Sent: Monday, April 1, 2002 2:09 PM
It's early January 2002 and Thailand is receding behind our train as we saunter through a landscape of rice paddies and limestone karsts towards Penang, our first port of call in Malaysia.
Pulau Pinang is a small island little more than a kilometre off the West coast of Malaysia just south of the Thai/Malay border. It might still be struggling toward a share of modern Malaysia's prosperity had not Francis Light, an English seafarer landed there in 1771. Light knew that the East India Company were looking for a port to facilitate their trade with China and to offer protection from pirates operating in the Bay of Bengal. Following some typically duplicitous British negotiation the island, until then home to only 100 itinerant fishermen, boomed and by the end of the 18th century was home to more than 10,000 people. But the good times didn't last, Singapore eclipsed Penang and it remained in the doldrums for many years. Nowadays, reborn, it sells itself as a duty free island and also on the strength of the many colonial and Chinese buildings that still remain.
During the 20 minutes it takes to cross from Butterworth on the mainland to Georgetown on Penang we could not help but notice the change in the people around us compared to Thailand. Half the population of Malaysia are Malays, a quarter Chinese, 7% Indian and 10% other indigenous peoples. Of the Malays the vast majority are Muslims. And the female adult Muslim population all wear the brightest, swirliest, most lurid outfits either of us has ever seen. They all wear Nan's curtains, whether they be Nan's curtains from the 1970's when she took a lot of acid, or Nan's curtains from the 1980's after she won the pools and had all her windows dressed by Gianni Versace. It is a striking change.
The White House Hotel is a friendly, novel experience, a bit like staying in a 1930's civic swimming pool because every surface is covered in aging ceramic tiles, a feeling heightened by our room having two straight sides and one long curved external wall like so many 30's modernist buildings.
It is noticeable that cities are starting to appeal to us less. It can't be because they are so fast, because Penang struggles to get out of first gear in those terms, but being somewhere urban feels like a waste after Ko Lipe. So we fail to do the sights and restrict ourselves to some bits of shopping and that most important part of any trip to 'proper' civilisation, a trip to Pizza Hut where the salad cart is a disappointment to my good lady wife but everything else is as expected.
We also make yet another trip to hospital, this time to get some help with a collection of septic blisters on my feet! The day before my diving course started in Ko Lipe we did some snorkelling and the cheap flippers gave me blisters. With the next four days spent in and out of the water the blisters had no chance to heal and many chances to get infected. Since then the infection has hopped about from toe to toe with great alacrity, each morning offering a new pus filled appendage. All of which leads to an hour spent in Casualty before emerging with yet another set of anti-biotics and some iodine, all for the princely sum of 60p!
Having bought a digital camera, failed to buy anything from the Malaysian equivalent of high and Mighty, 'Big and Large' and having enjoyed Lord of the Rings as much as it is possible to enjoy a film that hasn't got an ending we climb on a coach and head off to Kuala Lumpar for a few nights before we fly on to Sabah.
As we approach KL (anything that can be initialised in Malaysia will be, OK?) the dual carriagway continues right in to the heart of the city while underpasses and flyovers swoop and climb around us. It is clearly a city built with the car in mind. We check into the YWCA, who welcome mixed gender couples to their lovely clean rooms where they surround us with rules and memo's in a smiley, slightly scary way.
The town planners of KL appear to have no idea what to do with pedestrians. Away from a couple of city centre areas they have supplied buses, rapid transit trains and a monorail, but if you try and walk anywhere the pavements are atrocious if they exist at all and there is nothing to see or do at street level. Mall after mall after mall is what I will chiefly remember KL for, witless monoliths which may look more or less pretty from the inside but look universally nondescript externally. It makes most of the city feel souless.
We indulge in a orgy of indiscriminate cinema visits and get our just desserts having to suffer through Behind Enemy Lines, a cold war drama transplanted to the Balkans with a stultifying script made even worse by the projection equipment which produces wow and flutter like a finger nail drawn down a blackboard everytime the soundtrack features a long note. We come out grateful that it was a crap film that has been ruined, rather than something we were desparate to see.
For two days running Sausage goes swimming at the rundown but Olympic sized swimming pool near the YWCA and on day three I am lured into accompanying her. I get changed and amble out when, just as I am preparing to jump in and start dodging the harpoons, the Lifeguard calls out to me.
Sometimes the process of trying to understand someone who is not speaking their first language is made more complicated because what they are saying is so unexpected that even when you get you ears round it your brain still says 'no, that can't be it?!' But yes, I finally come to understand, I am being told that I can't go swimming in my swimming shorts, I must wear trunks if I wish to enter the pool, and what's more, should I wish to swim they would gladly rent me a pair worn by no more than 6,537 previous visitors, no more than 8% of whom had pubic lice. The Lifeguard explains the rule with an implacability that speaks volumes about the way that rules are respected in these parts. My dudgeon is far too high to allow me to pull on the hire trunks so I turn on my tail and leave Sausage flaunting her new 'Look, I can put my head underneath the water' skills to some disinterested looking Malaysians, all wearing trunks.
A sweltering walk to the Planetarium teaches us not to expect projections of the planets onto the inside of a dome at every Planetarium. Pick a wrong 'un and all you'll get is Blue Peter does astronomy, in Malaysian. But lest this all sounds to negative it is good to find ourselves somewhere with the home comforts that only a big city can offer.
On our penultimate day I hop on the bus to Sebang airport from where Air Asia fly to Sabah. I had come across their website while looking for cheap fares, and theirs are very cheap indeed, and had been impelled to go to the airport because their phone line was permanently engaged. It turns out that they have only just slashed their fares and their desk at the airport looks like a news library clip of the early days of Freddie Laker as queues snake around the departures hall of the airport. Fortunately the Malysians are the most disciplined Q'ers I've ever seen, which makes the five hours it takes to buy two tickets pass more bearably. When I finally reach the front of my first queue the frazzled staff wear the haunted look of people failing to cope with a sudden hike in demand. But time is one thing we have plenty of, and five hours later I have two tickets in my hand that cost exactly half of the Air Malaysia fare.
On our last evening we make our way over to KLCC the huge development that includes the Petronas Twin Towers which stand over 450 metres tall and were the tallest building in the world until very recently. Oddly they do not dominate the skyline of the city due to the rolling hills on which KL stands. They are two metallic shining bulky needles whose massive presence you feel only as you draw close. At night they are a spectacular sight, though our cinema obsession takes us to see Monsters Inc instead of going up to the observation deck.
The bustle of KL has provided a soothing dose of reassuring urban life but the layout of the place makes it a less enjoyable city than most others we have visited. The next couple of weeks promise to be very different as we head off to Sabah and Sarawak to see orang utans, visit the jungle and climb Mount Kinabalu.
Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages