The road to Sungai Siput is lined with identical grey stores with identical signage selling cheap, identical wares. Beyond these stores is a vast and jagged canopy of palm fronds extending all the way to the horizon, and everything is cast in oversaturated hues of grey or green. On a rare but good day, the sky will be ripe and cloudless and showcase a brilliant blue that only the tropics can muster. But you probably won’t see this. You’ll see instead a sky that reflects that asphalt earth beneath it – a dull concrete firmament that traps heat and humidity and human ambition in a grey and uninspired hull. And at times you will observe the signature “M” of McDonalds piercing the skyline and lurching up into the clouds. And you’ve never seen such vivid reds and yellows, standing proudly in space, bridging the ephemeral chasm between the grayed heavens and the graying earth.
But beyond that signage lie enormously beautiful limestone karsts. They jut out abruptly from beside the road, announce their enormity and grandeur, flaunt their sheer and vertical cliffs, and dive back into the earth once more. Yellow monoliths formed millions of years ago; the massive karsts are but amalgams of billions of tiny disintegrated sea creatures packed together for eons. And along the march of time rivers and rains have carved and hallowed and plowed the monoliths. The receding tides of ancient oceans have sculpted wonderful personalities into these rocks, so that from afar they look like misshapen yellow heads with lush green hair.
If you care to look out the window as you continue northwards you’ll see tiny stalls and sheds and insignificant shacks nestled between the palm fawns and the relentless greenery. And in denser towns these meager outposts will yield to wonderful colonial facades with crackling pillars and storm shudders rife with bird nests. The faded pastel hues of these buildings are all but vanished beneath a skin of soot and perennial wetness. These towns exist on the fringe of rubble. They are architectural hospices, utterly worn and deteriorated and awaiting disintegration – the empire from which they spawned having long ago retreated to another grey speck on the map. Still, if a delayed traffic light should idle you in such a place, you’ll see its still bustling with life, because, really, nothing stays dead in the tropics.
Continue driving, obeying and disobeying traffic laws as you see fit, and you’ll see a wiry cluster of beige tubes and towers crawling up the horizon. Look at it. It’s massive, and flagrantly industrial. Unabashedly evil, provocatively cold even, and utterly without adornment. But its contours are rounded and organic and oddly frenetic. Like rusted steel masquerading as flesh. If you don’t want to be pedantic you could just call it a cement factory, but ‘robot’ would be more apt. And this particular robot, as tall as a skyscraper and as beige as its neighboring karsts, has just stirred from its resting place and is reaching a long mechanical arm right across the highway.
You’ll need to drive by it several times before realizing that its rusted hand is clenching a karst by the throat and violently slurping its innards. Thousands of tons of pulverized limestone are shot right back through the arm and into the belly of the beige robot, where cement is eventually shit out beneath a corrugated tin roof and sent off to a future parking lot in Fuzhou or Shanghai. The million-year-old karst will be leveled by the end of the decade, and then the robot too will starve and be relegated to rust and speculation. There’s a venison farm right beside it all, but individual deer probably don’t last long enough to notice any irrevocable alterations to the skyline.
A barrage of traffic lights later and you are in Sungai Siput; pull over at the first 7/11 you see and I’ll come and fetch you.