Tye Ann Hotel
3rd November 1985
I hope this letter arrives in time for me to wish you a Happy Christmas. I’ll be sending lots of cards next week from Thailand, assuming they’ve arrived from Singapore where I arranged to have them printed. It seems strange to be thinking of Christmas though when I don’t recall ever being hotter in November.
Most places I’ve visited here have a western feel, with their American fast food restaurants such as MacBurger. That kind of culture is what I’ve been trying to get away from, but that’s difficult because towns are where roads go to.
Penang has a better feel, although that ‘TRESPASSERS WILL BE PERSECUTED’ does seem a little unfair. Still, the people here seem friendlier than in Kuala Lu7mpur, the capital, and Singapore. As yet, business hasn’t forced people off the streets. Pedestrians still have to compete with the latest Volvo’s which are driven sedately among the mixture of Japanese and ten year old British cars. Those who can’t afford four wheels all appear to be driving Japanese 70cc mopeds.
Tourists have the choice of being ferried around on efficient buses or the ever-present cycle rickshaws. Here they are a different design to those I’ve seen elsewhere. Think of a bulldozer: passengers, two adults or three children lounge in front of the pedal pusher on a comfortable sofa-type seat. This is preferable to the side-car system, or to being crunched up behind the cycle seat so you can’t see where the ‘driver’ is taking you. Penang trishaws have a hood or umbrella to shade passengers from the sun and the rain. This is important because every evening and night a heavy thunderstorm saturates everywhere.
I’m travelling up the west coast thinking that at this time of the year the monsoon rains strike the east coast. Wrong, but never mind. After the freneticism of India, it’s a pleasure to find some order among the mainly Chinese population here in Penang. With a smile there is a ready understanding or, if not, a very helpful attitude. I never feel as if I have to act out a role or play a game in order to complete a simple transaction.
Of course, thanks to Malaya, as it then was, being part of the British Empire, English is an official language, so the multi-racial population – Indians, Chinese, whose script I have no way of deciphering, and the predominant Malays – can converse easily.
Mind you, there are moments of semantic humour to enjoy. I wouldn’t eat at the THIN THIN RESTAURANT, but the GET FAT SOON RESTAURANT sounds promising.
I’ve also mastered a few universal gestures. Rubbing the middle and forefinger with the thumb and eyebrows raised means How much? Miming a scribble on the palm of one’s hand means Please give me the bill. I have yet to master asking for directions, but at least I can read a map. Many people can’t, so if no map is to hand, I rely on instinct and don’t worry too much about where I’ll end up. If I’m wrong, never mind because there are fascinations to be found everywhere.
The main thing is to not lose one’s temper or raise the voice. Apart from appearing to be an idiot, it does little to get the required information.
It’s in my nature to explore. I survived India and I doubt that any new experience is likely to feel quite so difficult or so perplexing. At times, the mysteries seem to have been deliberately obscure. I can’t make up my mind about the whole experience. Remembering certain days and events, I am alternatively agitated, plain puzzled or have to quietly smile to myself. I’ll probably have worked it in a few years. (Note: thirty years later, I haven’t.)
New adventures have arrived here in Malaysia, I’ve watched a crocodile swimming down the river in Malacca; been bitten in the night by, I think, a spider at Pangkor; seen amazingly iridescent butterflies in the jungle which lies just off the road.
I wonder what else the road will bring.