A Problem in Penang

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July 1st 2007
Published: July 1st 2007
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"Fetch Rover...""Fetch Rover...""Fetch Rover..."

A lion-like creature stands guard at the entrance to Penang's Khoo Kongsi. © L. Birch 2007
It was 2:30 in the morning when Viv woke me. She was red hot and complaining that she had a terrible headache, stomach cramps and aching joints. "I think I need to see a doctor," she whimpered. The fever had been building for the past two days, but we had both been hoping that it was nothing serious and would pass given time. But instead, it seemed to be getting worse and even paracetamol was having little effect.

Fighting back feelings of panic, I got dressed quickly, running through a mental list of diseases that might be causing the fever. Foremost among them was the thought that it might be dengue fever or malaria. The symptoms seemed to fit but only a blood test would tell us for sure. Ever since a frightening brush with malaria on the island of Flores, nine years before, the pair of us were paranoid about the prospect of it occurring again. If it was malaria, we wanted to nip it in the bud before it got any worse.

Taking a taxi through the dark and empty streets of Penang, we made our way to a local hospital where Viv - shivering but
Double TakeDouble TakeDouble Take

Shades of Empire: Downing Street, Penang. © L. Birch 2007
still hot - was led into an assessment room by a triage nurse dressed in a crisp, white uniform. Forty-five minutes later, following a blood test and examination, the doctor pronounced Viv clear of either dengue or malaria. "Could just be a virus," he said. Then, after a brief pause added, “the blood test did show one thing though. You have elevated levels of albumen in your blood stream, which usually indicates the presence of intestinal worms."
"Worms? Said Viv, clearly appalled at the idea.
"Yes," said the doctor, "probably a hookworm." He then went on to tell us that the parasite was unlikely to be what was causing the fever and could easily be treated later, once Viv's other problems had been dealt with.
"It's not fair," said Viv, shortly after the doctor asked if we had any questions. "I thought you were supposed to lose weight if you had worms!"
The doctor grinned. "Not necessarily," he said. Clearly Viv's sense of humour was still intact and inwardly, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Penang - "Pearl of the Orient"

Penang - an island on the North West coast of Malaysia - was not such
The Wan Hai, Love LaneThe Wan Hai, Love LaneThe Wan Hai, Love Lane

Georgetown's oldest brothel is now a flea-bitten hotel for backpackers. © L. Birch 2007
a bad place to be stuck for a few days. The bustling city of Georgetown had grown larger since our last visit - thirteen years ago - but it still retained a certain decadent, tropical charm; rather like a setting in a Somerset Maugham novel.

Penang would probably have languished as a backwater in the annals of history had it not been for Capt. Francis Light, who sailed into a muddy fishing village on its east coast in 1786, claiming it for England and the British East India Company. A town, named after King George III, quickly grew up and flourished, soon becoming the administrative centre for Britain's tenure of Malaya. Entrepreneurs - most notably Chinese and Indian immigrants - flocked to this new land of opportunity, adding their own stamp to the ethnic mix of cultures which is still Penang's hallmark today. With the demise of the British Empire, Penang fell back into obscurity again. However, the legacy of those long ago days of Empire still live on in the names of streets, the colonial architecture and the people who continue to make their living here.

We were staying at a small, Chinese-run guesthouse just off Love
Street Stalls, PenangStreet Stalls, PenangStreet Stalls, Penang

"Try our soup madam... vely good for digestion." © L. Birch 2007
Lane - so called because it once held more brothels than any other street in Georgetown. Prostitutes still parade its night darkened alleyways; from roly-poly Indian women who smile and raise their eyebrows suggestively as you walk past, to hawk-faced ladyboys mincing on street corners in mini-skirts and high heels. Penang has many flavours, equally as exotic but none more so perhaps than its food. Where food was concerned, you were literally spoilt for choice. You could choose to eat; Malay Moslem, Indian, Chinese, western or Indonesian fare if you wished. Food carts stood on every street corner, each offering something different - all of it delicious. One of our favourite snacks was an Indian dish called Roti Chanai - consisting of chapatti-style bread served up with a dip of curried dahl. The best were those served at the "Yasmeen Restaurant" where Tamil cooks sweated over hot stoves at the entrance. Placing your order and taking a seat, you could watch as the cooks prepared your roti, beating out the dough and tossing it into the air with a flourish and bringing it down hard onto the counter with a loud slap. It was a process repeated several times in
Khoo Kongsi Khoo Kongsi Khoo Kongsi

Penang's oldest - and possibly most lavish - Chinese clan house, the Khoo Kongsi. © L. Birch 2007
order to introduce air into the mix and give the bread its characteristic 'fluffy' texture.

Of course, as far as Viv was concerned, any talk of food was purely an academic exercise - at least for the first few days of her illness when even mention of the words "food" or "eating" had her clutching her stomach in agony. It was at times like this that you realised that travel wasn't nearly as romantic as it seemed back at home, sat in a favourite chair with the colour supplements. It most certainly wasn't all 'cocktails at sunset' and beautiful scenery; there was ugliness too and things often went wrong. You got sick, you lost things precious to you or occasionally, had them stolen. The key to surviving such adversity was to adjust quickly to change, chalk it up to experience and turn a bad situation into a positive one - if you could.

Faced with the prospect of having to sit still in Penang for longer than we had intended, we drew up new plans - factoring in Viv's need to be close to a bathroom, at least for the duration of her illness. As the fever subsided
The Sri Mariamam TempleThe Sri Mariamam TempleThe Sri Mariamam Temple

One of Goergetown's most recognisable Hindu temples is a wonderful testiment to both tack and gaudiness. © L. Birch 2007
and her temperature returned to normal, we began to make short forays from Love Lane; visiting a nearby Chinese clan house or dipping into Penang's "Little India". The Sri Mariamam Hindu Temple with its highly decorated gopura, was just a stone's throw from the guesthouse. Every so often, we would drop in to escape the heat, wandering among the bare-chested men in their lunghis and the garishly painted statues of Indian Gods, to emerge sometime later, with a red "tilak" spot daubed upon our foreheads. As an indication of just how culturally diverse Penang was, it was possible to walk around a corner and stumble across a white-painted mosque, koranic inscriptions carved above the door or, a little further on, an elaborate Chinese temple, wreathed in incense smoke.

But stranger than any of the traditional sights of 'old' Penang, were the shopping malls; air conditioned, ultra modern and crammed with every luxury item you could imagine. To wander past beggars on the street, dressed in soiled rags and then to enter this artificial world of chrome and glass... was somehow rather shocking. Inside, wealthy youngsters - products of the New Malaysia - milled around sporting the latest haircuts, fashions
Beautiful ButterfliesBeautiful ButterfliesBeautiful Butterflies

Butterflies, birds and monkeys provided that final dash of the exotic to Penang's special mix of flavours. © V. Birch 2007
and 'must have' accessories. Were we still in the same country? This was the face of globalisation, a world in which local cultures are swept aside in favour of Sony, KFC, Gucci and Motorola stores. Amongst it all though, we were glad to find the shops that sold fake Rolex wristwatches, pirated DVDs and Nasi Kandar food... irrepressibly Asian to the last!

And of course, had we not missed our flight to Sarawak and not been forced to sit still a while longer instead, we might never have seen any of these things. We were still going to visit Borneo, we had just had to make alternative arrangements, that was all. It was all about "turning a bad situation into a positive one", of making the most of tough luck and of being able to look upon Penang as an old friend, accepting what had changed and still being able to love the place.... just the way it was.

Confessions of a Travel Blog Writer

Whatever else Penang was, it was also intolerably hot. By 9 o'clock each morning, the temperature was already topping 35 degrees centigrade and by mid-day, only a masochist would be out pounding the streets. There seemed no escape from the heat until we discovered... the shopping malls. Our visits became a tad too regular for our own liking but the air-conditioning was blissfully cool and well, to cut a long story short... we sold out! We tried to justify our visits by telling ourselves that it was necessary as part of Viv's recuperation or that we were simply making a study of the ethnographic behaviour of modern Malaysia - in the interests of compiling material for the website, of course.

The simple truth is that we did an awful lot of window shopping and consumed an inordinate number of cold drinks. We would hate to mislead our readers completely and have them think that we did nothing but slave over coffee stained copy with sweat dripping off our noses; most of the time we did but sometimes, we went shopping instead... just in case you were concerned for our welfare.


15th August 2007

Yuk, Worms?
Have just read your Penang epistle. Sounds like you are having a great time, in spite of illness and worms (yuk!). It was great to read of your exploits while, back here in the UK, it is chilly and threatening to rain (again). Since we last saw you we have had a fantastic trip to Mauritania and Mali, reaching our hoped for destination - Timbuktu - and going to the Festival au Desert - lots of elaborately dressed camels and dashing men - like something out of Lawrence of Arabia. Lots more stories to tell of our trip but that can wait till we see you and catch up with each other. Hope you are both well now. Love from Trisha and Neil xx
18th October 2014

I'm not much of a shopper myself but that's more because in my country, "malling" has been a national pastime! For the same reason.... Escape from hot afternoons. I will certainly develop migraines when out battling the heat. The only time I'm out there is when I'm in the beach. So yes, i perfectly understand your confession!
18th October 2014

Thanks Liliram, They're a mixed blessing aren't they? Penang is such a marvellous place, I absolutely love it and with so much to see, do and explore... I felt rather guilty about hanging out in the malls at all. But it so was hot... and they were so deliciously cool: we just sold out! Thank you for dropping by and for the absolution as well - much appreciated.

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