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Malaysia

Penang to Langkawi

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I had spent the last couple of days unfortunately distracted by the need to acquire a new camera and so it was only on my last day around town after long deliberation that I finally bagged it. I promptly gave it its baptism of fire with a repeat whistle stop tour of the colonial sights. That meant sacrificing a visit to the little known Penang War Museum which lay tantalisingly close to the airport. In the end I ran out of time though and just had to make a beeline for the terminal and my impending flight to Langkawi. It didnt help any to appease my frustrated mood these days and a couple of overzealous taxi sharks, one not even legit, pushed it too far and got both barrels, tuned to F with a middle finger thrown in for free. Firefly was a new budget airline start-up which had only just begun accepting online bookings, and so in the promotional fanfare I had managed to secure a ticket up to Langkawi for a measly 54 Ringit, that being all of 8 quid. Combined with the set fare taxi charge to Cenang Beach it wound up costing exactly the same as the alternative boat trip and certainly afforded better views. Unfortunately, although the weather was surprisingly good and I was blessed with a fine panorama of the whole of Penang, the stubborn stormy nature of the impending monsoon had churned the sea up so that where turquoise blue and coral reef should have been, a swirly carpet of mud soup replaced it. Still a nice trip though and Langkawi Island materialised looking suitably tropical from my near empty Fokker 50. It was another bonus in that though an old design I had never flown one and offering seating for 60, I counted us to be only 11 passengers. Little distraction upon landing then, my bag was already there to meet me and with no public transport on the island, the monopoly taxi service was at least commensurately civilised. Upon pulling up at Gecko's Guesthouse I was a tad disappointed to find it obviously away from the beach and very quiet, but then this then later proved to be symptomatic of the whole resort area. With a reputation for being a true paradise with duty free pricing thrown in to boot, unfortunately it seemed to be compromised by the weather as elsewhere and after a few very cheap beers I then failed to sleep despite my fan blowing on max. Besides the heat and humidity, we got treated to an all night thunderstorm of earth tremouring severity and the rain hammered on the tin roof like firecrackers going off. Then I woke to find that I'd left my pretty irreplaceable lightweight travel towel in Penang, a serious mistake.

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Penang

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PENANG MUSEUM

A particular quirk of Malaysian society is the prevelance of ethnic Chinese people, a culture I had seen here before but had failed to research. The museum revealed to me that they are called Peranakan or Straits born Chinese, who date from their arrival in the 15th century, whereupon men from southern China married local Malay women. This created a hybrid culture which retained a Chinese identity but adopted aspects of Malay language, dress and cuisine, also known as Baba Nyonya (Father Mother) heritage. The Peranakan of Penang converse in a tongue which combines Hokkien Chinese dialect, English and northern or Tanjung Malay. There were then another 2 successive waves of Chinese immigration, first traders in the 18th century, then labourers brought to work the tin mines in the mid 19th century. Thus a division evolved between the original Baba Nyonya and the "New Guests", who dreamed of eventually returning home. Another unusual trend was the arrival of many single Chinese women in the 1930s dubbed the Black and White Amahs, who normally vowed to celibacy and were renowned as loyal house servants. In their old age many of these women retired to the Kongsi or Clan Houses, associations which had evolved to support immigrant Chinese from the same district. Many provided welfare services and were typically laid out like temples since they were also a focus for worship. Many can still be found around Georgetown today. Up until the Brits banned it in the 1940s, the smoking of opium was popular and made good revenues for the government. Opium pipes and an "opium bed" were displayed with excellent wooden carving. There were also colourfull glazed spittoons, pots used for the spitting out of residue after chewing betel nut, very popular with the Nyonyas. Costumes showed that weddings were very elaborate and lasted 12 days!

After a brief foray to the Far East soon after its foundation in 1600, the English East India Company concentrated on the subcontinent until the 18th century when interest in Malaya was rejuvenated. This was inspired by the growing importance of tin and the desire to secure trade routes to China. It relied on the influence of independent English merchants to rekindle such a link, the last of whom was Francis Light. Having traded between India and present day Phuket commencing around 1765, Light became fluent in Thai and Malay and thus gained the respect of local chiefs. Light subsequently used his influence to persuade the Sultan of Kedah to cede Penang to the Brits in lieu of protection and an annual dowry. Light hoisted the Union Jack in Penang on 11th August 1786 for George III (hence Georgetown) and the East India Company, originally naming it Prince of Wales island. The present name Penang is derived from the Malay word for the Areca palm tree.

It was soon to prove a crucial link in the Spice Trade and increased links with China, from whence labour for plantations was derived. Light quickly established a primitive stockade later dubbed Fort Cornwallis and it was soon replaced by the present remaining stone structure designed in a star shape. The subsequent building of the settlement was aided by convict labour from India. As early as 1790 a track was cleared to the summit of Penang Hill for those who sought its cooler climes and a hill station was subsequently established, aided by the completion of the still functioning funicular railway in 1924. It was soon dubbed Flag Hill since the Union Jack was raised here to signal the arrival of the mail. Another notable event in Penang's modern history was the clash between Chinese secret societies, culminating in 10 days of rioting in 1867. There was also a story board to remind me of the Japanese occupation from December 1941 to 1945, Penang fell to them without a shot being fired.

There was little discernible chronology or sequence to follow but it was not bad for a local museum and I complimented it by then taking a promised wander towards the nearby headland where Georgetown had found its birth. There was a fine whitewashed church with a very tall daring steeple, then soon I found the City Hall staring out grandly across the Maidan. From here a short stroll led me to the aforementioned Fort Cornwallis, with its 1793 vintage walls not seeming much of a deterrant now with its original moat long filled in. Numerous large cannon still poked their noses out over the ramparts though. It now also housed a large lighthouse and flagstaff, and just along the road was another colonial remnant, a clocktower with notably Islamic influences built perversely buy a rich Chinese merchant to commemorate Queen Victoria's 1897 jubilee. It had been a particular icon which had stuck in my mind from my previous visit 5 years before and I had almost a sense of satisfaction at seeing it again.

There was a parallel disappointment of sorts just opposite however when upon checking out ferry prices at the agency offices I saw that the one-way fare from Medan, Indonesia back to Penang was a whopping 150 Ringit, the best part of 25 quid. Unfortunately there was a bullshit requirement from the Indonesians that in order to bag a visa you had to show a return ticket out. Planning on exiting overland into East Timor in all likelihood, that meant just booking the cheapest ticket to anywhere with fully the intention of not using it, but the cheapest still wasnt cheap. With more suitably grand edifices lining Beach Street, what had once been the seafront before land reclamation pushed it inland, I ended up at the familiar entrance to Little India and so just steered that course back homewards. It was on the way that I treated myself to an overdue haircut, where in true Indian fashion I got the full works. This was the first guy to use the familiar no.3 electric shaver to start it off with but the Orient shone through in his use of a cutthroat razor, talc, hair oil, then followed by a pleasurable head massage. This turned into a full upper body wrenching, made complete with a bone crunching snap of the neck in either direction. You had to wonder who first diiscovered that one. I walked away relatively unscathed nonetheless and then allowed myself a pleasant change I had spotted across the road and a personal scrummy favourite, samosas. They were cheap too.

Back in Chinatown, the excellent atmospheric neighbourhood of 19th century traders' 2 storey terraced mansions, I called in at a hostel to find that Hebrew Helen had already been there and gone, she had been staying just around the corner from me and I had sussed it too late. Silly cow. I knew where she had gone though, she was off to help on an archaeological dig on the mainland, I had even helped her out by spying the elusive bus she had needed running from Kuala Kangsar. Soulless Suzanne always seemed to land on her feet, but certainly not her back! Just to rub it in, after days of enduring cranky old guys on a visa run from Thailand, madmen and lone aloof wanderers, a few lone chicks showed up to add interest to spite my impending departure. That night, surprisingly even the nightlife of Georgetown proved underwhelming beyong the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants and a few overpriced tourist bars.

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Ipoh to Penang via Kuala Kangsar

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I hadnt even heard Hebrew Helen arrive back home that night, in fact I'd had to call her at 10 worried whether she was OK. True to form she had hit it on with some locals and had been haranged into a karaoke bar. Her shuffling about the next morning woke me as she got ready to go out on another free tour with them. It would have been a waste to spend another night in uninspiring Ipoh and so I elected to go even though she was staying, not for the first time it was the most incongruous of partings. I was left feeling a tad sorry for myself as she waltzed off on another jaunt and I was left to wander round the scant colonial relics of the city before jumping on a bus. It was especially numbing because since not being able to take photos, I really felt like I was just going through the motions and might soon forget I'd ever even been there. The deserted railway station proved to be an excellent spectacle though with its newly renovated whitewashed domes, and besides a few notable mansions, churches and the very large impressive St. Michaels Institution, which resembled a Florentine palace, I struck upon a very atmospheric blue painted restaurant built in 1906 and still named the F.M.S. (Free Malay States). Another unexpected marvel, a nearby pub with Tudor overtones was called the Miners Arms, testimony to the birth of Ipoh and most surrounding towns on the back of tin mining. It still remains Malaysia's fifth largest export. It didnt take me long to find a bus to Kuala Kangsar then, a contrastingly small, very pretty affair, it being a royal town. Home to the Sultans of Perak for 5 centuries, I had decided on a pit stop here in order to check out some more appealling architecture. It was on the way out to the Royal Palace that I came across first of all a personal point of interest, an A-4 Skyhawk looking very smart in an unusual russet, blue and cream cammo paint job. Then there was the very sizeable mud laden river full of many water monitors, so big I had to have a double take, they looked so much like crocodiles. Even the odd architectural relic still had a charm about it and most buildings were suitably pristine in this regal neighbourhood. A case in point was the massive unexpected museum complex I chanced upon. It was not in the guidebook, a glaring omission since it obviously had a long pedigree, I decided I didnt have time for its evidently large collection though. Just past it was my initial goal, the Ubadiah Mosque, which was a fantastic overindulgence of whitewashed towers and golden domes, its central massive losenge shaped dome being unlike any I could recall. It was so ostentatious as to be like a Disney interpretation. Dressed in skimpy knee length shorts and sporting muddy, burst shoes, the sweat piling out of me like a salvo of bullets, even I had to accept that entering it would have been tantamount to desecration. Beyond that, prompted by a few unexpected friendly waves, it seemed they didnt get many foreign faces here after all, the Royal Palace eventually revealed itself. Just about discernible beyond grand entry gates was another enormous whitewashed edifice, seemingly a hybrid of Western squarishness qualified by a series of large golden onion domes. The nearby Royal Museum which resembled a traditional longhouse had been built in 1926 to serve as a temporary mausoleum and was a wooden wonder resplendant in mainly yellow, peppered with ornate carving. During the long hot walk back to the bus station I'd had more time to convince myself that my originally intended onward step to the town of Taiping would not be a good move after all. Such is its history that it is the only Malaysian town to retain a Chinese name. With no way to take photos and no guarantee of a cheap bed there, my chance sighting of a conveniently timed afternoon departure to Butterworth seemed to make more sense. It was a not completely unpredictable browslapping though when I learned that it was booked out, before wonder of wonders I was approached by two young Indian sweethearts who had been waiting around trying to offload an unwanted ticket. That was a result and no mistake and clearly it was meant to be. I resisted the urge in Islamic Malaysia to pick them up and kiss them both, and so beyond expectation soon found myself on the way back to Penang. Well versed due to my recent fleeting visit, I made a beeline for the 75 Travellers Inn, the spot where I had stayed 5 years previously. It fostered a spirit of introspection, of what I had done since then, and I questioned what the hell I was doing now!

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Ipoh and Kellie's Castle

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With yesterdays tour covering just about everything of note save bullshit such as strawberry picking or a butterfly farm, I opted for a quick getaway from the Highlands no matter how conducive the climate may have been to staying. I hoofed it out to the bus station for the 11am departure to Ipoh, finding the ticket counter unmanned. Advised that I had to go to the tourist office back the way I had come, sure enough the bus was there but similarly devoid of life. Enquiry taught me that I then had to go to another office on the "Main Road" to buy the ticket, where I finally bagged it after bumping into Hebrew Helen there again. The bus appeared outside only to take us back to the bus station again, where clearly you could have just got on and paid the driver, what a farce. It was only a couple of hours on a new direct road to Ipoh, Malaysia's third largest city. It was alleged to be a pretty unremarkable place but we both fancied jaunts out to spots of interest in its locality, indeed we spotted a string of Chinese cave temples under looming rockfaces on the way into town. With it being a holiday weekend we thought we might struggle for a bed, but after chancing upon and declining a joint which was clearly a brothel, Hebrew Helen amazed me in agreeing to share a room. Man, it was almost human. She perplexed me again immediately though in electing to go her own way the rest of the day, whilst I headed out to an old colonial mansion known as Kellie's Castle she opted for cave temples and then more cave temples. It proved remarkably easy to track the castle down considering it lies out in the sticks surrounded by palm plantations, but with just a short wait to connect buses I was soon wandering around the empty shell of what some might call a folly. It was in the process of building it that the Tamil wokforce was struck by an epidemic

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Cameron Highlands Tour

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An outrageously early start had me the first soul awake at the hostel.

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