Dinner with a Tiger

Our trip to Malaysia went pretty smoothly. Sure, there was the time in Penang Airport when we discovered that the booking company we had used had failed to add our bags to our Air Asia booking, even though we had a receipt from them showing that they had done so, but that was easily fixed.

There were also wierd moments, like the sign outside the Caholic Mission Society in Georgetown advertising ‘We have Bacon Pizza and ice cream’, which I thought was a touch insensitive for Ramadan in a Muslim majority country.

But the best story was when we were on our way back from the Danum Valley conservation area where we had been trekking round the jungle looking for Orang Utans, and other endangered wildlife.

To treat ourselves after a few hard sweaty days we’d arranged to go to a resort on Gaya Island, where, while we intended to do some kayaking and snorkelling, relaxation was definitely on the cards.

The only problem was that transport didn’t really line up.  To get to Gaya Island from Danum Valley involved a two hour drive, mostly on dirt roads, to Lahad Datu, where there was an airport and we caught the local puddle jumper’s evening flight back to Kota Kinabalu, universally known as KK, and then another minivan across town to Jesselton point ferry dock where we would get the 9pm boat to Gaya.

We half hoped that if we were lucky and the plane landed early, we got our bags back in time, and the traffic was light we might get to Jesselton point for the 7pm boat, but no, when we arrived it was chucking it down, and everything took twice as long as we hoped, so it was 7.30 by the time we got there.

This posed another problem.


We’d be too late to eat on Gaya, and while we’d had lunch, that was seven hours ago.

There was a little food court on the pier so we went looking. Most of the stalls were fairly tired and listless, and quite a few were shutting up early, the rain having put people off. Most were offering iftar specials, which wasn’t really what we wanted, we were thinking more about noodles and beer.

And then one of stall owners slid up beside me and murmered ‘we got cold tigah’, obviously they were going to be a little coy about advertising that since it was Ramadan, but with that phrase they had us.

Two bowls of fresh cooked singapore style noodles, an instant audience of the local stray cats, and a shared big (640ml) bottle of tiger chilled to a near zero, with two equally ice cold glasses and a little bowl of soup each.

The cost – 40 Ringitt plus a tip – say something like twenty bucks. The experience was worth much more, sitting in a food court with the rain banging down on a tarpaulin strung over the tables –somehow the experience seemed to connect with the real Malaysia …

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Northam Road Cemetery, Georgetown

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Northam Road cemetery is the oldest European cemetery in Georgetown in Penang, opening shortly after the East India Company founded Georgetown in 1794, and closing roughly a hundred years later.


As a consequence there’s a lot of pre Victorian grave monuments as well as some later ones.

Walking round the cemetery last week, what struck me was the number of Scottish surnames on the stones – Dundas, Rattray, Wedderburn and more – showing just how many of the sons of the impovrished Scottish gentry went to seek their fortune in the East India Company’s army …

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Light, data, and taxis in Malaysia

We’re back from a three week trip in Malaysia, during which we visited cat obsessed Kuching, saw wild orang utans in the Danum valley conservation area, river dolphins, proboscis monkeys in Bako national park, chilled on beaches and swam in the South China sea, and visited historical Georgetown in Penang.

But this isn’t a travel blog.

Before we went we found conflicting advice about these bugbears of 21st century travel, wifi and phone access, electricity, and how best to get around. This is our take on what we learned.


Malaysia, like Singapore, uses British style Type G clunky square pin power sockets. Most hotels also offer one of these multinational universal sockets in hotel room, but bear in mind what comes out of the wall is standard 230v 50Hz electricity – plugging in a device from a 110v 60Hz country will only work if it incorporates a suitable transformer – most USB and computer chargers will be fine, but if you have something idiosyncratic you might be in for an explosive experience.

As always Australian plugs don’t fit terribly well in these ‘international’ sockets, with some brute force required to both plug them in and extract them, so it’s best to take a single type G converter and a powerboard if you want to plug in multiple devices at the same time.


Despite what some older guides say, most international hotels have pretty zippy free wifi, and many public places, shopping malls, cafes, even hawker centres, have wifi, though it can be of variable quality. Some cities, eg Kota Kinabalu, have a free public network as well. Airports almost always have decent wifi.


Phone data and calling is cheap. Take an unlocked phone and buy a SIM at the airport. I bought a Maxis SIM with 8Gb of data and unlimited calls for MYR80 – a bit under AUD30 – and that did us for our whole time there. Maxis also had deals that gave you free data to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, and I guess the other companies have similar deals.

By comparison Telstra’s roaming charges are AUD 10 per day for unlimited calls and texts and a pretty measly 300MB of data – as always check with you provider – you may get a better deal.

I took my old unlocked Galaxy S2 with me for the Maxis sim – a mistake it was too old and too slow for most purposes, I should have picked up something rather more recent from one of the discount and refurbished phone suppliers such as Mobicity.

Why this is important will be revealed below …


Some taxis have meters, some don’t. In fact most don’t which means you need to agree a price with the driver in advance, which can be difficult if you don’t speak Bahasa Malaysia, as many taxi drivers only have fairly basic English.

Your choices used to be either use a taxi booking service, such as the coupon taxi system at most airports, where you pay a fixed price set in advance for your ride, or you try and find a taxi with a meter.

Well there’s now a third alternative – Grab, a local ride hailing app that’s been so successful, they’ve chased Uber out Malaysia and Singapore.

Unlike Uber, Grab offers you not only ride sharing like Uber, but also has a lot of taxis – both the standard red and black taxis and the bigger blue Teksi Eksekutif vehicles – signed up to it meaning you can agree the price in advance via the app, which of course you can configure to use English.

When you book a ride, Grab gives you a picture of the driver, the license plate, make and colour of the vehicle so you can be sure you’re getting into the right vehicle.

When booking a ride with luggage to the airport, it’s probably best to go for at least a standard taxi – I doubt if two Europeans with a couple of normal size 20kg cases could fit into a Perodua Myvi.

That said for a ride across town to a museum or a restaurant, a ride share in a Myvi or similar small car  is fine, we paid a mere MYR8 for a 15minute ride across Georgetown.

To get the best out of Grab you really need a local phone number, so that the driver can call you if he’s having difficulty finding you.

If you fly into Kuala Lumpur International – universally known as KLIA – and there’s more than one of you, ignore the KLIA Ekspres – the fast train to the central train station in KL. A one way ride will cost you MYR 55 each, plus when you get to KL Sentral, you’ll need a cab to your hotel, which will add about MYR40 to the cost. By comparison a Teksi Eksekutif booked via the taxi coupon office will cost around MYR150 from the airport to a city centre hotel. Sure, it’ll take longer, but it’s less hassle, especially when you are tired and jet lagged

Getting around

Air Asia is a Malaysian phenomenon – a cheap point to point airline that’s reliable and while it’s not always on time, efficient. Flights are often busy, so book in advance using their website, and remember everything is extra, you need to pay for your baggage separately, and if you want something to eat on the flight you need to order in advance.

You can print your boarding pass up to fifteen days in advance, but you can also print it from one of the selfservice machines in the airport, and you will also have to print your baggage tags from one of the self service machines before dropping off your bags.

By comparison, Malaysian Airlines is more old school, and while they like you to check in over the web in advance it’s not essential. You do need to pay separately for baggage on some flights, but most come with a 20kg baggage allowance, and they’ll usually feed you on a longer flight.

Peninsular Malaysia now has some fast trains, and we’d orginally planned to take the train from Butterworth to KL, but KTM changed the schedule which meant either leaving Georgetown at sparrow’s or getting to to KL much later than we wanted, so we ended up on yet another Air Asia flight …

Other stuff

Guardian and Watson’s chemists are big retail pharmacy chains, and while the brands might not be exactly the same, sell feminine hygene products, toothpaste, panadol, disinfectant for cuts from jungle trekking and just about everything else you need.

Sports shops sell a lot of the stuff you might need for a jungle trek, so foreggting something is not a disaster and there’s a number of specialist outdoor shops in KL.

Take a fleece – airports and shopping centres are often airconditioned to arctic levels, even though it’s over 30C outside.

Wine is expensive and usually not worth the money, even in expensive restaurants, with a (usually generous) glass of mediocre Chardonnay coming in at around MYR 50. By comparison a bottle of Tiger or locally brewed Carlsberg will usually cost between MYR 15 and MYR 20 in a restaurant, less in a hawker centre, with locally brewed Heineken a little more, say MYR 17-22. While these are average prices, some places charge less, with a beer in the James Brooke restaurant on the waterfront in Kuching costing about the same as in a hawker centre.

Imported beers are about 50%more than local products. There’s a small craft beer scene in Penang, but I’m afraid I missed out on that. Next time perhaps …

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Female Obstruction in the small ads

Sometimes, we tend to think of the Victorians as quite like us, except a little more buttoned up, and wearing funny clothes.

Yet, in many ways their lives were quite different from ours, one aspect being the absence of reliable and widely available contraception. This of course meant that most young married women were either pregnant or nusing, and that also women tended to die at a younger age than men due to the hazards of childbirth.

And of course the risks continued through a woman’s fertile time, even into her late thirties or early forties. For example, the Edwardian travel writer Beth Ellis  died in childbirth at the age of 38 – an age that was comparitively late to be having children, especially in Edwardian times.

Yet we know people had sex, and not just within a formally sanctioned marital relationship. The Madeleine Smith trial half a century earlier shows that young women did on occasion have sex with their lovers, and Victorian literature is full of stories of governesses having a fling with the master and being cast out, or indeed making off to live in sin with the master, while the wife is locked up in a madhouse on the basis of her unreasonable behaviour.

Court records and parish relief records also record cases where maidservants became pregnant by the groom or the footman, and were dismissed – often meaning that the maidservant’s family slid into destitution as they were partially reliant on her income.

All in all sex was a hazardous business in terms both of a women’s health and her social standing, and there must have been many cases were the woman didn’t want to continue the pregnancy.

Did she have a choice? Well yes, she did.

Unpalatable as it may be to us, she could acquire an abortifacient and abort the fetus.

While not exactly legal, there is good evidence that many women, both married and unmarried, took this route.

But how did they find out about the availability of such medications?

In a word, advertising. Discreet advertising. Sometimes for medications for ‘female complaints’ and sometimes by warnings that such and such a medication may cause a pregnant women to miscarry – nudge nudge.

However, none of the widely available published sources described the situation in Australia, which is interesting, given that from what we know, informal and sometimes impermanent unions were not exactly unknown in the goldfields and in frontier settlements.

So I decided to do some digging in the newspaper archives to see if there was evidenc that such things were being advertised.

As much of the advertising for such products flew under the radar in a cloud of euphemism it was difficult to work out a suitable search strategy, so I decided to settle on a search for one particular mid Victorian euphemism – female obstruction.

While it could refer to other mentrual problems, there’s quite good evidence to show that it was used to refer to pregnancy.

So, I first did a dry run using Welsh Papers online to see what a search for ‘female obstruction’ would turn up:

Screenshot 2018-04-27 10.43.02

Which was perhaps not quite what we wanted – this suggests a clinic rather than the use of a medical preparation, but then there was this advert.

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The mention of ‘married or single women’ certainly makes it fairly clear what is being advertised here.

So, on to the NLA’s Trove to see if the search works in Australia:

adelaide express 19 May 1888

Screenshot 2018-04-28 12.28.09

which it certainly seems to do, even though the adverts seem a little more discreet than those found in contemporeaneous Welsh newspapers.

There could be a number of reasons for this – one of which could be that the term was not as common in colonial Australia than in Victorian Wales. The other obviously was that the colonial authorities were more punitive in their approach and it paid vendors to be a little more discreet.

So, I tried a second search – this time for ‘female pills’.

This was a bit more successful:



Holloway’s and Beecham’s pills being widely available, Holloway in particular advertising his products widely in the goldfields. In fact Holloway was noticable for his heavy use of advertising. Hollowy’s pills seem to have, like Beecham’s pills, contained aloes, myrrh, ginger and soap, and aloe juice can induce a miscarriage, which is why most probably both Beechm’s and Hollway’s pills worked.

Holloway died a rich man. He and his wife did not have any children and he gave most of his money away.

Among other things, he spent his money founding a mental hospital and women’s college which is today Royal Holloway University in London – given that some of his wealth derived from the use of his pills by women it seems kind of appropriate.

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Jane Austen’s brother Charles

What seems a long time ago, but it was only in the middle of 2013, we visited Trincomalee in Sri Lanka.

It was only on our way back from Sri Lanka that I discovered that Jane Austen’s brother was buried in Trinco. At the time I tried to use Google Maps and Streetview to find photos of the grave site without success.

Tim Wilsey has now taken the trouble to post photos of the grave site on the Victorian Web.

Thanks Tim!

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Replacement teeth in 1861

While rooting around the bowels of Welsh papers online in search of examples of Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound adverts I came across this rather splendid advertisement for replacement teeth from 1861:

replacement teeth in 1861

Merthyr Tydfil Telegraph 8 February 1861

What I find intriguing about this advert is that you still get the same before and after style adverts for dental implants in the back pages of the Saturday papers …

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Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound

I was documenting some nineteenth century medicine bottles the other day and came across this rather nice example in bluish glass:


and it was embossed Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound


suggesting that it had held a cough medicine of some sort.

When medicines were expensive, and visits to the doctor equally so, people were more reliant on patent medicines than they are today.

Horehound is a herb in the mint family and was used to make soothing medicine that also helped people cough up phlegm. And in the nineteenth century city, with high levels of smoke and grime in the air, people were prone to bronchial coughs aggravated by the air the breathed.

Horehound based cough medicines were popular, and most probably did more good than harm. There were a number of manufacturers, and probably quite a few pharmacists made up their own to sell over the counter.

As horehound was introduced in the nineteenth century (it’s now a notifiable weed in NSW and Victoria), I fully expected that Hayman’s would turn out to be a popular late Victorian local brand.

Not a bit of it. Hayman’s balsam was manufactured by Hayman’s chemists in Neath, south Wales. A search of the National Library of  Wales Welsh Newspapers online site shows that he was prolific advertiser in both English and Welsh language newspapers from the 1860’s onwards as seen in this example from the Merthyr Telegraph in February 1861:

hayman's balsam

What’s more, he also had a considerable trade beyond Wales with balsam bottle turning up in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Searches of PapersPast in New Zealand and Trove here in Australia also show that his product was being advertised extensivelysydney mail 1 June 1881

as in this advert from the Sydney Mail in June 1881, from which we can see that he has signed up several significant importers, including Felton Grimwade in Victoria to distribute his balsam.

So why Hayman’s?

Well Hayman’s was not the only brand. There were other similar products imported by other wholesalers and possibly local equivalents brewed up by country pharmacists in their back shop.

I think the answer’s in two parts. Neath was a port town shipping the products of the local iron founding and coal industry all over the world, something that gave Hayman’s ready access to shippers and import export agents.

The other is that Hayman’s had discovered the power of advertising, first in local newspapers and more widely, making his product well known and one which importers and distributors would want to handle, if only because of brand recognition by recent migrants.

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