Saturday, March 8, 2014

Tanah Merah

Our time in Georgetown was nice.  We went to the lovely botanical gardens, visited our Russian friends who were staying in nearby Batu Ferringhi, and saw only a fraction of what there is to see on the island.
We met a lot of friendly people.  (Locals, I mean.  Tourists need some coaxing to get them to open up.)  I would like return someday.
After a few days it was time  to visit our Welsh friend, Ian.  We had worked together in China.  He left China last year to return home, but had just gotten a job outside of  Kota Bharu, which is in the northeast corner of peninsular  Malaysia, on the Thai border in the state of Kelantan.  He lives in a village outside of Tanah Merah. We booked tickets to Kota Bharu and the bus driver agreed to drop us off at Tanah Merah since we went right through it.
When traveling from the northwest coast to the northeast coast of Malaysia you go over a significant mountain range.  It's a fairly scenic, and curvy ride, and I wanted to enjoy the view, but was somewhat distracted by the lively driving style of the driver.  Eventually the comfortable bus seats overcame my general sense of impending death by bus crash, and I slept for a couple of hours, only to be awoken at our lunch stop near the summit.  Lunch was delicious and was followed by a vigorous descent, which made excellent use of blind, inside corners, and good luck to get us down the mountain in a hurry.  Just as the smell of overheating brakes got strong enough to become a distraction, the road leveled out and became less thrilling.  We were nearing Tanah Merah!  The name sounds so exotic, like Bali Hai.  Unfortunately, in spite of its lovely name, Tanah Merah is not impressive.  It isn't a hell hole.  That might have been impressive.  It's kind of an ordinary, grubby town. The Wikipedia entry pretty much says it all, except that they failed to mention its utter lack of charm.  In fact, I took no pictures.  I found this photo online, and felt it captured the general feel of the place pretty well.
The good part of town.
Ian was waiting for us at the bus "station", which we later found out is an unsheltered concrete and gravel slab a block off the highway.  There is a shack with a laminated sheet of paper with the bus schedule on it, which sets it apart from the vacant lot next door.  Anyway, our driver deemed it a place unworthy to make a detour for, so he dropped us off at a food court on the main street and we rang Ian.  While we were waiting for him to come get us, we were entertained by several dentally challenged locals who were trying to get us to pay them to take us somewhere.  They weren't really taxi drivers, but they had access to a vehicle, and nothing better to do.  We were to discover that hanging around waiting for something to happen seems to be the primary industry there.  
Kelantan state is interesting.  It is very Islamic.  The ruling political party is the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), which is a fundamentalist religious political organization.  From Wikipedia: "For years, PAS has attempted to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic Law on Kelantan. It has succeeded in imposing certain social strictures such as single-sex queues in supermarkets; separate public benches for men and women; and limiting entertainment centres to prohibit "salacious behaviour". Proposals to institute punishments such as amputation of limbs for thievery and execution for blasphemy (collectively known as Hudud Law), however, have been blocked by the national government on constitutional grounds."
In other words, don't expect to have much fun in Kelantan.
Since we knew we couldn't buy beer there, we brought a bottle of Malaysian vodka from Georgetown.  Fortunately, there is a Chinese restaurant in Tanah Merah, and they serve beer.  We had some catching up to do, and since we come from secular cultures, we desired alcohol.  It was during this dinner, that we ordered something that we might not have had, had the waiter's English been better.  We wanted some vegetables, and pointed to a picture in the menu of a dish.  We thought the waiter said "beans".  We ordered it.  He meant "bees", or more specifically hornets and their larvae.  Since we were in our cups, and had cheated death on the bus ride over, eating some insects seemed like the right thing to do.  They were delicious, stir fried with citrus, ginger and onions.  Cross eating insects off my bucket list!
We eventually made it to Ian's new home, a nice 3 bedroom house stuck out in a village of sorts about 5 km out of town at the end of a road.  Since he had been there for only a couple of days, it was lightly furnished with a bed, a hammock, and a reclining lawn chair, perfect accommodations for 3 drunk guys. 
At this point I should mention that Ian was lacking not only in furniture, but he had not gotten a car yet.  He had been shopping for one, and had selected one, but was awaiting financing.  We were relying on his supervisor, a pleasant Brit named Alex, for transport around Tanah Merah.  Alex was great company, although his car was a tad small with just enough room for 4 pygmies without luggage.
Kelantan is hot.  It cools off at night, but is damn hot in the afternoon.  The next day we decided to walk to Tanah Merah and catch the bus to Kota Bharu.  We left at noon.  Our five kilometer death march proceeded at a leisurely pace, with stops for water at every roadside place we encountered.  A few empty taxis drove by, but ignored our efforts to flag them down.  Taxi drivers there, while possessing a high degree of larceny, are also by nature, lazy.  The high point of our walk was a roadkill mongoose.  We met a guy along the way who was hanging around waiting for something to happen, and that something happened to be us.  We visited a few minutes then bid him farewell.  A few minutes later, he showed up in the front passenger seat of a car, offering us a ride.  We hopped in, grateful to be out of the sun and off we went.  Of course, this was no Good Samaritan event.  They wanted money, which was OK, except they wanted double what the normal, already exorbitant fare would be.  After some nasty words, we paid them half of what they wanted, and left them with more money than they had 10 minutes before.  We boarded the next bus to Kota Baru and off we went.  It was Friday, the Muslim Sabbath and we were on our way to make the scene in the Capital.

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