Malaysia Pt. 1 - Teh Teh Teh Teh t-t-t-t-t Teh Teh

I hate turbulence on aeroplanes. I know that there aren't many people who jump from the seats when the plane starts jerking up and down in that horrific way and go 'Wahoo! Yeah! Turbulence!' but I mean I really hate turbulence. I become convinced that my death is imminent. I find myself deciding which is the best way to try and survive a fall into water from over 30,000 feet (legs first) and whether Fight Club was telling the truth that the oxygen masks get you high (probably, yes). Pretty annoying then that I found myself on my 3rd flight of an annoyingly long journey from Incheon, South Korea to Kuantan, Malaysia being shaken around like Louise Woodward's baby, holding onto the Canadian's hand until I crushed her fingers.

"This pilot is shit," I observed.
"I don't think the pilot controls the weather", mumbled my Canadian girlfriend, finishing her 4th sudoko puzzle of the flight.
"Will you pray with me?" I cried.

By some miracle we landed a few minutes later and disembarked with wobbly legs onto the tarmac. The airport was small and surrounded on all sides by palm trees and the pitch black night sky. We didn't know what to do. We had a hotel booked but no taxi to get there and our hotel wasn't happy that we'd be arriving at midnight. During a very short and time-delayed phone call during our stopover in Kuala Lumpur, I knew that my mate Teh had 'sorted something out' and that I should 'keep my eyes open'. Knowing him as I do, this could have meant a stretch limo or a horse and carriage was coming to meet us. It could also have meant that nothing was.

After nipping to the bathroom to change my underwear, we walked through the tiny terminal towards the exit. I scanned the crowd outside the doors and from some distance away I saw a little monkey in a red t-shirt jumping around behind a pillar.

"There's Teh", I said.

I started walking faster out of the door to grip him in a headlock but I scanned the crowd and couldn't see him. Instead we were met by a man we didn't know holding a sign that said 'Ginger Smith and Boobs'. Now, some people have been known to call me ginger in my time (they're wrong though, my hair is rusty blonde) and I knew that my Canadian girlfriend had made quite an impression on boy-Teh when they first met, so I was able to deduce that this man was here to meet us. I shook his hand and introduced myself but I could see from his poorly attempted straight face that something was going on...

At that moment two Tehs, one male and one female, jumped out from behind a pillar and we dived into hugs. It was great to see them, despite them looking tanned and healthy and me looking like Casper's Jewish cousin, and they quickly introduced me to the man with the sign who turned out to be their cousin, Jay. Jay is a very cool dude, a property developer in his early 30's and handsome. He went out of his way to make us welcome, driving us this way and that in his pimp wagon and at one point loading us up with a bin-bag full of beer. A top, top geezer.

We drank beers that girl-Teh had brought with her in the truck as we drove the 10 miles or so from the airport to our accommodation which, as boy-Teh explained to me, had been changed ever-so-slightly. We had been booked into the Classic Hotel (short for A Classic Example of a Shitty Hotel) in the centre of Kuantan but, being the smooth bastard that he is, boy-Teh had cancelled it and booked us into a suite in their complex. This meant that the little box with a fan that we had reserved was being replaced with an air-conditioned apartment with a balcony and a pool view. Sweet.

By this time we'd been travelling for about 18 hours and I didn't even know who I was any more never mind what country I was in. It was still stupidly warm even though it was past midnight and on the way to the room we saw more lizards than I can count and a moth the size of a hawk. Me and boy-Teh both hate creepy-crawlies and we were outdoing each other for girl-ish screams as we ran away from a 2 inch Gecko. After such a long day and the 4 or 5 beers I'd thrown back in the space of an hour I was more than ready to crash out and prepare for the big couple of days ahead of us. There was talk of dancing lions...

We awoke to a sky as blue as any I'd seen before, dotted hither and thither with the kind of wispy white cloud that simply provide decoration to the horizon rather than any threat of precipitation. The heat outside was offset by the chills throughout my body I was experiencing as a consequence of leaving the A/C on all through the night. Miss Canadia and I prepared ourselves for the day ahead, excited but also a little nervous as we didn't really know what to expect. I knew that there would be a lot of people for us to meet, a lot of food for us to eat and a lot of beer for us to drink. The Canadian wore red as we were advised to - red being a lucky colour for the Chinese - but I abstained. One of the many downsides to being a Ginger is the inability to wear red due to clashing. Except when it's my United shirt. Then it's okay.

We were picked up by Jay in his truck and drove the short distance into the centre of Kuantan. I always enjoy the morning after arriving in a foreign country at night, as the landmarks and features that seemed rather gloomy and intimidating under the night sky are revealed to be nothing of the sort in the daylight. We could see for the first time quite how close to the ocean we were which was something of a treat for us as we didn't expect to see the sea until we reached Thailand for the second week of our trip.

We rode and chatted and enjoyed the view for 20 minutes or so before we pulled up outside the house of the Tehs' Grandmother, referred to by everybody in the family as Ah-Ma. The building was a 2-storey with white-walls and large front doors that were already wide open onto a small front patio. We could hear the occupants before we could see them as laughter and foreign languages drifted out from inside, along with sweet-smelling incense from the Buddhist shrine at the entrance of the house. Leaving our shoes outside, we padded onto the smooth granite floors of the living room and were swarmed upon by Teh upon Teh upon Teh. They were everywhere. Boy and girl-Teh's father is one of 6, so there were Auntie Tehs and Uncle Tehs and cousin Tehs all over the place. Each and every one came over and shook our hands or gave us hugs and kisses and had the same friendly and welcoming smile that I'd be treated to at every Teh residence I'd ever visited. A few people grabbed me and told me how much I'd grown which was rather disconcerting before I realised that I had, in fact, met a couple of Aunties and Ah-Ma round at Teh Towers when I was a little younger. As well as the hugs and handshakes we were also given little red envelopes called Ang Pow. We were first asked if we were married and, after I'd scoffed loudly at the idea and the Canadian had punched me on the arm, we were each handed some Ang Pow. The envelopes, we would discover later, were filled with money and were given at Chinese New Year by the older married people to the younger ones. Even as guests in our mid-20's who were complete strangers to over 90% of these people, we qualified for these gifts and they continued to be thrust into our hands throughout the day. It was a fantastic welcome and it honestly took less than 5 minutes to go from being quite nervous to feeling right at home. After kung-ha-hae-choi'ing around the room, we were sat down, given a bowl of long noodles (for long life) topped with garlic Chinese mushrooms and a hot chilli sauce and a glistening can of Tiger beer. I relaxed.

We sat and ate with Mum and Dad Teh and had a good catch up about what we'd be doing over the previous six months. Dad Teh explained to us who everybody at the party was and explained the significance and meaning behind the Ang Pow and the various customs. It was fascinating stuff and it was also fascinating to see him switch effortlessly between English and Chinese. Malaysia is a cultural hotbed with many different languages spoken and the air was alive with a mix of Cantonese, Mandarin, Malay and English. The beers kept coming and boy-Teh and I were putting them back as fast as they arrived. I'd have to slow down. It wasn't midday yet.

After a couple of hours we were interrupted by the sound of drumming from outside the front doors and an announcement that the lion dance had arrived. This was a part of the trip that I'd been looking forward to for a long time as it would be a genuine dose of the local culture that I probably wouldn't be able to experience again. I raced outside to get prime position and wait for it to start. Although I didn't get the full details on how it worked, it seemed to go something like this. There are teams of young lads who do this sort of thing, and they join teams that compete. There are different colours and styles of lions that represent different philosophies and different areas of China. These teams then hire themselves out at New Year to come round to people's houses and perform. This particular team was made up 8-10 lads of around my age and younger, 4 of which were inside the 2 lions and the others assisting or playing the drums to accompany the dance. My 'prime' position placed me directly next to the drummer which was so loud my ears are still ringing 2 weeks later. The 2 lions danced energetically for a while which, for the lads performing in the costumes and in 30+ degrees heat, must have been exhausting. I was sweating balls and I was just watching. The owner of the house (in this case Ah-Ma) had to provide an offering for the lions and place it at the highest possible point. The climax of the dance would show the lion managing to get to this impossible-to-reach offering by the dancers clambering onto each others shoulders beneath the lion costume. After they reached it (and it really was quite impressive) the lions lay down for about 5 minutes and, using the peel from some oranges that were given as part of the offering, made the Chinese symbol for prosperity on the ground. It was a fantastic show and I felt really lucky to have seen it in such an authentic setting. It was also lovely to see some kids from the poorer end of town, all tatty clothes and bare feet, standing shyly outside the gates of the house trying to catch a peak of the dance. Seeing this, one of the Auntie Tehs took out an envelope of Ang Pow for each of the children and gave them all one of the huge, juicy and delicious oranges that the lions were feasting on. Just another example of the generosity we experienced from the Teh family.

We retired back to the relative coolness of the air-conditioned interior of the house where more beers were handed out and cards were dealt for an impromptu game of Blackjack led by the very charismatic cousin Jason. This was 'Malaysian Blackjack', explained Jason as he dealt, although the only difference that I could establish was that there was a much greater chance of winning. And I did. Combining my Ang Pow and my Blackjack winning meant that I'd had a rather profitable morning at Ah-Ma's house. We said our good-byes and our kung-hae-fat-chois and loaded back into the cars for the short drive to another Uncle's house for lunch.

We stumbled in heavy of Tiger and noodles and were introduced to more of the family who hadn't been at Ah-Ma's house. The house was a similar size and style to the first one and had the same inside-outside living feel to it that I enjoyed so much. The weather was so warm that doors and windows were always open and people could just spill out onto the porch where people were grouped and chatting and laughing. We were ushered over to the dining table and pushed into our seats, where we were to experience home-cooking Malaysian style. Plates all over the table were over-loaded with 2 types of noodles which had been stir-fried with different vegetables and mushrooms. There were tiny shrimp in a spicy sauce to go with them and the piece-de-resistance was a small plate stacked high with sticks of satay chicken. Now, I'd eaten satay chicken before and not thought it to be too impressive, but this was another story. They were to be drizzled with a peanut sauce and consumed right off the stick. And consume we did. Conversation dropped to a minmum as we shovelled spoonful after forkful after stick of chicken into our faces and washed it all down with more Tiger. It was fantastic and a mere taster of what we had to look forward to.

Not surprisingly, as it reached mid-afternoon, the combination of the food and the beer and the previous day of travelling had started to take its toll and we were all in need of some rest. We said our goodbyes and made our way back to the resort to lounge the afternoon away by the pool. My Canadian girlfriend and I took a stroll down to a tiny little beach and watched a couple of locals fish lazily in the ocean. We lay on a rock as the sun sank a little lower in the sky and I was finally able to relax. The hustle and bustle of Seoul and the intense boredom of the previous few weeks at school seemed a long, long way away. I squeezed my girlfriend's hand and told her we should go get ready. We had a date with a Prince.

I'd love to start this paragraph with 'So I walked up to the Prince, high-fived him and pretended to steal his nose' but I am unable to. He didn't turn up. But the fact that one of the sons of the Sultan of Malaysia was rumoured to be turning up at the event is quite a gold-stamp on the party's stature. I'd prepared my outfit (realising at the last minute that it made me look like a member of Boyzone) and the Canadian looked beautiful in a long, flowing dress. We'd been told that it wasn't strictly a formal event but certainly not casual and we wanted to look nice. When we arrived I was glad that we'd dressed up. The house was of the same inside-outside style but on a much larger scale. Inside the huge, black gates we were met by the host of the party (a friend of the Tehs' Uncle Alex) and his adult children, including 2 stunning young ladies that boy-Teh immediately had his eye on. We posed for pictures with the obligatory lion costume and the hosts and were then ushered towards a large, outdoor dining table by the swimming pool. The evening was catered and we dined on Indian food which was beyond beautiful. We drank red wine from bottles that never emptied and then, after dinner, we retired to the marble-floored living-room to drink Martell Cordon Bleu from the bar. The guests included the manager of the Hyatt, a doctor smoking the biggest cigar I've ever seen and numerous beautiful people of all ages and races. It was quite surreal to be in this stunning setting in Malaysia with my best mate and my girlfriend and I tried my best to soak it all in.

As the party began to wind down, arrangements were made to take us into town. I rode with boy-Teh and cousin Jason in his 5-Series while the girls went with Jay in his truck. We pulled up, parked right outside the club and swaggered inside. By this time I had been drinking for about 12 hours and, dressed like Nick Carter as I was, I was ready to do some dancing. Bottles of Absolut were brought to our table with a couple of jugs of mixer and we proceeded to get through them at a rate of knots. The music went from dancefloor hip-hop into mainstream dance and I was soon pulling shapes with my new, arse-willing Indian friend who shouted into my ear 'just friends, just friends' and then proceeded to grind his cock against my leg. He was harmless though and I managed to fob him off onto girl-Teh soon enough anyway. Surreal moment number two came along when the music was interrupted by the traditional drumming we'd heard twice already that day, and through the doors of the club came another lion dance. The DJ announced that it was 'out with the old skool and in with the nu' and the traditional music was replaced by a trance remix of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'. The lions continued dancing and the club went crazy and I found myself, as I do quite often in my life, wondering how the fuck I got here.

I awoke the next morning with a hangover that could climb mountains. I felt as if Keith Moon was performing a solo in my head and using my eyes as symbols. I didn't have a clue where I was, who I was, or who what that awful noise was. It sounded like Greensleeves. Keith Moon drumming to Greensleeves? I buried my head under the pillow. I identified the girl as the Canadian and myself as an idiot, but still the Greensleeves kept playing.

"Mmeughhh ammannnn mmeughhhh," I said.
"I think it's the doorbell," she replied.

I rolled out of bed and made my way to the door, still very drunk and showing all signs of morning glory. I swung the door open ready to tell boy-Teh to fuck off but it wasn't him. It was mum and dad Teh, looking smart, healthy and ready to face the day. I looked like Gonzo with a semi.

"Hi!" they said simultaneously.
"Mmeeugh?" I replied, shielding my lower half from view and feeling self conscious in boxers and Kendra's t-shirt.
"You remember that you're checking out today, right?"
"Okay, we'll be back in half an hour."

Boy-Teh, bless his heart, is completely useless and had failed to mention this little nugget of information. We were to move into the apartment with the rest of the young-un's for the last night. Obviously this was no problem, apart from the fact that we had half an hour to pack our stuff and I was feeling as nimble as a lead-footed paraplegic. I let the door fall shut and passed the news on to Ken-deezy. We packed of a fashion, and headed over to the apartment. The rest of the guys seemed slightly more fresh-faced than I, and I got some fresh air on the balcony with boy-Teh while we tried to piece the night together. He reminded me of the power going out in the club, the second bottle of Absolut, the flirty KFC girls in head-scarves, poorly-performed card tricks and the futile pursuit of Geckos. My headache was starting to wane thanks to the fistfuls of Advil I'd thrown down myself and I was starting to get hungry.

Handy then that we were heading out to another family get-together at the home of Uncle Alex, Jay's father, and the head of the Teh family. We made our way over and found our way almost instantly to the buffet table, laden as we expected with tray upon tray of delicious spicy food. Ignoring the Canadian's suggestions of taking it easy on my delicate stomach, I piled my plate high and, after a little persuasion accepted a Tiger to wash it all down. I was feeling a lot better.

There was a more low-key feel to this gathering, I think partly because of the celebrations the night previously and the fact that pretty soon everyone would be going their separate ways. Myself and my Canadian girlfriend would be off on a quick tour of Malaysia before heading to Thailand while boy-Teh, girl-Teh and their little buddies were heading off to South-East Asia (although precisely where was yet to be determined) and Mum and Dad Teh were off to Langkawi for some well-deserved R&R after acting as our personal chauffeurs for a few days. The young Tehs spent much of the afternoon holed up in one of the bedrooms of the house trying to book flights while having to deal with the over-zealous fraud departments of UK banks and other annoyance factors of which the list is too long to mention. We felt terrible for them as there was problem after problem piling up and that's the last thing you need when you're starting a 4-month trip as the girls were. I occasionally popped my head in to see how it was going to find 3 stressed girls and one boy-Teh casually browsing through Facebook and caring little as he was only tagging along for a 2 week break from work.

We came to a slight road-block ourselves when it came to planning the next stage of our trip. A cousin Teh very kindly took us to the bus terminal after lunch to buy our ticket for the next day. Unfortunately we found ourselves unable to take a bus directly to Melaka as we'd hoped due to Chinese New Year and the unusually high number of people wishing to get around the country. We had to settle instead for a bus to Kuala Lumpur and then hope that we'd be able to take one from there to Melaka. It was a little frustrating, but nothing compared to what the girls had to go through. We returned to the party and wiled away the afternoon playing cards, chatting and drinking beer and tried not to get caught up in the chaos that was going on in the bedrooms.

Our final meal in Kuantan was to be held back at Ah-Ma's house where we had our first one. We were told it would be steamed fish and I was excited for a change from what had been a chicken and beef based couple of days. I wasn't disappointed. We sat in groups around 2 tables and in the centre of each was placed a huge steamed grouper covered in herbs and vegetables in an outrageous-smelling broth. This was then surrounded by plates of rice, chicken wings, duck, prawns and different vegetables which made the description of 'steamed fish' sound like the dinner was being slightly undersold. We ate and drank and chatted and I began to feel that awkward, unsaid sadness that comes before a long goodbye. I'd gone 6 months without seeing my best friend and the two days that I'd been with him had gone all-too-quickly. To prevent any emotions coming to the fore, we drank, and after saying our goodbyes to all of the Kuantan-based Tehs, cousin Jay drove us back to the apartment, stopping off at his house to load us up with a huge sack of beer. We sat up for a few hours playing Bullshit and laughing, but the fatigue of the last few days caught up with us all. The Canadian and I had a long day ahead of us, having to be up early to catch our bus to KL, and the others still hadn't got their flights sorted for the next stage of the trip. A fantastic two days had come to an end and we couldn't delay the inevitable any longer. We said our good nights and went to bed.

I didn't sleep for a long time, my head filled with sadness at having to leave the Teh's, and missing my other friends back in the UK who I hadn't had to chance to see and wouldn't be able to until I got home. I was nervous for the next day but excited to see more of a country that I was very quickly falling in love with. We hadn't met a single person who wasn't incredibly friendly, eaten a plate of food that wasn't delicious or experienced weather that wasn't perfect. It would be hard to tear myself away from Kuantan, but it must be done. We had some buses to catch.

Love, Smithy x


Billcifer said...

Nice article. A few points for you to consider..

1 - In the paragraph where you are talking about wearing red you have put 'one of the the many downsides'. Needs an edit.
2 - 'Top geezer' is never, ever an acceptable description of a person, unless you are Danny Dyer.
3 - Rusty blonde? Really?
4 - I miss you x

smorphie said...

I love how you're shoving 'the Canadian' down everyone's throats. Pure irony, I hope.

Sounds more fun that what I was was having at good ol' Seowon.

Postman said...

...and then the rain comes down. And the humidity drives you mad.

But in spite of all that, I'm calling bullshit on the "I-was-excited-for-a-change-from-what-had-been-a-chicken-and-beef-based-couple-of-days" pile of rot. Man, you just came from KOREA. More to the point, I'm living in a house with my poor cholesterol-ridden father who can't eat beef or pork anymore. I'm dying for some sirloin or pork chops right now. Quit torturing me.

All in all, sounds like an excellent trip. Once again I find myself blown away by your intoxicating sense of humor, talent for engaging narrative, penchant for wild parties (which end with the inevitable asking of the "how in the fuck did I get here?" question) and your endlessly adventurous spirit. Way to go, man. Keep it up. I feel more worldly just sitting here living vicariously through you.

Spitfire said...

LOVED this post. Girl Teh and Boy Teh are good people eh? Loved it. So glad you had a great time with The Canadian. Ginger Smith and Boobs got me a good laugh. totally jealous!