Malaysia, Part 3. Islands in the sun.

George Town, Penang. Sunday 11th February 2018
Ipoh behind me and George Town in front. I like to be leaving one place and heading to another.
I avoided the motorway and kept to the main road. It’s busier and slower, but that’s the point. What new things do you see on a motorway? I’d already ridden down this one anyway, so I knew what it looked like. The bike was playing me up again, cutting out after about 100kms, and nothing I did made it any better. One bright moment was when I rode across the 5km long causeway, linking Pulau Pinang to the mainland. It’s a fantastic piece of engineering and has a suspension bridge in the middle to allow shipping to pass under. Bikes, for once, have to pay the toll. A whole RM1.70 (about £0.30), but it’s free to come back over. They have a cashless system but there’s a manned booth where cash only travellers like me can pay the operator, then he lets you through using his card. He was quite concerned that he couldn’t give me the 30 cents change when I gave him two Ringgit. Bless him.

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A magnificent piece of engineering.

Back to the same hostel, Hudson Lodge, where I paid for seven nights at a discounted rate. I wanted to be here for Chinese New Year, on the 16th February, although I didn’t know what would be going on. Possibly very little, because CNY is very much a family holiday. But with its large Chinese population, and culture hungry tourists, George Town was as likely a place as any to see some celebrations. But first I had a date with my German friends, Lydia and Anja. We met in Lebuh Chulia, where the Chinese food stalls are, and enjoyed some good and cheap food. We spotted in the crowd a Chilean guy who’d been at Le Bug and Boat too. I was going to call him over but the girls said not to as they didn’t like him. Why not? They said he talked bullshit at them while staring at their boobs. Ah, well, not something most guys get to suffer from, but they had my sympathy. We moved on to the cheap Indian beer shop and spent a great evening chatting about travelling and life in general. I walked back to their hostel with them and we said our goodbyes, likely to never meet again.

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Anja and Lydia.

Next morning I walked across town to a post office where a package would be waiting for me. My mobile phone had gone back to the UK with Jan for a warranty repair and she’d sent in back to me, Post Restante. The problem was, it wasn’t there. “It’s at the main post office in Beach Road” I was told. A four kilometres back the way I’d come, and then some, and there it was. That evening was spent getting it set back up to how I like it. It take hours!
While I was over near the beach, I decided to look at one of the Clan Jetties, in this case Chew Jetty. As the name implies each of the seven jetties is dominated by one clan, and this has been the case since the late 19th century. It came about organically, after the jetties were built, and there was fierce rivalry between them, with plenty of violence involved. The original houses – shacks really – were built on the jetties, but had no running water or electricity until the 1950s. Today they are tourist attractions. They are of various lengths, with a varied quality of buildings on them. There is usually a small temple at the seaward end. Their purpose was to serve the sampans that brought goods in from the ships moored further out. During my time in George Town I explored two or three of them. The houses on there now tend to be very decorative and there are shops and food outlets along them. Chew Jetty is the most touristy of them and it was interesting to note that most of the tourists were Chinese.

Clan jetty views.

Chatting to a French guy in the hostel, I discovered that the Kek Lok Si temple, the big Buddhist one up on the hill, was being illuminated at night as part of the CNY celebrations. There was also an American woman staying at the hostel so Robin, Emily and I walked the eight kilometres across town to see it. That sounds a long way but as we were busy chatting it soon passed. Emily has been teaching English in China and speaks good Mandarin. She also speaks very good French so we were discussing the problems the French language would have with the trend towards gender neutrality, given the nature of French grammar. I can safely say that was a conversation I never imagined I would ever have! The temple looked fabulous with all the lights strung around the buildings, giving the ornate shapes a much more mystical air than daylight affords them. We’d arrived there at about 8.30, which was lucky as the lights went out at 9pm. Robin had been told they stayed on until midnight. We decided to get a taxi back to base. My feet and I were pleased.

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Kek Lok Si temple, lit up for the night.

One of the main delights of travelling, as I’m sure everyone knows, is the people you meet. Hostels are great places for this, as I’ve often described. I met an English couple named Bob and Audrey. They’ve just retired and are on the their first long trip. Bob is a referee and handles semi-proffesional games in NW England. They include a team I have connections with, FCUM. We had a good chat about them. Another one was Rod, an Aussie who plans to buy a property on Langkawi Island, a place I plan to visit, where he’ll simply be a host to his family and friends. Malaysia encourages retirees to settle there. They have special schemes to assist them. Rod’s plans set me thinking about what I might do when I finally finish travelling. It’s a complete unknown at the moment and may well depend on what kind of a country the UK had become by the time I return. Plenty of food for thought.

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People like to pose. Living art, in a way.

Chinese New Year. I was hoping there would be plenty of celebrating. A group of us walked down to the esplanade, near Fort Cornwallis, thinking there might me fireworks or something. We came away disappointed. We could see some displays across the bay, possibly put on by hotels, but that was all. There were people around but I got the impression that was just normal. We compensated for our disappointment by buying food from the stalls there, before walking back to Lebuh Chulia, in the old town centre, where there were hundreds of people eating and drinking. Outside the Chinese temple there were huge joss sticks burning and at midnight they had released hundreds of caged birds. It seems we chose the wrong place to be. Welcome to the Year of the Dog. (In case you wondered, I’m a Rabbit.)
A Malay who was staying at the hostel was telling us that there would be government sponsored ‘open house’ events at various places across the weekend. These seemed to involve free food. So a group of us caught a bus over to the Spicer Stadium where we were just in time to get some free rations, served up by Indians, oddly. What else had happened there I don’t know. Next morning a few of us walked down to the Chinese temple next to the Chinese Town Hall, for another open house. This time we were early and it was clear something was going to happen. The road was closed and there was an air of expectation among the people waiting. Entertainment was provided by some young guys who had poles of about 6/7 metres in length, with huge flags at the end. Basically they were playing ‘keepy uppy’ with them as they balanced them on a foot, a forehead or just a finger, and passed them back and forth between them. They were obviously very light in weight but their skill at this game was amazing to watch.

Flying the flag, in a literal sense.

After a while some drummers and cymbalists got a raucous rhythm on the go and a couple of guys in dragon costumes started dancing around, providing further entertainment. My friends began to drift away but I stuck it out. After all, free food was on offer! Eventually some local VIPs arrived, joined by the Governor of Penang. They posed for photos, glad handed some of the crowd, then went inside the town hall. Apparently it’s an election year so it’s not very politic to miss an opportunity to be seen. It wasn’t long before the gates were opened to allow us into the food hall. I was near the front of the queue and got chatting to the Chinese family in front of me, then joined them at their table to eat and chat more. Rice, noodles and chicken made a great breakfast.

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A dragon themed welcoming committee.

A walk around town took me down towards the esplanade again where I popped into St George’s church for a look around. The volunteer who greets visitors turned out to be a really interesting man. He’s Aussie and completed his journalism training in Germany, so speaks the language fluently, as demonstrated when he greeted several German visitors in their native tongue. He eventually worked for Western Australia’s first Aboriginal MP, which was a fascinating and challenging job. He and his wife settled in George Town and we had a great conversation about local history. His wife runs a café in the church grounds and makes delicious cheesecake. Ask me how I know that. She was telling me about the recent visit of Prince Charles and Camilla, and how they had all sorts of problems trying to keep their security team happy. She said that in the end she had to put her foot down and tell them to stop asking for things that simply couldn’t be done. She also said that Camilla looked very fed up during the visit. Given the heat and humidity out there, I’m not really all that surprised.

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A nice building, with a bright and simple interior.

The Blue Mansion is a very large house, the former home of an extremely successful Chinese businessman named Cheong Fatt Tze. A real rags to riches story, he came over from China at 16 years old and became one of the richest men, and colourful personalities, of the times. The British and Dutch authorities had their flags flown at half mast when he died. The house had fallen into disrepair by the time refurbishment began in 1990. It had been used as a very cheap apartment block since the war. Its thirty eight rooms, five courtyards, seven staircases and two hundred and twenty eight windows were restored to their former glory, using traditional materials and methods. The interior was similar to the Nyonya museum I’d seen in Melaka, with some very beautiful decorations. It was much larger though. The English speaking guide turned out to be the same one I’d had for the walking tour around George Town when I first arrived.

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Cheong Fatt Tze’s Blue Mansion.

After the tour I was sitting out the front of the building when one of the women who’d also been on the tour came over and asked me if I’d be prepared to spend the rest of the evening with her. What?? It’s not very often I get asked that kind of question! We’d actually spoken briefly inside the building. She’d just arrived in George Town and our brief conversation inside had convinced her I was nice and had a good sense of humour. She just wanted some company. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought of her request in any other way, and we had a laugh about it. Julia and I went down the road a bit to get some food, She’s from Germany but was born in Russia. Her parents took the family on holiday in 1991 and simply didn’t return. Russia was a difficult place for Jewish people at that time, despite the changes that were under way. She’s good looking, intelligent and funny. She works as a hotel manager in Frankfurt but was taking a break to travel.

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Julia and Amanda.

We had a great evening. I acted as guide and showed her some of the murals. We bumped into a woman named Amanda, who asked us to take a photo of her at one of the murals. Later on, after we’d looked around Little India, we decided some Tandoori chicken and naan bread was needed and we bumped into Amanda again. She’s been teaching English in South Korea, which she didn’t enjoy very much. She said the kids are a bit ‘bratty’. I wasn’t very surprised to hear that, given how much pressure they’re under to do well. After we’d eaten Amanda went off to her hostel, tired after her journey. She should have stayed with us. She really missed out on a fantastic show.

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Real pole dancing. Skilful in the extreme.

Earlier, Julia and I had gone to the Hok Tek Cheng Sin temple, the biggest in George Town, with a large lawn in front of it. We were turned away as they were making preparations for a show. When we got back there we were eventually able to go inside and watch the entertainment. What we saw was a terrific display of Dragon Dancing. Placed on the grass were eight posts, a couple of metres high and each with a very small platform on the top, just about big enough for a foot. A noisy group of drummers and cymbalists got the mood going and provided the rhythm for the dragon to dance to. Inside the very decorative costume are two young men whose agility and coordination is absolutely astonishing. They leap up onto the posts and twist and turn their way along them, dancing and weaving as they go. There’s clearly a ritualistic basis to the dragon’s movements. Not knowing what they meant didn’t detract in the slightest from the pleasure of watching. The finale came when the lights were dimmed and an illuminated bird and a snake came out and danced and weaved around as the cymbals and drums beat louder. It was both mesmerising and spectacular. A great finale to the CNY celebrations.

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Flying bird finale.

We walked around a bit more, chatting away. We went down to the clan jetties but they were closed for the night. Even so, many parts of the old town were brightly lit and filled with people, even though it was getting late. I walked Julia back to her hostel, then went off to mine. It had been a delightful evening and had Julia not approached me at the Blue Mansion I may well not have seen any of the fantastic entertainment. We might meet again further up the line, but nothing is certain in the travellers’ world.
This is a good point at which to tell you some history about the Straits Settlements, given that Penang was one of the areas involved. The three settlements were Penang, Melaka and Singapore, and were controlled by the British East India Company from the time they were set up, in 1826 through to 1867, when they became a Crown Colony. They were used mostly as penal colonies for prisoners from India until 1867, although their harbours also served as staging posts for trade in the area. It may seem strange to have a colony spread across separate areas, but they were within the boundary of British Malaya, itself composed of the British Protectorates of the Malay States. Britain valued mainland Malaya very highly because of the natural resources, mainly tin and rubber. The various states were mostly left to rule themselves, having had well formed administrations and legal system since the arrival of Islam. After the Japanese were defeated the whole country returned to British control. In 1946 the Malayan Union was formed, which became the Federation of Malaya in 1948, a precursor to independence in 1957. The Straits Settlements were incorporated into it. I was tempted to say more about Malaysia’s history and how it gained independence, but it’s quite complex and would take a lot of space.  Here’s a link instead.

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At the Indian temple. I wish I knew the story behind this sculpture.

What was certain was that after three visits, I felt I’d done George Town due justice and needed to move on. I’d spoken to several people who’d visited the island of Langkawi, off Malaysia’s north west coast, so I thought a few days of sun, sea and sand would be nice. There’s a passenger ferry that runs from George Town but I wanted to take my bike there so I rode further north, to Kuala Perlis, and booked onto the vehicle ferry. A couple of hours later. After wandering among some of the smaller islands, it arrived at Langkawi and I made my way to Pantai Cenang (Chenang Beach) and the hostel I’d booked. There was a female only hostel next door and an area outside where there were several cafés with good prices. This was a very nice outdoor lounging/eating/meeting area, ideal for the sunny island life. Langkawi is a duty free area, with a small beer costing only a quarter of what it would on the mainland. I think I was set for a few days of la dolce vita. Cenang Pantai is very much a tourist resort and was full of restaurants, hotels and duty free shops. Many places were next to the beach, most others were on the opposite side of the road so only a short stroll away. In the evening the streets were busy with visitors looking for food or entertainment.

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I’m not usually a one for food photos, but Ikan Bakar is just so nice.

In many ways, it was the good life as I spent much of my ten days there in the company of women. And before your imagination starts working overtime, everything was purely platonic. Around the corner from the hostel was a nice café which provided a good variety of breakfasts. On the first morning there I got chatting to Margaret, a very nice woman from Romford, Essex. We hit it off straight away, with her telling me all about her life, marriages, kids etc. I don’t tend to be quite as forthcoming about my personal life as she was, but that didn’t seem to trouble her as she chatted away. We arranged to meet that evening to go out to eat. Later on I got a message from Julia saying she was on the ferry from Georgetown. Oh dear. Double dating? Well no. Julia was meeting a friend here and would be busy. I’d probably see her later.

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Margaret gets to grips with a Tiger.

Margaret and I had a nice meal out and decided to join forces for a couple of days sightseeing. She’s good company so it seemed a much better prospect than doing things alone. There were plenty of boat trips on offer and we chose a half day trip which would take us to see a bat cave, a fish farm, eagles and monkeys. Once on the boat the very outgoing Margaret had soon made friends with many of the other passengers so we had a great day out. At the fish farm they had a Manta Ray in one of the tanks, which was happy to take food from my fingers, also seeming to believe it was entitled to the fingers as well! The bat cave was a cave, with some bats in it – no surprise there really and something I’d seen before. We stopped for a while near one of the smaller islands, home to two varieties of sea eagle. It was wonderful to watch them flying around and then swooping down to the sea for fish. They really do have amazing eyesight to be able to spot their next meal from 30 or 40 metres up in the air. Grace and efficiency in action. Our last visit, once we’d had lunch back at the fish farm, was to another island where a troop of monkeys live. Monkeys – so what? Well these are the only known variety that swim as a matter of course. They use a very neat doggie paddle and swim out to the boat to get their reward of fruit. Cute as anything, of course.

Animal crackers.

Having had a good day out we decided to do it again. There were other places round the island worth visiting so we decided to hire a car for the day. Margaret had visited Langkawi in the past but there was still a few places she hadn’t been able to get to. Our little Proton had an automatic gearbox and air conditioning, and did the job of getting us around. First place visited was the town of Kuah, the biggest on the island, and is where the passenger ferries arrive. On the foreshore is a huge sculpture of an eagle. Our guide on the boat had mentioned it and told us that Langkawi was formed from two words; Helang, which means Eagle; Kawi, which means reddish-brown, particularly of rock. The sculpture looked magnificent, mounted on a rocky outcrop and poised as if about to fly, with its huge, outspread wings. I photographed it from every possible angle, amazed by how realistic it looks. The colours matched those of the eagles we’d seen the day before. It is deliberately placed where ferry passengers will see it as they approach the port.

Langkawi Eagle.

From sea to summit. We drove up to the top of Gunung Raya, the highest hill on the island, at 881 metres above sea level. This was a bit of a disappointment because the visitor centre and viewing tower at the top had been closed for refurbishment only a week or so earlier. We had to settle for stopping at the roadside viewpoints to see the landscape. At one of them was a set of steps leading downhill. The nearby sign said there were 4,287 of them, presumably leading down to the bottom of the hill. I’d hate to have to walk up, that’s for sure.
Margaret fancied a bit of beach time so we headed that way but en route saw signs for the Craft Complex, so pulled in. With this type of place I always expect to see not much more than a collection of stalls or shops selling tourist tat, albeit maybe a little more upmarket than what’s on the street. I was very wrong. This really was a craft centre, with people making all sorts of interesting things. We were quite taken with the silk screen artwork. Some very nice picture painted directly onto silk, in bright colours, of local themes. Margaret found some very colourful beachwear type dresses she liked.
Meanwhile, I saw two young women playing what turned out to be a traditional game called Congkat. It’s an ancient game played on a Mancala board using stones, beans, seeds or, as in this case, marbles.Two players take turns to move marbles from each of the seven pits towards the larger pit at the end of the board. They use all the pits, including their opponents. The strategy is to try to load up your opponent’s pits while clearing yours. The winner is the one who achieves it first. I just had to sit down and have a go. With a bit of direction from one of the women, I came close to beating the other one, but lost in the end. The game can just as easily be played using holes made in the ground but it being a craft centre, their aim is to sell the boards they make there. We ate some lunch at their café then continued to the beach for a lie down in the sun. After that it was back to Kuah for some food and then we went to the eagle again as I wanted to take some sunset photos of it. Unfortunately, low cloud prevented that so I settled for some night time photos instead, with the sculpture beautifully illuminated by coloured lights.

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Playing Congkat and losing my marbles.

We’d had a great day out and I learned a lot more about the trials and tribulations of Margaret’s life and began to understand why she’d turned to religion. We had a discussion about the meaning of life and so on, but of course we disagreed about the existence of an afterlife, a god or any kind of ‘guiding spirit’. Her experiences had convinced her of the the existence of these things but I carefully avoided arguing about it. People go with whatever gives them comfort, especially if they’ve been through tough times. It’s not for anyone else to dictate what an individual should do. Margaret left the next day. She has friends in KL and from there she went on to Australia and Bali. She’s enjoying he retirement in the same way that I am, by seeing the world. She’s an outgoing and lively character and I’d really enjoyed spending time with her.

Skywalk and cable car station. Creatures of the mountain.

But what of Julia, I hear you ask? She was only on Langkawi for a couple of days so the day after she arrived we went for a trip out. We both fancied seeing the Langkawi Skycab, which is a cable car that goes up the side of Gunung Macincang. It’s reckoned to be one of the steepest in the world, ascending at an angle of 42 degrees (the same as a standard staircase). The gondolas run at about seventy metres above the forest below and there is a midway station where the cars turn through a 45 degree angle. It was strangely still and peaceful up there, gently swaying as the car completed it’s near two kilometre journey up the hillside. Julia reckoned it’s nothing like as peaceful as when you’re scuba diving, one of her hobbies and drivers of where she travels to. From the midway station there was access to the Skywalk Bridge, which spanned the gap between two sections of the hillside. Up at the top station are a couple of viewing platforms. The views from these are excellent, with beaches and islands laid out below in the shimmering sea. It was an overcast day, so there was no blue water to admire, but the green of the forest and the islands looked pretty good from up there, as did the craggy hillside. Whether or not it was deliberate, I couldn’t help but think the Skywalk looked like some kind of mythical creature from above and also that the roof of the cable car station was reminiscent of a bird – an eagle? – about to fly away.

A novel way of creating delicious ice cream.

Back down at the bottom I saw a stall where a guy was making ice cream in the style of a pancake. He’d chop fruit up into tiny pieces, mix it with cream then lay it out on a frozen surface so it froze solid. He’d then scoop it up in strips and serve it in a tub. It was a method I’d never seen before and, needless to say, tasted delicious. Julia went out on her own boat trip the next day and then she left for Thailand. It had been great seeing her again.
Langkawi’s duty free shops seem to major on selling domestic products, especially kitchenware. Those made by Tefal seemed to be very popular and I learned later that their kind of product carried quite a high import duty, hence their popularity with Malay visitors. Alcohol was much cheaper of course, but when I looked at the price of red wine, none of it cost any less than some I’d seen in a wine merchants in Ipoh, showing that ‘duty free’ doesn’t always mean cheaper. The real upside of the cheap beer was that going over to one of the west facing beach side bars for a sundowner or two only cost toes and fingers rather than the arms and legs it would have been on the mainland. It’s a great way to round off a day, especially if there’s company to be enjoyed.

A great excuse to sit by the beach and drink beer.

I’d already spent one afternoon on the beach and on my last day on the island I decided to get some more sun. I’d got chatting to a couple of women who were staying in the female only hostel, and also Mohammed, who hails from the Middle East. He spoke very good English and was slowly wandering around SE Asia. Asa is a Swedish woman enjoying a break and Natasha is from Moscow, also on a sunshine seeking holiday. The four of us swam and loafed about until the mid afternoon heat drove us off the beach and back to the shade outside the hostel. Later on we all went down to one of the beach bars before enjoying a meal together at one of the cafés. A nice, relaxing and companionable last day on Langkawi, a place I’m very glad I visited.

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Natasha and Asa, plus piggy-in-the-middle

My Malay visa was due to expire in ten days and I needed to leave the country in order to renew it. Malaysia is happy to issue a ninety day visa at the border and I’d been moving slowly enough to have almost used it all up. I’d initially decided to go south, down to Singapore, so that I could see the city and renew the visa. At the last moment I decided to go north, into Thailand, especially as it was only 100kms away. I planned to be there a couple of days and then came back with a fresh visa. What a mistake that turned out to be. I’ll tell you why soon.