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 .

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Farewell Vietnam

Well after nine weeks we are heading off to Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur for a few nights to catch up with an old friend who winters there now.

The Tet New Year looks as if it is finally running down and things are getting back to normal. Last night as we wended our way back to the Continental they were busy taking away all the flower displays on the main drag and this morning it is a very busy road again. The benefit for the Continental is that all the traffic that was flowing past the hotel has gone back to using the big road again.

Like The Grand the Continental is owned by a State Organised Enterprise ( SOE) but unlike most hotels these two have no foreign ownership and it shows. Faded glory and somewhat surely staff. The hotels slogan is “Continental since 1880″ and we spent what passes for the breakfast service dreaming up more realistic slogans for them. ” Continental Uncleaned Since 1880″ or ” Continental Original Plumbing since 1880″ or ” Continental Unchanged Since 1880″ the list went on and on. I think a new Graham Greene would be hot footing it across the main road to The Rex Hotel today.

We were thinking of heading off to try The Rex Hotel roof bar. It was voted one of the top 20 bars by the New York Times last year. Luckily we sent a scout ahead to check it out and try a beer. He returned clasping the bill for his draught Tiger beer and looking somewhat shocked. 289,000 dong ( $14 or £8 ) . We adjourned to The Caravelle rooftop bar instead. They do a buy one get one free tiger beer offer from 4-8 p.m. each night and the glass size is half a litre. It works out with the free one at 60,000 dong each ( $3 or £1.70) so much better value. The view isn’t great these days as they have built and continue to build skyscrapers all around

Skyline From Caravelle Roof Bar

 

It is said that during the American War the savvy war correspondents could sit up on this roof bar and watch the fighting taking place outside of the city and as they chug a lugged down their expenses paid for scotch write gripping but fictitious stories of them in action at the front with the boys. It was certainly true during the Tet offence of 1968 as the Vietcong were in the city for 3 days.

I am now reading Vietnam- Rising Dragon by Bill Haydon which tells the story of Vietnam from the fall of Saigon to the present day. It is a fascinating read of how the Party has, to keep power, had to move ever more to a market led economy but how they have managed to keep not only control through the SOEs that they have allowed to have joint ventures with foreign companies but have also made themselves and their families incredibly rich . It is amazing having been to Cuba how here in a communist country there is no health service unless you pay, no education unless you pay and no help if you are unemployed.

The crunch says Haydon is fast coming when to introduce these measures the Party must tax its high ranking members and their thousands of relatives to pay for it.

Still we must say farewell now. Personally I think Vietnam is a place to visit and “do” in say 2 or 3 weeks from top to bottom and then move on. It is not a long stay place as there is no variety in the food and little else to see . A two week jaunt through might leave you wanting more but it is best to leave the beaches to the Russians and the towns to some rather sad expat retirees sitting in English or irish theme pubs telling you how wonderful it is to live here, how great the local food is as they order an hamburger egg and chips with lashings of HP sauce and how lovely the people are as they snuggle up to their 18 year old Vietnamese  “wife” .

Still we had some fun saw lots of places and drank plenty of beer. Last night is was time to say goodbye.

On The Caravelle Roof Saigon

 

Farewell Vietnam .

French Rules

We moved today from The Renaissance Hotel with it’s all American feel to it. The bathroom and all the bedroom fittings are imported from the USA to The Continental Hotel one of the grand dames of old Saigon. It was here that Graham Greene came each year in the early 50’s to write novels during the winter months. He occupied room 201 at the end of this corridor. We are five rooms down from his much larger suite.

I’m not sure how much has changed about the old girl since he was here during the last days of the French colonial war.

The Continenental Hotel Saigon

Like the Americans 10 years later, the French were fighting a war they couldn’t win because the mass of the people were against them . Almost nobody had wanted them back when they returned after the Japanese had tossed them aside in 1941. Certainly the doors and windows in this suite at the Continental look original

Room 206 Continental Hotel Saigon

That’s ours between the two trees that you can see clearly and we might as well sleep on the street for all the sound proofing that they offer. Luckily I’m not too worried about noise and hopefully most will stop around midnight . Graham Greene’s old place has been given new windows

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but that I suppose is because the cognoscenti who want to stay in it are happy to pay more. The rest can make do with what was there. Mind you many of Greene fans would probably want it as it was. He of course when the French left also decamped and headed like so many other writers to the Caribbean .

French rule was like that too. They did little if anything for the people in any of the countries they occupied. In Life Of Brian the Python team ask what the Romans have done for them and then slowly come up with a long list of benefits must to the annoyance of the rebel leader. No such list would exist for the former French colonies I fear.

In Kamm’s book Cambodia he describes their colonisation as ” of the most condescending and patronising kind.” Hardly any Cambodians were trained to perform any functions of authority. What was even worse was that they invested nothing in local education fearing that it would bring about ferment in the local populous. When the Japanese threw them out in 1941 there was just one High School educating just 537 students and only 22,280 attended just 192 state run primary schools.

Mind you the reverse is now happening as the Vietnamese busy themselves knocking down most of the old buildings  and throwing up new stuff full of glass and steel. This hotel is full of lovely old photos of Saigon in the 50’s and 60’s and the comparison is heart breaking.

I don’t often agree with Prince Charles but his views on architecture have a certain resonance with me. It always disappointed me that Germany managed to rebuild their city centres as they were before the Allied bombing but British councils chose to plough a different furrow and  ruined their own centres. One only has to go to Plymouth to see how badly wrong they got it.

Saigon is fast going that way and really all that is left are the grand dames hotels to remember the past and they are busy ruining those as well. The Grand now has a bloody great tower in the middle of it and the Majestic is about to go the same way.

At leaf this one whilst losing it’s rooftop still has it’s very French street terrace where one can sit and watch the world go by.

Outdoor Terrace Continental Siagon

The opera house is right across the road and alongside it is a delightful little park

Opera Hse Park by Continental

One can imagine one’s self sitting quietly in the shade reading a book while nearby through open doors the sound of opera practice floats out on the breeze.

Dream on. The gates are now locked and the only entrance and the pathway into it is now a motor bike park

Moto Parking Nr Continental

Ah the march of progress . Come see it before old Saigon disappears altogether. What would Graham Greene make of it all .

In his time during the French war the brave drank on the street where Vietcong could throw grenades from the back of cycle taxis and the cowards sat up on the roof. Now where would I have sat . answers on a postcard please.

History is Written by the Victors

So said Winston Churchill and of course it is true.

Yesterday Jan 21st 46 years ago the Viet Cong began a series of attacks close to the Cambodia border having travelled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. The idea was to draw the American troops out of the cities to handle them. It was the start of the Tet offence that changed the way the U.S. public viewed the war and bought about it’s conclusion several years later.

For some time the American army had been telling the public at home and their own troops that the Viet Cong had taken such a beating they were no longer able to mount a large attack. General Westmoreland was fighting to a simple tactic . If he could kill more Viet Cong than they were able to recruit and train then he would win the war. The only two unknowns he had unfortunately were that he had little idea how many Viet Cong were being recruited nor how many were actually already in their Army.

The Tet offensive was yet again a massive defeat for the Viet Cong but the idea that they could put over 80,000 troops in the field and attack most major towns including seizing the consulate building in the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon with ease put paid to the story the war was being won.

The U.S. public started to really believe they were in an unwinnable war and so too did many of the troops.

To mark the date I took a trip some 85 kms out of Saigon to visit the Cu Chi tunnels and see how the Viet Cong moved around areas underground .

The tunnels were started in the 1940’s by farmers wanting to store their crops but were first used militarily during the independence war against the French after the French retook Vietnam at the end of WWII .

The Viet Cong then really developed the tunnel system in the area and at their peak there were some 200 kms of tunnels on three depth levels.

On arrival you are led down into a large bunker and then sit through a film of the victors history of the war on a large screen. Afterwards a guy with one of those 5 foot long pointers that you see in WWII movies when the chap in charge says “gather around gentlemen ” and the points out on a large chart the objectives, did the same thing showing where the tunnels were and where the American troops were and how they were continually out fought and thought.

Then we started the tour. First the bobby traps built to maim but not kill the U.S. troops so demoralising them.

Boobytrap Cu Chi Tunnels

Leg Bobby trap Cu Chi Tunnels

Covered with leaves and twigs these did terrible damage to feet and legs.

The tunnels were incredibly small and today most Vietnamese wouldn’t be able to fit into them and move around the way their fathers, mothers and grandparents did . This is a typical entrance

Tunnel Enterance Cu Chi

My guide’s shoe almost covers the door .

The area was chosen because the soil is mainly clay giving the walls and more importantly the ceiling strength . By building three levels they were able to bobby trap tunnels and offer up dead end tunnels . The two lower levels could withstand heavy bombing and shelling as well as drain off monsoon rains into the Saigon River . There were cookhouses, dormitories, command rooms and weapon store rooms all underground and connected by tunnels. All very Great Eascape.

I crawled through 25 metres of tunnel almost on all fours just to see what it was like

Tunnel Cu Chi

That is my small Vietnamese guide in front just standing up to go up a tunnel to the next level. It was tight even though these had been expanded for westerners and a little claustrophobic in the darkened areas.

But I passed the test and was taken for a slap up meal  of ……….roots

IMG_0422

The root is in fact something most of us had at primary school for lunch and hated with a vengeance. Tapioca pudding . Here they just peel it and cut it into pieces and dip in peanut sauce. Quite nice really with a cup of tea.

Why didn’t my dinner lady do that .

Something For The Weekend Sir?

The only problem with going away for a long time is that it becomes necessary to have things done that you normally have someone you trust to do. I refer , of course, to having your haircut.

After 3 months of hoping to get away with not having to do it my shaggy dog look finally began to embarass even me. So I had to do something about it and started to look on line about getting an haircut in Saigon.

I should explain we have now left Phu Quoc and yesterday we flew back up to Saigon. Phu Quoc was good but the lack of variety in the food gradually takes it’s toll on you and you begin to dread seeing another squid for the rest of your life. So it was back to the city and then on Wednesday we head off to the mighty Mekong River up to Cambodia and to the capital Phonm Pehn before returning here for their New Year.

There was plenty of info on getting an haircut in Saigon. That is of the cutting variety not being ripped off of which there was much more. Most of the hair cutting stuff was horror stories by visitors and expats about their experience of trying to get a vaguely decent cut at the hands of a Vietnamese who was used to cutting or hacking locals hair.

The locals and many expats use what is called a chop house which is sometimes a place with a roof over it but more often a chair and an awning set up on the pavement which in Saigon is rarely used for pedestrians who get in the way of all the other things going on on them. This is one chop house I saw yesterday

Chop House Barber

quite a salubrious  joint you might be thinking but let me just say the customer on the right had a fine head of hair before the guy got going on him !!

The thing going for them is they cost about 25,000 dong (70P) but you have no idea whether the guy has ever cut hair before and the trouble with hair cutting is when it is done it is done there is no sticking it back on.

My problem is that living in Italy it is almost impossible not to find a good barber. It is normally more a choice about how close to the house is he, can you park outside and how good is the coffee he offers you. The haircutting is a given, he will be brilliant at it and the whole thing is just a superb experience.

The internet consensus  was that Just Men was the place to go which suited me anyway as it was near the bar I wanted to watch football at that evening. Two birds with one stone I hoped.

In fact Just Men had already disappeared but had been replaced by this shop on the same site.

My Haidressing Shop

In I went and was immediately put in a chair. My hairdresser had the strangest hair style I have seen rather short at the sides and standing almost on end on the top as if he had seen a ghost. However once we had established such a style was not for me he proceeded sheepishly to cut. It was slow work and every 2 minutes he would ask if that was okay. Unfortunately I wear glasses so peering into the mirror I was unable to see what he was up to anyway. The blind leading the blind. Half an hour went by and nothing seemed to have changed up top other than an awful lot of water had been squirted on my hair. Still he snipped slowly and still I encouraged him to be a little bolder. After 45 mins I gave up and agreed it was superb, never seen my hair looking better. He beamed, I beamed and then he asked for 235,000 dong. Clearly I was paying by the minute not by the cuttings on the floor. However by then the game had started and my beer was going warm on the counter. I paid what must have been a kings ransom to him and fled.

Actually it isn’t that bad and by next week I should be able to take my hat off and show the world my cut. I am dreading going back to Italy and facing my barber Franco who is going to create merry hell about it.

I mentioned earlier about the uses the Vietnamese have for their pavements. The biggy is to park their motorbikes on . Not I hasten to add willy nilly style. Oh no these are organised lots. They have several attendants and you pay to park on a public pavement. They park them for you and when you come back you pay and the attendant rushes off and gets you bike and wheels it to you. It’s just that it is on the pavement

Bike Parking Lot

Almost every street pavement looks just like this. Long rows of parked bikes. The attendants who all wear uniform also use the space between the kerb and the back wheel to have all their meals on. They set up small chairs and charcoal grills and cook Hot Pot and noodles seemingly every hour or so. It never amazes me how much these guys seem to eat. If it rains they have cardboard to cover the saddles and likewise if the sun is on them.

I just keep thinking what is going to happen in Saigon when all these people graduate from a bike to a car.

More Snake Sir?

Popped down to the night market to have a look see at the place. it is at the end of the strip almost in the old fishing village. Now night markets to me conjure up stalls ladened with cheap clothes etc a la Thailand  but this one is in fact made up of an endless line of small restaurants and guess what they sell. Yup BBQ squid, prawns and Kingfish. One after the other all doing pretty much what every other restaurant is doing on Phu Quoc.

At the bottom of the street there are 2 or 3 stalls selling clothes but that is it. Not really worth the 100,000 dong cab ride but there are a couple of very local bars with yet more infant school seats and beer in cold boxes so all was not wasted.

It seems you can get some interesting food served at the night market

IMG_0259

 

Never mind the heering salad or hot pod. Hows about what you get to go with your fresh seafood. That will bring you back for seconds without a doubt.

There is one other thing they catch off the beaches here and a few people have been bitten by them. These also go on the BBQ but at least you can keep them fresh and alive before cooking them

Night Market Snakes

 

Yes, sea snakes and very tasty they are too, just like eating chicken.

The hotel we have moved to is the newest on the strip having opened last November . I had looked at it with some envy as it is right next door to the Paris Resort but had presumed it was much more expensive. But when we declined to move rooms my friendly tour operator in Saigon got me a room here for US$30 more a night. It is to say the least chalk and cheese . The Famiana Resort has fully trained staff who go to school to learn their jobs and attend English lessons for 3 hours a week. it is professionally  managed by an hotel General Manager and is not amateur hour like the Paris. So a couple of shots as always. The view from the breakfast table :

Famiana Gardens

 

and from the bed chair and please note it has it’s very own sea based assault course.

Famiana Play Ground

 

all very It’s a Knockout from the 1970’s on BBC TV with the now imprisoned Stuart Hall and Eddie Warring the rugby league commentator . Boy the BBC could make some rubbish and we watched it .

We also have our own 18 hole gold course in the grounds and so you can play a few rounds before the sun gets too hot. Tee times are easy to book and to be fair you don’t need too much gear to carry though I’m sure this hotel would give you a caddy !!!

Famiana Golf courseW

We’ll okay I accept it’s not St. Andrews or Pebble Beach but with a cut down putter for a six year old it is quite a challenge !

So this hotel is  the newest on the strip but 5 hotels down towards town is the oldest built in the 1980’s when there was nothing on Long Beach but a few run down old French Colonial houses . In those days there were no roads on the island so you had to come by boat from the mainland and so did building materials . So you needed a pier that would survive monsoonal seas .

Pier Thousand Stars

 

and so The Thousand Stars Resort as it is called boasts the only pier on the whole strip.

It is a weird hotel built by an eccentric with his own idea of what things to put around the place. The gardens and the beach are dotted with oddities

Sculptures Thousand Stars

 

The place has certainly seen better days , much better days and is still open but up for sale and awaiting some developer to come and do it a favour and put it out of it’s misery by knocking it down.

If you go onto Tripadvisor and look it up there is not one review that doesn’t start with the first line in massive capitals. DO NOt STAY HERE. and then the poor person goes on to list a litany of problems they have encountered. One poor couple who stumbled on it one evening when the taxi dropped them at the wrong hotel had to pay to get their passports back once they had checked in and realised they were in the wrong hotel. We’ll phone the police they told the manager. Great he said they don’t speak English and you signed a booking form for 7 nights accommodation. Pay up to be able to leave. Now there’s customer service for you.

Wouldn’t happen at the Famiana ……. Would it????

 

 

Food Glorious Food

One of the problems with  rapid tourist growth on an island is that things get thrown up in an hurry to meet the ever growing demand. Here on Phu Quoc the “strip” from what was the old sleepy fishing village  down to the end of Long Beach is just that a strip lined with restaurants and travel agents selling excursions. The local catch here is squid and prawns plus some local king fish. The rest is brought in from the mainland by boat.  So the locals who threw up a shack with tables and chairs and a makeshift kitchen with the loo in the middle of it were somewhat hampered for choice. Some bright spark ( all puns intended) came up with the idea of cooking the three staples on a BBQ and then tossing some rice or noodles onto the plate and serving it. The rest quickly followed and that is the choice down almost the entire strip. Great for a backpacker getting a few days of rays after a long trek through Vietnam before heading off to Cambodia some 3 hours away but not so great for the two week holiday maker. Then try us on our 4th week here and you realise why we are leaving before planned and also heading off into Cambodia.

I really haven’t been good at recommending places to eat on this blog unlike many other bloggers. One man’s meat is another man’s etc etc. But let me assure you that we have had to kiss an awful lot of frogs to get to being able to say where we most like to eat and we have suffered during the night and often all the next day in that quest to find a prince. Most Vietnamese just don’t know how to BBQ and of course what they don’t use that night goes back in a freezer and then is defrosted again the next day and so on until it is sold. health and safety would have a field day here.

However before we eat we have to have a sundowner or three so where do we go for those? Most restaurants are happy that you sit and just have beer but the majority are on the increasing busy main road so we look on the beach.

This one should be the king of all bars

Headland bar

 

it sits on the headland between the two parts of Long Beach and gets the cooling winds as well as some great views and sunsets

Sunset on Phu Quoc

 

It should be packed but it is run by a gloriously inefficient Vietnamese lady who rushes about doing almost nothing. 20 mins to order a beer and then 20mins for it to arrive. Who knows where she goes or what she does. It is a fact of life and maybe an endearing feature of the local people that they have no memory at all. It is not even the last person they talked to syndrome. Ten paces from the table they took the order it has gone from the mind as if it were never there they wander away and start on some other task and you sit there expecting within minutes a couple of cold bottles of beer to arrive. 10 mins later they wander past your table without a flicker of memory that they ever took an order from you. So you need a bar where the bar person  is close to you and the supply with no distractions in-between. This one is rough and ready but hits the two key objectives

Sundowner bar

 

Yes those are infant school class room chairs and yes you sit on them. It is like being back at the parent teacher meetings where the teacher in oder to rush you along sits you in little Freddies chair so you can view his scribblings, but the beer cooler is 5 paces away and the guy sits within feet of you and has nothing else to do and no real distractions. You can even get squids and fish from him and his BBQ is clever

BBQ

 

a kitchen sink !!! Now before i discovered the delights of an outside wood oven I used to do a load of BBQ and have a Webber at home. I went one time to buy the attachment they sell that gives you a workspace on the BBQ and realised that to buy it i would need to take out a fourth mortgage on the house. This local lad has solved that problem instantly clever fellow.  I’ve never been brave enough to eat anything from him but have seen others do it though to be fair i have never seen them ever again.

So after the sunset and the beer to the restaurant

Canadianand there is the champion after 4 weeks of testing. It is just by La Veranda Resort if you are ever down this way. The place is run by a Vietnamese family but they have a Canadian ex restauranteur as an advisor. He sold his house in Vancouver at the height of the housing bubble and bought a motor home for the summer to tour around visiting friends in Canada and invested the rest to pay for winters in the sun on Phu Quoc. He stayed at one of the cottages the family rent and offered to help out in return for beer and food. He also bought with him his 250,000 tune music library and each day he compiles two playlists one for lunch and one for dinner. As he says the music therefore matches his mood or hangover and we have sat there some evenings feeling maybe he wants everyone to cut their wrists. However the food is good, not a BBQ in sight and because as he in a very unCanadian way boasts that his place is by far the most popular on the beach or on the strip the turnover in food is very rapid.

A second place mention must go to Ganesh the indian restaurant who not only serve great curries but prove that you can take locals and turn them into good waiters. They bring in teams of Nepalese managers, head cooks and supervisors and train the local workforce. it is an impressive organisation with staff eager to serve you and never once forgetting why they are in a restaurant and wandering off to look at the sky.

All this is making me thirsty and hungry so I’m off