马来西亚来信（二） / Letter from Malaysia -- Part Two
在新山，我发现一个非常特别的卖咖喱粉和其他香料的地方：一家名叫Shariffs Grinding Mills的印度家族老店。那里前店后厂，一边是生产香料的磨坊，一边是摆满香料展示木匣的店面，气味辛香扑鼻，让你立时觉得饥肠辘辘。
Letter from Malaysia -- Part Two
Choosing a destination for a holiday is a bit like selecting a pair of shoes. It involves a very personal mix of preferences with regard to style, taste and comfort, and additional factors such as affordability, seasonal weather, and safety.
Although the Malaysian Tourism Authority has a very attractive series of TV and print advertisements, these reinforced rather than prompted my selection of Malaysia as a destination for the recent golden week holiday.
As I wrote last week, as a second-time visitor to Rompin, I knew what to expect. Apart from great fishing, it's a small, quiet place with great food including good fresh seafood. People are friendly, and the surrounding natural environment is filled with interesting plant and animal life.
Importantly, it's relatively easy to get to from Hong Kong: less than four hours' flight to Singapore, with very efficient airports at both ends of the trip, and a four-hour drive from Singapore to Rompin on good roads.
Once you exit Singapore by car, you drive through the bustling Malaysian city of Johor Bahru, which is to Singapore a bit like Shenzhen is to Hong Kong. Some 15,000 people live in JB and commute every day, mainly by road, to higher-paying jobs in Singapore, so it's best to avoid the rush hour traffic jams at the border crossing.
In Johor Bahru I found an exceptional place to buy curry powder and other fresh spices: a long-established, Indian family-owned shop named Shariffs Grinding Mills. On one side of the premises are the grinding mills where the spices are processed. On the other side, the spices are on display and for sale in wooden boxes. The aroma is pungent. Guaranteed to make you hungry on the spot.
Further north, the suburban sprawl soon gives way to huge palm oil plantations on both sides of the road. Palm oil is big business here, as it is in Indonesia, and large expanses of rainforest have been felled for its cultivation.
About two hours north of Singapore you come to the first road sign I have seen which cautions drivers to be on the lookout for wild elephants crossing the road. (This reminded me of warning signs around bridges in Queensland, Australia, with images of large saltwater crocodiles: in other words, "No swimming here, folks.")
The fields on both sides of the road are also dotted with windowless concrete structures, 3 to 4 stories tall. With no visible doors or windows, these clearly do not look like peoples' homes. As I found out, they have been a great source of wealth creation, by supplying a high-price commodity in hot demand in China and among Chinese communities elsewhere: bird's nests.
Among the communities along this road live many bird's nest millionaires. The key is to build these simple box-like buildings, which the wild swallows nest in, and to constantly play recordings of the mating calls of the birds. This keeps the birds in a state of high excitement, which in turn spurs them to produce more of the saliva which they use to make their prized nests.
This looks like a fairly straightforward business: very low upfront and operating costs, few HR issues, high profit margins, etc. Sounds like a business where the birds work much harder than the bird-keepers.
Some locals told me that due to oversupply and quality issues, the price of local birds nests have plummeted from their recent years' high of nearly US$3,000 per kg. All markets -- even bird nests -- have their cycles.
In small towns throughout Malaysia, many shops, businesses and restaurants are run by ethnic Chinese. Because many early Chinese immigrants were from South China, the native dialects still spoken by Malaysian Chinese are mainly from Fujian and Guangdong. Most also speak Putonghua. Younger Chinese today are also studying Hanyu Pinyin in school.
During my visit, the arrival of a sportfishing tour group from Fujian caused quite a bit of notice. Locals obviously hope this is the start of a growing trend, and it probably is.
Malaysia, with its beautiful scenery, great beaches and water sports, wild animal and plant life, fresh seafood, and rich variety of fresh fruits (some in Rompin claim their durian and watermelons to be the tastiest anywhere), holds tremendous potential as a tourist destination for the new generation of outbound mainland tourists.
Malaysia's largest state, Pahang -- where Rompin is located -- would benefit from studying what China's Yunnan Province has done to develop tourism infrastructure.
Tapping into China's outbound tourism potential will require better infrastructure in Pahang, which can be done in an eco-friendly manner. Investment in new small regional airports, higher quality hotels and resorts, and restaurants with cleaner and better toilet facilities will be needed, but the economic returns on this could be substantial.
The question is whether local and national authorities are really interested in developing this business.