Travelling through Malaysia in convoy
by Hirsh Sawhney
Outlook Traveller, May 2006
Intel billboards and regimented rows of date palms flew by as I dozed in the backseat. Someone pressed play on the car stereo, and the Malaysian government's tourism jingle grated against my ears yet again. Sleep relinquished me. I opened my eyes to a sight rendered banal: police officers halting traffic to ensure our convoy's expeditious passage.
We were a part of the Malaysian International Media Hunt 2006, inappropriately dubbed "the experience of a lifetime" by its organizers. An attempt to promote the oil-rich country's tourism industry, the government-sponsored Hunt brought together 120 media professionals from across the world. Unfortunately, the trip's weeklong itinerary was excruciatingly disciplined and precluded genuine interaction with local people or places.
Our voyage began on a Friday night in Delhi. At the airport, a sheepish band of sinewy labourers boarded a plane for the Middle East. They wore matching baseball caps branded with the logo "Gulf Associates". Scruffy backpackers from Chile gathered around an iPod. An Indian man kitted out in tourist garb chatted with Thai travellers: "My wife said you were Chinese; but I said no because your height was good."
Kuala Lumpur International Airport glistened at six the next morning. As we proceeded through its boutique-strewn paths, an electronic voice tempted us to spend a night at the Hilton. But government representatives ushered us to the five-star Hotel Istana in the heart of KL's Golden Triangle business district. From our tidy rooms, we enjoyed perfect views of the mammoth 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers, which blended the aesthetics of temples with science fiction.
The city's business district is defined by glossy brands. Couples sipped cappuccinos at an open air Starbucks while surfing the Internet on Wi-Fi connections. Women sporting headscarves and jeans sat outside a KFC.
Tourists bought beer and toothbrushes from a 24-hour 7-Eleven. I took refuge at a noodle shop run and patronised by elderly Chinese people. Just as I was about to savour my cold Tiger beer, the shop's affable owner looked at me sternly and pointed to a sign behind me. "Please pay when food drinks are served thank you by management." Returning to my hotel later, pimps implored me to sample some of their women. "My friend, you try a nice young girljust seventeen." A middle-aged Malaysian who looked like a businessman in weekend casuals took me by surprise in the hotel driveway. "Wanna see some pictures. I can send one to your room later."
The next day, I was given a closer look at the city by a young Malaysian photographer who was a member of the Hunt. Born in a coastal village on the island of Langkawi, Imran's family home had been destroyed in the tsunami. Dressed in a Radiohead T-shirt, the wiry 20-year-old led me across the city via monorail and bus. Passing by a Malaysian crooner belting out the blues, we headed to the Petaling Street market to buy Pumas and bootleg DVDs of this year's Oscar nominees. The international logos remained ubiquitous, but were now punctuated by locally-owned shops and colonial buildings. Close to the Maulana food courtin which Chinese, Malay and South Asian urbanites chatted over Indian food and televised American basketballwas a Protestant Church, a Chinese maternity hospital and a café brimming with Nigerian students. KL's multiculturalism was undeniable, and has been aptly frozen in the slogan, "Malaysia, truly Asia". But to outsider eyes, an insipid blend of consumerism and corporate brands seemed to weave the nation's disparate ethnic and religious groups together.
On Monday morning, I became a member of car number 11 in the Malaysian International Media Hunt 2006. During the next five days, we were whisked across the western part of the country in a motorcade consisting of 40 brand new Malaysian-made automobiles and 40 armed police officers on motorcycles. Ten "marshals"burly, leather-clad members of a Malaysian motorcycle club known as the Northern Wingersmounted mammoth touring bikes and regulated each car's speed with cool but firm hand gestures.
Days consisted of 5.45am wake up calls, breakfast buffets, promotional videos, visits to obscure historical sites, half-baked dances and suspicious pink beverages. Even bathroom breaks had to be sanctioned by our escorts. We passed the time scanning the radio, exchanging adolescent jokes and trying to get the policemen to wave or smile. Night time was reserved for banquet dinners, official speeches on the greatness of Malaysia and conversation with other journalists over beer and tequila.
Commencing our road trip, we drove from Kuala Lampur to Putrajaya, Malaysia's new administrative capital and high-tech zone an hour outside the original capital. "There is one complaint about the new capital," said an enthusiastic government representative. "If it's so far away, how do you speak to the government if you have some problem?" "It's easythe Net," he concluded, chortling. "You communicate with the government on the Net."
Next we headed to Shah Alam, an hour outside of KL and home to the Malaysian automobile company Proton, one of our trip's sponsors. The factory's workers had unfortunately been given the day off for our visit. But the company was a part of a "national revolution" of industry and technology, according to a corporate documentary. We spent our first night on the road in Shah Alam, whose other claim to fame is the spectacular Blue Mosque, one of the largest in Southeast Asia.
After a string of soporific cultural landmarks, we drove 300 kilometres north to the coastal area of Lumut in the western state of Perak. We were treated to a 15-minute sea kayaking trip at Outward Bound Malaysia and then awarded miniature Malaysian flags for our efforts.
Later that afternoon, we checked into the forested Swiss Garden Damai Laut Resort, a four-star beachfront hotel with a golf club. Despite having unexceptional rooms, the hotel's cuisine, ocean views and airy, wooded interiors were elating after our monotonous days on the road. After a lengthy dip in the warm sea, I combed the beach and chatted with locals fishing for fun before dinner.
The orange sun sprinkled silver on the punchy ocean before slipping behind a treed island in the distance. I walked carefully to avoid stepping on one of the many scattered fish lying dead on the sand. I assumed that these six-inch-long black creatures had died as a result of foul water. But I was wrong. According to locals, fishermen tossed them aside every morning as they emptied their nets of the day's catch.
Throngs of hungover journalists were back in the convoy early the next morning and heading 250km north to the state of Kedah, just shy of the Thai border. There, in Malaysia's "rice bowl", we were treated to a performance by a school military band, whose members were treated like rock stars by the subject-starved photographers.
The state's Rice Paddy museum seemed like a building out of Disney's Epcot Centre. In one exhibit, large hands sifting through rice were superimposed over a graphic representation of a crowd of smiling farm workers in red uniforms. "This graphic," explained some text alongside, "is designed solely to show the dreams and hopes of all Malaysians to achive [sic] and to succeed vision 2020 as envisaged by the former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad. All citizen [sic] fully support this aspiration in order to build a better future with excellence glory and distinction [sic]."
Georgetown, the capital of the island-state Penang and the country's capital under British rule, was a couple hours drive south. The convoy embarked a ferry, and several of us breached protocol by storming the vessel's off-limits upper deck. Barreling towards the island, we gazed at emptied tankers floating high, multi-storied buildings and threatening jellyfish in the waters below.
At the former British military stronghold Fort Cornwallis we had a leisurely lunchrice and anchovies wrapped in banana leaves. Our procession then navigated through Georgetown's stately thoroughfares. Well-preserved colonial buildings had been converted into hotels, shops and offices. These structures existed peaceably alongside churches, mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples.
Drunken beach bums waved and playfully mocked our passing entourage as we skirted the water. But our police escort quickly shooed them out of sight. Wooden fishing launches beside the highway were rare remnants of the country's less industrialised past. We stopped at the island's well-manicured Botanical Gardens, which have a memorable collection of orchids. An hour later, corpulent Americans checked in alongside our delegation at the Holiday Inn Resort in Batu Feringhi, Penang. Despite raucous jet skis and the threat of jellyfish, I managed to spend two blissful hours on the beach before our gala dinner, at which government officials made us sing Malaysia's tourism theme song.
Departing Penang, we stopped at the Laketown Resort in Perak, which contains a rehabilitation centre for orang-utans. A caretaker of south Indian origin named Divanee told affectionate tales about the orphaned orang-utans that she was in charge of. Carlos was mischievous, Paulina sensitive and shy. As a baby, Paulina's leg had been broken by poachers, and she remained cautious while climbing trees.
When it was time to say goodbye, our arduous itinerary had given birth to a strange intimacy. Newfound friends exchanged addresses and made plans to meet again. By then, even I had become complacent and was reluctant to enter back into a world in which I had to make decisions about what to eat, where to go and who to believe.