Blessed to be a witness

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Thursday, April 7th


Our Ryanair-of-Asia flight was uneventful and pleasant - in fact pleasanter than Ryanair, with much bigger and more comfortable seats. We got into Penang's airport at about 10pm, and by 11 were in our hotel. As we arrived in the taxi, I noticed some brightly-lit hawker stalls nearby - "hawker" not having a negative connotation here, but descriptive of people who cook food on mobile stalls, usually in some sort of collective - and so once we'd checked in, we went to the nearest one and had a couple of beers before bed.

The hotel is in Georgetown, the principal city of Penang island, but in an area I didn't recognise from my last visit here ten years ago. Georgetown itself is a very quaint town despite the encroaching high-rise, which, despite having a "Chinatown", is actually majority Chinese anyway, which is unusual for Malaysia. Malaysia is about 60% ethnic Malay, 30% Chinese, and 10% Indian (if I remember correctly from my research when writing a booklet entitled The Road to Profit - Investing in Malaysian Property for the company I worked for in Hong Kong; this being published a mere three years before the Asian currency crisis and the resulting property crash. I apologise to any investors who may have taken my hyperbole seriously), the latter two groups imported by the colonial British in the nineteench century, when the Islamic Malays proved unwilling to assist in their own colonisation.

Considering that Malaysia is an Islamic state, yet with the diversity of its ethno-religious mix, the country really is remarkably calm now; in the 1960s it was a different story, with inter-ethnic riots that the government now assiduously attempts to avoid. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians all seem to coexist with relative ease. Hindu temples sit in the same street as mosques; mini-skirted Chinese girls walk arm in arm with their hijab-wearing Malay counterparts; Chinese restaurants serve pork; Muslim restaurants don't serve beer, but some of them will go out and get it for you if you ask nicely. Of course there are fundamentalists here - "religious police" trying to enforce shari'a on fellow Muslims, and in particular the idiots in the east of the peninsula who recently banned both live music and men and women from mixing in public, while simultaneously trying to encourage tourism - but the west of the peninsula is very laissez faire.

Malaysia is in fact remarkably well run - "civilised", if you will - for a south-east Asian country. Major roads are in good repair, there are motorways in places, people can actually drive properly and motorbike riders wear helmets; there is evident relative wealth in urban areas; you can drink the water out of the tap in many places, and the sewage system can actually cope with people flushing toilet paper (thus removing the necessity for a stinking bin full of used bog roll next to the bowl); the electricity is properly wired and earthed and uses the very secure British/Irish-style 240V plugs; the government has a massive "speak English" push, since English is, like it or not, the language of commerce and tourism, so nearly everyone we have met so far can speak at least a modicum of English, and many are entirely fluent - indeed just today I noticed a Malaysian Chinese woman speaking to a Malaysian Indian woman through the medium of English. All of which factors make it an easy place to be in and to get around. Of course, it wouldn't be fun to be gay here, acting on which bears a prison sentence, or to be the leader of the opposition (who was imprisoned for alleged "sodomy"), or a drug smuggler, the conviction for which carries a mandatory death penalty, but for us it's OK.

Alas, while in Bangkok, M had been been several times bitten by an unnamed insect, all over her lower legs. This insect was the kind that doesn't brush its teeth, and as a consequence all ten or eleven bites had become nastily infected, and her feet had swelled up like inflated rubber gloves, she wasn't feeling terribly good, and time didn't seem to be healing anything. Thus the next morning I left her sleeping and walked the mile or so into the town centre, locating a clinic on the way. Once in the town centre, a cluster of charming streets of Sino-colonial shophouses, I secured the rental of a "moto" (a motor scooter), and rode back. M was treated at the nearby clinic, at which consultation was free - the health service here being a hold-over from the British, who didn't leave until the late 1950s - and was given a cocktail of five different drugs for the infections, the swelling, the water retention that the infection had caused, and a couple of others the purpose we didn't know.

Back to the town centre for a coffee and a wander, then back to our hawker friends for food, where we were enjoying ourselves until the overpersistent Chinese waiter started telling us how rich we were and how poor he was. Not that I think he was lying or anything: I was just annoyed that half of his Chinese clientelle were turning up in shiny new SUVs, but he was whingeing to us purely because of our nationalities.

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