I began my journey in Pulau Penang <alaysia after taking a succession of mini-vans from Krabi. I left at 11am, but after waiting in long immigration lines and whatnot, I didn’t arrive in Georgetown (the city on Penang) until 9:30 that evening. I didn’t have anywhere to stay (I’ve stopped booking stuff in advance unless I’m arriving somewhere really late at night. I now prefer to just rock up and look around), but luckily the guest house someone had recommended to be had a room. Well, I suppose you could call it a room. Essentially, I was in a big room where the beds were separated by flimsy plastic wall things and doors to make single rooms- no window or anything. It had a fan but it was absolutely stifling in there! Still it was $6 a night, sooo…
The next morning I was pretty tired from a restless, sweaty night in my little cell, but I roused myself for a day of sightseeing. Georgetown is a really nice little place, and I went to the Penang museum (entry free approx. 33 cents) where I learned loads about the history of the area (settled by the Brits, you know, that old story). Basically a guy called Francis Light was the man back in 17 hundred and something, and you can’t turn a corner in Georgetown without running into something related to him. I then went to Fort Cornwallis (I mean, I gotta have some fort action pretty much everywhere I go now) and wandered around learning about how ol’ Francis kept things under control from there. Next I went for a walk through Little India (heaven!) and then down Armenian Street, which in addition to representing (surprise) Penang’s Armenian bit of history, also features some lovely temples.
I had a lovely day out with myself, seeing as I hadn’t actually been alone for a while. People ask me a lot what it’s like to travel alone and honestly, I’m rarely alone! It can be a bit boring on long bus journeys and things, but otherwise one has to try fairly hard NOT to meet people!
Anyway, that evening I went down the road from my hostel for dinner, where a local guy decided to sit down and chat to me. I’m always happy to meet locals and get the lay of the land, but this guy’s opening line was, “Wow, you look really tired,” so he sort of put me off! (Plus it was true, I was, and wasn’t reeeeeally in the mood for a chinwag!)
The following morning I set out for a hike up Penang Hill, which years ago was a sort of holiday retreat for wealthy Georgetonians. At the bottom of the hill are the botanical gardens, and I always like me a pretty flower or two. I asked a man there where I would start the hike up the hill and he laughed at me. “No no,” he said. “You should take a car.” “No no,” said I, “I want to walk.” “But it’s FIVE KILOMETRES!!!!” he said, incredulous. “Yep, I know, no problem.” He laughed again, but did eventually, in a state of disbelief, show me the way!
So, I set off. Aaaah, yes, I see the point about the car. It was RIDICULOUSLY steep and it was a VERY hot day! I was about three minutes in when I started to think, uuuuggghhhhhh! But I soldiered on, both desperate and absolutely dreading to see the mile markers that popped up every so often. I was just thinking that I MUST have walked a kilometre by now, when I came across the little blue ‘0.4’ marker. Ack! But still I kept going. After a bit, I did actually really start to enjoy myself- it was very quiet and there was beautiful forest and/or jungle around me, plus it felt good to be getting some exercise (MIGHT have gained a travel pound or two or five- let’s not talk about it).
However, just as I was getting into a rhythm, I heard a sound from behind me and was blown away to see a local man, probably about 300 years old, positively SPRINTING up this massive hill! “Hello!” he said, cheerily. I huffed and puffed something in response and watched him continue on up. A little while later, I passed another older man sitting taking a break. “You go to top?” he asked, and I responded in the affirmative. “Ah, still long way to go!” Yes yes, thank you I know! About fifteen minutes later, however, I turned around to see the same guy had caught up with me! What is WITH these people?! We started chatting about where I’m from and how I’m enjoying Malaysia and whatnot, and he told me he does this walk up the hill three times a week. “I have to stay strong,” he said, “I’m dying.” Excuse-moi? Yes, the poor man has a kidney disease and is on dialysis half the time, but was absolutely (pardonnez le Francais) kicking my ass on this hill! I resolved to get in shape sharpish the moment I get home.
I parted ways with this lovely gentleman about halfway up when he stopped to rest again, and I kept on trucking until I got to the top. Phew! It actually only took me about two hours in the end (Lonely Planet said three so HA!), and I treated myself to a snack and an ice-cream at the top as I took in the lovely views of the island and looked around a temple. I then caught a lift down the hill with a couple from Kuwait on their honeymoon, and was chatting with the wife in the backseat in her full burqa, face covered and everything. I saw a lot of this in Egypt (Malaysia is also predominantly Muslim), but it was the first time I’d actually had a conversation with someone, face-to-face, yet had no clue what she looked like!
Once back at the hostel, I booked a trip leaving the next morning for the Perhentian islands, and was up at 5am for the bus. I had been warned that the weather might be bad as the monsoon was coming, but I was determined to check the islands out as I’d heard amazing things about them on my travels. After a four-hour bus ride and 35 minute speedboat ride, I arrived on Pulau Perhentian Kecil…and it was INCREDIBLE! The islands (two of them)are jungle islands surrounded by crystal clear bright blue water. The sun was out and there wasn’t a drop of monsoon in sight!
When the boat pulled up to the beach I waded through the surf with my luggage, and dumped my bag on the burning hot sand next to a girl sunbathing and asked if she’d watch it while I went to find a bed. I ended up finding a hostel dorm bed for $6 a night or so and booked in there. Once settled, I was into my bathing suit in a flash and out to the beach, where I napped and soaked up rays for the rest of the day.
The following day I met some fellow backpackers, and learned that the island was indeed shutting down for the monsoon season. It was actually a great time to be there though- the weather was still good and it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it can be in high season, when apparently people sleep on the beach because there’s no accommodation. In the afternoon I went out with a new Canadian friend, Andrew, on a little snorkeling trip where we swam around with sharks (just little ones!), giant sea turtles and stringrays. Very cool. Once back on the beach we met up with a few more folks and walked over together to the west side of the island to watch the sunset, eat dinner, grab some drinks and smoke some hookah! I ended up meeting a lovely girl from Holland, Mel, whose roommate was leaving the next day, so she wondered if I’d like to move into his spot in their hotel room. It was only a few more Ringgits a night to do that- plus we had our own bathroom- so I agreed to move in in the morning, and then spent the day beaching it!
The next day, things were really starting to shut down- half the restaurants on the island were closed so we were running out of places to eat- but there was still a good crew about. When Mel was done with her diving course for the day, we went for a little hike around the island and found some even more gorgeous beaches, totally deserted! In the evening we went to dinner with two crazy Austrian guys also staying at our hotel, and then to the ‘end of season’ party at one of the beach bars. We had planned to throw our own Full Moon party the following evening, but we all ended up being too wiped to do anything! The full moon was incredible though- it lit up the whole island like it was daytime. As I’ve always lived in our near cities, I don’t think I’ve really ever seen that before- beautiful.(Also, I have to say that I was much happier to be chilling on the Perhentians for the full moon than downing buckets in Thailand!)
After five nights on the island (I was only going to stay two or three, it’s that sort of place!), Mel and I left together for Kuala Lumpur where we would room together again for three nights. It was really nice to have a travel buddy on the nine-hour bus ride, plus she had been to KL before so took me straight to a really funky guest house where we split a room. Our first evening in KL we went shopping (me window, Mel actual) for counterfeit sunglasses and whatnot, then had the little fish eat our feet, followed by a visit to the local Reggae Bar (Southeast Asians looooove reggae for some reason- have seriously been to a bar called ‘Reggae Bar’ in every SE Asian country!) where we met some fellow travelers and even ran into a friend from the Perhentians- who used to work with a woman that I used to work with in San Francisco. Small world!
The next day Mel wanted to continue shopping for gifts, so I happily joined her for a wander around some of the massive shopping centers in downtown KL. I mean, these places were unreal- absolutely GIGANTIC. Some were 10 stories high, just jam-packed with shops. One even housed a full theme park. They were also all chock-a-block with people. I guess there’s not much to do in KL! Still, it was nice to look around and window shop, given my teeny tiny budget. (‘Oh, really Susie?’ I hear you- or my conscience- say…’What about the sandals, watch and two pairs of sunglasses you bought?’ Oh, er, well, those were so cheap it doesn’t count, or, something…)
On our last day in KL we did some more window shopping (for real, this time!) and in the evening went to the see the Petronas towers- those huge twin structures connected by a sky bridge. They look fantastic all lit up at night, and Mel and I got some good snaps before heading back to the hostel for bed.
The following morning Mel left early for China (still miss you girl- had so much fun!), and I got up later to catch the bus to Melaka. It’s only a two-hour ride so I got there in the mid-afternoon, found somewhere to sleep and had a rest, grabbed some dinner and then went to listen to a live cover band in a local bar. There I met Robin and John, two buddies from England travelling around Malaysia together for a couple of weeks. After a couple of beers with them, we made plans to go sightseeing the next day and I was to meet them at about 10 in the morning.
Melaka is a lovely little city- very easy to walk around with lots of cute little streets and shops. It’s had a long history of being ruled by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the Brits, then the Dutch again, etc. There’s a fort (phew!) and a lovely old church on top of a hill with great views, but what was really good fun was a visit to the ‘beauty museum’ which we stumbled across. It’s basically a detailed look at fashion and various beauty rituals from around the world: the corset, tattoos, those massive African lip plates, body piercing, etc. Very very interesting! We also went for a mosey along the river, where some university students were doing a canoe relay for 100 hours to break the record currently in the Malaysian Book of Records! We hollered at them (nicely!) for a while to cheer them on, and then sat down for a rest and a nutritious lunch of Pringles and fruit. The boys also wanted to stop for a cendol, a local treat of ice-cream, noodles, beans, shaved ice, green stuff, pink stuff, what-the-hell-is-that stuff…I wasn’t really a fan, but Robin and John loved these things! After that I persuaded them that they HAD to try to fish foot-eating thing, so I dragged them to a local spa. And yep, they loved it, plus I got to do it for the third time. Such fun!
In the evening we met back up for dinner at one of Melaka’s most famous restaurants, Capitol Satay. While waiting for a table we picked up another English guy and two English girls and we all sat together. Everyone sits around a metal table that has a big vat of burning hot oil and other stuff (it honestly looked like they put coffee grounds, washing powder and Ovaltine in there). Everyone chooses things on sticks to cook in it- it’s essentially Malaysian fondue! It was really good fun cooking everything up and then trying to figure out what I was actually eating as nothing was labeled. At the end, the waitress counts everyone skewers and you pay for as many as you had. I was stuffed for about $5! The new and improved gang then walked back to our hostel for some beers (purchased from the fridge in the living room of a 900-year-old Chinese man in his underwear- brilliant!) and to hang out with a group of crazy German travelers and swap wild SE Asian travel stories.
The following day I was back on my lonesome, but had a lovely day doing a little gift shopping and visiting some other sites. I popped into the Heeren House, an old Dutch shop/home that’s been renovated to look as it would have 200 years ago. I was the only visitor, and after a look around sat down with the gentleman who runs it- Colin. He must be about 70, has lived in Melaka his whole life and is an absolute history buff. I essentially got an hour-long, one-on-one history lesson from him. It was fantastic and I learned a ton.
In the evening I went with a girl from my hostel, Saima, to Jonker Street, just parallel to where we were staying. Every Thursday and Friday the street becomes a night market- all the stores bring goods out onto the streets and food hawkers set up lots of stalls of yummy stuff. We had a wander and Saima bought some gifts for her family, and after a snack of tornado potatoes (aaaamazing- basically a potato is sliced into a coil, pulled down a skewer and fried. YUM) we watched the famous ninja ‘coconut man’ break open a solid coconut with his index finger! And that was one crooked and messed up finger, lemme tell you! After that spectacle we wandered some more, ate some more and generally rambled about before heading back to our hostel. Saima was headed home to England after nine months of travelling, and I was bound for Singapore the next day, where I got an amazing break from this backpacking life!