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Going Tropical on Malay East Coast

December 07, 1986|GEORGIA I. HESSE | Hesse is a San Francisco free-lance writer.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — I have come to believe that every country where a man cannot live naked in all seasons is condemned to work, to war, and to the hampering restraint of moral codes.

--R. H. Bruce Lockhart, Memoirs of a British Agent, 1932

My first impression of the east coast of Malaysia was that I had fallen, by happy mistake, into a kaleidoscope of the South Seas.

Here were the intense blue-greens of jungle, the shimmering beige-golds of beach sand shaded by bends of coconut trees and the translucent turquoise of the sea, above which floated little squiffs of lavender clouds: It was the tropics, sure enough, flavored by that intangible, floating fragrance of the East.

That was many years ago, when I learned the meaning of the Malay word jalan , in its singular form meaning a road or a street. When doubled, jalan - jalan , it takes on a less definite air: a stroll, a ramble, pleasurable wandering without a goal, going places just for the fun of it.

In the days of rubber planters, cricket and gin slings, of sola topees bought in Port Said to shelter the tender heads of civil service gentry out from England, only one skinny, red-soil road ran from the capital of Kuala Lumpur north along the coast.

The easiest way to travel was by coastal steamer that called at little trading ports frequently named Kuala-something (Kuala means river mouth or estuary).

Modern Highway

When I first drove the coastal route it was cut by wide, muddy waters crossed by frail-looking car ferries and dotted with little Malay kampungs , rural settlements of stilt-legged wooden houses.

Today you roll north in comfort along a wide, modern highway, easily making the Kuala Lumpur-Kuantan trip between breakfast and lunch, even if you stop in Temerloh to buy Kickapoo Joy Juice (believe it or not).

I recommend, however, a detour to the high-country resort of Fraser's Hill, one of five escapes from heat created by the British. Leaving Kuala Lumpur, the road to Ipoh (No. 27) runs north through tiny, two-story towns outfitted with food stalls, hair salons, schools, figures of Popeye offering fried pork, SunTex tire stands, signs reading Polis and Teksi (forms of many English words have found their ways into Malay spellings), CalTex stations and car-repair shops.

Through the dim world of rubber trees you cruise, past padi fields with timeless figures bending their backs, up through a jungle of sun and shadow, gracefully nodding bamboo, giant ferns.

"What kind of tree is that?" I asked the driver.

"Wild tree," he answered.

'Kindest Jungle'

About the Malaysian jungle, a European adventurer, Sjovald Cunyngham-Brown, wrote: "The Malayan jungle is the kindest jungle in the world; great hardwood trees, about 25 or 30 feet apart, and a dense cover of foliage at 250 to 300 feet above your head. That's where the flowers are and where the birds and butterflies live."

Jungle creatures are timid; usually you don't see them. I listened for the bird call that goes "roo, roo, roo--karoo, karoo--hah, hah, hah!" It's the call of the hornbill, which the Malays call the chop-down-your-mother-in-law bird.

Fraser's Hill has about it the somnolence of a summer Sunday in the country. A few idle whackers stroll the golf course; others admire dahlias, roses, fuchsias, geraniums, gladioli. At the Merlin Hotel I lunched on spicy sambal udang and drank Anchor beer and watched clouds gather on the horizon, purple and pregnant with rain.

It began to pound down as we drove on. Sometimes in Malaysia, rain is a flat gray-white screen slicing across your view of the towns, the jungle, the road.

The skies had cleared before Kuantan; late afternoon light turned Beserah fishing villages into a tapestry of palms and high-prowed fishing boats (prahus) and tidy, stilted houses, all hung flat upon a gold-green backdrop--the South China Sea.

Exotic Hotel

The Hyatt Kuantan comes as a distinct surprise; first because a Hyatt is there at all and secondly because it's so right. Set just back of a gleaming white beach, it's tasteful, low-rise Malaysian in style, with Meranti softwood panelings, batik hangings, cane furniture, woodcarvings, open-air lobby. The pool has a swim-up bar, precisely what you want after a sticky day on the road.

Our first dinner in Kuantan was at Chee Shih, walking distance from the Hyatt, where several of us outlanders sampled a Chinese steamboat: a feast of seafoods dumped briefly into boiling water much in the manner of a Japanese shabu-shabu . Ingredients included bean curd, fish, abalone, seaweed, squid, fish balls, liver, cuttlefish, chicken and quail eggs (about $8 each).

The next night we dined at Hugo's in the Hyatt on meticulously prepared continental dishes accompanied by fine French wines.

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