Christmas Day in Koh Muk, Penang and return

I start the day quite early and walk around the headland to cut across the island to Find Sabai beach. The path climbs through rubber plantations. The trees have a groove spiralling down which channels the white dripping sap into half dried coconut shells tied around the trees with wire. Loads of bright beautiful butterflies, a zipping green grasshopper the size of my big finger. A rustle in the trees and I spy the face of a macaq. The path turns into jungle, the track about a metre wide, yellow rutted path used by the motorbikes of planters. No other foreigners. Palms with leaves up to 3 metres long. Dead brown palm leaves hanging in swathes, dry and brown and rustling loudly in the breeze. Past some rubber planters houses, crudely shaped white sheets of pressed latex hanging on lines to dry. Under the house I can see a couple of hand mangles. The path peters to breaks in the bushes and navigation is a bit harder. As I pass another house A voice cries out ” hey my friend, where are you going?” I look up and see a cropped grey head, brown shoulder, brown-orange robed monk. He beckons me over. His friend is swaying next to the house ( it is his house). I join the monk, Ajairn and spend the next hour or more gazing out over the jungle and talking about the directions we have chosen in life. He tells me to be careful not to get lost. I tell him, philosophically that you never get lost. You take paths and the path is either the right one and you continue or you realise it is not the right one, so you choose another one. He is 55 Has been a monk for 5 years. Is from Chang mai and travels Thailand. He works in a foundation that promotes Buddhism to foreigners. He has been sent to Koh Muk to serve the island. One temple, one monk. The island doesn’t seem too interested in Buddhism. I see no shrines, prayer houses, wai-ing. He has had a normal life of working for an airline company in hotels, marriage, children, money, divorce. Turned to drink and women. Says he did bad things and he was damaged. Becoming a monk meant he gave up and away everything, and was supported by his family totally. He has a new name, as do all monks, and even his family must dress him with a higher more respectful language. His friend has also been a monk. He is now married and living on this hill in the forest. I notice a long scar with stitch arcs right down his belly from his navel. He goes down to the neighbouring house where his wife is, and comes back with a flask of hot water and some cups and sachets of instant sweetened white coffee. After a while we go down the hill to a bend where he sends me on my way, suggesting a mark my path with scratches on trees. He invites me to his temple in the evening.

The path to the beach is indeed almost invisible. After anotherc20 minutes it arrives under a pineapple tree at a stagnant pool of flotsam and jetsam which I negotiate on a wobbly plank bridge onto the beach. It’s about 100 metres wide flanked by craggy mountains on each side. Accessible only by boat or by my path . There is nobody there. The plan had been to have a final dip in the sea. Though the beach is soft sand the edge is littered with sharp protruding and underlying rock. I test the water. It’s a bit unpredictable to negotiate the sea bed. I walk in a little way, the sit down, letting the swell wash over me. I spend. A little more time on the rocks then begin my sweaty return journey. A startled dog runs back into the bushes. There are some beautiful flowers, in 2 parts. A red thing like a rubbery red open pine cone and out of the top a delicate long white trumpet of a flower with a yellow stimen.

When I get back to my beach the sun is out, it is around 3 pm. Actually I have no idea, and don’t care. Though hungry I lose myself on the beach. The tide is way way out. You can walk about 500 m out over the sand and rocks. There is a popping sound. I think it’s the crabs, maybe the shell fish. Hoi nam (sea snails), dap (starfish). Little bright sand crabs scampering around and back into the myriad of holes in the sand. Women are banging rocks, and collecting shells, big inky blue grey long legged birds with yellow feet swoop down and wade the pools looking for dinner.

I go back to the Coco Lounge for an excellent green curry with tofu and aubergine. Perfect level of spiciness. The lady asks me about why I’m vegetarian. It’s a question I never know the answer to. Every year in October there is a vegetarian festival in Phuket and Trang. I really should plan a trip around that. At dusk I go to find the wat. It’s actually behind Coco Lounge. And next to the health centre, in front of which teenagers are playing volleyball and a group of older guys are playing a game with a wicker ball. Standing in a ring and passing it around in the air by foot and head. The wat is an open modest affair, in a little square surrounded by houses and sitting next to a diminutive red Chinese temple which only opens for Chinese New Year. Ajairn is sitting freshly shaven and in brighter orange robes. I remember him joking about different types of Buddhist monks. Red shirts and yellow shirts! He is at a table with a small boy who is a tiny 11. He immediately notices me and calls me over. Delighted to see me.

He sends the young boy off to buy him some cigarettes. The boy comes back with a slightly bigger one and they have some fire crackers,which they take glee in tossing in the bushes to bang loudly. They play with a box of matches and I film their antics.

From then on the iPad takes over the evening. Suddenly it is dark and the mosquitoes are ferocious driving us into the temple where the 2 boys and a little sister cluster around the iPad looking at pictures of places faraway and of houses and faces they know. They watch the film I made of the boys playing football. They know them all. Interesting to see how intuitive and easy it is to use this iPad. The younger boy picks up navigation, zooming, speeding up and slowing down film very easily. This evening Ajairn doesn’t make too much sense. He asks me to help him with a website. I will do, but I’m not sure how. He insists I come by tomorrow before leaving to donate a coffee. I say I will, sadly knowing I won’t have time. We say goodbye.

Back at the beach the tide is very very high. I chat with William about my day, then pack. Later in the evening I go to the bar by the beach. There is some live music, a few foreigners, William and some locals. There is a mixture of pro performers, marked out by their sunglasses after dark and long hair, who play a couple of covers including Hotel California, but much much better are their Thai songs, many of which the locals know. They sing about the islands and the sea. The show is interspersed by some of the locals who sing and play too. Very talented and mournful lilting voices. These rough moustached guys by day are fishermen. William takes the mic to sing to some of the tunes. Everyone gets up and dances, the beer flows and some strange crunchy sweet cookies are passed round. It’s a beautiful night, and I’m reluctant to say goodbye and goodnight.

Boxing Day

I wake up with a cold, oh my god. It doesn’t seem to get worse during the day. I have my last breakfast as the sun comes up then walk with Dada to the pier with bags following with her husband in the motorbike and sidecar. At the pier I meet one of the singers from last night. He works the boats lugging boxes. He has a cowboy hat and looks funny lassoing the rope to tie up the boat. Waving goodbye to Dada and husband from the deck of a heavily laden ferry boat. Koh Muk slowly receding, sun beating down, exhaust belching noise and smoke. Lulled into a reverie, next to some weather beaten brown locals and a young lugger with the eyes of an old man. We are transferred to Trang where I go back to Rungtip travel. The girls remember me and I buy them some mangosteens from a very friendly fruit stall. Share a ride with some Dutch girls full of stories about Koh Muk to the bus station, where I kill 20 minutes buying sweet meals. Each bus counter has big bunches of bananas which they hand out to the waiting passengers. The minibus is piled high with bags and the stereo booms past my own headphones. Wafting smell of those menthol nose sticks so many Thais sniff obsessively.

27 December and my time has taken a whole new slant and perspective.

Arrived in Georgetown around 9.30 and the Hang Chow hotel had kept me a room but it was seedy, grotty and on the ground floor. I look at a couple of other places and remembered my trudge 2 years ago trying to find a room. I end up at the Hong Ping hotel, a big place on Lebuh Chulia. Chinese, smells a bit smokey, lacking in atmosphere but ok. I shower and get the long wished for masala dosa and mango lassi.

Phone and meet E and this is where things change. After some stalling he tells me about his illness and I still can’t take in it in. Sitting in a Chinese temple, a chanting cd and on the verge of tears. Slowly now I’m uncovering his layers. Layers he is ashamed of. Man, he has done some bad things and I can only begin to imagine how he is dealing with this. Can’t tell his family. He called it the death sentence.

What else is there to say? The minibus from Hat Yai was driven by a git who spent several stops smoking and chatting to his mates, leaving us waiting. He even got a bit lost. Hat Yai had rows after rows of stalls of dried nuts, porn DVDs, and I ate some vegetable rice salad. The waiter was gay. Shit, so what? Who is reading this? I want to change as a person, but I don’t know what I can do. I love E. What can I give him?

The afternoon ends with heavy rain and I edit pics and doze. I arrange via dodgy Internet to meet Eyrique for dinner at the food court near his hotel. His mum and brother and sister will be there. On this day the 15 th of the lunar month, his mum is vegetarian. Se treats me to dinner, rice, aubergine with garlic, water spinach, we have some beers. The entertainment on the stage is 3rd rate karaoke Carpenters style. Eyrique and I go off on our own initially to find a gay bar, but Georgetown has none. We sit in the side street at the Monkey Juice bar. Same guy, same menu, same prices as 2 years ago. We have a juice, Eyrique eats more, I photograph an old guy with his poodle. We leave as the market is closing. Back to my room. Eyrique has already picked up my cough.

The next day we were going to spend together, but his mother wants him back with them to do family stuff. We have a dosa for breakfast. Seems to be some tension around him being with me. We say goodbye, I’m a bit tearful. Weird how little we know each other, how fleeting our meetings are, how big an effort it is to reach each other. Funny how much I like being with him.

Final 2 days

Yesterday I walked around, hung around some temples, chatted to an old Chinese lady in her medicinal tea shop. Walked the malls, bought nothing. Oh, I forgot about meeting William Orchard from Singapore. A small guy in a baseball hat guarding a pile of flight cases next to the row of ruined heritage buildings I investigated last time round. They are still there, but I think the row behind has vanished. The is still one occupied by a Chinese grocer. He insists they won’t pull them down. Doesn’t seem to be much substance to rebuild though. The guy from Singapore is there making a film. He is the producer and it’s a self financed student film. A sci-fi ghost story and they have come all this way for these cool locations. We chat quite a long time, then they load up their fancy coach and drive off.

That was the day before yesterday. Back to yesterday and my wandering. I don’t see anything new, just enjoy the familiarity of the place. Have several lassis at various cheap Indian restaurants, and buy a big bag of fresh samosa and bhaji for the homeward journey. I browse one of the several used book stores and chat to the missing toothed Chinese owner about my travels. It’s amazing anyone buys anything in these stores, and this is better than most. Sun-faded, sea-water-curled trash best sellers probably from airports around the world. I do manage to find Memories of a Geisha and hope I will get round to reading it. I’ve got money to burn and I find myself in a crockery shop buying discounted Japanese plates and bowls. Quite cheap, but no haggling possible. For dinner I go back to Sri Amman…whatever it is called. No free tables so I’m invited to share a table with an Indian looking guy who is actually British. Quit his job as a banker in Canary Wharf and travelling Asia. His travels are a bit mainstream, and he isn’t too keen on experiencing the real Cambodia I tell him about. Anyway, he is ok company. We share a passion for vegetarian food and fruit, but his comments about missing uk, eg soya milk irk a little. Soya milk is easy to find and deliciously fresh here. Hope he will discover this. When we part I go back to Monkey Juice bar for a series of juices, each different, each refreshing. Suddenly remember to print my boarding passes, then go back to Hong Ping to sleep.

Next day, ie today. Breakfast is impossible to find even at 9am. For a city so keen on eating and with a Chinese population so geared to making money I can’t believe there is absolutely nowhere open. I settle for snacks from the 7-11. The minibus picks me up and takes me to the bus station where I board a luxury cruiser with remote controlled footrest and massage controls. I actually only discovered this by accident. I must have leant my elbow on the button, as suddenly I felt a trembling vibration on the left side of my back. First I thought it was the throbbing of the engine, but then I pressed a few more buttons and found more areas to vibrate. The journey was longer than promised. That’s no surprise, and the traffic was snail-like. The bus got hot and the air fuzzy. I chatted a little to my neighbour, a Malaysian kid of 19 who lives in Penang and studies in KL. To my relief the bus goes to KL Sentral, which means an easy connection to the airport. However, the bus takes me to the Airasia terminal. Why didn’t they tell me? I wander around the terminal a while and only when I ask for help do I realise my mistake. Sweltering sun. Waiting for a connecting bus. Once at the right terminal the rapid drop in queue doesn’t move as a family of Arabs are checking in about 20 pieces of luggage. One of their kids opens a Coca Cola bottle which sprays sticky brown sugary goo all over the counter and floor. Once through to departures I get some Mango Absolut, and the girls in the duty free shop are in a quandary about whether I am allowed to take it into Abu Dhabi where I have to transfer. I buy it anyway, and later am told at boarding that it will be ok. The airport book shop has many peculiar looking books on Malaysian politics and social commentary. I would have bought one if I hadn’t changed the rest of my ringgit back to pounds. My media research continues with buying some newspapers to analyse.

That takes me back to last night. I don’t usually have any interest in tv in my hotel room, but I thought I would check out what is broadcast here. It was an English language news channel from Malaysia. Interesting coverage. No Chinese faces or Indians. Lots of minor dramas, deaths, incidents, all involving Malays. Crimes such as gang robbery of a tanker, a crime of passion involving a woman, her husband, her lover. An overturned pick-up which mowed down a couple of electricity pylons. Floods on the east coast, army rescues. Education reforms. The deputy PM emphasising mastery of Behasa Melayu and English. There were complaints and suggestions by Dong Ping, a Chinese campaigner for Chinese education, for inclusiveness for all students with the new policies. The deputy PM made some comment to the effect that “we cannot please everyone and these policies are not going to be changed just for Dong Ping”. Then he made some speech about how we must curb text language as it is destroying the beautiful Malay language. Basically we saw a portrayal of a single race nation, with a single language. All smiles and silk.

I saw many of these people in the evening, yesterday. I walked up to the town hall and the harbour wall near the fort. This is a Malay area. Funny how segregated they all are. Promenading families, headscarved mothers. Everyone creating meaning and moments by snapping each other on their phones over and over, silly poses, poor light. Rituals that give shape to their evenings. I dangle my feet over the wall and watch a mammoth container ship glide slowly in, then like a mirage a brightly lit blue and white ferry positively motoring into to the port.

Even on the plane, the guy near me. A black African snaps himself several times on his Blackberry. Why oh why? To show he is on a plane? Meaningless.

My god, what a long journey. Arriving in Heathrow at 6.30 am local time. I decided not to change my watch since leaving Malaysia. Time means nothing. Except I’m tired. I can see I have lost a day, or is it 2 and I have been travelling for 30 hours now. By my reckoning it. Will be 32 by the time I get home, mid-morning, and go to bed. It’s cold here, maybe 8 degrees, my sleep on the planes was drowsy and hypnotic due to my iPod streaming whatever it liked on shuffle mode.

Uk transport….well the District line isn’t running from Hammersmith, necessitating another change. The train from Victoria to Brighton should be quick and reliable. Crawling to East Croydon, taking half an hour. This journey is costing 25 quid. I just want to get home. Uk is miserably frustratingly crap.

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