Can You Spell “BUDGET CRISIS”?

Train from Bangkok to Hat Yai was scary easy. Instead of equal-width booths with an aisle running the centre of the coach; one side’s are wider than the other’s, and the aisle is off-centred.

So, it was possible to really stretch out and get kinda sorta comfortable; even if the benches were still pretty hard. A two-hour layover in Hat Yai, followed by a four-hour minivan trip into Penang, and here we are. All for the princely sum of $10 (if, that is, one subtracts from the total the 250 Baht I’d have paid to stay in Bangkok for the overnight).

Getting across the frontier was the easiest since…I think the easiest of all, actually. Entering Malaysia, it’s not even required to fill out a Entrance/Departure card. Lady just scrutinised my passport for a few seconds, and stamped me in for ninety days. Simple as that!

During the trip in, a super-nice local dude returning from a vacation in Krabi gave me the low-down on George Town.

Ended up not eating at all on Saturday, as all the shops were closed up for some Saturday-afternoon Muslim stuff. Of course, it was still easy enough to find cooked food everywhere one would turn. Here’s my first Penang photo-op.

beefballs

I’d known the street-food scene here was supposed to be pretty happening; but hadn’t, until arriving, realised just how pretigious is considered Penang’s culinary situation. It all smells pretty terrific, that’s for sure.

cuisine1

cuisine2

It may’ve been some kind of Muslim cooling-off period (or what), but that didn’t prevent a little streetside gambling going down. Ever seen a twelve-by-twelve checkerboard before now?

checkers

The motorcycles here are so outrageously annoying. There are fewer of them than in Northern Thailand; but they’re somehow much louder (I’d not have believed it possible). It’s just insane.

It’s a pretty interesting town, though. But…well, see, it’s got UNESCO World Heritage status, just like Luang Prabang. Never would have expected myself to be invoking Lloyd Bentsen, but: I’ve been to Luang Prabang, and George Town is no Luang Prabang. But I’ve only been here for one day, so some more explorations will be necessary before I make my final judgment.

I’ve been in Southeast Asia for going on six months now; and would you believe that (while I’ve seen plenty of rivers) I had not, ‘til to-day, had a look at the sea?

ocean

It’s a quite pretty town, mountains to the one side, ocean to the other. But lookit all the pollution! You know, people are always badmouthing Bangkok to me for its pollution. But I’ve found it to be one of the least polluted cities/towns (considering both noise- and air-pollutants, by the way) in all of Asia. So smoke that in the ol’ pipe!

Kind of a schismatic fruit scene here. The watermelons (well, at least the one I’ve so far et; but I suspect it’s a pattern that will carry) are easily the best I’ve tasted in Asia – even rivaling the quality of those to be found in the States at the height of the summer. Price is nice, too. The Penang Durian, meanwhile, are of course legendary.

But after that, it’s pretty slim pickings. A surprising quantity of fruit is imported – Apples and citrus and like that. The Mangosteens and Longkongs look decent, but are about four times the price as in Thailand (possibly, they’re imported from Thailand?). Mangoes are about double the price; but at least seem to be in season. The Lychees look like…well, I don’t know what they do look like; but what they don’t look like is something I’d want to eat! Yu-ikes.

But, anyway, I could travel a lot of miles eating only Watermelon and Durian. So I’m not complaining too much.

The locals are quite friendly; they’re keenly interested in my bare feet. In Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, the locals can only make time to either ridicule or scorn the sight of them, or offer to sell to me some shoes. But here, they genuinely very curious to hear my little rants against the shod life.

This fine gentleman…

uniform

…after hearing me out, decided, “We’re not born into this world with shoes and slippers. You’re right: barefoot is better!” He then promised to see me again soon, and returned to his duties.

Oh, one thing that rules like none other: no mosquitoes here! Anyway I’ve not seen a one since arriving. Actually, I was kind-of/sort-of beginning to get used to the little fuckers. I’ve got this experiment I’ve been running (started it last summer, back in Montana): if I see one biting me, rather than kill it (which won’t prevent the itching anyway), I just let it finish. Maybe it’s only some sort of placebo, but the itching seems to be much less pronounced, and of much shorter duration than either killing one mid-bite, or inadvertently scaring one off  mid-bite by a sudden motion.

You might give it a try; tell me if I’m crazy. May not believe how long it takes for them to finish, already!

So, there’s a little Walking Street here, last Sunday of every month. It coinciding with my first day here and all, I felt I should give it a try. Very small in comparison with Thailand’s and Luang Prabang’s Walking Streets. The handicrafts did look to be truly hand-crafted, however. Check out these killer dioramas (I guess one would call them?), for example.

diorama1

diorama2

diorama3

There were some pretty good bands, too. Well, one was quite good indeed, be it known. And a little carpentry lesson, the beginning of which I didn’t catch.

carpenter1

Dude has a quite charming accent; he got off a wonderful quip after this bit of work, declaring: “You must never plane against the grain.” If you do so, all kinds of Hell will break loose. He introduced to us his chisel.

carpenter2

He “bought this chisel way back in England, all the way in nineteen…fifty-six! So it is already fifty-six years old.”

He passed around the finished product; but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Looked like some kind of small knife. I asked two old ladies seated next to me, and they related that it’s a hand-made letter-opener. Then proceeded to relate, in intricate detail, how to use a hand-made letter-opener. And now, I suppose, I’m an expert.

Later visited his stall; it’s filled up with cute little curios.

toaster

And then…well, lookee here!

durianopener

I asked him how is it used, and why is it necessary, and so on and so forth. He gave me a nice long run-down. Turns out Penangites are quite dismissive of Thai Durian-harvest methods; and insist that a partially-open Durian will never be fully perfect; hence the need for the opener.

Apparently in Penang, Durian are harvested when they fall from the tree, and are ripe at that time, even though not yet beginning to open. In Thailand, they tell me, they’re harvested before falling, and then allowed to ripen off the tree. That’s why they split open by theyselves, and that’s why they suck. I tried explaining that Thai Durians are fucking delish; the partially-open ones even the more so; but they won’t hear of it.

Well, I went ahead and bought one. Two bones and some change, and I’ve got me a hand-crafted Durian-opener.

A coupla interesting signs in town. Anybody knows the meaning of this one, feel free to share.

jamesdean

Oh, fuck! I just now noticed that it says “JEANS” on the bottom there. Okay, never mind…

As for this cat, I expect he’s soon to become a character in a song by the artist collegially known as “Prince”.

docjism

If you haven’t stopped laughing yet, don’t worry: neither have I. You couldn’t dream him up if you tried! Actually, rather than Prince, it’s too bad Beefheart’s not still around to write a song about him!!

Okays, that’s probably enough small-talk. Time to get down to brass tacks.

duriandurian

Yep, I made my way down to Times Square to get in on the fun. Pretty low-key event, with only a few vendors going. Didn’t see any of these activities taking place, despite its being Sunday and all.

activities

Dammit all, I wanna see Durian Man! There’re some info charts – surprisingly, not in English.

info

And, is this true? Squirrels? I’ve heard of tigers and monkeys being Durian fiends, not squirrels. But, it sure looks happy!

squirrels

As for the Durian itself, it’s an entirely different world to Thailand’s four or five basic varieties. Here are a few of Penang’s…

varieties1

varieties2

varieties3

And these are just named varieties. There are also the so-called “local” varieties, for which no name is known. I gather these are un-domesticated trees growing on the same lot as the growers’ highly-prized name-brand trees.

I bought one from one friendly vendor; it was quite good, though I wasn’t too thrilled with the flesh-to-seed ratio.

Another, super-friendly vendor was just setting up. Here’s one of his workers unloading the fruits.

medan

I promised the vendor I’d return when he’d got set up. Which I did do. This guy is some kind of a superhero. He’s got so much energy, so much love for the Durian. He gave me a few pointers (indeed, he says it’s okay if the fruit has begun to open by itself!), and took a very strong interest in my bare feet.

“What? Why are your shoes in the bag? Shoes belong on the feet, not in the bag!” After taking some time to explain, and answer all of his questions, he was sure I must have been bullshitting him!

He sells his named fruits by the Kilo, and his “locals” by the piece. I selected one of the latter to sit down and eat. There are some ka-razy flavours coming out of these Penang Durian, oh my god oh my god! Like, almond and caramel and pine cone and…what else?

I began to learn that the Thai and the Malay Durian experiences cannot be compared. The former has been perfected down to the last iota. The latter, on the other hand, raises any number of existential questions: What is Durian? Who made Durian? Is Durian the saviour? The anti-christ? I mean…damn, what do I mean? Who needs the goddam Bible when there are Penang Durian to wonder over?

I wouldn’t want there to be a World in which only Thai, or only Malay Durian existed. I love them both!

So, anyway, after I finished the one, I decided to go pick out another. The main man was asking me some questions, and then flew off onto a long rant about Nigerians being the eventual ruination of Malaysia. To do with meth gangs, and raping Malay women and claiming to be the Ambassador’s son, and so on. It’s in all the papers, he said.

But his young helper (possibly his son) kept busting out laughing; so I couldn’t help wonder was it I who was being bullshitted now?

Finally, he gave me a few more selection pointers, picked one out, opened it in half, inspected it for a few seconds, and declared, “You’d better go finish it.”

I bent down to smell it, and he barked out, “Go finish it, or I’ll finish you!”

Whoa! I took it from him, and raced back over to the table. His young helper asked if I thought I could finish it? Was this some sort of a set-up? It was only two Kilos at most. I dug in, and couldn’t believe what I was tasting. Uh, yeah, this is going to be a good week.

Got to talking with a girl at an adjacent table; she was disappointed in my not taking some Mangosteen to eat with the Durian. Never got a chance to explain myself, as the vendor came over and admonished, “No talking! Finish it, or I’ll finish you!” He pointed his knife at me, to let me know he meant business. After heading back over to his stall, he screamed at me, “If you’re talking, you’ll never finish it!”

It did take me longer than I’d expected it would; but this was more ‘cause I was wanting to savour the experience. The vendor stopped by two or three times, to see whether I thought I could finish it? and how I was doing? and how was I enjoying his Durian fruit? When I finally did finish, he began clapping, and called out, “Bravo!”

After I’d paid for the Durian, and was on my way, the vendor allowed, “Everything I’ve said to you…I was just kidding.” I suppose this was in reference to the Nigerians; not sure.

Monday through Thursday is the buffet: about eight bucks for un-named Durian, and twice that for the primo varieties. I’ll try the latter at least once during this time. No choice, is there?

skyscraper

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