Sunday, July 17, 2005

Item from the Past: July Fourth on the Malaysian Peninsula

On July 4 [1994] we boarded a train in Bangkok, which pulled out at 15:15 and headed south, through the hilly lushness and small towns on the Isthmus of Kra, a land feature that fascinated me on maps as far back as elementary school (along with Sulawesi, which I knew as the Celebes). It’s a long isthmus, and the train wasn’t especially fast, so we rolled on into the night.

Next to us was a girl freshly out of Berkeley, Kara, who had a lot to say about where she’d been, e.g., “China sucked!” We sympathized. She was one of the few other North Americans I’ve met in recent weeks. Plenty of Europeans, plenty of Australians, but not so many from my continent -- too bad, southeast Asia is worth the trip.

The berths were simple but reasonably comfortable, and the air conditioning worked fairly well, unlike during the run up to Chang Mai a few weeks ago. We arrived at the frontier with Malaysia just after waking up, and spent a while outside the train on the formalities of border-crossing.

We arrived at Butterworth more or less on time, and caught an enormous car ferry, mostly empty, for the short hop to Penang Island. Once on the island, we paid a tricycle rickshaw man RM$4 -- $3 fare, $1 tip -- to take us to the New China Hotel. He was the picture of a rickshaw man: wiry, deep brown, Chinese. The New China, a charming dump, distinctly risky in terms of fire (though we had a large window for escape), was cheap and well-located in Georgetown. Wooden floors, high ceilings, a flapping ceiling fan. Squat toilets, cold showers, and an indifferent-looking bar downstairs. All for RM$17.60 a night.

Georgetown turned out to be a low-rise, whitewashed, somewhat seedy town, good for walking after the heat of the day died down, and early in the morning. I took a couple of good walks before Yuriko woke. Over the next few days took in Ft. Cornwallis (nice clocktower), wandered around the Komtar Mall, saw the Kek Lok Sri temple, climbing its pagoda, swam at Batu Ferringhi beach, and rode the cable railway up Penang Hill. To escape the heat, we saw Heaven and Earth, an Oliver Stone failure, and the moderately funny Maverick, both subtitled in Bahasa Malaysia.

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