Thursday, 10 November 2011

Langkawi to Penang

In which a bus goes on diversion to take me to my stop
Starring a Malaysian cowboy and his hotpant-ed girlfriend.

After the fun and games in Langkawi I had taken the precaution of booking somewhere to stay in Georgetown (the main city on another big island called Penang) which would have been great except that I couldn’t find it. I walked up and down the road and asked at every hotel I could find. No one had heard of it. Eventually I staggered through a carpark past a Chocolate Boutique to something that looked like it might be the only door I had not knocked at on that road, and there it was.  My grumblings were met with shock by the reception staff: “But we have a big sign outside” they said.  And they most certainly did: “Newly opened” it said in giant letters but that was all.  

Right next door was a night market where I had a very pleasant Briyani for dinner while watching the proceedings which consisted off a small band playing random country music while a number of Malaysian couples danced the two step.  This included a rather unlikely couple in cowboy outfits –him pushing sixty replete with string tie and Stetson and her under twenty in hotpants and tasselled boots.  There was also a very conventional looking middle aged man in a striped polo shirt and smart trousers who never left the dance floor, but stood there miming along and doing actions to every song – he knew all the words. Endlessly entertaining.  Really endlessly -  at 2am I was lying in bed, with earplugs in, still listening to ballad after ballad.

Georgetown it a wonderfully mouldy old colonial city full of a crumbling combination of Chinese, Dutch and English architecture.  The pavements are tiled with ornate ceramics and the windows all have coloured shutters.  There’s a little esplanade and a fort with grass growing out of its battlements and a clocktower dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.  The museum also has excellent air conditioning and some nice old tri-shaws and pictures of the town during the colonial era which really don’t look that different from the present day.  The really interesting thing about Penang (and a lot of town in Malaysia) is the mix of cultures – you can walk past a Chinese Temple, a Hindu temple, a Mosque and a catholic church all on one street.  Most of the town is now Chinese and Malaya but you can literally follow your nose to the two blocks that make up little India – wafts of incense and curry lead the way and the food stalls change instantly to pedalling samosas and chapattis.

I had picked up a pamphlet on the culinary delights of Penang – known for its incredible variety of food – most of which you buy from little street carts.  Went over to one to order lunch and was immediately invited ‘inside’ – i.e to the other side of the cart – to peruse the various types of Nasi Kandar (curry) and make my selection. It was served up on a plastic plate freshly wiped with a wet, grimey looking towel.  Malaysians are not big on knifes – you are usually given a fork and spoon or at Chinese restaurants some chopsticks – so you get quite adept at getting chicken off the bone with inappropriate cutlery.

On the outskirts of the town Kek Lok Si Temple is the largest Buddhist complex in Malaysia. To get there you walk up a long winding covered path between shops selling kitsch clothing, souvenir tack and overpriced water to a pond so full of turtles that they are piled, sometimes three deep on the perimeters of the pool.  I was there at sunset so it was nice and quiet. It’s a maze of different prayer halls and shrines and you can take an ‘Inclined Lift’ (the only one in SE Asia) – which is sort of just a glass lift box on a funicular track – to see an enormous golden Buddah at the top of hill. There are spectacular views down to the city and out to sea. 
I waited ages for a bus back into town and when one finally arrived the driver told me I was in the wrong place for getting back to town and tried to explain where I needed to go.  I asked a question and she immediately said: “Just get on, I’ll take you there” so I got on and she drove the bus full of other passengers down the road, dropped me off at my stop, told me where to cross and wait and then waved cheerfully goodbye, reversing up the road.   

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