I really ought to write more often. So, where was I. Oh yes, hoping that Penang would be less challenging. In a way, it was. I caught a super cheap, super clean, super easy train from China Town to the bus station, which resembles an airport. The bus had huge seats and carried me in comfort for about 5 hours up through the slightly mountainous rain forest to Penang, an island on the east coast. Yes, it's an island, but served by a few big bridges and it turned out to be, sadly, a bit like KL lite. Lots of tall buildings in George Town, and once again, almost all Chinese. It's eighty percent Chinese, apparently.
George Town has a clock dedicated to Queen Victoria, and while most of the street names seem Chinese (what do I know), many are overtly British. I stayed in a Chinese hotel in Argyll Street. There's Leith and Cameron and Downing streets too. A fort Cornwallis. With everyone driving on the left and all the electric sockets of the British type, it feels like we never left.
So I stayed a while in Penang. I liked the hotel, which was older but oddly charming. The Malaysian man on the desk was quietly amusing and very helpful. He seemed to know everything and would impart information if he thought it was actually helpful. I returned from one punishingly hot walk through the streets of Penang and commented on the dangerous temperature, and without looking up from his paperwork he simply said...”It's the end of the world, I tell you.”
The food was good in Penang. I had, I think, some of the best Indian food I've ever had. And on one occasion I wandered past a large hall, full of old tables and cheap plastic chairs. A vast array of dishes were arranged at street level and I was interested in what these dishes contained. I recognised nothing. I wandered beyond the threshold to investigate further and was suddenly presented with a plate with a large mound of rice on it. “What do I do now?” I asked. Another woman came to my rescue and told me what each metal tray contained. Fish curry, tofu, some vegetable things, some unpronounceable things. I scooped some onto my plate of rice and was charged 3 ringgits. That's what, 60 cents. It was very good and very filling.
When I got back to the hotel I told the man I'd just had lunch for 3 ringgits and he said it was impossible to make food for that price, and what colour was the woman?
“Was she Malaysian or Chinese?”
“I think she must have been Chinese,” he said. “I bet you were the only tourist.”
He nodded. I'm not sure what the nod meant.
The breakfast room was on the top floor, a kind of roof garden, and it was managed by an Indian woman and Chinese woman, who fussed over everyone. The Chinese lady gave me a Vitamin C drink because I had a cold, and kept rushing up to me with slices of orange. On my last day she tried to give me aspirin which she said she got from her son in America. Later, she was going to the hospice to chat to people. That hotel was a small oasis of old-world charm, which is why I booked three nights but decided to stay for six.
On leaving Penang, I boarded a boat to the island of Langkawi just off the coast of Thailand. It was a boat, I think. The water was flat and the windows opaque and it was packed with immovable human cargo and their accompanying bags. I got on, squeezed into a seat and watched Jurassic World on a tv screen until we had presumably finished a sea voyage and got out at what looked like Jurassic World. The island is all stunning peaks covered in rain forest. On the boat I sat next to an Australian couple who were visiting Langkawi, as many seem to do, for the beaches and relaxation. It's billed as an island for honeymooners. I told them I wasn't staying at the beach, I'd gone for the Geopark Hotel because the picture showed a cable car up into the mountains and I thought it might be cool (as in temperature, not, you know, cool). While watching Jurassic World, I said, “That's where I'm going.”
It was a joke, but I was alarmed to discover that's exactly where I ended up. The Geopark Hotel isn't just in the Geopark, an area of wonderfulness that covers much of the island, but it's in the middle of a theme park! I have a natural hatred for theme parks and I found myself spending three nights in one. Admittedly, it's quiet at night because the park is closed, but during the first day I discovered that I'd have to eat as tourists do – badly and for a lot of money – and if I didn't eat before the park closed I'd have to go hungry or sneak out and bag myself a T-Rex.
The first day was horrible. All I could see from my bedroom window was hoards of happy holidaymakers and the music and announcements that go with the masses enjoying themselves. I went out and sneered at them.
But later in the day I discovered several things. There was a German restaurant that served Italian food made by a man from Algeria, which was too irresistible a combination. Also, there's a duty free shop. Yes. A duty free shop. Now all the bad things in life were affordable. And that cable car. It mocked me from my bedroom window because, as I discovered, it's the steepest cable car in the world. I know I use hyperbole hundreds of times in my posts, but this one isn't hyperbole at all. It really is supposed to be the steepest in the world. I am afraid of heights, I'm ashamed to say, but this thing challenged me with every little swinging gondola.
The second day was better. I got up, realising it was silly to be miserable in the middle of a theme park and I bought a ticket for everything. All I needed to do was conquer my bilious horror just looking at the cable car and learn to be a tourist.
It's not that it's steep. The cable car at Vogel in Slovenia is steep (it took me many goes on that to get over the fear of it and I'm still convinced it's steeper). No, it's that it's so high above the ground. Vogel never goes that far above the trees and you can almost pretend that you're not going up a mountain. This one dangles high over a rain forest. And if you're still alive when you get to the top, there's an added insult. You get from one peak to the next in a flat but terrifying cable car that really has no need to be there except to kill people.
So off I went. The gondolas take six people, but a VIP ticket can get you a gondola all on your own. Who, I wondered, would want to be in a gondola on their own? Isn't it bad enough with company?
Being a man travelling alone, I was invited into an empty gondola. The girl asked if I'd like company and I said YES!!!!! She just laughed, and as the thing never actually stops to wait for you, I had to get in. I set off, alone.
The first part is okay. The cable is a huge exponential curve, starting flat and then getting steeper and steeper as it reaches the final third. I filmed it. Sadly the internet here tells me it will take 39 hours to upload so you'll have to wait for that treat, but let me try to describe it. It was very very quiet. When I moved, it swung unnecessarily, and I clutched the seat and chose to film out the window without actually looking. And then, when it got to the final third and the near vertical part, the wind got up. I could hear nothing but wind and sweated my way through every little swinging horror. Miles below me, giant dinosaurs looked like ants. Yes, it was high.
I got out at the first peak and tried to look like it was all perfectly normal. I took photos, knowing that in a moment I'd have to face the long flat one that went from peak to peak.
I was alone for that one too. “Why am I doing this?” I said to my video camera.
I returned with company, thank goodness. Five of us came down and the chat made the whole thing so much easier. I hardly noticed the wind, but the man from KL said they had decided to return because a storm was coming. I had noticed it too. Flee is perhaps a good word to describe it from my own perspective, but I think all of us thought it was sensible to get down before the wind got too entertaining.
So having survived the world's steepest and perhaps most unnecessary cable car in the world, I went off to enjoy the other delights of the theme park. And I have to say, it's fun being a tourist. The 3D art exhibition was far more impressive and entertaining than I could have imagined, and one of the rides I wanted to do again and again. About thirty people sit in a kind of truck and are “driven,” into a world of 3D CGI dinosaurs which, in time-honoured tradition, suddenly decide to attack the truck. It gets thrown about, you get wet, you are chased by a T-Rex and almost killed by creatures that, through the use of 3D glasses and an enormous wrap-around dome, really do seem real. I loved it. I loved the theme park. I'd recommend it. I am no longer the man who sneered at the thronging hoards a mere 24 hours before. They know how to enjoy themselves, something I have never grasped.
And so I am up to date. After Jurassic World I headed off the a very cheap place in the middle of the rain forest. I am in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by locals. I haven't seen a tourist for a couple of days and when I walk along the road, heads turn and people wave. This is a Muslim country and it's the first time I haven't been surrounded by Chinese people. The majority of the women wear the hijab. I am surrounded by ready smiles, the little kids all wave and stare at me. Even groups of men, sitting at plastic tables under the shade of a tree, turn their heads and wave at this odd non-local walking along in 35 degrees. Only mad dogs and Englishmen, as Noel Coward used to sing. I seem to be the only tourist here. I did see a white guy on a scooter, heading for a beach, no doubt, that he's the only one I've seen.
When I arrived there was nobody here. Even the Chinese taxi driver got out, scratched his head and said...no people. I said I'd be fine, and waited for half an hour before I found someone.
Later, I wondered if I might die of thirst because bottled water is vital and I seemed to be surrounded by nothing but trees. Luckily, down the road is one of those dark places that sell everything. All but everyday items are covered in a slight coating of road dust. I found water and pot noodles and oreo biscuits and cheesey bread and coffee. I would live! The shop includes two old ladies who sit amid boxes, a cat which I think is still alive, and a young girl serving behind the counter who speaks excellent English. Today, my second water and pot-noodle run, resulted in a long chat about where I've been and where I'm going next and what I do for a living and basically, anything that isn't working in a dark shop on a lonely road in a rain forest. The old ladies smile at me. The cat doesn't move.
This evening I found a street food place that was set up like the one in Penang. I got rice and something that I think was chicken curry and a drink for next to nothing, and the two women kept looking at me as though I was conducting an experiment. Perhaps I was. I like to say that I ate where it cost nothing and I recognised even less. I like to chat to real people. I like that the tiny children look at me as though I were a T-Rex in a theme park.
I'm here for a few more days. I investigated the mangrove swamp tonight too, strolling amid monkeys and watching those fish that walk out onto the mud. I was happy doing that. I was happy telling the girl in the dark shop that I started this trip with Christmas in London and then a wedding in snowy Poland and I'm now in country number four. “Where next?” she asked.
“Thailand,” I said.
“I don't know. Let's see what Monday brings.”
I'll keep you posted.
The desk in the Kuala Lumpur hotel room has a list of things you can buy as a souvenir. It actually says “Souvenir Price List,” on the top in case you're in any doubt as to what it is. I can understand Coffee Mug, at a moderate 50 ringgits (about 10 euros, just divide by 10 and double it). Or how about a tumbler glass at only 10 ringgits? These seem like souveniry things and you could get a tumbler glass on a plane couldn't you. But there are no less than 47 things on this list, including a 32 inch television (2,500 ringgits), a sofa chair, a standing lamp, or how about a Queen-sized mattress for 1,600? If you bought all 47 items you could completely recreate this hotel bedroom anywhere in the world, if you could get it all home. You'd have a souvenir hotel bedroom.
My last week in Bali was a lot of fun. The place was half hotel half hostel so it had a good social area where I had my most social moments of the trip. One night Ben, who was busking his way around Asia, played and sang and it was a good evening. A young English policemen, Darrel, turned us into a kind of trio despite me shocking everyone that night by having 3 beers, and much fun was had by all. Different nationalities, ages, backgrounds, reasons for being there, we all found a common place to become temporary friends.
After a week of that I descended into hell. I got a car to Denpasar airport and discovered just how miserable it is making a semi-domestic flight in this part of the world. It took a full three hours to get in the airport entrance and onto the plane. Bags are X-rayed as soon as you walk into the airport. Then again (with walk-through detectors) to get the check-in desks. Then again before immigration. The queue looks, to the untrained eye, like a queue. There are red taped-off lanes just like we're used to. But hoards of Chinese people simply think this is a way of slowing their progress to the front. Not just Chinese of course, but it's been the Chinese New Year which last for ever and large numbers of Chinese tourists are abroad, abusing the British notion of forming an orderly queue. Other nations use other techniques. They make the queue move faster by pushing from the rear. The walk in a group through the walk-through metal detectors as if they simply aren't there. It was, in a word, horrible.
After those three hours I had a three hour flight to Kuala Lumpur through some notoriously bumpy skies (please don't let the wings fall off, please don't let the wings fall off) and finally we had arrived. To another two hours of queue fighting to get through immigration. Two hours for someone to say Welcome to Malaysia. When I got to the baggage carousel, there were only three bags going around and around. One of them was mine. I bet the other two belonged to English people too.
There is a window in this room. It looks out upon skyscrapers and endless traffic. Behind me is China town and the famous Petaling Street where market stalls sell typical stuff to tourists. The guy who drove me into KL from the airport was Chinese and he pointed it out. So I thought that China Town was back the road a bit. But in the other direction – the direction in which my window points – is the equally famous Low Yat Plaza, Malaysia's largest IT mall. I know, because I spent the best part of two days there trying to buy a new laptop from the 20 million possible choices. I am typing this on one of those choices because it took me two whole days to actually buy one. The point I'm making is that, while Low Yat Plaza is in the other direction, it's madly Chinese. Have you seen BladerRunner? Harrison Ford has the job of tracking down androids who look just like us, and amid all this high tech is a world of noodles and back-street Orientals cooking up fake creatures and other high-tech wonders. That world was based on Low Yat and its environs, I'm sure.
So for a week now I've been immersed in Chinatown and high tech. I also seem to be in a place frequented by prostitutes, which at first I found slightly alarming. I kept wondering why I was suddenly attractive. I kept wondering why surprisingly alluring women saw me and reacted as though I had made their day. Then I realised that as a man of a certain age, alone in South East Asia, I'm sure I do look like the kind of man who would make their day, at least financially.
In fact, the first hotel I booked gave me such an uneasy feeling that after two nights I booked into the somewhat nicer hotel next door. I felt instantly better. Everyone was nice. Nobody looked like they were going to love me long time.
The first morning in the new hotel (this one, where you can buy a Souvenir 32 inch TV and matching Queen-sized mattress) I went for a walk (to buy a laptop) and when I got back the cleaning girl was cleaning the room next door. Mine hadn't been done but I didn't need it, and all my worldly good are in there and I prefer a damp towel to robbery. So I asked if I could just grab some more bottled water and coffee of the room.
“Yes!” the girl said. “You want your room cleaned?”
“No, I'm fine, just water is great. And coffee. I do like coffee!”
“Well, if you need anything, just call me,” she said.
She then wrote down her name and phone number. Sam. Not very attractive. She looked like she had a comb-over and stubble.
Later I went out and Sam was cleaning another room. “You are so SWEET!” she said.
Later, she explained to me how hard it is being a transgender person from Pakistan in KL and she tries to save money and send it home and she can't explain to her family that she wants to be a real girl and sometimes she has to take money for sex because we all need money and she doesn't like condoms.
You know the long queues and terrible turbulence in the plane and then the extra two hours of queuing? That was more comfortable than having Sam the cleaner try to gain entry to my room. I am, I admit, out of my depth in the big city, and I look forward to the next stop. Tomorrow morning I catch a train to the bus station, and then a 6 hour bus ride to the island of Penang up north. I hope it's less...challenging.
Ubud, for me at least, was a living hell. For my birthday I did nothing at all because I didn't like the expensive hotel and I didn't like the crowds who are funnelled to the place looking for enlightenment and tourist tat. I walked through a small market selling enlightenment and tourist tat, and for a while, the narrow street was held up by a westerner lying down across the entire width of the street to photograph a sleeping dog. He wore a green boiler suit and cowboy boots (it's magnificently hot and humid, remember), a bandanna, his hair in a bun and his beard was festooned with beads. Everything about him said “Look at me, I'm pretty awesome and different and cool and if you won't look at me then I'll lie down in a narrow street to force a crowd to wonder who I am.” You don't need to do all that to photograph a dog. I've photographed dogs. You point the camera, click the button on the top, and you have a picture of a dog. He was a twat and I'd had enough. In the morning, I would catch the bus to the seaside.
There was no bus to the seaside. Or rather, I was the only person who wanted to go to Amed where my madly cheap place was, so no bus. A taxi was half a million and it would be almost a million to get a taxi back to Denpasar (a million is what, 70 euros or 75 dollars, ish). A change of plan was conceived. There's an island in the south east called Lembongan. It's in the right direction. Half a million would get me to the port, on the boat, back on the boat to the mainland. Then it would be cheap to get to Denpasar, and hey, I'd get a boat ride. And I found a place on the island that was also madly cheap. I cancelled the Amed place, got the Lembongan place, and bought my ticket to an island for the following morning.
An hour after the bus should have arrived, I was still sitting in the heat of the hotel I didn't like. Would Ubud be the last place I'd ever see? Was it my own personal purgatory? No, the bus arrived and I got on it.
It wasn't a bus exactly. It was a minivan with no A/C and some travellers who looked like they might be dead. I got in and we drove around and around Ubud, forcing more people into the hot tin can of Doom. We drove past the hotel three times and it was the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave...
“Are you going to Lembongan Island too?” I asked of the girl next to me. I wanted an answer before she slipped into a coma. “No, the airport,” she said.
Ahh. I had paid the hotel guy half a million and received a small damp piece of paper which the driver never looked at. How, exactly, would I end up on an island?
Mysteriously, he stopped at a port and took me into an office and the girl stuck a sticky label on my chest and the driver drove his limp damp death-defying travellers away. Ten minutes later my bags were grabbed and I had to chase after them. I have one enormous bag full of wedding clothes and snow gear, and one bag which I never, ever, EVER, let out of my sight. I ran after it, then I was put in the back of a trailer and transported along a bouncing road to a boat. My wedding clothes bag was carried into the sea...
Slightly useful travelling tip. If you're going on a boat, wear swimming gear. Boats float. You have to walk into the sea to get to it. I did that and found a seat and for 30 minutes we smacked and bounced at great speed toward Lembongan, powered by 5 car-engine-sized outboard motors. The up and down smacking wasn't too bad. The rolling to the side, where all you can see is water at the left windows and sun at the right windows, was disturbing.
At the other side I was impressed to still be alive, and even more impressed that my sticky label was there to inform a driver where I was staying. Me and several others were dropped off in an assortment of huts and dingly dells and fields and holes in the ground. I was the last of them, and my hole in the ground turned out to be a very pleasant room in the middle of a field. It had A/C, a fan, a bed, a cold water shower outside and a sort of toilet! What more could I ask? Well, electricity would have been nice.
It gets dark very quickly in these southern latitudes – there is almost no twilight – and without electricity I wasn't sure what to do about the situation. The owners had informed me that they were away for a few days and I didn't know where I was. I had lights, but no socket power, no A/C, no fan. I wondered if a fuse had blown. Beyond my porch light there was darkness.
I ventured forth and followed the sound of humans. The town, such that it is, was oddly dark, but not completely dark. There were lights but not many.
A quick chat with a local told me that the power to the island stops when it's windy, or raining, or there's an R in the month, or if it's dark, or if anyone admits to liking bananas. The lights of town were from generators, as was my porch light. I grabbed food, where I was told all about the problems of power and how I should really hire a motorbike and go to the other island. There's a bridge where recently 10 people died and 90 people didn't, and I should go there. On a motorbike.
I like power cuts, actually. Facebook seems to think that social media brings people together, but it doesn't. We all see groups of people studying their phones and never speaking. But in a power cut, everyone talks to each other. There's a wartime camaraderie that transcends even battery-powered connectivity and the noise of a generator is the music that we dance to. People cheered when the power came back. They laughed when it went off again. They cheered when once more, the generator could be turned off and we all went back to being strangers.
I returned to the room and a good night's sleep on the hardest bed I've ever slept in. Slept on.
I had four nights in the cheap room and I loved it. It cost 48 euros for 4 nights and it was better than the expensive hotel in Ubud. The locals were friendly, the tourists weren't looking for themselves, didn't hold up traffic to photograph dogs, and Ratih who owned the place was gentle and kind. On my last full day I had my birthday treat at last. I signed up for a snorkelling trip.
I was a little nervous about it actually. The sea has been choppy, I last snorkelled over 25 years ago and I rarely swim. Looking at the sea from the beach suggests it contains nothing at all. Every reason, then, to go snorkelling.
It was about 40 euros for a boat trip to 3 places, then all the food we could eat and a bonus boat trip through the mangrove forest. Sign me up!
A guy collected me the next morning and we drove on an unmade road along the beach to a very pleasant location, where I was given fried banana and a coconut drink that looked like the final moments of harvesting DNA – a kind of white glutinous...gloop. After half an hour of waiting for others we set off in a boat and were given instruction – very good instruction, I have to say – on snorkel-related themes, and then we fell over backwards into the water. And there, despite my previous doubts, was coral and tropical fish and things swimming too bright and numerous to mention. At one site there were Finding Nemo clown fish, some fish under a boat so menacingly huge I swore when I saw the first one. Swearing with a snorkel in your mouth is a bit like having a cleft palate, but I couldn't help it. They were monstrous fish. The coral was healthy and covered in large blue starfish and all kinds of aquatic whatnot. A lone sea turtle flapped by. I dived as deep as I could, and it was all less life-threatening than the hot bus from Ubud.
It was a good day. Even the slow float through the mangrove forest was oddly charming.
The following morning it rained as I've never seen it rain before, and nobody came to collect me for the 12:30 boat back to Bali. I made my own way to the port and got on the 4pm.
And now I find myself in the last port of call in Bali – a very cheap place on the outskirts of Denpasar, the capital. It is not at all scenic here, but the room cost 105 euros for 7 nights. The room is huge, with the finest shower a tired human being could ever want, and the softest bed I've slept in since I lived in France. There's a real desk for my laptop so no more burning my leg by resting it on my lap. Free coffee all day long and the guy downstairs will even cook a good meal at a good price. I wanted this time for work, and it is perfect. While I'm away I'm writing a sequel to The Wonderful World of Linus Bailey, because people liked the first one and I enjoyed writing it, and hopefully, if there's time, the sequel to The Midlife of Dudley Chalk. That's a much bigger undertaking, so we shall see if I can get at least a working first draft done.
Next stop, Kuala Lumpur, which happens on February 8th. I shall keep you posted.
Slovenia, writing, other things