Penang to Kuala lumpur 19 January to 3 February 2008
Arriving in Malaysia felt very laid back and civilized after Indonesia, no touts jumped on you as you left the ferry, and no “Hello Misters” whatsoever! We had been given the name of a good cheap guesthouse by people we’d met in Medan (in Love Lane backpackers’ central!) but that and the next few we tried were full, mainly due to a big Hindu festival coming soon (of which more later) eventually we found a very lively but somewhat chaotic guesthouse. Chaotic because until the week before we subsequently found out it had been a shipping agency and the re-construction to guesthouse was going on around us so there were builders everywhere. It was very friendly though and we met lots of other travellers, Penang being a bit of a clearing house for people passing to or from Thailand. It looks like Malaysia will be a breeze after Indonesia everyone speaks English and the roads are very good. The food in Penang is a big hit too! Georgetown is extremely culturally diverse with China town and little India feeling like stepping into those countries and the different foods were a riot to the senses after Indonesia which (other than the big cities) can be a bit samey …you can only face so many Nasi Gorgengs. We had a beautiful tandoori chicken in little India that first night, and we felt it was the best thing we’d eaten in ages.
We had a look round town for the next couple of days and saw the Komtar tower, which stands at 332 metres and has a lovely panoramic view over the city. We also saw the Penang Museum which was very interesting and beautifully renovated. A lot of the buildings from the old colonial days are well preserved particularly the district round the harbour waterfront which has some very grand old buildings. We also had a look round the Eastern Oriental hotel a beautiful old 19th century (1885) hotel a bit like Raffles (and apparently built by the same people, and also featuring in Somerset Maugham stories) which had been fully renovated 10 years ago with an incredible attention to detail. We would have loved to stay there but it was dramatically out of budget so we headed back to the construction site!
We also took in the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple a Buddhist temple fully renovated by Chinese tradesmen, and to balance things the Kapitan King Mosque, and the Sri Mariamman Hindu temple. The area’s religious and cultural diversity is very apparent and it is nice that everyone seems to rub along ok and all festivals are celebrated. When we got there the town was gearing up for the Hindu festival of Thaipusam which kicked off that Wednesday, so that morning we caught the bus up to the Waterfall temple where the action takes place.
I have to say this was one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed. The festival which takes place once a year (and has apparently been banned in India) is to honour Lord Subramanium with acts of quite amazing masochism. The devotees march in intense heat up to the waterfall temple carrying Kavadis which are heavy metal frames decorated with peacock feathers fruit and flowers. These are hung off their bodies by metal spikes and hooks driven into their flesh. Others pierce their cheeks and tongues with skewers or walk on scandals with nails. As they walk along some have fish hooks in their backs which are being pulled back as they walk and they dance to the drum beat whilst the crowd chant and dance. It is really quite surreal especially in the intense temperatures and despite having their feet hosed down some of the devotees were looking very much worse for wear! Andrew got dragged into the dancing as captured on film but thankfully no one tried to pierce anything!
I was a bit concerned particularly about some of the older guys but was told that they get in a trance prior to piercing and afterwards when the hooks are pulled out no marks are left. Seems unbelievable but I have to say we saw no evidence of blood or horrific wounds the next day. Not sure if we’ll ever go again but a hell of an experience! And free vegetarian food thrown in for anyone who still had any appetite!
As they were having trouble finding the right sized container for our car in Medan it looked likely that we would be hanging here for a few more days so we took the bus out to Penang National Park, which is apparently the smallest in the world. This is about an hour out of Georgetown, Batu Ferringhi is the main tourist resort in the area but we stayed in Teluk Bahang a small Malay fishing village near the national park, which was a lot cheaper as we stayed in a small local guesthouse. The beaches around weren’t stunning (and everyone has told us the beaches here won’t be a patch on either Indonesia or Thailand) but it is a nice relaxing spot with superb seafood. We had crab and oysters (the latter first time since we left Oz) which were delicious. We took a walk through the national park to the best beach in the area, Monkey beach. It was a pretty walk though a bit steep and the monkeys once they appeared were there in force ..I was very glad we had no food as they were a) quite large and b) surrounded us a bit scarily. The beach was lovely and we enjoyed a swim prior to hitching a ride back on a boat so we didn’t have to brave the monkeys again!
Whilst there we took the bus around the rest of Penang stopping at the butterfly farm. This is apparently the world’s only tropical live butterfly sanctuary. It also had scorpions lizards and snakes but the butterflies which were everywhere were magnificent. We visited both the tropical spice gardens, which were beautifully laid out and reflected Malysia's history as a provider of spices, and a tropical fruit farm where there was a delicious all you can eat buffet. We also took in the snake temple. This is a Buddhist temple which has several venomous Wagler’s pit vipers, which moved in immediately the temple was built in 1850, and have never been moved on. We had our picture taken not with one of these but with a safe old Python which seemed a bit of a cop out ….though I wasn’t going to insist!
As we were still awaiting the car we then jumped on a bus to Kuala Lumpur as we had a couple of things to do there. One was to meet up with Roy and Michelle a very nice couple from Brazil who are fellow “overlanders.” We had been trading emails for a while and as they have completed SE Asia we were keen to meet up prior to them leaving for India. It was great to meet them and they were a wealth of information, it seems China may be off the agenda as it is ludicrously expensive. As well as paying for a guide throughout your time there (and his or her food and accommodation) it is a minimum of $8,000 USD to enter with a car. Our options would be to do as Roy and Michelle have and drive back and ship from Malaysia to India, but we have also heard of a couple who managed to drive through Myanmar to India which is supposedly impossible, so we will look into that. I think the thing is you get such confusing stories for this whole area as it is not well documented. You may be told something is impossible but then someone will do it!! Anyway we will corner the Myanmar embassy in Thailand and see how we go. Interestingly Roy and Michelle had met several other overlanders and one in particular deserves a mention. This was a couple from France with 2 kids who, having never previously left France, sold up, brought a campervan and a large dog and have been on the road ever since, travelling through much of Asia , would love to meet them !
So, as the car is still in transit (hopefully it will arrive next week, dealing with Indonesia continues to be a challenge!) we are heading off tomorrow by bus to Lumut and from there by ferry to Pulau Pangkor an island off the coast noted for its great beaches. I have been sick for the last couple of days (bad cold) so I hope this will be a better venue for R & R than smoggy KL. So, on an early bus tomorrow and hopefully we will be able to report the arrival of the car in Malaysia soon!