Tharp: Into Sumatra Part I

A 4-part series by writer Chris Tharp about his adventures in Sumatra.


Hong Kong was cold—much more than I remembered it—which came as a surprise.  I was expecting a sub-tropical middle ground between Korea and Malaysia—no jacket required–but was instead greeted by an indifferent city whose skyscrapers were smothered in a Seattle-like misty piss.  I wasn’t so far from home after all: Bone-chilling rain and suicidal skies?

These were things I knew deep in my flesh, so you could say that I was tempered and wouldn’t let it get me down.  We’d be in the equatorial heat soon enough.  We just had to pass the afternoon in HK before jumping back on the plane and heading south: Sometimes layovers are blessings from on high.  Normally I would have given the day-tour a pass in such shitty weather conditions, but this occasion was auspicious.  I was to dine with MM, a man who I only knew from the internet, yet had dealt with deeply over the past few years.  After all, it was his press that, just a few months earlier, had put out my book, so this was to be a big milestone in my life. My first publishing lunch. I liked the way it sounded, and so did Minhee, who shivered by my side as we killed the time, walking the wet streets near Hong Kong Station before our noontime rendezvous.

We were poorly equipped to deal with the rain, since our waterproof jackets were packed away in my bag, which languished in the belly of the plane back at the airport.  We also lacked umbrellas, and I shuddered to think what one must cost in downtown Hong Kong, where just thinking about the prices stabbed dread into the heart of this here backpacker on the first day of a month-long jaunt.  So our eyes sparked up when we spied a pedestrian tunnel leading under the regular street.  Shelter from the storm!  But as we scurried through the drizzle, en route, we quickly noticed that we weren’t alone.  In fact, we were in the company of hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people.  They were nearly all women, and they weren’t even Chinese.  I immediately recognized them as Filipinas, and they sat down on cut-out cardboard right there on the sidewalks, under the awnings of the buildings.

Who are they? Minhee asked.  Homeless people?  Good guess, I thought. After all, who else sits on cardboard slats?

I think they’re maids, I replied, remembering that Hong Kong is a magnet for Filipina domestics.  But I have no idea what they’re doing here…  I think maybe they’re hanging out looking for work, like Mexicans do in Home Depot parking lots back home.

Are you sure?  I don’t know…There are too many.

And she was right.  As we entered the tunnel the mob grew thicker.  These ladies were bundled-up against the cold, and sat down in clusters, eating pancit and lumpia from Tupperware containers, laughing, teasing, and talking on cell phones.  They drank coffee and were nearly all smiling.  Despite the fact that they were sitting on the frigid pavement in a fluorescent-lit pedestrian underpass, this was obviously a joyous occasion, and I had no inkling as to the reason why.

* * *

It’s their one day off, MM remarked an hour later, over a lunch of dim sum, fried pork, greens, noodle soup, and other Cantonese delights. They’re the domestic workers for all of Hong Kong.  They get one day off a month and gather next to the train station and catch-up with each other. It’s the only place they can hang out for free.  Real estate is at a premium in this town.

Ahhhh… Minhee nodded, slurping up yellow egg noodles.

Makes sense, I chimed in.

Finally meeting MM was great.  It was only the second time that I’ve ever actually sat down and talked to someone who I only knew from cyberspace.  Such encounters are always strange, since it is possible to get so know someone well online, but you still have no idea about their voice or mannerisms or general aura, (if I may use such a ridiculously new-age-y word).  It’s familiar and awkward at the same time and a real phenomenon of this digital age.  But despite my almost two days of no sleep and aching guts (I was recovering from a drinking binge which had injured me both physically and psychologically), I managed to keep up with MM; we talked about the state of the press, some of the other books they’ve put out, and finally got discussing marketing strategies for my own, which left me reassured that he had my interests in mind.

After lunch we retired at a Starbucks downstairs, where business talk was set aside and we exchanged our worst travelers’ shit stories instead.  Anyone who has spent more than a couple of weeks tramping around the developing world has a good shit story. Minhee just shook her head and laughed, choosing to keep hers’ a secret.  As ridiculous as talking about pants-pooping with my publisher was, it was, in some ways, a good way to end our meeting.  We were both just opening up and sharing our humanity with one another, in gory, brown detail.

After lunch and coffee, Minhee and I bade MM adieu, boarded the Hong Kong Airport Express train and sped out of the city, having seen very little.  Minhee was underwhelmed by Hong Kong the city, but in all fairness, she never got a chance to give the place a shake.  Most of our time was spent in a restaurant on the third floor of the town’s immense train station.  I suspect a return trip will change her opinion about the place.  But Hong Kong was just a bonus jaunt, a distraction from the real thing.

And what thing was that? We were heading deep into it: A four-week journey in Sumatra, Indonesia’s second-biggest island and a place that has always captured my imagination and others’, I’m sure.  As we flew south, my mind was afire with images of huge lakes, smoking volcanoes, rich coffee, rice terraces, mosques, Technicolor fruit, spices, spiny reef fish, and orangutans.  In short: exoticism concentrate.  Almost a month later, when all the grime was cleared from my face, mud wiped from my boots, and we returned back to Korea, I would discover that Sumatra indeed offered all of those things… and more… some of which were decidedly less-exotic, to say the least.

* * *

The Kuala Lumpur International Airport is so far from the city center that you almost need to take another plane to get to your hotel.  This makes for a nice, jet-engine-scream-free downtown, but creates a real ball-ache for the traveler.  Going to and fro takes time and cash, but luckily KL is a modern, dialed in city, so it could be much worse.

Minhee and I forewent the pricey train in favor of the airport bus, a premonition of things to come.  Our budget on this outing was tighter Baryshnikov’s dance belt, so any chance to save a few bucks was jumped at, especially early in the journey.

The bus shot down the highway through well-maintained suburbs complete with cul-de-sacs.  In the night, underneath the streetlights, the environs reminded me of Southern California: all hills and tidy townhouses.  The expressway was smooth, wide and pothole-free.  Shiny cars accompanied us on our journey into the city and one thing immediately became clear: Malaysia—at least KL—is doing well. Such is the case with all oil-rich countries: there is no shortage of buyers these days.  Things were modern and things were nice.  We were obviously in the civilized world, where things generally worked.  It was amazing to think, even then, that just an hour’s flight away was the mainland of Sumatra, which, while culturally and linguistically similar, couldn’t be any farther away.  .

We stayed at the Tiara Guesthouse in the Bukit Bintang area of the city, which is most famous for Jalan Alor, a street dedicated to food, and loads of it.  The guesthouse was an overpriced hovel but the bed worked and that was the most important thing; Kuala Lumpur, however, grew on me quickly.  It is a modern city, but very Southeast Asian – all palm trees, taxis, and curry fumes.  It was humid as hell at night, but the streets were active with people walking, talking, eating, and just hanging out.

Like Bangkok, it has that mix of rotting tropical old and steel glass new, yet is quieter and noticeably smaller.  Bangkok, without the hookers, I thought, though this was quickly proven wrong as we passed an area with several ladyboys plying their wares; a few other doorways also played host to mini-skirted women whose eyes followed every man who walked by.  Whoring is alive and well in KL, just turned down several notches when compared to her Thai big sister.  There’s no Patpong; no Soi Cowboy. Debauchery in full is not allowed—just tolerated around the edges.

What struck me as we wandered the streets of central KL was the diversity of food, which I had heard about before but had yet to really grasp:  Most of the restaurants were open-aired, featuring Indian, Pakistani (is there really a culinary difference?), Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Malay, all of which pumped their spiced-up aromas onto the street, which mingled together at times, causing my saliva glands to gush forth.


It’s no secret I like to get down with some grub (and my photos prove it these days) so I was in a sort of glutton’s nirvana. The people on the street reflected this panorama of cuisine, as well.  There were some Westerners, but KL was more a mix of Asians – and I mean the WHOLE of the continent.  From light-skinned Iranian tourists to nearly black Southern Indians, Asia was represented mightily, and for once a country lived up to its cheesy slogan sung on the tourism commercials on CNN international.  Malaysia: Truly Asia.  Well fuck me, they’re right.

Jalan Alor is really the ground zero of eating in KL, and that’s where we eventually settled.  Chinese influences are the most dominant, and hundreds of plastic tables were set out, with touts clutching menus and nearly pushing us into the flimsy chairs.  We eventually settled on a place and ordered some fried squid, garlic beef and greens, while I broke into the first beer of the trip, despite the fact that my insides weren’t really in the mood.  But there I was, outdoors, sitting in a plastic chair, at the beginning of a month-long sojourn into a part of the world that I know very little about.  Beer was called for, and beer was supped. There is little that scratches my happy itch more than sitting out at night in a tropical country at a plastic table and sipping cold beer.  This, for me, is one of life’s pure pleasures and I wasn’t about to say no.

* * *

The next day I awoke in a panic.  I was in a windowless room and it was ink-black.  I was with my girl.  Where the fuck am I? Oh yeah oh yeah I’m in KL and I’m travelling… it’s okay, really.  What time is it, though?  I searched for my watch and found it lying on the floor, next to the two useless earplugs I had attempted to stuff into my ears, only to rip them during a feverish sleep.  The watch read 2:30 pm but I couldn’t be sure…  Was this local time?  My watch is a massive Casio traveler’s special that contains all of the world’s time zones, and I may have fucked up when trying to set the thing the day before… so I staggered out of the room and approached the check-in desk, behind which sat a dark-skinned Indian-looking woman counting a stack of red Malaysian bank notes.

Excuse me? Do you have the time?

Without looking up she just pointed to a clock on the wall.  It read 3:10.  Holy shit we’ve overslept. So much for exploring the city today…

Still, something inside of me told me that this was not the time.  The stationary second hand confirmed this suspicion: broken.  So I then went to the guests’ computer in the corner and clicked on the mouse in order to bring up the screen.  2:33 stared back in the lower right hand corner.

You wanna move? I asked Minhee when I got back to our pathologically small room.

Yes please! she begged.  This place is fucking suck! The Tiara Guestouse was located across the street from thumping nightclub and next to a construction zone which evidently worked around the clock, judging from the sawing and hammering at three in the morning.

Well pack up.  We’re late!  We were supposed to check out over two hours ago.  We’ll probably have to pay a half day as it is…

With that we began furiously throwing our things back into our bags.  Within two minutes we were ready to head out.  I pulled on my giant pack, along with my green day bag, and tromped out toward the front door, with Minhee behind.

Excuse me, the woman at the front desk asked.  Will you be having breakfast?


You’re still serving breakfast?

Sure, it’s available until 10.

Uh… what time is it?

It’s… she glanced at her watch. …only just after 8:30.

But… the computer… the computer said it was 2:30.

Oh, yesterday a man from Spain was using it.  He set it to his home time. She laughed and shrugged.  I glanced at my watch, which now read 2:39.  Up in the corner it displayed a three letter code: LIS… okay this is some city for world time… Lis… … Lisbon!  It’s set to Lisbon time!  I pushed a button on the side and the display now changed to 8:39 am. The city code now read SIN for Singapore.  Forehead slap.

We turned straight around and headed back to our room.  We would move guesthouses later that day, but why turn down breakfast? After all, it was included in the price of the room.

* * *

At noon we moved to a better room down the road, and spent the day wandering the sweltering streets of KL.  The heat was a bully but Minhee loved every bit of it, having already suffered several months of a punishing Korean late fall and winter.  She’s also… slight of frame (read: not a speck of fat on her body), so the cold chops her up like a cleaver, since she lacks any natural insulation save her skin.  Me, being a 200-pound white man, don’t have such a problem.  It’s the inverse in my case, where the heat causes me to ooze sweat in embarrassing quantities… but after leaving Korea on a morning where the temperature read -7 C, I wasn’t complaining.

So, we got some cheap Indian food, drank iced coffee, ate fried roti and fruit, and took in the splendor that is the Petronas Towers, which not even a cynic can gaze on with disrespect to the architect.  They’re really a pair of gorgeous, remarkable buildings.  At one point we rode the monorail outside of the main city center, and found ourselves in a 100 percent Muslim area.

Minhee was reasonably covered up but still showed bare, tattooed arms, which, in that part of the world, is like a second head.  She was stared at with nearly every step she took, and the stares took many forms: the younger women shot jealous daggers her way; the older women were shocked and appalled; the men, generally, looked at her as if she was a slice of Porterhouse steak and they were famished Pit Bulls.

I just got eye-raped, Minhee remarked, as we made our way back to our hotel.  Again, a sign of things to come.  Why is everyone staring at me?

Now you know how I feel in Korea…

That night we met up with Sam, who was also heading Sumatra way.  He had flown into Singapore and took a bus into KL that afternoon.

It was the nicest bus I ever took in my life, he remarked, while we sipped cold Tiger beers and took down some Thai food outside of a stall on Jalan Alor. They actually had massage seats.  It was insane.

Massage seats? Minhee, wasn’t buying it.

Yes, with real rollers in back.

Well I hope you enjoyed it while you could, because starting tomorrow, things are gonna get a lot rougher.

You don’t gotta tell me, dude.  This will be my second time visiting Indo.

Not mine, though.  It would be my first, and we were due to leave first thing in the morning on a 7:30 am flight.  I’d make damn sure my watch was set to the right time zone before going to sleep.  But first things first: One more beer.

You can get Chris Tharp’s book ‘Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea’ on Amazon

Steve Feldman’s review of the book is here and more of Tharp’s Haps stuff here.

Tharp’s Blog: Homely Planet

Read the Entire “Into Sumatra” Series


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