A Lesson in British History

Owing to the unanticipated nature of KTM’s booking system (Malaysian trains selling out weeks in advance of departure) six nights have been spent, languished, in Georgetown, a colonial relic drenched in decaying grandeur. Crumbled eighteenth century townhouses, British-wrought but European in style. Worn and empty shells that have been converted into guesthouses, bars and 7/11s. Our B&B proved cavernous, beautiful tiles and cracking floorboards as originally set and laid. Fans rumble around overhead, the warm air just the same as would have struck Francis Light in 1786 when he struck forth with his almighty flag.

Naturally, high rises, roads and a Wire-esque Dockland now surrounds the UNESCO protected Old Town but distinction only adds to the charm of idling through a warren of streets, each signposted in the Malay of telling originals.

Jln Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah – The Esplanade

Lebuh Gereja – Church Street

Dickens, Buckingham and King streets connect Chinatown to Little India to the Old Colonial District, home to a very complacently insignificant Fort Cornwallis.

A charming place. Sightseeing abounds, including Kek Lok Si Temple, but a genteel stroll between Parisian coffeehouse, gutter bar and Western restaurant, dodging hawkers, admiring the local Banksy and watching the lighthouse flash and flush is, as in any characterful town, rewarding enough. Instead of feeling like the parasitic tourist of old, queuing and sweating and snapping and orienteering, Georgetown allows one to become an honorary local. Small enough that a map is memorised by hour 23 and considerate enough that the barman comes to have the ‘large Skoll, two glasses’ ready before one’s sat down. The enjoyment of a jam-jar served OJ to the tune of jazz so mellow one’s hair stands on end in a slick cafe, ye olde maps lining the walls, followed by a beer in Ali Baba’s den of mish mash, the roadside an arcade of which San Marco would be proud.

It is the life of leisure, of the traveller, but a leisure that’s more basic, simple and less pumped than elsewhere. Amidst motorbike fumes and boiling rice, gutted pigs and thunderstorm puddles, a Nirvana lies still.

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Back to Kuala Lumpur. Replacing the Chinatown of bygone blog posts is Bukit Bitang,  home of malls malls and more malls. Having seen the surrounding Asia it is easy to understand Malaysian insistence on comparison with UK/US rather than Vietnam or Thailand. Here are fat cats with salaries on par with Wall St, city slickers who look at you, a white trash backpacker scraping 80 sen for the monorail aware, so aware, that their world and mine, elite-salaried-boheme, are orbiting nose to nose and both too close to the sun. This is rich KL. Ralph Lauren’s lounge, Hugo’s the Boss and Victoria’s Secrets are all too well known across town.

It’s aggressive, subtle Savile would say crass. Logos seem bigger, bolder, more aware of the social statuses they confer and size most definitely matters. Bank balance. Wallet. Credit card limit. Georgetown and KL are polar opposites but we (Kate Brittain and Great Britain) have left our mark on both.

Nic’s uncle will be picking us up in Sydney at some God awful hour in just a few days. Asia: The Retrospective. I feel it coming on.

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Waiting for the Godot Train: Beaches are nice.

Starting this entry at 19:25. Cafe. Waiting for a train due 01:26. Delayed by 80 minutes so 02.50. Worst part of travelling is the travel. The waiting to travel. Just a void of nothing. Nothing nothing nothing. At least we’re not the couple delayed 5 hours. Thailand has nicer trains but Vietnam had a working clock. Communism can do what Mussolini could, but definitely not the Thais.

Before starting this entry: bus, boat, bus to get to the train station from Koh Phangan. The islands – an education in Mother Nature’s untouchable and unwavering authority in the sublime. A storm will remind you of her power to destroy, but the serenity of such spotless water lapping onto the sand, a fundamental interface, washes away the blind complacency of banal existences to reinforce the grandiose. The calm giant,  the still beast.

Before the islands: A day in Phuket town. Mum was right – seedy. Retreated into a cinema (only Transcendence was showing in English – much disappointment in missing out on Watson in Noah) owing to Nic dying of Dengue Fever or Japanese Encephalitis. Couldn’t decide which but it definitely wasn’t the travel bug that it obviously was. Important update: he’s not dead, and perfectly fine but for an ever increasing hatred of cockcroaches.

Koh Phangan and burning my midriff after 10 minutes by the pool. Mortifying. Not much else to describe in many ways. Not the architectural wonder of Angkor, unbelievable for its age, or the grandeur of Halong Bay, or the visceral history of Vietnam and the vibrancy of its today, Agent Orange still alive in the cells of a generation’s children. This is an island, small, stunning, heaven on earth. And that is the attraction. The ease. No expectation to learn, mourn or pay attention. Just lie down, have a coconut and listen to Don McLean’s Greatest Hits with which I have formed an oddly strong connection. Also, an opportunity for Nic to discover Thailand’s third gender, the Ladyboy, outside Koh Samui’s very own Moulin Rouge.

“You can not be telling me she’s anything but just a woman.”

“I dare you.”

He didn’t.

Finishing this blog entry in Georgetown, Penang. 18:19 and all the more gloriously sunny for us having arrived after the 24 hour journey from the proverbial in the knowledge we have 4 days here sans any travelling at all.

Georgetown deserves a blog entry of its own, to come. Just a note to stress the mightily confusing phenomenon that is Malaysian society. A literal melting pot (38’C). Walking through the middle of Jaipur, you can cross the road into Bejing or turn left onto Armenian street within the space of a town much smaller than Oxford (although they definitely cram in more people). Watched Liverpool vs. Chelsea (Nic almost had a heart attack) in the street with locals blowing on horns louder than a cruise liner. Discovered the delights of a beer tower. Fascinating to watch the local waitresses sprinting up and down the street, athleticism matched by the mental ability to remember the orders of increasingly drunk holler-ers. And they can speak English, are shrewd and beautiful. I often feel outdone by waiters/resses. University was a doddle.