Published: November 25th 2009November 13th 2009
As I make my way to Georgetown on the RM0.50-ferry, I am welcomed by a whole bunch of skyscrapers peeking out of a cloudy haze. Not exactly the best introduction, but once I get off the boat and enter the small streets lined with old, slightly decrepit, but charming houses, I feel like I've entered the real Penang. My host Michel currently resides in a guesthouse in the heart of the historic centre. He's a 46-year old Frenchman, and has been travelling around the world for the last two and a half years. For 14 months, he travelled through Europe on 78 flights with Ryanair, all booked in one day, and all for €0.01 each. As I find out in the course of the day, he's gay, which I don't care much about. His room in the guesthouse only has a double bed, though, and I don't mind sharing, but before we go to sleep he says: "I won't try anything, but if you come to me, you won't be refused."
The next day we hire a motorbike and ride around the island. We eat breakfast at a beach eatery in Batu Ferringhi, one of Penang's more touristy beach resorts.
I'm glad to see that there only seem to be domestic tourists around on that day, most notably an Indian family, who eats and throws chicken bones, cans and other rubbish onto the beach, which slightly diminishes my previous gladness. I discover that rice for breakfast doesn't give my stomach a feeling of satisfaction, and I crave for some bread.
We have a swim at the beach, which isn't as littered as you would think because of the mindless Indians, and the water feels like 30°C. After visiting a fruit farm and drinking some excellent fresh juices, we go and have another dip at a waterfall, where the water is refreshingly cool and clear. There are many locals out and about, most of them swim with pants and shirt on, and the women with headscarves, of course. Our comparably bright white skin must come as a shock to them, for they watch us with intense curiousity, and some even talk to us, asking us the usual questions. That is when I realize that in many other non-Western countries we would have to be on our guard and the questions from the locals would be the beginning of some elaborate sinister
rip-off scheme, or worse, a violent mugging. But the Malaysians seem to be genuinely interested and friendly, which is what makes travelling in this country such a great experience.
In the late afternoon we visit the highest point in Penang, a hill that is topped with a Thai restaurant, where we have dinner and watch as the sun sets. Once again, there is not a foreigner in sight, only a big Chinese family and a bunch of fashionable Chinese teenagers, who take too many pictures of each other with the sunset.
As we ride back to Georgetown, Michel decides to accelerate a bit, and I discover that the motorbike we hired is quite a powerful one. Speeding past the locals with their smaller motorbikes is a strangely uplifting experience.
The following day, we ride out of Georgetown again to go to the Snake Temple. Once there, we see that the temple doesn't do justice to its name - there are only a few smaller snakes sleeping on candle holders, and there's a guy handling two pythons, touting tourists to take pictures with it for a whopping RM30.
Afterwards, we make our way to the Western side of the
island, where the scenery becomes increasingly lush and beautiful, and it feels almost like being on an island in the South Pacific. We find a remote beach where only a couple of locals hang around. There are two sexually ambiguous Malay boys, and Michel finds one of them incredibly hot. I just find them anorexic. He talks to them for a while, and when we decide to finally go to the beach for a swim, one of them says "Where are you GO-ing?", unnaturally raising his voice when he pronounces the first syllable of the last word, which makes me laugh.
The water is great, but after about two minutes I feel an indescribable pain above my right hip, and I instinctively put my hands there to try to get it off, which is a bad mistake, since they get stung in the process as well. Of course, the perpetrator is a jellyfish, although it feels like a shark with knives instead of teeth, who has lethal wasps in his mouth, and every time he bites me with his knifeteeth, the wasps sting the fresh wounds. We rush to the motorbike, or at least I do, Michel takes his
time changing and rinsing his shorts in the water, so I shout at him to hurry the fuck up. We ride to the next best Chinese eatery, which is packed with people, and I run inside and ask a waitress for vinegar. She just looks at me with a shocked expression on her face, and when I show her the stings, the shock turns into terror. There are some older men sitting around, ooohing and aaahing knowingly upon seeing the burns. Finally, the owner understands and takes me to the kitchen, but insists on putting on a Chinese lotion, although I insist on vinegar. The lotion alleviates the pain somewhat, and the man tells me to wait for 10 minutes, and if it doesn't get better, to put on vinegar. So I sit down and hurt, and we order some juice. After 10 minutes, I run back to the kitchen and ask the guy for vinegar. He takes me to the backyard and douses my right side and my hands with vinegar, which soothes the pain immediately. My side is still swollen red and throbbing, but my hands finally stop shaking. I sit down and order some noodles, and after
finishing them we do another round putting on vinegar. While I sit down in a painful daze, and old man with two remaining teeth comes up to me to console me. He tells me not to worry, and that it's not a dangerous sting, since it's not from a box jellyfish. "We know, we are fishermen. Don't worry!" He keep saying 'Don't worry' about 10 times, patting me on the back, apparently genuinely worried about me. After an hour or so, the pain has almost stopped, and we leave. I thank everybody, and we're off.
That night, we have dinner at an excellent food court, and our meals are complemented by a guy singing cheesy Chinese songs with prerecorded background music from his piano. Occassionally he is joined by a Chinese lady, whose singing and clumsy dance steps don't really live up to my emerging karaoke expectations.
We go for a walk around the watefront, and Michel discovers a club he's been looking for. We just walk in in our thongs and dirty clothes, nobody stops us. Everybody inside is really posh and made-up, and there are Indian and Chinese men sitting around drinking beer out of whisky glasses.
I thought he just wants to have a peek, but after while Michel joins the hipsters and dances to the horrendous music, which looks quite amusing with his orange crocs. All of a sudden the music stops and a couple of Latin-looking people enter the stage with hand drums, shakers, ukuleles and other stuff. They announce themselves as a Brazilian capoeira dance group, and start doing their thing. The drummer looks a bit like a baboon, just more muscular, and there's a small stocky guy without neck dancing, but damn to they have da rhythm. Two other guys start doing capoeira moves, and one of them does a bunch of handspring backflips and smashes his foot into a box. He stops doing backflips and they drive him off to hospital, while the other ones keep going. Some Chinese people join them on the stage, dancing salsa, and same goes for a bunch of foreigners, and even a Malay girl with a headscarf. That is one of the things where I always think "Not in Saudi-Arabia...". After a while I finally manage to drag Michel out and we go back to our guesthouse.
In the morning, I pass by the
Chinese temple that's in the same street as our guesthouse. I end up talking to a guy who seems to work there. His name is Ang Huah, and he organizes all kinds of Chinese cultural events for the temple. He invites me and Michel to go to Chinese opera that night. when we meet at the temple, he individually takes us to the waterfront, where the opera is held, with his motorbike. He takes us backstage and encourages me to take lots of pictures. Everything feels a bit rushed, but I guess that's just the Chinese way. We marvel at the elaborate costumes and make-up, and they marvel at my bod mods. When we sit down to watch the show, Ang Huah excuses himself and runs off. Apparently he has some meeting and puts on a shirt that he carries around in his backpack for such occassions.
The opera itself is interesting, but shrouded in mystery if you're not fluent in Cantonese. Every gesture and facial expression seems to be loaded with meaning, and everything seems to be exaggerated. Underlining the dialogues are a drum that is infinitely high-tuned and rapidly beaten together with a Chinese string instrument. After about
an hour, we decide to leave, although it's a three-hour session, but the overkill on the senses is too much for us.
Michel leaves to Miri in Sarawak the following day, and I take over his room in the guesthouse out of sheer convenience. I've caught a cold, and this in addition to my jellyfish stings makes me reluctant to move to the cheaper dorm.
Ang Huah asks me if I want to come along to a home for disabled people, and of course I do, so in the early evening we're on his motorbike again and speed past the cars jammed in the after-work traffic. As we arrive, one of the disabled people comes rolling out in his wheelchair to greet us. He actually speaks English, although it's sometimes a bit hard to understand. He's Chinese Malaysian, so he speaks several Chinese dialects, Malay, and also Hindi, at least he claims to do so. We chat for a while, and Ang Huah asks me if I can give him a back massage. I don't really mind, since I see how dull their life must be, sitting in their home all day watching TV, going for a swim maybe
once a week, with the occassional politician coming in to bring them some KFC and take PR-beneficial pictures with them. I give the guy a good back rub, and he seems to like it.
After an Indian lady joins us. She looks pretty tired, apparently from her medication, and she doesn't like to talk, but loves to sing. So she starts singing 'Silent Night, Holy Night', 'Jingle Bells', and surprisingly, the Sukiyaki-song in Japanese. She looks even more tired after that and rolls off.
Ang Huah goes to fetch somebody, which leaves me alone with the guy for a while. For some reason, he comes a bit closer to me, starting to speak conspiratorially:
"You know, maybe I can come to Germany to visit. We can go swim, and maybe I can see your body."
I'm not really sure I got that right, so I just say "Yeah, if you can afford the flight", but he says again:
"If we swim, maybe I can see your body." I don't say anything, slightly alarmed, and he just leers at me, which is augmented by his slight omnipresent drool.
- "Um...yeah, I don't know why that's so important when you go...swim. It's
"Yeah, but maybe I can see your body."
- "Ummm...I'm not...so sure about that."
At that moment, Ang Huah comes back, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
I have breakfast at an Indian mamak, as usual. Despite the fact that I've been in Malaysia for about three weeks now, I descover two new types of Indian bread slash pancake: uttapam, which I eat topped with tomato and onion, is almost like an Indian pizze, but very nice and fluffy on the inside, more like a crumpet; poori, a deliciously light, puffy bread, that is served with potato massala. With that, I usually have my beloved teh tarik or teh halia, ginger tea, but I also try new variations like ginger honey tea, massala tea, ginger massala tea et al.
This morning there are three trannies sitting at a table close to mine. One of them throws air-kisses at me, which I ignore by staring into space. I decide on 'Getting gay in Penang' as title for this blog, but change it afterwards to something more positive (Hahaha, al tu funerale positive? Haha, get it? OK, I'll shut up now...).
I hang around longer in Penang
to wait for the show of the Italian screamo heroes and hug machines of La Quiete. When the day has finally come I book my bus ticket for 5am the next morning to Thailand, take some last shots of Penang, and walk through the rain to the venue. The Italians are quite surprised to see a European here, and only the drummer Michele remembers me from Germany. They look quite tired, though, having visited the National Park in Penang the same day. "There were so many monkeys, man. I've never seen monkeys before." says Michele.
I also meet the guitar player of Utarid again, and he actually remembers giving me a tape at a show in Germany. Many other Malaysians talk to me, and it's funny how similar the scenes are. They wear the same shirts, shoes, hats. There is a total of seven band playing that night, but the timetable is quite strict, and the bands don't take long to prepare, unlike in Germany. Most of the Malaysian bands try to sound like the common US-screamo bands, or like Envy. So although they are mostly good musicians and put on a good show, nothing really stands out.
Quiete finally plays, the crowd goes crazy, at least for a couple of songs. Some of them actually sing along the lyrics in Italian. After some of the songs nobody applauds, after others the crowd cheers and screams. Weird. It's great to hear all those favourite songs again, although you can see they are exhausted. After the show they prepare to leave, since their driver wants them to go to Kuala Lumpur that same night, so they can visit the city during the day. We bid our farewells, Michele gives me a shirt for free, and I go back to the guesthouse for two hours of sleep.
My four weeks in Malaysia, and especially the ten days in Penang, felt too short, mainly because it's really damn fucking nice there. That is one country that I need to go back to soon, especially to go and see Sarawak and Sabah. But now onwards to Thailand it is, and it's gonna have a hard time topping the incredible travel experience that has been Malaysia.
There are more photos below