Thursday, 23 February 2012

Penang, Those Damn Bedbugs - 8-12 June 2012

Wonderful sailing weather

What is there to do when you have an hour to wait for your ferry?  There’s either an overpriced Starbucks or a reliable quite cheap KFC.  I personally hate eating in KFC back at home because everybody that works there seems to be challenged.  I’m sorry if you work in KFC but it annoyed me to the point where I have now refused to go in.  Once I went into a KFC in Cambridge and was greeted with “Sorry, we’ve only got chicken left.”  This statement made me stop dead in confusion.  It’s a chicken restaurant and they’ve only got chicken left, there doesn’t seem to be an issue there.  Have they run out of drinks?  No.  Have they run out of chips?  No.  Have they still got chicken?  Yes….  Still have no idea what that person meant.  Every time I seem to go in there, there’s something wrong with the order.  “Sorry, we haven’t got any more corn on the cob.  I’ve swapped it for gravy instead.”  How is that a fair exchange?  Anyway, back at Langkawi port I decided to grab a KFC and quickly use their free wi-fi whilst a monsoonal storm battered the island.

Red Garden
All my hopes for the storm going away had faded as I briskly walked avoiding the rain where possible and hopped aboard the ferry bound for Penang.  On board, I sat behind a girl whom I ended up travelling with through the entirety of Malaysia.  Barbara was a German girl who had been living in London for many years and had been travelling South East Asia for a few months.  The ferry journey was actually quite calm despite the storm and a couple hours later we arrived in Georgetown on the island of Penang.  Of course I hadn’t booked any accommodation and followed Barbara to where she was going to be staying.  She may have thought I was one of those creepy stalker travellers.  Unfortunately there was no room left in Old Penang Guesthouse where Barbara was staying so I checked in next door which was slightly more expensive but was a really nice place, although I soon discovered that you had to pay extra for a bed sheet which I thought was ridiculous.

A lot of effort went in to this celebration
Barbara and I went on a walk around the city to find The Red Garden which is where a group of hawkers sell a fantastic variety of food.  Talk about multicultural, Malaysia is a fantastic example of many nationalities and cultures forming one country.  Food is by far the biggest attribute to a multicultural nation which Britain also offers.  That evening I had Chinese, Italian and Malaysian dishes.  Of course not huge dishes as they would be a bit too much.  Walking back to our guesthouses we became area of some rowdiness.  What the hell was going on?  Music was blearing extremely loud, it was as though we were in Kavos.  Next to our guesthouses was a piece of wasteland usually used as a car park, but tonight it had been transformed into a concert arena.  Stage, lights, smoke, loudspeakers; everything you’d expect, however, there weren’t many people watching the show.  There were only a few middle aged people and a crazed man dancing (stylised stumbling) around whilst sniffing glue.  It was a fantastic show though, although some of the singing wasn’t entirely desirable.  It was in celebration of the local Chinese temple so all the singing was in Chinese.  An unforgettable and random thing to happen led us to meeting Reut, a Canadian who we’d end up meeting again further down the road a few times.  As Reut was hungry, we thought it was a good idea to go back to the Red Garden for more to eat.  This time I just stuck to an ice tea albeit a gallon! 

Time for bed me thinks.  I’m not sure how I was going to sleep without a sheet over me but a friendly Australian man in his fifties who was in the same room lent me his blanket for the night.  I brushed my teeth as per normal (every night I promise Mrs Dentist!) and climbed into bed, selected a soothing album to put me into a good night’s sleep.  An itch appeared suddenly on my lower right leg and I scrapped it to relieve the itchiness.  Another on my left upper leg and then on my arm.  I itched them and thought nothing of it for a few more minutes until I began feeling them all over my body.  I turned the torch on my mobile on and looked around and saw nothing but when I laid back down I saw something crawling over my pillow in the corner of my eye.  I quickly redirected the torchlight and to my horror saw an adult sized bedbug scuttling away from the light.  Once I saw one, I saw another crawling up the wall which I squashed leaving a smear of what I believe to be my blood on the white washed wall.  Shit!  Bedbugs are no joke.  The bites and irritation they cause are the least of your problems as bedbugs like to travel.  They hitch rides in backpacks, clothes, towels and bed linin, and are extremely difficult to eradicate.  Having said that, I sprung up from my bed grabbed my belongings and evacuated the room.  Nobody was to be seen.  It was in the middle of the night and I resorted to sleeping on the hard wooden floor of the common area.

Streets of Penang
In the morning, I went straight to the front desk and politely informed them that they had an infestation of bedbugs and needed to sort it out.  The man who seemed to be the maintenance person around the guesthouse took my complaint extremely personally and began raising his voice in an angry tone.  “We do not have bedbugs!”  He protested.  “You say we’re dirty and we’ve got bugs.  We have not got bugs!”  He repeated.  I calmly explained to the man that I wasn’t saying the place was dirty.  Far from it, it was actually one of the cleanest rooms I’ve stayed in and bedbugs don’t care about how clean the place is as they could be in a five star hotel.  “We do not have bedbugs!”  The man repeated.  By this point I was getting thoroughly annoyed as he was basically standing there calling me a liar.  “OK, please come with me now.”  I requested and took him through to the room to show him unavoidable proof that they do, in fact, one hundred per cent have bedbugs.  “There!  Look at that!  What is that?!”  I firmly argued whilst pointing to the dead bug I’d splattered on the wall that night.

The man’s tone changed as it was obvious proof he could not defend.  “It was that dirty backpacker that came in a week back.  Bites all over him.  We asked him if he had bugs and he said no.  Now I have to do…….”  He continued obviously not in that good English but I had to stop him as I really didn’t care about hearing the back story.  “That, I do not need to know my friend.  You have bed bugs.  I slept on the floor.  I want my money back.”  I said.  It didn’t work even though I threatened to write bad reviews on Trip Advisor, Hostelworld and any other website I can find including this blog.  I angrily gave up as I really couldn’t be bothered with their lame excuses anymore and moved next door to the Old Penang Guesthouse where Barbara and Reut were staying.

Kek Lok Si
The manager of the guesthouse was an extremely accommodating and friendly man.  Although there was no room in the dormitory until that evening, he let me leave my bags with him and gave me a locker to secure my valuables.  Barbara and Reut were sitting in the common area of the guesthouse where I met them as we had already planned to head for Kek Lok Si, a temple a few kilometres out of Georgetown.  On our way to the bus stop we randomly met an Australian man called Norrie in the local 7eleven and he ended up taking us on a mini tour of some temples within the town centre.  They were fantastic little temples hidden in narrow alleyways that we would never have found without him.  For some reason, probably sleep deprivation, I didn’t have my camera with me to take any photos but just to be in these working temples was an interesting feeling.  There are differences between the tourist temples which are streaming with foreigners taking photos and being sold tack to these temples being used day in, day out by regular everyday people.  It reminds me of when Matthew Duncan and I were in Hong Kong after visiting the giant sitting Buddha, we found a small, modern temple where no tourists were but one lady was on her knees reciting prayers in a rhythmic fashion accompanied by intermittent chime of bells.

That wish better come true
Before returning to our main purpose of getting to Kek Lok Si, I returned to the guesthouse to get my camera and met Nikolai who I convinced to join us on our small excursion.  Kek Lok Si is arguably the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia and sits high above the island overlooking Georgetown and its surroundings.  Just because it’s perhaps the biggest temple doesn’t mean it’s the best as Kek Lok Si is positioned on multiple levels but with each level are multiple gift shops selling the usual tack to visitors.  The weather was unfortunately dismal for our visit which meant we needed to dart between openings avoiding the rain.  One of my favourite memories of the temple was the ornately carved hall to one of the temples which has such fantastic detail.  Above the main complex stands a Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy statue standing on the hill.  To get there you can use a cable car which seemed the most desirable option giving the weather and my fatigue.  After waiting for a few minutes, we boarded and was soon pondering the point of the cable car as it only travels about 50 metres up a relatively mild slope we could have walked up easily.  On the way back down we stopped in a local restaurant for a nice spicy bowl of Laksa. 

ABC....  Mmmmm
That evening we headed for an Indian restaurant somewhere in Little India, however, we ended up at another Hawkers’ joint which was grubbier than The Red Garden and looked as though it was where most of the locals hung out.  The food was unremarkable.  Following the main course, we were recommended the ABC (Air Batu Campur), also known as Ais Kacang which Nikolai and I excitedly went to order.  Back at our table we looked at each other with intrigued looks in our eyes and not really knowing what to think of the dessert dish lay in front of us.  The ABC is a traditional dessert with the main ingredients being shaved ice, red beans, sweet corn, jelly and ice cream.  For me, it was not the nicest thing I’d ever tasted.  It wasn’t the worst and was most likely the thought of all the ingredients together rather than the taste but I would not be ordering another one.  I ate as much as I could, leaving the beans and sweet corn but enjoying the ice cream. 

The next day all four of us headed out to the Tropical Spice Garden which was a short bus journey from Georgetown around the coast a little, it was a fantastic place full of colourful and interesting flowers and spices.  Our guide took us around and passionately told us about the different kinds of spices, telling us stories and picking things for us to taste.  I found the magical sweet tasting stevie that I would have loved to take with me, however, I was heading to Australia in under a month and knew they would not approve of me bringing in anything like that due to their extremely strict quarantine rules.

Reclining Buddha
Through conversation about how to get to Snake Temple we ended up in our guide’s car as he said that he was heading back that way to his home and he would take us there for the cost of the bus, which was ridiculously low anyway.  What a great man who was now retired and worked part time at the Spice Garden where he took tour groups around.  Not only did he take us to the Snake Temple, he took us to a couple of temples too, a traditional Malaysian style Buddhist temple and across the road to a Burmese temple to see the subtle differences before heading to the Snake Temple.  Between the temple was a chance to see the magnificent bridge that connects Penang to mainland Malaysia, unfortunately we couldn’t get to a decent spot to take a photo. 

Was it worth getting to the Snake Temple?  Short answer is no.  The temple wasn’t crawling with snakes as we had imagined and only a few were being carelessly handled by their owners trying to get money from people holding them and taking photos.  We had seen enough and chose to head to the bus stop to get back to Georgetown for some Dim Sum and a couple of beers.

Our last day was an exciting one as the annual Dragon Boat Festival was on.  Posters and flyers were everywhere and so we thought we should go along.  This time we were joined by a new person, Maggie an American journalist.  We finally got to the dam where the races were to take place following a couple of bus journeys and were immediately struck by the lack of people there.  I expected something amazing, bustling crowds surrounding the shores but most of the people there were other participants.  It was a nice though, watching those participants getting ready, cheering their teammates and celebrating or commiserating.

That was it for Penang, Barbara, Maggie and I bought tickets to leave the next day on a bus to the Cameron Highlands.  Penang is a fantastic island full of multiple cultures and accompanying delicious foods, just a shame about the bedbugs!

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