THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER NINE: PENANG AND SINGAPORE
I left Bangkok on the morning of January the second, and spent the next two days traveling by train down the thousand- mile tail of Thailand into Malaya. Dick and George and the three girls appeared bleary-eyed to catch the same train so we made the journey together. As usual we traveled third class, but the Thai and Malay trains were a welcome improvement to those in India, the seats were more comfortable, the carriages less crowded, and the people far more polite and friendly. In a word they were civilized.
It was another all-night ride, but by far the most bearable. In Jean's handbag there was a half bottle of whisky that had miraculously survived the New Year celebrations, and as I was able to buy another on the train we turned the evening into a party. As the train rattled through the darkness, we passed around our only drinking glass and entertained the rest of our fellow passengers with a sing-song. Finally I proved my capability for making myself comfortable anywhere by parking myself full length in the luggage rack for what was left of the night. The others spread themselves across seats and the floor and none of us woke until we had to change trains at a place called Hat Yai at four in the morning.
There was an hour's delay, and then another two-hour train ride to the Malayan frontier at Padang Besar. Here there was a delicate problem. There were, apparently, over a hundred hitch-hikers stranded in Singapore, who had got this far along the Australia route and then run out of money. Therefore the Malayan authorities were now turning back anyone who had not got plane or sea tickets or sufficient cash to complete the journey. I had neither, and I didn't fancy sitting on Padang Besar station for a wet fortnight while they checked out my story that I had money waiting in Singapore. So I put on my best honest-innocent-helpful expression, the one I always use when dealing with police or customs officials, and lied my way through. George and Tessa both had to produce the money they declared, but they were the only sample checks and the rest of us were passed without any further questions. All passports were stamped and we carried on to board a third train that was waiting to take us on the last lap to Penang.
The passing scenery throughout those thousand miles was fresh, green and luxuriant. There were flooded rice fields where peasants worked in their lampshade hats, and long tracts of forest and jungle, all a profusion of palm fronds, bamboos and evergreens. The single line railway track followed the east coast of Thailand's tail, and there were frequent glimpses of pure yellow beaches and dazzling blue sea. After Hat Yai the track turned inland through thickly wooded swamps, and then continued down the north western coast of Malaya. Penang is an off-shore island with an area of just over a hundred square miles, and when the train stopped at Butterworth we had to take the railway ferry to cross the dividing channel.
A crowd of touts mobbed us as we got off the ferry, but by now we all knew enough to ignore them and pushed our way through, and we found our own way to a youth hostel. On arrival we found that the hostel had recently been taken over as a welfare home for juvenile delinquents, but as it was temporarily empty we were allowed to stay overnight. We were an independent lot and not particularly fastidious about our accommodation; all that we really needed was floor space and a working shower.
Having dumped our rucksacks and cases we all went out for a meal, a Chinese noodle soup eaten with the aid of chopsticks, and then wandered around the town. By then it was dark and the streets flickered with neon, but after the glittering Disney fairyland that was Bangkok, Penang seemed very tame. I strayed ahead of the others and in no time a Malay on a bicycle rickshaw was keeping pace at my side and offering me all the usual entertainments. I told him I had a taste for virgin Eskimo girls of about thirteen and he assured me with utmost sincerity that there was such a girl, very clean and absolutely delightful, in the very establishment he recommended. However, I thought that he might have been lying so I didn't go.
Dick and George and the three girls caught up again and the Malay sheered off, and we made our way back to the ferry pier. Here the five island-hoppers had arranged to meet the sixth member of their Indonesian expedition, another Overlander named Steve who had travelled out to Asia on a coach organized by one of Janet Hammond’s rivals. Steve proved to be an exuberant type with a beard and glasses. He had hitched down from Bangkok ahead of the others to save the train fare, and when we found him he had a Chinese guide closely attached to his heels.
Chinese Jack, as we called him, was a bit of a pest, but he did enable us to get a couple of rooms at the Chinese Swimming Club on the north coast of the island where we stayed for the next week. The Club was more like a modern hotel, with a restaurant and a full-size swimming pool, and only a stone's throw from the beach and the sea. It was a twenty minute bus ride from the centre of Georgetown, Penang’s main town, flanked by a jungle covered hill and with a small kampong village close by. It was ideal, and between seven of us the two rooms worked out at less than a dollar a night, one Malay dollar being equal to two and sixpence.
The next day it rained:a warm, continuous, steady rain that began at midnight and lasted right through until late afternoon. We had arrived to catch the tail-end of the monsoon and further south Malaya had been hit by the worst floods for many years. Thousands were made homeless and most of the roads were under- water; which was the main reason for prolonging our stay in Penang. We lay in bed until noon, and then shifted our gear out to the Chinese swimming Club in the rain. The three girls piled themselves into two rickshaws to get to the bus station but the rest of us walked. When we had got ourselves organized into our new home we all went swimming in the pool, despite the wet grey skies. The water was as warm as the rain, but as this was the first opportunity we had had for swimming since we had left the Mediterranean we enjoyed it anyway.
The days that followed were dull and hot, with the skies patterned by grey-blue cloud that seemed to climb up out of the leaden sea. We wandered all along the tropical beach where fishing boats were drawn up in lines above the waves, each one with a large bright eye painting upon the high prow. Across the channel parts of the mainland were visible, and on the island tall palms, heavy with ripe coconuts made fronded green patterns against the sky. The kampong village was a typical example of its kind with neat little wooden houses raised on stilts, all with a thatched roof. Smaller palms, sagging with unripe green bananas flourished with other sub-tropical foliage in the gardens between, and naked children ran free among scuffling chickens. It was pleasant and peaceful, and to add a splash of brighter color there was a small but elaborate Buddhist temple of Thai architecture.
On one jaunt I carried a spear-gun, borrowed from Dick who was returning it to a forgetful Overlander who had departed too hastily from Kabul for Australia. However, the sea was so grey and murky under the surface that I wouldn't have seen a fish if it had sat on the end of my nose, and so the heroic-looking spear-gun didn't even get wet. Instead we used it for shooting down coconuts. We were not particularly successful, but after five or ten minutes some watching Malays finally brought out two ripe nuts and gave them to us; no doubt they reasoned that this made better sense than the continued risk of death or injury from a three foot steel arrow bouncing wildly from the tops of the palm trees. By the time we left the beach I had found a miniature dead fish which dangled nonchalantly from the spear balanced across my shoulder. The girls had not accompanied us that afternoon so back at the club I was able to tell them that they should have seen the one I got away from.
We were all hard up in Penang, which was the main reason that we found Chinese Jack a nuisance. Despite the little favors he did for us we couldn't afford to keep him in drinks and meals which was his expected payment. Finally he attached himself to a more profitable Australian couple, but first he did help us to hire a car at a rate which we could just about manage. There were three levels of prices in Penang. Local price, for the resident Malays and Chinese, high price, for British and Australian servicemen, and sky-high price, for flush Americans. We got the car at local price for a couple of days, just long enough to tour the island.
On the first day we circled the island, heading westward and then south. The car was a big blue Consul that could just hold the seven of us, and had a steering wheel that shook and rattled violently whenever the speed got up to thirty. Steve drove and I navigated.
It was another hot, cloudy day, and we soon stopped at one of the many fine, sandy beaches that form Penang’s northern shoreline. We all cooled off with a swim, and just offshore was a small islet of black boulders piled up high and clogged with small trees, creepers and vegetation. I swam out towards it and almost lost a toe on the sharp, barnacle-encrusted rocks as I waded through the shallows. Scores of tiny little crabs scuttled away as I approached, like flying shells skimming over the grey-green rocks. Climbing was difficult, but I pulled myself up by the lichen-covered branches of a dead tree that shook beneath my weight, and found my way into the heart of the cave-like crevices that ran through the balanced boulders.
There was a sudden flurry of wings, and then a vague shape dived out of the gloom, straight at my face but turning in the last second to vanish over my shoulder. More almost transparent wings fluttered to and fro and as my eyes accustomed to the darkness I realized that I had startled a cave full of flying foxes. They were tiny little creatures, half bird and half bat, with grotesque furry brown bodies some three inches long and with webbed wings. They were everywhere, clinging to the rocks and crevices, and hanging upside down from the roof. I could hear them squeaking in agitation, and every time I moved they took flight and whirled around in panic.
I picked my way through the cave and, feeling rather like Tarzan, used some trailing creepers to haul myself up and out on the far side. Here I found Dillys with Dick, George and Tessa, exploring from the opposite direction. Steve and Jean were romping back on the beach and didn't seem at all bothered at having missed the flying foxes.
When we swam back to the shore we quickly got moving again, and with Steve back at the wheel continued our circular tour. Before long we spotted some fairly short coconut palms and braked to a stop. I had always had an ambition to climb up a palm tree and cut down my own coconut, and on this occasion I was prepared for the job. I had a long strap from my rucksack which I fastened around my waist and the trunk of the palm, but the climb still wasn't quite as easy in practice as it was in theory. A south sea islander would have done the job at a dignified canter, but my approach was more of a hugging scramble.
However, with Dick giving me a shove, and George making comic remarks about my unique demonstration of how to rape a palm tree, I finally got within reach of the hanging nuts. That was when the ants appeared; which was another thing that doesn't usually happen in those romantic south sea island pictures. I broke off a dead palm frond as I grappled for a working hold and they poured like a black flood along the length of my bare arm. There were hundreds of them, tiny little things that swarmed all over me, and Dick said afterwards that from below it looked like “Maraboonta” the South American word for soldier ants when they march in their millions to devour everything in their path. Fortunately these ants were not biting, they were just swarming and tickling and so I hung on long enough to hack down my coconut before I slithered back to the ground. With some help from Dillys I brushed off the smothering ants and triumphantly carried my prize back to the car. Later I lost it, and I could have bought one for practically nothing anywhere along the road, but that was all irrelevant. I had achieved at least one of my modest ambitions.
On our way again we followed the road down the south side of the island; on either side was thick jungle that was mostly a profusion of palm fronds, and the road twisted around wet green hills. There were high, distant glimpses of the sea, grey and calm beneath brooding clouds, and frequently thatched roof clusters of raised Malay huts half hidden behind the slender boles of the palms. We passed flooded rice fields on the seaward side, and then rubber plantations where the trunks of the trees had been cut diagonally and then hung with little cups to catch the dripping sap. The raw rubber was like white elastic and had a putrid smell.
The road wound round the bottom of the island and then turned North up the East coast and here we stopped at a small temple built as a sanctuary to snakes, which are believed to be the disciples of one of the Chinese gods. The Snake Temple was dilapidated, its bright colors fading, and looked as though it was about to be reclaimed by the hovering jungle. It had an air of rustic picturesque, topped by curling eaves, and the air around it was thick with sweet, burning incense.
We went inside and as our eyes grew accustomed to the gloom we were able to count scores of snakes curled up in the dark corners, and in the branches of small shrub trees that grew from large china pots before the altar. They were all the same species, greenish colored pit vipers with ugly flat heads, all some two or three feet in length. At first we doubted that they were alive, but then an attendant stirred some of them into movement for us, and explained that the cloying smoke that wafted up continuously from the burning joss sticks, kept the snakes permanently doped and half asleep.
We spent the late afternoon in exploring a small fishing village. It was getting dusk then and occasional flashes of lightning lit the grey sky. The sea was calm, murmuring softly past the hulls of the fishing boats drawn up on the beach, and the storm bided its time in the gathering darkness. The night was warm and peaceful and we idled until the first drops of warm rain began to fall gently. Tiny land crabs scuttled across the sand like half-seen ghosts, moving like fleeting will-o-the-wisps away from our feet. We stopped for coffee and it was dark when we all climbed back into the car, the rain lashed down and we needed headlights and windscreen wipers all the way home. We saw nothing else until we passed through the bright, wet lights of Georgetown, and then we returned to the Swimming Club.
The next morning we all made a great effort to get out of our beds while we still had a few hours left in which to do some more sight-seeing with the car. It was another close, thundery day, and we barely had the energy to climb up the long flights of stone steps to the Chinese pagoda temple that was our first stop. The temple occupied several levels, sprawling over the hillside, and again the smoke of burning incense made the air sluggish and listless.
The lower temple buildings were faintly reminiscent of Thai architecture, and one of them housed four huge evil-looking bronze figures, each one trampling pathetic little humans beneath his feet. These were the gods of punishment, and their victims represented thieves, liars, murderers and drunkards, and all the other evil-doers of the world. Outside, on two different levels were two large pools, one filled with fish and the other alive with tortoises. A Chinese superstition says that by donating a tortoise to the pool the donor will be assured of a long life and the pool was crowded. The crowning and focal point of the whole complex was the elaborate seven-tiered yellow pagoda rising from the crest of the hill.
We drove around all the local beauty spots, and finally visited the temple of the reclining Buddha in another corner of Georgetown. Here the architecture was definitely Thai stile, and inside the sleeping Buddha looked like a colossal pink plastic doll in a yellow robe. It was over one hundred feet long, and behind it, and inside the long pedestal beneath, were rows and rows of little glass case, each one containing human ashes and loving memory inscriptions to the dead. There were also neat rows of Buddha statues on three sides of the main room, each one in a slightly different pose, and each with its own collection box and notices in Chinese and English to explain the rewards in store for the devotees of each particular Buddha. Some promised long life, some happiness, and some wisdom. I found the usual gleams of truth hidden in the core of Buddhist philosophy, but this particular aspect of Buddhism seemed very much like a self-service religion; you went to the Buddha of your choice, selected the rewards you wanted, and prayed and paid for them on the spot.
The rest of our time in Penang was spent in lazing on the beach, but all too soon it came to an end. The newspapers reported that the floods had abated and the roads were open again on the mainland, and so we had to leave. George and I had both resorted to selling a pint of blood apiece to strengthen our meager finances, but we were still dangerously low on funds. We all split up to hitch-hike down through Malaya to Singapore. The others went in pairs, and I went solo. By coincidence I passed Jean and Tessa several times going south, but I never did meet up with any of the others again.
Hitching through Malaya was simplicity itself and I covered the five hundred miles to Singapore in two days. On the first day I got two short lifts and then I was lucky enough to get picked up by an Australian soldier on five days leave who was driving right through to Malacca, which took me two thirds of the whole journey. The Aussie was a talkative type, and the miles of jungle, palm groves, rice fields, rubber plantations and more dense jungles, all cruised quickly past. One strange feature of the Malayan landscape was the steep rock hills that thrust abruptly out of the surrounding jungle. Some of them were honeycombed with caves, and my new companion pointed out the ones that had been fortified and held by the Japanese during World War Two.
Between Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur we passed through some of the areas ravaged by the recent floods, and the peak water level marks were clearly visible ten and twelve feet high on the walls of the buildings that were still standing. The lower fronds of the palms and the ground level vegetation were all brown and bedraggled with mud, and the receding waters had left behind a mess of mud and debris and the collapsed ruins of countless little kampong huts.
The broad, modern streets of Kuala Lumpur were just coming alive with neon as we passed through at dusk, but apart from making a couple of lost circles before finding the right road south we didn't linger. The Australian drove on through the night until we reached Malacca, and then parked in a garage forecourt where we both slept in the car for the night. He took the front seats and I took the back. In the morning we parted with a handshake and I took to hitching again.
Traffic was slow that morning, and I found out later that this was the start of the Malayan New Year and consequently a public holiday. However, lady luck eventually smiled on me again and brought me a little grey Volkswagen saloon that was going all the way to Singapore. The driver was an Indian named Peter, and with him was an American Peace Corps worker named Douglas. They were a jovial pair and their only fault was that they were too helpful.
It was another day of pouring rain. The skies were a dirty grey as though hung with ragged blankets that blotted out the tops of the jungle-covered hills, and there was water everywhere. Several inches covered the roads and the Volkswagen threw up a sheeting bow wave as in ploughed forward, and it seemed as though the abnormally heavy monsoon had turned round and come back. Despite it all we reached Singapore without mishap, and crossed over the causeway to reach the island.
When we entered the city Peter insisted upon taking me to the Chinese YMCA where I had hoped to stay, but there were no vacant rooms. Undaunted he tried to find me a youth hostel, but the simple way of finding anything is always too difficult for an Indian, and Peter preferred to contact a friend – “a good chap who was sure to know and sure to help.” It took an hour to find the friend's house, and there I shook hands with Mister Sutha, “the good chap,” who proved to be a flimsy Indian youth with a handshake like a wet daffodil. As I expected he didn't know anything, and as I so horribly feared, he was willing to help. It was just a matter of contacting another friend. I recognized the muddle and confusion that always surrounds an Indian's efforts to help, but they were so sincere that it was impossible to offend them.
We drove to the next friend's house but he wasn't there, so then we drove over to Singapore's National Theatre. It appeared that Mister Sutha was playing a clarinet in a concert, and that the second friend was also expected to arrive sometime during the evening. We wasted two more hours and then it was decided that we would rejoin Mister Sutha after the concert. Meanwhile I was to accompany Douglas and Peter to visit some more friends.
These friends were a young Persian couple who lived in a large block of flats, so when we were all gathered there was a Persian, an Indian, an American and an Englishman. Something funny should have happened but it didn't.
Instead we just talked, and the conversation was pleasant but serious.
The Persian couple and Peter were all Bahais, a breakaway sect of Islam which I had not previously encountered, and they spent most of the evening in explaining their religion and its teachings. As a philosophy it made sense, but as I fail to see how one more religion can possibly help a world that already has far too many arguing and conflicting religions I remained unconverted. The conversation gradually became more general, and we ended up by watching television for an hour.
Finally we returned to the National Theatre where we continued to wait for Mister Sutha and friends. Mister Sutha materialized after another long delay, but there was still no sign of friend. In fact I began to wonder if friend had ever existed for I never did meet this mysterious gentleman who apparently held all the answers to our problems. By now of course it was much too late to find anywhere to spend the night, so we were all invited back to Mister Sutha’s house. When we arrived there were already two Indians sleeping on the living room floor but they cheerfully moved out and left the room to Peter, Douglas and myself. I blew up my air bed and wearily fell asleep.
The next morning I was again caught up in the movements of my well-meaning friends. Peter was still insistent that he would help me to find that youth hostel, but first he had to go out to the airport to meet yet another friend, another Bahai who was coming from Indonesia to spend a few days with the young Persians. Four of us went out to meet the plane at the airport and five of us eventually returned, but the whole process again occupied most of the morning. After that I succeeded in persuading Peter to stop at a police station and there we asked for the address of the youth hostel. A lengthy consultation followed which involved every officer on duty, and finally it was agreed that although there were youth hostels all over Malaya there were none actually in Singapore. Everybody was very sorry about it and everybody smiled. I stayed heroically patient and asked Peter to leave me somewhere near Queen Street, which I knew from conversations in the Thai Song Greet in Bangkok was the location of a Sikh temple.
It was impossible to drive the Volkswagen into Queen Street which was blocked by market stalls, but here at last we shook hands and I parted from their company. They had treated me very well indeed; they had been wholly sincere in their efforts to help and they had spent a great deal of time and trouble over their good intentions; I was truly grateful, but at the same time it was a merciful relief to be free of Peter’s muddled efforts to organize my affairs.
I found the Sikh temple with no more difficulty, but although their religion offers free accommodation to all travelers there was obviously nothing in the Sikh bible about keeping the place clean. There was one common room that was a pig sty and already housed a dozen beatnicks. Their leader was a cynical yank exhibitionist whose first question was did I have any pot (Hashish). Needless to say I didn't t stay there. I'm a pretty tolerant type, but I've no time for the clever-pathetic idiots who play around with drugs. And any fool who says that hashish is only a soft drug should look around and realize that it is also the international stepping stone to the hard drugs, the drugs that rot the brain.
Because of the New Year holiday all the banks were still closed and I was down to my last few dollars, so spent the next couple of nights sleeping on Singapore railway station. There were no trains between nine pm and six am, and the long waiting room was quiet and deserted during those hours. The shower and toilet facilities were adequate and I was able to entrust my rucksack to the left luggage office during the day, and in fact if I hadn't needed somewhere to wash and dry my clothes every few days I might have stayed their indefinitely.
When the banks and offices opened their doors I went to the British High Commission and found some cheering letters from home. One was from my bank, telling me that they had transferred the £200 that I had requested from my account, and that it was awaiting my collection at the Chartered Bank just around the corner here in Singapore. The other was from my parents telling me that my publishers had sent a check for £800 in respect of some foreign translation rights they had sold in France and Italy, which was also waiting for me if I needed it. It was a nice jump from empty pockets, but I had to remind myself that that check would probably have to be spread right through the coming year; which, in fact, it did. There is nothing more irregular and uncertain than the average writer’s income. I went back with a full money belt to spend another night on the station, and then prudently moved the next morning to the Chinese YMCA, which by then had a vacant room.
Singapore is the largest port in Asia, a sprawling city draped and characterized by hanging Chinese shop signs, and filled mostly with Chinese, although there are large proportions of Indians, Malays and other races. The Singapore River had a nasty smell and was jammed so full of large, sampan barges that in places it was impossible to see the water. And where it was possible to see the water the surface was black and greasy and looked like instant typhoid for anyone unfortunate enough to fall in and take a mouthful. All along the riverfront were little open-sided eating shacks, and trucks loading or unloading heavy sacks and bales. By day the sun was hot and the air humid and sweating laborers humped their loads across finely balanced planks between the barges and the shore. Out to sea the straits were flat and calm and dotted with scores of cargo boats and rusty freighters, all lying still at anchor. At night they formed lines of yellow lights along the dark horizon, and it looked as though there was another town out there on some unseen strip of land beyond the intervening water.
There was a Moslem quarter and mosque, and Hindu, Chinese and Buddhist quarters with temples but I had already seen so many fine examples of their kind that here I gave them all a miss. Instead I visited the fascinating Tiger Balm Gardens, which consisted of a brilliantly colorful shelved hillside, grottoes and caves, almost alive with sculptured animals and figures; giant gorillas, seals playing in a pool of blue cement waves, polar bears, rhinos, leaping stone fish and reclining mermaids, glorious birds and a moat filled with great snakes and reptiles. Many of the grottoes depicted legends and story scenes from Chinese mythology, and a series of dark, gloomy caves showed gory pictures of the punishments awaiting sinners in the ten kingdoms of hell. The central point of the garden was a Chinese pagoda with a placid figure of Buddha seated on top, looking down calmly on the bright, crowded hillside, and then out to the pure blue sea beyond.
I also found time to browse through Change Alley, the narrow, densely-crowded little shopping street that is reputed to be the cheapest in the Orient, and where almost anything can be bought. I ate in Albert Street, which was full of cramped Chinese restaurants and little open-air soup kitchens, and during my wanderings through the warehouses behind the river I saw great piles of giant shark fins drying on the pavement.
During my time in Singapore I also hunted around the offices of the main shipping lines, hoping to book a cheap passage to Hong Kong. I was out of luck, and as there didn't appear to be anything available for at least a month I calculated that the cheapest thing was to hitch-hike back to Bangkok and fly direct. I had to get another Thai visa, and spent much of the intervening time dodging both the heat and the frequent rain- storms in the air-conditioned cinemas.
Just before I left to return north I collided with Jean and Tessa outside the post office. They had just arrived and told me that George and Dilys had stopped off in Kuala Lumpur, while Dick and Steve were lazing again on the beach at Malacca. I had lunch with the two girls and it was soon obvious that they at least were having second thoughts about their island-hopping plans via Indonesia. They had been unable to find a ship to take them on the first leg to Djakarta, and were now thinking of flying direct to Australia. Whether the other four made that trip I don t know, because I headed back for Bangkok the next morning and I never did see or hear from any of them again.
I made that return trip in just four days. Two days of hitching through Malaya, and two days through Thailand by train. I spent another two nights at the Thai Song Greet and then boarded a giant Swissair, Convair Coronado jet bound for Hong Kong.