1/11/15 - 29/11/15 31 °C
By luck and good fortune rather than good planning, I managed to end up in Penang on the day before my 64th birthday. Many of you will know that this is where I was born, so being here on my birthday had some sort of symbolic meaning for me. I can't say it was nostalgic as I was only three months old when my parents and I left to return to England.
Approaching Penang by ferry from Buttertworth - my first sight of Georgetown since February 1952
However, it was wonderful to see some of the places they would have known so well in the year or so that they spent here. Though the city of Georgetown has grown markedly, (population now around 750,000) and many high rise buildings have changed the skyline, there are still several areas such as Chinatown and Little India and many colonial buildings that are almost unchanged.
Wandering the streets it was easy to imagine them 64 years ago, my mum in a floral print dress pushing me in my pram and my dad in his starched khaki uniform catching the ferry to Buttertworth on the mainland where he worked at the RAF station there. How I wished I had asked them more about their time here when they were alive, but with the little knowledge I had I was able to track down the hotel, the New Savoy in Hutton Lane, where they spent their honeymoon and where I was quite probably conceived (they didn't waste time - I was born 40 weeks after they married. An even more romantic possibility is that If it wasn't there it may have been on the beach at Batu Ferringhi. In her later years, and probably under the influence, my mum told her granddaughters, Alice and Holly, much to their delight, that she had once had sex on a beach. It transpired that it was at Batu Ferringhee, a mile long beach to the west of Georgetown where my parents would often spend their weekends. Perhaps I was conceived there - I do hope so.
Was it here that it all began?
Or perhaps here?
My parents loved their time here and I very quickly grew to love the city and the island. It is a vibrant mix of races, religions and cultures and to my eyes it seems to be a very tolerant society that works well. The Chinese form the majority followed by sizeable Malay and Indian communities. There is also a smattering of Eurasians and expats. Each adds to the whole, whether it be through the many fascinating temples, mosques and churches, or through the different types of food which make Penang one of the great culinary centres of Asia. In Little India one can feast on masala dosas or a banana leaf meal and mango lassi for less than a pound or in Chinatown visit a hawker food centre for Malaysian, Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. The only drawback is that beer is relatively expensive in Malaysia, which being a Muslim country taxes alcohol heavily. I guess nowhere is perfect. The food centres are worth a mention. My favourite in Georgetown was the Red Garden Food Paradise. In a covered courtyard about 150 tables were surrounded by 30 or so kitchens offering a wide variety of food from many cuisines - you could even get fish and chips, English style. One chose a table and then set off to order from the various kitchens, usually pointing to the photos of their dishes, then quoting one's table number so your order could be delivered. Sitting down again, drinks waiters would take your order for beer or juices. Everything was paid for as soon as it was delivered thus eliminating that interminable wait for the bill and then your change at the end of a meal which can be such a pain. The whole thing is a great concept and i'm sure would go down very well in th UK. Anyone like to invest?
While there are no "must see" attractions on the island there is more than enough to occupy one's time. The city obviously takes a lot of pride in itself and this is shown by its investment in street art - some in the form of murals and some as wrought iron sculptures that tell the history of various streets, such as Love Lane, often humorously. Just wandering the streets, tracking down and photographing the art works, became a favourite way of spending my time.
There was always something of interest to see, whether it was the Chinese clan jetties that cluster along the shoreline and have been here for over 100 years, or the Chinese shophouses and temples, or the noise and chaos of Little India, or the very modern shopping malls at Gurney Plaza (they even have a large branch of Marks & Spencer where I bought two new shirts to replace those that have become very sun-bleached and rather threadbare). I know I'm biased but Penang soon became the high spot of my travels and it was with great sadness that after nearly two weeks I tore myself away. If there is one place in my travels that I could see myself living it has to be here! It has taken me 64 years to re-visit the island where I was born. I do hope my next visit will be very soon. If my heart belongs anywhere, then it must be here.
My next port of call was the Cameron Highlands, an area of tea plantations, strawberry farms and cream teas. At an average height of 1500 metres above sea level it's climate is a great draw for Malaysian tourists and when I arrived on a Saturday afternoon the place was jammed with traffic. The temperature here rarely climbs above 21 °C or drops below 10 °C, though this is cold enough to necessitate wearing shoes for the first time since I was in the highlands of North Vietnam several months ago. There are three or four small towns up here, the largest being Tanah Rata where I stayed. It is little more than a main street with a few side streets branching off it and its whole raison d'etre is tourism. There are a few treks around the town and I attempted one of these. It was only supposed to take about four hours but it went remorselessly uphill over muddy and slippery trails that offered few views and after a couple of sweat drenched hours (despite the lower temperatures the humidity levels are sky-high) I decided the rewards weren't worth the effort and somewhat ashamedly I turned around and headed downhill for a cream tea. These are just one of the hangovers of the days when Malaya formed part of the British Empire and Brits established tea and rubber plantations in the area. The strawberry jam made with locally grown fruit which is a bit on the sour side was excellent, the scones were passable, but the cream very disappointing. One cafe even used canned cream (desecration!).
From there it was back to the sultry heat of the lowlands and Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpar, or KL as it is popularly known. This is a huge city that is reaching for the sky. Wherever one looks cranes pierce the skyline as KL grows ever upwards. There are still areas where the old city can be seen but their days are numbered as the city's development rolls inevitably on and more and more skyscrapers soar into the clouds. In many ways it is an an impressive city and it's icon the Petronas Towers, two rockets waiting to blast off, is truly magnificent, but it seems to have forgotten about people in its relentless rush to modernise. The city is crisscrossed by six and eight lane motorways and train lines which make walking anywhere a navigational nightmare. There is a fairly good metro system which covers large parts of the city but its various lines are not always integrated which often means having to buy more than one ticket. Add in the poor signage which can have one wandering bewilderingly in circles and the experience of travelling around KL can become very wearisome. KL is also famous for its shopping malls and wandering around these modern temples to consumerism is a great way of escaping the heat and humidity. All the world's best known designer labels are represented and it is possible to imagine onself as being in any of the world's great cities. The Suria complex beneath the Petronas Towers even boasts a huge multi-screen cinema. I saw the new Bond film Spectre (how do they get away with producing such mindless, plotless and intellectually unstimulating tripe?) and The Martian which I hugely enjoyed. Such distractions make a very welcome change from the usual tourist sightseeing trail.
I left KL with mixed feelings. On the one hand full of admiration for the progress made and on the other depressed by the dysfunctional urban jungle that some of the city remains. Give it another 20 or 30 years though and it could be one of the world's great cities. But this will probably only happen if they change their focus and start to put people before cars.
I almost forgot to mention the city's bird garden which they bill (intentional) as the world's largest walk through aviary. I spent a day here and was utterly captivated. The birds are so used to human presence that many of them approach to within touching distance. A very enjoyable day out.
Malacca (Melaka), on the coast four hours by road from KL and about the same from Singapore, has a fascinating history. Controlled at various times by Malays, Portuguese, Dutch, British and Malays again it has a rich tapestry of cultures upon which it has drawn. The dominant influence though is Nyonya, a fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures which has made the greatest mark on the old city and resulted in some great fusion food on which I gladly indulged. The old town is a grid work of Chinese shophouses, some of which have been given over to tourism, but many of which still fulfil the same function they have for many years.
Like Penang, there is a mix of cultures, religions and races, but to me at least, it lacked the vibrancy of Penang and felt like a bit of a backwater, one nevertheless very popular with tourists from KL and Singapore. Due to visa constraints I spent more time here than it merited. However, I did make one great discovery. On Friday and Saturday nights the main street is closed to traffic and stalls selling almost everything imaginable set up to offer their wares. Many of them sell food and one in particular sold chips fried in batter. This is probably the greatest culinary invention in history! Why has no one thought of this before? it is simply delicious!!! Now that the secret is out I'm hoping no one will set up shop before I get back to the UK and take it by storm with the greatest gastronomic treat since deep fried Mars bars. I'm thinking about taking out a patent.
Malacca is also known for its cycle rickshaws which are decorated in a style that is so kitsch it almost defies belief. They look incredible during the daytime but at night they are lit up and blast out 80s disco music from their on board sound systems. A convoy of these, each playing it's own song as they trundle down the lanes is a sight to behold.
And so that was Malaysia! Penang I loved, but the rest I found mildly disappointing. But perhaps that was my fault. After nearly a year on the road, with the exception of the month spent back in the UK in March/April, I can't deny that I'm getting a little jaded and travel weary. Homesickness is setting in and I'm beginning to miss family and friends more keenly. Motivating myself to go and see yet another temple is getting harder, but then I think of the things yet to come - volcanoes in Java, Komodo dragons, beaches in Bali and orang utans in Sarawak and I feel reinvigorated. Nevertheless, I am so looking forward to seeing James, Mami, Jack and Barbara in Tokyo in April.