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.
[ps...Have you tried the Armchair Detective Challenge yet?]
Slovenia, writing, other things