Malaysians are really friendly. Eager and willing to help at every turn and without recompense, from the fruit seller who gives you extra (free!) fruit just because you express an interest, to the family who just gave me a lift.
That was because the really friendly ticket sellers for my bus from Kuala Lumpur to Penang assured me that my bus would arrive into Georgetown at 5.00am (negating the need for a nights rent as I could go straight to the ferry). The bus arrived at 3.00am no where near Georgetown. Step in kind family who have deposited me in a 24hour Indian restaurant. Making the most of the situation I am going to tell you about my Malaysian escapades.
Having gone full circle I am back in Georgetown, my first Malaysian port of call. It is apparently a beautiful cultural hodgepodge, taking the best of all the invading cultures into the architecture and sensibilities of the town. I wouldn’t really know. I arrived with a heavy chest infection and cosied up in ‘Old Penang Guesthouse’, a beautiful colonial building converted. With an immaculately clean dorm room for only 15 Ringgits, I jumped at the chance (free breakfast and Wifi thrown in). If you are ever in Georgetown I highly recommend it, but book early – they are always full (hence the last bus and now sitting in a cafe!). I sampled the delights of little India and made a new friend.
Elisabeth from Sweden, who writes a very amusing blog (http://www.travelpod.com/members/madlittlemover), was coping remarkably well with backpack and crutches. We went to the cinema together and then to Cameron Highlands. My first experience in a dorm also bought my first experience of theft. One of the other two girls (one Swede, one German – you can chose which one) nicked money from both Elisabeth and me, but as we discovered the larceny once many hours away in the Cameron Highlands, we were unable to beat the culprit with one of Elizabeth’s crutches. A better punishment would be to make her carry my backpack for a while.
Cameron Highlands was very beautiful but after the more rugged beauty of the tea plantations in Munnar (India), CH felt a little too manicured for me. We visited a strawberry farm where I drank freshly squeezed strawberry juice, one of the most delicious things I have ever ingested. There was also a rose garden which actually proved to be stunning and soothing; one of my favourite aspects was the inclusion of quirky statues interspersed between the flowerbeds. Inexplicably Snow White and her seven dwarves and The Shoe but not the old woman who lived in it. From there we went to a butterfly farm.
I was fine with the idea of butterflies – no one told me about the mantises, beetles and scorpions that were about to be thrust into my face. Did I want to hold one? No, I bloody well didn’t. The cage to the scorpions was opened and one fell out and even though I was standing about 6 feet away I screamed like a fog-horn and then perfected my most innocent “What?” face when the entire group turned around in one beautifully choreographed movement to stare at me.
That was the highlight of the Cameron Highlands, except for getting to wear a jumper, the enormous bug that managed to sneak in under our door and Messerschmitt its way around the room (also accompanied by my screams) and the tea and scones that we partook on a lawn. Oh yes and we fed a rabbit parsley – actually that was probably my highlight. So we did the decent thing and bought a bottle of rum and got drunk.
Having still not fulfilled my beachy dreams, Elisabeth and I parted ways. She headed towards the promise of shopping beneath the Petronas Towers and I headed for the crystal clear waters of the Perhentian Islands. Paradise Islands (apparently) on the East coast of peninsular Malaysia. I had booked a dorm bed at D’Lagoon but when got there discovered that it was only reached by boat, immediately feeling trapped and after spotting the monkeys on string, tied to the trees decided that this definitely wasn’t the place for me and jumped straight in a taxi boat back to Long beach on Perhentian Kecil. I was told by the disgruntled owner that he didn’t want my sort staying at his guest house anyway (‘my sort’ tuned out to be people who didn’t want to stay there; I couldn’t find a way to argue with that logic), he told me that it was a Malaysian holiday and good-luck getting a room anywhere else.
By now a seasoned traveller I, of course, didn’t believe him. Except that it was true. Having heard stories of people bedding down on the beaches or returning to mainland unable to find a bed, I went pro-active. Marching up a torrent of sweat, I pounded one length of the beach to the other and eventually found a 20ringgit bed in an eight person dorm. It was dirty, stank of mould and was the preferred home of every mozzie on the island – but it was perfect.
It was here that I met more Swedes: Sara (I know – what a lovely name) and Joanna. They invited me to join them for dinner and I don’t think we parted ways after that. Bubbly, stimulating and fabulous they had just spent four months in India (all the best people do, don’t you know!). We spent most of our time laughing, lazing on the beach (I think they finally taught me the art of sunbathing) and generally being very relaxed in each others company. We went snorkelling and saw a huge turtle, reef shark, blue-spotted rays, and baby Nemo fish. I finally went swimming, the waters of the Perhentian Islands are as clear as mineral water, the sand is soft and white, it was perfect. We spent the evenings eating lobster, crab and squid and the nights drinking ‘monkey juice’ (Malaysian rum that tastes like banana and delivers a wicked hangover).
In typical backpacker style, and probably because having been on the road for so long now, sitting at a beach bar eating my breakfast I looked straight into a face I thought I recognised….and I did, it was American Dave from Gokarna. Neither of us could quite believe it, and then I realised that anyone who I have seen again: Jono in Havelock, Hrvoje in Varanasi and Anna & Denis in Rishikesh – they are all Gokarna friends. Gokarna is still the place where I was probably the happiest and the most harmonious place that I have been.
However, with yet another goodbye looming Sara, Joanna and I, unable to stay another day on an island (even paradise gets boring sooner or later – there is, after all, bugger all to do) made our way to Kota Bharu. A fairly miserable little place, where we got a really nice room i.e. the bathroom was inside it with three comfortable beds and free towels – bliss. My, how ones standards drop! We met a really annoying French couple, who were walking guidebooks, giving us a rundown of where we could stay and at what price, telling us exactly how we should travel to our next destinations and what the bus schedules were, what we should eat and the best place to get it – they sound helpful – they weren’t, they were just annoying.
After this Malaysia started to really annoy me. I went from one grotty little place to another. Rundown hotels at extortionate prices. Dorm rooms closed down or being renovated. Food apparently served from swill buckets. Ok, that last bit isn’t true but that’s how it was starting to feel because all the restaurants have a buffet-type system, where trays of ready prepared food (at who knows what time) sit waiting to be eaten and are then served cold. Having so far not had one single bout of food poisoning, I really wasn’t going to risk the MSG congealed chicken. It’s amazing how grumpy one gets when there is no decent food about. I spent about three days having temper tantrums.
In a tiny, one monkey town/street called Cherating I went on a Firefly trip. We piled into precarious little dinghies and donned bright orange life-jackets. We polluted the air as the motors coughed and sputtered away until we came to the right place. The guide shone his special torch and as if by magic tiny little lights appeared in the dark shadows of the mangroves, they glided silently towards the light. It was Disney and fairytale and delighted gasps and ooohs and aahhhs filled the air. Everyone else on the boat managed to catch their own firefly and hold it in their hands, but that’s ok, I’m not bitter. I couldn’t get a picture so just imagine lots of black with some floaty florescent green blobs.
I headed for Kuala Lumpur. Expecting very little as I am not keen on the big cities, I had one big plan – I was going to the cinema. My luck started to turn on the bus. I called a number from my Rough Guide (a terrible guide book – I really wouldn’t bother) and it miraculously worked, I got through and booked a dorm. 12 ringgits for a bed. Perversely the cheapest bed I had managed to get for weeks and in the city too. I had expected to pay double that at least. It was great fun traversing the eccentric system of over ground trains, underground trains and monorails in order to get to Chinatown. I really felt as though I was channelling London. I decided, though, that I was unable to stay at the guesthouse I had booked. Even though incredibly centrally located it was filthy and the bed looked about one hundred years old and I still have some standards left. Instinct told me to get out and so I did. A man on the street sold me a bed in a single room for 20Ringgits and privacy won out.
My cell, I mean private fan room, was wide enough to fit a single bed and a backpack. I took this to mean that there wasn’t enough room for bedbugs as well and snapped up the room. This was the night that the world cup started. I was having dinner in a food court watching the opening ceremony, I thought it would be more fun to watch it in the common room of the guest house with everyone else. Nicola and Chris (Germany) were desperately channel hopping looking for the right one, but it wasn’t to be, the guest house had forgotten to order the right channel! There was every other conceivable sport showing except the main sporting event in the world at that moment. Sebastian came to join our merry group and the four of us drank many beers and watched the South Africa match (we had the match just not the ceremony – I didn’t care about the match!!!).
Announcing my intention to go to the cinema the next day Sebastian said he would join me. We made the showing of Shrek 3D by the skin of our teeth, but it was amazing. It was everything I needed it to be. It hasn’t jumped the shark, not a bit and you should all go and see it. With nothing else to do afterwards we decided to go to the exhibition halls by the Petronas Towers (v. Impressive BTW – the towers not the halls). We were expecting art or something similar but found ourselves at dental exhibition. We registered and went around the stalls showcasing the latest technology in teeth. Watched gruesome videos of implants and gums being sliced open and tried to talk intelligently about bone erosion after extraction.
We were given free teeth whitening kits and Colgate’s newest sensitive toothpaste, by that I mean to help sensitive teeth; the toothpaste didn’t gently encourage us to talk about our childhoods or anything, although if it did, I think Colgate would really be on to something there. Then came the best bit. That fabled thing that all backpackers everywhere seek….free food! Out of the exhibition hall we walked straight into a lobby with tea and coffee stands and a centre isle of white table clothed tables with heated silver buffet stands. Inside there were chicken wings and salmon and leek tartlets (salmon – I almost wet myself). There were tables of coconut sweets and Malaysian jelly sweets…needless to say we gorged ourselves, stuffing our faces between guffaws of delighted laughter. Afterwards I felt sick.
The next day we decided to go to see Mahler’s 1st symphony in D, Titan (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QApV1Bf-0VA). How very cultured. We would, however, have to be appropriately attired with shoes and everything. I had a white cotton dress and Sebastian managed to find linen trousers and a shirt. We were good to go, apart from the shoes…I discovered that there was an M & S where we could buy and then return the shoes that we needed, but in the end were actually able to borrow them from the theatre. Mine were brown and strappy and his were black and clunky – perfect. Our cheap seats were four rows from the front and the auditorium was beautiful. I felt like a real human sitting there in proper shoes listening to the wonderful orchestra play.
In the interval we needed a coffee, but were not going to pay the extortionate theatre prices for one measly cup of coffee…why didn’t we sneak back to the conference centre and grab some more free coffee? It was right next door, we were sure we could make it. We zoomed off through the crowds “excuse me”ing continuously. We successfully made our way back to the lushly carpeted lobby and grinned smugly when we saw that today’s delights included prawns on sticks and cinnamon rolls. With only a twenty minute interval we had to hurry and were soon wending our way back in the other direction. We ran up the steps to the theatre to find an empty lobby – the show had started! Well not to worry, we would sneak in during the next break between movements or whatever the correct word is for the bit where they stop playing and turn the pages over.
Thwarted. There are no breaks during the second half of this concert. Our free coffee (and cinnamon roll) greed meant that we missed the second half of our wonderful concert. The usher commiserated with us “What a shame for you. You are missing the best half. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity” rubbing serious salt into our already smarting wounds. So we did the decent thing, bought two bottles of beer and got drunk!
The next day I left for Melaka, two hours south of KL. Melaka was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008. Again its charming mix of British, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and Indian influences make it an exciting place to be. I did the tourist well trodden path. I even took a river boat ride! I had another food-related temper tantrum, when a whole bus of Singaporean tourists jumped the queue in front of me at the enormously popular ‘Capitol Satay’, where you cook your own food, fondue-style but in a bubbling vat of satay sauce.
Then in a moment of madness decided that on my way back to Penang (for the ferry to Sumatra) I would dive back into the crazy throng of KL and race back to M & S in the vain hope of getting a bikini, one that fitted – top and bottom! Long, silly story about the one from Koh Tao…and do you know – I found one. OK given all the choice in the world it wouldn’t be my first or even my eighth, but given no choice at all I am thrilled and because my credit card was declined I had my first opportunity to use a traveller’s cheque – exciting stuff.
Fast forward several hours and I am sitting in the cafe I told you about earlier. Whilst writing this post I have been experiencing the unmistakable first throws of food-poisoning. Stomach cramps, skin strobing hot and cold like some weird octopus creature. oh did I speak too soon? I have had a lassie and an antibiotic and some grapefruit seed extract. I figure if I throw every school of medicine at it one of them will surely work. So keep your fingers crossed that my ferry crossing isn’t all about chucking up over board!
Goodbye mixed-bag Malaysia and hello Indonesia.
That was the blog – finished and ready to be delivered. Except NOT. I will later post the ensuing horrible few hours that I was made to endure. There will be tears and shouting and I might even get arrested!!!!