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A Brief Foray From Singapore to Malaysia--Asia's Multicultural Melting Pot

All aboard the Singapore-Malacca Express! I'm directed towards a tumbledown sooty bus that's chock a block with baggage. I contort into the last remaining seat with Lilliputian limb room. Next to me is a chubby Chinaman; we sit with knees in parallel. As we glide through the faubourgs, towards the Johore Bahru causeway, all inhabitants are nattering merrily. Two young girls, fierce in competition, try to eat as many dry fish delicatessens as possible. Finally we reach customs; swiftly my co travellers disembark.

The sanitary cosmopolitan surroundings of Singapore have evanesced, as though they were never there. Now verdant palm trees meander along the well-kept roads lined with carmine earth. The coach hurtles along, outdistancing everything. We take a break at a local market town. When I reach the restaurant the fat Chinaman who sat next to me is already eating his second course, on a sticky plate, on a sticky counter, on a sticky stool.

We return to the bus and endure an uneventful journey that brings us to the historic Portuguese town of Malacca. The city is a salmagundi of sweet tempered Malaysians, Chinese, Indians and Indonesians with their own religions, living analogously together. Sprinkled about like children's building blocks are antediluvian buildings constructed of crimson stone. There is an air of peacefulness. I take my first trishaw trip and my rider strains up a hill. I feel guilty, cubed between suitcases in the back.

On the streets the smell of food beckons me into a traditional restaurant. I tried a "Satay", a coconut and peanut spiced pork/lamb meal grilled on bamboo sticks, over a charcoal fire, served with rice and wrapped in coconut leaves and served on skewers. The coffee that follows and is served thick and strong in large cups and is sweetened with tinned condensed milk. Ashtrays are filled with water, to prevent ash flying from the swirling fan.

Looking out of the restaurant window, my view is filled with pristinely dressed schoolgirls, so characteristically Asian in their brilliant white blouses, turquoise skirts and white plimsolls. A shower of constant rain follows and soon my view changes to a mass of multi coloured spinning, waxen umbrellas supported by delicate Asian women.

Next I take a shared taxi to the capital: Kuala Lumpur. As we leave Malacca the Malaysian jungle soon impinges. A voracious growth of netted strangling creepers is spotted with random villages, called 'kampongs'. Through the clearings, cream oxen and water buffalo are set against the background of verdurous muted shades of banana trees and giant ferns. Coconut palms foster the stilted wooden huts with neat small gardens where tubs of orchids are fixed onto wooden pillars.

A refreshing breeze comes in through the window. The landscape is filled with incessant rubber estates, specked with kampongs and the odd sighting of a paddy field. At the next town open-air barbers snip away in tandem and businessmen sit typing under a tree. Soon Kuala Lumpur overshadows the serene countryside.

I decide to travel on to Penang Island by air. The next morning I bus to Georgetown and take a trishaw around the city. The hood is very tattered, and gives the driver little shelter from the melting sun. We trundle along at a leisurely pace. The pure indulgence of travelling comes to mind. My eye is a camera. Each blink could be a shot in the unfamiliar surroundings.

We pass a street vendor grating sugar cane and then a funeral procession of taxis decorated with blazing gold and scarlet 'good luck' emblems. Pink ribbons wave from all the doors. The mourners are dressed in western clothes and carry clumps of gladioli. I turn from time to time to see my driver's brown knees rising and falling in a measured, carefree rhythm. He is an old man, with a noble lined and beaming face. I sign his book, pay and say goodbye.

My eyes catch each humorous shop name; like Bang on, Hang On, See Fun, Fun Fatt Kok. The local spelling of Talipon for telephone, Bas sekolal for school bus and Buk for book also brings a smile. Outside the Chinese temple, in the early morning, I see a man standing outside with a burning joss stick clamped between the hands. In silent prayer he asks for evil to be kept away. Not one word or even a glance. A youth dressed only in pyjama trousers is graffiting the posters in green and red paint. He is observed by a very old man, who never stirs and sits crossed legged, silently absorbing the young man's artistry.

In the Indian sector shops sell brightly coloured clothing and wares. On palm leaves, hot spicy, well-cooked mutton is served bed of rice with three vegetables, chillies, pickled tomatoes and other delicacies. Like the Indians next to me, I wash my hands in a nearby basin. I take the curried vegetable and mutton and mould it with the rice to form a ball shape and put it in my mouth. An occasional smile from my neighbours makes the challenge acceptable.

I finally reach my hotel and think the time has come, where tiredness has already conflicted with excitement, and tomorrow will still be as enjoyable as today. I sit on the wooden verandah, swap adventures with other travellers and write up notes. At night I find it's hard to sleep with the noise of a large fan, spinning away. I get the feeling that I am going to be decapitated, by its three slogging blades. Early next morning a neighbour practising his Kung Fu wakens me into reality. Sadly, it's time to think about packing...

Tim Jellings is a freelance travel writer. Always looking for the unusual angles, he tries to transport the armchair traveller into the country described (.e.g., smell the sweat in the Pyramids and the toil to build it.... hear the Quecha love songs on a South American train). When he unpacks, he lives in rural Lincolnshire, England.


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