A Tale of Two Flip Flops

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . ( sorry Mr Dickens ).

When planning this 5 month trip around S.E. Asia I asked my son who had done his gap year a few years before ( indeed it was the kids gap years that we have tried to copy on this trip though with what I call comfortable pillows at night rather than hostels ) what I should be sure to pack above all else. Decent flip flops he said . You will be in them almost all of the time in the heat and will be wandering around cities in them and on hot sand on the beach. It is essential you get a pair that will last and are comfortable. Hot sand always reminds me of the great scene in 10 when Dudley Moore starts across the hot sand trying to look suave and debonair . As he walks his feet begin to burn and he is reduced to throwing his towel down and hopping on it to advance shouting out in pain and looking like a mad man

Of course decent to me meant spend money. You get what you pay for etc. So in Oxford Street London last October visiting with him I popped into John Lewis . Wonders of wonders they had a sale on of flip flops, which I guess makes sense really in England with winter approaching. The most expensive leather style flip flops with extra padding on the heel were reduced from £40 to £15 and as these were top of the range I pounced and grabbed the last pair.  The draw back was that they were joined together with one of those security things that they remove at check out and anyway I really didn’t want to take my shoes and socks off in John Lewis on a busy Sunday. So they were placed untested in the suitcase for the trip. But hey £40 flip flops are going to be like walking on air aren’t they ?

Well Hong Kong wasn’t the place for flip flops so it wasn’t until Bangkok that they came out of the suitcase and got a walk about. They looked good but were just a tad uncomfortable. Wear them in and they will be fine I told myself, £40 flip flops will be great after a day or so won’t they. That night in the hotel room the first aid kit also got it’s first outing of the trip and plaster was placed on both of my second toes and the poor little ones. My little piggies looked very sorry for themselves and certainly not fit enough to go to market, stay at home or eat roast beef.

The next day was no better and so in Ban Krut I asked at the hotel where I could buy some new ones. Indeed my feet by then  resembled those of an arctic explorer struck down with frost bite. I half envisaged having to take my toes off with some old rusted blade they way they always seemed to have to do in tales of exploration years ago.

The hotel kindly took me into to town and to the only flip flop seller there. His choice was not great and so picking a pair was easy he only had one colour.

My Flip Flops

 

My son was right, I have worn them almost everyday since I bought them, they have walked  loads of beaches, trogged around temples, been into churches, been left outside mosques, seen good restaurants and tatty ones, sat in taxis, limousines and tuk tuks, had accidental swims in seas and puddles some with rather dodgy contents festering in them and generally been great companions as they have never moaned about their lot in life.These ones cost me 60 pence and the John Lewis ones were nicked in Vietnam when I accidentally on purpose left them outside one evening . I pity the poor Vietnamese who is now rueing the day he took them and looking at his swollen bandaged feet.

Having seen me through thick and thin yesterday evening I forgot I had worn them up to the pool in the morning and and so left them there when I came back down to shower and head out.

Once I discovered their loss I dashed to the pool but the lad had closed up and cleaned away. Lost I thought and was inconsolable as I cried into first my beer and then a rather large bowl of Singapore fried rice.

This morning sitting by the pool eating breakfast I asked the morning pool guy if they had been found. No he said and my breakfast was yet another sad affair. I planned a least 5 days of mourning and wanted to get into town to get a black armband and some suitable funereal music for the iPod. Luckily I already had this one on it

brings tears to your eyes doesn’t it.

But wait the pool guy is coming back. What colour he asks ? Green I say . Well come and see if these are they he says and takes me to his cubical where the towels are kept and guess what . There they were, my little flip flops sitting waiting for my return . Ahhhhhhh

Where you been ? my flip flops said in broken Thai english , we worry about you, you getting old and forgetful.

My flip flops sound just like my wife .

 

 

 

 

Horse Still Galloping

Chinese New Year ( for the year of the horse) has always been well celebrated in Penang. Long before the central government started moving Malaysians and muslims to the island to  “balance” the population it seemed to go on and on and whatever “balancing” has done the holiday has now extended to 15 days in length, so two more days left.

We can expect plenty of firework displays tonight and tomorrow and the big event today is when unmarried guys go to the Esplanade to throw an orange into the water that apparently will mean this year they will meet and marry a girl.

Co-incidentally  this festival happens on St. Valentine’s Day which is also celebrated here  though certainly not in the way it has gone in the West where restaurants are booked months in advance and prices jump .

It amazed me when living in India how so many holidays were “adopted” and taken even though the Christian element in India in percentage terms is so small. An Indian civil servant ( they take all the holidays) works just 136 days a year. It seems Malaysia is the same

More and more Malaysian women are now wearing the burka rather than just the traditional headscarf. Indeed the government is keen that restaurants and hotels provide separate eating areas for women so they can take the face mask off and eat normally out of view of men. No such niceties as yet here at the old Copthorne. At breakfast the veil has to be discretely lifted and a morsel popped in before any male can get a look .

Not a wildly romantic dinner then for St. Valentine celebrations . Mind you if this separate area comes into being then it will be even less romantic won’t it. “You pop over there darling and enjoy your meal , I’m off to watch TV with the boys over there see you back at the car. Enjoy your Valentine’s Day ”

What seems very unfair at the hotel is the Malaysian guy in swim shorts and loose t shirt in the heat while his girlfriend or wife is fully dressed and then covered with a black heat absorbing  burka and then asked to walk down the beach with him with the sun beating down

All these black burkas always remind me of the old joke about the guy who runs into the pub and asks the landlord how tall are penguins. About this high says the landlord. Oh christ I must have knocked down a nun.

We are in separate part of the hotel to most of the guests, kept in the main for long stay types like us.

Cliff Rooms Copthorne

six floors with seven rooms on each floor and overlooking the small beach

Little Beach Copthorne

The annexe also boasts a small garden with a few bed chairs and umbrellas and over the weekend we take refuge there. The old Copthorne discounts like crazy at weekends to encourage occupancy from the local populus in Kuala Lumpur. They also turn a blind eye to numbers in the room so it is not unusual for eight people to be bedded down . Most are kids and the noise from the children’s pool is unbelievable. The garden area is an haven from the din. What makes Malay children so badly behaved I wonder. Unbelievably parents will often bring their three or four kids down to kiddies pool and leave them there while they go back to the room to watch telly. Maybe that is why they are badly behaved now I think about it, no parental guidance at all.

Very kindly once a week the garden gets sprayed to stop mossies and bugs . They were doing it last night and have a look at the machine they use

Mossie Killer

I tell you what it reminds me of

I don’t think I shall bother with the orange throwing this year. By chance I saw it 3 years ago and it really is a bit of a mob scene to be honest.

I was at the Esplanade the other day when trotting around the colonial piles. Just away from the sea is the large grass area where in Colonial days the British played cricket

leather on Willow Penang

As I walked over it, the area where the old pavilion was is still visible and I’m sure I could here in the wind cries of “hows that” and ” jolly good shot old boy” .

Tonight rather than cricket balls the locals will be bowling oranges.

Old Age

I picked up my newspaper this morning and read it’s contents over a cup of tea before setting off up Pearl Hill. Pearl Hill is 500 feet above Tanjung Bunga beach and the dear old Copthorne pile It used to called Mount Davina after the wife of Stamford Raffles but it got changed. I walk it most mornings along with about 30 Chinese locals who get exercise while wallking up to the Chinese temple perched atop the hill. I will take the camera up one morning and get you some shots. The views are tremendous and there are still plenty of monkeys up there too.

However I walked with a certain spring in my step this morning not because it was a pleasant fresh morning which it was but because of what I had read in the paper.

Now those of you with working kids will love this article headed five tips on” Planning for your Parents” and you will all want to either be Chinese or hope that China invades the world fast.

Planning for your parents is all about planning for their old age and there are five key actions to be taken . (Brilliant)

1) Start talking about it early and make plans early. Your parents won’t want to talk about it ( rubbish I would love to !!) so you need to get things out into the open. Get them over their embarrassment about getting old.

2) First thing the children must do once the subject is broached is invest in a good medical insurance plan for their parents. ( Oh, I love it yes, yes)

3)Plan for the worst, your parents might be healthy now but be prepared for the worst case scenario . Children must plan to save enough money in case their parents develop a serious illness to cover all their parents extra costs not included in the insurance package.

4) ( now your going to love this one!!) Plan for the Best ( oh the joy) Children should not plan just for their parents to have a roof over their heads in old age  and an income just to get by on. Your parents will need hobbies and want to enjoy holidays as well. This should be borne in mind when putting money aside. ( Ah, that Queen Mary 2 world cruise is looking good )

5) Make your plans their plans. If children are thinking of buying a house make sure it is big enough to house your parents one day. Buying medical ? include you parents on the scheme early. Joining a club ? invite your parents to join on your membership.

No wonder I sprinted up the hill laughing and no wonder all the elderly Chinese I walked behind or passed coming down had a rather contented look on their faces.

Curry night tonight across the road at the Passage Though India. There are plenty of Indian residents on the island in fact far more than I remember 3 years ago. Maybe immigration has turned a blind eye or indeed encouraged them in as they do much of the more menial tasks that neither the Malays nor the Chinese want to do . Indeed the Chinese can’t as they are busy doing the five points above and need to be making lots and lots of cash

the British first bought Tamals from southern India to the country to work on the plantations so the idea is not new. In George Town there is an entire area called

Little India George Town

and it really is just like being in Madras

Sarees George Town

the colours the spice smell and the sarees are so different to the rest of George Town. Every other shop is belting out the latest Bollywood song and has copies of the newest block buster Bollywood movie on a pirated DVD.

Indian Shop George Town

After 3 years of working  in India and travelling around the entire country I love curry and as Passage Though India is brand new let’s hope it is good. It will however probably be dry as not only the muslim Indians but good Hindus do not drink alcohol . However the Sikhs most certainly do.

Up in the Punjab one time when travelling to do a presentation with the Punjab agent we stopped for lunch a small place on the road to Jalandhar . After an excellent lunch of lamb roasted in a tandor oven and eaten sitting on the floor at a low table using your fingers, we were invited to join a fairly raucous group of guys at a table nearby. They had their second bottle of scotch on the table and were busy working their way through it whilst the first now empty lay on the floor. I stayed on beer but spent an entertaining two hours chatting until one of them staggered to his feet and announced he had to go to work. He was on in the theatre in 20 minutes he said. An actor ? I asked one of his companions at the table after he had gone. No a surgeon at the local hospital down the road, he replied. ( The indians like the british call the O.R. a theatre ).

I told our driver to drive very carefully for the next 2 hours. I didn’t want to end up in a crash and be carried back to that hospital.

By the way ” all Sikhs are called Singh but not all Singhs are Sikhs ” Useful to know that isn’t it.

Tanjung Bungah

Which means flower cape is home to the Copthorne Orchid Hotel where we are to lay our weary heads for a month. Let me be clear, it has seen better days, much better days indeed in the 1980’s it must have been quite a classy joint but now it is most certainly in the sunset of it’s career as an hotel. Quite how the maintenance staff keep the whole thing going is one of those marvels of the world. Nothing has been done to the place since it opened in 1979.

Still it is amazingly cheap for a long stay. The deal is room and breakfast for £32 ( $50 ) a night plus 20%off food and 10% off drinks and laundry. The room is huge

Room 503 Copthorne Tanjung Bungha

plenty of seating area and two double beds. The bathroom is a wonder of old style plumbing and a team of plumbers somehow keep things kind of working though the odd flood does occur.

The balcony view from these long stay terrace rooms set well away from the rest of the hotel is superb

View Balcony Copthorne

Nice to wake up to every morning and with the large patio door slightly open at night you sleep to the sound of the waves breaking on the small beach alongside

Beach Copthorne

Swimming in Penang is not for the feint of heart. You have to be very brave or maybe very foolish. There are thousands of jelly fish waiting to sting you, loads of sea snakes waiting to bite you or plenty of catfish lying in the shallows which if you stand on one will push three or four barbs up through your foot. Still the old Copthorne has a big swimming pool

The Big Pool Copthorne

a few lengths of that and you know you’ve had a swim.

Opposite the hotel is an hawkers food market with loads of different food sellers. The great news is that the price of large bottle of beer ( 660cl) there is 13.5 ringits so we have come down from the hawker stalls in K. L. at 20 ringits to 15 ringits in George Town and now a more manageable price here . It is in fact about £2.15 a pint in UK money which is 70 pence more than we pay in Puglia. The food is cheaper than George Town too with a set  (10 pieces ) of satay at 7 ringits ( £1.30) and two huge bowls of noodles and chicken for 6 ringits.

I am sitting writing this on the balcony and the Lankawi ferry is just going pastLankawi Ferry from Balcony

At night as you enjoy a well deserved night cap the cruise ships sail out of George Town and light up the horizon as they file past and stop to drop the pilot just outside the window it seems.

I am drinking a cup of tea with leaves from Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands . In the old days the British Tea plantation owners would come to Penang for R&R away from their secluded lives up on the plantation. P&O my old company sailed ships in to Penang from Britain and often the tea planters would go out to the ships  and visit them. One tea planter was well known by the officers and a heavy drinker to boot. He would often keep drinking and the officer of the watch would drop him with the pilot onto the pilot boat.

One year he was due his 1 years leave back in Blighty so joined the ship put his bags in his cabin  and started drinking heavily in various officer’s cabins and on deck. The officer of the watch unaware he was a passenger ensured he was dropped with the pilot as always and the poor guy awoke the next morning in the pilot’s office while his ship and bags were on their way to Blighty.

Pukka Penang

George Town is all about colonial history and so I trotted around a few of the sights for you this morning. Let me say it was hot. The whole of Malaysia is in the grips of an heatwave caused they say by a lack of winds to form cloud. Temperatures are 5-8C above normal.

The Portuguese were first here but only used the place to pick up water on their way to Indonesia. Then a few British privateers ( pirates) who used it as a base to plunder ships and finally The East India Company. Captain Charles Light hoisted the Union Jack on August 11th 1786 and built fort Cornwallis in the following years and that is still here

Fort Cornwallis

I am standing in the moat to take the photo .

To build the town Light needed to clear the area of jungle. He used the cannon you see in the photo to fire silver coins into the jungle. To find them the sepoys had to clear the area and so the job was achieved with little fuss. Light died of malaria  and is burried in the protestant cemetery along side hundreds of other Brits who came out here and died of the various tropical deceases. Whole families perished over a few years. These were hardship postings without a doubt.

In 1805 Penang was elevated to the status of Residency and Stamford Raffles arrived. Regulars will know we stayed at his hotel just recently !!

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 Penang took off and being a duty free port it became a real crossroads for trade. With wealth came more traders and the place was a real hooch pot of nationalities. The street names today reflect that. Burma Road, Siam Road, Katz Street, Armenian Road  etc. The British running the place did well and as always built some impressive places from which to govern the place.

The town hall of course

Town Hall Geaorge Town Penang

The city hall , though quite why they needed both I have no idea but hey when the money is slushing around why not spend it. What is that line from Hello Dolly ”  Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.” City Hall George Town Penang

It is great to see that some of the other buildings are now being renovated rather than knocked down. This is a massive project

Renovation George Town Penang

would that the British government would be as caring when building stuff here. This is their contribution to the classic architecture of George Town

British Council Penang

Oh dear a glass and steel box. Well done H.M. Gov.

In 1897 to commemorate the 60th year of Queen Victoria’s reign millionaire businessman Cheah Chen Eok started to build a clock tower . Unfortunately by the time he had finished it in 1903 the dear old girl had popped her clogs and gone to that great palace in the sky. It is still  here and I got a shot of it

Clock Tower George Town Penang

Mind you it isn’t just the more recent British governments that can muck things up. For reasons best known to themselves the local council a few years ago decided to match the clock tower with what looks like an Easter egg on the roundabout

Clock Tower and Egg

Hmm,. The other shame has been that since 1975 when I first came here most of the old colonial houses have disappeared under the builders sledge hammers . Few are left and most are now offices

Old Colonial House George Town

40 years ago there were street after street of these lovely buildings but they had huge gardens as well and so were a natural for the hammer. The game was to buy one and then open it to the elements and let it almost fall down. Then have it designated as a danger and Bobs your uncle you could build your 45 story apartment block instead.  Clever these Chinese and the bribes were too good for the council I guess as well.

Anyway our history lesson is almost over. On Aug. 31st 1957 the party was over. Malaya became Malaysia and the Brits upped sticks and came home to a pleasant little Edwardian number in Cheltenham or Tunbridge Wells where they could then plague the Times or Telegraph letter columns with missives on why they were disgruntled until they too died out.

We move from The Traders Hotel, George Town to the very much less salubrious surroundings of the Copthorne in Tanjung Bungah some 12 kms outside. So tonight is our last free flow of booze. from tomorrow we start paying for it. so i must get my skates on. we have battles to fight as the Club floor has lost it’s 12 British school teachers here for a conference on how Malaysia could show the Brits how to run schools and they have been replaced by 15 German engineers here to build a power plant. Something wrong here I think. Wouldn’t it have been nicer to have 15 British engineers. But that’s another story I’ve got to get to the wine bottle .

Tourism revisited

Despite the wonders of the internet it is still quite nice to have a newspaper delivered to one’s room in an hotel. Today I opened my New Straits Times ( new because like The Times of London it has gone tabloid size). The front page was full of details of the Prime Minister of Malaysia’s speech on tourism and the changes taking place that his country would focus on. It was full of marketing gobbledygook with weird phrases like the creation of a new global elite and money rich time poor super rich etc.

His speech almost echoed speeches reported in Thailand when we were there and Vietnam as well as similar ones heard from almost every tourist board around the world.

Anyway the gist of it is apparently that they want to attract the new high spending tourists from China, Russia, the Middle East and India. Well which country doesn’t ? The trouble is they often are mega rich because they work incredibly hard and rarely take holidays. They also tend to cluster where the others are in well established destinations . There also aren’t that many of them compared to mass tourism .

Since 1998 European and Australian tourism here in Penang has been falling every year as tourists head off to other places . Tourism here is now mainly from Indonesia , a little from China and Japan and the rest is weekenders from K.L. The most popular month for tourists is August . Penang has watched islands like Phuket and Ko Samui in Thailand and Phu Quoc in Vietnam take their bread and butter.

George Town on Penang is a UNESCO world heritage site and when here 3 years ago UNESCO in, to me, a surprising move as I always felt they didn’t make waves, threatened the State government with the removal of the UNESCO name as more and more of the town was being developed and ruined. Walking around today in George Town there was some proof that things had changed and the rows of empty buildings that greeted us then seem to have new tenants rather than being knocked down and another sky scraper put up in it’s place.Old World George Town

When here in the 1980s and 1990s Love lane was a thriving street full of shops with lots of tailors and dress makers. They all disappeared but now it has been re-invented as a back packer area with bars, hostels, cafes and small restaurants. It is again a vibrant place just different than before

Love Lane George Town

Another great trend is the development of rows of these terrace shops as upmarket boutique hotels.

The Seven Terraces Hotel is great example of this

Seven Terraces Hotel George Town 

The hotel has been developed by the same two guys that built several boutique places in the Old Fort at Galle in Sri Lanka. It isn’t cheap with rooms starting at £120 but nor is it for the mega rich either . There are a few of these now and hopefully loads more will follow as booking rooms in them is quite difficult, they fill so quickly.

If only this kind of development had started in 2000 rather than 2011 how different the tourism figures might have been and George town would have retained it’s original charm and still been the Pearl of the Orient .

Mind you things have gone  backwards in the last few years with the advent of the cruise liners docking here.

When I first came here in 1975 George Town resounded to the tinkle of bicycle bells . There were a few motor taxis but in the main you got around by tricycle taxi with a guy peddling away for all he was worth behind you .

Tricycle Taxi

It was exciting stuff as you were thrust out into the traffic first so he could see around the corner. They of course died out when taxis became the norm and a few decorated the driveways of hotels or the inside of the odd restaurant to remind people how it used to be. There was a feeling that this type of transport was somewhat demeaning for the pseddler and an hangover from colonial times so the State government was keen to see the back of them.

In Hanoi when the Communists came to power in 1955 they stopped the man pulled rickshaw as it was seen also there as Colonial suppression. Today one of the senior Ministers family own an huge amusement park just outside Hanoi and to get around it visitors  use one of the man pulled rickshaws. How quickly they forget when money is involved.

So too here in Penang, Colonial hangovers be damned, there’s dollars in them there peddles.

The cruise line guys here also saw the potential for resurrecting the tricycle taxi. Today three large cruise liners were docked in town and once again the streets rang with the sound of bells.

Tricycle George Town

They stretch back as far as you can see and about 40 had already gone past me. The trouble is for the lads peddling is that westerners ( and Malays who have a countrywide massive obesity problem ) have got much fatter than when these were the normal way to get around. This is probably more so for cruise passengers . So it was fun to see that in many of the tricycle taxis the couple could not fit comfortably in without one or the other sitting up off the seat. Indeed in some only one could fit and the partner followed behind in another.

God knows what the excursion office on the various cruise lines charge for this but hopefully these lads peddling away are well paid. Today the temperature was 35C (96F)and humidity was really high as well. Where two had managed to squeeze in several of the lads were pushing their tricycles rather than trying to peddle such was the weight inside.