East Coast to Penang to Thailand 7-17 April 2008

 Kelantan is an extremely traditional state, Malay culture at its most pure, undiluted by outside influence remains. It is a poor state compared with the west of the country, rice being the major source of revenue but tobacco growing and fishing are also in evidence. There were some pleasant little beaches as you drive up the coast,  though there was unfortunately quite a bit of litter around. We stopped at a little roadside stall for our roti canai –like a pancake you dip in curry sauce – sounds a bit bizarre for breakfast but we’re now both very much addicted.

As this is very much the Muslim heartland I thought I was seeing things when I spotted an enormous Buddha. Amazingly buried away in the countryside was the Wat Phothikyan Chinese Buddhist temple, with a huge dragon around it (598 metres) and an immense Buddha over 100 metres dwarfing it. It was an unbelievably hot day and a teams of tilers were working hard tiling  the statue. This work has been ongoing since 2002, and it looks like there are still a few years work ahead of them. The tiles like the work, funded purely by donation, are about 1cm square. There was a monk there (with a lot of ink work up his arms!) giving blessings, and apparently new monks are ordained there, few of the signs were in English so that was all we could gather.

We drove on to arrive in Kota Bharu (KB) the capital city of Kelantan. This was a pleasant city fairly modern. Much of the architecture up here looks a bit Thai especially the tiled roofs, as we are very close to the border. We were advised not to cross here as there is some unrest, and anyway to get the 2 month extendable visa we have to go back to Penang. KB’s real centre piece is the big central markets. It is in a 3 storey octagonal building where food and vegetables are sold at the bottom and spices/ clothes and handicrafts higher up. It has traditionally been run solely by ladies and this remains pretty true though the odd man was in evidence. As the area was very much a fishing town the men were often away for long stretches at a time so the women started to grow and/or make their own produce to sell and the markets have remained a female domain. It was one of the most colourful markets we have ever been to.

We were a bit unsure where to camp for the night as it can be tricky in cities so we headed out to the beach to suss out a spot. The main beach is 10km out of the city and was originally called Pantai Cinta Berahi or beach of passionate love. Due to Muslim sensitivities this name was changed to Pantai Cahaya Berahi or Moonlight beach. Thankfully the same initials apply so it is universally called PCB. There were various handicrafts for sale mainly kites, but no good camping places as it was quite populated with shops and food stalls. Getting a bit desperate we asked at the fairly upmarket PCB resort and they said camping on their private beach was free, so that’s what we did!   The Malaysians seem to like camping and we have had no real problems finding suitable places, unlike Indonesia where they didn’t really seem to understand the concept.

The beach was full of kite flyers. Kites or wahs (named after the noise they make) are a big tradition up here. Once a year they have a big kite festival in July so sadly we’ll miss it. Th  gorgeously decorated hand made kites are often hung as ornaments. Another local custom is to hang ornate bird cages with song birds in them on long poles and sit back to listen. We kept seeing the poles and it took us ages to work out what they were for!

The next day we  spent an interesting afternoon at the cultural centre. This gave us a look at the various traditional activities from drum playing (again Andrew was brought into the audience participation - thankfully as drumming is a bit of a male preserve I escaped!) and a form of martial arts fighting. The really amazing thing I thought was gasing or top spinning. This is far from a child’s game here and looks incredibly dangerous! The tops which weigh 5 kilos are tightly wound in rope then they are flung out and the catcher (who seems to have a very dangerous job all without a mouth guard) balances them on a stick and places them on a stand. The winner is the one whose top is spinning longest –often over 2 hours. The ones we saw thrown remained  spinning in the 90 minutes we were there. The whole afternoon is free being government funded and was a really fascinating insight into the Malay culture. It was really nice to see so many young Malay people there enjoying learning the skills and  keeping them alive.

For our last night in KB we went to the night food markets and tried Ayam Percik a local delicacy. This was absolutely delicious it is marinated chicken barbequed and then covered in spicy coconut sauce. The food in Malaysia continues to be superb, definitely a foodies paradise. We would have liked to stay longer but as always time is pressing – we have to leave Malaysia by the 17th. So, we unpacked the jumpers (hard to imagine needing them in this heat) in readiness for the Cameron Highlands where we are doing a pit stop on the way through to Penang.

It was a fairly pleasant drive, though we had a bit of a fraught moment towards the end when we almost ran out of petrol. We tend to try and almost empty a tank so we can monitor our fuel consumption and usually there are plenty of signs warning you if you are about to enter a desert petrol wise but we got caught out and with the steep hills were chewing it up. We asked a tea worker and whilst he had little English we got the problem across and he directed us down a lane. We drove down a very bumpy track and wondered quite where we were going but emerged at a little shack which serviced the local orang asli or aboriginal people and sold absolutely everything which thankfully included petrol in plastic bottles,  so we were off again.

The main reason we were keen to return to the highlands was to go to the top of Gunung or Mount Brinchang at 2032 metres the highest point (by road) in the Peninsular. This is up a windy 7 km road and we hadn’t been able to attempt it before not having the car. On this trip we did drive it twice, even camping there one night and it was an interesting if very steep drive but we have to say the view which is supposed to be amazing remained a secret as you could hardly see a metre due to the fog! A bit disappointing but we’ll have to return another time. We also had a look at one of the Boh tea plantations we never made it to last time and back in town enjoyed a steam boat – again a rapid upturn in our green veggies quota. Last time without the car we stayed at Daniel’s backpackers which was great with a lovely real fire to sit around in the evening. They very kindly let us have hot showers in the evening prior to going to camp and we were really grateful. We would recommend it as a good central  friendly spot to stay in Tanah Rata.

So, we drove back to Penang for the last time. We arrived at the Thai embassy on Thursday afternoon but just missed the cut off for handing in our visa application which was a pain as there is a 2 day turnaround so we were hoping to get our visas back by Friday. Worse was to follow when we got there bright and early Friday morning we discovered  Monday is a holiday for the Thai water festival and so we can’t collect our visas until Tuesday. This is a double whampee of disappointment as we were really hoping to witness the water festival in Thailand, as it is supposed to be great fun. We do seem destined on this trip to be stuck  waiting in Penang  but there are definitely worse place. We are camping out at the fishing village of Teluk Bahang where we stayed previously. Planning to have a  relax at the beach for the next couple of days and revisit a couple of our favourite culinary haunts in Penang. We will (hopefully!) pick up our visas on Tuesday and pass through the last 2 states of Kedah and Perlis before crossing the border into Thailand next Thursday the 17th April.  

This is second time lucky for this bit of the web diary..on Sunday 20th April our laptop was stolen from our car in Songkhla Thailand. We lost my most recent web diary and a lot of pictures we never got around to backing up ..you could weep! It is insured but in other terms it was priceless and we’re both gutted.

 What I had been about to say was (roughly!) …so much for a rest! On Saturday night I went for a quick swim at our beachside campsite, and was stung on the arm by the jellyfish from hell!  It was incredibly painful and Andrew rushed me to hospital which was a major drama as there was a huge Indian festival going on so we had to have a police escort. The next day I was sick and dizzy so back to hospital .. a week on I am only just starting to feel better ..not a good experience! My immune system also took a real hammering and I got bad flu ..which I then passed onto Andrew ..all in all we were a bit sore and battered for our last few days in Malaysia!

On a brighter note we got to know a fellow “overlander” Tony which was a great experience. Tony, a German is 83 years young and has been traveling in his van for over  7 years. He has been everywhere – Africa, China., Russia and was a real source of information and inspiration. We had some great pictures of Tony and his van which were to grace this page ..and be sent on to his brother in Munich..all gone now! 

 So, for a couple of days we relaxed and hung out on the beach prior to passing through Kedah and Perlis. Both of these states were pretty though I was still a bit under the weather really and didn’t feel up to much.  We camped one night up Gunung or Mount Jerai in Kedah, which was 1200 metres above sea level and saw a really nice sunrise, again you’ll have to take my word!   We spent the last couple of nights in the Perlis national park. This was very scenic lots of soaring limestone cliffs and jungle, and is near one of the border entry points to Thailand so our campsite area was patrolled by border guards. Bizarrely they had a “night uniform” which consisted of blue camouflage style pajamas …these were amazing and if there was one picture we could get back from those lost pictorial evidence of these would be it for me!!!

 The next morning we back tracked to Kedah to pass through the largest border, Bukit Kayu Hitam which has a huge duty free shopping centre in the no man’s land between the 2 countries. So, on Thursday 17th April at 6pm we made our first land border crossing into Sadao in the Southern gulf of Thailand. Sadly no pictorial evidence remains of this milestone!