Thursday, April 07, 2011

Hither, Thither & Yon

“The writers in this collection will sweep the most jaded traveller off his feet with their sheer ebullience. After reading these vivid vignettes, chances are, you will—like me—itch to jump into your car and make a road trip to all these wonderful-sounding villages and towns, to play explorer, risking life and limb.” ALEXANDRA WONG

Travels in Malaysia
Edited by Tom Sykes & Tan May Lee
(MPH Group Publishing, May 2011)

OUR FIRST MEETING was in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, where we wanted to visit the best curry house in Brickfields. It was a busy weekday; the bus stops were crowded and the four-lane streets were clogged with cars, lorries and motorbikes. As we chatted excitedly about Malaysian travel stories, we fell a few steps behind another editor. When we glanced at him again, he was surrounded by a group of men.

One of the men tore at the leg of his trousers while the others held onto his arms and shoulders. Amidst the commotion, it looked as if he was having an epileptic fit, and before we could reach him or shout for help, the men had dispersed into the crowd as suddenly as they had appeared. The editor caught his breath, felt his pockets, and realised his money was gone. He had been robbed right before our very eyes!

We spent some time wondering if this was a precursor of the kind of stories that would come our way, and if they would repel our readers instead of attracting them to Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur alone is notorious for taxi drivers who use fake meters, snatch thefts, and burglaries in “gated” neighbourhoods.

But there is a Malay proverb that goes like this: “Hujan emas di negeri orang, hujan batu di negeri sendiri, lebih baik di negeri sendiri.” It rains gold in other lands, it rains rocks in our own. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

Sini sana” roughly translates into the English expression “here and there”, or perhaps the more archaic “hither and thither”. Either way, the phrase aptly describes the range and breadth of the stories in this collection. By going off the beaten track, our writers have gained fascinating insights into the real Malaysia.

When we called for submissions that steered clear of the usual tourist traps, we didn’t expect to be told things about Malaysia we never knew. On the other hand, the themes and settings are familiar: picture-postcard scenes, the Manglish vernacular, an obsession with food and obscure politics, and the legacy of colonialism. Our contributors represent Malaysia’s ethnic diversity and include foreign travellers and expats who have come to call Malaysia home.

While people tend not to come to Malaysia on pilgrimages or for spiritual enlightenment, indigenous faiths are wide-ranging. There are Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, and there are those who believe in feng shui and bomohs (or witch doctors). Malaysia has some of the tallest buildings in the world, yet it is also home to the oldest rainforests. There are millionaires who live in the lap of luxury and aborigines who dwell in basic longhouses. And all this is just an appetiser of the many things Malaysia has to offer.

Our collection kicks off with two stories by Zhang Su Li, one of Malaysia’s finest contemporary travel writers. In Perak, Zhang encounters a wizened old lady who survived World War II, and an enigmatic young woman who invites her home for tea. Later on in her third story, which takes place in Kedah, she meets a street urchin who is seemingly possessed by a Hindu god.

While Malays make up the majority of the population, Marc White’s stroll around a night market and visit to a barbershop shed light on two important ethnic minorities: the Chinese and the Indians. On a visit to Sarawak in East Malaysia, Polly Szantor revisits a little-known tribe and feels a sense of camaraderie with its women. “These women, from a culture so very different to mine, have touched my heart,” she writes of the longhouse-dwelling Kelabits.

Just when we thought that any animal-related travelogue set in Malaysia had to involve mousedeers or orang-utans, writers like Damyanti Biswas and Jason Moriarty relate quirky adventures with octopi, mischievous monkeys, exotic fish, birds and bees, while at the same time highlighting the beauty of our lakes, rivers and waterfalls.

Three stories turn the idea of an island paradise on its head: Sarah Cheverton battles her inner demons and discovers romance on an idyllic Perhentian Kecil; Subashini Navaratnam fears that Langkawi is haunted by evil spirits; and Jennifer Stephen’s sojourn to “Malaysia’s Alcatraz” reveals an even darker destination.

While many people travel to rural Kelantan every year, a comic turn by an elephant ensures that F.D. Zainal’s hilarious retreat from city life isn’t your typical balik kampung tale. Lee Eeleen, too, makes her annual trips during festival season—it just happens to be Qing Ming instead of Chinese New Year. “It is a day to visit the graves of deceased family members, and to travel long distances to get there, if necessary. Such locations are not marked on maps and exist only in one’s memory,” she explains.

One of our more athletic contributors, Lee Yu Kit, climbs Gunung Tahan, the highest peak in Peninsular Malaysia. “Sited deep within the rainforests of Taman Negara, the mountain is a magnet for both climbers and those who want to hike the pristine forests surrounding it.” He does so in hair-raising conditions—not exactly your average tourist activity. And straying into the wilderness at Bukit Kiara, Robert M. Bradley chats with joggers from all walks of life and gets the lowdown on what urban Malaysians really care about.

Packed with sharp, nuanced observations and poetic insight, these stories are inspired by Malaysia’s immense diversity of cultures, customs, religions and natural wonders.

Read the collection and see the sights, hear the sounds, smell the aromas, and taste the flavours of the real Malaysia.

“Hujan emas di negeri orang, hujan batu di negeri sendiri …” Thus begins a Malay version of the proverb, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” Humble, perhaps, but never humdrum. Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia features the very Malaysian journeys of a dozen writers who have managed to uncover hidden gems that may not all glitter like gold, but are still rare and precious finds.

A kopitiam (coffee shop) stopover yields an unexpected trip back through time, and a promise delivered too late. A foreigner’s visit to a pasar malam (night market) educates and overwhelms him at the same time. A bad call turns triumph into tribulation atop a storm-swept mountain ridge. A catch-your-own-lunch island holiday enlivened by dodgy old boats, crusty captains and run-ins with the island’s local residents. There are encounters with trees that come alive and a child seemingly possessed by a Hindu god. These are just some of the stories found in this collection.

From idyllic beaches, isolated jungles and ancient ruins, to sleepy hollows and small towns, these travellers’ tales chart a course back to a country we once knew—or thought we knew—and its ongoing metamorphosis into a place of our best hopes and sweetest dreams. Even after all this time, it’s actually possible to find the new within the familiar.

Robert M. Bradley | Sarah Cheverton | Damyanti Biswas | Lee Eeleen | Lee Yu Kit | Jason Moriarty | Subashini Navaratnam | Jennifer Stephen | Polly Szantor | Marc White | F.D. Zainal | Zhang Su Li

TOM SYKES is a freelance writer and editor who has lived and worked in India, Malaysia and the Philippines. He spent a good part of 2007 travelling in Malaysia, falling in love with Pulau Tioman, Melaka and Georgetown. He has been published in GoNomad, A to Z World Travel, The Spark, The Bristol Review of Books, Underground Voices, Taya Literary Journal, WeBooks, The Philippine Free Press and Quill, as well as in international anthologies such as Small Voices, Big Confessions and Urban Odysseys: KL Stories. He co-compiled and -edited five non-fiction books, including No Such Thing as a Free Ride?, which was serialised in the London Times and named the Observer’s Travel Book of the Month. Currently based in the United Kingdom, Sykes is pursuing PhD studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

TAN MAY LEE was formerly the editor of Quill magazine. She now works for an Asia-based hotel group. She has written for publications such as Management, Seni Hias, Heritage Asia,, Malay Mail and The Star, as well as for The Malaysian Insider, an online news portal. Her stories have been published in anthologies such as Urban Odysseys: KL Stories and Body2Body.

MAY 2011 | NONFICTION TRAVEL | 5.15 x 7.75 | 240pp | ORIGINAL PAPERBACK | ISBN 978-967-5222-82-5 | e-ISBN 978-967-5997-79-2


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this, Eric - "A kopitiam (coffee shop) stopover yields an unexpected trip back through time, and a promise delivered too late." It's so poignant, and it really hits the nail on the head.

Saturday, April 30, 2011 6:48:00 PM  

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