The Pearl of the Orient (1987)
Updated: Jan 20
LAST OF THE RED HOT BUS RIDES
Medan was the last in a long line of crowded cities we endured in Indonesia. As if to make us even more grateful we were finally leaving this frenetic and challenging country, it was a particularly noisy place, which is to say, LOUD.
The city made for an interesting “quick hit” visit. We were starved for some meat and seafood after many days on Lake Toba. We were especially intrigued at one vendor’s stall by the side of the road who sold live bats, about a foot long and cooked on the spot, but took a pass.
We found a night market after asking a local for directions. To our amazement, he said he’d take us there; we climbed into his shiny new Mercedes Benz, with plenty of room. He’d attended school in the States and spoke perfect English. We dined at an outdoor cafe and enjoyed a hearty meal of tasty meats and seafood, and ate to our hearts’ content.
Tickets for the 6 p.m. ferry departure crossing to Penang, Malaysia were secured the next morning, allowing time to take in local sights, and play tourist for a day. We spent the afternoon visiting the Sultan’s Palace, where we sat upon the regal throne. The palace was still occupied by royalty, with sections cordoned off to the public. It was a rather pleasant way to spend the day.
We arrived at our point of departure by engaging one of the screaming motorcycles with sidecar, a wild ride from our hotel to the travel office through the overcrowded streets. A bus took us to the port, our first uncrowded bus after two months of travel in Indonesia; only westerners could afford to take this boat to Penang. For Indonesians, the departure tax was an incredible 250,000 rupiahs, the equivalent to about one year’ salary.
After about an hour delay through customs, we boarded the small ferry. The cost for the twelve hour overnight journey was three times the price of overland transport from Djakarta to Sumatra, without a berth. We left Sumatra behind, very cool up on the deck, gazing transfixed as a giant orange full moon rose dead ahead.
We were glad we had chosen to travel by boat, as it was quite romantic, providing more adventure than simply climbing aboard a plane, arriving in Penang an hour later. Rumour had it that a boat still made the trip from Penang to India, and this would be one of our first inquiries when we landed.
DADA IS DEATH!
On the boat, we received Malaysian visas through a government agent, and a special stamp: “Death to Drug Importers,” a special incentive to motivate us out of the smuggling trade. Surprisingly, a percentage of fools continued to smuggle opium, heroin and marijuana into the Malaysia.
We noted the following in our journal:
Like some of its Arab neighbours to the west, Malaysia has begun a return to fundamentalist Muslim law. Malaysia seems intent on keeping its doors wide open to Western technology and tourism (unlike Iran, which has also shifted to conservative rules).
At present, Malaysia can boast of having one of the most advanced economies of all developing nations. To consider the adoption of the 1,000 year old Shariah laws as espoused by the Muslim prophet Mohammed in a country with only a short history of the Islam faith and a continued thirst for high-technology seems to require a delicate balancing act.
In Malaysia, Shariah tenants influenced the government’s Dangerous Drug Act of 1975. This law has afforded it considerable attention in the world’s press, due to the fate of two young Australians who, in 1986, had the misfortune of being the first Westerners executed under its provisions. The act stipulates that anyone caught in Malaysia in possession of over 28 grams of marijuana, hashish or heroin or other controlled substances be sentenced to death by hanging.
Although the pair of Aussies were caught with substantially more than 28 grams of heroin, many Australians were outraged at their sentence. Yet heavy pressure by the Australian government and Western media to have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment was to no avail.
British citizen Derrick Gregory had been recently hanged for possession of 576 grams of heroin departing Malaysia. His last-minute appeal for clemency was denied in part due to a cable by two British MP’s who applauded the Malay government for their sentence; then British PM Thatcher was rumoured to have given tacit approval to his execution, as well.
Since Dada laws were enacted six years previous, 50 people met the hangman, including six Singapore nationals (Singapore has a similar drug law). At least 120 more cases were before the court in 1987, including many first offenders. Despite the heavy stakes involved, westerners continue to smuggle drugs into Malaysia.
Crossing Between Two Worlds
We didn’t have drugs on our mind- or in our packs- as the tiny ferry crossed the Malacca Strait from Indonesia to Malaysia. In another time in Istanbul, the Bosphorus divided Europe and Asia but didn’t change between two continents.
With a name like Georgetown, it didn’t require a college degree to understand this rock had once been ruled by the British. Unlike Fiji, however, we did not witness last vestiges of a dying empire in Penang. Instead, we would be propelled into an environment that supported, nay welcomed, all world major religions: Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim. As we soon discovered, Penang is where east meets west.
I stood on the deck of our little passenger ferry, and watched the sunrise over the Indian Ocean. Penang appeared over the bow, lush and green in the orange glow of dawn. As we rounded the south cape, we realized this was in fact a big island.
In the harbour at Georgetown stood a fairly modern city (or so it seemed, because our after two months in Indonesia. One tall skyscraper stood out, the Komtar building, a beacon of progress. A shiny new bridge connected the mainland to the island, dominating the huge harbour. All manner of watercraft plied the bay, including Chinese fishing boats, sampans, water taxi and ferries, and massive cargo ships.
Despite the dire warnings about drugs, customs was a breeze. With fellow travellers American Bob, Ozzies Lou and Sue at our side, we climbed down to the quay to explore a new place in the blistering January tropical heat.
Bob had spent time in Georgetown on a previous sojourn, so knew where to find the budget traveller’s ghetto. Despite pestering by trishaw wallahs, we foolishly walked.
We experienced a strong sense of culture shock. Everyone spoke English, so exchanging currencies was a breeze, unlike Indonesia. The sewers weren’t full of excrement;, it wasn’t noisy like a typical Indonesian city, as many cars actually sported mufflers. And it simply wasn’t as crowded.
We entered old ChinaTown, home to the largest ethnic group in Georgetown. The streets meandered with shops sporting Chinese lanterns promoting its wares, Chinamen sitting on stools playing Mahjong, but best of all, food stalls and restaurants. Eating is what we had on our agenda for Penang: we needed a good pig out, as Lake Toba days had left us craving something beyond noodles and rice.
We found a quaint little hotel down a side street, which we shared with Lou & Sue; Bob decided to stay right in the heart of the action in ChinaTown. Early in the evening toward sunset, the shops closed and the street stalls magically appeared in front; along the quayside, Malay seafood was being prepared.
We indulged in the food stalls in Chinatown. It was simply a matter of selecting mouth-watering delicacies. Noodles in all shapes and sizes married with roast duck, chicken, prawns, vegetables, pork, etc… prepared in oversized woks, flames licking make-shift roofs, chefs orchestrating a symphony with their oversized spatulas with precision - great entertainment.
Other evenings, after we had our fill of street stalls, we dined out in Chinese restaurants. If we wanted something not on the menu, the waiter ran down the street to secure it from one of his competitors. Highly entertaining watching him dash back and forth, but as we dined in groups of ten or twelve travellers, he didn’t seem to mind. On Sunday, we sat outdoors and dined on delicious dim sum.
We sampled East Indian cuisine, luxurious curries, familiar martabaks from Indonesia, huge vegetable platters. Along the wharf, we gorged on spicy Malay seafood, al fresco on the cement breakwall with our take out platters, watching boats dart to and fro across the bay.
We sought out bakeries with delicate pastries, loaded into our day bags back to our hotel to consume. The days were exceedingly hot, so we slackened our thirst on gallons of fresh lime juice. Long siestas to hide from the heat of the afternoon, well satiated.
Burn off some calories taking in local sights: a wealth of Indian temples, Arab mosques, Christian churches, museums; we were slightly overwhelmed. One evening, we had a religious experience: nearing the Muezzin call Muslim faithful to prayer from the minaret on top of the mosque, as church bells rang across a colonial square; across the street Hindu worshippers brought flowers to a Kali temple, next door to Chinese Buddhists selling candles and incense for their temple. A perfect setting: east meeting west, religions standing side by side in harmony with each other.
Penang was place that could teach the world to live in harmony.
Next Stop: Singapore Sling