A Frustrating Drive from Penang to Grik



I drove to and back from Grik day last week. It left me with really mixed feelings. The Rapid Ferry ride to the Penang mainland was lovely. It’s so less stressful than using the bridge. Once off in Butterworth, you start driving east, the air clears, the rural and agricultural activities fan out to the sides. The hills become part of your driving view. Then the jungles green calm your eyes as you drive the straight forward road towards Grik. It’s quite beautiful. You start to calm as you shrug off the urban vibe of Penang and Butterworth.


Lunas is by passed, and then you hit the huge bizarre looking ‘MBI Desaku’ vision of a perfectly fake suburbia with its massive fantasy playgrounds with perfectly maintained road side topiaries, polka dot painted little houses and coaches full of tourists. All set up for your drive-by entertainment. There’s organized homestays there. I thought of the film ‘The Truman Show’. Personally it made my hair stand on end. Creepy. “Kulim Hi-Tech Park” is sign posted everywhere as you drive ahead and leave it all behind.


As you get out of the lorry laden dual carriage ways, you start to wind uphill. You begin to take a deep breath at the beauty of the jungle, huge trees, amazing canopies, those jungle greens. Then, you notice the horror. Our beautiful jungle hills riddled with logging tracks. I’m driving on the highway and there’s no where to stop to take photos. Next there is no mercy land clearing and terracing for palm oil (probably smaller independent private or quasi government companies?). Like…. who gets to destroy all this amazing jungle land in this ruthless way? All on gradients way too steep and in opposition to the guidelines recommended by RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil).

You drive around a big bend in the road and your view is full on open burning hills and crazy steep terracing. Where is the MPOC ( Malaysian Palm Oil Council) on all of this? The MPOC has in the past reacted in knee jerk defense to criticism from overseas , but here along the public highways going across the country, such blatant bad agricultural practice takes place in full view of everyone.

Change will only happen when the industry as a whole, and surely led by the MPOC (This has to be reason for this organization?), starts to put into practice and lobby, the fact that palm oil is a brilliant plant & oil that can be grown with best agricultural practices in a responsible manner. Its not about a few companies following RSPO guidelines in their own ‘holier than thou’ little bubbles. That is not good enough. It is shameful in this day and age when the industry refuses to come together to ensure that ‘the whole’ behaves responsibly. It is unacceptable that a few companies sit on their high horse about being ‘RSPO’ while allowing the others to ignore and refuse to join the world wide call for a more sustainable attitude towards our dwindling unique natural environment.

There is no doubt that the business of large scale agriculture is a compromise for the environment, but a small compromise on huge profits by the businesses is worth taking in the long term in order to ensure that agriculture can be successful alongside conservation. I have always believed that there are many definitions of ‘good mangement’. The definitions swing about depending on whether you stand on the side of profit only, or sustainability with profit. Everyone can take a stand for the longer term future.

Palm oil is a product that is stable, healthy, versatile, with a myriad range of uses. It is not only highly profitable & sustainable but can truly pull rural communities out of poverty when the effort is taken to grow it using best practices. The change has to come from inside the industry & it needs strong leaders. Change cannot genuinely be implemented when they are just made as a reaction to statements & noise made by international NGO’s & lobbyists ( some funded by competitive oil crops) who more often than not, know little about how the plantations function themselves.

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Driving just further along, hundreds of acres of failed ( possibly Felcra?) rubber left so abandoned, eroded, looking shameful. Cleared to make profit on the logging and planting, then left to struggle to even grow back to wild. Looking at all this failed waste land makes me cringe & want to hide.

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As a Malaysian I am embarrassed by the appalling mis-use and abuse of our unique jungles and environment in the name of ‘bettering the life’ of rural community small holders and share holders. Its obvious when you drive through these areas that the only people who have benefitted from the erosion and these now utterly useless plantation’s, are the contractors that did the logging and clearance, and those that did such a bad job of planting the crop. Huge profits for a few. Zero benefit for anyone left after.

The mountains Gunung Kenderong and Gunung Kerunai come into view. The almost prehistoric views, the lush tropical hills distract your eyes and mind away from the complete mess before. The mountains lead the way to Grik.

The right turn into Grik takes you along rows of relatively new built shop houses turned into boarded up swiftlet ( bird nest) houses. Long rows of them. You pass a hoarded off timber yard full of logs. A few lorries with huge logs have passed us along the way.

From the main road that would allow you to by-pass the town without a thought, you need to deliberately turn left at the Shell station & this takes you into the main street of what’s left of the old town. There are definitely still some leftovers from the past here. It does make me immediately nostalgic.


Some of the wooden shophouses have still got the eclectic personality & vintage wooden style of their beginnings. From their fronts still hang the painted advertising chiks, wooden blinds & wooden shutters. These do provide charm & colour. Inside, their walls still hold up the tall vintage wooden cupboards filled with goods on display. These pull at my memories of childhood growing up in the small towns throughout Malaysia. There is definitely beauty here. People seem very friendly & curious to see strangers. And, bright flowers greet you as you park.


There are colourful gatherings of Orang Asli families in front of the vintage wooden supply shops. The ladies in brightly patterned clothes. Many of the mothers are breastfeeding their babies while the toddlers play along the 5 foot ways. There’s lots of talking going on. They all seem to be waiting for a lift somewhere. They have bags of supplies and have bought things like tools and mats to take back with them. There is a lot of plastic replacements for things that were before, made in iron, tin, wood & rattan.


However, for all its charm, colour and hints at the past, the whole town is totally overwhelmed, from outskirts to centre, by the shrill soundtrack of artificial swiftlet calls. A highly irritating frequency which immediately drives me to distraction.

Grik & its surrounding area is obviously a wide ranging swiftlet birds nest breeding area. It has the same sound frequency & feel of towns I’ve seen in Indonesia totally taken over by swiftlet farming. What about guidelines? No one seems to care. The majority of the swiftlet houses are extremely bland, with cement structural additions & towers, boarded up for the birds. There are smeary stains at the entrance holes for the birds. These buildings are merely artificial caves modified to attract the swiftlets to set up home & build their highly sought after edible nests, made from their mucous & saliva. Humans here learn to live with a frequency of sound pollution which I’m sure leads to illness, madness and cancer.

Below the bird nesting floors are restaurants, shops and businesses. Health and safety guidelines for swiftlet farming are actually very thorough on paper. There are rules and detailed guidelines on how far these farms can be next to human habitation, playgrounds, food production. Not here though. No compliance. No enforcement. All too familiar.

There is good food and I swear the best, lightest roti’s I have eaten for a long while. Great roti telur too, all cooked fresh for you on the hotplate at the entrance. Restaurant Thaibah. The rojak, however, is too sweet. Like everyone else it seems, the only way to really enjoy this delicious tuck is to turn blind eyes to the fact that the swiftlet farms above you leave much to be desired in terms of cleanliness. Public health & safety? Don’t think about it!

We walked the loop around the town & also tested out the mee soup tom yam at another coffeeshop run by Thai ladies. Very lovely lemony & light seafood tomyam noodles.


I enjoyed looking through all the old supply shops with their selection of parangs, rubber tapping knives, ropes, biscuits, bottled sauces, clogs. Another shop sold baskets, rotan sticks, fish traps, bird cages, bird traps & the most beautiful fine rotan bangles woven by the Orang Asli.


I ended up buying a selection of ground sheets, made from woven plastic fertilizer bags (Cap Tiger & Crown) all neatly sewn together. They will be strung up as curtains to hide the mess of the shelves in my studio. I bought a lovely, very heavy thick rotan stick to help me with my stretching exercises for my back. Its a solid sturdy thing. I also purchased a practical woven strap belt in a great khaki colour, a basic thing that you can never find in the ‘fashionable’ shops of the larger urban shopping centres. I also could not resist, and had to buy a couple of the Orang Asli woven bangles. These are precious things, so simple but so beautiful because of their exquisite crafting. They are made just from thin woven strips of rattan.


It’s amazing that humans, so capable of creating incredible beauty seemingly out of nothing, are also equally if not more so, responsible for such selfish destruction of peace for their fellow humans, & the deliberate erosion of the amazing natural beauty that Malaysia has been blessed with. It is especially so frustrating when all these businesses can be run successfully with good and responsible practice.

Development can take place in line with sustainable practices and a responsibility to protect and conserve. Its not rocket science to do this. Yet, we seem too lazy and too hung up with making a fast buck at the expense of the future. I can’t believe that this short 2 .5 hour drive to Grik ended up making me so frustrated for Malaysia. It encapsulates everything that is precious, everything that is at risk, and everything that we need to change in so many ways.