On the trail of the lonesome pine

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I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for when I promised my father that I would take the family to Penang for my 50th birthday. The last thing we did before he died in November was to put together the family photo album of our posting in Malaysia from 1963 to 1966, and it was his last chance to tell me – again – stories of snake temples and jellyfish, monkeys and timmy tigers. In a country where king cobras lived at the bottom of our garden and where he and my brother nearly died from tropical diseases, I don’t remember ever being afraid; those timmy tigers lurking in the jungle just up ahead from where we swam in a local beauty spot were probably nothing more than a couple of lizards parting the huge fronds of monsoon-watered palm trees. We would squeal with delight and shoot them with our pop guns.

After my parents’ last laugh in steering us to the E&O’s new wing built on the very spot where our first home once stood, we headed north to find our family beach waiting for the next cosmic joke. Lone Pine Beach; the name alone still feels like warm water lapping at my toes. Two paintings of it hang in my parents’ (still unsold) home and have followed us from country to country since we left Penang. The very last photograph of our family before we were posted to Germany was taken there. I’d seen on Trip Advisor that there was a Lone Pine Hotel in Batu Ferringhi and guessed that the beach wouldn’t be far away, but when the E&O told us it was its sister hotel and that it offered a shuttle service for guests, I heard the familiar giggles. Of course it would be the first hotel to be built in Batu Ferringhi and the beach scene of choice of the colonial expats. Of course we would be given a free pass despite staying at a dive by comparison.

As we watched the sun set on Lone Pine Beach, we all tried to picture the paintings on my parents’ walls. None of us could remember the detail. Jed remembered the unusually large rocks while the kids fought over the position of the island in the background. We’ll have to wait until we go down to Wales next to see the real thing, but it doesn’t matter; as the sun slipped behind the clouds and set fire to the horizon, the warm water lapped against my toes and I knew we’d found our beach.

But it was Monkey Beach where I found what I had been looking for on this trip back in time. Although for most people on this strip of sand it’s a £60 boat ride to paradise, Monkey Beach is for me the unspoilt, undeveloped fishing village of my Penang memories. I don’t know if I went there with my parents, but my Penang, my Malaysia, has always been, in my head at least, Monkey Beach. The Jurassic leaves, the dense jungle, the mists rising from its heights, the monsoon rain and lunch of barbecued fish and steamed rice, the monkeys jumping out of trees to steal anything they can, and the silent beach – these are my Malay memories. These are the hot and humid, childish and carefree feelings of being with my family. Kids of three and under don’t take in the sights; their language is about smell, touch and feel. You can show me hundreds of old Chinamen cycling trishaws but give me the smell of jungle and I’ll tell you I’m home.

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