Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Monkey Island ... Tom Sykes

The best ever festive retreat to Malaysia
Despite being plagued by gout, bad weather and a rough night, TOM SYKES and his young family spend an unforgettable Christmas and New Year in Pangkor and Penang

EVERYTHING BAD seemed to happen in the afternoon, when heat and stress levels were high. One sweltering afternoon in the Bureau of Immigration, we rowed with an official angling for a bribe. At that point we knew little of saving face or how criticism will always be taken personally. On many other afternoons, we were followed by street kids in rags begging for spare change. The kids were the same age and height as my five-year-old daughter Daisy. My wife Donna found the poverty hard to take, but we both agreed there was some value in experiencing such harsh facts of the world. On another afternoon, I was cornered in a post office by a deranged American smelling strongly of rotten fruit. He too begged for money, but for a plane ticket back to the U.S. On the last afternoon of November last year, my doctor informed me I had gout.

No, things hadn’t exactly gone to plan since I’d relocated my young family to Manila. But what was I doing here in the first place? This was what every Filipino asked me, with mouth agape and eyes expanding to the size of footballs. ‘It’s not what you think,’ I would say, ‘I already have a wife.’ Then I’d go through the script for the umpteenth time. ‘I’m a travel writer with a love of Southeast Asia. I’m doing graduate studies at the University of the Philippines.’ The footballs remained.

Thus 23 December 2009—the date of our flight to Malaysia for a much-needed break—couldn’t have come sooner. I had blissful memories of my travels there in 2007. Furthermore, I’d been Quill’s British correspondent for almost two years and now it was time for some cultural reciprocity.

By midday on Christmas Eve, we were cruising along the golden beach-trimmed hills of Pangkor Island, me pointing out the monkeys in the palm trees and shouting, ‘See? Asia’s great. I told you!’

Teluk Nipah was the kind of beach that Western tourists dream of. But I was pleasantly surprised that the tourists here were 99 per cent Malaysian. The other surprise was that no one was making a fuss over Daisy. In the Philippines she was treated like a film star: total strangers would tell her how beautiful she was and give her presents. But here on Pangkor she got only the odd smile.

I made the mistake of dusting off some of my old Malay phrases and wondered why every hotelkeeper I spoke to frowned or giggled when I greeted them with ‘Selamat tinggal’ (‘Goodbye’). I stuck to English from then on and we found a cosy stilt hut.

During the night it rained and thundered so hard that I thought the end of the world was nigh. By dawn, only the stilts had saved our hut from flooding. The chirruping of frogs rose to a deafening pitch as we trod through the ankle-deep swamp that the resort’s garden had become. ‘Merry Christmas!’ we said joyously to each other, and it was a feeling of joy despite the bad weather and the rough night. All we cared about was Pangkor’s peace, quiet and fresh air.

The weather calmed after lunch so we went for a dip. We noticed hundreds of oblong-shaped baby jellyfish being washed up on the shore. We moved along and found no more of these ‘juicy boys’, as Daisy termed them.

We returned to our resort for the all-important Christmas dinner. No turkey, stuffing, or mince pies here, but exquisite crab, oysters and black snapper from the barbecue. For the first time in 29 Christmases, I rose from the dinner table without a balloon-shaped belly crammed with rich, stodgy English fare.

The next day we set off for Penang. Being spice fiends, we spent every minute we could in vivid, incense-thick Little India, gorging ourselves on sambars, dosai and idlis. We even spent the afternoon of the 30th watching a Tamil action movie in the Odeon. We got some odd looks for that.

New Year’s Eve morning brought with it a gorgeous sunrise, angelic birdsong ... and my worst attack of gout yet. It was my own fault for eating all the wrong food, but it was the festive season after all!

By the evening, I was fit enough to hobble along Lebuh Chulia, accompanying the girls to a concert in the park. When we arrived there, Daisy’s magic was back: a crowd of smiling young women gathered round, requesting to have their photo taken with her.

My toe started hurting again, but I was having fun. A band played faithful covers of Green Day and Black-Eyed Peas. At the stroke of midnight, the crowd sang along to the national anthem—what a jolly tune compared to the pompous dirge of my own country.

The fireworks splattered the sky. ‘Yeaaah!’ shouted Daisy from the shoulders of one of her fans. Donna was grinning, too. Midnight is when a lot of good things happen, I thought. I lay down on the grass in tears, tears from the agony of my toe and tears from the ecstasy of this holiday, the best ever.

Reproduced from the October-December 2010 issue of Quill magazine


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