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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.