[if you missed part one, you can find it here]
A few days later, curiosity got the best of us and we decided to check out the views from Komtar Tower. Looming over Georgetown, the 65-story concrete monstrosity is part of a complex that includes government offices and retail space, as well as an observation deck at the very top. It appeared to be a moderate walk from our hotel, so we decided to maximize the tourist experience and hop into a trishaw.
Ah, trishaws. Myriad versions of these ingenious vehicles can be found all over Southeast Asia; in Malaysia they’re typically powered by a small wiry man on a rear-mounted bicycle, with a padded seat attached in front. Trishaws are often elaborately tricked out with lights, flowers, and sometimes even a sound system. Riding in one is akin to being in a bizarre video game where you’re cruising along slowly and almost at ground level, helplessly flung into hair-raising traffic rushing past you at approximately Mach Two. I imagine this is what it might feel like to roller-skate around the DC Beltway at rush hour.
We managed to flag down a driver and squeezed our big American butts into the seat. “Oh, heavy!” the hapless driver exclaimed, and proceeded to huff and puff his way towards the tower. Fortunately, this part of Penang is pretty flat, and it turned out we only had to travel a few blocks to reach our destination. I was worried that the guy might have a heart attack along the way, but he was truly a pro, and managed to get us there without collision or medical incident. We gave him a big tip in a vain attempt to assuage our Western guilt.
Upon arriving at Komtar Tower, which has an enormous, Byzantine open-air mall at its base, we wandered around for a while, trying to find the way to the observation deck. No signs, no information desk, not even an elevator bank shed any light on what was apparently a very well-kept secret. Instead, a dizzying array of stalls selling the usual cheap clothing and electronics stretched for what seemed like blocks in all directions. Suddenly a man appeared in our path.
“I know you!” Mark said, and by this time we were both grinning. “We recognize you, even though you look different with clothes on!”
Incredibly, it was our old buddy William, fully clothed this time. He grinned back at us. “USA!” he exclaimed. “You came to tower! Good to see you again!” And then, with a bit of humility as he recollected our previous meeting, he added, “I show you my body!”
You did indeed, my odd little Malaysian friend. Now how ‘bout you show us how to get to the top of this joint? And so he did. It turns out we’d blazed right past the ground-floor info desk and elevators. William not only showed us the way, he rode up in the elevators with us and took us straight to the ticket desk at the top floor. Clearly proud to be bringing his own personal tour group up to the observation deck, he showed us some of the town’s salient features, pointed out a few sights, and insisted we have the ticket lady take a picture of the three of us.
Busy man that he was, William bid us adieu, and presumably went back to his activities at the tower’s ground level. We stood by the windows bemused at what a small world it was. Granted, Penang is a pretty small island, but what were the chances of meeting the same random guy a few days later? Just then, he appeared again! This time he was brandishing a small scrap of paper with his name and address, and asked if we would please send him a copy of the photo. He didn’t have email, so we’d need to snail-mail him an actual print. Yes, certainly, no problem, we promised to send a copy when we returned to DC, with a mental note to include the one of him proudly posing shirtless from our first meeting, for full before and after effect.
We continued our Penang sightseeing and moved on to visit other parts of Malaysia, half expecting to see William pop up around any random corner like an Asian leprechaun guiding us to hidden pots of touristy gold. It became a running joke… would William appear on the street in Kuala Lumpur, to take us up the Petronas Towers? Might we see him 50 feet underwater while scuba diving at Sipadan? Perhaps he’d pop out of a longhouse in Sarawak, to show off his prowess with a blowpipe? Shirtless or otherwise, the guy definitely made our Penang excursion a memorable one, thanks to the unexpected, unscripted kindness of strangers.
* More pictures from around Penang
* Friends in high places, part one