Three years ago in Thailand, on my first visit to Asia, I thought my skin would melt off. I like heat, but I’m accustomed to the Pacific Northwest variety, where in summer one can be comfortably hot in the sun, but kind of chilled in the shade. The vast bulk of my DNA likely originates from seafaring barbarians from above the 60th parallel who raped and pillaged their way down through Scotland, which accounts for my red beard. Of course, the Romans were there first, but even Caesar knew a thing or two about chilly winters. The point is, tolerance for extreme heat does not come to me naturally, genetically speaking. This time, at least, I knew what to expect and I was somewhat mentally prepared for it. I was pretty proud of myself in Singapore, for I wandered the city extensively and didn’t crumble into a cranky heap once.
Then I arrived in Penang.
I generally try to avoid air conditioning, for it’s a huge drain on energy, and there’s something sort of weird about sitting inside a refrigerator, and constantly moving from too cold to too hot can’t be healthy either. However, I find I have no hesitation about turning on the machine in our Penang hotel room every time I come in the front door. I also find plenty of excuses to wander through air conditioned shops that normally would have no appeal to me. (“Why yes, I think we should browse in this polyester track suit store.”)
Normally in this sort of heat, I would opt to wear the least amount of clothes possible, but since the majority of the population of Penang is Muslim, I feel an uncommon urge to dress more conservatively than I might otherwise. I’m making good use of my linen and seersucker shorts, and have abandoned underwear altogether as an unnecessary burden of superfluous insulation. Fertility specialists tell men who are trying to conceive to avoid hot showers and hot tubs, in an effort to prevent sperm degradation, but I wonder how useful that really is? After all, I’m not aware that the people who live here have extraordinary problems with fertility, and if the men of Penang have testicles half as roasted as mine and can still reproduce, perhaps heat is less a factor than we imagine. Is that too much information? Just be glad I’m not providing pictures.
Midweek, we decided to take a day trip out to Batu Ferrenghi. This particular section of the island isn’t a major draw, as it’s the primary destination for white western tourists (and I didn’t come to Malaysia to be immersed in my own culture) but it did have two things going for it. One was a spice garden, where we were able to wander trails through the jungle and look at a vast array of the plants from which many spices are obtained, as well as many other varieties of tropical flora. We had lunch in a gazebo and then swung on a large bench suspended by ropes over a stream while monkeys passed through the trees overhead.
Here are a few spice garden images:
The other thing Batu Ferrenghi has is big tourist hotels, places that I normally avoid, but they tend to have swimming pools. Our first stop was the Bayview. We managed to get through the lobby and onto a balcony overlooking the pool. The water looked refreshing, but it wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was the tired-looking 70s-era swim-up bar in the middle of the pool that seemed to conjure images of lecherous single men with gold chains, but it was also a boring rectangle, not terribly large, and was full of children.
We moved on up the road to the Shangri-La, a considerably more plush resort hotel full of the kind of people who like to travel to “exotic” countries but avoid coming into contact with anyone who actually lives there, unless they’re “civilised” and serving drinks. For all of the apparent sterility of the hotel, the pool was perfect. It was shaped like a giant amoeba, with all kinds of hidden coves sheltered by palm trees and tall grasses. We had a quick drink at the adjacent bar while scouting things out. The sun was just setting, and a few cracks of distant thunder suggested the possibility of rain. It was perfect – there was no one in the pool at all and the towel attendant was half asleep in his little thatched hut.
Trying to look like guests, we nonchalantly picked up two super-fluffy hotel towels from the semi-alert attendant, found an isolated spot behind a large clump of Heliconia in which to change into swimsuits, and then hid our backpacks under a table and slipped quietly into the water just as the raindrops began to fall. It was glorious! There was brief tense moment when the hotel security guard, dressed in a ridiculously colonial military outfit including epaulettes, spats, a shoulder chain, and a white cowboy hat, spotted us and peered over briefly, but fortunately he didn’t come and ask any embarrassing questions.
After a good forty minutes of languorous floating, another pool attendant started assembling a small chain fence around the opposite end of the pool, so we hopped out and dried off. By the time he got to our end we were dressed, and we had a short chat with him about pool maintenance before bidding him goodnight with a cheery “see you tomorrow!” On the way out, we even asked the concierge for directions to the night market and waved to the guard, now back at his booth in the parking lot.
I tried to take a picture of the pool but it was fully dark by this time, so all you can see is some foliage, a railing, and some trees, beyond which sits the ocean:
However, here’s a better photo I stole from the hotel’s website: