Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Malaysia – an Otter, Colonial Buildings, Karst Landscape and Tin Wars

My last blog dealt with some experiences in Penang, the island off the Malaysian west coast which was the first British settlement in South East Asia. In my next blog I’ll be covering some very unlikely and little-known history but for now I’ll tell a little more about my current experiences.

Amphibious Landing (though with inadequate air cover)
While walking along the waterfront at Georgetown, the city centre of Penang, and with heavy traffic (including swarms of small motorbikes) thundering along to my immediate left, and with the water lapping ten yards to my left, I suddenly spotted a large sea otter coming out of the water. She was looking at me quite fearlessly and when I stopped and whipped out my cell 'phone to photograph her she took no further notice of me – she looked very accustomed to humans. Her presence did however attract the attention of two crows who initiated a campaign of intimidation that finally drove her back into the water – an example of the value of air-power in defeating amphibious landings!

The apparently fearless Sea Otter - until the crows arrived!
Knowing when you're beaten! Beating an ignominious retreat while crow gloats!
One of the most notable features of Georgetown are the splendidly maintained buildings of the colonial period, especially those lying along the seafront. Since I lived much of my life in the tropics I have always been impressed at how well such buildings were designed to cope with heat in the days before air-conditioning. Shaded verandahs, set-back windows and doors, high ceilings and fans (human-operated “punkahs” before electricity) all made for cool and comfortable accommodation. This style of architecture jumped continents – memories of past happiness came flooding  when I saw in Penang a larger version of a house of this type I had lived in in Lagos, Nigeria.

Colonial splendour - the Governor's mansion perhaps?
A few days ago I moved to Ipoh, about 80 miles southeast from Penang, which I wrote about in my last blog. On leaving the coast much of the countryside is heavily forested. It becomes very spectacular indeed around Ipoh – a wonderful karst landscape in which steep towers of green-clad limestone rear up above the relatively level ground in between.  

Limestone stacks dominate Ipoh
Some of these outcrops drop almost vertically into back gardens and they are alive with wild-life. Monkeys call sharply as they flit from branch to branch and beautiful brown-fronted herons perch on branches to spy out fish in channels or pools below. The area had been intensively mined for tin from the nineteenth century onwards and the resulting excavations have in many cases been flooded deliberately and are alive with fish.
The Edible-Nest Swiflet

View from my hosts' back garden
Note caves - ladders hard to make out
There are many caves in the exposed limestone and they are colonised by the appropriately named “Edible-Nest Swiftlet”, a blackish-brown member of the Swift family that is about five-inches long and whose most notable feature is that Its nest is made of solidified saliva. These nests are highly prized in Chinese cuisine for making – yeas, the name’s inevitable – Bird’s Nest Soup. As the caves are not easily accessible, ladders and climbing aids can often be seen set into the rock to give access. Undertaking the risks involved can be financially rewarding – prices for nests may be as much as $2,500 (US) per kilogramme.

Chinese interests were very active in tin-mining from the mid-19th Century and conflicts between the two secret societies which dominated the industry and trade led to ferocious confrontations. Between 1861 and 1873 there were four separate “Larut Wars”. These were bloody affairs which pitted thousands of immigrant workers against each other. The scale can be imagined from the fact that in the Third War, in 1871-72, one of the factions imported 4000 mercenaries from mainland China. The conflicts, which had serious implications for the authority of Malay rulers, were finally ended through British mediation. To recognise this, Larut, the town at the centre of the upheavals, was renamed “Taiping” – Heavenly Peace, the name it goes by today. Until coming her I was unaware of these events – history which is so convoluted that I’m still trying to get my mind around it!

And that’s it for now – back with some history on Friday!

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