The Pearl of the Orient


Kuala Lumpur is one of very few places I can remember almost nothing about. Which probably means that at least I didn’t hate it! I’m not sure how well I should like the modern city, in which the Petronas Towers claim to be the tallest twin towers in the world.

Botanical gardens were always first on my parents list of places to visit. I believe this was where I was very entertained by the antics of macaque monkeys that gained access to a carelessly parked car, busily decorating it with the oranges they conveniently found within. It always amuses me when an animal is seen to get the better of a human being!

These monkeys could seriously damage your belongings if you were not careful.

My architectural preference is for the Mughal influence of the old Kuala Lumpur train station, seen here. It is no longer active as a station, but the old building houses the Heritage Station Hotel.

To be honest, I am not sure I really remember that extraordinary building, although we went there to take a train north to Butterworth and thence a ferry to the island of Penang, known as “The Pearl of the Orient”.

Trains were my mother’s preferred means of transportation, given that she detested flying. The train in Malaya (as it was still known then) received parental approval. At least I don’t recall any grumbling. It was a rare day when my dad didn’t find something to complain about.

The ferry trip to George Town, on the island of Penang was short and unmemorable. These days there is the option of a bridge.

The spotty memories that I have are now decades out-of-date. However I remember Penang being a very pleasant place to visit and I am sure it still is. The following year, 1962, we returned to live there for some weeks, before taking a long sea journey “home”.

“Home”. – I had already ceased to think of England as home. How could it be? My parents had given up the flat in which I was born and where I had lived until 1956. Thereafter, we could only ever stay with relatives and that did not constitute “home”.

Penang is very close to the equator, so it was always hot, but with it’s proximity to the sea, it was never uncomfortable. The beaches were wonderful. We spent New Year’s Eve 1960/61 at the E & O Hotel (Eastern and Oriental). It was the first time I was aware that it was an occurrence to celebrate. It was very festive , with lots of champagne and streamers and laughter. We sat out in the hotel gardens enjoying the warm night air.

My father was addicted to movies, and for once he was in a place where he could view a recent film, in English. My mother was never all that keen, but always got dragged off to have a snooze in a theatre seat. My parents had been leaving me on my own in hotel rooms since I was ten, so why they opted to take me to see the recently released Alfred Hitchcock film “Psycho”, I am not quite sure.

Dad was a big Hitchcock fan and eventually I enjoyed his movies too, but I found Psycho terrifying. I returned to my hotel room quaking and almost afraid to put the light out. For months I was nervous when taking a shower!

One thing I clearly remember is that we loved the food in Penang. We had lots of seafood and my mother and I developed a taste for nasi goreng, a local dish of rice, meat and vegetables with wonderful spices.

All in all, it was a very nice holiday, but soon it was time for my dad to return to work in Thailand. We caught a flight to Bangkok where, once more, the welcome was extended. Our friends had a very nice house, he being a bank manager.

Mum and I were watching birds from the terrace when Dad came back from collecting mail at the Bangkok office. Mum saw his face and asked what was wrong. “As always when you come back from a holiday”, my father moaned, “bills and bad news.” The “bad news” , he told us, was that I was not going to be able to go off to my new school for another two weeks. It seemed like good news to me.

This school was another convent. Sabrina was going there too. In two weeks time her father would drive us from Bangkok to Phnom Penh and ultimately to our new school, Mater Dei, Kep, Cambodia.

2 thoughts on “The Pearl of the Orient

  1. Thank you for this latest installment. Do you know Rumer Godden? Adore “A Time to Dance No Time to Weep”. her memoir about growing up in India.”

  2. I’ve added it to my list! I have read quite a few books about India, but not that one. I have a dear friend who was born in India, although that part is now Pakistan. He was there till partition in 1948 and then the family went home to England. There are so many stories!

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