My drug crazed days in The Pearl Of The Orient

George Town, Penang. The fabled Pearl Of The Orient. Rich in history, layered in exoticism, a fusion of kaleidoscopic cultures. It is a thing of beauty but it has a dirty little secret. George Town was built on drugs.

The town was founded as a British trading post. Its merchant fleet used the port as a staging centre between the opium growers in India and the consumers in China. In the early nineteenth century the trade accounted for a third of all Penang’s imports and exports.
The authorities saw a further chance to swell their coffers and licensed opium farms in Penang itself. Opium dens soon followed. They were legal and loved by many, particularly the Chinese, who flourished in Malaysia. Back in their motherland it’s been estimated that at the start of the 20th century a mind-blowing 25% of adult men were literally having their minds blown by opium.
There, as in George Town, users would lay on opium beds, suck long, thin pipes full of the poppy latex, infuse their lungs with smoke and their brains with vivid and wild highs. Chasing the dragon, as it’s called.

Opium bed - Penang Museum

Opium bed – Penang Museum

A hundred years on I too find myself on a Penang bed, vague glimpses of The Pearl drift uncertainly through the window. I struggle to get images clear in my head and a numbing fog overpowers me. I feel myself lapse back into unconsciousness. I have succumbed to the drugs.
I had lost a night and a day. Gone, but God knows where. The drugs had made time meaningless. Every half an hour or so was a brief moment of consciousness. I would will myself to grip reality but nothing could overcome the overwhelming effects of my accidental overdose of cough syrup.
Don’t laugh. Or at least try and keep it to a sympathetic giggle. I’d had a rough cold and hacking cough for days and it was spreading to my chest. For $5 I was told I could see a doctor and get all the necessary drugs. What a deal. After a thorough examination the news was good, my chest was fine. I was given a prescription, went to the pharmacy and given cough syrup and a decongestant. The syrup was clearly labelled. I was to take 15mls three times day.
My first dose was just before a flight. The impact was immediate and I was instantly at the point of sleep. The remainder of the day disappeared in naps at airports, on planes and in buses. Somehow I made it to my Penang hotel. At 8 o’clock I took another dose of the syrup.

Much of the next 24 hours was lost to lapses in and out of consciousness. Every time I tried to get out of bed I fell back into a trance. Eventually through the haze came a brief moment of clarity. I finally managed to turn my Ipad on and tap in the name of the medicine. There was my answer. Take between 2.5 and 5mls three times a day. A clear warning was on the bottle, “May cause drowsiness”. Oh s**t. It should have read “may cause a coma-like state if your idiot pharmacist has accidentally trebled the maximum dose”.

George Town interactive wall art

George Town interactive wall art

Early in the afternoon I finally made it out of bed, intent on food to give me energy. I sluggishly made it to the end of the road, entered a restaurant, ordered the first thing on the menu, Wonton soup, and promptly fell asleep.
I was woken by a waitress with a worried look on her face and a bowl of soup in her hands. Here was my salvation and I began to eat. At some uncertain later point I awoke from another sleep, a tiny dew drop falling silently from my nose and sending the merest of faint ripples into the soup just one inch below my face. I had fallen asleep and almost drowned in Wonton. It’s not a heroic way to die.

Metalwork cartoon art tell the story of the town

Metalwork cartoon art tells the story of the town

As I fought off the urge to sleep again I begin to think. Was it the cough syrup or possibly something worse? Could I have picked up lalaria in Sumba? Lalaria? Do I mean malaria? Oh yes, malaria. My confused thoughts carried on in this rambling manner for a little while. But slowly on the outer edge of my consciousness, I become aware of other diners and they were all looking at me. Startled looks on their faces. I realized I hadn’t been ‘thinking’at all. I’d actually been speaking to myself, out loud. I made my excuses, paid the bill and left…..slowly.

Two days later and I am well and truly on the mend. Time to see the Pearl of the Orient. George Town turns out to be a fascinating place. The outskirts are all sky rise apartments but the town itself is UNESCO heritage listed. And quite rightly.
In the space of a couple of hundred metres is the magnificent mix of three colossal cultures. There are beautiful examples of the splendour of British colonial architecture. Symmetrical buildings in Palladian style, for the uninitiated it’s based on classical Greek and Roman temples. Smaller scale rows of collonaded homes and businesses are everywhere. Dotted around are the Chinese temples, incredibly elaborate and ornate. The embodiment of eastern architecture and rituals.
image Next comes Little India, a vibrant and heady mix of sight, sounds and spices. It teems with the energy of everyday life. Gold stores and sari shops fill the streets. All of this within the space of a few hundred metres. It’s sensory overload.
And then there are the Malays. Many heritage buildings house deep, dark caverns where they carry on every conceivable kind of business. Thrown together into the melting pot it is an intoxicating mix. Vibrant and evocative. So vivid that drugs couldn’t improve it.

Categories: Malaysia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

Post navigation

8 thoughts on “My drug crazed days in The Pearl Of The Orient

  1. Wayne & Lona

    Hahahah…Great Yarn……it sounds like sooo you, mate……Are you sure the medicine didn’t have Bundaberg Rum written on it…….Stay safe.

  2. Vaughan and Trish Rostron

    What the hell was in the cough syrup????Who knows what was happening to you while you were inhaling soup. One thing is for sure you have given some locals and patrons a great story to pass on. Sounds like the remedy fixed up the virus ok though – might be a new way to beat it????

  3. deb Chappell

    Any chance of getting a supply of the cough syrup? Just for research purposes of course.

    Glad you weren’t taken advantage of in your vulnerable state. Could have made another interesting chapter to your blog. Take care, and hope you haven’t developed a habit for that stuff. x deb

    • Hi Deb. For all I know I might well have been taken advantage of. I just wouldn’t have known or cared.
      I haven’t developed a habit, I don’t think. I can quit cough syrup time I want……..I think.

  4. Satomi

    Very funny! I’m sorry your drug didn’t give you any pleasure…good boys and girls reading this at home should take a mental notice not to follow Uncle Arthur. Love the look of opium bed, though….xxx

    • Good advice. Cough syrup can seriously screw up your day and lead to death by Wonton Soup! The bed was amazing but sure to be a killer for bad backs. X

Please leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: