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Trip to Penang

2008 May 18
by rob

May 10, 2008

I was so excited! My last few days in Thailand were a drag and I was eager to move on to my next country, Malaysia. I took my time in the morning going for breakfast and packing. I made it to the bus station around 10 AM and caught a local bus south to the southernmost large city in Thailand, Hat Yai. The bus ride was longer than I would have liked (almost 4 hours — most of it slogging through traffic in Hat Yai), but at least it was cheap – 100 baht (CA$3). As usual, I was the only foreigner on the bus. I watched the locals get on and off the bus the whole way down. At one point a monk in a saffron-orange coloured robe sat beside me. He commented on my iPod. I let him listen to some music. He says he enjoyed listening to the Arcade Fire.

I got to Hat Yai after 2 PM. I was beginning to feel antsy about getting to Malaysia. I wanted to go to the city of Georgetown on the island of Penang, but I felt that if I continued taking local buses the rest of the day, including the border crossing, and the continued picking up and dropping off of local, I might not even make it that night, or would get there super late and have a difficult time finding a place to stay. I decided to find a minivan straight from Hat Yai to Georgetown. As soon as I stepped off my bus, as usual, a tout asked me where I was going. I decided to play along and let him lead me to a travel agency that books minivans to various destinations. The fare was 390 baht (CA$13) and it would take 4.5 hours to get there. Since the van was supposed to leave at 3:30 PM it seemed like a fair deal and I booked it.

I had the option to book a minivan directly from Trang to Georgetown. It would have cost me 500 baht. By taking a local bus to Hat Yai then taking a minivan the rest of the way, I managed to save 10 baht (CA$0.30). Woopity doo!

I still had a fistful of baht leftover. I decided to hit up 7-11 and the food vendors to pick up a Cornetto (so much better than Drumsticks back in Canada), more drinking water, and various snacks for the road.

Sadly, my minivan was half an hour late. Happily, it was filled with interesting people to talk to. Although it was cool to play music on my iPod for a random Thai monk, it is also good to enjoy a ride with fellow backpackers after being relatively isolated for a few days. Other than random chance encounters, I have a difficult time relating and getting to know the locals during my travels. I’m much more confident associating with my fellow travels and I’m usually in better spirits when I am.

The border crossing took a while but was relatively hassle free. The Thai border card demanded 10 baht from each person exiting the country as an “overtime fee”. True, it was like 6 PM on a Saturday night, but it still felt like one of the lame bribes that people of authority in Southeast Asia like to collect. Lame.

Immediately, I could feel a different vibe in this country. Some of the backpackers in my van were from England and were stunned at “how much England” the place looked as we drove on. We were driving on a proper motorway and didn’t see the common shacks we saw everywhere in the rest of Southeast Asia. On the road, I snacked on my dried Jack Fruit chips.

We arrived in Penang at about 8 PM. At first, it didn’t seem THAT late. However, Malaysia is one hour ahead of Thailand! It was actually 9 PM. Oh.

I decided to split a room with an American girl from the minivan, Brandy. She was taking the ferry to the Indonesian island of Sumatra in the morning and was only staying one night in Malaysia. We walked around Chinatown for a bit and rejected a few grotty guesthouses before settling on the same guesthouse that the minivan dropped us off in front of, the Banana Guesthouse. The travel agencies usually receive commisions when they drop off travelers in front of specific guesthouses. These guesthouses are usually worth avoiding, but the Banana seemed okay so we stayed there.

Sadly, I had too many Jack Fruit chips and ruined my dinner. I wasn’t even close to hungry, even at 10 PM. Brandy and I sat at a streetside Indian restaurant. I enjoyed a banana lassi while she had curry.

Penang was hot and we only got a room with an inadequate fan. At least it was dirt cheap, 25 ringgit (CA$8), divided two ways. By this point, I think a combination of the heat and the feast of dried fruit was definitely making me feel wonky. I tossed and turned in bed and slept little.

May 11, 2008

In the morning Brandy had to leave. I decided to upgrade to a better room with air conditioner. It was definitely more expensive at 45 ringgit per night (CA$15/night), but I felt it was worth it. I should have known how important it was to have air conditioning.

The night before, we had exchanged money at a streetside money changer at an inferior rate. I only changed US$40 of bank notes. It was enough to live for a couple of days, but I would need to get more cash soon. It was Sunday, so none of the banks were open. I tried to use an ATM to withdraw cash, but the machine didn’t like my card and decided to keep it. Ack! I’d have to come back the next day to get my card back. I didn’t want to change any more of my US$ bank notes (saving them for emergencies), so I’d have to live off of my few ringgit for the day. I should be okay, but it was important to get my bank card back the next day!

I still felt tired and my stomach wasn’t feeling right, so I decided to really take it easy today. There were other travelers in my guesthouse, but I didn’t feel like associating with them that day. Instead, I did something that I hadn’t done in a long time. It was Sunday, so I decided to go to church. It was pretty rare to be in a city with a Catholic church on a Sunday in Southeast Asia, so I took the opportunity. I was finding it hard to fill up time lately, especially when traveling on my own. Sitting in a church seemed like a reasonable use of time.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that there would be a Catholic church in Georgetown. The city was founded by the British about 220 years ago and was a major hub in their trading empire for many years. There weren’t just Catholic churches here, but Anglican, Presbyterian, you name it. On top of that, there weren’t just Christian churches there, but Chinese Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, and Muslim mosques.

Mosque near my guesthouse in Georgetown

I knew that Malaysia was a multicultural mix of people, but it was stunning to see it in action. There were so many Indians, Chinese, Malaysians and people of European descent, too. It was so different from the other parts of Asia I had seen on this trip. Thailand was filled almost exclusively with Buddhist Thais. Laos had its Buddhist Laotians. Cambodia was filled with Buddhist Khmers. Yes, all three of those countries had their share of minority peoples, but they mostly lived in the hills in the jungles. Malaysia was a cosmopolitan melting pot of many peoples, and they all played major roles in the life of the nation.

After church, I spent most of the rest of the day resting in my air conditioned hotel room. I napped and played a lot of Puzzle Quest.

By the evening, I was feeling somewhat better so I ventured forth to find dinner. I read about a place with lots of Malaysian hawker stalls near the harbour. I wandered over there to sample some Malaysian food. I had a hard time ordering since I could read Malaysian and the English language menu was so limited. I ended up having this crazy fish with sweet and sour sauce with pineapple juice. It tasted good, but I don’t think I’d really consider it “Malaysian food”. Oh well.

While walking back to the guesthouse, I ended up walking behind these three girls. One of them was wearing a backpack that said “Europebound” on the back. That’s the name of a chain of stores in downtown Toronto! I asked the girl if she was from Toronto. She said she was, but lives in Ottawa now. Neat! Her name was Arden. The other two girls were Patricia and Julia from Bavaria in Germany. We ended up walking around together and went for tea on a sidewalk cafe. Arden was leaving in the morning, but Patricia and Julia and I agreed to meet in the morning for breakfast.

May 12, 2008

In the morning, I met the German girls for breakfast at their guesthouse. We had struck a deal the night before, I would give them my used copy of my Lonely Planet guidebook for Thailand and they’d buy me a couple of cups of tea. By that point, I only had 5 ringgit left (CA$1.60), so it was a fair trade! They also threw in a map of Kuala Lumpur and a couple of transit cards for the Kuala Lumpur mass rapid transit. Cool! We agreed to meet up again for dinner.

After breakfast, I went to the bank to get my bank card back. It was easy to do since I was prepared. Before leaving Canada I had made a photocopy of my bank card, health card, driver’s license, and birth certificate. When I showed the bank dude that photocopy of my bank card and driver’s license, then showed him the same driver’s license, he gave me my bank card without argument. I was so happy I had made that photocopy!

Nevertheless, I didn’t feel safe using my bank card to get money from ATMs again. I tried to sell some traveler’s cheques to the bank, but they didn’t accept them. They refered me to the street side money changers. I was surprised that banks wouldn’t accept traveler’s cheques but random money changers would.

I was feeling better than yesterday so I spent the afternoon sightseeing around Penang. I didn’t go to any of the “sights” or museums, but instead elected to wander around taking photographs. It’s way cheaper!

For lunch, I wandered into Little India and had a mountain of food on a banana leaf for only 4 ringgit (CA$1.30). I ate so much, I wasn’t really hungry again for like two days. I ate so much, that I felt ill afterwards. Why do I keep doing this to myself? Yes, I know I like to eat — espcially tasty stuffs. But lately I keep going overboard. My appetite isn’t what it used to be, so I guess I’m still getting used to being able to eat less? It’s hard to say.

I walked past the harbour. Georgetown is not what I expected. It’s a full blown tourist resort destination. There are lots of tall fancy hotels and condos. There was a huge cruise ship docked there with lots of tourists wandering around. It didn’t look like any part of Southeast Asia that I had already seen. I even wandered through an old British cemetary.

That night I met up with Julia and Patricia again and went for dinner at the same Indian place I had been at with Brandy two nights before. It was apparently recommended to them by some locals for their good tandoori chicken. I wasn’t really hungry (because of the massive lunch), so only had a paratha chopped up and mixed with chicken and egg. It tasted good, but I couldn’t finish it. I talked with Julia and Patricia for a few hours. Apparently they had cyberstalked my on Facebook earlier that day and laughed at my profile picture of me in the German restaurant in Siem Reap. They promised me that I could crash at their place if I ever went to Oktoberfest in Munich. Someday, I intend to hold them to their offer. Haha.

They had to catch an overnight bus that left at 9 PM and I had to wake up at 6:30 AM so I could start my journey to my next destination, too. I hugged them goodbye and turned in early.

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