’t carry that far.

The only negative side to my week of firsts has been Mr Toad’s very strange behaviour ever since the frog porridge –

I’ve tried telling him that nobody eats toad porridge, but he just stares lugubriously at me.  I had no idea that toads were prone to such attention-seeking behaviour.

 

 

Updates from the chalkface

And another riveting English lesson gets under way …

I was rather disappointed that my new pupil, Gladys, didn’t turn up for class on Saturday.  I pictured her with her hair in rollers and a mop in her hand, looking rather out of place amongst the eight-year-olds in the class. And then she didn’t even show up – but perhaps she had an emergency floor to mop.

I’m rather enjoying my new EFL class, for children with virtually no English, which started this week.  It makes a change from the usual near-fluent kids we have and gives me a lot of amusement.

Me: So, let’s practise our basic numbers again.  Ten plus ten equals …?

Student: Tuesday!

Me:  OK – let’s try another one.  Ten plus two equals …?

Student: Tissue!

Me: Hmmm.  Let’s try colours instead.

As I say, it makes a change from our usual children, who put me in my place quite regularly.  Last week a six-year-old asked me, ‘Miss Louise, why do you talk all the time?’

Now in my natural milieu, with teenagers, I would have shot back with something like, ‘because I’m the teacher, and you won’t learn much if we all sit here in silence.’

But I’m not used to six-year-olds and don’t want a lesson filled with howling and snivelling, so I responded very politely with, ‘Oh, do I talk too much?’

‘Yes,’  she said.

‘Shall I stop talking, then?’

‘Well, you can say something …. just don’t say too much.’

So that was me put in my place.

And then this week, the same child asked if we could sing a song, so I agreed and started off with Old Macdonald.

‘Oh my God!’ she said.  ‘You’re singing kids’ songs.’

‘Don’t you like kids’ songs?’ I asked (bad move, in retrospect).

‘No, I like sexy songs and sad songs.  My favourite is Ariana Grande.  Can we sing I’m into you?’

So we did – and she was word perfect.

Six-year-olds are a whole new breed nowadays.

 

A handbag?

Mahathir, Malaysia’s new prime minister, turned 93 this week, while his wife is a sprightly 92. But his impending century has not lessened his determination to expose the corruption of his predecessor, Najib, and Najib’s extremely unpopular wife, Rosmah.

The whole country has been agog at the details emerging during the search of their home.

So far, 116.7 million Ringgits has been found in cash, which is nearly £22 million – a lot of it stuffed into handbags … and what handbags!

This woman has 272 Hermes Birkin bags alone, worth over £10 million. Apparently they were all gifts from well-wishers, although whether they were already stuffed with money when she received them, or whether she stuffed them herself at a later date is unclear.

But Hermes bags are cheap compared with Bijan bags (the yellow one on the right in this picture), as I’ve learnt from the newspapers. I’d never heard of them before, but now I know that they’re so exclusive that their shop is ‘by invitation only’ and the diamond-encrusted bags are upwards of $100,000 (US). But I expect that Rosmah only has one for sentimental reasons … Bijan is Najib spelt backwards.

And it doesn’t stop at handbags –

– and if a diamond-encrusted watch doesn’t do it for you, how about some diamonds without the watch –

Anyway, my thinking is that they’ll need to sell all this booty to recoup some of the government money that disappeared into Najib’s personal bank account, so I shall be scouring Chinatown for a sale of cheap, second-hand Hermes bags.

So, would anyone else like one while I’m there?

Shopping … Malaysian-style

Shopping in Malaysia can be a frustrating experience; customer service is an unknown concept, and it’s not unusual to be ignored in a shop while the many, many assistants all stand around glued to their phones.  I’m afraid that this attitude brings out the Mem Sahib in me, and I march up to one of them and say, ‘Excuse me, is this shop actually open for business?’ in ringing tones.

In a restaurant recently I asked the waitress about one of the dishes on the menu.  She went into great detail about the way it was cooked, the size of the portion, suitable side dishes, and then said, ‘finish already’.

‘Finish already’ is a favourite phrase, meaning ‘we’ve sold out of whatever it is you want, and we don’t know – or care – whether we’ll ever get any more stock in.  And what’s more, we don’t care if we stand around all day and don’t sell a thing – we don’t own the company.’

So, I was surprised to hear a shop assistant in a shoe shop really going the extra mile with the customer service last week:

Customer: I think I’ll take two pairs.

Assistant: Two pairs, Madam?  So, do you mean left and right and left and right?

Customer: Well, … yes.

There are some rather unusual things for sale here too.  For example – how about having your breast milk made into soap?

Just the thing for the Aunties at Christmas.

And my local deli sells Mozart Listening Chicken –

I was intrigued and googled the company, to discover that it’s quite well-known and has featured on the Smithsonian website –

I read about their philosophy –

– so Mozart leads to happier, less smelly chickens.

But I just imagine them all on death row squawking, ‘Oh no, not yet!  Please can I just listen to the end of Eine Kleine Nacht -‘

Zap.