The Gambas Operation is the name the Spanish have for the Brits who visit each year, catch a few too many rays and return home with skin the burning pink hue of a prawn. I was told this by a Spanish volunteer in House of Journey as he laughed at what I preferred to describe as future tan lines. I’ve never been to Spain, but joined my fellow Brits on their Operation in Penang instead.
The burn was a two day Operation. Monday was spent exploring the street art spattered around George Towns’ China Town, posing for photos and searching out the hidden graffiti in the brutal January heat thick with the humidity of threatening storms. The stilted Clan Jetties of the Chinese community jutting out from the coast provided us some relief. Alex, Charlotte and I sat here that afternoon, not quite in the shade, dabbling our toes into the refreshing water and plotting to free a single tiny fish, alone in a huge tank just waiting to be used as bait for larger members of his ocean dwelling family. A gentleman of Chinese heritage had been sat with us explaining the ways of life on the jetties, fishing, trading and family life perched above the reach of the waves. Charlotte and I had named the fish Julian and were devastated when he told us his wife’s family would be putting him to his death on the end of a fishing rod. With Alex on watch once he left we scooped Julian from his prison cell and freed him into the open ocean, making a quick get away ourselves in case anyone had seen but not before the sun had begun to leave its mark.
I had met Alex one sleepless night trying to catch the wifi on the hostel stairs when he stumbled in at 3am from a night out and regaled me with tales of bribing boarder police out of a prison sentence and other crazy antics in Central Asia. So when he said he’d heard of a temple outside of George Town so full of devenomed vipers that you had to watch where you walked to avoid a painful, if poison free, bite, I was totally sold. Here is where we well and truly committed to the Gambas Operation.
It was a couple of hours walk towards the other side of the island so we went in search of scooters with two other girls at the hostel and met the not so happy, Happy Ken. Bikes should be about 30 RI a day, but we wanted them for only 5 hours and for 20 RI. Happy Ken tried to seduce us into taking his more expensive bikes with what he intended as a sexy dance comparing his ‘old ladies’ (the slightly worn bikes) to his new ‘Coca-Cola girls’; his wandering eyes and creepy gestures did not sell us on them. Seasoned hagglers at this point we wandered down the street to find an uber with Ken chasing behind us lowering the price; settling on 25 RI with the threat that if we were a second past 6pm in bringing them back he would keep our 75 RI deposit.
Followed by a hail storm of Kens warnings as to the consequences of breaking his bikes we were off on the open road, trying to navigate our way out of the one way systems of George Town. With big roads and traffic comparatively fast to our scooters it’s very easy to take a wrong turn and it was too late by the time we realised we were on the road heading for the bridge to main land; a 24km bridge with no turn around point. We had brought no sun cream for this trip that was meant to be 15 minutes and the bridge, in its freshly painted whites left no patch of skin safe from the suns reflected rays. The stark white urban structure against the calmly patterned blues of the shallow strip of sea was stunning though, very Mediterranean, with heavily jungled islands accessible only by boat breaking the view to the horizon. Not tarnished by the rubbish of working port, this water was far more inviting than that stretching away from George Town at the clan jetties; it made the inadvertent detour well worth while.
Mainland was 15 minutes away, we got there and the girls were low on
petrol; they wouldn’t make it back to the island. From my experience Malaysians have fantastic English, and are always willing to help but they have that very Asian trait of answering yes even if they don’t begin the know the answer to your question; with this set back we spent the next 45 minutes desperately weaving through traffic to find shade and a petrol station before embarking home. Monkeys played in the palms and barriers along the side of the road, distracting me for the most part from the huge lorries whizzing past us, it was a huge relief to be out of the busy traffic once fuel had been restored and we’d made our way back to the bridge. A toll of 1.40 RI later and with speed loving Alex and I in front we sped our way back to mainland, the damage no aloe vera could fix having been done to our bare skin.
That the snake temple was within a huge industrial complex really should have rung alarm bells; where were these wild vipers meant to come from en mass in an industrial estate? We parked up and wandered in, affronted immediately by two HUGE snakes kept in tanks barely big enough for their awesome bodies without being coiled about themselves. Of course, they were the money makers, drape them round your neck and have a photo then shove them back in their prison. We explored the two buildings of the temple for the writhing creatures we’d been promised but could only find one sterile looking room with several sleepy looking black and yellow snakes draped on fake trees which an attendant was only too happy to spray with water, provoking some movement. Apparently the concrete jungle surrounding the temple used to be real jungle and up until a few years ago the creatures really did swarm the floors we had walked so freely. Nowadays the only snakes are bred in an attached snake farm which you can visit for around 20 RI.
Burnt and disappointed by the temple we headed back for a conciliatory Mug Shot bagel to steel us for the return of the bikes to Happy Ken. He was aggressive, rude and very intimidating but he did give us the deposits back and we had seen some spectacular scenery. That is traveling for you though, swings and roundabouts then on to the next adventure.