A Far-Eastern sojourn

I can assure you my friends, that if you want to open your mind and your senses, you have to travel. A trip to the east is always rejuvenating, and in our case it involved over three countries and a travel itinerary covering some 22 days. As my wife and I spent the days moving through land and air between Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia, I could only marvel at the ways the trading Indians had established bases at Malacca, Pinang, Bali and at Siem reap amongst other places in the far east. These early South Indians stamped their practices and their varying religious ways at all these port cities starting roughly from the 9th century.  Today the astounding temples, mosques and buildings in many of these places are testament to their varying fates and glorious lives and we had the good fortunes to see so many of them. But it was not all related to history for we spent a good amount of time with our friends Anju and Anand and also attended a nephew’s ‘interesting’ wedding reception at Teluk Intan as well as refreshing our taste buds with many a dish at all of these quaint locales, be it from the Malay, tainted Indian, Balinese or Cambodian cuisines.

This time I will use less words and more pictures for each of these places for the stories of their connections to India would take separate articles, perhaps better attempted in future and so this will serve only to make a quick intro.

Malaysia is a veritable delight and there is so much to see and experience there, and it was our second visit after more than a decade and a half. The country is very accessible though I must mention that vegetarians would find the search for something to suit their appetite a little tiring  while others would find the use of anchovies or Natholi in most dishes a little overpowering, but the amount of sights one can see there is a large number. You have the very important medieval port of Malacca which was founded in the early 15th century and frequented by the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He, enroute Calicut and later overpowered and colonized by the Portuguese and the Dutch. Eventually it went on to become part of the English Crown colony and provided many a consignment of spices to the peoples of the West and the upper east.

Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur the capital is a vibrant, crowded but modern city teeming with huge skyscrapers like the Petronas towers, super-sized modern malls and guaranteed to drive you crazy with its snarling traffic choke up’s, jams and erratic drivers. The bars in Bukit Bintang, the shops in the Little India and China town areas provide an interesting aside while the restaurants that abound cover virtually every cuisine you can imagine. 
And when you sit in the 57th floor Marini’s bar adjoining the Petronas twin towers and look out at the teeming city, sipping a cocktail and enjoying the company of marvelous friends like Anju and Anand, you cannot be happier. Wandering on, taking in the humongous Murugan statue at Batu caves, the monkeys that pester unwary tourists, and the last remnants of British colonial life, you see a country with determined people on the move. But well, you also see the ugly sides of some arrogant expats who expose colonial and racial instincts that their forefathers practiced vigorously. We did not pass up the opportunity to gobble Tamilian inspired food at Kannas, Saravana and Betel leaves, finally topping it up with some North Indian fare at Passage thru India, but not without sessions eating Malay food like Mee Goreng and Nasi Goreng, as well as the many fruits including Rambutan, Durian and Duku.

Penang - Malaysia
Penang was an experience, and our friends Shyama and Ramani introduced it to us, and assisted by Dr Ko, we had a quick rundown through the vibrant and ancient trading capital city - George Town, another jewel in the British colonial possessions. I doubt if Francis Light who founded it in 1786 could have imagined that the sleepy little port with some 10,000 humans would go on to become a bustling city, housing over 800,000 people. The Kek Lok Si temple, Kapitan Keling mosque, the Khoo Kongsi temple and so many more wonders keep you engrossed, but it is seeing that elusive bit of street art makes you jump up in wonder. It is something that you have to see standing upfront, for no photograph does justice to those marvels on Armenian and Ah Quee Street.

And then we were at Teluk Intan to spend time with family who had come from India to attend Sujit’s wedding reception thence celebrated in grand style, complete with a Bollywood style story line, some acting and lots of music. This was a city created by the people who fled when the Portuguese invaded Malacca, is now home to the word’s second leaning tower built in a Chinese pagoda style, originally as a tank to store water. Once a vibrant town, the economy declined after the Perak River silted and the younger population moved to bigger cities. It is also home to a large Indian population originating from Andhra and Tamil Nadu, people who came to work in the nearby rubber and palm estates. It was fun to meet up with the younger generation and many of my Malaysian cousins, exchanging news and tidbits and partaking in the splendid reception ceremony.

Bali - Indonesia

Bali in Indonesia, where we spent close to a week, is quite Hindu based and was breathtaking, be it the beaches or the noisy and boisterous Kuta area. The Niko resort at Nusa Dua where we lived was lovely and the daily tours to the Hindu temples left us wide mouthed with their beautiful architecture, though the slant eyed characters of the Ramayana and Mahabharata were a little difficult to stomach. The Tanah lot temple complex was the most beautiful of all, though most of the other temples were also lovely structures, but used only for festivals. Most old homes had temples within, with ancestral worship very much in vogue and the Kechak dance depicting scenes from the Ramayana was something to see. Interestingly all invocations are still done in Palinese Sanskrit. The trip up to see Mount Bator, an active volcano reminded me of the Mount Rinjani eruption which I had written about earlier. But the rides through villages, seeing the making of Kopi Luwak or animal coffee from the Civet excreta, lives of ordinary people, the handicrafts they made etc was certainly interesting. There is so much to do at Bali and the lovely food as well as the pristine beaches and the renowned massages make it worthwhile to take a trip all the way across the globe, as we did.

Siem Reap - Cambodia

But if you ask us, we simply enjoyed the days spent in Siem Reap at Cambodia, home to the famous Angkor Wat temple. Be it the astounding but horribly poor floating village at the Tonle Sap Lake, or the hustle and bustle at the pub street or the many temples that you will see at Angkor Thom and Angkor wat, each presented a unique experience, and it would be so as long as you have an open mind and some knowledge about the Hindu epics depicted there. You hear frequent mentions of the Indian and European restorers at the temples as well as Angelina Jolie and her adoptions and movie shot there, but you will for sure like the simple people and their food. The Somadevi Angkor hotel was more than adequate. Surprisingly we came across another Malayali wanderer from Cochin and we saw a Kerala restaurant in the pub street run by a chap from Trissur. Angkor Wat will take your breath away and unless you have read some history you will be left to wonder why the Khmer Hindu kings Jaya Varman and Surya Varman even created these massive temples in the middle of Cambodia between the 9th and 13th centuries, where there was nothing else. But the trip up to the Kbal spean – where you see a 1,000 (let’s redefine it as quite a few) Shiva lingas on the river flowing down the slopes of the Kulen hills, is astounding though a little tricky to climb (1.3km) even if you are healthy and fit. The temples at Banteay Srei, Ta prom and so many others get you a little tired and sometimes remind you of an extended pilgrimage. Once you leave the city the country is relatively poor and people around use batteries to power their homes, charging them, once or twice a week, mainly to run TV’s. Mobile phones ensure communication though. The town is also dotted with massage parlors and tons of tourists.

Back home at last, after clocking close to 25,000 miles back and forth and with aching limbs, a lingering jet lag and a torrid layover at New York with winter and holiday related flight delays (the return trip took close to 42 hours), but a good days rest will get me going, before office restarts tomorrow. 


Finally try to take a stab at guessing what these three pictures above are about….

So it will be a trip to remember, thanks again Anand and Anju..... Perhaps I will cover some of the details of these locales in forthcoming articles…..

Until then, here’s …..Wishing you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year