Sorry about the delay, but this really is the first chance I’ve had to update the site since we left. So here goes…
Kath and I were most impressed with the job Boeing has done with their 777 series aircraft. They really are top of the line and I heartily recommend anyone thinking of starting an airline that they go out and buy a few of them. Not only are there cool LCD screens in the seat in front of you (bigger in first class but I doubt worth the extra $2000) on which you can watch TV, movies (Jackie Chan – it just gets better doesn’t it) and play crappy little Nintendo games, but the control paddle has a credit card reader and a phone built in (I’m serious) so you can make calls to all your friends telling them how great it is. I considered doing this for about a microsecond; calls made from 35,000 ft seem to be charged at the international roaming tariff (approx. $25 per second or part therof). Oh, I almost forgot the best bit. There is a channel called Airshow, or something, and it gives you a little map of the world (with sunny and night-time bits) and a teensy little plane creeping along a white line that leads directly to Kuala Lumpur or, if you are not so lucky, London. It may only look like 3 inches on the TV screen but that translates roughly into 3 hours flight time. Still, when you are confined to 200 cubic inches of personal space for 6 hours (or more) the littlest things become very interesting.
Of course some fat-cat in row AA 01 decided to recline his seat 2 minutes after takeoff. This caused what is known as a domino-effect and I soon found my little screen 3 inches from my nose. As I am a stupid and considerate person I refused to give in to peer presure and so remained in that position for the remainder of the flight, apart from the odd meal break. And they were odd. Oddly tasty:) I think I had satay and it was very nice thank-you.
Kuala Lumpur International Airport is one of the biggest and unfriendliest airports I have been to (which, admittedly, is not that many). The terminal we landed at was actually called the Satelite Terminal and we had to catch a driverless train to the airport proper. Passing through the deserted airport like the living dead we searched for our connecting flight. I managed to walk through some big glass doors which opened politely to let me through. Of course it was only when I tried to exit by the way I had come that I noticed the big NO EXIT sign. I felt like an eel in a trap. I was obviously the first idiot ever to have done this and it took some time to convince the airport staff to let me through. I had left my boarding pass with Kathryn and when the Malaysian staff said “ah, this is a problem”, I admit I had visions of Bankok Hilton. The signs everywhere that said cheerfully “Mandatory Death Sentence for Drugs” did not help.
The 45 minute flight to Penang was everything the 777 wasn’t. It was a 737; old, hot, crowded and worst of all no Legend of Zelda and three dimensional maps of the flight plan. The bored-looking cabin crew just had time to serve us some warm fruit drink before we touched down in beautiful Penang airport.
Take Me to the Parkroyal, Muhammed
We were met, to my delight, by a man holding a sign with my name on it. He was our driver. His companion was a large woman who looked liked she could break a swan’s wing with the blow of her nose. She was the baggage handler. Our suitcases weighed a total of about 3 tonnes but she hurled them into the minibus (hmm, where’s the limo?) with abandon. We took our seats and were treated to our first views of the real Malaysia and, more excitingly, the real terror of the Malaysian roads. Not even the presence of a police car seemed to make any of the drivers want to stay in the appropriate lane. Vespas and little motorcycles were everywhere. They must outnumber cars, and people, 100 to 1. There seemed to be an invisible motorbike lane somewhere on the left side of the road. They would speed up, slow down and change lanes irrespective of what the other traffic was doing and at great risk of dying spectacularly. It made me laugh.
The hotel was nice. It was on the beach. The little hotel guide warned against swimming in the sea because of the stingers. To compensate it had a lovely blue pool with a – wait for it – swim up bar. I desperately wanted to swim up and order something with an umbrella but couldn’t figure out where to keep my money.
Breakfast was included so naturally we tried to get our money’s worth. The buffet had the usual assortment of fruit, pastries, bacon, eggs although the curry was a new one for me.
Penang – Isle of Wonder
We asked the Concierge what we should do. He proceeded to list the islands main attractions, which included a number of temples and a fruit farm. We decided to check out the temple. The tour didn’t leave till the afternoon so we spent the morning walking up and down the main road of Ferringu Beach. As soon as you step out of the hotel you are offered a taxi by up to 12 different people at once. We walked. We bought some stuff.
We joined the tour bus and were entertained by our Budhist guide along the way. The temple was called Kek Lok Si and is the biggest in Malaysia (or something). It sits at the top of 500 steps up the side of a mountain. Apparently the Budhists built it there to test your faith. The whole way up is lined on either side with stalls selling crap. Unbelievable. Here, supposedly on the path pilgrims take to pray, were hundreds of people selling fake everything. From dog shit to Rolex watches.
Stopping to feed the 400 turtles half way (thereby ensuring we live to 103), dodging beggers at our feet and paying the silent nun at a turnstile, we found ourselves in a fairly impressive temple that was worth the climb. It was fairly impressive, but looked like it had once been magnificent and had subsequently been done up in the 1970s with all that implies.
The bus then took us to Penang Hill, the highest point on the island. The summit is reached by a half hour ride up a 100 year old funicular (look it up) railway. The carriages were tiny and carried about 50 people each. It was hot. When we reached the top, I could see why it felt like I had been breathing underwater. I could see almost nothing. Georgetown was lost in the mist. Gee, that was worth one of the worst train rides of my life.
That night we strolled along the market outside our hotel, trying to decide on a Tag Heuer or Rolex. We had a fantastic meal at an outdoor cafe that cost about $10 for both of us (including a Tiger beer). The night air was clear and cool, we were at our leisure and there were hundreds of stalls selling crap we could afford. It was one of the best nights of my life.
Georgetown – City of Crap
We took the shuttle bus into Georgetown and almost immediately wished we hadn’t. It was noisy, dirty, smelly and the Komtar Centre, supposedly a shopping experience didn’t seem to open for another hour. We were beginning to wish we hadn’t booked the return trip for 5 hours away.
Komtar eventually woke up and it sucked. The ground floor was reached by a flight of stairs and inside was a hive of little stalls. The Malaysians seemed to have no concept of what shopping malls should be. It was like they just took a street market, folded it in on itself and stuck it in a building. It was a maze of pirate computer software stores, pirate watch stores and things like hairdressers and bootmakers. The second floor was slightly better and more open. This had McDonalds and quite a number of jewellers, one of which was guarded by a fat guard sitting on a stool cradling a pump-action shotgun. I tried to take a photo of him without getting blown away. After Kathryn had paid an old guy some money to use the ladies and discovered a scene too horrible to mention we decided to leave.
Whereas the beach had taxis, Georgetown had trishaws. They would ring their handlebar bells at us as we approached to attract attention. Since we had a couple of hours to kill in an ugly asian city we found the oldest guy we could and got in his trishaw. It was great. He was about 103 (must’ve fed the turtles) but he pushed us around his city with vigour. He showed us a number of temples, an old British fort and all the different ethnic regions of Geortown.
It was a better than the bus tour the day before and a lot cheaper. Georgetown is strange. All the places we went could have been so impressive. But they were either surrounded by piles of trash or had whole families of beggars living on the steps. And all the temples have the same look about them. As if someone has had a go at doing them up a few years ago but got sick of it before they had finished. It was a bit sad really. Nevertheless it was a highlight of the trip and I gave the nice old man a huge 10 ringitt tip.
13 hrs to London
We were very happy to discover our 747-400 had been fitted with the same in-flight entertainment as the 777 (Fly Malaysian). Unfortunately, while the jumbo is about twice the size it carries about 3 times the number of passengers. Still, I did get a blanket and a pillow, and quite happily watched the little white plane chug towards England. Incidently, every 3 minutes or so an arrow appears telling you which way to Mecca. I didn’t make use of the little prayer room.