Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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Golfing Odyssey

Tour Malaysia with or without your clubs

Malaysia's a hell of a long way to go for a game of golf," scoffed my non-swinging friend. Even I, who have teed off in hail, sleet and snow on four continents, had to admit that travelling 24-plus hours for a few rounds is a bit of a stretch. Malaysia is a compelling clash of old and new worlds, a mélange of religions, customs, cultures and cuisines.

In case you need a bit of a refresher course in geography, the east Malaysian states of Sarawak, Sabah and the Sultanate of Brunei occupy the northern part of the island of Borneo. They are separated from the Malaysian mainland by the South China Sea.

BORNEO
I began my adventure last July in Sarawak, Borneo. The Damai Golf Course was the first in Malaysia to be designed by Arnold Palmer, who boasted, "it may be the finest test of golf [slope rating 125] with the most dramatic setting in all of Malaysia." The setting, which borders the foothills of Mount Santubong and hugs the beaches, rocky cliffs and mangrove forests of the South China Sea, is spectacular. The front nine follow a rugged rainforest and mountain terrain, while the back nine follow the ocean. Hole 17 is Palmer's signature, a 154-metre par 3 with the South China Sea on three sides of the green and variable wind conditions. Number 18, a tight par 5 with the ocean on the left and Casuarina groves on the right, makes for a memorable finish.

Sarawak's capital, Kuching, means "cat" in Malay, and the area is replete with all sorts of felines, both living and sculptured. The city, with its artfully landscaped riverside, gave me my first glimpse of how well the Malaysians seem to be able to assimilate old ways of life with new ones. At the market end of town, sparks flew from the tin makers' shacks, coconuts were being ground on the dock, chickens squawked, incense burned in the Chinese temples and ladies in veils carried motorcycle helmets and cell phones. At the other end of town, near the skyscraper hotels, an iced cappuccino in the mall costs more than a curry dinner at a hawker's stand on top of the car park. At Tribes disco the walls were decorated with pictures of fierce-looking, pierced and tattooed tribesmen while the lead singer, wearing thigh-high boots and a black mini skirt, belted out Hotel California.

KUALA LAMPUR
Compared to Kuching's pleasant riverside walk and tolerable traffic, KL, as the locals like to call the national capital, seems to be a city with no master plan, serious traffic congestion and broken sidewalks. It is not, however, without its attractions, especially for golfing, dining and shopping. You'll find everything from haute couture to saris to electronics in the numerous glitzy malls. If you need a break, there are many reflexology clinics in the malls here. The Central Market is the place to buy Malaysian handicrafts and souvenir sarongs in air-conditioned comfort.

Every night, the stalls at the Chinese market on Petaling Street are chock-a-block with bargain hunters seeking "genuine imitation" designer watches, handbags, golf shirts and more. I did get a bit carried away, but after six months most of my "designer" collection is still ticking. Unlike some downright nasty and aggressive market vendors I've encountered in other parts of the world, KL's stall vendors were laid-back and pleasant.

ECLECTIC CUISINE
Repleted with watch, clothing and trinket stalls, Petaling Street is also packed with no-frills seafood restaurants. A feast of barbecued prawns, spicy steamed asparagus and Thai-style deep-fried grouper cost what a couple of hamburgers would back home.

Malaysian food is a reflection of its cultural diversity resulting from centuries of trade and immigration, particularly with Arabs, Chinese and Indians. You'll find rich curries, herbs and spices from Thailand, delicious sauces of coconut milk and shrimp paste and flavourings of lemon grass and galangal. For a one-stop culinary tour, book a table at Seri Melayu where the buffet includes over 50 items from different parts of the country. Diners who show up in shorts are given sarongs to wear, so dress accordingly. The food is cheap, but wine and beer are more expensive (this is a Muslim country, so the taxes on liquor are sky-high).

The golf in Malaysia is relatively inexpensive and there are many remarkable courses on the outskirts of KL. The clubhouses tend to be elaborate with swimming pools, masseuses and Muslim prayer rooms. At the top-ranked Saujana Golf and Country Club, the Palm Course, dubbed the Cobra, is acknowledged as the toughest in the country. What it lacks in its 6354 metres of length is compensated for by the tight fairways and super-slick greens. I'm sure the monkeys in the tree at the signature second hole tees get a kick out of watching exasperated golfers trying to propel their drives over a vast jungle ravine onto a severely undulating green.

Our caddie, Ladifah, tied my camera to my golf bag at Templer Park Golf Course to prevent it from being stolen. Apparently, the monkeys have a penchant for stealing sunglasses, lunches and anything else not fastened down. The caddies at Templer, all women, wear an aqua uniform with a white kerchief. Our foursome squeezed into one golf cart and Ladifah drove us to the first hole. After she'd seen us hit about two balls each, she knew exactly what clubs and balls belonged to each of us and seemed to know what club we'd want for our next shot. On the green she cleaned the balls, set down markers and tended the pin. I particularly appreciated her suggestion that I not search for a ball that had landed in the rough; moments later I saw a sign warning that this was cobra country.

You can avoid the snakes and monkey thefts but the heat and humidity are part of life here. I found that starting at the crack of dawn, wearing a wet towel around my neck and gloves on both hands helped. Alternatively, Templer and a number of other courses in KL are floodlit for cooler night play.

 

MALACCA
A Famosa Resort near Malacca is just a couple of hours drive south of KL. The 36-hole golf course has an interesting hazard: there is a pit of crocodiles behind the signature seventh hole green.

Historic Malacca is a fascinating old town. Founded around 1400, it thrived as a rich trade centre due to its strategic location on a deep, sheltered harbour. It was eventually taken over by a succession of foreign invaders including Portuguese, Dutch and British. During a free afternoon, you can follow the Heritage Trail map, provided by the tourist office, to the major cultural sites. On and around Jonkers Street you'll find an eclectic mix: Chinese and Indian temples, antique shops selling wooden opium beds and Chinese porcelain, trishaws parked in front of a cybercafÄ and a store selling beaded, eight-centimetre lotus shoes -- a reminder of the days of bound feet.

Head over to the Stadhuys Town Hall, a museum originally built by the Dutch in the 17th century, for a look at the raspberry-red buildings, then follow your nose to the open-air food stalls at the Portuguese Settlement for some spicy seafood.

PENANG
Malacca has its rich history, Borneo has its fine beaches and nature, KL has its shopping and golf. Penang state, the northern gateway to Malaysia, has all of the above, and Penang locals will tell you this is Malaysia's food mecca.

Georgetown, Penang's capital, is a mind-boggling kaleidoscope of cultures, past and present. Take a stroll or a trishaw around town and you'll pass the crumbling walls of British Fort Cornwallis, fishing shacks on stilts in the harbour alongside luxury cruise liners, Chinese temples, preserved shophouses, Malay mosques and the pungent-smelling streets of Little India.

From Georgetown you can hire a car or a guide for a day trip around the island. From quite a distance you can spot the Kek Lok Si Temple (or Monastery of Supreme Bliss), an ornate confection that spans 12 hectares. Atop the seven-tiered Pagoda of a Thousand Buddhas is a Buddha statue of pure gold. In the Snake Temple you'll find docile vipers, drugged from the heavy-smelling incense, wrapped around the altar. You can even get a souvenir photo taken of a de-fanged viper draped around your neck.

Save the funicular ride to the top of Penang Hill, where it's several degrees cooler and less humid, for the end of the afternoon. You'll find lovely gardens, miles of hiking trails and a bird sanctuary. The Belleview Hotel looks like it has seen better days, but is a pleasant spot for a drink and a spectacular view.

Near the airport and Penang's Silicon Valley, the Bukit Jambul Country Club has the best of the island's courses, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. The 10th hole, voted most beautiful in Malaysia, offers a panoramic view of the Penang Bridge that connects the island to the mainland.

Most visitors opt to stay at a beach resort in Batu Ferringhi, about half an hour outside of Georgetown. Take a stroll along the beach and you'll probably be tempted to park yourself on one of the numerous sun-sheltered cots set up for massage and reflexology treatments. When I overheard a svelte woman raving to her friend that she felt slimmer after two traditional Malay massages, I booked my hour.

Penang is a food-lover's haven. At the Shangri La's Rasa Sayang Resort, the buffet breakfast is an international feast -- miso soup, chicken curry, Chinese pot stickers and English bread pudding. Not for the faint of appetite.

Tucked between the various beachfront hotels are a variety of eating spots. At Eden, a well-known seafood emporium, the motto must be, "if it swims, we'll cook it." You choose your dinner from tanks of live eels, oysters, lobster, prawns and other seafood. Your order is then netted, cooked to your liking and served up with an Andrew Lloyd Webber-style culture show.

The End of the World beachside restaurant is literally at the end of Batu Ferrenghi road. There's no culture show or pretenses here, it's where the locals go for the house specialty: lobster thermidor. There's also a nightly market along the main drag, so if you're still in the mood for some genuine fake watches, the Batu Ferringhi vendors can oblige.

Normally a trip to a fruit farm wouldn't excite me, but at Penang's Tropical Fruit Farm they grow over 140 species of fruit, including the fetid-smelling but delicious durian, rambutan, mangosteen, macadamia nuts, figs, guava, dragon fruit and soursop. After a tour of the terraced property with an agronomist, I was presented with a huge platter brimming with fruits I'd never heard of, let alone tasted. It was a delicious reminder of what a lush and exotic Eden I was in.

Would I fly to Malaysia just for the golf? Probably. With the added attraction of lovely people, a rich cultural diversity and stellar cuisine, I'd be on the next plane with or without my clubs.

 

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