Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Malaysia diary: Georgetown, Penang with the Chinese

Georgetown has much to wonder at: ancestral Chinese temples, a grand seafront hotel by the Sarkies brothers to rival Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and decrepit trishaw riders. An orgy of durian was just what I needed to settle in.

(This is part 5 of the diary: in the previous entry we left Langkawi and arrived in the UNESCO World Heritage Historic City of Georgetown, Pulau Penang. If anything it was muggier than Langkawi, but I felt like I might score some decent books here in some poky old kedai buku.)

Old temples are normally quiet places, but something was happening in this one. The sign outside gave its name in three languages: 韓江家廟, Tokong Han Jiang, Han Jiang Ancestral Temple. You’re supposed to check stuff out like this on holiday, especially since it’s the only existing example of traditional Teochew architecture in town, apparently, so we stole in like Bugis bandits, into a roofless courtyard full of Chinese people too busy enjoying an orgy of durian to notice us. My kind of orgy, I thought. Tina and the kids hung back, profoundly disgusted. She had trained them to hate the king of fruit: poisoned their innocent minds. More for me, so. A pretty woman laden with durian offered me some. I knew I’d like Georgetown. “谢谢你!” People were gorging on the stuff: I had no idea what was going on. The Chinese like this fruit, that’s something I’ve learned on our trip, but I like it too, and the Chinese are surprised at this. With my hands smeared with pulp, I looked up to see a couple of excited gamers with cameras in my face. I imagined myself shared all over WeChat like a puppy.
“You sure you want more?”
“Yes, please. I actually like durian. See? I’ve just eaten loads.“
Let them take photos of me. I knew I’d be taking a few myself in a minute.

Want some durian?
Durianfest at Han Jiang Temple.

Getting around Georgetown we walked or got a taxi, but never a trishaw. Taxis got us in and out of the area around our hotel which lay just outside of the UNESCO World Heritage zone, the central area of Georgetown where all that heritage jazz is. Once in the zone, you’d miss too much if you weren’t on foot. You’re going to have to have a shower when you get back home, so you may as well walk, that was what we found. As far as a trishaw ride was concerned, well, it we were thinking about it until we saw the trishaw riders. They were so old and scrawny that as conscientious westerners we thought the best we could do for them would be too spare them any further exertion in the heat. That they need the money I’ve no doubt, that we didn’t do them any favours, no doubt there either, but you know, as anyone tempted to continue a street snack of durian back at the hotel will also sadly confirm, you can't take it with you. It might sound silly, but I just didn’t think it was a good look for us to be conveyed to our next destination, the 5-star Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel, by some emaciated old boy busting a nut in the heat while we languidly took photos, barely moving. And perverse as it seems, under those circumstances the temptation to horsewhip him to get a move on (“Chop chop old man!”) would have been hard to resist.

The E&O had been on the bucket list too, but unlike the trishaws we managed to tick this one off. The first thing you read about when you look this storied hotel up on Lonely Planet is the list of greats who stayed here, and indeed the photos are there in the lobby too. Let’s see: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and...ah, Hermann Hesse. When I was a teenager I went through a pretentious Herman Hesse phase, reading, but not really comprehending, Das Glasperlenspiel, Steppenwolf, and Siddhartha. So I was impressed. And a little disappointed. A bit like bumping into Kafka at the Sheraton. I don’t need all my favourite writers to live penniless, consumptive lives or anything so ghastly cliched, just my early-twentieth century central European ones. It’s how I always imagined them; certainly not whooping it up in the "The Premier Hotel East of Suez".

Eastern & Oriental Hotel
Eastern & Oriental Hotel seafront walk, the "longest in the world".

Out on the seafront side, away from the superannuated trishaw chauffeurs, there's not much breeze, nothing really to signal to any of the senses other than my overstimulated eyes that I was by the water, the Andaman Sea. I reminisced about another colonial-era 5-star place like this I was in a few years ago, Raffles in Singapore, also condemned to a very humid environment, also constructed by the brothers Sarkies. We walked along the seafront, "the longest of any hotel in the world". I use skeptical quotes because I’ve only ever read that in Penang-related promotional literature. It reminds me of the chorus of “fastest-growing city in Europe” blather you used to hear about Galway, but only in Ireland, and mostly in Co. Galway.

No, evening, you bring us no reprieve from the humidity, not even in the Kedai Makanan dan Minuman, the big food hangar where Lebuh Armenian meets Chew Jetty. The Sarkies were Armenian, so I'm guessing that this prominent street which we crisscrossed several times in our stay might be so named in their honour. Anyway, this place, most important for the month that's in it, had hanging TV screens showing World Cup highlights. The trick is to order a 640ml bottle of Guinness Export Strength (6.8%) in a bucketful of ice as soon as you sit down. Thus provisioned, you can walk around and order from these small, hawker-type stalls all around, which was as close as we got to the famous "hawker", authentic, street cuisine. The food here is a steal like the Great Train Robbery. A serving of Taiwanese noodles or kuai teow goreng (which in Chinese is char kuai teow, which should sound more familiar) cost RM5/6. That's circa AUD$1.60.

Street art on Lebuh Armenian
Street art on Lebuh Armenian.

That night most memorable, we'd worked up our appetite walking through Chew Jetty, an accretion of dwellings around the jetties facing east towards Butterworth on the mainland, like an outdoor museum with real exhibits who compensate for their loss of privacy by selling ice cream and crisps on their front porches. Several times my eye would be caught by a TV and I'd steal a glance at a domestic tableau of Chew Jetty clanfolk fanning themselves in front of the box, totally unconcerned that they were de facto exhibits in a UNESCO World Heritage Zone, granting total strangers such as us license to look at them watching Malaysian Idol. Or maybe they were watching a documentary about Brisbane, or Ireland - wouldn't that be funny. Or about voyeurism. Or, and I admit this is a stretch, about Chinese Ancestral temples like Han Jiang Ancestral Temple, with its fructophilic flock.

Built in 1870 for the settlers who came from the Teochew, or Chaozhou, district in Guangdong, China, to Georgetown, Han Jiang is right on the edge of Little India, which is where we started our evening's stroll. I’ve been to Greece: take it from me, I know how frustrating it can be to read a word and have no idea how to pronounce it, so I should say that Chaozhou is pronounced “chow-joe”, with the emphasis on the “joe”. It’s a large city north-west of Hong Kong. Teochew is just the old way to say and spell Chaozhou. Like Peking and Beijing. And the get-together that we stumbled upon was apparently for the local Teochew clan - that’s the word the guy I spoke to used, ‘clan’. Whether the king of fruit is the usual guest of honour, or this was a once-off and next week it would be back to bananas, I have no idea, but it was a scene positively Roman in its debauchery.

Communal selfie
The Chinese have taken the idea of the selfie to a whole new level.

So not only did I get as much durian as I wanted, which was a fair amount, but someone then handed me a plastic bottle of warm nutmeg and lemon squash, whereupon I noticed that everyone else was drinking that too. It tasted as odd as it sounds, but by this stage I was too blown away by the hospitality of these very friendly Teochewers to care. Aware that it was only a matter of time before the more astute clan members noticed that I probably didn’t come from Guangdong province, in fact they may well have even got the impression that I had never even been there, would have to look it up on the map to find out where it was, would have trouble pronouncing it with the correct tones (wrong!), and would moreover be ignorant of the connection between Georgetown and this southern city, I melted into the throng, Cartier-Bresson invisible behind his camera.

謝謝潮州大家族﹐你們讓我有了個開心的夜晚。Thank you, friendly Teochew clan of Georgetown: you made my evening.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Malaysia diary: Georgetown, Penang

Having left Langkawi we're now in the UNESCO World Heritage Historic City of Georgetown, Pulau Penang. If anything it's muggier, but I feel like I might score some decent books here in some old poky kedai buku.

Georgetown, like durian, is a thrill you experience nose-first. You could call the smell of either of them fascinating or just, as some do, offensive. It's an entrepôt, or a bitser as we'd say in Australia, a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian culture and architecture, atop an English colonial base (1786). According to UNESCO Georgetown and Malaka (further south, below KL) are "forged from the exchanges of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures and three successive European colonial powers for almost 500 years, each with its imprints on the architecture and urban form, technology and monumental art."

A weakness for Chinese, a beginner's interest in Bahasa Malaysia, a city whose streets were alive with my languages: circumstances conspired towards a famous time being had in Georgetown. I'm still ploughing through Teach Yourself Indonesian, each taxi ride a validation as I tried this word or that word out ("Apa ini Lebuh Carnarvon?" "Ya, betul."), though I never managed to connect with "baiklah". Due to the contingencies of travel, I've actually managed to practice more Chinese than Malaysian so far. No new books yet though, and I've nothing left to read.

Lebuh Armenia
Trishaw, Lebuh Armenian.

We were staying in Noordin Mews, a classic Straits-style shophouse converted by hotelier Christopher Ong, whose shtick is 'East-meets-West'. The brochure blurb is "Boutique accommodation for today's flashpacker". I felt like a fraud, not being (I strongly suspect), nor even knowing the meaning of, a flashpacker, but then some of the other guests at the breakfast table didn't look so flash either, especially the ones - like us - with kids. I think they're trying to flatter the guests, calling us flashpackers. 'Flashpacking' is "a neologism used to refer to affluent backpacking." Not to be nitpicky, but there was nothing backpacky about this place; it's downright toney. Then again, we stayed in the best room; there was a framed cheongsam on the wall, two bathrooms, our own balcony overlooking the pool, and a coffee-table book about the good ol' days in Georgetown en français! A far cry from the places in which most backpackers would be bedding down that night.

But first, there’s the books swap shelf to inspect. I'm not a stealing man, but the sight of a book I value on the house book swap shelf, languishing amongst clearly inferior material, arouses a base, liberating instinct in me. Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore is such a book, and to quote uncle Monty in Withnail and I (under different circumstances, granted, but the underlying sentiment was the same): "I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!" Disingenuous as it seems I did offer to buy it, but not being in the bookselling business they graciously let me have it. And why not? Someone's finished reading it, plonks it on the shelf, and you can swap it for anything else no questions asked. Let’s say I swapped it for a minor Dan Brown, not even The DaVinci Code. Is that a fair swap? For "The Fatal Shore"? Gwanourrada'!

Lebug Penang, GeorgetownWaiting for the bus, Lebug Penang

On this matter, Tina gave me a traveller tip, too late for Noordin Mews, but truly crafty nonetheless. Buy a book, any old Tom Clancy, Dick Francis or Harry Potter, in a secondhand kedai buku, and keep it as a sacrificial offering for swap opportunities, swapportunities if you will, like this. I started reading The Fatal Shore pretty much immediately, and relentlessly miserable it is too: wonderful stuff. It even smelt like I like a book to smell like. Incidentally, it was an ex-library copy, with the word "Withdrawn" scrawled across the inside front page. It's over; you’re coming home, son.

Outside the rarefied oasis of the Mews, Georgetown was even muggier than Langkawi. Large frozen shopping malls rise above the sweatshops you pass by to get to them, a man or a woman hammering a motorbike wheel back into shape for hours, cigarette after cigarette, or hunched over a sewing machine beside a dog. Some smile at you as you look in, some don't. But you really shouldn’t look in: you should keep your eyes on the ground or you may disappear into the occasional abyssal sewage tributary between the road and the pavement. These ‘5-foot ways’, the covered walkways in front of the shops, should be called ‘50 ways to die’. When they don't trip you up on account of the abrupt changes in level, or the busted paving, they force you out onto the street again, on account of the fact they're mainly used as motorcycle parking spots. I'm sure Raffles didn’t mean it to be this way when he planned them (one of the big differences between South East Asia and Australia is that the word ‘raffles’ is more likely to be preceded here by ‘Sir Stamford’ rather than ‘meat’.)

I say, there’s a Dickens Street (Lebuh Dickens) around the corner. I have a feeling I might be on fertile ground in my search for decent, chappish books although I might skip that particular street. There are plenty of places I’ve seen already with fancier names that could be described as dickensian, so when a lebuh advertises itself with the great author’s name, I consider myself warned, thanks. Anyway, surely my quarry - “The Malayan Trilogy” - must be close to hand. It’s got to be somewhere in Malaysia other than Kuala Lumpur. It's a book about Malaysia by a prominent British writer, the author of A Clockwork Orange, which was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick, director of Dr. Stangelove and Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise, the biggest movie star of his day. By extension, it shouldn't be this obscure. The trilogy’s Wikipedia page, in the section on “Availability in Malaysia”, makes no mention of it being traceable anywhere other than KL. Or at least it didn’t until I edited it as soon as I found out that yes indeed, there are copies on sale here in Georgetown for the tenacious bibliophile.

Lebuh Armenian, Georgetown
Lebuh Armenian.

Don’t waste your time, as I did, in the anodyne ‘Popular’ bookshop in the KOMTAR Centre. Life and interesting books is and are not there. Go to the down-at-heel Chowrasta Bazaar which has several joyously, dingily crowded book stalls. You'd be hard put to find them unassisted: you’ll need a local guide in the form of one of the guys you'll find sitting outside their stalls at the junction of Jalan Penang and Jalan Chowrasta boredly dicking around on their phones and picking their noses. “Kedai buku?” They'll cheerfully direct you to the book part of the market, up a staircase of dubious integrity. Books stuffed on shelves and in free heaps, up, new and old, to the ceiling, and down to the floor again, bound up carefully in bunches of 5 or 6 in pink twine, sometimes just thrown on the floor. Two Indian stall owners hovered:
"He also wrote a book called 'No Mon No Hon'."
"I also have no mon and no hon."

You will never acquire mon, or a hon, in this market with this stuff, my man. But, celibate and impecunious, you will have the eternal gratitude of people like me who could happily spend all day here if I didn't have a wife and 2 chizzlers to return to and only 3 days to see Georgetown in. I hit paydirt in another stall, finally. The owner, an importunate type who never once left me alone, produced the Vintage edition of "The Malayan Trilogy" from inside a black plastic bag, claiming it was to prevent people idly soiling it with street-dirty fingertips. Funny, there were plenty of other brand-new specimens out on display for people to thumb up nicely without the protection of a bag. I suspected pusillanimity on the part of this vendor, kowtowing to putative censors in deference to the book's banned status. In any case, RM50 was too much wang. I can get the exact same edition in Dymock's in Brisbane for less.

The next vendor, ballsier by far and with a shrewd, academic mien, had it out on the shelf, the brazen bastard, but it was still RM35. In the time it took me to respire in contemplation it was RM30. Second-hand but looking good, that was by far the best price I'd get all holiday. I don't know now why I was so fussy. It's true what Daniel Gilbert says in Stumbling on Happiness: we are terrible at knowing what makes us happy, we really haven't got a clue. I had to leave, but I knew at least that this was a reading town. I left with a dual-language book on Chinese Culture, and a Murakami. 1Q84 has made me want to read more of his, maybe without the little people this time, and maybe not so big.

Durian coffee, every day at four by the pool, with a book: that way happiness lies. That much I do know. We oscillated like a pendulum between eating fancy western (because of the kids) and eating local. Yesterday was a good example: after a muggy rectilinear traipse along Jalan Cintra whose one-time camera shops once doubled as safe houses for Japanese spies, we emerged finally onto Jalan Campbell, and allowed ourselves the luxury of lunch in Campbell House. To judge by the vintage black and white photos on the walls of this upscale Italian eatery of chaps and chapettes in suits and ties, either global warming has really changed Penang in a short amount of time and they had to dress like that to keep out the cold, or they were genuine martyrs to the suit, hat, and tie combination, marching out each day in their battle dress to face the humidity. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that.

And so the pendulum swung from a Western lunch to an Eastern dinner, via a durian coffee of course. The Chinese say 人山人海 (ren shan ren hai) to mean crowded, full of people. The Malaysians directly translate it into English and say "People mountain, people sea", a bit like how we get "Long time no see" from 好久不见, a word-for-word translation. Acting on a tip from Chef (from Fox Hill resort, Langkawi) we got a taxi to Kapitan restaurant, fearing Little India's mountains and waves of people. In the event it was fine, a molehill rather than a mountain (unlike the time we went to Little India in Singapore on a Sunday night on a previous trip). All these Little Indias and I still haven't been to the big one. But for the time being, the Mountain had come to Mohammed in Georgetown, Penang. Time to eat.

(This is part 4 of the diary. In part 3 we got a ferry from Langkawi to Kuala Kedah, a taxi to Penang...and so began a most fascinating three days in Georgetown, a sweaty mix of English colonial, Chinese and Indian. We were staying in a converted longhouse in the famous Noordin St.)

Temple at Lebuh ChuliaTemple on Lebuh Chulia, Little India

Monday, July 14, 2014

Malaysia diary: Langkawi to Penang

With memories of a most beautiful waterfall, we caught a ferry from Langkawi to Kuala Kedah, a taxi to Penang...and so began a most fascinating three days in Georgetown, a sweaty mix of English colonial, Chinese and Indian. We were staying in a converted longhouse in the famous Noordin St.

(In part 2 of the diary we had our photos taken with the Sichaun clan, and I got to taste durian for the first time on a fruit farm. I'm a fan. Still no sign of "The Malayan Trilogy", or any decent bookshops yet for that matter.)

Yeah I know you’re supposed to switch off when you reach your holiday destination, but that’s when I switch on. I sit by the pool, dicking around, frankly, on my phone when I should probably be staring soulfully into the distance, I suppose. At the dinner table I fail to fully appreciate the flavours and scents of the East I've paid to savour because why can’t I connect to the house wifi when Tina can?, that doesn't make sense. Cue more dicking around. I must come across as an ignorant and self-obsessed twit to the staff, which is pure spotlight effect: they don't notice, and if they did wouldn't care. I feel self-conscious though, I don't know why. It's my holiday, it's pathetic to feel like that. In any case, it's time to put the phone away, we're heading out for the day.

Air Terjun TemurunTina at Air Terjun Temurun.

We marched along the path scouted in advance by my wife (as is the case with much of my life) to a waterfall or something. I only knew we were going to a place called Air Terjun Temurun. Too many places and sights to see for me to pay attention to each of them. And none of those words meant anything to me. Ah wait, air is water, of course: next thing I knew we were at the foot of the largest air terjun (waterfall) in Langkawi. I let that sink in for a while. We were at a waterfall in a primitive jungle on an island off Malaysia. I find I have to stop for a second sometimes in these situations and register the occasion at a higher level, otherwise it's gone, distracted away by "Anyone want some water? Drink some water!", "Who's got the map?", and "Dad, Alexander said he’s better at Lego than me!". You have to make sure and save your work, as it were.

I felt real happiness, or the promise of it, or just different, staring up at the top of Temurun. Maybe I'm not a city person after all. What would it be like to live locally and come here every day? Probably the same as living in Connemara and failing to visit all the beautiful places there every day. But I'm here now, and I knew that if I lived on the island I'd come here and swim several times a week. It was lovely to think that. I then stripped to my undies and swam in the largeish pool at the foot of the waterfall, the first time I'd ever done that. The water wasn't was cold as you'd think: how could it be with the temperature in the mid-30's?

A Muslim family came and sat near us, the women all a-covered, of course. Then a young guy and two young women arrived. Here's my chance, he thought, to hog the spotlight, hitherto unhogged. He climbed up the side of the cliff to a height where the question of mortality began to impinge into the proceedings, each rock slick with the mist that descends in the vicinity of the main water cascade itself. Looking at him only because he was in our line of sight, we all must have felt the same: please don’t slip and fall, you're going to ruin my day if you fall. Advancing along a pseudo-ledge, leaning into the rocks, he prompted the paterfamilias of the Muslims to warn him to descend further before jumping, which he was clearly shaping up to do. If you have spent any amount of time with cats, you can tell pretty easily when something is planning to jump. "I think I'd be worse off trying to climb down from here!" he shouted, and I don't think he was wrong. He jumped, and mercifully resurfaced in due course from the deep end of the pool, only about 6 feet there. Blessed tranquility was restored, alpha-maleness had been asserted, we dressed and left, passing an unstressed kera (macacaque) at the entrance, sitting on a fence, who clearly stopped giving a shit last year. In terms of being worthwhile, well, it had only been a 5-minute walk from car park to falls: monkeys and waterfalls are worth a 5-minute stroll di buku saya, in my book.

New batik shirts
New batik shirts!

Back at the ranch I'd some photos to share. In Malaysia I was micro-blogging on Google+ which I find fantastic for photos accompanied by a few sentences. I'll tell you why it's much better than certain other social media networks: anyone can see your stuff, not just the people you have already "friended". So if you look at the post I did with the durian breakfast I wrote about in Langkawi Durian, you'll see that Malaysian Google plussers join in, not just my Australian or Irish friends. I got more and more of this as I went along.

In the evening I left the gang happily watching Mr. Bean while I went to offload some of our excess rambutan and mangosteen on the 成都人, the Sichaun clan, our fellow (and only other) guests here at Fox Hill resort. Sitting out on the deck, most likely planning tomorrow's island-hopping program, they had the distinct look of a bunch of Asian people who were not expecting to be bothered at this time of the evening by an Irishman with elementary Chinese. In fairness, one of the women responded to the situation appropriately by foisting a quantity of utterly alien-looking (to my innocent eyes), shrink-wrapped packets of spices on me. It was a question of redressing the balance of mutual obligations caused by my gift of fruit. It really didn't matter that I know or not how to use them, I just had to accept them and say 谢谢!Seriously though, what was I going to do with them? I didn't dare rock the junk by asking. Yin and yang had been restored to the kampung, sure that's the main thing.

They then melted away into their rumah leaving me alone with Betsy, the sole anglophone of their troupe. I asked how I might share the photos I had taken of her family and us together. "Email?" "Hmmm." "Flickr?" "No, I don't use that." "WeChat?" 厉害! Chinese people love WeChat. I love WeChat. So we became WeChat friends. WeChat is a cross between Twitter and instant messaging, an app I've been using for the last few months. If you want to take your Chinese to a higher level by speaking to real, actual, scary Chinese people you won't be long coming across 微信, WeChat. She indulged me in a little Chinese practice, and I corrected her occasional English mistakes. True, the idea was to learn some Bahasa while I was in Malaysia, but I need all the help I can get with Mandarin so I'll take a class where I can get it. In any case it's my last chance, here at least. We're off to Georgetown in the morning.

Chinese spices
14 packets of shrink-wrapped Chinese spicey things. What the feck do I do with these?

We left it too late to get anything direct to Penang with either Firefly or AirAsia, so our last view of Langkawi would be the Ferry Terminal. I don't know how I missed the Eagle Monument, but I did. It looks pretty big in the photos, right by the terminal, but will have to go on the list of next-time-stuff along with the Cable Car and the summit of Gunung Raya. Walking out of the terminal to the ferry quay I felt like Charles Darwin did when he saw the Beagle for the first time. Is that it? Put me on a boat and I like to get out on the deck to take photos, to scour the horizon nervously for terra firma, and to move away from annoying fellow voyagers like my sons. None of those luxuries were on offer on the Langkawi-Kuala Kedah ferry. It simply wasn't very big, and you had to sit where you were put. I'm afraid I've become a bit spoiled - I'm used to a 90-minute plain sail through the Ionian from Zakynthos to the Peloponnese in a decent-sized car ferry. Still, I had the New Straits Times, the crossing was fine, the kids were fine. Alexander was my Captain Fitzroy, my affable and erudite gentleman companion for the voyage, and mercifully spared me the proselytising that Darwin had to endure.

We disembarked into the once-again humidity at Kuala Kedah, the trawlers 4 or 5 abreast, half-forming a pontoon to the other side. Confusion reigned when we dragged our gear over to the parliament of supir-supir teksi (taxi drivers) outside the terminal. Ah Jaysus, wasn't this already arranged? Hadn't Chef organised our trip to Georgetown like he'd said? We'd agreed a price - RM220. No-one seemed to know what we were talking about. My main worry was that in the chaos the price we'd agreed would be the first casualty, leaving us high and dry, insofar as one can be in this humidity, unless we would go another 100RM. So as soon as one guy emerged from the throng to take control and started piling our suitcases into the boot of his teksi, I was on him like a steel fist of fuck-with-me-not: "220 ringgit, ok?" "Ya ya ya, 220 ringgit." Baiklah. I shouldn't have worried, these guys were straight, but secretly I knew I would have gone to 240, 250 maybe. Our man took us from Kedah province to Penang, in the longest taxi ride I've ever completed: 130kms over 2 hours (a short two hours you might say: he didn't talk about sports or politics), complete with fittingly grand entrance to Penang over the 12km-long bridge, Jambatan Pulau Penang.

And so we arrived in what for me would be the highlight of the whole trip. Georgetown, named after King George III, was an aggregate of English colonial architecture, and Chinese and Indian temples, and fascinating at every step. I say all that despite the humidity pressing you down, and the clutter tripping you up. I say that despite the worst taxi ride we had of the trip where despite our fledgling knowledge of the streets - we knew the streets around our hotel well enough, as you always do - but we couldn't get the stupid taxi driver to listen to us despite him holding a map and admitting he didn't know where he was. And despite an administrative faux pas on our behalf whereby we had to checkout of the marvellous Noordin Mews a day early and stay in the pedestrian Apollo Inn for our last night. Langkawi had been the business, if you can say that about a relaxing resort stay, and I was confident someone in Fox Hill would know what to do with the Chinese condiments of indeterminate nature I'd left in the fridge. As long as they didn't just throw them out: I'd hate that to happen.

(In part 4, having left Langkawi we're now in the UNESCO World Heritage Historic City of Georgetown, Pulau Penang. If anything it's muggier, but I feel like I might score some decent books here in some poky old kedai buku.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Malaysia diary: Langkawi Durian

We have our photos taken with the Sichaun clan, and I get to taste durian for the first time on a fruit farm. I'm a fan. Still no sign of "The Malayan Trilogy", or any decent bookshops yet for that matter. Swam at Pantai Kok among the sand crabs.

Air Terjun Temurun
Air Terjun Temurun, Temurun Waterfall

(In part 1 of the diary, we arrived in Langkawi and began to explore the island. I want to learn some Bahasa Malaysia while I’m here, as well as track down a copy of a certain trilogy. O ya, we’ve got some holiday friends: a family from Chengdu, China.)

Maria, our hostess, has left for Penang. Our friends from Chengdu however took up the slack, and did something quintessential to the travelling experience: they told us about wondrous lands to the North. I loved it: if I was better-read I would cite a well-loved literary classic where in an early chapter our hero learns in a kedai minuman of a mythical land full of riches from an itinerant Chinese sampan maker and resolves to work his way north in a picaresque adventure.

As it was my experience was in a resort pool, but nonetheless, our Sichuan friends were most keen to impress on us how very worthwhile it would be for us to visit this faraway paradise a few hours (in a plane, not a sampan) from Chengdu, to wit the Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) Valley National Park. If ever we felt like visiting it we could visit them too. Be careful what you ask for, I thought: I’m the sort of inconsiderate so-and-so to take them up on it; I’ve profited from flimsy connections before to see lesser sights. I was grateful to them for another reason. So far, this is the only place in China that Tina has shown the slightest interest in seeing, convinced as she is that it’s all Shanghai, Beijing, repression and smog. I checked on Wikipedia: yep, looks stunning. See how beautiful China can be? 中国很漂亮! We’re going there, when the timing is auspicious.

Breakfast photos
Betsy and her Dad with two Minecraft fans.

But we're in Langkawi for the time being. On the main drag of Pantai Cenang (Cenang Beach) I sought and I found a bookshop I'd heard about. Piled high with pre-loved stuff from all the countries represented by tourists to the pulau (Germany, Holland, and Finland were the big winners), it was also a place where your choice of which shelf to browse was mostly determined by its proximity to the fan. It couldn't hold Tina who fled the fainting humidity and went back to the car with the kids. Stubborn insistence that a cheap, perfectly preserved copy of Anthony Burgess's "The Malayan Trilogy" might be lurking behind each pile of Ian Rankin or Jo Nesbø bought me about ten more minutes before I finally looked up in sweat to see a framed picture of Dr. Mahathir, erstwhile Prime Minister, in this very shop on an evening walkabout, who probably would have said to me: "If only you were into formulaic crime thrillers, you could get what you want quickly, but you're not, so go back to your wife and kids in the stifling car and take yourselves to that nice Bon Ton restaurant she's been looking forward to. Look, the sun will set in about 30 minutes: you want to be there for that." I heeded his imagined advice and left empty-handed. It wasn't to be in this particular kedai buku.

As we were finishing up our makanan next morning Betsy approached us all sheepish with a request. Could they take a couple of pictures of our kids? Like any parents whose children receive a blast of attention, we were charmed. Of course they could. I sent the kids back to the hut to get their Minecraft toys, which they were only too happy to do. It was a strange thing the Chinese wanted from our perspective, but a lovely, innocent gesture that maybe only Chinese tourists could safely pull off. In our wisdom back home in Australia, we have managed to turn the perfectly innocent activity of photographing children into a thing of suspicion. I was sure quick to make fun of their photographic habits in part 1 of this diary, but this photo op they called for was an unaffected, generous gesture on their behalf, one that had left them open to the possibility of a sanctimonious refusal. But holidays are all about the possibility of photos, so we sat out in the heat and created some fresh memories.

Preparing the durian
Chef (left) and friend preparing the durian.

I’ve mentioned that on this trip I've got a couple of highfalutin' literary and linguistic goals, but there’s another one worth bringing up. In Malaysia one is in the court of the King of Fruits and we Irish respect royalty, if only when it's a poetic term for durian. I remember my friend Dave pointing out frozen durian fruit to me once in a supermarket in the predominantly Asian area of Sunnybank in Brisbane, intimidating bowling-bowl-sized spiky brown medieval-looking yokes in plastic string bags. He mentioned something about them smelling, too. Well now it was time to find out whether I loved or hated them; those are the only two options available.

Chef took us to a friend’s farm where rambutan, mangosteen, and durian were grown, none of which I knew anything about: what they looked like, what they smelled like, or what they tasted like. His friend was a retired policeman, and sadly his name escapes me now. Anyway, there they were, spiky like a hangover, mine to try. Chef cut one of them open, handed me a pulpy yellow segment and to my surprise, and theirs I think, I thought it was delicious. And that was that. I like durian. As far as I'm concerned it's delicious, Tina thought it was disgusting, arra some people just have no taste whatsoever. We left with a doggy bag of rambutan, mangosteen, and of course durian, the last of which I intended to enjoy for tomorrow's breakfast, smell be damned. And sure enough on the 20 minute drive home, what with this heat, it stunk out the car satisfyingly.

At the fruit plantation
Dokong fruit at the plantation.

We allowed ourselves to float on down the river of fruit. In MARDI Agro Technology Park we got a tame run around the grounds on an electric milk float thing and the chance to have starfruit and jackfruit, known here as nangka. Weirdly, well only because it was the first time I saw something that was to become a commonplace of the rest of our trip, they had durian coffee in the shop on the way out. By Georgetown, 3 days later, it was part of my afternoon schedule: iced durian coffee by the pool, please. In the course of this holiday I had durian in several guises, lovin' it more each time. I've imbibed it in solid (well, pulpy), fried, liquid, and of course in its signature gaseous form. In fact, the kids began to acquire the lamentably unmarketable (at least here in Malaysia) ability to tell when a car with some king of fruit drove by us even in smoggy KL, which says something about its regal ability to get up your nose.

Nasi lemak and durian for breakfast
Nasi lemak and durian for breakfast.

Pantai Kok was almost deserted, a long, narrow, warm-watered strip all to ourselves. Us and the rubbish. That was the crux: paradise has a litter problem. The warmest water outside of a bath I've ever been in had flotsam from nearby yachts and resorts and the occasional what looked like a washed-up coconut, which sounds very tropical - "A coconut on a beach!" - but was just one more thing that you had to investigate to find out what business at all it had being on the pantai. Fleet and tiny sand crabs fled at our footfalls, so well-disguised that initially I mistook them for scraps of pale paper-thin seaweed flitting in the breeze. Slowly, without particularly caring to work it out, an part of my brain that I just can't switch off brought it to the rest of my attention that they only seemed to be blowing away from me. There was agency involved. Sand crabs.

You will rarely see such well-camouflaged little critters anywhere. I sat down among them, David Attenborough among the gorillas, and close as I was I failed to snatch even one half-decent photo with Karl's DSLR. It's not that they all disappeared: they were there, peering out of their little foxholes, if I might mix my animal types thus. With an instinct that makes them ill-adapted for today's world, but which a lot of people I know might profit from copying, these micro-scavengers are determined not to have the minutiae of their lives shared on Google+ and Flickr.

Pantai KokPantai Kok, which surprisingly is not a nudist beach.

Four days into our Malaysian epic, and I've had more exposure to 普通话, courtesy of the Sichauners, than I have had to Bahasa Malaysia. And no sign whatsoever of "The Malayan Trilogy". I turned the last page this morning on part 1, "Time for a Tiger", and I didn't bring the others. Gazing at the bunga raya hibiscus plants surrounding our hut, flowers well-opened now by mid-morning, at verdant paddies in the middle distance leading the eye to the Gunung Raya, the Great Mountain (there's a great view from this toilet, in fairness!), enjoying the glow of satisfaction from a good book well read, I could think of no better segue to the next part of our trip, Penang, than to locate a copy of the trilogy post-haste. Although, as Pete McCarthy wrote in the classic McCarthy's Bar, "A sense of purpose occasionally has its place when travelling, but for the most part it's seriously overrated.", so maybe I should loosen up; tida' apa, read something else. Goals are probably anathema to holidays. But if I died in the morning at least it could be said of me that he had tasted the king and he had enjoyed the king.

(Part 3 of the diary: We catch a ferry from Langkawi to Kuala Kedah, a taxi to Penang...and so began a most fascinating three days in Georgetown, a sweaty mix of English colonial, Chinese and Indian.)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Malaysia diary: Pulau Langkawi

"I don't bath very much here, but I had a bloody good wash on the boat coming over."
"Time for a Tiger" by Anthony Burgess.

A long-anticipated passage to Malaysia is finally underway. High clouds persist almost all the way making the flight quite bumpy, but with not much to see below I can get through a bit more of the Malayan language book I'm learning a few phrases from. The kids are in the seats behind me playing on the rented iPads, Tina's beside them reading, and I've got two friendly pre-teen girls for company who I take to be Malaysian (they wear keradung headscarves, and also to guess by the cut of their parents across the aisle). The clouds ease off for an hour or two and I look down at islands in a sea that could be the Arafura, Banda, Timor, or Java - who knows?

We touch down on Pulau Langkawi - a perfectly-timed sunset after an eight-and-a-half hour flight from the Gold Coast to KL, a four hour coitus interruptus in klia2, a one-hour flight up the west coast. From what I could see of klia2, the new low-cost terminal seems to be AirAsia's secret garden. It's so new, in fact, that it hadn't even been officially opened the day we transited. It was odd to read one morning during our trip, in our holiday paper of choice the New Straits Times, of the 'official' opening of this muggy, hazy hub.

Durian durian durian
Durian, the king of fruit!

One of my goals on this trip is to get a flying start with the Malayan language by absorbing as much as I can in the two weeks I'm here. I consider a similar jaunt to Bali two years ago when not a single word of Bahasa Indonesia passed my lips a missed opportunity, especially considering the huge amount of overlap between the two Bahasas (Malaysia and Indonesia). A language effort expended then would have paid dividends now, but sure... tida’ apa (it doesn’t matter/never mind). Tidak apa (silent 'k') turned out to be an indispensable Malayan phrase that I was able to use over and over on my travels, up there with Chinese's 没关系 (mei guanxi) in terms of versatility, and used as a motif in a book which is another one of my goals this trip, "The Malayan Trilogy" by the great English author Anthony Burgess.

Three books in one, but only published in collective form nowadays it seems, it would serve as a literary totem for this trip, an excuse for me to spend time in bookshops, something we all humans love doing. Arriving in Malaysia, I had just finished reading part one, "Time for a Tiger" (yes, as in the beer), but it was a knackered old library copy and I thought: what better souvenir to buy here than a spanking new copy of the trilogy? The idea was to scout it out in some second-hand kedai buku, maybe in Georgetown or Ipoh: a literary goal such as one might read in Umberto Eco, I grandly fancied. O ya, (by the way) it's called the "Malayan" trilogy because when Burgess lived and worked here in the '50s, there was no "Malaysia"; everything was still Malaya, or the Federated Malay States.

Congkak board
Congkak board, Fox Hill

We were picked up and driven to Fox Hill Resort by a guy called Chef, we stowed our baggage in the reconstructed traditional-style kampung hut which would be home for the next 5 days, and at last, at last, unwound with an evening meal of mee goreng and ayam (chicken), soaking up the humid jungle atmosphere. My linguistic beachhead with Malaysian would be established with food terms, from where I could easily make brief sorties into nature (e.g. pulau, island) terms, and towns/cities (jalan, road). A holiday has many dimensions, many ways it can succeed or fail, and one of those is the struggle with the words you see and read around you. It only stands to reason that if you put in a bit of effort to understand those, your experience will be enriched. The language ghosts of Bali and of last year’s flying visit to Catalonia would be exorcised, starting at the dinner table of the rumah makan, the communal dining quarters.

Maria, the estimable, reluctantly-retired businesswoman who owns Fox Hill, generously sat and chatted with us about our flight, Australia, this and that. I thought it a bit odd that she would fraternise with us like that: normally as guests in these places you get left to your own devices. But she was excellent company, no-nonsense but friendly, her English so good that she could relax with us unlike the diffident Chef, who actually was the chef here (although that seems to be his real name. Was that a coincidence?). It turns out Maria only answers enquiry emails for like ours Fox Hill when she's good and ready to have guests and when she’s good and ready to have guests she evidently wants to know more about them. Highly educated - a retired lawyer - she picked up my copy of Burgess like an old friend. We chatted about the pandas. Oh, you didn't know? China lent Malaysia a pair. According to Maria they were a token of friendship to patch up the damaged sino-malaysian relationship in the wake of MH370. Panda diplomacy, it's called. China strategically deploys its ursine resources to butter up its neighbours from time to time. And naturally we talked about the misteri MH370. She didn’t really have much light to shed that we didn’t already know - there's so little to know - other than to observe that, take it from her, she knew people in high places, the government had tried a lot of things that they couldn't reveal for fear of arousing false hope then failing each time.

The whole place was coming down with hibiscus, as we'd say in Ireland. The bunga raya, the national flower, came in pink, yellow, and red varieties here. And of course, there were frangipani trees throughout too, reminiscent of Bali, although we have them at home in Australia too. Gunung Raya hazy in the distance. In Bali I had at least learned gunung, the word for mountain, and since raya means great, that must be the main, or great mountain on the island, and hence bunga raya is indeed an important flower. A few simple words of Bahasa Malaysia start to lend the surrounds a meaning lost to suckers who don't bother. Frogs clinging to the edge of the swimming pool had to be fished out before young kids would get in: at least they're not cane toads. I found an old (1986) "Speak Malay!" book in the usual book swap shelf, literary detritus mainly in Dutch and German that you get in all hotels and resorts nowadays, which other than the physical guestbook and Trip Advisor reviews is where we are most likely to leave a mark on the ideological landscape. I find them the most potentially interesting places, and usually the most disappointing. And an intriguing artifact that must be a game. Only by asking on Google+ after leaving Fox Hill (I'd forgotten to while I was still here) did I find out it's a congkak (or congklak) board, and yes, it's a Malayan game.

Reticulated python
Reticulated Python at the Wildlife Park

And so we made like pirates and explored Pulau Langkawi. At the Bird Paradise Wildlife Park the flamboyance of the fauna was matched by the relentless whatthefuckery of many of the tourists, who have the temerity to juxtapose themselves in selfie after selfie with animals they’re probably not going to see for a long time outside of wikipedia. It’s a white peacock doing its courtship thing! Show some respect and get your same ol’ face out of the picture! 'Sacred' ibises, which I thought funny: in Brisbane, they scavenge rubbish bins in parks. Mousedeer, like cartoons whose illustrator got lazy after fleshing out the heads and bodies and gave them implausible stick legs. Raucous craggy macaws. Pensive hornbills.

Here’s a little piece of England on a dusty, roadside beach: Scarborough Fish'n'Chips was where I opened my holiday account with the first of many Guinnesses (640ml., Export Strength) of the holiday, while we stared lazily at Thailand. The black stuff flowed nice and free for me on this trip, that and the Tiger. From there we pressed on to a strangely quiet beach called Pantai Tanjung Rhu, exotically hemmed in by jungle walls and offshore islands. Why aren't there more people here? This is the stuff.

In Kuah, the capital of Langkawi, the Wan Thai restaurant seemed to be where all the action was. The kids will have to have Thai, it'll do them good, they're having spaghetti for dinner. As I ordered my pad prik ayam curry, my attention was drawn more and more to the petite, otherworldly person taking our order. I say person, because I couldn't be sure which of the two classical types they were. Women's shoes, guy's voice, perky boobs, in need of a quick shave around the mouth.
"Do you have Tiger beer?", I chanced.
"No beer. This is a muslim restaurant.", in a mildly scolding tone. I just gazed at the eyeliner, and was fiercely gobsmacked at the moral non-sequitur whereby - dude with tits: Allah be praised!, a glass of beer on a hot day: a fatwa on my western ass! On arrival in Fox Hill two days prior, I had immediately noticed that the minibar conspicuously lacked Tiger, which would not do at all. It's not as if it was haram, forbidden, since it was included in the drinks price list on top of the fridge. At that evening's meal Maria admitted to a certain ambivalence towards beer. They will serve it, but want no part of the profit that would normally accrue from it. Wholesale Tiger! She fetched a couple for us though, and sure enough next day order was restored, the fridge was beer-stocked like Oddbin's. But to get back to my pad prik, it was the green chillies that were nearly my undoing. One of the many young waitresses adorned with the ubiquitous kerudung noticed me sweating over this bastard curry, judiciously setting aside the red chillies.
"Pad prik very hot."
"Whew! Yeah!"
"Green chillies are hot. They make it hot."

I better stop knocking them back like they were green beans then. The red ones weren't the problem all along. She saved my dignity, that round-faced angel of my intestinal integrity, who probably earmarked me for salvation as soon as she saw me enter. By the time I finished my curry, my tears had stopped, and the sweating...well, it's 32 outside with 80% humidity and only a ceiling fan for relief, what of it?

After a day or two of having the run of Fox Hill to ourselves a family group of 5 from Chengdu, Sichuan province (四川成都) arrived. Betsy, the daughter of one of the couples, in her twenties, had good English. I amused them a bit by giving the Chinese a lash.
"我是爱尔兰人,但是我们在住澳大利亚。 " (I’m Irish, and we live in Australia).
"Oh, you speak really good Chinese!"
Chinese-speaking people always say that. It's very kind of them. Communication was initially restricted to a lot of indulgent smiling on their behalf at the lovable behaviour of our lads in the pool, dive-bombing and shrieking their way into the Chinese tourists’ holiday nightmares. I like Chinese people - at least I haven’t met any I didn’t like yet. Probably because I’m learning the language, which often surprises and disarms them and gets me a good reaction. And that’s the idea: languages aren’t abstract mathematical exercises, despite the way they teach them in school.

Our Chengdu friends
我们的成都朋友. Our Chengdu friends

But the Rainman-like social autism that afflicts some people when there's a camera in their hand soon melted the ice. At breakfast the following morning I glanced up to catch The Camera Guy in the Chengdu group, a middle-aged, belted-slacks-wearing, ironed-shirt-sporting guy (in the already daunting humidity) aiming the standard-issue Asian tourist DSLR camera right at us. His determination to document the most mundane imaginable moment of his holiday - me, groggily skulling coffee - was in its own way inspirational. This man was Josef Koudelka, except unlike the Czech master he efficiently skipped the part about living with his subjects for weeks to gain their trust and just got straight in there with a zoom lens at breakfast. Perhaps because I'd noticed him, he came and stood over us in what he must have felt was a neutralising, friendly manner, but lacking any English he could only stand at our table mutely smiling, avuncular, sinister. I crammed roti canai into my mouth, avoided at all costs looking up, and waited for the weirdness to blow over.

And thus did we all settle into a Langkawi groove, we four travellers and our Chinese friends. A daily routine of curry or noodles (in general, stuff you’d normally have for lunch or dinner) for breakfast, sightseeing during the day, then back to the pool to shrug off the cruel humidity and breathe in the life-giving wifi, I photo-blogging on Google+, Tina on Facebook. Taking notes for this blog and organising my phone photos one evening after makanan (food), Maria stopped by with a tidbit from the nearby kampung night market. She unwrapped a package of rice, mixed in some dry coconut and sugar and bid me salamat tidur, leaving me to enjoy my traditional Malaysian dessert with the lazy house cats.

I'm used to warm and muggy subtropical Brisbane, but here there was no discernible drop-off in temperature at sunset - it might still be 30° with raging humidity late into the evening. Nothing for it but to sit out on the porch, read some Burgess ("He had had a confused coloured dream about Bombay shot with sharp pangs of unpaid bills. Over it all had brooded thirst, thirst for a warmish bottle of Tiger beer. Or Anchor. Or Carlsberg."), and have a Tiger. Unlike Burgess's Nabby Adams, who preferred them warm, I'll have mine cold.

(In part 2 of the diary, we had our photos taken with the Sichaun clan, and I got to taste durian for the first time on a fruit farm. I'm a fan. Still no sign of "The Malayan Trilogy", or any decent bookshops yet for that matter. We swam at Pantai Kok among the sand crabs.)