Georgetown, Penang

Thu, 08 May 2008 08:00:50 +0000

Mad Dogs and Englishmen Index Straits of Malacca

And what the hell kind of uninspired name for a place is "Georgetown" anyway? A quick glance at Wikitravel tells me there are like a dozen around the world, and no wonder. On the other hand, I guess it works out to only slightly more than one town per George.

Anyway, a complicated day of ups and downs today.

The train pulled in, late again, at about quarter to six. I enjoyed watching our progress on GPS. This meant I was never in any doubt about which was the correct station to get off at, which is specifically one of the reasons I was so keen to bring the device with me in the first place. I hate that "is this the right station?" panic attack, and there was a station just before Butterworth that I could easily have jumped off at if I hadn't known exactly where we were.

Penang being an island, you then have to catch a short ferry over. It's probably nicer when the sun's up, but still a mild piece of excitement to liven things up. The first boat journey of the trip.

I then tramped my way through Georgetown in search of this hotel that's supposed to be reasonably good. Again, thank you GPS. I like walking through cities as they're waking up. This one seemed sleepier than usual, given that it was going on seven. This would develop into a theme as the day progressed.

The hotel did have a room free for me, and that meant a shower. A long, glorious, hot shower. It had been a very uncomfortable night, and I was itching like crazy. After toweling myself off and examing my skin, I discovered that this is because I've been bitten in a dozen places by some kind of insect, presumably mosquitoes, mainly on my hands and feet. I spent the rest of the day itching, although I contrived to ignore it most of the time. I'm now using the insect repellant I bought in Kuala Lumpur, and revolting stuff it is too. Basically another layer of white cream on top of the already greasy suncream. Ah well, it's not like I didn't know what I was getting into. I also now have to watch for the symptoms of malaria, although I'd guess that the risk is still extremely low, what with the drugs and this being a tourist zone and all.

I wandered the streets looking for breakfast, and it was surprisingly difficult. All the restaurants were shut, as were most of the shops. It seems that commerce in Georgetown doesn't really get going until about midday. But I did find a place that would sell me some of Penang's famous (allegedly, according to Wikitravel) Hokkien Mee. And jolly nice it was too. I followed it up with some of those chinese fried sesame balls with red bean paste inside. Man, I love red bean paste things.

The morning's chore was booking my ferry ticket to Medan. The hotel will actually do it for me, but they wanted 140 ringgit. Online it said that it was only 110, so I suspected I was being ripped off. I resolved to walk back down to the ferry terminal and buy it there instead. But when I got there, the office was shut. Commerce doesn't get going until midday, you see.

So I wandered around randomly for a bit looking for something to do. Eventually it was nearing time for lunch, so I started wandering around randomly looking for something to eat. Again, most places seemed to be shut. There's one major shopping centre right in the centre of town, and it seemed natural to seek out their food court. Their food court was huge, with about thirty odd different stalls selling all kinds of Asian food. And every one closed. What is with these people? It's not like it's a public holiday, right? But it was all to the good: I eventually found a street stall selling Penang laksa, which is completely different from the coconut milk-based laksa I'm used to, which is apparently Singapore laksa. This one was absolutely gorgeous, with prawns and pineapple, and topped with a fabulous variety of garnishes.

In all my wanderings I did get to visit most of the temples that are around the place. Being so small, Georgetown does concentrate together all the ethnicities and their religions, so within a couple of blocks of each other there are mosques, bhuddist temples and hindu temples. They seem to be competing with each other to be as colourful and architecturally interesting as possible, and the effect is a multiculturalist's dream come true. You can almost pretend that those Indian riots in Kuala Lumpur didn't happen...

Another thing I did during my wandering was pop into a travel agent to get a second (or third) opinion on how much it costs to get to Medan. 160 ringgit. So the hotel didn't seem such a bad option. And in fact, when I hopped on the Internet to double check, it turns out that there's a 30 ringgit "surcharge" and a 10 ringgit departure tax. So I got the ticket from the hotel, they charged me 150 ringgit, and this in fact is not ripping me off at all. Sorry for being so skeptical, guys.

For the afternoon's touristing, I was originally going to go to the botanical gardens. Apparently, they have monkeys! But it's a fair way out. I tried to figure out the buses, and was zeroing in on the 102, even though I wasn't entirely sure it went to the right place. Then one of the aggressive taxi drivers came up to me and did the whole palaver: "Hello!", "Where are you from?", "How do you like Penang?", "What are you going to do next?", "Oh really, I happen to be a taxi driver, I can drive you there, no problem." Yeah yeah, I know, that's why I was trying so hard to be brusque. When he asked me where I was going, I actually said "that bus there", but of course that didn't put him off. He pointed out that the 102 wouldn't be along for another hour. He was almost certainly right, too - the bus system here really does suck. And given that I was pretty sure it wouldn't take me right to the gardens, but to some random spot on the next hill, I just decided screw it, too hard. Chased away by a taxi driver. How humiliating.

Instead, I went on a guided tour of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. This is a 19th century anglo-chinese mansion built by the eponymous Chinese industrialist, as a base of operations for the Penang branch of his business empire. The whole exterior is painted in indigo blue, while the interior is full of gold leaf carvings and dark laquered wood. For exterior decoration, it has mosaics made from pieces of broken pottery. It's been very well restored quite recently, and won an award from UNESCO. I liked the guide - she was cheerful but not matey, just got on with the business of telling us all about the bloke. A fun way to spend an hour, and it kept me out of the heat for a bit.

I then had to get back on the Internet to sort out a couple of things. And this is where I have some really bad news: it looks like Iran and Syria are probably both off. I'm still stringing along the Iranian travel agent just in case something can be pulled together, but it's time to call it as being fundamentally impossible.

I had originally told myself that Iran would only work if all the hard parts, the visa and the train booking, were done before I left Germany. That was very sensible. But then it turned out that you can't get either visa more than three months before you arrive, and so I would have to do it all while on the road. That implies having passports whizzing back and forth in the post and organising drop-off addresses and so on, and there's just too much risk involved. It would have been hard even if I had got a Syrian visa in Ottawa, but that didn't happen, and now I have twice as much passport-posting to do.

And to top it all, the Iranian travel agent now tells me that it's too hard for them to book the train ticket in advance, and that I should get it when I arrive on my own. That's just too dangerous, sorry. There's only one train a week from Tehran to Damascus, so if it's booked out on the date I want, I'm screwed. The problem is currency: due to sanctions, the Iranian banking system is completely cut off from the rest of the world. I would have to carry all the cash I want to spend with me, in US dollars. That's a whole big pile of cash, and that also scares me. The whole thing just becomes unrealistic.

I'm pretty disappointed about this. Iran was unquestionably supposed to be the highlight of the entire trip. That train journey sounded so blissfully uncomfortable: three days stuck on a train, through sweltering temperatures in an utterly incomprehensible country. How much more adventurous can it get? But if I'm ever going to do it, it has to be a standalone trip, with a fixed base of operations to organise it from.

And I have no idea how I'm going to fill in the time now. I guess I'll add planning that to the "jobs to do in Perth" list. I hope my family weren't planning on, you know, talking to me or anything while I'm there.

Anyway, what do we do when we're depressed, children? That's right - we eat. So after a shower (it is really, really, hot and sticky here), I went out to see if any of the local restauranteurs had condescended to open their restaurants this evening. Short answer: no, they hadn't. The food court in the shopping centre had about three or four places open, and a few incredibly depressing-looking customers hunched over their soups. No thanks.

So I resumed wandering the streets. And I had the good fortune to stumble across a place that does char keow teow. This now means that I've sampled all three of the must-tries recommended by wikitravel, in one day. That makes me happy. These noodles weren't bad, but it was a tiny serving. That's why I ended up retreating to Starbucks and getting a cinnamon bun. Which was stale. You know, for a place that's supposed to have a reputation as a gourmand's paradise, it's bloody hard to get a decent feed here.

In fact, overall, I'm none too thrilled by Georgetown. It's a pedestrian's nightmare, the public transport system is a joke, and it's just not a lot of fun. It's probably better if you're a typical mid-range traveller, who stays in three star hotels for a week at a time, and maybe rents a car. But it's very poorly suited for my style of travel. Maybe I just didn't "do" Georgetown right, I don't know.

Tomorrow I have a six hour ferry ride to Medan. Or to be precise, Medan's port, Belawan. I hadn't factored that into my plans: it's 30km from Medan, and I have no idea how to get from one to the other. I hadn't booked a hotel, since the ones on Wikitravel all looked either expensive or crap, and with me arriving at 3 in the afternoon, there should have been time to shop around. But with this extra travel time, that's no good. So I used Skype to book into a reasonable-looking place (the nokia is really proving itself today) . They are next door to the grand mosque, which means you get woken up at five in the morning by morning prayers. Which I consider pretty cool, in fact. They charge 55,000 rupiahs a night, which turns out to be about 6 euros. And that's for a room with a private shower. I am therefore skeptical that this place is really going to be decent. But at least it should be easy to find. And I feel much happier turning up to a new city with a hotel booked and ready for me.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen Index Straits of Malacca