Straits of Malacca

Thu, 08 May 2008 08:00:51 +0000

Georgetown, Penang Index Medan

I just took a boat across the straits of Malacca. Funny how these things are always less exciting than they sound. Still, that was pretty fun.

First of all, I should clear something up. Those aren't mosquito bites. Those are bedbug bites, and they're from that dive I stayed at in Kuala Lumpur. I had ruled that out, because I appeared fine the next morning. And when the spots first appeared, they were randomly distributed, not in lines like bedbug bites usually are. But as I was checking out, there was a girl with an impressive collection of welts complaining about "bugs" in her room. I assumed she meant mosquitoes, and congratulated myself on avoiding that particular hazard. Ha! Also, there were a couple of spots of blood on my sheets that morning, which I thought must have been from the blister on my foot. Nope, classic sign of bedbugs. And in fact I was warned that this was a problem in cheap Kuala Lumpur hostels by wikitravel.

But by the time I took my shower last night, it was obvious that these are begbug bites. And that's really horrible news. Bedbug bites are vile: they itch far worse than mosquito bites, maybe for a week, and the welts can still be visible a month later. As I type this, they've evolved into two-centimetre-wide welts, with a red centre and yellowish surround. I have dozens of the bastards, mainly on my feet and shoulders, with a few others dotted around. This is going to be a real issue over the next few days at least.

The worst thing is that I'm now paranoid about it happening again. The hotel in Georgetown was reasonably good. But this hotel in Medan is rather closer to Kuala Lumpur than Georgetown, and I really don't think I could cope with a second dose so soon. I'm weighing up sleeping in pyjamas and socks, despite the heat.

But enough of such things. I started the day stupidly early, at five in the morning, since I woke up and didn't think it was worth going back to sleep. I took the opportunity to use the hotel's wifi to download some news to read and do some other chores. I was really waiting for breakfast. I had been told I had to be at the ferry terminal at 8:00, and breakfast was from 7:30, so I was pushing things a little. I went up to the breakfast room at quarter past 7, and of course it was closed, but the breakfast things were on the table. And the window was open. So I climbed in through the window. I really wanted my breakfast. When the lady came in I don't think she was particularly thrilled to see me so early, but whatever. I got quite a big breakfast out of it, a couple of bowls of muesli and several pieces of fruit.

Of course I was in plenty of time for the ferry, there was no need to be so early. I had a brief panic attack at Malaysian immigration when I realised I'd thrown away my immigration card, since no-one seemed to do anything official with it when I arrived. But I realise now that that was my Singaporean immigration card, and it really was useless. The immigration guy did have a moment's confusion when he couldn't find my entry stamp to Malaysia, but he did know about the peculiarity of entering Malaysia from Singapore by train, that they don't stamp your passport there for some reason. So he gave me my exit stamp without fuss. That always puts a spring in my step nowadays, the moment when you get the stamp without it being a drama.

The ferry isn't exactly luxurious. If you want to know where old aeroplane seats go to die when they get too grotty for even budget airlines, they get recycled as seats on third world ferries. They even had "call cabin attendant" buttons, not connected to anything of course. We didn't seem to be allowed up on deck, so no photos of vast expanses of water. The toilet was a squat toilet again, but slightly easier to use on a ferry than a train. The crossing was pretty smooth, but it rolled enough that I had to stop reading after a while. The lady across from me spent much of the journey being sick into a plastic bag.

They played movies at us, unfortunately. First was "The Forbidden Kingdom", which I was actually considering seeing if it got good reviews. Now I don't have to. It was OK, but not worth going out of my way for. They then followed it up with a movie about people driving cars. I thought that movie was called "The Fast and the Furious", but this claimed to be called "Red Line". I guess it's possible that they made two such movies, but I can't imagine why. I plugged in my earphones and ignored it.

The Malacca straits certainly are quite busy, given the width of open water we were crossing. Especially once we got close to Belawan port. There was also a fair bit of rubbish in the water. Inevitable, I guess. No pirates though, so that was lucky.

When we got to Belawan, there was a complicated but fairly efficient process for issuing the foreigners with visas. When I went to the wrong queue I was physically dragged to the right one, rather than try to make me understand an explanation in Bahasa Indonesian. Certainly less trouble than having to apply in advance. They still took up an entire page for the visa though. I'm in danger running out of space before the trip is over.

I was nervous about arriving in Medan, because I have no map and not much information to work with. But the bus from Belawan to Medan is right there waiting, so you just have to fight your way through the minibus hawkers intent on preventing you using it. When the bus terminated, I accepted an offer from a becak driver for a lift to the mosque where my hotel is. I'm very wary of these guys, since they're so persistent and dodgy-looking. This one was originally trying to offer me a hotel room before switching to a taxi ride. But he spoke decent English, stated his price in advance, and knew where my hotel was, so I let him take me there. It's nice riding in an open motorcycle cab like that, with the breeze blowing away the sweat of the bus journey

The hotel, as I say, isn't very confidence-inspiring. Like the one in Kuala Lumpur, the toilet is actually in the shower. This one doesn't flush either: there's a big cistern with a handbucket you use to manually flush the toilet. And there's no hot water for the shower. Other than that it's very sparse. It has tile instead of carpet, and I'm hoping that this is inhospitable to bedbugs. But I don't think it really means anything. I'll just have to see what state I'm in tomorrow.

I went out to find some dinner, and it was surprisingly hard. There's a shopping centre nearby, but apart from a McDonalds it doesn't seem to have any restaurants. Wikitravel suggests some places, but since I don't have a map, that doesn't help me much. So I went to an internet cafe to look up some local information.

There, I was engaged in conversation by an Indonesian girl who apparently has just finished a three year course in English and wanted to practice. This kind of thing makes me nervous too: when you're a rich western tourist in a third world country, everyone you talk to wants to make money off you, and if you can't immediately see how, it's a bad sign. So I was brusque. But what with one thing and another I decided she was probably on the level, and even agreed to come for a meal with her and her friends. But her friends were still busy on the internet, and we went outside to chat.

We talked about languages, her English professor (from Germany), travel and so on. She didn't know that Australian dollars were different to US dollars, which I must say I found pretty staggering, especially since her sister is living in Bondi. It was getting on for 8:00, much later than I had planned on having dinner, and I had to break my agreement and depart. And anyway, I still wasn't 100% sure there wasn't a scam somewhere. I'm really not here to make friends. So I was forced to abandon plans for a proper meal and instead grab a couple of bits of junk food from the convenience store. A damn shame. Tomorrow I'll try to eat something more sensible.

Medan itself doesn't look all that interesting, so I intend to stay no more than two nights and try to fly back to Kuala Lumpur. There is plenty of cool stuff to do on Sumatra, but it's all "activity" stuff that needs planning, and I don't have the time or the energy.

Also, I'm rethinking Iran, and it's still worth pursuing a little longer. Maybe I could at least get to Bandar Abbas, maybe Isfahan too, and maybe fly from Tehran to Jordan. So I should go back to Kuala Lumpur and make a proper effort to get this damn visa, if I can. Only if that fails will I call off Iran completely.

Right now, evening prayers have just finished (man, they really were loud). There's also planes screaming overhead from the aiport which is absurdly close to the city. And now there is a really spectacular thunderstorm going on. So it looks like this is not destined to be a quiet night.

Georgetown, Penang Index Medan