Cameron Highlands; a big picture

1 July, 2016

The coach rolled into Tanah Rata after dark. It was a town of silhouettes and fluttering neon marquees. The signs floated like sprites above the footpaths of shophouses that nested Indian, Halaal, Chinese, and Malay restaurants. The eateries stretched onto the pavement and were a mix of collapsible tables, plastic chairs, stools and racks of salty treats. Patrons filled up the spaces, and they were people from all sorts of places. I wandered through the crowd that seemed to represent half the world, as just another face with a small backpack and a noisy plastic bag.

I secured my backpack and left the coach, then walked through what was earlier an open fresh market, but most of the shops had been packed away. Only an occasional rice-and-noodle shop remained open on that side of town. Giant grey moths fluttered about the road until tiring out and gliding to the surface. Motorbikes came and went, and children raced along the sidewalk. I followed the noise and the people until reaching the restaurant strip. It was mixed with general stores and franchises, a gritty local scene caught in the crossfire of an economic war — Starbucks and KFC have established their territory among the steamy multicultural eateries of the Cameron Highlands, and word on the street is that McDonald’s wants in on the feast. Meanwhile on one corner of the busy strip, a red neon sign declared “no pork sold here”.

I walked slowly and looked at all of the faces that passed by, attempting to feel the mood. Across another street and around a corner I found many budget hotels, and a bar that seemed to be the centrefold of the town’s nightlife. The music was good; I was pleased with the absence of the global top 40s, and that they played some obscure and romantic oldies. The music was sometimes acoustic and powerful, but it wasn’t the type that gripped you by the shoulders and demanded that you listen (Adele comes to mind).

Lots of small details added to the grit of the place, like the placard over one hotel that stated flatly “Muslim only”, and inside of a clothing shop the signpost that said, “Buy one, free one”.

Giant moths, hidden snooker rooms, black and wrinkled Indian faces, Arabic script and Chinese logographs etched or printed onto the walls and banners like incantations. It all made for an exotic atmosphere. But there were plenty of elements in the place that reigned in the strangeness, moments of familiarity that were just as strange by the very fact of their familiarity. The occasional faces of Europeans and Anglo-Saxons, people drinking Starbucks cappuccinos, and the Latin characters of standard written Malaysian, were all enough to depict the world as enormous and incredibly small at the same time. The latter detail affected me particularly; the implications of Malaysian people developing a standard written language made up almost entirely of Latin script reveals just how deeply interconnected our world is.

I took a bed in the Tanah Rata Lodge, a three-storey mix of dorms and private rooms owned by Mack, a Malaysian old-timer from Georgetown. The situation would change later on, but for the night he was welcoming and amusing to be around.

It was already nearly eight in the evening, so I rushed back to the shophouse strip for dinner, deciding on an Indian eatery that had a buffet and a tandoori that was practically on the pavement. There was a plump man wearing a messy apron, reaching into the tandoori with a special bowl that he used to fix rotis to the inner wall. I watched him lift, dip and test the tandoori chicken skewers barehanded. Then looking around, I noticed that even though the whiskies and brandies were cheap in the general stores, everybody was drinking restaurant beer. It was the same at the main bar, but I didn’t blame them. The atmosphere was moderate and cheerful, the music was pleasant, and most people shared something — they were outsiders here, and they were just passing through.

While having my dinner of murtabak (a pizza-sixed stuffed roti), I met a Dutch couple, both very young. The boy said he’d been backpacking in Malaysia a few months before and had decided to return with his girlfriend. Across from their table were a group of Italians, none over thirty-five. There were also a Malay couple who ran the cafe “on the hill”. I was never able to distinguish which hill they were referring to. We all shared the general passing tourist-to-local pleasantries and then I walked back to the Lodge.

I went for a short stroll around the market area before heading back, and a group of people crowded around a table piled with durians caught my attention. I knew they were Thais from the was they said “ka, ka” (a word Thais use for politeness, the masculine equivalent being “krab”) at the end of every other sentence. But I asked them where they were from, for the sake of starting conversation. They were all friends visiting from the southeast corner of Thailand, just across the Malaysian border. A lady in their party explained to me that one of them was Muslim, so their group had to organise meals in a way so that everyone could eat and stay together. I imagined it had something to do with Ramadan; the Malaysian couple from earlier had explained to me that it was not so much a festive holiday as it was a month of humble prayer and fasting, a time of cleansing the body.

I wanted to talk with Mack about his business and opinions of Malaysia in general, so I stepped into his office that night. The room smelled of cigarettes and damp, but the overhead lights were on and that seemed to brighten up the place. Mack was sitting behind his desk, and a tall, bulky man occasionally stepped into the office to say a word. Mack invited me over to take a seat.

“The one and only one,” I began.

“Brandon, was it?”

“Bradley, or you can call me Brad.”

“Alright, then. So tell me, you want to visit Georgetown. Is that right?

“I’m considering it. Since you’re from Penang, I hoped you could tell me a bit about the place.”

“Georgetown is worth visiting for the architecture, parts of the city are still beautiful. It used to be called the “pearl of the orient”, not any longer.”

“Why is that?”

“Look at it this way, there used to be around six hundred thousand people in Penang. Can you guess how many live there now?”

“I imagine it’s much more.”

“Two million. It’s nothing like how it used to be. If you walk through the Penang city streets with a white shirt, like the one I’m wearing now, it will be a little black by the end of the day. And there are so many motorbikes on the road.”

“I just came from Malacca and was disappointed with what tourism did to the place. Maybe it’s just not my taste, but I’m thinking that Georgetown has taken the same path.”

“Don’t get me wrong, it is still a nice city to visit, but it was better in the past. Do you have anything to drink?”

“No, not tonight.”

“Well why not take one of mine? I have a personal stash.” He leaned under his desk, “You okay with Heineken?”

“Yes, that’s fine.” He placed a can on the table and I popped it open. “Thanks, I really appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it. Heineken’s the best, really.”

“And do you have something?”

“No, no. I’m going to behave tonight.” He lifted a carton of cigarettes and pulled one out, “Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Not at all.” I didn’t like it, but cigarettes seemed to have a quality of inspiring people to talk freely.

Mack asked me about my story, I gave him the simple version. I was a teacher, visiting Malaysia to collect a work visa for Thailand. I chose Malaysia because it wasn’t Vientiane. He never directly asked me about my age, but at some point I told him.

I liked Mack so far. He had an interesting face; dark skin, a face like Gandhi but without glasses, skinny and not lacking wit, he smoked imported cigarettes.

“So basically, you are here.” Mack pointed to a spot on the tourist map. I think he had assisted the cartographers with designing it, since it was printed in his brochures and was full of his promotional content.

Mack introduced his travel agency, Tanah Ratah Travels and Tours. He’d been running his agency and lodge for decades already and was trying to retire, but in vain. I asked him what sort of trekking could be found in the area, and he showed me some trails on the map. He went through what sounded like a pre-cooked sales pitch for his all-day tour package, but he delivered it well and I signed on. “What really makes a tour good is not just the sights and activities. You have to have a good guide. Ours has been working as a guide for almost three decades and unlike many guides, he is qualified and respects the places you will be visiting.”

Thinking of a hilarious river guide that toured me down the Ganges in Varanasi some years ago, I told Mack that I couldn’t agree more.

“If you’re going to Georgetown,” Mack started, “you need to decide quick and buy your tickets tomorrow. Because Ramadan is ending, lots of people will be going home and visiting friends and family. The whole country will be a big traffic jam. It’s also a school holiday, so it may be difficult to book tickets or rooms in Georgetown or anywhere else. But as a single traveler, you shouldn’t have trouble looking for dorm rooms.

I assured him that I’d sort it out tomorrow, and then I asked him about the history of Tanah Rata and the Cameron Highlands. Having been in the tourism scene for so long and having lived in the Highlands for over twenty years, Mack had a lot of interesting information to share. As I had assumed, Cameron had been British-controlled. The British established the tea plantations and used the hill station as a kind of fortress for a while. There was a building which used to be a barracks overlooking the town, then it was repurposed into something else before finally becoming a school. A lot of the buildings had been torn down and completely replaced. The buildings had become representations of a thing that had died out, like gravestones. Meanwhile, the legacy continued, and there were still many British teahouse estates around the hillsides.

I told Mack that Cameron reminded me of Darjeeling, and that most of the Asia I’d seen seemed to have a strong British influence. Imagine such an enormous and unfamiliar culture of British colonies within feudal states of barefoot tribespeople in their colourful costumes. Imagine the wealthy gentiles and ladies who lived in or visited the settlements, and the way their fashion influenced the people of those feudal states. I see fashions mixing and Asian lords adopting English tendencies, the rise, fall, and blending of trend after trend throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I realise there was also a lot of darkness, but for a moment I allowed myself to imagine the pleasant elements of colonial times.

“What about these days?” I asked Mack, “Now that Malaysia is an independent nation, who really controls Cameron?”

“It’s still controlled by the English. Not so much has changed.”

We discussed the enormous pylons I saw on the way to Tanah Rata, and Mack told me what I’d assumed; there was an enormous dam somewhere upstream. What I didn’t know was that it was not owned by the Chinese, like many dams in Southeast Asia, but rather it was controlled by a coalition of Italians, Germans, and Englishmen.

“Italians, huh? Pardon me, but do you think the mafia have influence here?”

I was thinking of the mafias and murders that haunted Darjeeling, and of the fascist-styled multinational schemes that the Italian mafia used to protect their capital, something I’d read in Petra Reski’s The Honoured Society.

Mack grinned and tapped his finger on a photo in his brochure. Next to a map of the Cameron Highlands was a famous photo of Don Corleone smoking a cigar, “tours you can’t refuse”.

The large man had come into the room again and was standing next to me. Mack grabbed him by the shoulder and said, “And this here, this is the Don himself!” They had some exchanges and he exited the room again. I gathered that the large man was one of the staff at the hotel next door, and he used to work for Mack until he was offered better pay at the other place.

Our discussion jumped all over the place, but once we’d exhausted talking about architecture and colonial history, another theme revealed itself: The heat is rising in Malaysia.

“The nights used to never go over fifteen degrees at this time of the year in Cameron, now it reaches at least twenty on most days.” Mack seemed to associate this with urban development, because he returned to the subject of Penang, then followed with “Soon the same will happen in Cameron. You see these trails?” He pointed to some areas of the map. “Gone, covered by paved roads.”

I told him about the lady from the sweet shop in Malacca, and we discussed the state of life for Malaysians in their country. “Shortly after nine-eleven, prices shot up across the country. It was hard to live. The minimum wage isn’t enough to buy a basic lunch.”

“She told me the same thing.” We began to discuss colonialism again, and I reigned it in with the subject of big corporations. That’s how I found out about McDonald’s, and that there was a new mall under construction in town. All of that supported Mack’s opinion.

“In the past few years, our currency has fallen hard,” Mack said. “Within five years, if the current people stay in power, it will hit the absolute bottom (sic). And do you know who is taking advantage of that?”

“I suppose it is the Chinese, or Japanese.”

“No, it’s the Singaporeans. They have a strong currency, so they come up to take their vacation, then they buy land and buildings. They spend because it’s nothing to them.”

“What about you? You know this area, what the people need. If you invest in something today, it will appreciate ten years ahead.”

“I can’t do anything. I don’t have money to invest, I only have enough to get by. The currency here is so weak, most of us can’t save enough to invest in anything. I’ve been in the business for more than twenty years and I can’t even buy a building. I rent this building we’re in.”

“But foreigners with strong currencies can invest, and they do. They buy up everything, and I think it’s bad for the locals this way.”

He nodded. It was my fault, but Mack was becoming grave. He thought that Cameron was still owned by the British, and one family in particular was very powerful there. I forgot their name, but I imagine they have something to do with the enormous Boh Plantations, which covers at least eight thousand acres.

“What would you say are the main causes of all these problems in Malaysia?” I asked him.

“Well I’m not sure if you know, but the government is very corrupt here. The current prime minister is a madman, and very dangerous. He controls almost everything, and there’s a lot of propaganda floating around. I think that if the prime minister calls a special election, he’ll take control of the media and even more. If that happens, we’re done for.”

“Do you think there is anything that the Malaysian people can do?”

I predicted what he would say, “There’s nothing anyone can do. This is the way the world is and we can either live with it or…”

Mack took a drag from his cigarette. I was getting tired. Despite that, I put us on another subject. “I passed a sign on the way here that had the word “sultanate” on it. What’s that all about?”

“Do you know much about the politics here?”

“Hardly a thing.”

“Well, most of the states in Malaysia have a sultan, who is a kind of Islamic political figure, and there’s a king.”

“A king? You’re kidding me, I had no idea Malaysia was a monarchy.”

“No, no. The king is just a religious public figure, while the prime minister holds all of the real muscle. The king shifts every few years, and the sultans of the different parts of Malaysia take turns as king. It’s only to preserve the old way. The prime minister is democratically elected, but as you know, the whole thing is very corrupt.”

Mack thought that common people needed to vote more often, and to vote for the right people. If they did that, then Malaysia would be able to sort itself out. I didn’t tell him so, but I disagreed. I think there is always hope, that anything can happen with the right stimuli. But I doubted that voting would be very helpful — it would be the equivalent of taking the tape off of one hole in a sinking ship and sticking the tape onto a different hole.

I thanked Mack again for the beer and stepped away to the reading room to cool down before bed.

The reading room had big windows that could be lifted up, and the nightlife spilled in with the mist, the chill, and the white moths. The bar was festive until midnight, but I decided to check in for the night. I drank the Heineken and sat in a worn love seat to write my journal, occasionally looking through the window to watch a cloud of insects swarming the street lamps. When I got tired of that, I finished reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and looked out the window one last time before bed.

The air was crisp, perhaps one of the things I liked most about the place. Cold nights will forever remind me of my origins. As the night progressed, the bar got louder. There was a drinking game going on, people were cheering each other on. Old songs floated in through the open windows, like moths. John Denver’s Country Roads and Don McLean’s American Pie. The lyrics floated in my head as if they meant something to me, and around midnight the bar went quiet and people stumbled back to their beds. Cars and motorbikes trickled out, and the city went to sleep.

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