"Day 1: Trains, Planes, and Automobiles"
Thursday June 27 2002
The adventure begins at 4:30am when I get up and, with the never-ending help of my poor sleep-deprived assistants (thanks MiOk and JongMin!), get to the train station for my 6am train to Seoul. From there I take a 1 hour shuttle bus to the airport and then a 5 hour flight from Incheon, Korea to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Feeling as though I hadn't travelled nearly enough for one day, I took a train from the airport to the city (a whopping 35RMB), a taxi to the bus station and a 7pm bus to Georgetown, Penang, arriving at 1am and checking into the first scummy hotel recommended by my taxi driver (who was probably just some scumbag hanging out at the bus depot, but who can tell? All I know is he got me away from the rest of the rabble who started singing 'Pretty Woman' as soon as they saw me). Though it isn't particularly clean and the washrooms leave a lot to be desired, at 18RMB the price at Yeng Keng hotel on Chulia Street is right and at least there's good water pressure and friendly staff. And a TV so I can watch the rest of the world cup games! Dae Han Min Guk!
"Day 2 & 3: Frustrated Wanderings in Georgetown"
I've spent the past two days wandering around Georgetown and wondering why I came here. Sure, I suppose the food is good, if you can find a restaurant that's actually open and that actually serves food. And I suppose the architecture is interesting, if you like broken down white concrete colonial buildings and empty, decrepid mansions.
I went to the Komtar Building ('cuz I needed a pharmacy), a large, ugly, modern shopping center (most of the stores are closed and everything seems to have odd opening hours) where I consulted with the friendly staff at the tourism office (at least the guidebook was right about that) and they recommended that I do a walking tour of the city.
For the most part, I found the architecture of Penang to be dull, uninspired and crumbling before my very eyes. The highlight of the day was the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, built to conform to principles of feng shui. Too bad some nasty relatives carried away most of the interior.
I also enjoyed checking out the Chew Jetty where a large clan of Chinese have built houses right on the river, each house connected to the others by a labyrinth of wooden planks.
I decided to walk around Little India but I did not feel welcome there, especially after an enraged man literally threw his poor wife into me, so I've decided not to return, not even for the food. Take that!
Today was, in many ways, even more frustrating. Because I'd gone to bed so early, I got up at 5:30am and decided to head to the bus station around 6:30. Scary, scary. I had no idea it would still be so dark! I couldn't figure out where to buy tickets (turns out you pay on the bus) and I got really frustrated. And scared. I'd read all the warnings but, really, I thought they were exaggerated. They are not. I figured I could take care of myself; I'm aware, I'm conservative, I can defend myself...but what I didn't realize is that you can't protect yourself from the hungry looks and the catcalls and you can't help but feel dirty and used with these guys eating you up with their eyes.
Anyway, I eventually got on a bus to the botanical gardens where, according to my guidebook, I could see monkeys. I saw lots of signs warning me not to feed the monkeys, but I didn't see any animals at all. Unless, of course, you count the hundreds and hundreds of uniformed school children who were being forced to jog around the park, forcing strollers like myself off the paths and onto the grass. I did get to see lots of people practising Tai Chi, though, and that was interesting.
And then, just as I was contemplating a 3 hour hike up Penang Hill, it started to rain. A regular tropical downpour. The bus, of course, arrived just as the rain stopped. Giving up, I came back into the city, spent two hours wandering around trying to find some place selling onward bus tickets to the east coast, and then spent another 2 hours trying to find a decent place to eat. I did, eventually, but if that Chinese food was vegetarian, as claimed, then those were the meatiest veggies I've ever had. For dinner, though, I had a fabulous Mandarin meal and that, somehow, made up for the rest of the day.
I went back to my hotel to watch the Korea v Germany game on TV. Everyone, it seemed, was hoping for Korea, the ultimate underdog, to win. They played a great game, clean, and I was so proud of the team and the fans for their exceptional behaviour. I don't think the world could have asked for a better display of good sportsmanship. It didn't matter to anyone that they lost the game - the Korean team had already won. They played well and, more importantly, were good hosts. This, I think, is what international sports should be.
"Day 4 and 5: Penang's Beaches and Going East"
I'd had enough of Georgetown so I headed off to the bus station early on a sunny morning to check out the beaches further north. The bus passed Batu Ferringhi which looked quite nice, though small and already dotted with tourists, but I decided to continue on to Teluk Bahang where I cut through one of those huge, expensive resort hotels popping up everywhere in Malaysia, and found myself on a long stretch of deserted white beach. Unfortnately, I didn't even have time to spred out my towel before a torrential downpour started and I had to dash to the bus stop for shelter. I decided to get on the bus, dripping, and head for Batu Ferrenghi, hoping the weather would clear when I arrived. It didn't, so I hid out in a coffee shop where I met John, a very interesting Malaysian. John fascinated me for several reasons. First of all, he had a monkey. It is very hard to ignore a man holding a baby monkey. Secondly, he spoke over a half dozen languages. Thirdly, he'd travelled all over the world and had spent a few years in the French foreign legion. He is one of those people who excells at general knowledge: languages and history and geography and current events - a real student of life. John was very concerned that I have a good impression of Malaysia and he quickly turned into my one-man travel agency. When the rain finally died down, he and a friend drove me to a beach sans tourists where I got an hour or so of sun before the rain started up again, this time so severe that John and I were trapped under the awning of a snack shop for several hours before he convinced a friend to loan him a car so that he could drive me back to Georgetown, shivering and dripping and coughing like mad. I couldn't have hoped to run into a nicer local and, given the bad experiences I'd been having, it was high time.
Next day I caught the bus to Kota Bharu. We left on time but, due to the psychotic efforts of the bus driver who seemed to enjoy running other motorists off the road, we arrived early. Kota Bharu isn't the best place in Malaysia and the guidebook which crows it is a 'bastian of Malay culture' is clearly being overly enthusiastic, but at 4:30am, Kota Bharu is one of the worst places in the world, especially for a woman travelling alone. There are lots of food stalls near the bus 'station' and I tried to wait out the morning there, marvelling at the size of the rats, but the stalls all began closing at 5:30am and as I still had hours before sunrise, I caved and got a terrible room in a terrible guesthouse (KB has lots of these; I didn't hear of a single person getting a decent room there) but at least it was cheap. I sat there, mindlessly, for a couple of hours and then packed up and headed to the misnamed tourist info center. I had planned to spend a day in KB so I could see some of the cultural performances touted in my guidebook and to visit the famed night market, but I simply couldn't work up any enthusiasm for Kota Bharu. I had bronchitus and was tired and cranky and still bone-white. It was time for the the beach. I headed back to the guesthouse, shocked the owner by packing up just hours after checking in, and caught the first bus to the jetty for the Perhentian islands. I've developed a rather bad habit of falling into a drooling unconciousness the second I board public transit and, as a result, I almost missed my transfer, but I woke in time and got dropped off at CoCo Travel who arranged my speedboat ticket and guesthouse reservations on the larger and more expensive of the Perhentians, mainly because I've learned the hard way that you usually get what you pay for and I was sick of staying in dives. I was getting bitter and needed to relax.
I can't even describe my relief when I disembarked at CoCo Huts on Perhentian Besar. I got a whole cabin to myself for 35RMB per night - with a luscious private shower - and it was scrupulously clean. I spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach, congratulating myself for finally finding a haven in the mire that was Malaysia. And this, for me, was Canada day!
"Day 5 - 9: Paradise on the Perhentians"
The next few days passed lazily. I spent a lot of time on the beach. I ate a lot. I read a lot. I got stung by a jelly fish. Twice. I drank a lot of milkshakes. I slept a lot. I got a sunburn. I was getting a little too comfortable.
I did take a walk around, and spent an afternoon gawking at the perfect blend of ocean, rock and jungle. I think my jaw actually dropped when I came upon the Coral View and Perhentian Island resorts (tip: you don't have to be a guest in order to enjoy the beaches at the resorts; get a cheap place and walk over with your towel). There is a good walking trail through the jungle, leading from the beautiful and oddly deserted Perhentian Island Resort to the secluded beaches of Samudra and Flora Bay, and there's another which cuts from there across the jungle to Abdul's; from there you can walk along the beach, passing the majority of the guesthouses that line the western side of the island. CoCo Hut manages to be right in the thick of things but still relatively isolated from the other guesthouses which was a nice bonus.
CoCo Huts also has good swimming. The water is as clear as green glass and the bottom is lovely and sandy, but with enough rocks and coral to still be interesting. The water is so clear you can see minnows and the occassional clownfish swimming close to shore. And, of course, a few vengeful jelly fish.
Seeing the fish ispired me, and I became determined to go snorkeling. Now perhaps this doesn't sound like such a shocking thing - I was, afterall, in a country famous for its clear water and abundant snorkelling opportunities - but for me this was a major event because I can't swim. Well, actually, I can swim, but as certain unfortunate friends can attest, I've never much liked being underwater. But I desperately wanted to see the fish.
I signed up for a snorkeling trip and borrowed a mask from my guesthouse and, quaking with excitement (or was that fear?) I set out on my big adventure. I simply couldn't believe how easy it was! First of all, salt water is just so different from the fresh water lakes where I grew up, and with the mask on I felt invicible. I took to it like, well, like a fish to water, and was blown away by the realization that there is a whole other universe beneath the water that I never even knew existed before: cities of coral of all shapes, sizes and colours inhabited by gigantic turtles, solemn grey sharks, and smaller, colorful fish of all possible descriptions. The experience totally blew me away.
Seeing my enthusiasm, my guesthouse promptly booked me on the next turtle-watching trip but there were, unfortunately, no turtles to be seen. In fact, there hadn't been any turtles coming to the beach to lay eggs in days and so I'm not sure why the girl at the guesthouse felt this would be such a good excursion. It also wasn't a very eco-friendly thing to do and I certainly wouldn't do it again. Give the poor turtles their peace. On the bright side, I did get stuck on the beach for half the night while a lazer show of lightning played in the sky.
"Problems in the Perhentians?"
I wish I could say my stay on Perhentian Besar was incident-free, but I must have the worst luck in Malaysia. I talked to other solo female travellers who hadn't had any problems to speak of, and no one had even heard of a tourist having a problem on the islands. I, however, managed to get ambushed on a secluded beach by a gentle maniac, thoroughly felt up by an enthusiastic snorkeling instructor, and tackled by a boatman during a turtle watching expedition. After the third incident, I decided it was time to move on; time to get back to the serious business of travelling.
Despite my problems, I was reluctant to leave CoCo Huts. It was all very easy and relaxing and I loathed returning to the polluted chaos of the mainland. I prolonged my stay by signing up for a 4pm ferry so that I would have the day at the beach and still be in Kota Bharu for the famed night market. Too bad I hadn't consulted a calendar (or a decent guidebook); it was Friday and the market was closed. Kota Bharu didn't improve the second time around and I decided to get out of there as fast as I could.
For reasons unknown, I headed to the same crummy guesthouse I stayed in the first time I got stuck in Kota Bharu, and ended up getting a pretty good deal - a bed in an empty dorm for just 8RMB.
I went back to the bus station to get some interesting food from the stalls there, but shortly before 6pm (a few minutes after I arrived), a man walked through the area with a blaring alarm which caused all the vendors to put covers over their wares and leave (for prayer, I assume). A few hours later, the stalls were again open for business
"Day 10: Jungle Train Bungle"
I got up insanely early in order to catch my 5:25am jungle train from KB to Gemas. I had prearranged for a taxi to pick me up at 4:30 and I got to the station in plenty of time, and noticed that there were quite a few backpackers on the same train. I think we all had the same guidebook. Certainly, we all had the same look of disappointment when, 14 hours later, after a hot, boring, uncomfortable journey through a very green but very nondescript jungle, we arrived at the tiny town of Gemas. I believe it has 2 hotels and 4 restaurants and, for reasons known only to the Malaysian railway commissioner, the train ends here and travellers going on to Singapore by train get trapped in Gemas from 7pm to 2am, and travellers like myself who are going on to Melaka by bus get trapped in Gemas for the whole stinking night. I'm certain it's a conspiracy. And that nasty guidebook's in on it.
"Day 11 - 14 : Melaka"
Itching to get out of Gemas and on to more interesting things, at 7:30am I started on a series of buses, arriving in Melaka around 10am. I was inexpressibly miserable and couldn't seem to find a taxi at the station - there were taxis but none would take me. I started walking and ended up at a super swank hotel where I had someone call me a cab (and discovered if I had just walked in the opposite direction I could have reached the historical district on foot). I got dropped off at a guesthouse recommended by my guidebook, and this time the thing payed off: the Traveler's Lodge in Melaka was a fabulous guesthouse and I was happy to extend my stay there for a couple of nights.
I was an absolute tourist in Melaka. The food was good (I especially liked the convenience and variety of the massive food court in the Parade shopping mall just behind my guesthouse), the people were friendly and with one very big exception*, I didn't have any problems. Of the cities I'd seen in Malaysia, Melaka was by far the cleanest, least polluted, and least threatening.
My first day, I went sightseeing:
The Independence Museum, which didn't have many displays but was chock-full of info on the convoluted history of the colonization of Malaysia by various foreign powers, English, Dutch, Portugese, Japanese...
...the beautiful Sultanate Mansion which was reconstructed accurately using no nails...
...the remains of A'Famosa Portugese fortress - only the Porta de Santiago, the gate, really remains...
...the Stadthys, the Dutch parliament buildings, which were under renovation...
...the romantic remains of St. Paul's Church...
...and I still had time to spend a happy afternoon wandering through the antique stores and clothing boutiques in Jonker Street...
Though I did have one problem. Really want to know? I was walking around a popular tourist shopping area - Jonker Street - and I was sure a car was following me. I paused a couple of times to make sure and then manuevered so I could get a look at the driver. I got a beter look than I had bargained for; he was full-out masturbating. As Daria says, it's a sick, sad world.
The next day was a museum day: the People's Museum was closed for renovations, but the small Islamic Museum was open and interesting, and I got a private tour of the Baba Nyonya Heritage museum by a surly yet informative guide. The house is actually 3 houses joined together to provide for an extended family. It is full of ornate detailing and furnishings, beautiful embroidered wall hangings, and a pretty funky security system - much more interesting than the Feng Shui mansion in Georgetown.
On the aptly-named Harmony Street I visited a very unwelcoming mosque, a very vibrant and ornate Chinese temple (the Chen Hoon Teng), and a Buddhist Association's headquarters.
And I took a very worthwhile boat tour down Melaka's river. We cruised past lots of big lizards and fish that could slither up on land (!) and our guide pointed out all the locations used in the movie Entrapment (which I've never seen). We also went past some traditional Malay houses which was as close as I got to them as my guidebook warned against women visiting that area - even in large groups they often get harrassed.
My most adventurous excursion in Melaka was definitely a mountain biking expedition. It was billed as being a relaxing 3 hours taking tourists to a small off-the-beaten-track Malay village, but it turned into an all-day ordeal to get to a very large and beautiful (and totally deserted) fresh water lake. Too bad I didn't have my swimsuit.
But I did really enjoy watching the workers harvest palm oil ...
and seeing our guide tap a gum tree.
Alias also brought us to his family's home where we were treated to a tour through the many herbs and fruits grown on their property. We saw all kinds of vegetation, including the spiky little rambutan,
yummy mangosteens (my favorite),
the super stinky (and warm and mushy) durian,
and even the common banana.
"Day 14: A Day in KL"
Because of the unexpected length of my bike trip, I ended up spending another night in Melaka, leaving me only one day of sightseeing in Kuala Lumpur before my flight to Ireland. I tried to make the most of it by getting an early bus, checking immediately into the excellent Pudu Hostel acrosee from the bus station in Kuala Lumpur, and heading directly to the Batu Caves.
The caves were a worthwhile tourist trap, and I was captivated by the (admitedly stinky) monkeys, even though one rather daring fellow stole my whole bag of peanuts before I'd even made it up the steps!
And of course there was the mega-monkey-man.
"Day 15: Onward"
And then, two weeks after my arrival, it was time to leave. I'd had more than a few bad experiences, but that isn't to say that I didn't have a good time. I would go back to Malaysia, though probably not alone, and I'd definitely have a different itinerary. But for now, I was off to Ireland.