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Tea plantation, Cameron Highlands

Leaving the lower elevations of Gua Musang we went in van on up to Cameron Highlands, the main town of Tanhah Rata being a tourist trap, with hotels and the usual claptrap of stores to sell local items. Our friend Chan, who was visiting home from her studies in Seoul, picked us up and drove us 18 km on to her home town, a small village near Ringlet.   Her father and mother run an apparently successful farm business located some distance away, perched on top of one of the hills.

Marcella in the tea leaves

Chan, her father’s farm

At a higher elevation, the Cameron Highlands are cool in the evenings, and less hot during the day, which I imagine is a large part of its tourist value, especially for Malaysians.  While beautiful, it is now a busy agricultural area, using hi-tech means of plastic covered greenhouses, drip irrigation and the rest of the rationalized modes of modern farming.  I was told most the produce is shipped down to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, all having to thread a single very windy, mostly two-lane road.  It seems obvious to me that as the farming expands (which it appeared to be doing very aggressively) either some road-widening will be in order, or some other transport solution.   Along with the change in the climate also came an ethnic change – the Highlands are predominantly Chinese-Malaysian, with many Indian and Bangladeshi workers brought in to do the dirty stuff, originally by the English who started the tea-plantations.  Malays are a very clear small minority.  Which brings the matter of just what is Malaysia, or a Malay.  In KL on the metro, it seems akin to Singapore, a real mish-mash of South East Asian, from India and Pakistan, to Chinese, and of course, the local blood, Malays.  The latter are Muslim, and while representing about 50% of the population, they dominate the political scene, and with that, the economic sides of what politics does.  About 30% of the population is Chinese, and they dominate the economic side.  The remaining population is a mix of Indian, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi – they do the cheap labor for the most part.   Naturally such a division makes for frictions and a certain kind of racism:  socially there doesn’t seem to be much mixing, so the Malay Muslims stick with their own, the Chinese with theirs, and the various others their own communities.  On a national level this doesn’t make for the best situation and I gather there is a generalized resentment of the others:  Malays feel the Chinese are too rich and pushy; the Chinese feel the Malays are lazy, disorganized and parcel out via politics what properly should go to those who work; the others doubtless feel the brunt of exploitation, used for cheap labor – but still, better than back home.  And then there are other cultural things: Muslims don’t drink or gamble, the pray five times a day, don’t eat pork and many other specific things.  The Chinese drink, gamble, have other shrines and temples, eat pork and otherwise are themselves, quite different from the Malays.  The others similarly have differing beliefs, practices and looks.

Above I’ve been talking of the peninsular part of the country, and while we had a lay-over in Kota Kinabalu, I can’t say a thing about the Borneo part, which is larger though less populated, except that I’d think it is its own place, rather different from its population break-down, and with its own view on things.   To say that beneath the laid-back tropical languor there’s a silent tension, one which erupts periodically in lethal violence – last time in 1969 in Malaysia, though much worse cases have happened across the Straits of Malacca in Indonesia more recently.   As a vague generalization the Chinese are viewed across SE Asia as interlopers, and are envied for their work-ethic success.

Back in KL we had a last day with Azam and some of his friends.  He comes from a kampung about 3 hours to the south, near Singapore.  He’s doing the “back-stage” documentary on U-Weih’s film.  He let us know that for about 50 Ringit a month we could rent a normal kampung house (shack on stilts usually) in his village – that’s about 15 bucks.  Or he offered us his grandfather’s larger and now unoccupied traditional house for free for a year.  Once our crystal ball clarifies we just might take this offer up as both Marcella and I rather like Malaysia and kicking back to live on $5000 or less a year sounds like a good deal.  At least for a while.


No, not an Annish Kapoor, but Jon getting ready to slide down the tube in a children’s park near an Indian temple.  Shot by Azam, who went in with us, his first time to visit another religion’s place of worship.  About which more later.

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