Monday, September 29, 2014

a day in George Town

Not pictured: knee-biting lunacy.
A little historical context first:

George Town is the capital of the state of Penang, one of the smallest provinces in Malaysia, which not only incorporates Penang Island but also a decent wodge of the mainland, including Butterworth. It was named after King George III. That's right, folksCrazy George, the mad king of Britain and Ireland during the American Revolutionary War. 

The island was originally part of the Sultanate of Kedah, until one day in August 1786 when an enterprising young sea captain named Francis Light of the British East India Trading Company landed there. He wound up marrying the sultan's daughter and Penang Island was ceded to the British Crown as part of her wedding dowry. Captain Light promptly established George Town, Britain's first permanent colony in Southeast Asia. It initially had only four streets and a couple of jetties. A fort was built in the northeast corner of the municipality, commanding a 270-degree view of the sea. The Netherlands Trading Society, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Company (known today as HSBC), the Chartered Bank (now called Standard Chartered), Boustead & Co., and a dozen others all set up shop here, and the town and the swampy island it sits on were the center of British trade and shipping in the area for quite a few years. There was a nasty problem with malaria in the early years of the colony, earning it the unfortunate nickname "White Man's Grave." 

There were geopolitical speed bumps as well. Captain Light had promised the Sultan of Kedah that the East India Company would offer him military protection in exchange for the island. In so promising he had acted without his superiors' approval. When the Siamese attacked the sultanate a few years later, no British help was forthcoming. The enraged sultan tried to take the island back by force in 1790. In this he failed, and was not only forced to give up the island permanently but also to pay the Crown a sum of 6,000 Spanish dollars per annum. This was later upped to 10,000 Spanish dollars when Province Wellesley (now modern-day Pulau Penang) was incorporated in 1800. Even to this day the Malaysian government pays an annual honorarium of 10,000 ringgit (around $3050 American) to the state of Kedah. 

In 1826, Penang (along with Malacca and Singapore) became part of the Straits Settlements under the British administration in India, and came under direct colonial rule in 1867. In 1946, it was absorbed into the Malayan Union and in 1948 was designated a state of the Federation of Malaya. This federation gained independence from Britain in 1957 and became modern-day Malaysia in 1963. The island was a free port until 1969, and even after losing its free port status became one of the world's foremost centers of electronics production in the '70s and '80s. In 2008, George Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has seen an influx of tourists ever since. 

It was one of the most multicultural places I visited in Southeast Asia, despite having a population of only 720,000 and being rather off to the left compared to more popular tourist destinations like Kuala Lumpur or Langkawi. There were bearded, robed Arabs walking around; chattering Tamils with pearly white teeth; quiet, dignified Chinese; agile, jolly, skinny Thais; bald, pale, T-shirted English expatriates; and grubby foreigners like me from America, Canada, Spain, France, Germany, Brazil, Australia, and everywhere in between. 

I spent most of the morning of Tuesday, July 29 nursing my katzenjammer. (Seven beers at the Hong Kong Bar the night before, remember?) The Red Inn Court had a free breakfast of noodles in black sauce, toast and jam, coffee, and fruit. That helped a lot, as did the warm shower I took. I'd intended to sally forth and tour George Town promptly, but a thundering rain came pouring down between ten and twelve o'clock, the heaviest monsoon cloudburst I'd yet seen on this trip. The Matrix Revolutions has got nothing on Mother Nature. It kept sprinkling well past one o'clock, by which point I couldn't wait any longer, so with a poncho stuffed in my pocket I sauntered out and commenced my walking tour.   

It wasn't just the Muslims who were having a holiday (Hari Raya Puasa, the end of Ramadan). For the Chinese Buddhists, there was some festival related to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, who has one of the largest and grandest temples in George Town dedicated to her. Crowds of elderly men and women swarmed the temple forecourt, barely visible through the thick, broiling fumes of incense. Prayers flew thick and fast and I couldn't get a show, so I walked on. 

Unfortunately, despite being a UNESCO site, there just wasn't that much to do or see in George Town. I saw the fort; Khoo Kongs, one of the oldest and most famous clanhouses; the jetties; a couple of temples...and, well, that was about it. 

All in all, I was so disappointed by the place (my debauch the previous night notwithstanding) that I ended up taking just six pictures during my whole 48-hour stay, including that one you saw in the previous post. Disappointing, to say the least. 

Lebuh Chulia, where a lot of the bars and noodle joints are.

The fertility cannon at Fort Cornwallis. The largest gun with the widest range, it will also cure barrenness in women, or so the local legend goes. You just need to place some flowers on it. 

After my little walking tour of the town, I got into a cab and tried to send postcards home to the States, only to be gently reminded by the Indian driver that today was a holiday—several, actually—and the post office was shut. I sighed, thanked him, got out of the cab, went back to the hostel, and napped until 6:30. 

Awaking hungrier than a horse, I strode toward what looked like the food-and-drink sector of town, determined to find me a burger and a beer. I was sixteen days into my trip and I had been a very good boy, eating local the whole way. Now I was fed up with rice and noodles and chicken and wanted nothing more than to get a thick, juicy beef patty between my teeth. I stopped off at the SoHo Free House, noting burgers on their menu and cheap beer. Seemed like a winning combo.

Well, it wasn't. That was the worst burger I've ever had in my life. What was supposed to be a rare patty turned out squishy, lumpy, and poorly seasoned; the bun was stale and soggy; the vegetables far from fresh; and the fries limp and cold. The best part about that meal was the mad specials they were having on—you guessed it—Tiger beer. Even so I could only bring myself to drink one. I laid my money down and sped out of there.

Night fell. I wandered, unwilling to give up George Town so easily. I thought vaguely of finding a historic hotel and having a cocktail, but again I felt worried by potential dress code violations, and the proliferation of foreign phonies that were sure to be in the hotel bar, boozing it up. I strode longingly past the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, trying to peer through the big casement windows and catch a glimpse of all the idiots partying inside, but my reconnaissance was for naught; I couldn't make out a thing. 

Not my photo.

I walked home, a bit miffed at the double holiday that prevented me from mailing postcards or exchanging ringgit for Singapore dollars. Testily I went to sleep, ready to rise at 5:45 a.m. on Wednesday morning to catch the long-haul bus at Butterworth Station. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

an evening in George Town, Penang

Travel Truth #7: Holidays and festivals can throw some delightful zest into your trip. Or a monkey wrench.

Things began to go seriously wrong the moment I stepped off the International Express train in Butterworth, Malaysia, fresh off the overnight ride from Bangkok. While the other passengers took the long walk up a series of elevated ramps to the ferry jetty, I turned right, crossed the tracks, and went to the station office to check on train tickets to Singapore. 

There weren't any. As in, none. Zero. Zip. Nada

I didn't realize that Ramadan leaped around so much. I thought it was pretty much a winter holiday, and that's that. I didn't comprehend that the vagaries of the Islamic calendar could place Ramadan, say, in the midst of summer, but so it had. It seems that I had arrived in Malaysia right at the beginning of Hari Raya Puasa, the "Day of Celebrating the End of Fasting." Today and tomorrow (July 28-29), every Mohammedan in Malaysia (and Singapore and Brunei and the Philippines) would be home with their family, stuffing themselves silly and giving thanks to Allah. All the train tickets back to Singapore were booked up through the end of the week. 


Resolving to worry about all this later, I hefted by backpack, sauntered out into the broiling sunshine, and traipsed my way along the elevated walkways to the ferry jetty. 

The line was about 50 miles long. Twin rows of Malays (mostly young men, I noticed) stood upon the cracked concrete of the shady walkway, arms folded, talking amongst themselves as they waited their turn for a ride to Penang, a medium-sized island just a kilometer or two off the coast, its humped green back just visible in the hazy distance. There were a couple of portly, black-uniformed policeman patrolling the crowd, casting disapproving eyes at the loud and boisterous, their keen eyes seeking out any women and hustling them to the front of the line. One of these policemen spotted me. His eyes swept over me, taking in my misshapen hat, sweat-soaked clothes, lumpy backpack, and ridiculous flip-flop tan, and then darted away like a startled fish.

A second policeman with dark sunglasses came along a few minutes later and motioned me out of line and to the front. Gratefully, I humped my backpack another 200 yards, past a line that would surely have meant two or three hours of waiting, paid my fare, rode across the strait, and spent about a 30 fruitless minutes searching for my hotel (and nearly melting in the process) before a kindly cabbie picked me up and took me there.  

I checked into the Red Inn Court, which wasn't as new or modern or large as Boxpackers in Bangkok but nonetheless clean and serviceable. Thereupon I took three hours to cool off, both literally and figuratively. I also had to wait until after 6:00, when the noodle joints opened up. Then I sauntered into the gentler but still sultry evening, found an open-air greasy spoon crowded with locals (always a good sign) and ordered a plate of delicious, savory char koay teow, noodles stir-fried in rich dark sauce. This particular variety had chicken and shrimp. I sat across the table from a Brazilian fellow named Gabriel who lived and worked in Singapore, and found it horribly boring. We talked, mostly of the shittiness of Asian beer and the emergence of craft brew. 

I sloped a few feet west down Lebuh Chulia to the Hong Kong Bar, a cramped closet of a place with an eclectic mix of rustic decorations, Chinese paper lanterns and WWII British Army jungle hats being the most prominent. Best bar in Asia, bar none. I sat at one of the tables out in front, right next to a pillar, and had seven Tiger beers (for a total of 77 ringgit, or about $23.50). The sun set beyond Penang Hill, lighting the low, glowering clouds a lambent yellow ochre overhead and a fulgent papaya nearer the horizon. Drag queens, ladyboys, tourists, and benighted foreigners strode past and kit cars and scooters zoomed by at ridiculous speeds. I chatted with the Chinese-Malaysian proprietress, an English man and his articulate Chinese wife at the next table, and a youngish Russian woman named Eugenya. She was a scuba diving instructor and was living in Thailand, but was down in Malaysia doing a visa run. She and I were united by literature—both of us were quite well-read, and we discussed our favorite works, Russian and otherwise. One of the most controversial topics we discussed was the plus side and perks of racism—yes, we thought of several good ones. We shared a few off-color jokes between us, including ones at Russians' and Americans' expense. 

All in all, it was a magical evening. As I sat there with a bellyful of horrid Malay beer and the fires of a glorious sunset still dying a slow death in the western sky, the Chinese-Malaysian proprietress laughing at my jokes and slapping me on the shoulder, I could see myself happily moving to George Town and sitting in the Hong Kong Bar and doing some of my best writing. And living. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

the International Express to Butterworth

Travel Truth #6: Don't trust the hype, whether good or bad. 

One of the things that's always bedeviled my travels is the tendency of other travelers to twitter with needless positiveness about things that really gargle balls. 

The Man in Seat 61 asserts that you've no need to reserve a first-class sleeper on the Thai-Malaysia train, 'cause the second-class sleepers are excellent and serviceable. It was definitely the latter, but not the former. I had a comfy seat in the daytime, and delicious train food, but my upper berth had barely enough room to roll over. If you do decide to travel second-class on the run from Bangkok to Butterworth, make sure to get a spacious lower berth with a window. That's all I'm going to say. 

On Sunday, July 27, I awoke at 8, showered, breakfasted, exchanged two hundred dollars for 634 Malaysian ringgit, and was set to go by 9:30 a.m. I lazed around until 11:45, reading Dune and chatting with Miss H, relishing the air conditioning and putting off the moment when I'd have to set foot in that hot, humid hell outside the hostel as long as possible. I checked out at noon, got my $10 security deposit back, and hired a tuk-tuk to take me to Hua Lamphong Station for 100 baht—once again beating back my burgeoning bargaining skills. 

I spent a couple of hours lounging around Hua Lamphong's massive lobby, staring at inscrutable commercials on Jumbotrons and portraits of the king and hearing cheesy food court music. The latter made me hungry, so I hauled my heavy pack into the stuffy, sweltering food court and ate a last delicious plate of pad thai for 40 baht. At two o'clock, I went to platform five, car two, seat thirty-one. 

The attendant came by with the dinner and breakfast menu. I ordered fried veggies with shrimp for my repast, and made a few notes in my journal. 

There were two things I thought I should mention about Thailand before I left it. First, unlike the Vietnamese or Cambodians, the Thais drive on the left side of the road, like the Brits or Japanese do. Second, even the poorest Thais—including the ones in the slums which the train chugged past on its way south out of Bangkok—could afford brass birdcages with mynah birds in them. I'd been seeing these birds—renowned for centuries as clever mimics, on par with parrots—since Phnom Penh, both in the wild and kept as pets. 

The attendant made up the beds at 7:30, and I lost my comfy seat by the window. By that time it was too dark to see anything anyway. Everyone from Kipling to Conrad has written about the swiftness of the equatorial sunset, but I'd never seen it put into practice before. I was a long time in getting to sleep, rolling around uncomfortably in my sardine can of an upper berth. This was way more awkward and unpleasant than my upper berth on the Reunification Express in Vietnam had been. I almost wished I was back there, prayer-chanting old ladies and squalling infants notwithstanding. 

I passed a hot, aching, bumpy, noisy night, and woke when dawn was just beginning to tinge the eastern horizon a neon tangerine. I had breakfast in my bunk, as my lower berth-mate hadn't deigned to wake yet. Two hours later, bored and cramped and antsy from missing what was surely a stupendous sunrise, I leaped down into the corridor and peeked through the curtain. The bastard was awake in there, playing games on his iPad with his smartphone serving as a mobile hotspot. That got my dander up. No way the bugger would monopolize that space while I scrunched and squozed around up top. So I knocked quite loudly on the partition and caught his eye through the gap between the curtains. He jumped up apologetically and fetched the attendant, who folded up the beds and took away the bedding. Both of us were installed in our rightful seats again by 7:30 a.m. sharp. 

Ten minutes later the train rolled into Hat Yai, the last major Thai stop. My lousy seatmate got off here—just how long was he intending to loaf around in bed, anyway? I got a new seatmate, a middle-aged but not unattractive woman whose nationality—Malay or Thai—I couldn't discern. 

We reached the border town of Pedang Besar at 9:30 a.m. I was one of the first off the train and through immigration. Piece of cake—a quick glance at my passport and a tourist stamp. The customs inspector had a quick look inside my bag, but zipped it up again and handed it back to me with no questions asked. Why can't all border crossings be this easy?

And at 1:00 local time (12:00 Bangkok time) we rolled into Butterworth. But I'll tell you all about that in the next post. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua (Tiger Temple)

A scant 30 minutes from the River Kwai bridge was the golden horn of this little seventy-dollar tour I'd taken out of Bangkok on Saturday, July 26: Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua. The Tiger Temple.

Billed as a chance to score some one-on-one time with the rare, elusive Indochinese tiger, the reality turned out to be neither one-on-one nor much time at all. We strode across half a kilometer of dusty temple grounds, strewn with indolent, wandering water buffalo and skittish deer, to the nexus of the action, a spot fancifully called "Tiger Canyon." It was a gully naturally carved out of the pale rock and ochre dust, leaving a natural shady grotto with an artificial waterfall built by some thoughtful, wealthy, and guilt-wracked Thai millionaire. We eager guests traversed the the gravel and hard-packed dust to the bottom of the gully, where a stout fence and double lines of gawkers heralded our arrival at the tiger paddock. Beyond this fence, tigers—some dozen of them—sprawled everywhere near the rock pool at the base of the waterfall, spreading themselves out like the viscous liquid which all somnolent cats resemble. Tanned, dreadlocked foreign volunteers sorted us into two lines: the camera-bearers and the camera-less. I was shunted into the former. When I got to the head of the line, a curt Thai volunteer grasped my wrist and hustled me from one tiger to the next, shoving me into a crouch, snatching my camera away, snapping a picture or two, yanking me to my feet, and packing me off to the next recumbent feline form. The whole affair was run with the efficiency of an assembly line and the quickness of a soccer substitution. I didn't get to savor the fact that I was sitting next to, or petting, a goddamn tiger. It was rather anticlimactic. 


I wasn't in the sweetest of moods after the three-and-a-half-hour trip back to Bangkok. Imagine my surprise and delight when I reentered my cubicle at Boxpackers and discovered a lovely handwritten note from Emilia, my Kentish dorm-mate. Sadly, our paths had parted. After I'd left for my tour at 6:30, she had checked out at noon, bound by train for Chiang Mai. I had considered leaving her a note, but hadn't wished to appear forward and creepy; so I'd desisted. She was more earnest. In her missive she wrote that it had been nice to meet me, and she wished me well on the rest of my journey. It's not often you meet such genuineness out on the road. I do hope she and I meet again someday.