South East Asia Trip Diary, October 1991
Arrived in Patong Beach, Phuket. Paradise Hotel (no false modesty here!). The room has a big noisy fan, and a gently erotic picture over the bed. This is the last place I have a room to myself. Last night was spent on the train. I can smell cooking (this is not surprising in Thailand).
There are men working on a building site opposite. Work gangs here start early (6 am or so) and continue far into the night.
I have a sore throat possibly due to the small amounts of tapwater I swallowed with my malaria pills, while cleaning my teeth, etc.
RED SNAPPER AND TROPICAL RAIN
Phi Phi Don, 18/10/1991
This evening we walked back along Ton Sai’s only street, ankle-deep in water. The rains came as we were looking for food, and hit the little village as we deliberated over marlin, pomfret and snapper. The journey home was made barefoot in near-darkness, interesting if not comfortable.
The Phi Phi Cabana is almost a caricature tropical village. Set between crescent beaches of white sand, it comprises rows of palm-fringed huts divided by coconut palms. There is no hot water, but there is a fan.
“Hi there,” says a sea-food restaurant waitress, trying to sell us fried seabass and vegetable rice. I smile, explain we’re going to have a drink first, and walk on.
Behind the huts local boys play a ballgame which seems to be something like ‘keepy-up’; kicking it from one to the other without it touching ground. The oldest local men wear kilts; the others wear baggy blue trousers. No shirts, in any case.
Lunch today was down by the port. I asked for chicken with ginger on rice, didn’t get it, was told a while later they’ve run out of chicken. Okay, I’ll have beef. But why not tell me earlier? It’s hard to be annoyed with these people; it isn’t their way.
It’s to Ao Nang tomorrow. Tonight’s storm lit up the sky behind the hills like a rerun of an ancient war, and this afternoon as I sat in a deckchair looking out across the bay I thought, “This is the long-awaited trip. The one I’ve been going on about for so long.” Because it is, you know.
Woke at 7.30 after ten hours in bed, mostly sleeping. Counting the money: 3000B in 500B notes, 40B in other notes, no coins. I owe people 2270B. this leaves 770B which should be enough for Ao Nang plus a bit convertible to Malaysian dollars when we cross the border. Also £100 in Travellers’ Cheques.
Malaysia – the food will be milder (but only by comparison with Thai food), there will be mosques and turbans, and Western script. But it may not be much different.
Later (11a.m) – back from breakfast which was congee with chicken (35B). Better than I’d expected! Making last preparations to leave the island. Funds now 1000B, still owe 270B.
A hallucinatory voyage here, and the town is full of Chinese – 75% of the population. Crossing into the Federal Islamic Kingdom of Malaysia was actually quite easy. Some Indians here but mostly Chinese. Trees and hedges and barriers. Signs in Western script. Not a mosque to be seen.
I am drinking Anchor beer and the Chinese are debating in the corridor. I am out the other side of Maugham and Burgess, propelled by them to say something new after the cliché of English-Writer-in-Asia… silence among the weapons for this is a city where people stick money to the trees for luck. Fish tanks give good feng shi. Sometimes local eyes look back at me without the hard glitter of centuries’ capital. Somewhere to hide … maybe West meets East and keeps on going.
My next film may not come out – I’m not sure if it wound on properly. There’s a Minolta dealer up the road (turn left opposite, 200m?) – go in there? Probably somewhere closer.
24/10/1991 – The Cameron Highlands
Penang was interesting, very Chinese, lots of tours, lots of photos as well. Now we’re staying at the Golf Course Inn near Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. The journey here was most notable for the twisty roads up which our taxi went, despite knocking sounds from the back. Got wet going through the forest to Tanah Rata, but we had a good and cheap (M$.250) chicken mertabak in a little Indian-run café.
In Penang most people were Chinese, with Indians to do the menial jobs. The Malays live round the other side of the island in villages. Here it seems more balanced. (a lot of Indians on the plantations).
There is no sunshine here; the sky is cloudy and grey.
Beer is $4.80 after they’ve taken off 20% probably for low season. Beer is Anchor or Tiger. Malaysia also has something called ‘Rut-Bir’; yes folks, it’s root beer.
In the colonial days there was little to do other than sex and drinking. So they all did a lot of both. Not, I believe at the same time, as the one makes impossible the other.
I have just had a shave, as at least here the water is hot enough.
It doesn’t feel all that jungly here, whatever that means. Maybe it’s the lack of heat. Nor does it really feel Grand Colonial – no art deco lounges or ‘30s prints. The jungle has been tamed by the 20th century and is full of tourist lodges, wire fences, sweet wrappers, used condoms and other detritus of summer nights. The myths have departed.
This morning before I left Penang, my final preparations were interrupted by a large Tamil guard with a billy-club at his belt, who opened the minibar and demanded to know why it was empty. This was because the previous evening there had only been one bottle of water in there. I’d had it and was on my way to pay for it. I eventually managed to explain this to the Continental’s staff, with the aid of receipts.
Georgetown (capital of Penang) let me sample another form of transport: the jinriksha, or bicycle rickshaw. It’s slow and leisurely and quite cheap ($5 per hour). In the evenings I ate at the Komtar Food Court, usually around $4 for mertabak or nasi ayam, $6 for a large Anchor beer.
On the train from Butterworth to Tapah Road we had RAIL CHANNEL! The video was “Millennium,” based on a John Varley novel.
Saw rubber being tapped at Titi Kerawang Stall on Penang.
25/10/91 Cameron Highlands
I feel much better without the loose tooth. It was never certain when it was going to go. Having sex the night before was nice, as well.
From here it’s to KL then Melaka then Singapore, then finally home at almost midnight on Friday. I feel I shall have had enough by the end of the three weeks, we’ve had two weeks already and that is quite some time.
Last night’s meal was $28 for chicken, shrimps and cashew nuts, fried rice, and two beers. This is only dear by comparison with what we’ve been used to; it’s about £6 at M$4.70 to the £.
We missed tea at the Olde Smoke House, but apparently it’s smartened up its dress code. Having walked through the jungle then arrived in Tanah Rata just when it was starting to rain heavily, I got a taxi back to the hotel. Only M$2 (45p?) so who’s complaining? I also sent off the Penang postcards.
Considering this is the first ASEAN Adventure tour of all [see PS] it’s going very smoothly. By the time I get back it will be November. There will be so much mail behind the door (though my friend who is checking in on the flat may have sorted some of it out), a few messages on the answering machine, yellow leaves in the courtyards of St Paul’s Court. I shall operate a slightly changed regime; getting up at six, I shall take the No. 11 bus from Hammersmith to Westminster, then a 3 or a 159 to Lambeth Bridge. I am sick of tubes. I’ll have to buy my season ticket on Sunday and check on Monday morning how long the journey takes.
I have cancelled the cleaner, which will save me c. £70 a month.
I am not only sick of tubes, also of the walk past H&WL College and across Talgarth Road. Far nicer to go through St Paul’s Court and along a little bit of Hammersmith Road. I should leave home at 7 am, which is when I would have been getting up in the old days. Maybe experience will dictate a later start (but not earlier, I hope! It should be pre-rush hour). On the way home I can get off by the “Duke of Cornwall” if necessary (the rush-hour traffic up Fulham Palace Road is very slow).
In KL I need to write some cards and get my washing done. I still have a few shots left in the camera; I took some at the tea plantation, but the Cameron Highlands aren’t really photographable. Eight left (16 taken) according to the counter now. That’s Penang and here. KL will probably finish this film.
I shall pack the UAL pullover in my cabin baggage for the flight home as I’ll need it at 5 on a Heathrow morning.
The business about getting up at six may be facilitated by my being still jetlagged by Monday morning.
I wonder how the performance venue is going. Do I think I will be able to continue with it when I get back?
What is my cabin baggage? I suggest packing the rucksack in the Puma bag and taking the new bag on as cabin baggage. If all my gear wil fit in that is, but I’ll be wearing my heaviest shoes and a coat and jumper so there will be more room.
ASEAN will probably give up this hotel as a venue; it’s miles from the town by an unlit road, and it’s expensive. For the next tour Mark has booked a hotel on the main street of Tanah Rata.
The breakfast was on the house here, but the coffee was so abominable I sent it back and ask for tea.
The Courts [St Paul’s Court] dissolve into fragmental rain and pomelo juice runs down my chin.
Kuala Lumpur, 27/10/91
So here I am in KL! My legs are sore from too much walking about, including the 272 steps of the Batu Caves this morning. Then we walked around town until 3 pm or so, seeing the sights and taking lots of pictures.
We are in the Grand Central Hotel, which is slightly grand and fairly central. I just finished writing postcards.
“Where it all began” say the slogans. Here at the far end of Malaysia, only 250 km from bustling Singapore, in a city of drab frontages and half-demolished antiquities. Melaka is trance or trauma. “It” that all began here is the Islamification of Malaya, and in a way (the way they hope you to understand) the modern country of Malaysia. Melaka clings doggedly to its rocks, pushes itself out into the sea by land reclamation (a race-memory of once having belonged to the Netherlands?) and broods over the vagaries of history, that colonialism sat on it for 400 years, squeezing the life out of it; so they say.
But the Malays, submitted to God under Islam, grew lethargic and the Chinese (who were here in the 15th century anyway) and the Indians (here earlier still) brought trade here. Had it not been for foreign intervention the whole of Malaysia might today be a sleepy, stifling backwater country, a small nondescript Islamic state somewhere in the East.
Which it isn’t.
The Portuguese were here, buried St Francis Xavier on the hill of Nossa Senhora da Asunção, intermarried with local women and shut themselves away in Medan Portugués where their descendants still live. St Francis’ remains were moved to Goa later and the Dutch moved into Melaka, built the Stadthuys and Christ Church, reconsecrated Na. Senhora da Asunção to St Paul, and took over the Portuguese fortress of A Famosa. When the British arrived they demolished A Famosa apart from one gate, and Melaka became one of the three Straits settlements along with Penang and Singapore. And then nothing happened for a very long time.
The trip is officially over. Having survived its duration without medical problems I am now covered in a red rash of unknown origin. Possible causes are (i) sweetcorn-derived margarine (Thursday morning), (ii) a dodgy mertabak (Friday evening), (iii) the Singapore Gin Sling (perish the thought!), (iv) wearing an unwashed shirt (Friday evening), (v) overindulgence in alcohol over a long term (remember the unexplained rash that affected me in the Lyric one Saturday), (vi) exhaustion, (vii) psychosomatic effect, as when I noticed the apparent corn derivation of the margarine I thought, “now I shall get an allergy rash”.
Quite honestly I shall be pleased to be home. I am not relishing the thought of a 13-hour flight; I shall buy books and probably a Walkman for the journey. I already have a new watch to replace the Swatch article.
Well, it may be. Last night we were talking to two girls (one Chinese, one Malay) at Satay Club, and they didn’t seem too impressed, for all they’re from here. They were using English as a lingua franca. They had never been to Europe but would like to (well, they should go if only to see what it’s like).
I still have to post my postcards.
One of the people on the trip was Professor Neil Porter (1930-2006), Irish physicist, a key figure in the application of radio technology to detecting cosmic ray showers.
I can find no reference to the company we travelled with, called ASEAN Adventure. There is a travel company in Cambodia of the same name as at 2022, but I can see no connection between the two.