Porcupine, wild boar, mouse deer - and that's just dinner
MY ROUGH GUIDE
Sunday 28 September 1997
You don't have to negotiate the journey into peninsular Malaysia from Singapore shoehorned into a bus whose air-conditioning unit is turned up to 11. If you've got money to burn, there's no more luxurious way to travel into Malaysia than on the sumptuous Eastern & Oriental Express, a fairy-tale trip that shamelessly recreates the pampered days of the region's colonial past. Even as the plebs are still rooting around for their passports at the causeway linking Singapore to Malaysia, you'll be nibbling cucumber sandwiches and cake-y treats while your room boy pours out the Earl Grey. Later, you can sharpen your appetite with a cocktail in the observation carriage and watch the rubber plantations and steaming jungles of Malaysia unfold before you, before drifting into the dining carriage for a gourmet Asian supper.
Gourmands could argue the toss all night, but for me there's nothing to eclipse a steaming hot bowl of laksa. The earliest Chinese immigrants to the Malay peninsula settled in Melaka and Penang. When they took local Malay wives, a new people, know as the Peranakans, evolved. Peranakan cuisine borrowed all that was good from its Sino-Malay ancestry, and this happy marriage of influences resulted in taste sensation like laksa, in which noodles, beansprouts, prawns and slices of fishcake are doused in a spicy chilli-coconut soup.
The dollar is king in the Chinese-influenced cities strung up the west coast of Malaysia. Cross to the beaches and fishing villages of the east coast, though, and you'll soon find that life shifts down a few gears. After a few days out east, you'll start to chill out, and if you miss your bus, or if the rain sets in for the afternoon, you'll shrug, and say: "Tidak apa-apa" (no problem).
The shelf of coral ringing Pulau Sipadan, a tiny island off the coast of the east Malaysian state of Sabah, was labelled "an untouched piece of art" by Jacques Cousteau, who knew a thing or two about the ocean. Most visitors are scuba enthusiasts, but simply snorkelling can be a breathtaking affair, as I discovered on my maiden be-flippered waddle out into the surf. Sipadan's waters teem with marine life. Vast clouds of gaily coloured tropical fish swarmed and scattered; and turtles, so lumbersome on land, soared by with the grace of angels. Amid all this colour and beauty, a sinister shadow slunk past. And then another. Sharks. Almost chewing through my snorkel in horror, I trod water as two grey reef sharks circled me, button eyes staring dully. In a few seconds they disappeared again into the coralscape.
Ye Olde Smokehouse up in the mists and mountains of the Cameron Highlands, has much to recommend it, not least the afternoon cream tea, which is taken in delightful gardens. The place is said to be only 60 years old, but who cares? The Smokehouse oozes colonial charm, and its four-poster beds, leaded windows, and wooden beams faithfully re-create an English country inn in the heart of Malaysian tea-plantationland. Then there's the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, way across the South China Sea in Sarawak. A major new eco-tourism initiative, the lodge offers levels of comfort rare in the belly of the Borneo rainforest. Takers for its wildlife treks see animals as diverse as leopard cats, orang-utans and Asian elephants - though some prefer to sit back on the veranda, listen to the gibbons's evening chorus, and watch the prehistoric-looking hornbills wheeling over the Danum River.
Grabbing a beer in Kuching, capital of the east Malaysian state of Sarawak, is no problem - De Tavern, opposite the Hilton, is a decent boozer. But for a really cracking night out, you'll want to make for a longhouse, where scores of tribespeople live under one roof. If your trip coincides with a festival, you'll find the rice wine flowing freely, the house band in full flow, and an awful lot of people intent on teaching you their tribal dances. Munchies are quelled by a spot of porcupine, wild boar, mouse deer, or whatever else the hunters caught the previous evening.
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