It’s fair to say that geography isn’t my strong point. Prior to this trip, I had no idea either Singapore or Brunei were carved out of Malaysia – I thought the latter was in the middle east somewhere, and the former . . . gosh . . . maybe nearer Australia? Anyway. I can’t be the only one who didn’t know that Penang isn’t a city at all, but an island.
Yet there it is. And more, actually: it’s a state. (Or even a country, if you believe the Wikipedia entry and understand the political and semantic complexities of designating something “a country”, which I don’t, so for purposes of uneducated brevity let’s call it a state and move on). It consists of a 300 km² island (Palau Pinang), and a chunk of mainland west-coast Malaysia. But the bit people mean when they talk about Penang – and indeed the names of which are used interchangeably – is the island’s largest city, George Town. Or Georgetown. Poor old George/Town, people barely know it exists and nobody seems to know how to write it.
Despite my nightmare visions before leaving Singapore’s reassuring confines, Malaysia (at least the peninsular bit) is of course one of Asia’s most developed countries, and KL is where all the cool kids hang out.
Thankfully we had a guide to show us how the locals do it, in the form of Rob, a half-Malaysian friend from London who had recently relocated to this fine city. It was with him that I got to try the traditional chicken rice we’d missed in Singapore (“ours is better anyway”, I was confidently informed – with no frame of reference I wasn’t about to deny it), breakfast at a banana leaf restaurant – where curry is literally served on a banana leaf instead of a plate (environmental!), and even traditional nasi lemak at his aunt’s house in the suburbs. Not only were we fed, watered and shown a much-missed dose of family familiarity, we were also taught how to eat mangosteens and identify the ripest dragon fruit. (I was convinced I would remember this sage advice forever until I went to buy one in Thailand and realised it was something to do with the scaly bits but for the life of me I now can’t remember whether they’re supposed to be big or small, and stick out or lie flat. Absolute fail).
If Christmas crept up on us unannounced then that was nothing compared to New Year’s Eve.
There’s a certain anxiety that precedes a new country on a long-term trip like this. It’s that nervous fluttering which accompanies most excited holiday-makers in the days before they depart: the excitement of a new destination mixed with fear of the unknown. I’ve noticed it creeping up on me every time: from Poland to Belarus to Russia to Korea to Indonesia to Singapore and now here it was again. This time it was compounded by Singapore’s silky-smooth effortlessness and the knowledge that life on the trip would never be so easy again. Malaysia was talked of in somewhat patronising terms by most Singaporeans, who praised the beauty and wildness of its landscape but seemed only too grateful to return to their country’s well-oiled machine. Malaysia began to loom in my mind as a hotbed of piratical lawlessness.