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Penang, Malaysia

MALAYSIA | Friday, 4 October 2013 | Views [1584]

Holding up the world

Holding up the world

The train finally rolled into Butterworth Station some 22 hours after leaving Bangkok. There were moments when it felt like time was standing still but overall, not a bad journey. The bottom bunks sell out well in advance and in fact the train is always pretty full. I've learned to sit back and let a journey unfold and here is the framework for this one. Not long after being helped on board and shown to my seat, the 'food man' comes by with a dinner and breakfast menu. Orders are taken and paid for leaving hawkers free to wander the aisles at station stops with all manner of snacks and meals I am still no closer to identifying! At around 6pm folding tables are retrieved from under the seats and dinner is served. Clearly it has been picked up from the last station and, I have to say, is hot, plentiful and delicious. 7pm and the carriage attendant converts seating into bedding until around 8am. Its a rather unusual breakfast in bed - cheese and ham sandwiches on the whitest stodgy bread for which I make profuse apologies to my stomach. Bread aside, it's actually quite tasty and the addition of fresh sliced pineapple must go some small way to making amends.

The border process involves a lengthy queue at around 9am but is otherwise straightforward. Butterworth at last! We disembark having been advised to take the ferry as a foot passenger (RM1.50) and get either a bus or taxi on Penang island. Both are plentiful. The taxis advertise being metered, but either metres are yet to be introduced or they are a thing of the past. If the state if the vehicles is anything to judge by, it's most definitely the latter. Price fixed (like I have much choice) and we are on the way to the UNESCO World Heritage part of town where I'm staying at The Kimberley Guest House. Given the bargain price and great reviews, I'm not quite sure what to expect. It's always good to be pleasantly surprised, and I am. A few minutes walk away are several malls. The old town is dirty and run down but perhaps it has been decided that its heritage status exempts it.

There are two things that strike me. The first is the Western script writing and wide use of English which makes navigation rather easier! The second is the friendliness of the people. Being able to communicate definitely helps, but smiles are everywhere! I must remember to greet people, I have become so unused to it while being in Thailand. I visit temples, which somehow seem a little more for show than pure functionality. Many people will tell you that once you've seen one temple, you have seen them all. Personally I love looking around temples! They may look similar, but can feel very different. In Pai I stopped at a temple where the monks' prayers had not long finished and the atmosphere in there felt so charged it was almost tangible. Penang is home to the only Burmese Temple outside of Myanmar and home to the standing Buddhas, whilst over the road the Thai temple houses the worlds largest reclining Buddha.

I visit the Dept of Chinese Medicine attached to the Lam Wah Ee hospital and my presence attracts much curiosity. Before long I am explaining to half a dozen enquiring faces that I have come for acupuncture because I have always found it to be very good, not because I'm in the wrong place, no I'm not here because I've tried western medicine which can't save me, no I don't like needles etc but there is a lot of laughter as translations take place. A real character pulls out a small glass bottle which he assures me is herbal tea. I express my doubts telling him it looks very much like a Sang Som (rum) bottle. Time passes a little quicker as the 8 surgeries with doctors specialising in different areas of acupuncture work through a steady flow of patients. Seven needles and twenty minutes later I'm sent on my way and, despite my aversion to needles, feeling rather better. On my second visit a week later (having had ultrasound confirmation at the Gleneagles Medical Centre that the blood clot has disappeared) I bump into my old friend again, although no bottle in sight today. I am welcomed as he tells the people around him that we met last week. Today it is quieter and I am called straight in to once again submit to the doctor's needles. These doctors are fully qualified but even so, the way they know exactly where to place each needle, and how many to use, is amazing. Hopefully this will be the last treatment I need to clear the residual muscular pain.

The supermarkets and malls have a strong familiarity and it's possible to find UK supermarket branded goods. Restaurant menus are full of familiar dishes and suddenly I find I'm craving lasagne, garlic bread and a glass of red wine. I also notice that a considerably higher percentage of the population is larger than neighbouring Thais. In fact as much as I love Thai food, here I find food lacking in vegetables and leaving a greasy aftertaste in my mouth. The local coffee however is rather nice. It has a slightly soupy constitution and is served sweet with milk - probably best avoided after mid afternoon.

I have seen some spectacular storms here. A few nights ago the deafening cracks of thunder coincided with sheets of lightening illuminating the entire night sky. It certainly felt like we were right in the eye of the storm. The rain can be torrential and I presume the substantially raised pavements are for good reason. It's a nice gesture that some places provide you with a plastic umbrella sleeve to prevent floors becoming wet and slippery.

Penang's population has a heavy Chinese influence. Listening to the radio it's clear that Malaysia is actively driving its bid for a larger percentage of tourism by encouraging its citizens to be welcoming and learn English. I wonder whether the Thai saturation may lure tourists to try its neighbour. There is much to be said for both countries and I am pleased to be able to have visited both.

Tags: gleneagles medical centre, kimberley guest house, lam wah ee hospital, penang, temples

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