Well, I haven’t done a travelogue in a long time; but I found myself in Singapore for an extra weekend, having worked without taking a day off for the previous eleven days. So on the Friday I decided to rent a car and drive through Malaysia.
But it turns out that you have to plan your car rentals in Singapore further than the day ahead, because Hertz and Avis and Hawk and all the other on-line rental car venders sell out for the weekend before Friday morning.
So I went to work, and over my lunch hour, instead of going to eat, I invested my lunch break in Plan B, which was to take the Jungle Train through the Malaysia jungle.
But it turns out that you have to plan your weekend ride on the Jungle Train through the Malaysian mountains early than the day before, because they sell out of tickets for the Saturday trains before Friday at noon....continue reading...
So I went to Plan C, which was Plan A but with some assistance obtained in a manner that corporate policy forbids me to refer to on the blog (can't mention co-workers in personal blogs, you see). There are, it seems, certain car rental agencies who are not easily found by googling, but who can supply rental cars if one knows their number from non-googlable sources. One such rental car had available a single car for S$200/day. I took four or five minutes to weigh the expense against the satisfaction expected to be derived therefrom, and just as I decided to call the guy back and take the car, he called me to tell me somebody else had just rented it.
Apparently, if one plans to live in Singapore, it helps to be a kind of anal, ducks-all-in-a-row-well-in-advance kind of person. So much for my application for a transfer to the Singapore office.
In the end I said, “Ah, the heck with this, I have work to do,” and, figuring I’d just get to KL and see what happened next, I bought online a ticket on a bus that was leaving Singapore a minute before midnight and driving to Kuala Lumpur overnight. Then I went back to work on my budget proposals, leaving the next day’s plans for the next day, in accordance with Jesus’ advice, “Sufficient unto the day is the planning thereof.” (I think I’m quoting that accurately…close enough, anyway.) I figured a 23:59 departure would leave me plenty of time to get the bus company’s office, even after the 9:30 p.m. Singapore / 9:30 a.m. Houston budget meeting I had already scheduled for the evening.
I wound up being a little concerned about whether I really had left myself enough time, as it turned out, because I got a bit leisurely about the way I spent my evening. I had known that I was going to miss my son-in-law’s birthday thanks to this trip, and having noted on the first day the presence of the Singapore Hard Rock Café half a block from my hotel, I had decided to get him a Hard Rock Café Singapore t-shirt as his birthday present. But from years of business travel I already knew that I don’t usually care for the Hard Rock Café, because it’s too bloody noisy in there. So I had put off going until this evening, when I decided to stop procrastinating and get it over with. Well, it turns out that this was a bad mistake, because the New Zealand peppercorn-sauced steak they sell in there is the best thing I have eaten in Singapore by a country mile – and they charged me about the same thing for that steak that all the other restaurants in the neighborhood wanted to charge me for a hamburger. If I’d just gone to the Hard Rock on my first night instead of my next-to-next-to-last, I’d’ve never bothered to go anyplace else in Singapore to eat dinner. (In fact I’m typing this travelogue right now in, yes, you guessed it, a corner booth at the Hard Rock Café, having just paused long enough to watch the truly bizarre half-live/half-animated Shakira music video for “Tango Obsession.”)
But alas, they were having a private party downstairs, and my waiter wound up going down there to help out and completely forgot about me, and after waiting fifteen minutes for my check I had to go up and look for somebody to pay, and then they had to go find my check before they could figure out how much money to put on my credit card, and the upshot was that as my 9:30 meeting came up I was still scrambling around my hotel room trying to get my little travel bag together for the trip. Then I got to talking to my family on internet videochat, and it was hard to tear myself away, and by the time it was done I was very late getting downstairs.
That’s when I discovered that on a Friday night in Singapore, not even the concierge at a luxury hotel can get you a taxi in less than fifteen minutes. I started to worry, especially when it occurred to me that I could wind up with a taxi driver who didn’t know where the bus company’s office was.
This is actually a bit of concern in Singapore, by the way. The taxis are very reasonably priced, and there are lots of them. But I suspect that the high supply has to do with the fact that, whatever exam you have to take to prove yourself competent to drive a taxi in Singapore, it’s clearly nothing like the ordeal you go through before London will let you drive a Black Cab. For example: my second day at Singapore, I hop into the taxi at the hotel and tell the guy, “U.E. Square.” He sits for a moment in confusion, then pulls out a street map of Singapore and begins puzzling over it. Eventually the bellhop comes over, opens the door, and gives him turn-by-turn instructions. Similarly, on my first Sunday in Singapore I went to services at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, then went shopping in Bugis Street, and then caught a cab home…except that the cabbie had no idea where the St Regis Hotel might be; so I (who, fortunately, had been paying attention throughout the previous week’s worth of riding in cabs) served as his voice-equipped GPS: “Turn left in…one hundred meters.”
At any rate, I’m standing there thinking, “What the heck am I going to do if I get in this car and give the cabbie the address and he has no idea where it is? – ’cause I can’t help him this time.” And sure enough, I give him the address, and he looks at me blankly. In desperation I try to think of anything else from the website or confirmation that might give him a clue. “Um…how about, ‘The Golden Mile’ – do you know where that is?” Light dawns, and off we go.
So in the end I made my bus with a few minutes to spare. It turned out to have very comfortable, more-reclinable-than-expected seats; so, once we had passed the jaw-droppingly busy Port of Singapore and made our way through Malaysian customs, I slept soundly until 4:30 a.m. or so, which is when we got to the hotel in KL that is that particular bus line’s drop-off point.
I knew from prior research there were a couple of car-rental places with offices in that neighborhood; but of course they weren’t open yet. So I found a nearby long, flat park bench; I settled in with my light jacket as a pillow and with my arm carefully locked through the handle of my luggage so as not to look like I was begging somebody to steal it, and went back to sleep. When I woke up at first light of dawn, another guy was sleeping on the other end of the bench.
I was still very tired, and thinking through it I decided that, as badly as I wanted to drive myself around Malaysia, (a) the odds were that there would be no rental car available, (b) if I waited until the car rental places were open, the morning buses for the Cameron Highlands would already have left, and (c) honesty required the admission that I probably wasn’t well-rested enough to be safe driving on the left on local mountain roads in a country where the road signs aren’t in English. So I reluctantly gave up on the idea of renting a car and flagged down a taxi headed for the old Puduraya bus station, where I knew that several different bus lines ran buses to the Highlands.
I got my ticket from the first ticket-seller to open his window. My bus was due to leave at 8:30, which gave me a couple of hours to kill; so I followed the signs to the “food court,” which turned out to be a room added up on the roof of the bus station, where local food vendors have little rooms offering home-cooked food of various types. I had a downright delicious breakfast consisting of spicy fried rice with hot red and green peppers (I actually went back for second helpings of this, which seemed to be not merely allowed by, but actually gratifying to, the proprietress), and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, and some of the local coffee, which was as thick as mud but actually quite delicious – not at all bitter, just rich and textured about halfway between American coffee and chocolate mousse. (That is less of an exaggeration than you might think.)
This breakfast was self-serve, and I committed a cultural faux pas: I took a plate, scooped up some rice, and dumped it directly on my plate. Only after I sat down did I notice that everybody else in the place had taken a plate, then taken some big leaf of some sort and put that on the plate, then scooped up whatever their main dish was and put it on the big leaf. I’ll have to go back to my Malaysian cultural experts to find out what kind of leaf that was and what is the purpose of putting a big leaf in between one’s food and one’s plate – I mean, it’s not like I saw anybody actually eating the leaf.
Once I was comfortably full, I asked for my check, since when I had tried to pay to begin with I had been told, “No, no, you eat first and then you pay.” The friendly little guy who’s collecting my money says, “4.50,” which is to say, about a dollar and a half. I look through my wallet and dig out four one-ringgit bills, then check my pocket…no Malaysian change. He says, “No, that’s okay, four is enough.” “No, no,” I answer, “I have it,” and I pull out a five-ringgit note and say, “Just take that.” Then I start packing up…but thirty seconds later he is back, with a one-ringgit note that he insists on giving me in change. So perhaps Malaysian haggling is unique in that you’re trying to pay as much as possible and they’re trying to collect as little as possible??
At any rate, I asked him how to say, “Thank you,” in Malaysian, and so he taught me to say, “Terima kasih.” So then I said, very sincerely, “Terima kasih,” and he answered with a Malay phrase, which, since it wasn’t terima kasih, I didn’t recognize. “It means,” he explained with a big smile, “come again.”
I walked out onto the roof of the old bus station. The sun was about to come up, and I could see the Petronas Towers now in the dawnlight.
But the local security guys seemed to be disquieted by my hanging out on the roof; so, having still more than an hour to kill, I decided to go downstairs and out for a walk.
The first thing I noticed upon stepping out of the terminal’s front door, were the signs on the doors of all the cabs:
Malaysia is, like China, a bargaining country in which price tags represent merely the starting point of negotiations – I had been advised by one travel website to never agree to the first price offered to me by any car rental agency, for example. And, you know, somehow I don’t think that it usually works the way the haggling over my breakfast price went: “No, no, please take more” – “No, no, I insist that you pay less.” At any rate, it seems the cab drivers have to notify you in advance that the price you see is actually the price they really truly intend to charge you, because otherwise people would feel lied to – “Wait a minute, you actually expect me to pay what’s on the meter?????” This probably means that I should have been haggling about the price of my bus tickets; but I detest haggling and didn’t bother. They were pretty bloody cheap anyway, after all.
Malaysia is nowhere near as rich as Singapore and therefore (the spotlessness of public places being a luxury primarily available to wealthy countries who have lots of money left over after the food/clothing/shelter thing) not nearly as spiffy. This does not bother me, of course, as I am not particularly fastidious and have spent more time than the ordinary American allotment bumming around Third World countries; so my bar is pretty low and Malaysia cleared it with plenty of room to spare. It was a nice time to walk because the city was just waking up, and I like the time of day when a city is just starting to bestir itself. (From which it follows that I don’t particularly like cities that never sleep and therefore never have a time where they’re waking up.) And if I’m going to have to be in a city, then it’s kind of nice to be in a city where I can hear a rooster crow – which I did, on this particular walk.
I got back to the terminal and checked their fancy new, clearly just-installed, flat-screen TV’s that show the status of buses scheduled to depart, laid out just like the screens in any air terminal or train station. And the more carefully I look at those screens and compare them to the ticket in my hand, the more obvious it becomes that my bus is missing. It’s about 7:50, and the screens are cycling through all the buses departing between 8:00 and 9:30, and after about the fourth complete cycle there’s no doubt that my 8:30 bus is just flat not there. This is obviously disturbing; so I hie myself back to the ticket counter, show the guy my ticket, and say, “Has this bus been canceled?”
He looks at me in some confusion. “No, it leaves at 8:30 from Platform 21, just like it says here.”
I say, “But it isn’t on any of the screens downstairs.”
His expression changes to one of compassionate, but amused, comprehension. “Oh, you mustn’t pay any attention to the screens.”
In due course my bus pulled up to the platform. I was one of the first on the bus, and, having learned from bus travels in China that Asian buses have assigned seating, I checked my ticket, which appeared to refer to seat “5A.” But the seats were numbered consecutively, with no letters: seat 1 was first row left side, seats 2 and 3 were first row right side; seat 4 was second row left side, etc. I settled myself cheerfully in seat 5, resigning myself to not having a window seat, which wasn’t surprising considering how late I had bought my ticket.
Within five minutes the entire bus was in a state of mass confusion because nobody could figure out where to sit. The bus driver’s English was extremely limited, and this was a problem because the people on this bus were speaking French and English and Dutch and basically every language you could expect to hear in Europe; but there was not any Malay to be heard. I drew the conclusion that Cameron Highlands makes a lot of money off of people whose salaries are in currencies with more buying power than the ringgit. But alas for the bus driver, who was left to clear up the confusion of a bunch of people whose languages he didn’t speak. So eventually he just started yelling over and over, while pointing at the first row, “One! [points to left-hand seat] A! [points to right-hand aisle seat] B! [points to right-hand window seat] C!”
Eventually we grasped the concept; so I got up and moved to seat 5A equals four-times-three-plus-one equals seat thirteen. (I believe I’ve already mentioned that my hotel room here is #1313; apparently I’m undergoing some sort of cosmic susceptibility-to-superstition test.) We all get ourselves sorted out, in fact. There’s only one problem: the bus is only half full. So every time somebody else gets on, we all get the entertainment of seeing them peer at their ticket, then peer at the seat numbers, then squint confusedly back at their ticket, until I take it upon myself to take mercy on them and show them to their seat. This was my public service function for the day, and I flatter myself I did it well. At any rate, in the end everybody got seated and I never tried to put two people in the same seat. So, thanks in part to American take-charge initiative, in the end we were only twenty minutes late leaving the station. (I think that basically the bus driver, who spent the whole time on a walkie-talkie, didn’t want to leave as long as there were unsold seats.)
Now, the drive along the western coast of Peninsular Malaysia is not that spectacular, though the central Titiwangsa Mountains are always off on your right tantalizing you. I mostly dozed, to be honest. But then we got off the expressway and headed for the mountains, and the roads got smaller and somewhat twistier, until we got to Tapah and got onto Route 59. That’s the point at which we got serious about the mountain-climbing. The Cameron Highlands are, you see, 6,000 feet above sea level, and if you’ll remember I had started out on the coast.
The road doesn’t exactly waste time getting you to the top. There are pretty much no straight stretches worthy of the name – the longest straight stretch I can think off was right after the Lata Iskander waterfall, where you go a few hundred meters on a straight line walled on both sides with tiny shops where locals try to make a living selling things to tourists. (Nice waterfall, I admit.)
That’s not comic exaggeration, by the way. I really think that two or three hundred meters was the longest straight stretch on the 27 miles between Tapah and Ringlet, except for maybe when we driving past the Sungai Sekam reservoir. I mean, it wasn’t all as bad as this Google Map section…
…but it was all pretty much like this:
I am entirely serious when I say that, as much as I want and intend to return to the Cameron Highlands at a later date, I don’t see how I can take certain of my children who are prone to motion sickness. They would be absolutely wretched. I’ve driven more than my share of twisty mountain roads, and that’s the most motion-sickness-inducing road I’ve ever been on, bar none. Even I got queasy a couple of times, and I grew up on switchbacking mountain roads. If motion sickness is your curse, then I genuinely fear that the Cameron Highlands are eternally off-limits to you…because you can’t get there except by this kind of road.
It’s also not a great road if you’re scared of heights. Or made nervous by small roads on which large vehicles drive with a certain insouciance of velocity, despite there not always being enough room for said large vehicles to pass each other on the road proper.
But for the guy who wrote this post, it was a heckuva fun road. In fact, I’m adding the Cameron Highlands Highway up to Gunung Batu Brinchang to that to-do list. I know, I know, I’ve been on the road already…but I don’t consider that it fully counts, for two reasons. One is that I didn’t drive it my own self. The other…we’ll get to that in its proper place.
The mountains are mostly unsettled, which makes the drive a lovely drive through a series of vistas of unspoiled mountain rain forest:
But that’s only until you get to the part that’s properly known as the Cameron Highlands. Way back when, some British folks exploring the peninsula came across this area, high up on the very spine of the Titiwangsa range, where the mountain slopes grew notably less precipitous (though I think it’s still abusing the language to refer to it as a “plateau”), and where the weather could best be described as Perfect Springtime Temperatures All Year Long. The latitude, you see, is tropical, so you don’t get the seasonal temperature swings you find in the temperate zones. But you’re 6,000 feet above sea level; so the temperature really is cool and pleasant and breezy, rather than Kuala Lumpur hot and humid. “What a spectacularly wonderful place to live!” one can’t help but think. Or, more specifically, if you’re a nineteenth-century British guy fresh from India, what one can’t help but think is, “What a spectacular place to build myself a great big giant tea plantation!” Which the British promptly set about doing.
(When I first saw those acres, or rather square miles, of tea-festooned mountain slopes, I found myself instantly humming, with all the reverence of Mr. Banks himself, the line, “…plantations of ripening tea.” Which reminds me of something else I’ve never blogged, namely the YouTube video that is a fake movie preview for the supernatural terror thriller Mary Poppins…I’ll blog that one after I finish this travelogue.)
They grow much more up there than tea now – with their year-round springtime, their ridiculously rich soil, and their ample rainfall, the Cameron Highlands are the agricultural epicenter of Malaysia, growing orchids and cabbages and all manner of other vegetables, including so much watercress that they actually export it in quantity to China. At the same time, with their spectacular views and perfect year-round weather, the Cameron Highlands are something of a tourist mecca, as you can tell from the fact that right smack in the middle of Tanah Rata (which means "flat land," thus proving that the applicability of any adjective is always a matter of local context) one finds a Starbucks. This is a Starbucks where I can testify that the décor is exactly what one finds in the Starbucks in Singapore or Houston, where I can testify that the venti mocha tastes exactly as it does in any Starbucks in Singapore or Houston – and where I can testify that the price is also the same as it is in Singapore or Houston, even though everything else sold in Malaysia is in effect a 50%-off bargain.
Though I do give the Tanah Rata Starbucks team full marks for an unusually creative, and I suspect quite effective, use of their fireplace.
Now, my intention when the day started had been to try to buy a ticket on the 10 p.m. overnight bus that Unititi (hey, no snickering from the peanut gallery on that one), according to the internet, runs directly from Tanah Rata to Singapore. So, having stopped along the way at Starbucks to refresh myself and my iPhone e-mail cache, I went straight on to the Tourist Centre to get my bus ticket. But alas, it turned out that the internet lied; they don’t run the overnight one anymore. This meant that, if I wanted to be back in Singapore on Sunday morning so as to leave myself time to go to Bintan, I would have to catch a bus back to KL and then get to Singapore from there. And the last bus out to KL was a 3:30 bus…which, I was most unhappy to learn, didn’t leave me enough time for a taxi ride up to the top of Mount Batu Brinchang, on a little one-and-a-half-lane dirt road that is the highest road in Malaysia and that gets you up to an observation tower sitting 6,667 feet above sea level.
And that’s the second reason that I’m not willing to check this road off my bucket list – I didn’t make it all the way to the top.
[Pauses to indulge himself in a moment of bitter silence]
[Recomposes himself to continue]
Sorry about that. By the way, if you want to know a great reason to consider hiring a car rather than taking a bus to Tanah Rata and a taxi the rest of the way: the five-hour bus trip to Tanah Rata from Kuala Lumpur will cost you about $10 to $12 in American money (at current exchange rates). But the last ten kilometers? Well, the local authorities have established set rates for the cab ride from Tanah Rata to the top of the mountain, and THAT bit will cost you $27 to $30 (of which said local authorities no doubt get a healthy cut). So that’s a good reason to be able to smile at the taxi drivers as you go by the central taxi stand with a wave and a cheerful, “Guess I’ll drive it my own self, boys.”
Well, I spent a pleasant enough hour or so eating lunch and wandering up and down the very touristy but still quite enjoyable main street. I bought some of the local tea, and I tried to buy some clothes for my wife, except that I couldn’t find any in her small size (Malay women don’t seem to be as petite as Chinese women often are, and there are way fewer Malaysian Chinese than I had realized). I tried something called “starfruit juice,” which is very tasty as long as you’re swallowing it and then hits you with a surprisingly nasty aftertaste the moment you stop. I decided that as long as you could chug it an entire glassful at a time rather than sipping it, it would be a net positive experience. I found, on the wall of the tourist center, a page of surprisingly amusing little quick-hit jokes, and took a picture of them so that I wouldn’t forget any. Only after I was back in Singapore, when I wanted to tell Rusty the jokes and therefore opened the picture, did I discover that my iPhone had messed up the focus and they were mostly unreadable. Still, I could rescue a few, along the lines of…
Q. How can a woman keep her husband from reading her e-mail?
A. Put it in a folder marked “Instruction Manuals.”
Q. What do you get the man who has everything?
A. A woman who can tell him how to use it.
WIFE: Have you watched the young newlywed couple next door? Have you noticed that every time he gets home he kisses her with all the passion of a Hollywood movie? Why don’t you ever do that?
HUSBAND: Oh, I’d love to, but I don’t know her well enough.
On wall of ladies’ room: “My husband drives me crazy – he follows me everywhere.”
Written just beneath it: “I do not!”
TEACHER: Why don’t you ever comb your hair?
BOY: No comb.
TEACHER: Well, borrow your dad’s, then.
BOY: No hair.
PETER: What should we do today?
PAUL: I’m not sure. Let’s think…
PETER: No, I’d prefer to do something you can do too.
Which reminds me of a line I saw in some Asian equivalent of Star magazine, where the famous (in Asia) celebrity being interviewed in the article said, “Marriage is a ceremony where the man loses his bachelor’s degree and the woman gains her master’s degree.”
But before long it was time to get onto the bus. I sat back, prepared to relax…but that was before I knew that we had a bus driver who dreams of Formula One racing.
We roared down that highway. At one point, we caught up to a sports car and had to slow down. (I’m not making that up, though I think the driver was taking his time and enjoying the scenery.) At another point, we passed a motorcycle…on a curve…with oncoming traffic. (I’m not making that up, either, though I admit that the motorcycle had three people on it and was cornering conservatively.) I had my iPhone out so that I could take pictures, but I didn’t get any, because by the time I could see the shot and point the iPhone, we’d already be cornering again and it would be too late to get the picture. Eventually I just set the iPhone on video and taped about eight minutes or so. We had already gotten most of the way to the bottom and therefore we were already past the really huge drop-offs, I’m afraid, and I certainly wouldn’t say you should watch the whole video. But it will give you an idea of the pace we were making – and of how much rattling the bus was doing as we made that pace.
And you’ll notice that, despite the fact that there were no straight stretches and the bus was tearing down that mountain as though the driver had backed over a bunch of Hell’s Angels’ motorcycles on the way out of the parking lot, somebody still passed us.
This bus dropped me off at the KL central transit station, or, in Malay, the “Stesen Sentral Kuala Lumpur.” One of the interesting and (to me) amusing things about the Malay language, actually, is that (a) they borrow lots of words from English, but (b) they change all the spellings so that, in effect, they spell with a Malay accent. Here, for example, is what the nice young waitress at the Panettone restaurant gave me when I asked for cream for my coffee:
(If you have to eat at the Stesen Sentral KL, by the way, I strongly recommend the Panettone, specifically its “chilli” tuna pasta with a side of garlic bread, a coconut pastry, and a cup of good coffee, all of which will cost you six dollars or so.) I didn’t ride express buses around Malaysia; instead, each time I climbed onto a “bas ekspress.” And I presume that, if one is going to find oneself riding in a passenger car in Malaysia, one would prefer to find oneself riding in a “teksi” rather than in a car belonging to the “polis”.
Also, I didn’t get a picture of one, but every so often I would see an ominous yellow road sign that simply read:
I never figured out exactly what that meant, but I presume it was never good.
I decided to try going back to Singapore on the train rather than by bus. This was a mistake. They didn’t have any sleeper cabins left; so I bought a seat in coach, having misread the timetable and thinking that the express train was a three-hour trip instead of a seven-and-a-half-hour marathon. Then the 11:00 train that was supposed to get me to Singapore at 6:30 a.m., was forty-five minutes late. I was tired and cranky and full of fury with myself for choosing to travel on inefficient government-owned trains rather than the buses provided by the hyper-efficient free market (my libertarian prejudices having conveniently excised from memory the twenty-minute delay with which my morning had started). But at least coach was mostly empty; so I had two seats to myself. Thanks to experience gained in flying the fourteen-hour LA-to-Melbourne flight in coach, I already knew how to set up my laptop bag as a place to put my knees, and I therefore turned those two seats into a bed suitable for sleeping in an extremely tightly-tucked fetal position. Every hour or so I’d wake up, slide the laptop over in front of the other seat, and turn myself around with my head facing the other direction so that I could sleep on the other side; and that’s how I spent the night.
Dawn was coming up as we worked our way across the causeway from Malaysia into Singapore at the Woodlands checkpoint.
And I walked into the St Regis planning to get my breakfast and then head for the ferry in order to cross over into Indonesia and spend the day on the beaches of Bintan Island, which is supposed to be quite lovely. But then I realized something. I realized that I wasn’t planning to spend another day scrambling hither and yon because I really wanted to. I was only going because I didn’t want to get back to Texas and then wish I had. And in the end I decided that, while “wanting to go” would have been a perfectly good reason to spend more money and another day out sightseeing, “being afraid I would regret not going,” was just not good enough.
So I ate my breakfast, and I videochatted with my family some, and then I went to bed and took a nice long nap, and then I went out to have a very late lunch and write this travelogue.
And while I may eventually regret not having gone to Bintan, I haven’t started regretting it yet. Malaysia was enough, this time around. Maybe if I ever come back to Singapore, I can bring Helen; and then she and I can go see Bintan together.
UPDATE:Some information from a born-and-bred Malaysian:
The one thing that Msia doesn’t lack is banana leaves. The leaves you saw are fresh banana leaves. Lots of Msian dishes are cooked or served on fresh banana leaves. You will also find food or snack wrapped inside banana leaves, and the leaves will serve as a “holder” to keep the content inside. The appropriate explanation is that the leaves will infuse the content with a subtle, grassy aroma. Realistically, this is a tradition passed from earlier generation because… getting banana leaves is much cheaper than buying a bowl, heheheThe same source tells me that "!" on a road sign just means, nonspecifically, "Beware!" Which makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, at least.