Saturday, May 9, 2009


Let me just say, it's a real skill to eat a choc-ice without getting it all over your clothes in this part of the world. Having wandered well off the old Silk Road, we find ourselves drifting again towards the part of the world where international trade and cultural exchange also took place, but several centuries later. Because it was by sea that the Chinese and Arab traders explored these parts, followed by the Europeans. We are in Malaysia visiting what were the old British Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore. After a very comfortable train ride through Thailand from Bangkok we were greeted at the Malaysian border by officials all wearing face masks. Following the usual immigration and customs formalities we were asked where we are from. "The United Kingdom" we replied. In that case, would we fill out this form please and take this card? The form asked us about our health, with the obvious implication that if we ticked any box we would be whisked away by health officials in full white body suits to some unseen quarantine area. We tried to explain that we haven't actually been in the UK for more than two years and eventually, after repeating this several times, everyone seemed to relax a little bit and we were allowed through. The card they gave us was for us to take to a doctor in case we felt any of several symptons that might indicate we had swine 'flu. Apart from "loose bowel movements", "sore throat" and "nausea" I didn't have any.The old part of Georgetown, the main town on the island of Penang, is very laidback and relaxing and the buildings and people reflect the history of the place. We're happily wandering the streets, taking in the old shophouses of Chinatown, sitting down to eat at a food stall, looking inside some of the 'clan' temples of the Perankan (Malayan Chinese), admiring the peace and quiet on the streets of Little India (so unlike it's big brother across the water), and marvelling at the multi-ethnic atmosphere of Malaysia - quite a change from some of the other countries we've visited. There's one street with cheap hotels for backpackers but nothing too touristy here. At sunset the call to prayer comes from the local mosques, and the food hawkers set up their tables and chairs for the evening business of chowing down. It seems like most locals eat at least one meal outside of home, if not all of them. There's a good choice - Chinese, Indian or Malay - or you could opt for the Manchester United Burger if you're that way inclined.......
Our favourite building here is the 'Irn Bru Mansion' (it's made of iron girders from Scotland). Built by a man who left China as a penniless boy but made it big as a trader and diplomat in Penang, the Cheong Fat Tze mansion (that's his name) has been restored to former glories and is well worth a good look round. Down the road there's also the biggest Buddhist temple complex in Malaysia, with good views from one of its towers. The approach to it is through a large tat market and even inside the temples there are counters selling souvenirs and paraphenalia. This is in sharp contrast to the large mosque built by Indian Muslim workers who were brought here by the British, many as indentured labourers. The city had lost its status by the 1900's to Singapore, but one significant event did take place in the 20's - Sun Yat Sen held a conference here that laid the foundations of modern China, putting an end to the dynastic rule of emperors and forming a republic. I wonder what he would make of it all now.

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