George Town and the Highland Way

If we found Langkawi lacking in the way of a true Malaysian experience, then George Town, on the island of Penang, was a more than just compensation for this deficiency. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It didn’t take much; after the first lunch I yielded my heart willingly to this beautiful old colonial gem. The British established the town as a trading post at the end of the 18th Century when the Sultan of Kedah accepted an offer of ‘protection’ against neighbouring Siamese invaders made by a Colonel Francis Light, illegitimate offspring of an unknown father, from Woodbridge, Suffolk. Light set off to earn his fortune with the East India Company and was sent to Phuket from where he travelled down the coast and recognised the strategic and trade potential of Penang. Local legend tells how, in order to clear some jungle to make a stockade for his base, he had a ships cannon fire a load of silver coins into the area. He then told the natives they could keep whatever they found and so the ground was quickly cleared for what eventually would become Fort Cornwallis. This developed into George Town, which soon became a major port and naval base serving British interests in the region right through until Malayan Independence in 1957.

Francis Light was a fascinating character. He was unusual for his time in that he mastered both Thai and Malay languages, which gave him a lot of advantage when dealing with native rulers. He had no authority to make any kind of offer on behalf of the British Government with any Sultan; this was just a ruse to get his foot on the island. When the Siamese invaded, the forces of Kedah faced them alone with no support from their ‘new’ ally. Once the dust had settled on the war with Siam the Sultan decided to teach the British a lesson and sent an invasion fleet of Sampans against the fort, which were utterly destroyed by a few broadsides from warships at anchor there. Eventually a formal treaty was drawn up whereby the British agreed to pay the Sultan a sum of 6000 Spanish Silver Dollars per annum for the island of Penang and this fee is still paid today by the government in Kuala Lumpur. Light married a Eurasian lady of Portuguese / Thai parentage called Martina Rozells and had a brood of children with her. As she was Catholic, the marriage was not recognised by the authorities of the day so when Light died in his early fifties from malaria one of his friends moved in and took over all of his property leaving Martina penniless. She soon married another gentleman of wealth so there was a reasonably happy ending. One of Light’s offspring would become the first Surveyor general of Western Australia and founder of the city of Adelaide.

Today Fort Cornwallis is still there at the tip of a low-lying headland, surrounded by a network of cosy-snug streets lined with old Chinese shop-fronts that make up the ancient quarter of a town that oozes with atmosphere, yet on arrival it looked anything but. We rode across the magnificent Penang Bridge, one of two modern constructions that join the island to the mainland, to be confronted with a modern skyline replete with a concrete jungle of skyscrapers and apartment blocks that are home to half a million people in the greater metropolitan area of modern George Town. We soon spilled off the four-lane highway into the maze of narrow old-town streets that eventually led us to the Sovereign hotel and a warm welcome from a lovely lady named simply ‘V’.  First stop was a trip to Tourist Information down by the Fort where the two lovely smiling ladies who worked there quickly had us festooned with maps and advice on how best to tackle the city delights.

George Town is an epicurean paradise and rightful food capital of Malaysia. On emerging into the street, ones nostrils are gently forked by wafts of food being cooked, demanding you follow those luscious vapors whilst mouthing the war cry of the gastronome over and over; ‘Om Nom Nom…’ The trail threads through byways choked with food vendors operating from little handcarts and motorcycle restaurants where the entire apparatus to cook and serve scrumptious food is strapped to a ‘wee’ bike, mainly the ubiquitous Honda C70. Each vendor seems to specialise in one dish only and all over the city there is an astonishing variety of rice (Nasi) and noodles (Mee). Our favourite was one of the most ‘Om Nom Nom’ breakfast dishes ever; Nasi Lemak; rice boiled in coconut milk served with a topping of cucumber all pimped with roasted peanuts and a spicy anchovy / chili paste. This is made into a little pyramid and topped with a boiled egg before wrapping in banana leaf to seal-in all those juices and flavours. It makes every breakfast like a birthday with a little present to open and, while the ingredients may be the same, the combination is different making for a new food sensation at the start of each day.

But just to wander the labyrinth of narrow streets of George Town is bliss in itself hugging the merciful shade of colonial five-foot walkways. These are a British innovation, whereby all shops had to be fronted by a covered sidewalk with a minimum width of five feet across to provide pedestrians some relief from the sweltering sun (and frequent downpours during Monsoon season). Their stylish archways and stunning tiled pavements make it a photographer’s paradise. Once suitably gorged on foody goodies you can walk the calories off by following the extensive art trail, including a number of inspiring and interactive murals by Lithuanian born artist Ernest Zacharevic (check out his ‘Boy on a Motorcycle’ in the photogallery). Small wonder this place is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were absolutely delighted therefore to secure a ‘Workaway’ place at the world famous Nazlina Cookery School providing us a great base to further explore the city and an opportunity to delve deeper into its cuisine, but that will be for the future; we met Nazlina and agreed to return here in October, when she will be back from a trip to Europe…

Before that we had arranged another ‘Workaway’ up in the Cameron Highlands at a place called the De Native Guesthouse in the little mountain town of Tanah Rata. We left George Town early on a Sunday morning and rode south along the east coast of Penang to exit the island by the second of the two bridges; the grandly titled and utterly spectacular ‘Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Bridge’. Why ‘spectacular’? Well the bridge is a whopping seventeen kilometers / ten and a half miles long, as it snakes across the sea to reach the mainland. It even has a dedicated motorcycle lane all cordoned off from the rest of the traffic. In fact Malaysia, is one of the most motorcycle friendliest places we’ve ever been. All highways are toll-free for bikes and there are purpose built shelters and pull-offs under bridges for when it is raining, so you can either wait out a heavy shower or pull in to get some wet-gear on. Rejoined with the mainland we rode south and then turned inland and east to ascend into the Cameron Highlands, reaching an altitude of around 1200m, which promised a cooler environment for sleeping than we’ve been used to of late.

The highlands themselves are full of more echoes of empire; quaint cottages with mock Tudor-beam facades, Victorian hotels festooned with wrought iron work and a number of tea plantations complete with tearooms offering afternoon tea complete with scones and strawberry jam. As with places like Darjeeling and Shimla in India, the area was a popular hill-station due to those cooler climes and the sons of empire settled here in their droves. Sadly today a lot of the landscape has been marred by the awful greyness of poly-tunnel farms. Whilst they grow a rich variety of everything from tomatoes and cabbages to tasty strawberries, in places they have despoiled entire vistas. The road network is small and winding making for our first serious congestion in a long time so it was with some relief that we spotted the sign for ‘De Native’ immediately on entering Tanah Rata.

We followed a narrow, twisting road for a short distance and then tackled the sheer drive up through densely jungled hillside to our new home. On past the gateway we passed a small shrine to Babaji with beautiful views over the town below before riding into the parking area where we disturbed a number of sleepy dogs. Off the bikes we were soon surrounded by wagging tails and friendly smiles as we shook hands with Krish, the owner, and met Steph and Daryl, a young couple from Cornwall / Fareham, our working buddies for the next few weeks. Duties were fairly easy, just keeping the place tidy and making up vacated rooms so they were ready for the next guests. De Native has three largish mixed dormitories and half a dozen fully en-suite, ‘glamping’ style, bamboo chalets. There is a bar and a fire pit where staff and incumbents gathered around the little bonfire in the cold evenings for a beer and a natter.

De Native was brilliantly placed as a jump-off point for a number of spectacular jungle trail-hikes in the area. Our first was Trail 9, the start of which was only a ten-minute walk from the guesthouse. A small path chased an old water pipe out to the quite beautiful Robinson Falls and then meandered on along the edge of a valley through dense jungle. At times the way seemed blocked by fallen trees across the path but a quick scramble up and over soon had us on our way. Eventually we found our way out of the bush into a small farm nestled along the bottom of the valley where they were growing gourd, cabbage and onions.   A few days later, Trail 1, was a much more challenging prospect as it climbed out of the nearby town of Brinchang to ascend Gunung Brinchang, a 2000m peak that overlooked the town. Again a well-marked trail through dense jungle but this time with a steep ascent most of the way, in places so steep that knotted ropes had been installed to aid climbing some of the more challenging sections. It was also very muddy due to recent rains and took around two hours to make it to the top, followed by a three-hour descent down a winding mountain road that led us through the Boh tea plantation for a deserved cuppa and mouth-watering cheesecake taken at the beautiful restaurant that overhangs the tea plants. These jungle trails were well marked and easy to follow for the most part so there was no repeat of our getting lost as happened at Khao Sok in Thailand. The foliage and form of the riotous plants with their glossy pointy leaves was soothing on the eye and here and there brilliant coloured flowers shone out from the greenery like little jewels. Running ones eye from the path to the heavens scans an ascent of monster tree-trunks reaching ever skywards, with here and there the slash of some fallen trunk propped up against his neighbours like a drunken giant, the lot draped and hung in jungle finery of vine and runner like a ghost-ships graveyard with a tattered disgrace of masts, spars and rigging.

Back at De Native in time for dinner: we generally cooked and dined with our ‘Workaway’ buddies and supped on discount beer courtesy of Krish who looked after his crew well. Then back to the fire to meet the days new arrivals followed by a round of the day’s tales and the ear of a friendly mutt to rub. We spent three weeks at De Native but looking back it seems much longer as it was one of those places where one could really unwind and watch the trickle of the grains of sand slow in their downward fall through the hourglass of life as if magically retarded by the company of good companions… So why would you leave such a place? Well, every time we sniffed the aroma of food in the pan, the haunting refrain of “Om Nom Nom” would rise and remind us we had an appointment with Nazlina in George Town. Time to go back to school…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed at George Town and the Highland Way

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Langkawi and the Lost Hotel

In our many years of traveling we have stayed in many accommodations ranging from hotel to hostel, B&B to boarding house, homestay to hospedaje, from occasional 5-star down to the more humble and basic dormitory with the odd doss-house thrown in, but never before have we stayed in a lost hotel…

It was early in the morning when we left the Seaview Hotel. Outside we were greeted by a total absence of both sea and view; instead the most horrific downpour as the monsoon season had well and truly started. Never mind your common-or-garden stair-rods, this was raining rebar with shafts of water cascading like silver-glass javelins that smashed into the ground in a deafening roar, each strike shattering into a thousand silver droplets. The ferry terminal was but a three-minute ride ‘round the one-way system of the little seaside town of Kuala Perlis yet we found ourselves donning wetsuits to avoid getting soaked to the skin. When the little Ro-Ro ferry left harbour we rushed up on deck to see if we could see our island destination ahead but the horizon this morning was a fuzzy line ‘tween featureless slab of silver-steel sea and the hem of a dirty dishcloth sky.

We were heading to the island of Langkawi, first major stop in Malaysia, to try out a new experience; ‘Workaway’. On our ride east we have been slowly but steadily running into the monsoon and if we continue at our present rate we will hit eastern Indonesia at the end of the year, just when the weather can get really nasty so we needed to find a place to hole up until we can find better weather. ‘Workaway’, an online site that unites travellers with people and businesses looking for temporary help, seemed an ideal solution. In return for a few hours graft per day you get free accommodation, sometimes with food, along with an opportunity to learn new skills, meet local people and absorb some of the local culture. The work can be anything from helping out on a farm or an eco-project to assisting in the running of traveller accommodation. There is no obligation on either party so if you don’t like a particular stay you can just walk away. The description of our first ‘Workaway’ read; We are a happy Malay family managing a Country Resort, with the help of our volunteer friends. The hotel is located in the center of Langkawi, a beautiful island in Malaysia, close to the border to Thailand and surrounded by lush tropical gardens, where you can even spot white face monkeys or even monitor lizards. We are currently renovating some of the rooms, and the other facilities, so any skills in this area will come in handy. Reviews from previous travellers suggested it was an idyllic site and a great place for our first ‘Workaway’ experience. We were absolutely delighted when Ayub, the site manager, accepted our request to join his merry crew at the Hotel Panorama.

The rain stopped just as the ferry was docking so we packed away our waterproofs and set off to explore our new home. Covering an area of twenty-five square kilometers, Pulao Langkawi (Langkawi Island) isn’t that big and the winding road up to the Hotel Panorama was gracefully lined with tall trees that provided dappled shade from the afternoon sun. Above us to the right we glimpsed the lofty jungled peak of Gunung Raya, highest point on the island. Then we had our first glimpse of the resort itself through the trees to our left, a sprawl of low lying accommodation blocks behind an impressive reception building set amidst an explosion of palm trees. We pulled in to the grand porch, our arrival heralded by the throaty growl of my Scorpion exhaust, which summonsed a couple of fellow volunteers who wished us a warm welcome and, even better, helped us unpack the two bikes. Walking through the open reception area we were greeted by the site of a beautiful rolling garden full of mature jungle foliage in the heart of which lay a very large and rather inviting turquoise-blue swimming pool. The accommodation was hidden away in a series of seven blocks, containing around one hundred rooms, around the periphery of the cool shade of the garden. From these first few glimpses the Panorama looked magnificent. Surely a four-star+ resort and for sure there must have been some glory days when it first opened but over the next few days we would gradually see the hotel for what it really was and the realisation dawned upon us that the Panorama somewhere along the line had become quite lost…

One hundred rooms, huge swimming pool, mature gardens, outdoor gym, conference facilities and remote setting; you would expect such an establishment to feature a sturdy force of personnel; housekeeping and cleaners, chef and kitchen staff, gardeners and groundsmen, bar staff and security, all with a team of managers and deputies headed by the redoubtable Ayub to keep it all in line and ever ready to cater handsomely for every request… The full time pay-roll staff of the Panorama consisted of two personnel; an Indonesian receptionist who suffered from the twin maladies of shyness and being barely able to speak English and a security guy who worked nights. There was also a part-time housekeeper who mainly looked after the owners’ quarters. My preconceived image of Ayub (based entirely on the contents of a few short emails) was that of a friendly, possibly portly, Malay who would greet us with a gap-toothed smile as he introduced us to his merry crew yet even Ayub was not a full-time employee. It came something of a shock to find that ‘he’ was actually a ‘she’ in the form of a very pretty twenty-four year old Danish lass named Mette who had earned the position of manager by virtue of the fact that she, along with her boyfriend Paw, had been there longer than any of the other the ‘Workaway’ volunteers. And it was a crew of half a dozen ‘Workaway’ volunteers who made up the rest of the staff. So how on earth were we supposed to cover all of these duties and run such a big hotel?

It turned out to be quite easy for, you see, the hotel had no guests! There were a number of reasons for this. First, the location demanded access to a private vehicle as the nearest town was several kilometers away and there was no shuttle-bus or easy access to public transport.   Secondly, the hotel had zero facilities: the kitchen was mostly derelict, the bar was long closed and you couldn’t even buy a bottle of water on site. Finally the rooms themselves were slowly falling into a state of disrepair. One entire block had no running water, another had a termite infestation and a third had been used as a depository for broken furniture and building material. Beyond the property walls, the jungle was ever ready to encroach on gardens and grounds. In the rooms, doors were broken, locks didn’t work and linen was shoddy, yet the asking price was top dollar. As a consequence the place had appalling reviews on Trip Advisor being likened to Fawlty Towers in one review. It was a standing joke amongst the crew that most arrivals checked out immediately on being shown their room. We would spend just over two weeks here and in that time saw only a couple of rooms occupied mainly by Malays who didn’t seem to mind the state of the place.

On a quiet afternoon I explored the abandoned staff quarters down at the back end of the site (volunteers were accommodated in some of the better hotel rooms). The building that housed the quarters was called ‘The Love Shack’ and artful murals on the wall illustrated how previously the Panorama had been a riotous ‘anything-goes’ party venue, which may further account for the decline in guests and general lack of interest in developing the site. The main problem with the Panorama was that the business plan, if it ever existed, was never communicated to the volunteers so we were never quite sure if the place was to be readied for new customers (unlikely given the state of the place) or merely being kept on tick-over for eventual sale. We were told to just keep the pool and gardens tidy, otherwise we had the run of the place to ourselves.

Our first week was marked by easy and somewhat idyllic days where we enjoyed the change from travelling offered by a bit of gardening. Then there was the pool with a delicious dip each day after work to escape the heat of the afternoon sun. The central location was great too for exploring the island and we took the Skycab to obtain splendid views of the Langkawi archipelago. For sheer physical exertion we climbed the 4287 concrete steps to attain the summit of Gunung Raya, a splendid hike up though dense jungle that had us soaked to the skin with exertion and sweat, yet worth it for the fantastic views over the island (tempered slightly by the thought that we had to descend back down the same stairway). The owner, a kindly lady called Yanee who lived on site alone with two of her four children, made us very welcome and sometimes treated her volunteers to splendid dinners and on other days we had the run of the kitchen to cook for ourselves.

Our fellow volunteers were an interesting mix of new and veteran travellers. This was the fourth time that Mette and Paw had been volunteering at Panorama. The lure of pool and garden along with the cheap prices (Langkawi is a duty-free island) were just too attractive but their talents were wasted running the place. Otherwise they were lively company in the evenings and had the unenviable task of holding the team together. We had Greg and Isa from Poland and Jonny from Donegal with an accent from home that was music to our ears. He ran an online business that funded his time on the road and was a real pleasure to work and socialise with. Mustafa was a quiet young doctor from Egypt who was suffering from a deep conflict between medical training and religious faith. His piety had gotten him into trouble for administering the Islamic equivalent of last rites to a dying woman who he later found out was actually a Christian. We felt sorry for Mustafa as he genuinely thought he was doing the right thing, providing dying comfort to someone in last moments of their life, yet it all backfired when the lady’s family sued the hospital. Cardi of the dreadlocks looked knackered when she first turned up at the Panorama and we initially put this down to a long bus journey, however her vacuous appearance never altered much during her short stay at the Panorama due most likely to the intake of lots of ‘herbal stuff’ in the privacy of her own room. Although born in France her folks were English and she spoke with a rather plummy English accent. Conversation with Cardi was a bit limited as she had all the vocabulary of a talking Barbie doll and chats mostly consisted of her repeating the last thing you said to her and adding the words ‘that’s amazing’ to it. She incurred our wrath when, along with Greg, they decided to raid the fridge for lunch on her last day and scoffed our dinner.

Originally we planned to stay here for one month but by the end of the second week our travails were all starting to seem a bit pointless and the realisation dawned that the Panorama was in fact a lost hotel. The hotel had lost its sense of purpose; there were no guests and no realistic plan to attract any. Gardens were more or less under control, at least out front and in the area around the pool but then we heard that the volunteer programme might end soon, which would certainly give the jungle a green light to come in and reclaim the place and all our efforts would really be for nothing. Duty-Free Langkawi also quickly lost its appeal with the islands development poorly planned and executed with horrid malls and resorts blotting out some gorgeous beach territory. It was a poor substitute for our recent travels in the jeweled islands of Western Thailand and we sensed little in the way of a true Malaysian experience. We were hearing great things about gourmet delights in George Town and a second ‘Workaway’ beckoned in the form of a legendary hostel needing help up in the Cameron Highlands. It was time to move on…

We mounted up and waved goodbye to the crew at Panorama closing another little chapter on our ride east. In the balance we both really enjoyed our first ‘Workaway’ but just wished it had been for a more constructive project. Having said that, Panorama has the potential to be a magnificent hotel with such a unique, lush and laid-back setting and we really hope that one day it will find itself and be restored to the glory it deserves.

The photogallery for this post can be accessed by clicking on: Langkawi and the Lost Hotel