Another day, another budget flight, this time from The Garden City to the Jewel of Kedah. Before my trip began I had planned as far as Singapore and decided to leave the rest of my vacation to the whimsy of the budget airline gods. I had considered bus journeys, but with the competitive nature of the Malaysian airline industry and the travel time I would save, flying seemed the logical choice. Singapore, at the very southern tip of peninsular Malaysia was a mere one hour and twenty minutes away from Langkawi in the north-west and I booked a last-minute flight. On arrival at the airport I took another impulse decision and hired a car for the 48 hours that I would be on the island.
My hire car was an abomination. A glorified go-cart called a Perodua Kancil. Langkawi is not a huge island, bearing in mind I would not be going on any cross-continent trips, I signed the paperwork and accepted my automobile fate. I headed off to find my hotel on the edges of Kuah, the island’s main town, and successfully found it a short time later. After ditching my bag I took my intrepid little car on a late afternoon beach trip to Pantai Tengah. South of the most developed beach, Pantai Cenang, Tengah is a finely sanded bay, uncrowded and fronted by unobtrusive beach chalets. After walking the length of the beach it was easy enough to pick out a quiet spot to catch some sun and watch the sunset slowly over the Andaman Sea. Back at the hotel I started walking into Kuah, but it was getting pretty late and most places were closing up. I stumbled across an outdoor Chinese place and had curried wild boar. I couldn’t help thinking of the bearded wild boar in the jungle at Bako with their suspicious fixed eyes. My guilt was short-lived though, the curry was delicious!
The following day I took the ‘car’ on a grand journey around the island. My first stop was the petrol station. As I pulled up at the pump I realised I had no idea where the lever that opended the petrol tank cover was. I shifted around the foot well, opened the bonnet and unlocked the boot before peering over the driver’s door window to see an increasingly impatient queue of locals. Shamefully, I wheeled the Kancil to the side for a more thorough search. I eventually found the lever next to the seat adjustment and sheepishly joined the back of the queue.
With my embarrassing petrol station encounter behind me and with the warm wind blowing through the car I headed to Tanjung Rhu on the north coast. I parked at the side of the road adjacent to the beginning of a long and empty beach. I got out and took a long walk along the edge of the shore-line. A security guard in a hut watched me walk past unconcerned and I skirted along the front of the plush resorts that border the east-end of the beach. After a good sunbathe, paddle etc… I walked back towards my car. The security guard was waving off a group of young people, they should have stuck to the shoreline, apparently all the beaches are public so they should have just ignored him, as long as they didn’t try to use the resort facilities they would have been fine. At the end of the beach is The Scarborough, the only visible touristy development, and even The Scarborough was pretty small. I grabbed a table and ordered some black pepper chicken and chips and enjoyed the ambient feeling of the small clean waves rolling upon the sands of the quiet beach.
Heading west now I came to Telaga Tunjuh. This famous combination of waterfalls and natural pools snakes up the side of a mountain. It is quite accessible and a little disappointing for that. Adjacent to the line of the waterfall is a narrow road and staircase and a controversial pipe-line that filters the fresh water away from the waterfall’s main source. This results in a trickle rather than a dramatic crashing crescendo. Above the main waterfall is a natural rock pool phenomena, but with the reduced waterfall some of the pools looked a little stale. This didn’t stop some over-excited Russians from crashing around and one of them from nearly slipping over the edge, behind the no-go zone. The beginnings of an inviting mountain path began by the pools, but I felt a little jaded by getting too much sun earlier in the day and I chilled out in the shade with some inquisitive monkeys eying my belongings. Compared to the waterfalls I’ve seen in the Philippines this didn’t even compare.
I drove around some more of the island looking for some secret spots but not finding anything too mind-blowing before deciding to head back to the beach at Pantai Tengah to enjoy the sunset. I stumbled across Eric and Veronique who I had now seen at three different places in Kuching and now on the beach at Langkawi. They were on the last few days of their trip and we exchanged e-mail addresses in case I’m ever in Toulouse. I skipped dinner, choosing just to buy some fresh fruit from the market as I had driven back quite late to the hotel. I made a late reservation for a guesthouse in Penang, George Town for tomorrow and got my head down.
The following day I checked out as late as possible before getting some brunch at a beachfront place on Pantai Censah. In all honesty Pantai Censah seemed just as nice as Pantai Tengah, just with a lot more options to dip in the shade for a beer, ice-cream or bit of food. I got in my Perodua Kancil for the last time. I felt a lot better about it now, it had grown on me a little, maybe more out of sympathy than enjoyment. It was the little car that could, it had taken me over 200km around the island and had barely caused me a problem. I even forgave it for hiding the petrol cap release lever. At the airport I handed the keys back to the company. Whilst I was waiting I watched a businessman leave arrivals and pick up a similar car from the company. The look on his face was priceless.
George Town is the capital of Penang State and lies on Penang Island. On arrival at the airport you realise the importance of Penang to the Malaysian economy. It is heavily developed and the streets are noticeably wide, busy and congested on the bus ride from the airport to George Town. In contrast to the apparent urbanisation around you, George Town is recognised as being a heritage centre by UNESCO, so on arrival it is a little hard to comprehend how and where this history is preserved.
My first task was to find my guesthouse. It was a little out of the centre and off one of the main arteries into the city. I walked down the road in the afternoon heat but as soon as I found the side road that led to my guesthouse the noise disappeared and an altogether more colonial atmosphere was presented to me. Old, lightly constructed and whitewashed houses lined a quiet and unassuming street. I headed to number 12 Penang Old House only to discover the door locked. I rung the bell and shouted through the open window. No one came. Eventually a sleepy old Japanese lady stumbled through the open living area and told me to go to number 8 where the owner lived. At number 8 a suspicious Russian woman opened the door and said the manager wasn’t there and asked me to wait outside as she was a guest and didn’t know me. Fortunately, her kinder husband gave me his phone a few minutes later and I called the number taped to the door. The owner then came out of the office just behind them to let me in…
The kind, but elusive, owner let me into number 12 and gave me my keys. The inside was just as refreshing as the outside. With the day drifting away I grabbed my camera and took a leisurely walk back to the city centre and towards the heritage area. I decided just to skim the top of it, grab some dinner and leave the main areas to explore the next day. On the edge of the UNESCO heritage area the buildings changed in style, a mixture of British colonial architecture from the 19th century and Chinese-Straits architecture ranging from elaborate mansions and more traditional terracotta roofed dwellings. Craving Indian food I was seeking out a Nasi Kandar joint and found the Line Clear Nasi Kandar restaurant on a hidden side street. Stuffed with fragrant rice, assorted curries and iced-sweet tea I took my swollen stomach for a walk down Love Lane and checked out the Unique Penang Art Gallery and some of the wrought iron street art that depicts typical historical scenes associated with the individual streets.
Breakfast was served to me by a kindly trio of George Town’s finest at the street cafe adjacent to the row of guesthouses and small businesses the owner had developed. I walked to the massive bus station, where a grafting taxi driver told me there were no buses, despite there being about ten in clear sight, (I was just checking the schedule for the airport tomorrow) before heading to the far east of George Town and the waters that separated the main land from the island. I had a token tourist guide map in my pocket and I aimed to not a miss a single thing marked on it.
My morning began on the clan jetties, a series of Chinese settlements built on the waterfront on stilts. The jetties housed competing clans who used them to land and service boats that carried trade items. Some of the jetties still operate to a minor extent and others serve as tourist enticing sites or simply as homes for the Chinese descendants. One of the jetties had burnt down and with the tide out the remaining destruction lingered almost skeletal like in the engulfing mud flats.
From the jetties I ventured inland and checked out some of the street art by a Lithuanian man who had taken a light-hearted approach to warming some of the more aged avenues. Ernest Zachaveric, ear-marked as a bit of a Malaysian based Banksy, has taken his work to the streets of George Town as well as other major metropolises of Malaysia. A mixture of interactive, tourist friendly art, ready for Joe tourist to pose with is broken up with slightly darker reflections of the Asian (World?) obsession with designer goods and corporations and their conflict with crime/poverty/greed and jealousy. I joined the hunt for his work and took a few pictures as well as visiting his large semi-outdoor exhibition ‘Art is rubbish is art.’ much later in the afternoon. I even encountered a copy-cat artist. With tourists flocking to search for his work you could see the financial benefits for local businesses to have a piece of ‘his’ art on their walls! You can see more of his work here, worth a look.
Some of the most noteworthy sites that I wandered into were the ornate, peaceful and storytelling walls of Khoo Kongsi, a Chinese Temple and the Pinang (local spelling) Pernakan Mansion a 19th century home to a Chinese Hakaka tin miner and secret society leader called Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee. Inside it has been fully restored and will satisfy anyone interested in a little history of the dynamics of the local area. The combination of cultures that came together in this area is reflected in the English flagstones, carved Chinese wooden panels and Scottish iron works within. While I was there a kind man gave me a chilled orange, bonus.
After a late lunch of nasi kandar, this time at the even more delicious Hameediyah restaurant, I took to the streets again. After some more temples, a walk round Little India and the British colonial administrative buildings by the esplanade and Fort Cornwallis, I headed to the Camera Museum. This converted town house has a great collection of cameras and documents the invention and evolution of the camera from the camera obscura right through to modern digital cameras. There are several interactive experiences that keep you entertained and unlike most museums that drag on forever and bore you to tears this was short sweet and interesting. Downstairs you can look at some of the creative works of local photographers and waste a few ringgits in the shop/cafe. My day culminated with the trip to the artist’s exhibition that I wrote about earlier, a much-needed but incredibly abusive Thai massage and my new favourite food…nasi kandar.
My winter holiday ended in Kuala Lumpur visiting Omar, a friend from my last few years living in Manchester. Omar and his wife Claire were kind enough to invite me to stay at their home and also to attend a delicious home-cooked dinner party on Saturday night with some of Claire’s colleagues. Before my final night at the dinner party, Omar and I took a drive on KL’s lawless roads to the Petronas Towers before engaging in some catch up drinks at the famous/infamous Changkat Bukit Bintang area, a strip of numerous bars filled with numerous expat workers and city residents. We had already had some good Indian food in the afternoon after I had arrived and we topped this up at a busy roti canai restaurant to soak up some of the beer.
The next morning we had a round of golf on a municipal course out of the city. With a borrowed glove from the ‘pro’ at Guthrie Golf Academy and sharing Omar’s clubs, (very improper golf etiquette) it was soon evident my old touch was missing around the edges of the greens but my irons were on killer form. I couldn’t help but miss the affordable English courses back home that are in great contrast to the extreme elitism of the Korean golfing scene. Like riding a bike my well spent youth on the golf courses of Devon showed and I kept my score reasonably respectable and comfortably beat my host!
My stay in KL and my holiday culminated with a finely cooked traditional home cooked meal courtesy of Claire and some revealing conversations about Malaysian law practices with her lawyer friends. An extended game of Articulate prolonged the consumption of alcohol and I was grateful for Omar giving me a crack-of-dawn lift to the airport, saving me a sleep-deprived and alcohol-fueled search for a taxi.
All considered, my two-week trip in Malaysia and Singapore was packed with amazing and diverse memories; which is fitting for such an amazing and diverse country. I experienced the wilds and dangers of the jungle, the simple lives of people in Borneo, the hustle and noise of KL, the clean city living of Singapore, the beaches and tranquility of Langkawi and the historical development of Malaysia in the streets of George Town. I didn’t really plan much but it all came together and I think this is more due to the welcoming and kind nature of the environment and the people who live in it, rather than my own luck. I will happily return and hope one day to explore some areas like the Cameron Highlands, Sabah and some of the currently monsoon afflicted tropical islands off the east coast that I couldn’t find the time to fit in. Until next time, Malaysia!