Blessed to be a witness

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Sunday, April 10th

Mr Moto

The next day we jumped onto the moto and headed off to Batu Ferringhi ("Portuguese Bay" - a name left over from the colonials who were here before the Brits), the area of beaches on the northern coast of the island. Out of Georgetown and its suburbs the narrow roads wind around the coastal hills, but they are in very good condition, so after a mere half an hour we descended into the tacky resort area.

Most of the accommodation here is 3 to 5 star hotel resorts, aimed at package holidays, mainly British. However there are a few guesthouses on the less populated end of the beach, so we headed there. As we were looking at the rooms of one of them, I realised with a start that this had been the very place I'd stayed, ten years ago. "Shalini's, a home away from home". Very pleasant it had been, too. However, the place next door, "Baba's" (M suggested this was a later rival to nearby "Ali's") was even nicer, and cheaper, and just a few yards from the beach, so we booked in, and then headed back to Georgetown, where M went back in a taxi with the bags, and I followed on the moto.

Tragically, Penang was hit by the tsunami, and the worst damage was at Batu Ferringhi beach. Thankfully the devastation was much less than at other parts of the world, since the wave had to pivot round the tip of Sumatra to get here, and was therefore much diminished by the time it arrrived. Nonetheless, sixty-eight people died at the beach not twenty metres from where I'm now sitting. The damage is still visible, though I don't think it was great enough to destroy buildings. However, the sea walls of the small cafés that line the beach are now a mass of rubble, and the beach resort next door has sandbags instead of steps leading up to it.

The first night sitting by the beach was accompanied by huge thunderclaps, and out to sea the black sky was occasionally illuminated by vast thunderheads lighting up from within. Perhaps because of the storm, and the recent tsunami, and the devastating earthquake on Pulau Nias in Indonesia that also shook Penang just a few weeks ago, and particularly because I'm currently reading Krakatoa (by Simon Winchester) and Krakatoa isn't that far from here, but that night the dangerous elemental forces of nature certainly felt a lot closer here than other places we've been. These thoughts nudged me as I lay down to sleep, and I wondered, in the event of another tsunami, what kind of warning we'd get, and the quickest way to get to high ground; alternatively, which wall would collapse first and whether death would be merciful... The next morning of course all appeared calm again. People parasailed on the beach, floating excitedly above buzzing jetskis. M snuck into the resort ("Strictly for the use of hotel guests only") to sunbathe, while I set off on the moto to explore the rest of the island, something I'd meant to do ten years ago, but never got round to.

With a couple of exceptions, I don't think there's anything I enjoy more in the world than zooming off into the relative unknown on a motorbike. Well, to call it a motorbike is to insult motorbikes, but still it's nippy enough, with an unrestricted 100cc engine, four gears and an automatic clutch. To fill it up from empty is 4 ringgit (€0.80), which will take me for about 150km. I especially like it if the weather is good, and being on a tropical island in Asia doesn't hurt. Not having a motorcycle license makes for a bit of a hitch in Europe, and getting one is something I've been meaning to get round to, but here they don't care, so I can take my two-wheeled pleasure with relative impunity. It's also quite practical - we're a good mile from the town, and on a blisteringly hot day like today, makes a sweaty, dizzying 20-minute walk into a cool five-minute jaunt on the bike. I headed north past some stunning beaches to the kampong (fishing village) of Teluk Bahang, then up into the hills of the interior of the island. For some reason, this place feels remarkably Caribbean. Similar foliage, similar rock formations, similar brightly-coloured tin-roofed buildings - though less of the brooding threat of crack-addict-related human danger that we felt while in Guadeloupe and Dominica.

I headed further into the jungle towards the delightfully named waterfall of Titi Kerawang, but found it to be dry. Then wound down again, overlooking the palm trees and plantations of the very large town of Pantai Acheh, through an improbably green valley, through villages and towns that had no sign of westerners visiting ever, despite the proximity of the resorts, that were a little more ramshackle than the tourist areas, yet each bearing a fabulous modern mosque.

Eventually I arrived back at the southern tip of the bustling and very developed east coast, near the airport, and went looking for the Snake Temple. This is a Taoist or Buddhist (it wasn't clear which) Chinese temple that it famed for housing venomous snakes. Though on the main road, it took me more than an hour to find due to bad signage, and the fruitless search eventually forced me to stop at a Muslim hawker complex, where I enjoyed pilau rice, fried cabbage, and the most delicious chicken I've ever eaten - glazed with tamarind or plum or something - and a Sprite, all for 5 ringgit (€1), and they pointed me in the right direction. Well whoop-de-dangle-doo, there were indeed snakes. Two of them in fact, asleep on fake trees on the altar, allegedly drugged by the incense smoke, then a room to the side where you could get a different one draped over you and your photo taken. And that was largely that. The temple did, however, provide me with one gem for my amusement:


I pictured the temple littered with the bodies of trance-ridden mediums, with visitors and worshippers tripping over their prone bodies, as angry temple workers tried to drag them off into a pile. Or the disappointed medium arriving, then leaving folornly, saying "damn, I was going to fall into a trance, but I saw the notice, so I suppose I'd better go home now".

So I got back on the bike and made the hour's ride back to Batu Ferringhi, via a suburb of Georgetown that still had the most stunning large 1930s British mock-Tudor houses set in manicured lawns, as well as some less stunning pink-tiled monstrosities with fairy castle turrets, the style of which indicates to me "Chinese nouveau riche", then back onto the coast road, where I was delighted to meet a troupe of cheeky-looking monkeys sitting by the side of the road, eating wind-fallen mangoes.

The tablets have worked their magic, and M's feet are back to foot size, which is a relief. We'll be here for another day or so, taking it easy, before heading to Kuala Lumpur from Georgetown. I might even have a go at parascending, though perhaps not.

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