HOT INFO On The Road

Ben van den Anker
SE Asia: REPORT #5

Aug 19, Y2K Penang, Malaysia

Night of the hungry ghosts

Birds nest is quit a favorite on the menu for many Chinese in Hat Yai, it's extremely expensive and I still haven't figured out how they prepare them. The foreigners in Hat Yai mainly work at the offshore oilrigs in Songkla, for partying they go at the weekends to Hat Yai. The toilets here are often the squat style toilets, made by Karat "American standard". I get used to them, just like the ice the Thai people like to put in their beers, it's not that bad and I don't even notice it anymore. I booked a minibus ticket to Penang in Malaysia. In the bus I met a Canadian guy who has been working as a teachers assistant in Japan for the last four years. The Japanese teacher instructed the grammar and his job was to demonstrate the pronunciation of the words, "Very well paid but fatal for the brain!" The bus driver wants money for clearing the Thai customs, which we refuse, he got mad but that was not much of my problem. There's no need to pay any money for passing the Thai border overland

Out on the highway I get really scared, the highway looks like the ones they have in Germany. Blocks of new houses are build like they have them in Europe, I even saw a "?akro". Only the palm trees remind me in this air con minibus of Asia.

When we finally cross the bridge to Penang, the city welcomes us with an impressive skyline. The bus driver is visibly glad to drop us at the Komptar Komplex, a huge skyscraper and shopping mall. In my heart I am longing for Thailand; "This is not what I want " is my first thought. I walk to Chinatown and when I see a sign in a Chinese restaurant "Please don't spit". I instinctively know I am at the right place.

The streets are crowded with people, to reach my hotel room I have to walk through a thick cloud of smoke, as the hotel altar is a few meters from my door. The hotel owner sits all day on the first floor, where the staircase leads to, his two dogs accompany him. Just before 12 pm a crowd parades through the streets, it's the night of the hungry ghosts. They put a thick layer of fake paper money on the street, four men lower the paper statue of a bearded Chinese man they are carrying and they ceremonially set it to fire. It's impressing; it seems to bring good luck when offering for the ghosts.

The population here is mainly Chinese, Malay and Indian. I visited the Indian temple Sri Mariamman twice; in early morning I met a man that explained some things about the temple to me. Later that day he still sits on the steps that leads to the temple. "We are just beggars, every morning at six I come here and when people come out of the temple they give us money, when not, it's ok too."I am surprised; this man speaks in such a soft manner, carefully choosing his words, he seems to be content with his life. I'm sure he's capable of much more then being a beggar, I might ask him more today. I walked through "Little India" after visiting the temple, everywhere people are breaking, crushing coconuts on the streets in front of their shops. It reminds me of what I've seen in Sri Lanka.

Penang is one of the most likeable cities I've ever seen; the west meets the east here. Still I can see many differences with Thailand. In Thailand it's common to bring your own drinks, just buy a bottle of whiskey at the 7-eleven and order for coke or soda at the bar or disco. They definitely don't want that in Malaysia, instead they think that 4$ for a beer is not that expensive.

Almost everyone here speaks fairly well English; this mixed ethnic society is quit unusual to me too. At customs I had to fill in some papers, one stated, "Drug traffickers under Malaysian law get death penalty" I still remember that Dutchman hung in Singapore a couple of years ago.

While it rained during the bus strip I bought an umbrella, since then it has been hotter than ever before without a drop of rain. In the evening I met an American guy who has been working for 2 years in Germany as a stockbroker, he uses the word "Fucking" at least twice in every five sentences. "?o, I didn't like Germany, who will like those fucking Germans?" Later we meet three medical students from London, another guy mixes in; "I see you are medical students; when I may ask you a question, what gloves do you use?" They talked about 15 minutes about the pros and contra's of medical gloves, when you want to know which brand is the best, just mail me! I will leave for a more "Basic" country, Indonesia, next Monday; I bought a ticket for the boat to Medan. I guess I'm more the basic kind of traveler, although this place is really a must in Asia.

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