Dance With The Masked Sea Gypsies, Malaysia
They call themselves the Ma Betisek (‘people with fish scales’). This indigenous group, also known as the Mah Meri, were the original inhabitants of Pulau Caney, an island just over an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur. It was named after Englishman Edward Carey, who was given the island to plant rubber in 1905, and imported a legion of South Indians to work his plots. These have since been replaced by palm oil plantations, many of which are tended to by the Mah Meri people.
There are five Mah-Meri villages on the island, and one Indian settlement. The Mah Meri Cultural Village showcases traditional art — including grimacing and smiling wooden masks with white teeth and scary, staring eyes. Call in advance if you’d like to see traditional dances, where the Mah Meri sway with their palm-frond skirts and call out to each other in ancient tongues. After pirate attacks damaged their communities, the Mah Meri left the beaches and moved a little further inland, hunting for shellfish knee-deep in the muddy rivers of Pulau Carey.
The island is famed locally for its seafood, which means at weekends hordes of Malaysians drive from Kuala Lumpur especially to eat. Crabs and prawns are the two biggest catches here, and huge port ions are deep-fried and shaken onto the plates of hungry visitors. Many dishes have an English theme — at the popular Kang Guan Restaurant, for example, platefuls of creamy buttered prawns are served, as well as bitter Marmite crabs. Drive to the far west of the island, past the plantations, to watch cargo ships the size of churches ply the Strait of Malacca. The coastal path is ideal to walk off lunch and, come evening, catch magnificent sunsets.