Five days in Khota Boru

Written by Travel

Posted from: Khota Boru, Malaysia

We leave tomorrow, and Khota Boru has left a less-than-favorable impression on me. While food prices are slightly less than in Hua Hin, the city’s generally bland disposition and mediocre cuisine significantly detract from the novelty. Poverty abounds. Meat tends to be of questionable quality, lots of ill-prepared curry and badly steamed rice. Stands selling icy drinks sit on every roadside, but it seems the Malaysians can’t produce anything in liquid form without adding pounds and pounds of sugar – I believe the sweetness helps fend off the heat, but even my formidable sweet tooth can’t keep up. One sweet milky drink is afloat with soft green noodles and pink flecks of gelatin, and ordering tea will get you half a cup of tea atop half a cup of condensed milk.

At one restaurant, I watched as a Muslim woman prepared flat breads, pounding balls of dough into wide circles, then dropping them into a stone kiln-type oven, and fishing them out later with a long pair of tongs.

My anxiety to be on my way is dispelled several times daily by the haunting Muslim call to prayer that melts over the rooftops from mosque loudspeakers, quieting the city for several minutes. We watched on Friday as men in sarongs and low cylindrical hats shuffled towards the mesmerizing singing in the early afternoon.

Another reason I’m itching to get out of here: the catcalls and sexual overtures have me seriously considering buying a burqua and having done with it. I came ill-prepared for the culture: considering we’re 15 or so degrees north of the equator, I dressed for comfort. My backpack is full of only tank tops and jeans – no skirts or shoulder-covers – and I didn’t budget enough to buy a new set of clothes here. My clothes aren’t provocative by my standards, but my bare shoulders and lighter skin tone attracts attention I could do without, especially obvious in a sea of Muslim women with wrists, ankles and hair under wraps. Le Tigre’s “on guard” comes to mind frequently. I guess the most frustrating part is having no recourse – I’m in Rome, and I forgot my toga. But under the circumstances, going to the corner shop is like running the gauntlet – I just hold my head up, look straight ahead, and hurry.

If I spoke the language, I would ask the men here – and in most of Asia – if they’re so proud of their flag and their heritage, why not be proud of their own women, who pile on the whitening creams and skin bleach by the pound? Thailnd is much the same in principle, but the harassment is generally less frequent, less pressuring, and a bit less demanding. Again, I don’t blame anyone – I’m the outsider. I’m just not sure how to deal with it gracefully.

I wonder, also, if I come across as loose to the Muslim women, easy and disreputable, or if they secretly wish to wear something lighter, or if they are disgusted, think I’m damned for crimes against God, or if they’re indifferent. They don’t seem to stare at or bother with me, but maybe I’m missing cultural signals I’m not in tune with.

There’s a large Chinese community in Malaysia, according to Lonely Planet about 33% of the population, and it looks to me like they’ve got a solid footing in the Malay business community. About 1/2 of all signs I see are written in Chinese as well as Arabic. Very few of the those Chinese settled here speak Mandarin, though, most speak Cantonese or one of the dialects. Chinese restaurants are one of the few places you can purchase alcoholic beverages here.

I haven’t yet learned much about the Malaysian government other than it’s a parliamentary monarchy with both a king and a prime minister. The king’s name is Khlantan, but few people I asked could tell me exactly how long he’s been in power, and seemed to be noncommittal about his competence, leading me to believe that the average Malaysian is much less zealous about his government than the average Thai.

Khota Baru has several museums and I visited two of them – the Museum of Handicrafts and the Museum of Royal Customs. On display in the Handicraft museum were traditional Malaysian reed-woven baskets, some silverwork, a loom, and some samples of a cloth-patterning process that is done with wax and dye – batik, I think it’s called?

The Royal customs museum walks visitors through the marriage process of a princess or prince, and the many ceremonies that accompany the birth of a royal child. So many, in fact, that I could almost believe a royal’s entire life would be taken up with the conducting of tradition. For instance, before a royal child’s feet can touch the earth, a several-day-long earth-walking ceremony must take place asking the ground’s permission to receive the child. The ceremony is held when the child is 5 or 6 years old, but the museum was unclear about whether or not s/he can walk inside or at all before this time. There was also a Malaysian weapons room showing off spears and long, wavy-bladed knives as well as an outdoor section displaying old longboats, some I couldn’t believe would hold real people, they were so shallow and their benches so close together.

I spent an hour or so at the outdoor markets, as most of the guidebooks say Khota Barus is the leading city in Malaysian craft sales, but I found mostly head scarves, Indian CDs, cell phones and poor jewelry. I did see a snake charmer, and I did buy some sweets – dried fruits with a tangy-sweet powdered coating, and some pungent red velvety things. One of these days I’ll stop eating things I can’t name or describe.

I leave you with that. Hopefully the next installment will be from Hua Hin.