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.)