WHEN I RETURNED to Bangkok from a dull weekend in Phetchaburi and realized that I had nothing to write about, I booked a train to Malaysia in a panic. With my girlfriend occupied at school and my friend laid up for a few days at the hotel from another night of excess there was nothing to keep me in Bangkok. I shook myself away from the bottles of Chang and made travel arrangements: $35 for a second-class berth on the sleeper train to Butterworth, Malaysia. Once again I would be following in the tracks of Paul Theroux, but this time I would be traveling alone. The first order of business was to get supplies. It was an overnight trip so I would need enough food for a couple of good meals, and a bottle of whisky. The whisky became important after I did some reading about my route.
Southern Thailand was home to the postcard beaches of Phuket and the paradise islands of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta. A little further south however, and you come to the troubled provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. Here at the border region there was political unrest with some of the Muslim residents calling for autonomy and even independence from the Buddhist motherland in order to re-establish their former sultanate. The conflict had cost thousands of lives and acts of terror were still common. Thankfully, my train would be going through Satun Province, which did not share the troubles of its next-door neighbors.
Malaysia had been in the news as well with stories of churches being bombed. By all accounts this was a retaliation against Christians who were using the word Allah as a translation for God. It was one of those issues that seem laughable until the violence starts. I began to feel the same sense of unease that one feels in the presence of a mean drunk who has gotten enough alcohol in him to unleash his demons. People who are inspired to violence by trivialities do not strike me as the rational sort, especially when they are acting upon religious impulses. To the credit of the Malaysian government these acts were condemned and it was made known that those responsible represented a small fringe of extremists who would be sought out and brought to justice for their crimes. It was a minor story, but in an era of heightened religious extremism such stories are cautionary tales, especially for travelers.
“Why do you want to go to Malaysia?” someone asked me at a party in Bangkok, a few days before my trip.
“Because I’ve never been there,” I answered, which seemed reason enough to me. But I was in the company of prates who saw travel as filler for cocktail parties and said things like, “If you’re going to Malaysia you must see Penang. They have a bridge there”.
But none of this really mattered. I was intrigued at the thought of crossing into the southern reaches of the peninsula that figured so menacingly in Scents of Eden, Charles Corn’s history of the spice trade. It was here, through the Strait of Malacca, that Portuguese, Dutch, and English trading ships would have to pay tribute to the sultanates in order to pass unmolested. This was when spice was king. The oil of its day. Condiments that we now take for granted, like pepper, cloves, and nutmeg, launched warships from as early as the sixteenth century. The trade routes to the spice islands of eastern Indonesia were the pipelines of wealth and the sultanates along the Strait of Malacca between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra became rich and powerful. The imperial powers had to conquer or kowtow to these entities in order to keep the waterways open to commerce. Like the cry of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, “The spice must flow!”
Perhaps a few generations from now tourists will visit the great oil fields of the Middle East and wonder at the evocative ruins of refineries and the rusting hulks of tankers that once plied the seas with their cargoes of black gold. “It must have been quite a sight,” they’ll say.
Malaysia was green. It was lush. It was hot. After disembarking the train at Butterworth, just across the border from Thailand, I followed the crowd to an open-air bus terminal where I hoped to catch a long-distance bus to Kuala Lumpur, the capital. After purchasing my ticket from a harried-looking woman, I asked where I could find the right bus in all the disorder. She pointed to a very old man who was being led across the street by an elderly woman.
“Follow the uncle,” she said.
So I shadowed the old couple until they turned a corner into a dusty parking lot and climbed aboard a bus. I found a window seat and settled in. At first I intended to catch up on some sleep, but as we set off on the journey I was kept awake by the scenery. The view out of the window featured an almost unbroken tableau of jungle. There were steep hills that rose up like fingers poking through the vegetation, so steep in places that whole sections of hillside had sheared away and tumbled to the forest floor. Dark tendrils of vines were already repopulating the exposed rock face. It was so verdant that I began to wonder if Kuala Lumpur was the only city in this green land.
I sat across from a Mr. Lingham, a Malay traveling with his family. They’d spent the weekend in Bangkok celebrating the Chinese New Year and were now on their way back to Ipoh. I asked him about politics.
“What’s happening in Malaysia right now?” I asked. “What is the big story in the news?”
He guessed at my meaning and said, “Malaysia is stable. People are struggling, but it is stable. Right now we have a former Prime Minister who is on trial for sodomy, but it is politically motivated. The opposition party, who are in power now, are trying to discredit this man so they can stay in power.”
“Dirty politics,” I said.
“Yes. Dirty politics.”
He introduced me to his son, a teenager, who pointed out the agricultural fields as we passed them.
“That is a banana plantation,” he said.
A little later.
“Those are coconut palms.”
I began to think that his language skills were limited, but in fact his English was excellent. He told me that he was studying journalism and wanted to work on a newspaper. I wished him well, but I’d picked up a Malaysian paper in Butterworth, The New Straits Times, and found it to be little more than an insipid rag. In one story, three women recounted their experience of being caned for having premarital sex. All of them were quoted as being very contrite and thankful for the experience, which had taught them “a great lesson”. I was only mildly appalled to learn that the women had turned themselves in (and, evidently, their partners) and that their transgressions had occurred one or two years before. Evidently they wanted a clear conscience in the eyes of Allah and had confessed, taking their strokes of the rotan with equanimity and urging their sisters to refrain from such “pleasure”. The article had the quality of a children’s book, with a neat little moral at the end to tie up each woman’s return to the fold, and I imagined Mr. Lingham’s son covering the story of the sodomy trial:
The former Prime Minister contritely apologized for buggering his aide and thanked the officials for the prison sentence he received. “I only hope that my family can forgive me”, he said…
Kuala Lumpur, when I arrived, did little to dispel the sense of being isolated in a wilderness. Despite the skyscrapers and concrete and traffic, KL was a green city. Within its boundaries lay a forest preserve complete with wild animals, and palm trees were as common as streetlights. It was not hard to imagine the city overtaken by the surrounding jungle, its streets empty and dark, tree roots breaking up the sidewalks.
Even the Petronas Towers, once the highest in the world, reminded me of the silent prangs of ancient Ayutthaya. If I closed my eyes I could see them towering amidst the rubble of civilization, with broken windows and vegetation sprouting from their upper reaches like a lost city. KL, more than any other place I’d visited, put the lie to the idea that man had usurped nature.
This sense of impending doom stayed with me, and was only reinforced when I received news of a train derailment on the line I’d just taken to reach Butterworth. I folded the newspaper and gave in to the torpor that had been creeping over me like a vine all weekend. In the following days I allowed myself to vegetate, reverting to my old habit of aimlessly wandering the city. I gave in to the fear that I would be passing yet another weekend without an insight, without a story.
After getting my passport stamped at the border upon my return to Thailand, I bought a small plate of scrambled eggs and rice from a vendor, then took my seat across from a portly lady who studied my meal with interest.
“How much they charge you for that?” she asked.
I looked up from my little styrofoam plate and said “fifty baht”, which was about $1.50.
She grinned broadly. “Fifty baht! Oh, you should call police. I pay maybe twenty baht for something like that. It because you foreign you pay so much. Fifty baht! I have to tell my friend…”
She rummaged in her purse and pulled out a cell phone. Soon she was speaking in Thai and laughing heartily. At one point she leaned over and studied my lunch.
“You get meat? No! Not even meat!”
She laughed harder and went back to her phone conversation. By now she was actually turning red with mirth. At length she put away her phone and wiped the tears from her face. She gave me an indulgent smile, then pointed to my half-eaten meal.
“So expensive! You should get TWO for fifty baht. Just rice and egg there. Too much price and no meat!”
This prompted another laughing fit, and I joined in because I realized that I had met a buddha on the train, and she was telling me that if I couldn’t provide enlightenment, at least I could provide entertainment.