My remaining few days in Penang proved to be very relaxing and yet industrious in equal measure. Returning to the Indonesian consulate for example was a sensational breeze, with the bus dropping me right outside and the same customer devoid clerk instantaneously swapping 2 pieces of paper for my processed passport. Another Starbucks was called for across the road in celebration of my easy as chips shiny new 60 day Indonesian visa then, but that was only for starters. Very conveniently I had decided upon a day trip of sorts, and its starting point lay at the Botanic Gardens just a short walk away from there through the blazing heat. Signs along the way reminded me it was illegal to feed the attendant monkies, though some idiots did, before arriving to find the gardens a very nice park area with many well signed tree species, most notably of all the Cannonball Tree. Its fruits which hung in bunches unusually from its trunk really did look just like its name suggests. The park was also populated by 2 very contrasting monkey species, a macaque troop of cheeky golden coloured chancers, and more timid and nimble beasties which bore bare flabby black bellys and white face markings. They really did look comic. The gardens were only a bonus distraction however as right by the entrance gate I found my main goal, the forest road leading very steeply up Penang Hill. Most people took the dinky hill train up there as I had done years before, but spurred on by an old Ozzie guy at the hostel who did it regularly, I opted for the masochistic alternative. I instinctively slipped into postman mode and raced up the nigh on 45 degree incline, leaving others in my wake as I quickly became saturated in sweat. To illustrate, it even managed to pervade throughout my bag and soaked its entire contents, even the pages of my diary became a sorry soggy mess. Suffice to say I was glad the hill wasnt any higher than its 782 metres, but I had my reward first of all in nostalgic recognition of the first spot just short of the summit where I had been before 5 years previously. Barechested, soaking and breathing hard, I must have looked a sight to the army of pristine headscarves, but the settlement at Bukit Bendera (Flag Hill) was very small and quaint if predictably overpriced. Beyond a tin of Tiger Beer there wasnt much to do besides appreciate the views of distant Georgetown and across to the mainland, but I did manage to get a snap of a very large brown mottled butterfly and also came across a captive python, it was the first time I had ever touched a snake in my life. I instinctively retracted my hand when it spookily proved to be much less firm than I had expected, a bit like jelly really. Weird. After the spectacle of the tiny one cabin funicular materialising slowly from a tunnel, I was soon descending through the trees to learn the hard way that you had to make a connection half way down. A bus back into the city dropped me at Little India where I confronted my allergies defiantly with a new preference for curry.
The return to Penang for the third time in a month, though initially perceived as an inconsequential drudge merely serving as a stepping stone to Sumatra, proved to have been a relaxed and fortuitous panacea after the bullshit of Bangkok. Certainly I had been lucky in promptly hooking up with Michelle from Liverpool and Lucy a Kiwi girl, both here on a visa run from their long term crashpoint of Kho Tao in Thailand. They were deliciously down to earth, displaying an uncomplicated franckness and ready to talk about anything without the hangups reminiscent of so many others. The ground rules were deliciously set in impromptu discussions about their long term patronage of a prolifically drug fuelled Trance culture, and a nonchalant admission of how they both liked it up the bum. Another surprise for me upon returning to the 75 Travellers Inn was to meet back up with some old enduring faces, with more than a few guys in their 60s still hanging around, and the odd other free spirit proving positively geriatric. An old English boy all of 81 years old would do his daily rounds on his mountain bike, and a whole new culture was suddenly revealed to me in young at heart old timers who perhaps with only a half pension to squeeze by on had decamped to Malaysia to perfect the art of living on 2 quid a day, rather than alternatively succumbing to a dead end existence stranded alone on an anonymous grey housing estate. My initial prejudice at seeing how proud men had descended into shacking up in a bare bones travellers dormitory was finaly tempered by the realisation that they had clearly looked at the options open to them with atypical imagination, and decided that though a spartan life it was, it was eminently more preferable to the way that my grandfather had contrastingly faded into a solitary world of oblivion devoid of future aspiration. Maybe I would join their ranks one day. One such incumbent whom I did not meet had stayed there for months, and it was a quirky revelation to learn of his freshly decamped pad. A cupboard only just big enough for a single mattress on the floor, I promptly moved into my own sweet little haven of privacy costing only a couple of Ringit more than the dorm. The boy had put his stamp on it by arbitrarily sticking a Harry Potter logo by the doorway, and so a diminutive institution had been created in a tiny crashpad which would forever be my default base should I ever return. The Harry Potter room would pass into history.
The days passed in friendly appreciation of Michelle and Lucy, whom I introduced to another personally discovered pot of gold, an unsalubrious drinking den dubbed reassuringly unpretentiously as the Antharabangsa Enterprise. In reality just a bare bones booze shop which surreptitiously commandeered a nook of the street every night with tables and chairs, the beer was palatably more affordable here and the clientelle a suitably acceptable mix of alcoholic locals and more long-term Anglo-Saxon incalcitrants. One notably so was Rick, a worldly wise super cool South African whom I had the good fortune of sharing philosophies with, immediately endearing himself to me and putting me at ease by quoting his enduring perception of Thailand. Every time he had gone there he had similarly dismayed of it "fucking with his head", quote unquote. My diary read the very same words. From there, the girls and I would variously frequent the Red Garden, an open air Chinese food court offering anything from sushi to curry, and at other times I would take them to my preferred Little India haunt. They introduced me in turn to a pavement stall offering unusual giant doorstep honey toast for breakfast, and the refreshingly untouristy yet excellent Jaya restaurant. We even managed a jaunt to the cinema one night to see Pirates of the Caribbean 3, their choice not mine I must add. Johnny Depp was obviously a much greater consideration than any semblance of reality and the perceptible absence of a plot. Left wondering whether I should try to shag either of them, god knows they werent liable to blushes, I decided not to risk compromising the mix however. Though there were perhaps not completely unloaded threats of dragging me off back to Kho Tao with them, I was supremely happy to have hit upon a renewed sense of relaxation, but Sumatra was a job at hand I was determined to concentrate on nonetheless. I qualified my last day in Malaysia with a long threatened foray out to Penang's hitherto elusive northerly beaches, a purportedly overrated infamy I still wanted to square away out of curiousity. Ostensibly a more mainstream package tourist resort, Batu Ferringhi (Foreigner's Rock) proved to be a passable and yet unremarkable beach escape, reached on an unexpectedly hilly and twisty north coast road bus hop, only eventually after the original bus broke down with what appeared to be a smoky burnt out clutch. The unenthralling periodic tourist strips werent even concerted enough to obviate when it I should alight, and so I went a few Ks too far past more underwhelming sandy strips before hoofing it back to an underfrequented ground zero of all that had been wrong with the 1970s Spanish Costas. If it had been gutteral Scoucer Michelle and not androgenous Lucy who decamped first back to Thailand I might have made a move on her, but the day came when that was all resigned to a happy history and Indonesia beckoned. Deep breath, grit of teeth, stubborn cynicism redeployed.