Tuesday, February 26. 2008
Somewhere in the beginning of the haze that was 2007, the last chapter of the last story got lost in the fog. Somewhere in the haze that was leaving Indonesia, it appeared in the distance; ghosts of the past came home and ghosts of the future appeared in the edges of vision. Singapore, the Lion City, still has to tell its story, and yet still has stories to tell…

The place I’d gotten on the ferry might have been different, but on the Singapore side everything was the same as I remembered. Getting off, not a single taxi driver had breached security to come and hassle me, everything was clean and orderly. An easy walk to customs and an overly friendly dude behind a desk, the same way out and right through Harbourfront Shopping Centre and into the MRT station. A wave of the MRT card over the scanner and I was in; last time things weren’t so simple. I hadn’t had an ATM card and the money changer had been closed, and an impassioned appeal to the man working at the station had yielded no charity, but he did tell me to try the shop around the corner. I did, and the Indian man there generously changed my cash into Singapore dollars. I’d made it to Little India and spent about twenty minutes stumbling in the rain, looking for the hostel, before finding it and a girl out the front had told me the place was closed. She was joking, taking advantage of my unhappy visage and obvious labours, and sucked me in totally.

This time around, I strolled effortlessly from station to reception and enquired as the availability of beds, forgoing the urge to greet the man sitting behind it with a hearty “remember me?” and threw my bags down before venturing over the road to the Tekka Centre to get some food. Food, food and Singapore go hand in hand. Memories of those last days on the road came back, the act of covering familiar travelled territory a powerful tool to trigger these things. I remembered laksa that burned with chillies and soothed at the same time with coconut milk, I remembered icy deserts and fried noodles. All these things and more came back like old friends as I stepped into the hawker stalls, and late as it was they were still going strong. Most were closed but the row of Muslim food stalls across the back stay with it all night. Over chendol and noodles, I looked around and those days, just over a year before, came back. The Englishman I’d hung out with, and her. There’s two “her”s in Singapore for me, and neither of them are around anymore. Neither write back and neither, I imagine, want much to do with me now. That’s ok, kind of, but like all stories of the heart, the truth is less evident than anyone will ever admit.

She took me here the day after, on our only day together, to buy me lunch. She told me she was falling in love, and how happy she was, even though we knew the timer was well and truly clicking. That’s how she was, that’s just how she was, a passionate and strong girl in a space that was too small for her. And she’d seen something worth reaching for and grabbing, and she did just that.

I had fried rice but never finished it. I couldn’t eat.

I went back to the hostel after taking a walk around Little India. The underbelly of Singapore, the improbable underbelly it has to have, is on full display here. The alleyways behind Desker Road house the city’s red light district and when I’d heard about it the first time around, I couldn’t believe it. Singapore is so clean, so socially ordered, so puritanical and so very, very uptight – there was no way it was any more than an exaggeration or a mistake. But it had been there, red lights in doorways housing sultry and professional looking working women, street walking lady boys, and girls in doorways. I walked past, red faced at the audacity of it all. It became part of the tapestry I had in my mind about what life in the city was like, a small but important corner that colours the rest, and I had to make sure it was still there. The government has such a grip over civic life that they could surely erase it from the cityscape as easily as they had moved it on from Bugis Street years ago, and I was happy to see that things had not changed. Satisfied and tired, I went back.

Around the table in the common room was a German guy and a Japanese dude. Always present in the house are the Philippine girls, and one was just coming in, bags in hand, greeting the staff with enough familiarity to make me think she was coming back from one of many visa runs over to Johor Baru. I let these girls be, remembering it had taken a few days for them to talk to me, and had a long chat to the German guy. The Japanese dude was silent and shy, and seemed pretty boring, so I let him be. Things change, but they stay the same, and then some.

At night we’d be together, during the day we’d be together, all year we were together. The start was cloudy, different targets and a lack of definite words had conspired to confuse things just enough to nearly end it, but it had stayed good and it stayed fun. Always there when the other called, always cute, she was. So small, but with the attitude of a giant. She had come to study in Australia from Singapore and took with her the baggage of all Singaporeans, a sense of civic duty mixed with the complex family patterns of the Chinese living at the end of the Malay Peninsula. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, all mixed together to create a blend of obedience and expectation – a pressure not just from teachers and the self, but from the endless line of ancestry looking over their shoulders. It was a good year.

On the MRT to Orchard station the next day I thought I saw her. Someone who looked just enough like her to make me look twice, and stumble over myself. No way would that happen, not there, not like that. It wasn’t her, but it made me think about however ready I might have thought I could be to ever see her again, I would never be.

I went to the Qantas office to refund the ticket they made me buy to get out of the country. All it cost was 75 Singapore Dollars. What a load of crap. I could do nothing about it, so I took it, and left. Walking down the length of Orchard Road to Raffles Hotel, and onto the Padang and the collection of colonial buildings around it, and then to Chinatown to eat, and then tired already back to the hostel. I’d seen it all before and besides, the battery was dying in my camera.

Her ghost is still in there. It never ended well, setting a pattern for bad endings that would follow me a long while after. You can run but you can’t hide. I never spent so much as a second of time in Singapore with her, but the place and my memories are so strongly linked, she might as well have been with me the whole first time. I hadn’t intended to go there that first trip, but lack of options to get home had forced my hand. I’d enjoyed it, no doubt, but she was on my mind. That girl, I still remember her warmth and her voice and her love… I sat around the hostel, a million miles from where I should have been, when the girl who had come in the night before started talking to me.

You look boring. What? I reached and pulled myself into the moment. I think you mean, you look bored. It’s a little different. And then we got to talking. She wasn’t Philipino, but Indonesian, Javanese to be precise, and she was a traveller like me, transiting for a few days on the way to somewhere cheaper and more exotic. She usually came via Singapore and stayed at this hostel. I’d just come through Sumatra so we had notes to compare. She wasn’t all that good looking but she laughed when I made a joke, good or bad, and it was kind of cute. She had a hard edge to her, I could tell she’d been through some things in her time. Turns out I was right, like I always am right. She’d gotten divorced and had a kid, not yet two years old. I could see there was still some pain there, but still she was friendly. We went to eat that night, at a place that did African food. It was terrible, the worst thing on the menu in the whole city, no doubt. I had some chendol after and it was even worse, some Indian version with spices and crap in it, it was truly horrific. I didn’t realise until days later, but we stayed up talking past two am.

I’d stayed up drinking with Mat until about three, over at the all-night eating places in Little India, after a brief tour of the red light sights. Mat had no trouble going up to the “ladies” and asking them what they offered. Seems fifty Singapore will get you off – like the rest of things in town, butterflies of the night were more expensive in the Lion City. Mat never realised but I was timing it so that I would get home about the same time she would be coming in and it couldn’t have worked out better – she saw me and told me to wait upstairs. She took a single room for the night and we used the rest of the night like we were supposed to. That would be our only night together, since her visa was out and was going to have to make the run the following evening and I’d be gone by the time she got back. So it was what it was and we took our chance. She had a kid back in Manilla and I’d never been with someone who’s given birth. Years before I had the experience likened to ‘space-walking’ and that slipped into my mind as it slipped in. Not the best place for my mind to be, but quickly I was back. And yeah, it was like walking in space.

The next day she took me to lunch, and we stuck together the rest of the time, making the most of it. I can still see the look on her face as she looked at me through the taxi window, and the feeling of sinking as I walked back up the stairs. One night? Some kind of cruel joke is how it felt, but we shouldn’t question to far these things.

The next day I woke up and around about midday went out walking. I ended up walking all the way to Sentosa Island, a place I’ll say little about, since I despise it such. It’s Singapore divided by Disneyland, and is the opposite end of the scale to Desker Road. The Yin and Yang of life in such a city, opposite ends that both colour the whole picture. Plastic fantastic beaches? No thanks. I decided there and then I needed to leave Singapore. It was all getting to me. It was hot, expensive, and there were other places to be. I took the MRT back and flopped on the table in the common room. She was there, as always – for whatever reason she was spending these three days in town but didn’t seem to leave the hostel. Strange things, but not everyone goes there for the same reasons me. This time I took her to get food and it was much better. The way she looked at me over my desert told me I might not get away from her as just friends.

I took her virginity the last night she was in Melbourne. The next day she’d get on the shuttle bus to the airport and leave me for the summer. All year it had been something of an issue between us, what with me being a hormone charged teenager wanting his, wanting her, wanting it so badly, and with her and her quasi-religious leanings – I never understood fully her point of view, but most nights I got her naked and “serviced” her, and then I’d service myself. This was as close as we would get, as close as she’d let me get, and I never forced the issue. But I can only say It was the sense of occasion that led her to let me take her that last night. Anyone who has deflowered a girl knows it’s never the best, but somehow the “sacredness” of it all makes up for it. All I know is I never saw sheets that red, or ever felt that close to someone, or ever hurt so bad the next day when she left. Later, I neglected to hide the ruined sheets and when my sister helped me pack my stuff for the summer, she stumbled upon it and just as quickly, hid it again.

Her father died on New Year’s Eve. I still have the e-mail, she told me she wouldn’t be the same again and she wanted to end it. I was spending the summer chasing my tail, spinning around and going crazy, the only thing I had to look forward to were the nightly chats on ICQ. I wanted none of that kind of talk and told her everything I could to change her mind, and when she came back early to re-sit a couple of exams (the first but not the last time I would be responsible for a girl’s lack of academic fulfilment) I took the initiative and moved into Tommy G’s place in Richmond, so I could go and hold her. I did this, and she was still the same girl, and we talked and talked and I held her all night and it was OK then, but it was never the same.

I was leaving the next day and so was she. Three am rolled around and I made noises about going to bed. She said yeah, it was time to sleep. At the top of the stairs I gave her a hug, and she kissed me. I kissed her back. From there it was a few metres to her room. We had to move the bed so it wouldn’t bang on the wall so loudly. I left when she had to go to the airport, at about five thirty, and got a few hours in my own bed. She was long gone when I got up to eat breakfast, and a few raised eyebrows from the other people in the dorm room were all that was left of it. To tell the truth, it was fucking amazing – but this isn’t that kind of place, we don’t work blue around here. At least, not that blue. She wasn’t that good looking and still had ‘mummy tummy’ but attitude is all the more important, and the moment is telling. I know so little about some things, and ever more do I come across things that defy my use of vocabulary and words in general. Let’s let this be one of those times.

I never saw her after that, just as I never saw either of the other girls who still follow me around Singapore. I half expected one to walk into the hostel common room and I know the other is hiding just behind a corner – and I’m sure they are both happy with someone else. This only makes me feel a little better. If I’d still been with either of them, my life would be very, very different – and I couldn’t swap the last few years for anything like that. Plus, I know I would have gotten bored eventually. I’m a prick like that, and I did a lot of growing up in the meantime, but I know there’s still a lot to go.

Eventually I became cold to her and she left me. I was more hurt because of the pain I caused her, more than any heartbreak I might have felt. A week or so later she showed up at my door and we had sex again, but nothing came of it, and in a month I kept seeing her with a friend of mine. Paranoia set in. There’s scars on my arm that testify to the punishment I endured in this time, and marks that tell you just how little sleep I was getting. Eventually I made her tell me what was going on and I confronted him. His line was the immortal, “I never thought we were friends in the first place”. I should have destroyed him, but I had a steady hand on my arm. Instead I got drunk and spewed all night. I never spoke to either of them again.

My pelvic bone hurt as I took the local bus 170 to the border and over to Johor Baru. Damn, she was rough, but wasn’t it better that way? I just know I’ll find myself back in Singapore in times to come, and then there’ll be three girls faces hiding in the crowds.


Tuesday, February 26. 2008
Why Malaysia? It was the cheapest ticket I could get out of Melbourne. Why leave? I was at a real dead end and I had the chance. Why didn’t I get around to telling people until a week before I left? Because it went, deal with Christmas and the inevitable ‘what are you doing with your life’ speech from my parents, then deal with new years, an event detailed on these very same hallowed pages, chronicled for all to read. Then there was dealing with the wash up, and then I figured I better tell people I wouldn’t be there much longer. This gave me about a week to do, and inevitably, people were shocked, surprised and upset, but this soon gave way under the all-conquering spell of beer to acceptance and a form of understanding. Or so I like to think, because if it was any different and the paranoid voices are right – nobody, not even myself, was satisfied with the way it all transpired. Yeah. What a way to get back on the road, a road long thought of, dreamed about, followed many times in daydreams and internal discussions – with the pain of real separation anxiety weighing down every step more than any backpack ever could. This sucks, I thought, as I lined up at the Jetstar counter at Tullamarine. What the fuck, I mumbled, as the lady told me the airline required a return ticket before they would let me on. The other reason Malaysia had been such a tempting choice was that they didn’t need to see this kind of proof I’d be leaving their shores, so imagine my reaction at this news. I went to the sales desk and they sold me a fully-refundable ticket out of Singapore (apparently they didn’t actually care about how I’d be leaving Malaysia at all, just that I was leaving somewhere) and I made it on time.

A two hour delay in Sydney was spent reading at the duty free bookshop and feeding my last Aussie coins into a vending machine. Looking at the people waiting patiently at the gate, there were mostly touristy looking white folk and better off looking Chinese Malaysian types, and for the most part they seemed to be on one end or another of a holiday in the sun. There was one other who set off the backpacker type radar, because I’d seen him checking in with a huge pack, and he had the slacker look about him, hair just long and blonde enough to assume he’d spent a year picking fruit and not cutting it, the look topped off with board shorts. I felt like talking to no-one and every second felt like an eternity, waiting to leave the country and get on with it. Get on with it! And eventually we were hoarded onto the plane and I sat and waited. So long, all that.

The airport at the other end was nice. Very nice, actually. But as third-world as a country might get at the edges, governments do love to make the airport look as shiny as possible, so it’s never an indication of what lies beyond. Check out a bus station, that will teach you a real lesson about what goes on. My information told me that the cheapest beds in Kuala Lumpur were in Chinatown and tended to fill up pretty fast, so I turned down the cheaper option of a bus for the overpriced express train and navigated my way from KL Central to Pasar Seni and then I was on my own on the wild streets of Asia again. It felt somewhere between the slum of Jakarta and the clean of Singapore – navigable, but watch your step and the traffic is a bitch – but you don’t need that local-only sixth sense to get around, while the traffic lights seemed to be mere suggestions (when they were working). I found one backpacker place and was told the dorm was full, but they also ran another place nearby, and to try there. I did, after finding several whore-filled side streets first, and took the second last bed. Satisfied, I dumped the bag and got some food. Down home and dirty, the bed cost a few dollars and the noodles half that again, and the ice tea had lime in it. Things could have been worse, I told myself. The Chinatown market was in full swing, but it petered out after a few streets, reflecting the more puritanical outlook on life in Malaysia and the relatively small population of the city – a far cry from the millions crowding Asia’s other capitals and crowded metropolises, even dwarfed by Australia’s big cities, KL is home to a mere 1.2 million souls, and most of them are doing OK. Sure, they’re not going to be buying Porches any time soon, but they’re a good long way from the gutters.

I was tired, or at least, not in the mood to fight off offers of foot massages and beer, so back to the dorm room. It was a windowless box with four double bunks in it and the bedding was minimal (I had to actually ask for a sheet to sleep under) but it was temporary home, road bed, and the same thing to seven other souls. A Japanese guy, a Taiwanese guy, and Aussie with the mother of all hard-luck stories, and a collection of bags that indicated occupation, even if the owners weren’t there at the time. I was listening to the hard-luck story – he’d lost his passport and credit card in China and somehow ended up in visa-limbo between China and Vietnam, and missed his flight home as a consequence. Already out of pocket for a temporary passport and a lost flight and with no credit card to pay for it, he’d had to ask his dad for money to get home. Which is funny if you’re twenty, not so funny if you’re thirty five and probably should have been more careful. The real money shot was that his dad hadn’t shelled out for the optional extra of food on the flight, and he barely had enough cash to get to the airport the next day, meaning a few hungry days ahead. And during this story, who might walk in but the backpacker type from the airport in Sydney. Small world, no? His name was Egon (“egg-on”) and he was Estonian. Having myself been a veteran of Estonia, we had some common ground from the start. Impressed that I had not only been there but done more than just gotten trashed in Tallinn (the general activity of visitors to Estonia) I enamoured myself to him right away. Not that I needed to, because a friendlier, more open minded and easy going young man you would have to travel a long way to meet. The smile on his face was constant and genuine, the interest he showed was real and his overall lust for life as fiery as I’ve seen on anyone. He’d just finished eleven months on a working holiday in Australia, having worked in offices and farms, mostly in the north, and four-wheel-drived his way around the rest. I’d made my first road-friend for the year and we’d eventually stick together for a week and a half. He had about a month to get up to Bangkok and so had to hustle through Malaysia, which suited me just fine. I would be back in KL again at some point so if I missed anything this time, there would be time again later.

The next morning another part of the dorm family came clear, and it was the rarest of creatures. A female. Not that you never get to share a dorm with girls, it’s mostly boys, and on the backpacker trail it’s not too long before the single girls start sleeping in double rooms with any of their pick of the guys going their way, making it all the rarer again to see a single girl show up. Her name was Yanti and while she was German, she was half Indonesian, giving her a look that might have made her at least part-local anywhere from the middle east all the way to the Pacific Islands. She was new on the road too, having done a month in India before doing some of Thailand and south into Malaysia, with almost a year ahead of her. India is a destination all of its own, and the feelings she described were things I’ve heard before. A month there just isn’t long enough, and life there is so real, close to the ground, spiritual; touristy decadent Thailand must have felt absurdly cheap after that. I could only take her word for it, and she became the third piece of the puzzle as she spent the day with Egon and I seeing sights and generally wandering around the city.

KL is not designed for pedestrians. Getting around, thanks to the light rail slash subway lines and the ever-friendly monorail, is easy enough, but moving on foot is an activity not for the clumsy of foot. While easier than Jakarta (because there’s actually a footpath) it’s not like taking a quiet stroll around. The first place was to the Petronas Towers, my love of phallic buildings winning out, but not to go up and see the view but to try and get tickets to go up and see the view. They only hand out so many a day, you see, and the supply lasts until about midday. We got there at about midday and took the last three tickets. Quite lucky. We’d have to return at 6.15 to take our turn, but I wasn’t going to complain. We mostly wandered after that with little idea of where to go, just a general idea, and when the rain came we took shelter in a local café and had some ice tea.

Even when it’s rainy season in Malaysia, it’s still hot and steamy. Walking about in this is only a fun sounding idea when you’re shivering through winter somewhere, because the reality is that you feel wet and clingy all the time and there’s no escape, except an air-conditioned building. The tourist centre was just that and we hung around there much longer than we really needed to, because it was cool in there. But eventually we got hungry and left in search of food.

We found a local café sort of deal, a self serve exercise staffed by locals who didn’t speak out language but helped as much as they could. It was all good. Rice, various stir fried and curried bits and pieces, all unknown, all spicy as hell, all cheap and all good.

A visit to the mosque later and it was time to lie down for a while. Yanti had some friends staying somewhere else and had put together a plan to go out that night (apparently it was Friday) and we were invited. It didn’t take long to say yes. So a lie down and a trip to the shop to get booze later and we were on our way to look for where they were. This took longer than planned because they couldn’t give directions and we couldn’t follow them. We did get there, but only after a few frayed nerves and Egon got lost on his own (and that’s not the last time that will happen) – and so started the drinking. We had to catch up and they wanted to leave, giving us little time to do what we needed. Drinking games filled the void and soon enough we were gone. KL’s club scene is not impressive, or even on my list of things to do before I die, but it’s there and it was a good night, not so much for the music (commercial stuff, but not too commercial) but the company. Yanti’s friends were cool, Egon was cool, and Yanti was cool. Good vibes all around, and these two Singaporean girls were into all of us and so it went, into the early hours, to some beers back at the guest house, followed by getting told off for being noisy, and some people who weren’t staying there staying there. A good night, even if it was off the schedule and budget.

The next morning I talked Egon into going to Cameron Highlands, if he was going to leave, because that’s where I was going. Hungover we tackled the bus station, a raucous mess of people and offices that make no sense and is especially hard to deal with when hungover and hungry. But we got tickets and were on our way out, almost as soon as we had gotten there.

The bus left late, confirming every stereotype about the Malaysian sense of time. We had neglected to eat before leaving and had to make do with junk food and bottles of tea until we got where we were going. This wouldn’t have been so bad, if it was a short trip, but it’s close to four and a half hours up to the town of Tanah Ratah. The whole area was a hill station in colonial times, somewhere the gentry could go to escape the heat of the cities and towns and supposedly retains some of this heritage. It was indeed cooler up there than down in KL, but it looks like any other little Chinese built community, all functional concrete. Careful observation shows a few rows of buildings with some character, but for the most part the atmosphere isn’t anything special.

Off the bus and the touts were out for our business, but they weren’t pushy or gouging, it was honestly quite friendly, and as cheap as advertised, plus they gave us a lift to the guest house. Not that it’s a long way from the main road, but it’s the thought that counts. Eight Ringgit later (that’s less than three Aussie dollars for all the bean counters out there) Egon and I had dorm beds in the attic of one suspiciously decrepit building, but all that mattered was we could now go and get some food.

The area is mostly agricultural, all sorts of produce grows up there, as well as the local specialties, tea and strawberries. These would be two of my favourite things in the world, so picture me in all that, and throw in some pretty mean jungle trekking and it’s getting a lot like Christmas. The guest houses in the area have pretty cheap rooms and beds but clean up on selling tours, because the public transport in the area is limited at best and mostly non-existent. This is how they can get people signed up to their tours, prices starting at twenty and getting as high as eighty Ringgit, and make those ends meet. Around the table in the attached bar that night we heard that it was easily possible to get to the trail heads, farms and plantations either on the public bus (make sure you get there on time) or by hitching. So in the morning we were up nice and early and got the rattling local bus up to the start of one trail and up we went. It might be cooler up there but still it’s humid and the trail is marked, but easy to follow it’s ain’t. It’s rough going, seriously tough work needed, and there’s plenty to trip you and plenty of puddles to land in.

It took about two hours of what felt like real jungle going. There was barely ever a view out of there, so dense is the jungle, and the trail becomes little more than the gaps in the trees. If it hadn’t been marked, there would have been trouble. But emerge at the top we did, shoes covered in mud and sweaty as all heck – to a weather station and a road. There were tour groups in busses up there, checking the view. We could but laugh at them, because we were the real deal and we had earned that view. All that was left was to walk down and as unappealing as that sounded, it turned out to be ok, because the views across the tea plantations were absolutely amazing. Green rolling hills cris-crossed with the little pathways between them, stretching off into the infinite green and then into the infinite blue of the sky.

We walked down the road for about an hour, waving to the occasional worker lazing about. Every corner presented either a new panorama or a wall of rock and jungle. The heat was there but not the humidity, so there was no struggle with the weather. Neither did we see any cars, so talk of hitching a ride was theoretical at best. Eventually a car did come up behind us and Egon stuck out his hand and behold, we were off. Trying not to get their nice clean car dirty with our mud encrusted shoes, our benefactors were headed in the same direction, at least as far as the main road, where doubtless we would encounter a lot more traffic. At the bottom there was a bunch of shops, stalls, farms and other businesses. Every second vehicle seemed to be a tour bus, some carrying people staying at the same guest house as us. How very backpacker of them, making their way around the sights in air conditioned comfort. It must have been such a struggle.

We saw the butterfly farm, a meshed-in hothouse full of flowers and butterflies, and past that an array of possibly local insect and lizard life. It wasn’t quite worth the price of admission, but seeing as we’d seen no wildlife in the actual jungle, it rounded out the excursion nicely. Getting a ride back to Tanah Ratah was not as easy as first thought, every car was either full or a chartered tour bus full of lazy bitches, or just driven by dicks who had no heart. It seemed like longer, but eventually we got picked up by a couple from Singapore after about ten minutes. They were going our way and as an added bonus, went via the local Chinese temple, then dropped us in town. I hope they weren’t too pissed when they saw the mess we made of their back seat.

The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a mess. As soon as we got into a restaurant it started raining – and this was some real rain, like from the dawn of time. A sheet of water fell from the sky. Being out in the jungle would have been suicidal at that point, it was hard enough going with the puddles from yesterday’s rain still on the ground. Imagine what it would be like in the monsoonal rains? Forget about it. The rain also scarpered plans to hitch down the road to a tea plantation, where a lazy afternoon of learning about tea and drinking tea would have occurred, that and the local bus that was supposed to leave at three o’clock was cancelled, meaning the next one would get us there in time to see it close for the day. Knowing when to walk away, we did, retreating to the guest house.

Nothing was achieved after that, until the evening when we hit the attached bar and sat around trading stories and talking regulation backpacker shit with everyone else. I felt for the first time the insanity of the whole deal, deep in conversation with a Scottish girl, a South African guy, a Danish guy and Egon – I came to Malaysia for this? Where might the locals be? It’s the epidemic sweeping all backpacking spots, and I know as well as anyone that the only locals to be found are the ones working there. In Europe, this hadn’t been such a big deal, seeing as hanging with Europeans in Europe is totally acceptable in my controlled world, but years of dealing with them in Japan has given me a dim view of how most white folk – especially short term visitors and mature-age entry residents – look at Asia. I make no bones about the fact I have looked deep into the dragon and know how the beast works, I have a handle on the epic story of China, I even can claim to be a student of Islam to a degree. All this is good in theory, but even the most well intentioned left leaning types can come to Asia and become mini-colonialists. The next time I hear a six foot Scandinavian wax lyrical about the toilets, that day I become a murderer.

But the inherent hypocrisy in going to foreign lands and interacting minimally with the natives is, and I accept this one hundred percent, almost always unavoidable. I’m not going to move to Malaysia, and even if I did, learning Malay would be unfortunately low on my list of priorities. Thus the language barrier remains. A handful of phrases will get you a long way as a traveller, this is true, but you’ll never get down and dirty with the locals because you know how to ask where the toilet might be, or can order food for all and sundry at a restaurant. Instead, getting a glimpse at the soul of a country is best attempted by seeing as much of it as possible, chatting to those you meet who might have some language in common, hitting the museums, art galleries, trying the food, learning the history, learning how to pronounce the names of places properly – anything you can think to add to the list, do it, just do it. Not on the list is playing drinking games and trying desperately to hit on the Swedish girl sitting next to you.

I’m not belittling the chance to talk to someone from the other side of the world about their life and story, about where they are from, because that’s exactly what comes of these times in the evening. It’s just a side product of the whole deal and shouldn’t be treated as the main event and all too sadly, people end up doing just this. I meet way too many people who have come through Thailand and experience a totally different Thailand to what the locals do. Yes, they eat the same food and could go hang on a beach if they wanted to. But almost no locals participate in the diving industry, and every second motherfucker coming from Thailand seems to have done nothing else up there. Then they whinge about how crowded it is and how they don’t like the food. Give me a break.

Am I sounding bitter? I shouldn’t, because after the festivities were over I went to bed and no-one slept with any of the Swedish girls. I think I might be the winner in that scenario, what do you reckon?
Penang is really a general name for a handful of places. The town of Butterworth is on the mainland and across from there is Pulau Pinang, a sizeable island where the main settlement is called Georgetown. I think Butterworth and Georgetown are simply the best sounding colonial names ever, but prove pretty damn difficult for the natives to pronounce properly, so the whole area gets labelled ‘Penang’, for simplicity. Everyone can say it, everyone knows what you’re talking about, everyone is happy with the situation. It does mean the more brainless of the tourists get confused as to exactly what it all means – but fuck them, they probably have a hotel room with air conditioning.

Getting there was a chore in itself. Egon and I woke up and packed plenty early, got some breakfast and rocked around to the bust station right on nine am, only to be told that the bus had inexplicably left already. What the fuck? This is Malaysia, nothing leaves on time in Malaysia! But short of getting angry, the lady called the driver on his mobile and told us to get a taxi to the town up the road where it would wait for us. So we ran to the road and behold, a taxi waiting for us. We high-tailed it up the road and there was no bus to be seen, we got all through town and still no bus. We turned and went back a little, no bus. On the edge of giving up, the bus came around the corner. Somehow we had beaten it there, so who knows how this shit works? We get on and the driver isn’t even pissed at us. We paid the taxi an extra dollar for his work and we were on our way, and just as well, the next bus is at five pm and would land us there way too late to get a cheap bed.

This was all well and good, us feeling bad for having delayed the bus somewhat, until we stopped at the bus station in Ipoh and the driver took a half hour toilet break. Clearly, running to a schedule wasn’t something he was getting a bonus for that day. We got to the bus station in Georgetown in good time in the end, the roads in Malaysia are great and traffic is hardly a problem. None of the cities are particularly massive and despite the cheap costs of life there, the country seems prosperous. No doubt the oil production helps.

Anyway, we split a taxi from the station into Chinatown with a British couple and found Love Lane, where we had heard there was quality accommodation options, and that the street was quieter than the main thoroughfare where the majority of sleeping options were. One place looked inviting and we stepped in to be greeted by an old guy with long grey hair. Do you have any beds for tonight? Yes, best in town! My place is the best, you go anywhere else and check, you always come back here. Sounds good, how much? You backpackers, always want cheaper! Is good price, why you always argue about price! You come in, I show you room, best in town!

Meet Jimmy. Jimmy knows everything and takes no bullshit. He knows his market and runs a tight place. He has the attitude to match. I liked him immediately. And for the emaciated sum of eight Ringgit a night, the deal was unbeatable. And he wasn’t just making it up, his place was spotless and had atmosphere. And on top of this, Jimmy was a travelling man himself, having come from Taiwan, and had been everywhere in the area. He knew how to get there, what things cost, where to stay, all the guest house owners worth knowing, what to see, and a bit more besides. This sort of inside information is invaluable in Asia, where people make a good living leading kind-hearted hippy travelling folk astray. Having a guy like Jimmy on your side is a weapon not to be underestimated, so the attitude is worth putting up with.

Jimmy also has friends all over town, and enemies too. If you want food, he knows where to go, heck, they’ll even bring it to you so you can chow down right there on Jimmy’s front porch. Renting a motorbike? Jimmy knows a reliable guy, his bikes won’t break down (human error not withstanding) and so it goes, just don’t tell him you’re going somewhere he doesn’t approve of, or you cop an earful.

The rest of the day we just walked around the streets of Georgetown, checking out the remaining examples of colonial architecture and digging the street scene. We ventured upon a Chinese temple and understood nearly nothing of what we were looking at, until a Japanese tour group came along and I followed surreptitiously, translating to Egon under my breath. Scamming a free half-tour, I love it.

Back in Cameron Highlands we’d met around the campfire a Danish guy named Mathius, your typical six foot plus Viking type, who had a pretty decent sob story himself. He and his girlfriend had both caught Dengue fever and had spent the last three weeks lying in bed in a KL hotel, feverish and with a headache, wishing they were anywhere else. They had just felt well enough to get out of there and up to the highlands, where he felt good but she’d taken ill again. So he was trapped wherever she was, and not exactly interested in hiking through a jungle (although personally, I couldn’t conceive of a better idea to re-create a genuine colonial experience than to stumble blindly through a primeval jungle while dying of breakbone fever) so he was content to hang out at the guest house and meet people. I took an instant shine to the guy, and everyone likes Egon, what with his raffish smile and dentist ad good looks plus Estonian exoticness. So it was with great pleasure that we ran into him again in Georgetown, this time with a healthy looking girlfriend, Julia, in tow. We conspired to rent motorbikes together the next day and set up a time, and then went for a few beers. Nightlife in Malaysia is a bit of a dead end, full stop. Penang Island is no exception, the handful of places running the drinking businesses doing it without much style and so much tax on alcohol as to make you wonder why you came. But hey, it was there to be sampled and so we did, stepping along Chulia street and around her army of lady-boy hookers to get to the places Jimmy told us to go – and were not blown away by the result. If it’s a laid back evening you’re looking for, then sure, but a little action goes a long way.

The next day we ponied up to rent bikes and one Victorian learner’s permit later, I was off. Legally it doesn’t let me drive fuck all in Australia, and not without the company of a fully licensed driver in shotgun – and I’m sure it doesn’t let me do anything in Malaysia either, but it looked official and that’s all that mattered. That I never rode a manual bike before, also irrelevant. I had experience on automatic farm bikes and four-wheelers in rural settings, but in traffic in town, nope. Quick to learn and eager to drive, we all set off toward the petrol station. The crew at this point was myself, Egon, Mathius and Julia on one bike, and an Indian guy we’d met the day before. The ride to the petrol station was an event in itself, what with me not knowing how to shift out of neutral and Egon managing to fuck up braking to the point of crashing into some dude parked at the side of the road – we were on our way. No-one knew how to fill them up, either, so as we poked and prodded and tried to get into the tanks, a line slowly grew behind us and the attendant looked less happy every passing minute. You’ll be happy to hear that we figured it out and that it was also dead cheap, but we did not feel like masters of the road.

Back at Jimmy’s to get Egon’s hand cleaned up (superficial scrapes and cuts, nothing needing serious medical attention) and directions out of town, and then we were rolling. Once I figured the gears out, it turns out to be a hell of a lot like riding a push bike, just heavier and capable of doing a hundred k’s an hour. The dynamic was essentially the same, so I took to it without too much trouble. Then it was a matter of figuring out the ideal speeds for turning, and then getting a taste for local traffic conditions (not as hairy as Jakarta or KL and not the infamous Taipei Rally, but still Asian) and learning to use the invisible third lane (you know, the one in between the two existing lanes that the locals use at any time necessary with scant application or “rules” or “laws”) and I was flying. Really, I shouldn’t be allowed on the road, but I’m damn glad I got there. Where had this been all my life? Between digging the experience of hurling my bicycle around suburban Tokyo all those years and hanging on for dear life while the J attempts to win the Rally, I might have put two and two together, but no, it was meant to be here and now, and I might just be hooked on this.

The destination, it was widely agreed, mattered little. Riding was so much fun, especially once we hit the back of the island and it turned into a green tunnel into the mountain, with all the twists and turns you can eat. We stopped off in all the small towns and at the fruit farm to sample the local produce, and took some turn offs to see it we could find some beaches. We failed to do so, but managed to lose Egon somewhere. It’s still a mystery as to what exactly happened – we waited around for a while but he never showed, so we resolved to keep going around the island and when we arrived back at Jimmy’s after negotiating Georgetown traffic successfully, there he was, wondering where the fuck we had been.

We heard stories of beaches and the like from others that night, but the real thrill of Penang was the riding. We sat that night in a café on Chulia street and waxed lyrical about it and all agreed on this fact. Joining us were a Scottish girl from Cameron Highlands and two people she knew from a local university, a French girl and a Thai girl. The conversation was good, except for some class-A bullshit from the Scot (bile on this topic I’ll not put in here, it’s best not worrying about, but suffice is to say if you’re going to lecture us on the topic of how important it is to ‘learn the lingo’ of a country, make sure you know how to pronounce the names of places properly – while it’s not her fault that Thai Romanisation suffers from the same missing aspiration apostrophe as Taiwan does, it still made her look right fucking foolish). At the end of the day it was good times, even if we missed some of the known tourist spots in Georgetown itself, and even if the city is nowhere near as picturesque as the publicity might suggest – which just shows, a power sightseer can always learn a new way of doing things.
The next day we were up, breakfasted and out the door down to the ferry terminal, enroute to Malaysia’s most northern outpost. Langkawi Island is a destination for two main reasons, both eternally appealing to the backpacker and the more general tourist alike, and as rare commodities in the rest of Malaysia they make up for the downsides to visiting. The island is blessed with Thailand-esqe beaches and the glory of duty-free status, and thus beer is not just affordable, it’s downright disgustingly cheap. And not just at the duty free stores of Kuah Town (the biggest settlement and home to the ferry terminal) but at corner stores and the supermarket at Canang Beach, where the fun is at. A drink at a bar on the island goes for half what it would elsewhere in the country, about four Ringgit, and a frosty can of Tiger can be had for as little as one-twenty. With the exchange rate currently sitting at 3.20 Ringgit to the US dollar, you do the maths. The same can will sting you at least seven at a similar retail outlet elsewhere in the land. So the more astute reader will already be putting the pieces together, and yes, the rest of this chapter is awash in drunkenness. Combined with an unfortunate delay in actually hitting the keyboard to commit this all to digital paper, things are a touch fuzzy, but bear with me, as rough seas are all a part of the ride.

The ferry was like a fridge. Such air conditioning would comfortably keep meat bacteria free and encourage penguins to colonise the corners of the boat. The unfortunate passengers were all dressed for the thirty degree plus day outside and suffered accordingly. A dodgy VCD of ‘Transformers’ kept the shivering, huddled masses entertained for the two hour crossing. And in amongst this was me, somehow impervious to the cold, sleeping the whole way. Egon and I had taken the two front rows and had them all to ourselves, so we took advantage of this and stretched out. Upon arrival we were set upon by the usual array of taxi drivers. Having run this gauntlet, we secured rental motorbikes (but not after extended arguing over the price) and were off, flying without abandon across the wide highway that served the southern coast of the island. Speed limits and turn signals are things that happen to other people here. Believe me, we were two of the more sane drivers out there.

Canang Beach was found by following the signs. Gecko Guesthouse, recommended by Jimmy, was harder to locate, but after three passes along the same stretch of road, we stumbled across it and took the last of the cheap beds. The owner was a nice enough lady who deals with one too many Thailand veterans – backpackers who think they are king shit because they negotiated Thailand, burned out hippy types who leave things lying around, enlightened weirdos who all wanted discounts because they were staying a few weeks. They all got a refusal, and one based in fact, because the rooms were booked pretty solid for weeks. The single dorm room was consistently full too, and I say the owner was nice because there was really only one bed left and I was allowed to sleep on the floor. For this I was still charged the same, but even at slightly inflated Langkawi prices it was a decent deal.

The crowd of our-age people were all cool. There was a pair of Dutch girls, a Kiwi guy, a Swedish girl. The English couple were unfortunately English, but we still let them tag along. The principal activities around the island involve beaches and all beach related activity. So, lying in the sun and swimming. Between our pasty white Baltic complexions and Egon’s current collection of open wounds, neither of these were going to sustain us for any length of time. Thankfully we had our bikes and the gall to tempt fate even further by flying around the island at outrageous speeds, and this became what we did for the next day and a half. We stayed two nights on Langkawi and saw pretty much every part of the main roads (admittedly not all that long) and every beach we could get to. The road also leads up the mountain in the middle of the island, where we pretended to be Moto-GP drivers all alone on a twisting mountain track and discovered the observation tower at the top was closed for reservations. The beaches ranged from slightly grotty, because of proximity to lots of tourists, to small and rocky right next to the main road, to secluded and sublime curves of golden sand and turquoise waters. In all this I managed to prang my bike, hitting the end of a small concrete retaining wall while doing a shoulder check to see if Egon was following me. I came off the back and the bike skidded out. I was unscathed and the bike a little scratched up, but it was a close one. Next time I’ll be sure to use the mirrors.

The nights were spent drinking cheap drinks from the duty free clandestinely in the dorm room. The open seating, suspiciously empty given the ‘full’ status of the rooms, were a no-BYO-zone, but since we were all staying in the dorm it presented no great obstacle to getting smashed. The in bar to be at afterwards was not a bar at all but a handful of mats and candles on the beach, staffed by the beach boy slash Rasta population of the island. It was a sublime location, the only sounds were the customers and the occasional tune from the staff on acoustic guitar, and the waves gently coming in on the beach. As the night goes on, things get rowdier, and the local colour comes out. And by that, I mean Captain Black Sparrow. I’d heard about this guy as far away as in KL, and doubtless tales of his exploits are known much further along the trail to the north too. He looks, for a much used comparison, like Johnny Depp in those pirate movies we all love so much. Only more so, because he’s 100% natural and 100% fuelled up all the time. Just don’t call him Jack and you’ll be mates for life. Where the Captain goes, loyal followers gather, and a good time is promised. When things finish up on the beach, the crowds are moved to the Reggae Bar right at the end of the tourist strip (to keep the noise down, see) and things get even louder and crazier as the local percussion band provides a constant dance beat going. It’s a good setup, both places are run and staffed by the same people, all locals, and the aim is to provide a service that the younger crowd is after. Once a week the action is moved to a small island off the coast for a more out-there experience, but the boat there ain’t free, neither is the return trip, and that’s once part of the setup that needs filing off. After all, it’s 20 Ringgit less people would have spent drinking, without a doubt, and as such is 20 Ringgit they would have gotten anyways. Plus more people would be up for it if it were free to get to, I’m just sayin’.

So at the end of the days on Langkawi, everyone had a hangover and an urge to head north to Thailand. Me, my path was going a different way, so I along took a different ferry to my new friends. But not after discovering a not-small ding in the front wheel (ploughing a motorbike into a solid block of concrete tends to damage it, it turns out), so my farewell to Egon was done under cover of an operation to dump the bike, get deposit back, and hide in the ferry terminal, lest the big guy who owns the bikes come looking for the dick who fucked up the front wheel. What can I say, I might have a talent for these things.

Back to Penang for the night, some larks around the hostel tables, a late night and an early morning later I was on another ferry, this time bound for Medan, Indonesia.

Dear Sports Fans

Tuesday, February 26. 2008
Welcome to the no-spellcheck zone. This means I'm sitting in some rathole of an internet cafe and fittingly, this one is in the middle of nowhere. The train is taking a well deserved three hour break after the strenuous two hours it did this morning getting here; as a result I have little to do in place with even less to occupy me. Also, I should have changed my underwear this morning. This is not the time for regrets, however, as it is really a time for celebrations! I'm about to shower you all with page upon page of text, glorious text -- and I just know you've all been salivating, mouths open, waiting for my bounty to rain upon you.

That time is here. And while there's doubtless some horrendous fuckups in this text, I couldn't be bothered holding the other posts to my usual lofty standards. There's a lot of reasons for this, resons that I can't go into here, but if they look a little odd, well, fuck you.

Behold! And anyway, it won't nearly be as bad as that tripe 'John' rolled out. Dude, we have standards here! STANDARDS!