Self-Destruction in Pinang

I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

~Hunter S. Thompson

Pinang Living…

Riding across the bridge into Pinang was a surreal experience. The grey, concrete span was tunneled by familiar yellow streetlights. A stripe of red tail lights, and white headlights, stretched forward across the black sea. And for a few minutes I felt like I was home in California on a routine crossing of the San Mateo bridge. I was in a dream where everyone was driving on the opposite side of the road.

Then Jimmy dropped us at our hostel in Georgetown, the original settlement and main tourist attraction of the large municipality of Pinang. He dropped us at 23 Cintra Street.

The Hostel:

A carnival fun-house apparently designed by an architect on LSD and decorated by a five year old. It was filled with the furniture of three generations of a Thai family who’d all passed away. No two surfaces were tiled the same. Staircases were chaotically strewn about connecting the estate in various half-story sections. Doors lead to nowhere, and the dormitory floorboards were uneven.

The history is that the place was a royal Thai mansion that burned down in the mid-20th century. It was purchased by a Chinese family, and was rebuilt from scrap materials in the 80’s. It was converted into a hotel in the same way a dusty desk drawer would be converted into a terrarium. Beds were crammed in rooms. Couches were added to common areas. And voila! A backpacker hostel was born.

I loved the place. Everything about it was quaintly idiosyncratic. Nothing went with anything, but everything adhered to a common theme of randomness. I loved the dozen black and white portraits of Chinese brides. The large, regal, family-style table in the downstairs common area. The cupboards and wardrobes and dressers and cabinets filled with glasses, and plates, and clothing, and outdated electronics, and anything else a wealthy family might accrue over decades. The gated veranda overlooking the street was cluttered with succulents, cacti, and other odd potted plants. And the quizzical architecture seemed to defiantly flaunt its own peculiarity.

On the rooftop stood a lone, dusty desk like a forgotten sentinel. Its only accessory was a huge ashtray filled to overflowing with snuffed cigarettes. It exuded a bygone potency, as if men of great power once presided over great matters sitting behind it. And in irreverent contrast to that, loads of colorful laundry hung on suspended wires all around it.

It was cheap at that hostel and uncomfortable, but I felt a happy satisfaction passing the sterile, white, air-conditioned lobby of the YHA hostel on my way home every day. I felt like I was disappearing every night to the Lost Boys headquarters in Neverland.

The Haze:

The haze continued to choke all of peninsular Malaysia. It blurred the world into a dreary smudge. It blended together all times of day into one unidentifiable mush. 8:00 in the morning looked like high noon looked like 6:30 in the evening. It acted like a big, filthy gray blanket covering Pinang, trapping more heat in an already sweaty, broiling crock pot of a city. It blocked the stars at night and suffocated the sun into a withered, pitiful yellow hole in the sky.

The Food:

First, the dessert. Shaved-ice topped with flavored syrup, topped with corn, topped with beans, topped with Durian ice cream, topped with a scoop of those processed jellies that retain the shape of whatever container they plop out of. For those uninitiated, Durian is a popular fruit that smells like an old mattress would sitting under the tropical sun the day after a nectar-soaked orgy. But Durian doesn’t taste nearly as violating as it smells.

The beans and corn were soggy from the melted ice. The Durian ice cream actually began to grow on me by the last few bites. The jelly brought me back to the days of childhood when I’d mindlessly swallow anything with any twisted form of sugar in it. Overall it wasn’t a disgusting dessert. It was just that none of the diverse ingredients went well with any of the others. I ate the whole thing.

Animal Everything:

In Pinang I learned to eat anything. The Chinese population has fully imported their eclectic cuisine. It’s easy to find authentic, delicious Dim Sum; steamy and fresh and cheap. On every block is a vendor selling sweet buns and savory ones too. All of them made me wish I had a bigger stomach. Whatever Chinese food you’re into you can find in Pinang.

And whatever Chinese food makes you gag slightly at a mere whiff, you can also find in Pinang. I’ll never forget the smell of cow-brain soup. Or the texture of boiled intestine. Or the unique spasm of nausea induced while chewing on pickled pork skin. A few months later, in Thailand, I’d come across fried grubs, baked crickets, and honeyed scorpions. Eating those things was a pleasant novelty after the jarring dietary expansion of Pinang.

Last and Best: The Indian food.

As the Chinese have done, so have the Indians. There’s an India Town in the heart of Georgetown filled with restaurants that serve every form of ethnic delectable any foreigner could possibly imagine; Samosas, Curries, Dahl, Thali, Chapathi, Naan. My list is doomed to pathetically misrepresent the culinary options.

However, in Georgetown the food is slightly overpriced. I was lucky in that a local brought me to a nearby, buffet-style Indian eatery in the modern region of Pinang. Ever a slave to my Indian food addiction, I ate dinner there nearly every night after that.

Time Spent:

On my first night in Pinang I met Bruno. Bruno was a young Chinese man who made his living repairing what he can, for who he can. He was a local tinkerer with an awkward social manner, deep insecurity, and possible clinical neurosis. But he wasn’t dangerous, so him and I teamed up to eat soggy desserts, choke down Chinese cuisine, and devour Indian food.
Bruno, Disio, and I hung out on the jetties and smoked cheap cigarettes. Bruno’s peculiar mind brought us to peculiar places. I for one was keen to see them, albeit sometimes repulsed.

If Pinang days were dominated by exploration, the nights were dominated by inebriation. They always began with the cheapest beers in town. Disio and I would group up with whoever was staying in the hostel to go sit at a dirty table on plastic chairs and settle into whatever the night had in store.

Big metal fans hummed in a futile attempt to combat the stifling heat. Cheap tables and chairs were set up under a shoddy canopy. We’d buy beers by the can, and drink them on the grungy street corner. It was tinted orange by a pair of streetlights, and was brought alive by the loud, raucous conversations from the multitude of revelers.

The tableau was marvelous. Muslims and Buddhists. Chinese and Indians and ethnic Malays. A sprinkling of expats. A multitude of languages. All slurping down that lovable poisonous nectar. All sweating together, talking shit, solving the worlds problems, making trivial bets. At that place we had fun over cheap drinks with people that were utterly different. We were people connected not by our language, our ethnicity, our nationality, our economic class, nor our religion, but by the ritual of poisoning our bodies for the betterment of our spirits.

Optimal health and clarity of mind are noble qualities fair enough. Self-preservation tends to dominate moral rightness. But I play advocate to the devil of self-destruction. I say it’s worth inviting a little harm onto yourself for the advantage of experience. There’s nothing enlightened about insulating yourself off from all that corrodes you.

With that in mind Disio and I delved into the reckless nights of Pinang. I’d skate the line between antagonism and confrontation; vanguard gallant heroism in one minute, and abrasive arrogance the next. Pinang became a sanctuary of brutal honesty where I’d snipe any stupid bullshit with a confounding inquiry. I didn’t care what people thought of me in conversation.

I cared less what they thought of me on the dance floor. So the nights would stretch on with drinking and dancing and clowning and smoking until the fun and laughter of it boiled into mania and drowned me under a horrible, stifling bliss. That was Pinang in a nutshell.

Thank you for reading.


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