The Travels of a Journalist;ABOUT BOWERS, BOATS AND BUDDIES:Penang Monkey Teaches Yankee an Ego Lesson (PART 6)
Posted on September 23rd, 2010

By Shelton A. Gunaratne ©2010
Professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead

 I arrived in Malaysia on a Sunday (15 June 1997) for a two-month stint as an external examiner in communications at the National University of Malaysia (UKM) in Bangi, about 25 km south of Kuala Lumpur. A week later, my family””‚Carmel, Junius and Yoke-Sim””‚came to join me for almost a month (21 June-19 July).  Yoke-Sim, a native of Malaysia, was keen to visit her mother and other siblings.

 The Bowerses (Jim and Kathleen), our Minnesota pals, also arrived in Malaysia to coincide with our presence so all of us could use Yoke-Sim’s cultural ties to our best advantage on our travels together in the country. On 12 July, a Saturday, Bowers telephoned me from Singapore to inform that he and Kathleen would arrive in Kuala Lumpur Sunday (13 July) morning to travel by train to Butterworth (Penang). The Bowerses had arrived in Singapore the previous Thursday and explored the city-state with the historic Raffles as their base.

Safar bin Hasim, my faculty colleague and former student, gave us a ride to the UKM commuter train station early Sunday morning and put us on board the 6.54 a.m. train to Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, where we welcomed the Bowerses to Malaysia. After three days of high-life at the Raffles, the Bowerses wanted to enjoy the same level of luxury on this 369 km (6.5-hour) train journey to Butterworth (Penang). When Yoke-Sim revealed that we had already purchased second-class train tickets for the journey, Bowers instantly decided to pay the difference to elevate all our tickets to first class. In effect, he subsidized one-half of the prices of our tickets. Our train left the Kuala Lumpur station at 8.15 a.m.

Was this an act of an “Ugly American” flaunting his wealth in the so-called Third World? Or was it an act of generosity of a typical “Yankee Doodle Dandy”? I will let the reader decide. The answer depends on Bowers’ intention. Flaunting violates the anatta (no self) concept while generosity supports it.

Memories of my sojourn in Malaysia more than two decades ago (1973-1976) resonated in my mind as the West Coast train whizzed past familiar landscapes in Selangor and Perak through towns like Tanjong Malim, Kampar, Ipoh, Sungai Siput, Taiping and Bukit Mertajam.

We arrived in Butterworth about 2.45 p.m., and immediately crossed over to George Town in Pulau (island) Penang by ferry””‚the oldest ferry service in Malaysia with a history going back to 1920. Although Yoke-Sim and I had used this ferry service many times before, the effects of anicca (change) made it difficult to claim total familiarity with the place.

However, Yoke-Sim, who was conversant in Cantonese and Hakka, took over as our tour leader for the rest of the day. She negotiated with two taxis to transport us from George Town to the resort town of Batu Ferringhi on the north shore of the island. We agreed to pay each taxi Ringgit 20 (about $8) for the 20 km journey””‚a fair deal.

In Part 12B of the feature series titled The Journey of a Journalist (see “Examining in Bangi and observing changes,” Lankaweb, 14 Nov. 2009), I mentioned our encounter with the Bowerses on Malaysian soil. I erred when I mentioned the five-star Rasa Sayang as the hotel where we stayed. Rather, the hotel that gave us the best deal was the four-star Golden Sands Resort by Shangri-La.   

Yoke-Sim instructed the Bowerses to be out of sight when she negotiated for room rates with two of the resort hotels in Batu Ferringhi””‚Golden Sands Resort and Casuarina Beach Resort. She went back and forth between the two hotels until the Golden Sands agreed to a special Malaysian package of bed and breakfast at a room rate of Ringgit 150 ($60). The Bowerses were to occupy one room while the Gunaratnes (including the two kids) were to occupy another. However, Junius, the older of our two children, was excluded from the complimentary breakfast plan.

The Bowerses, who had spent more than 10 times that amount per night at the five-star Raffles, could not believe their eyes at the bargain that Yoke-Sim had struck. [Note: In 2010, the room rent at Golden Sands Resort was Ringgit 491 ($158) per night.]

” The bargaining for the room got so intense that I suggested we move in permanently [because] their rate was so cheap,” Bowers observed later.

 Bed and breakfast for four adults and two kids at $120 per night almost amounted to the hotel subsidizing our stay, Bowers told his friends at various gatherings back in the United States.

Late afternoon, I went for a solo walk along the Batu Ferringhi beach reminiscing the time more than 20 years ago when a New Zealand colleague of mine, Leslie Allen, and I used to relax on the same beach sipping lemon juice or a fruit drink while watching the beachcombers.

My investigations on the hotel’s facilities revealed that it has a water sports centre, three tennis courts, a Par 3 executive golf course, a spa and beauty center and two lagoon-shaped swimming pools. It also organized daily activities such as water aerobics, volleyball, cooking lessons, tai chi and jungle trekking. Children staying at the resort had free admission to the Adventure Zone, which housed three types of drop slides, modular play equipment, a game zone, etc.

The Bowerses and we ate dinner at the Dusit Thai Restaurant at the nearby Lone Pine Hotel, which Yoke-Sim and I had visited several times during our dating phase. It was one of Allen’s favorite spots.

Day 2 in Penang

The next morning (Monday 14 July), the Bowerses and we gathered again at the Waterfall Terrace Restaurant (now called the Garden CafĮՠթ) to eat breakfast.

“It was the biggest buffet lunch I ever saw,” Bowers declared in disbelief. “All six of us [could] eat enough for the whole day at lunch. And that was included in the price!”

For sure, we gobbled up a veritable feast of Malaysian and international cuisine.

About 10.30 a.m., Junius, Yoke-Sim and I left the Bowerses, as well as Carmel, to indulge themselves in the range of amenities the hotel offered to please the white-skinned species of earthlings. Carmel, who had just turned a teenager, preferred the company of the Bowerses and the fun activities for children in the hotel’s Adventure Zone.

Yoke-Sim and I were keen to see the university campus where I was a lecturer and she a student in the mid-“ƒ”¹…”70s. Junius also was keen to see the habitat of his parents’ romance. First, we hopped on to a bus that took us from Batu Ferringhi to George Town (20 km to the southeast). From there, we took another bus to travel 10 km further south to get to the Minden campus of the Science University of Malaysia (USM) before noon.

[The details of this campus visit appear in the article cited earlier.]

We returned to our hotel in Batu Ferringhi about 5.30 p.m. Bowers’ generosity was not in question later when all of us re-gathered for dinner at the Waterfall Terrace Restaurant. Bowers declared that he wanted to celebrate Junius’ high school graduation and that he (Bowers) would bear the expenses of the dinner to celebrate Junius’ milestone.

Day 3 in Penang

The next morning (Tuesday 15 July), after gobbling up another breakfast feast at the Waterfall Restaurant, we hired a private van and its driver named Raghu (at Ringgit 35 per hour) to take us on a tour of the Penang Island. It turned out to be a five-hour trip covering a distance of about 93 km (see Figure 1).

Leaving the hotel at 9.30, Raghu drove us anti-clockwise first heading west to the beach town of Teluk Bahang, well known for its dam. Raghu stopped here to show us the Penang Cultural Center and a batik factory, which was of high interest to Kathleen.

Then, Raghu drove us south to Kuala Sungai Pinang, a small Chinese fishing village, where we stopped to try our bargaining skills at several roadside fruit stalls, which offered a variety of locally grown fruits, such as rambutans and durians.  Further south, we stopped at Balik Pulau, a town famous for its durian plantations, which include the “ang heh” (red-prawn) and “holo” (gourd-like) varieties.

It was on this stretch of Penang’s western roadway that the Bowerses learnt unforgettable lessons on Malaysian monkeys and durians. At one roadside stall, Bowers was so amused watching the antics of a monkey that he thought of showing his appreciation by throwing at it a peeled banana freshly plucked from a bunch on display in front of the stall. The monkey turned furious, grabbed the banana, and threw it back into Bowers’ face with all the might it could muster. The monkey’s message was clear to all the amused bystanders: “Shove your banana elsewhere. I too have an ego.”

Bowers said he could never forget “the monkey that scared me.”

It was also on this trip that the Bowerses got acquainted with “the smell of the durian that the hotel and the taxi would not allow inside.” Most Malaysian natives, including Yoke-Sim, treat the durian as a delicacy despite its repellent smell. Many Western tourists, who are culturally trained to reject odor, will happily leave the durian to the Asians.

As we reached the island’s center, Raghu started driving northward again with a stop at a Chinese hawker’s shop in Paya Terabong to try out red  (ang heh) durian.

The next stop was Ayer Itam, where two of Penang’s famous attractions are located””‚Kek Lok Si Temple and Penang Hill. We spent about an hour at the temple because of Bowers’ curiosity about Buddhism and Buddhist architecture. Bowers was so pleased with the temple’s building project that he made a donation to buy a brick (with his name inscribed on it) that would be used in the construction.

Our final stop on Raghu’s tour of Penang was the Mahindarama Buddhist Temple, which Yoke-Sim and I used to frequently visit in the mid-“ƒ”¹…”70s. The resident priest administered the five precepts and gave his blessings to my family, as well as Bowers.

It being the final night with the Bowerses on our joint tour of Malaysia, all of us decided to try out a new restaurant for dinner. We went to the popular Ferringhi Motel and Restaurant, which did not disappoint us.

Day 4 Checkout

We, the Gunaratne family, checked out of the Golden Sands Resort at noon (Wednesday, 16 July.

After eating breakfast at the Waterfall Terrace Restaurant, Bowers trained Junius in water skiing. Kathleen tanned herself lying on the beach while a pedicurist attended to her feet.

We said goodbye to the Bowerses and left Penang early afternoon by bus. We reached Kuala Lumpur at 8.30 p.m., and proceeded to old town Petaling Jaya to spend the night at the home of Yoke-Sim’s mother.

The Bowerses were so pleased with the hotel’s VIP treatment, they decided to extend their stay in Penang. Subsequently, they returned to Greater Kuala Lumpur, an urban agglomeration of 7.2 million people, to explore the attractions of Klang Valley on their own.

Dwelling on his exploits in Kuala Lumpur, Bowers sent me the following note:

The PETRONAS Towers were amazing. We took a cab to see them as they were being completed. Kathleen got out of the cab on the busy traffic side. The cab driver nearly went nuts because other drivers would never expect anyone to do such a foolish thing. He screamed, “Oooo Nooo lady, don’t do that “¦ Please don’t do that.” She got back in the cab and made her exit on the correct side. The towers were complete enough to have big spotlights lighting the building to the very top. Then, we saw the pearl necklace holding the two towers together. I’ll never forget that sight.

(Next: Adventures in Sri Lanka)

 

 Figure 1: Our Tour of Penang. A=George Town; B=Batu Ferringhi; C=Taluk Bahang; D=Kuala Sungai Pinang; E=Balik Pulau; F=Paya Terabong; G=Kek Lok Si Temple (Ayer Itam); H=Mahindarama Buddhist Temple (Jalan Kampar). Red A=USM Campus

 

Picture 1: Golden Sands Resort by Shangri-La in Batu Ferringhi, Penang.
(Source: Hotel ad)

 

 Picture 2: Kek Lok Si Temple in Ayer Itam, Penang. This pagoda combines a Chinese octagonal base with a middle tier of Thai design and a Burmese crown, reflecting the temple’s embrace of both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.
Photo by Loke Seng Hon (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 Picture 3: The author and Yoke-Sim on a visit to the Mahindarama Temple in March 1976. They used a ramshackle Triumph Spitfire to visit the temple, which then served as a social center for the Sri Lankans in Penang.  When they revisited the temple with the Bowerses in July 1997, the effects of anicca had erased the signs of familiarity.

(Photo by the Venerable Sobhita)

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