Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Kicking around Georgetown in Malaysia

Penang Island, Malaysia, Georgetown, Planet Backpacker
Chinese, Muslim, Malay & Western cultures meet on Penang Island.

Travels With My Wife


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Same, Same, But Different

From Planet Backpacker

By Robert Downes

   Georgetown on the island of Penang isn’t the fun place it’s cracked up to be in the guidebooks. I stroll around town, wrapped in a blanket of heat and humidity, dodging some listless whores down on Love Lane, one of whom looks like a guy in a skimpy polyester dress. Sure enough, these are lady-boys from Thailand who haunt this corner.  In contrast to their flamboyant brothers, the Indian girls who prostie themselves tend to stand in the shadows and hiss at men passing by.

    Love Lane was the old red light district when the Brits ran Penang.  It had three brothels, a gambling house, an opium den and a mah jong parlor. Now, it’s full of cheap backpacker guesthouses.

   Georgetown is Malaysia’s second largest city after KL (Kuala Lumpur).  It reminds me of a tropical Kalamazoo, with everyone so fagged out from the heat that they’ve developed a permanent slack-shouldered zombie shuffle.

  But I can’t complain about the digs. I’m staying at the wonderfully seedy Western Oriental Cafè, a guesthouse near Love Lane that runs $6 a night.  It has a padlock on the plywood door, an antique fan, peeling paint on the plaster walls, and a friendly feel with travelers from all over the world.  There’ll be no Raffles Hotel for this scribbler.

   But there’s a price to be paid for the luxury of staying in a grungy backpacker pit. For starters, there’s no top sheet on the bed and no towels.  I wonder if there are lice... And it’s hot at night here on the Equator -- steamy hot -- in a tiny 8-by-10 foot room with a fan that’s so far up the 12 foot ceiling that no breeze reaches me.  

   Mosquitoes are included in the room rate, but not, unfortunately, toilet paper, which I find out to my surprise the next morning during a visit to the communal john.  And, wouldn’t you know it, in Saigon I ditched the roll that I’d been carrying around for the past four months, assuming it would no longer be needed in a spiff place like Malaysia.

   But Predator is playing on the DVD next door, a film enjoyed in the company of all-male, beery backpackers who look like they don’t have much tread left on their tires.  What with the atmosphere and all, you can’t ask for better than that.


   That evening, I find an open-air cafè, pleased to be the only ferringhi on the premises.  Dinner is a plate of saffron rice with shrimp caked with a paste of smokin’ hot minced chiles. Billy Joel is torturing the clients with “Uptown Girls” on the P.A.: “And when she’s walkin’, she’s walkin’ so fi-yi-yine...”  

   Georgetown seems to have its share of Western down-and-outers; I wonder if some of the old-timers in the cafès and cheap guesthouses are the so-called heroin hippies, in for the long haul in southeast Asia.

   I attempt a world-weary countenance, which comes easy as a result of three hours sleep last night, following our farewell party.  Scribbling notes in the cafè, I realize that a lot of this blog has been devoted to food.  It reminds me of one of my favorite books, Islands in the Stream, by Hemingway, where the protagonist (Ernest in the guise of a great oil painter) is continually asking the boys on his boat in Cuba for a sandwich and a mojito.  Like every other page it’s: “Boy, bring me a sandwich and a mojito.” I love the book because you don’t know if the old fart is making fun of himself or dead serious.

   “You want beer, you want beer?” a bar doorman calls out on the main street in a sing-song voice as night falls. “You want girls?  You want girls?  You want young, young Chinese girls? They make you massage all night.”  With his sing-song voice and rolling banter, he could be a rap artist.

   The offer sounds pretty good right about now, I muse. But instead, I drift over to an English pub  and have an overpriced stout beneath the blare of a soccer game on TV. France versus Argentina.

   In the distance is the call of the muezzin.  This is a Muslim country -- in fact, Malaysia and Indonesia have the most Muslims of anyplace in the world.  They too have their share of Islamist radicals.

   Speaking of which, after the 9/11 attack in 2001, Malaysian officials had the bright idea to declare that this multicultural country of Indians, Chinese, Malays and Buddhists was officially a “Muslim” country, even though the religion is practiced by roughly 60% of its citizens -- hardly a mandate.  And even that percentage may be a false reflection of the country, since if you are born a Malay, you are officially classified as a Muslim whether you believe in Islam or not. Under the ‘laws’ of the Koran, which informs the country’s Shariah courts, the apostasy of changing one’s religion is grounds for death. Talk about arm-twisting.

   Tourism from Europe and the U.S. dropped like a bomb after Malaysia’s Muslim moment and has been in the pits ever since.  But many Muslim vacationers from the Arab nations have arrived to help fill their shoes, with scads of them flocking to the brothels and bars near the Thai border, a notorious region which serves as Asia’s “Wild West.” 

    It turns out that  the Muslims are as hypocritical as the followers of any organized religion.  Who could imagine?

   Speaking of Muslims, I wandered around Georgetown, looking for a t-shirt to present to my pal George, for whom this town is surely named.  No such luck.  But they do have a couple of popular styles for the many Islamic tourists here, decked out with the smiling face of that great Muslim hero, Osama bin Laden.

   But I’m pleased to see that Osama is tucked into the clearance rack, apparently with few people buying his act.

   Malaysia also has a charming way of greeting visitors in its in-flight magazines and customs declarations:


   And that’s a mandatory sentence, brother, if you’re caught with as little as 200 grams of marijuana. Malaysian drivers are extra careful when they cross the Thai border because sometimes druggers attach bags of dope under the cars of passersby at cafès or gas stations and then follow them over the border.  If the unfortunate Malays are caught by drug-sniffing dogs, it can be curtains for them, with no way of explaining their way out.

   It’s said that there are billboards in Malaysia featuring photos of drug dealers hanging by their necks -- a modern version of the medieval custom of putting the heads of criminals on pikes outside of town.

   As a popular saying goes in Asia: “Same, same, but different.”

Georgetown, Malaysia, Penang, Planet Backpacker
Backpacker digs in Georgetown at $6 per night, mosquitoes included.
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