Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Georgetown has managed to give me the most exercise I have had in weeks, mainly as it's a fantastic place to walk around and gawp. It's an old British colonial trading post founded by some nutter called Francis Light seemingly on the basis that he could and he had cannons. The town centre is mainly composed of two story building with porch and pillars that could have been merchandise counters . A Dutch couple told me it reminded them of Havana though I doubt Havana has it's own Chinatown or Little India.

After indulging myself with the rare delights of hot water (amazingly it's actually drinkable) I went for a walk and haven't really stopped since except for a few beer induced chill-outs. The fact that I am constantly strolling around is probably a good thing as the chow here is great. Malay food is similar to Indonesian food except that here there is loads of seafood to munch, The Chinese and Indians also have their stalls set up at night and I have taken to hovering near other the local patrons like some deranged nutritionist until I find something that looks tasty and track down the right stall. Podging up seems highly likely here despite the constant meandering so I will soon sod off for some trek time in the Cameron Highlands.

Penang is a somewhat brutal contrast to Sumatra. The infrastructure is no worse than any European city and it's a hive of wealth and activity. What dossing I saw is the type associated with leisure and not unemployment. Like a lot of Malaysian cities it's highly diverse and seems to have found the knack of ensuring the various groups get along. The areas called Chinatown and Little India are distinct without being segregated and they intermingle quite well when boozing (I'll admit the Malay Muslims are a little less keen on this). The place is chock a bloc full of Chinese Temples, Hindu Temples and mosques as well as the odd church and they all conspire to get your attention. I still get the Muezzin wake up call but now I can add the odd blast of music from the Hindu temples. The Chinese prefer to go olfactory by torching a few tons of incense in their places of worship.

One odd thing is the number of transvestites that lurk in the corners of the drinking area. I am starting to wonder if this is a way to get around strong taboos on homosexuality in SEA countries. Either that or they are a particularly kinky lot. There are a lot of weird Malays about in bars but they are somewhat familiar as they don't differ much from their bar-pillar counterparts in the West though they are a bit more friendly.

I have also hit the backpacker trail in its youthful and overdeveloped sense. Basically, you lodge and sort out the essentials (travel, laundry, afternoon drinking) in small ghettoes within the large towns and selected beauty spots that span SEA. From now until the Chinese border I can choose to speak only English and mingle mainly with westerners if I so wish. It's basically Fresher's Week spread over half a dozen countries. At this point any pompous declamation that "I am not a tourist" will be an obvious lie. Backpackers in this neck of the woods are essentially the same as the socks,sandals and sunburn crowd except they spread their budget over a longer period of time and tend to be younger.

They are also invariably clutching the Unholy Bible that is Lonely Planet that strangely enough I have pretty much consigned to the bottom of the rucksack. It' s easy and preferable from now on to rely on recommendations as you can invariably find someone that came from where you are going next. As it is I will treat Malaysia and Thailand as a sort of holiday within a holiday. It basically comes down to the amount of effort you have to put in just to get around and in these countries it is virtually none. It's time to relax and get used to hearing "Redemption Song" ad nauseum. I might even buy a T-shirt with some humorous slogan and a place name. I will not however, wear those stupid shorts that try to be trousers nor will I get anything braided. This I swear.

Next stop, Tanah Rata

All the best,



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