With four hours to go, we settled into the last two remaining seats in the second class carriage. Actually, they weren’t seats yet, as the attendant hadn’t closed up the Pullman style beds. So we slouched on the bottom bunk, waiting for the giggling train staff to finish entertaining each other with our aborted boarding story. I’m pleased to have brought a little joy into their otherwise humdrum lives.
It became apparent that while the former first class passengers – us – had been put through the wringer at Hat Yai, the second class passengers spent a leisurely twenty minutes converting Thai baht into Malaysian ringgit, and stocking up on food and drink. We had had no breakfast, not even a coffee, and no lunch was in sight. Not only had the dining car disappeared with the first class carriage, even if it hadn’t, we had zero ringgit. Other than a small bag of chips which had survived the night (and thank heavens for that), we would have no sustenance until we alighted in Butterworth at 2pm. With longing fascination we watched the others eat. It is a miracle we didn’t kill each other.
Crossing the border it became clear that Thailand really is a basket case. The Thai train stations, where they had structures at all, are old and rickety. Their bitumen platforms are populated with unregulated vendors and disorderly passengers, all disposing of refuse and worse in places and in ways you’d rather they didn’t. The Thai rails themselves are barely parallel, wobbly on ancient wooden ties, possibly unimproved since laid by POW’s. By contrast, the Malaysian stations were modern brutalist monuments to efficiency, so clean you could eat off the raised platforms if it wasn’t for the omnipresent security who would shoot you should you try. The Malaysian rails were brand spanking new, straight as an arrow, flat as a pancake, laid on steel-reinforced concrete sleepers.
No surprise, really. Like India, Thailand has an obsession with democracy, although unlike India, Thailand ends up with a coup every five years or so, like bad clockwork. Malaysia has a more China-like obsession with productivity, cutting to the chase by fixing the elections, ensuring democracy works, literally. Like Alabama, sodomy is an offence used to jail the opposition.
Our luck changed for the better on arrival in Butterworth. We followed the signs off the platform directly to the ferry, never entering the train station. We expected to find a ferry terminal with cash machines and food – but soon discovered there was nothing but a ramp to the boat requiring cash to board. Two thug-like backpackers sensed our dismay, taking pity on we two sad-looking middle-aged fellows. Without prompt they not only explained the fare, but exchanged our baht to ringgit — at a favourable rate!
The ferry across the Straits of Malacca is undoubtedly the best way to arrive on Penang, although these days there are two bridges and countless flights. The ferry ride enables one to see the strategic importance of Georgetown, the colonial capital, and get a sense of the long, storied history of these bloodied waters.
Georgetown was founded by a bloke named Francis Light, a British naval officer and the bastard son of an English gentleman. Light made a deal with the Sultan on the mainland, basically, “If you leave me a lone and don’t support my enemies, and I won’t steal your slaves or support your enemies.” This worked a charm. That promise about the slaves, though, left Light in a bit of a quandary, as there was nobody about to do actual work, an anathema to colonial Englishmen. The fix was to import lots of Chinese and Indian labourers and merchants, whose descendants remain to this day.
Leaving the ferry, this time our walk went to plan, bolstering my damaged confidence. Penang doesn’t feel all that Malaysian. The streets of Georgetown hum with the commercial calculus of disorder found in larger Asian cities, but in Georgetown it occurs on a manageable, almost genteel, scale.
Our hotel, aptly named Seven Terraces, was nestled in the middle of a World Heritage District, seven historic terrace houses joined and refurbished in spectacular fashion. A wonderful place; if one will afford the $250 a night, I cannot imagine why anyone would stay elsewhere.
We had a too-late lunch before touring the central district on foot; stately colonial architecture fused with Chinese stylings, interrupted by the occasional art deco masterpiece — sometimes all in one building! We gorged ourselves with street hawker food at the night market for dinner, once again frustrating our attempts to luxuriate in our notional savings from not having taken the expensive train. Before bed, I noticed I still had “sea-legs” from 21 hours on the train. I didn’t stop me from sleeping, though!
We spent most of Tuesday visiting Batu Ferringi, which is generally described as “Penang’s best beach”, but by Australians as “disappointing”. Australians should know better than to leave Australia in search of great beaches, as disappointment is likely. Both descriptions were true, though, the olive drab murky waters of the Indian Ocean slurping the unwary down the steep sands into unexpectedly deep water with strong currents.
Power boats whizzed by just a few meters offshore. A driver waved at us enthusiastically — not, we discovered, a greeting, but a frantic warning that the parachutists being towed behind were about to land atop us. In fact, these were the only folks in the water.
We imposed on the hospitality of several resorts, including the Golden Sands, the Park Royal and the Shangi-La, the latter of which has particularly good and polite security, much to our dismay.
After lunch we headed back to the Seven Terraces where we sheltered from the oppressive afternoon heat. We took the opportunity to enjoy a bottle of Moët we had purchased at duty free, and then a fine bottle of Chilean Sav Blanc at the poolside afternoon tea, and then – well, you get the idea. By seven we were dining at the hotel’s fine restaurant, Kebaya (which had been highly recommended, and not just by the hotel staff).
By nine I was new best friends with the pianist. By ten, having assessed his virtuosic mediocrity as on par with mine, I accepted his invitation to make my Malaysian debut, a medley in B-flat of My Foolish Heart, Stella By Starlight, and Someday My Prince Will Come. It was well received, near as I can recall.
By eleven, Frank Lee was slipping a 50 ringgit tip into the hand of any staff that had a free one. This may explain why my debut was well received. It certainly didn’t detract from our popularity for the remainder of our stay.
Our last morning in Georgetown was spent moaning and speculating on the cause of the malaise that gripped us. We did mange to get out for a tour of Fort Cornwallis (ho-hum) prior to heading by taxi for our flight to Singapore.
The taxi ride was uneventful, although we witnessed the usual display of shockingly bad habits displayed by drivers throughout Asia. Asia has no monopoly on this problem, though. The citizens of many cities, most I daresay, on every continent (save the Antarctic), go so far as to brag about how bad their drivers are. The only logical conclusion I can draw is that humans oughtn’t be trusted to control automobiles. I find it encouraging that in my lifetime, computer-driven cars will be mandatory within urban limits.
Save the Antarctic, indeed.