The owner delivers the cutlery himself, but it’s a ruse to corner his audience. “They’ve set me up just around the corner,” he enthuses, gesturing along the coast. “My friends back in KL are amazed when I tell them that I get to work in five minutes. I tell them, sometimes there’s traffic, though. Sometimes there’s a jam, and then it takes much longer. It takes six minutes!”
My tea arrives; it’s full to the brim but I stir it vigorously, clinking the edge as the condensed milk rises. Dark powder also swirls through the brew. Cloves, I guess, or something else from the garden. “I’ll leave you to enjoy your drink,” prattles the man, retreating. We sit in silence for a while, enjoying the sound of crickets. Then Julien says: “I’ve never had tea like this.”
We’re in the restaurant at the Tropical Spice Garden, a converted rubber plantation that now tells the story of fragrant plants from the region. Water flows through the ornate garden in a series of cascades. Visitors are lulled by the soundscape into uniform concentration, dutifully sniffing bark and leaves or plugging commands into their audioguides. At the far end of the garden water rushes past large teapots from which visitors can pour themselves a herbal blend of stevia and chrysanthemum. We drink several cups.
This is a marketing ploy for stevia, which a woman makes us chew as soon as we enter the gift shop. This in turn makes us crave the tea that the manage talkatively delives. It’s a kind of ecosystem in which visitors are nourished then harvested.
“Sir, would you like to see a monkey?” a waiter asks. Sure enough, high above the restaurant, a white-tailed monkey browses for food, testing fruit then discarding husks. They drop heavily onto the floor of the restaurant, narrowly missing tables. I peer the other way, off the edge of the balcony. The cliff beetles down to the coast road and the shallows. “Imagine if there was a landslide,” I say.
Back towards Georgetown, it’s mid-afternoon at the beach town of Betu Ferringhi. There’s a sense of siesta, even among those who are awake. We choose the massage place not for its name (Desire) but for its fish tank, visible enough to make us pause and get talked in by the tout. “You’ll see their hands,” he explains. “They’re vergy experienced.” But my guy is less about experience than brute strength. With each lunge at my legs his bicep creeps out from the sleeve of his polo-shirt. “SNAILS,” it says, “Ocean Spirig.” He’s fastened both of its buttons. His force is offset by a liberal approach to oil which he squirts into his hand every minute or so. When he pounds his fist into my sole it squelches. But again the soundtrack is aquatic. A group of friends is trying out the fish, gasping as they swallow dead skin from their feet. The aquarium filter is the parlour’s radio, drowning out my own inhalations.
We started the day on residential jetties, peering through grilles at the domestic lives of those who live over water. Their homes seemed perfectly standard apart from their stilts, which made them a fully signposted tourist attraction. There were floating shops and temples, too, seemingly kept from drifting only by buckets of concrete pierced by planks of wood. At the end of one pier a man was preparing incense sticks and joss paper for a ceremony. I stepped past him to a public toilet, realising too late that I was pissing right into the sea.
We walked back into our first tropical storm, sheltering awkwardly under a stranger’s verandah a few metres out from the short. “Should we get a coffee, or something?” Julien proposed. The same thing happened much later in the day, when pelting rain drove us from the beach into a food court. While Julien sought desserts I was asked if I was thirsty by three separate individuals. It’s as if they knew we tourists were coming, swept in from the beach like driftwood, serving an unseen ecosystem in which we stir, sip, spill.