Holidays are often defined by just a single occurrence, good or bad. This is why, in our minds, 2014’s trip to Israel will only ever be thought of as ‘the war holiday’ (Roland’s 2nd war holiday) and our 2015 trip to Canada will always belong to Nancy, who worked in Spring Lake Resort, Algonquin Park, and was one of the best people we’d ever met.
Something happened in Georgetown, Malaysia, that has come, to me, to represent our Chinese New Year 2017 holiday more than anything else. George Town, which I’ll write more about in a bit, has deep open drains that run adjacent to every road, on the inside of the pavements. In some cases these have been paved over, but in many they remain open, a ribbon of water trickling along the bottom.
We had been for a glass of wine, in an uncharacteristically trendy place where we got to choose our wine from the cellar – snazzy – and also a cocktail in a slightly less trendy place, with nonetheless trendy aspirations. So we were tipsy, but only tipsy (and you can see where this is going now, but which one of us will it be?). We knew where we were going for dinner, so I pulled out my phone to check the route and – it was me! It all happened very quickly. I became aware that I was falling into the hole sort of after it had happened, and my reflexes, luckily, jerked me out of that hole before my brain had really registered this course of events. I had been fortunate in not quite falling all the way into the drain – me knee had jammed into the wall and stopped me from dropping into the water – so I hopped around cursing at the throbbing pain in my leg, simultaneously aware of how lucky I was not to be covered in drainwater.
It is peculiar to fall in a hole. It just isn’t something one ever supposes will actually happen. It happens to people in fairytales, yes, or in animated films. But to actual, normal human beings? I spent the rest of my time in Malaysia, and indeed much of my time now, thinking to myself ‘I fell in a hole’. Which is why it has become the defining moment of my trip, if not of the whole of 2017.
Perhaps you are feeling sympathy for Roland now, who has had to withstand me drifting off into painful reverie, mouthing ‘I fell in a hole’ every few minutes; you would be right to feel such empathy. But I feel sad for Roland because he had to stand helplessly by during the aftermath of the fall. He couldn’t give me the big hug of comfort that I needed, or even a little kiss to shut me up; being gay is very much not cool in Malaysia, and we were avoiding all public displays of affection.
I’m never comfortable travelling in a country where who I am is illegal. But at the same time I understand and respect that Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and, though extensive jail terms and whippings are an abhorrent punishment (thankfully rarely applied), I’m not the sort of person who is going to behave in a way that will make other people, through no fault of their own, uncomfortable. My feelings on this are very much in flux though; I’m conflicted. I want to see the world and give money to people who are so much worse off than me, but hate the thought of funding states that persecute minorities.
Back to the holiday (the picture above is of me returning to the scene of the fall. It was difficult, but provided some much-needed closure (sadly not of the hole)). Our first glimpse of Malaysia was an afternoon in Kuala Lumpur, waiting for a train. I don’t want my memories of this trip to come across as a contradiction of everything written in a Lonely Planet guide, but they imply that the city is easy to navigate on foot. Lies. It took us over half an hour to even find our way out of the train station. Our destination, when we finally emerged where we needed to be (having crossed the station several times to numerous exits) was the Malaysian Museum of Islamic Art, which is situated in a park that, on a map, looks very close to the station. We actually had to walk down the side of a multi-lane elevated ringroad and through a building site, and then up a hill and through another museum (astronomy), through a car park and then around almost the entire perimeter of the museum before we found the entrance. It was 35 degrees and had taken us the best part of an hour, but we did see a Monitor Lizard try and eat a pigeon on the way so maybe it wasn’t too bad.
If the Islamic Art museum had been devoid of any artefacts, or boasted a carefully curated collection of used Coke cans, I wouldn’t have minded; the blissful air conditioning it offered was all I needed. As it was, this was one of the most beautiful museums I’ve been to. The building itself was elegant; the exhibits linked by huge domed foyers flooded with natural light. The collections themselves – jewellery, textiles, metalwork, ceramics – advocated quality over quantity, and there was a fascinating and fun display of architectural models of the world’s most notable mosques. We visited this museum the day after Donald Trump’s travel ban was announced, and I would love so much for him and the collection of ass-hats that surround him to visit and maybe recognise the enormous, important, beautiful contribution that Muslims have made to their world. The museum also boasts the best gift shop I’ve ever seen, so they could spend some time splashing their billions.
George Town, where our train from Kuala Lumpur took us, is an old British East India Company outpost and the oldest British settlement in South-East Asia. So it has a lot of old Colonial architecture, which is crumbling a bit, and between which has sprung up a colourful, vibrant, friendly modern city. This blend of old and new, with absolutely zero flashiness, is intoxicating, and why the whole city is an Unesco heritage site.
George Town has become famous for its street art, which particularly excited Chinese tourists who hire brightly coloured quadracycles and pelt around the streets to queue up and take pictures posing with the art. It adds to the jubilant atmosphere of the city, and much of the street art is cat-based, which is always a bonus.
The population of George Town is a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian, which means the food on offer is never less than delicious. Much of what we ate was Indian; tandoori, dosa, roti canai, all so good I crave them every time I’m remotely hungry, or when I’m eating something I don’t really like. The best way to experience food here is by visiting a hawker centre – basically a large dining room surrounded by food stalls. It’s quite East London, but a billion times better and so, so much cheaper. In one such centre I ate Assam Laksa, which, rather than being built on a base of sour or coconut soup, was a heap of fresh vegetables piled on a rich, spicy fish soup. I had never eaten anything like it and loved it deeply.
George Town is situated on the island of Penang, which, coastal areas aside, seems to be covered in hilly rainforest. One such hill, the dazzingly-named Penang Hill, has at its peak a mini theme park, of sorts, and boasts wonderful views down over the city and over the Penang Strait to the mainland. Climbing such a hill in the heat we experienced on Penang would be impossible, so like all good, enterprising people, they’ve build a funicular (another great word) to the top. A funicular railway, for me, brings antique associations. I can only picture them in sepia, manned by a conductor in ice-cream stripes, like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. In Malaysia, they’ve blasted the funicular into the 21st century; it’s sleek, it’s quiet, it bombs you up a hill at 100mph. Descending in it, front-row, was like being on a rollercoaster. At one point we played chicken with an ascending carriage, both of us approaching a split in the track at breakneck speed, no indication of which train would take which branch. Thankfully, we survived. Such experiences call for a recovery drink, and we were lucky that our hotel had one of the swishest bar areas I’ve ever seen.
After Georgetown we spent a couple of days up the coast in a large resort hotel. There’s not much I can write about lazing by the pool for two days really; nothing remarkable happened. We couldn’t swim in the sea because of jellyfish, and the breakfast buffet offered the most expansive range of food I’ve ever seen under one roof. That’s about it. The hotel was built around two incredible old trees, which I loved.
The last day of our trip was spent, again, in Kuala Lumpur, the impossible-to-navigate-on-foot-city. There were two overwhelming highlights here:
- A raised jungle walkway, which takes you on wooden bridges up into the canopy of the city’s rainforest (and for being a city within which you can find rainforest, KL gets bonus points). The route isn’t very long, but it’s a fun thing to do.
- At nightime there’s a musical fountain display at the foot of the Petronas Towers. The towers themselves are magnificent, but because I live in Shanghai I’m not as wowed by skyscrapers as I used to be, even if they are identical with a bridge between them. But water fountains lit up in rainbow colours scooshing about to a Hooked on Classics soundtrack speaks to my soul. Unfortunately we were at the last showing of the night, and a park guard decided to throw us all out before the display had properly finished. He can’t take away what I saw though, which was a presentation to rival the Orlando ’95 jumping fountains that I hold so dear to my heart.
We were lucky that every taxi driver we had in Malaysia was super friendly, and happy to chat at length to us, even acting as tour guides and restaurant recommenders. As we were leaving George Town, our driver listened to what we’d been up to in his country and thoroughly disagreed with our itinerary. We needed to have gone to the island of Langkawi, not Penang, and Malacca is a much more architecurally intersting city than Kuala Lumpur, he told us. Over the course of our journey he planned in detail where we’d visit on our next t to Malaysia, including travel routes and how long to spend in each place. I was so pleasantly surprised by every thing I did on my visit here that I wouldn’t hesitate to put his advice into action, even if it did mean falling down more holes.