"Arctracer" Letters

Penang, and Bus Tour of Malaysia Dec 2005

We left Port Klang on December 4 and meandered slowly up the coast to Penang, sailing only during the days and anchoring near shore every night. We had either light headwinds or no wind at all, and there were many periods of rain. We sailed whenever we could, but still spent considerable time motoring. We watched DVDs a few nights. We spent two nights anchored near Rimau Island, just south of Penang Island, and another two nights near the northwest corner of Penang Island at a National Park. Both of these anchorages had no houses ashore, were visited only by the ubiquitous local fishermen in small boats with outboard engines, and from the boat we watched White-bellied Sea Eagles, Long-tailed Macaques, a few kingfishers, a big monitor lizard, and an otter. We finally arrived at the new marina in Georgetown, Penang at noon on the 11th.

The British established a settlement in Penang in 1786, naming it Georgetown for King George III, and it became the key port of the British East India Company on the route between China and India. A fort was built and named for the British Governor of India, Lord Cornwallis, who had surrendered a few years earlier to end the American Revolution. The town still contains a mixture of Malaysians, Chinese, Indians, and Europeans. Penang Island is also a major tourist destination, with high-rise hotels and resorts especially along the northern beaches. In 1988 a 13.5 km bridge linked the mainland to the southern end of the island, and now there are many high-rise housing developments in that area. Georgetown still has many colonial-era buildings, and many of these are being restored. There are tourists of every sort here, and many restaurants, shops and attractions for us all to enjoy. The city marina opened just a few months ago, with excellent facilities built around and harmonizing with the old Church Street Pier built in the 1800s. We usually walk a few blocks to "Little India" for excellent meals at low prices, and enjoy leisurely exploration of this small city. This will be our base for several weeks.

We've just taken a five-day bus tour of Malaysia. Some travel was necessary just to get Jerry's new passport at the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. We took a bus early in the morning to Penang's central bus terminal to make sure we got onto the 8:00 bus. There we discovered that there is not one counter where all tickets are purchased, but each bus company has a separate office, and those are scattered around the area. It took us half-an-hour to find the right office, so it was good that we started early. Then we discovered that express buses do not come to the central terminal, but have a separate terminal near the bridge to the mainland. The bus company provided a van to get us there. The express bus coaches all seem quite luxurious. Ours had tremendous legroom, air-conditioning, power-reclining seats, headphones, video screens on the backs of the seats in front of us, individual music & video controls on armrests, and a menu of 12 recent movies plus other programs. We each watched a couple of movies, hitting "pause" when there was something interesting to see outside. We passed many housing developments, factories, pineapple fields, palm oil plantations and some abrupt limestone hills which were being chopped up for cement, gravel and building blocks. It was a posh experience except for one thing: the bus had no toilet and did not stop often. Jerry had a problem, and barely managed. We arrived in KL at 2:00 after 4.5 hours.

We had been in KL before, so knew a little of its layout, but had not saved our city map. The bus dropped us at an unfamiliar location in the middle of the city, so we set off blindly to find tourist information. We walked around for about an hour until we found a train which took us to the KLCC city center shopping mall. There we got a map from an information counter, together with suggestions about "backpacker" rooms. Nina spent an hour in an email cafe while Jerry walked to the US Embassy and picked up his new passport. Then we set out to find a room. The map we had was so sketchy that we had great difficulty finding "Chinatown," for cheap accommodations but we got there at last via trains and walking. The Red Dragon Hostel provided a room for RM45 (about $12) - quite reasonable for the center of the capital city.

Now we tried to get information about flying to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat. First we tried a regular travel agency. They quoted Air Malaysia's price and also told us that Air Asia was having a special promotion but the travel agent could not help us with that. We walked to a train station, but since one of the streets on our map had a right-angle bend in the middle we wound up at the wrong station and had to transfer to another train after one stop. We finally got to the Air Asia office. It was very busy, and we had to take a number and then wait 1 hour and 45 minutes to talk to a person. He quoted us a price, but also said it was higher than we could get by using their web site, and that Malaysian school holidays made them very busy right now. We decided to try their on-line booking, and took the train back to Chinatown, arriving about 8:00. We bought a flock of DVDs for RM7 each ($2) and wandered around Chinatown's stalls and shops until nearly too late to get supper. We finally had noodle soup just before the last stalls closed at 10:00 and went back to our room for a good night's sleep. We needed sleep after one taxi ride, two bus rides, five train rides and much walking.

The goal of the next day was to escape from KL to a quieter place, preferably on the east coast since we had not seen that yet. We tried Air Asia's on-line system at the hostel's internet cafe, but kept getting a programming error and finally gave up. The hostel manager told us to go to Putra station, since all the east coast buses departed from there. We took the train to the end of the line, which was Putra Terminal. Oops, we were definitely not in the right place. Perhaps we should have gone to "Putra Station" instead? Seven taxi drivers conferred in an attempt to help us, and finally decided we should go to "PWTC," still another bus station with Putra in its name. One of the drivers took us there, and told us to walk through a parking garage to find the terminal. We managed that, and were faced with an array of bus company counters, each having its own schedule. Helpful people told us the east coast buses left at either 9:30 in the morning or 9:30 at night, and it was now 11:00. We tried a few counters anyhow, and got the same story. Then we tried another counter and found they had a bus leaving at 11:30! OK, we bought tickets and didn't have long to wait. While waiting, a bus for still another company departed for the same destination. (Wouldn't a consolidated schedule make sense?) Our bus drove immediately to the "Sentral" Station to pick up more passengers, and we found that it was around the corner from our hostel. We had spent the entire morning to get just one block from our starting point! We laughed a lot over that one.

Once beyond the traffic jams of KL the 5-hour bus trip went quickly. The road east to Kuantan crosses high mountain passes, and the high-speed divided highway is a spectacular feat of engineering and construction. We passed many palm oil plantations and rubber tree plantations. Rubber trees are tall and slender, which surprised Jerry who had always assumed they looked something like banyans. We saw many unfenced cattle and even saw four on the median strip in the coastal town of Kijal. Our bus wasn't equipped with fancy video systems, but was still very comfortable. All of the buses on our trip had curtains you could put down to keep the sun out, they had air-conditioning, and they stopped for bathroom breaks about every three hours. We're now getting used to using holes in the bathroom floor for 0.20 ringitts and always take toilet tissue with us. Water hoses are provided beside each toilet for those who don't have tissue. Very occasionally tissues are available for another 0.10 RM (Malaysian Ringitts).

We arrived in Kuantan at 4:30 with dark clouds providing another deluge. We found a luxurious room with private toilet and shower, TV and air-conditioning for RM55 ($14.50). Then we wandered through the local market (mostly closed at this late hour) and found a good Indian restaurant. Jerry got the equivalent of three meals due to language difficulties, so we carried some away for the next day. It was a small city where nobody could name anything as a tourist attraction (except their beautiful beaches which weren't too appealing in the rain), so we decided not to stay a second day. After a good night's sleep, we had a quick breakfast of chapattis (an Indian bread) and caught the bus towards Kota Bahru for an 8-hour bus ride. The road north followed the coast of the South China Sea for quite a while, so we saw beach resorts among the modest houses of fishermen and other locals. We saw people walking around their houses knee-deep in water from many rivers that had flooded between the small cities of Terengganu and Kota Bahru. There were huge refinery complexes and other factories too. As the road bent inland further north, we saw palm oil and rubber plantations, and rice paddies. There were a few sawmills, but so much of the good hardwood has already been cut that the government is not allowing much logging. Nina talked with a young Malay man who had collected rubber and planted rice, and she learned much about those activities. His mother is still a rubber tapper earning about RM10 ($2.60) per day. A bus station sign talked of "Untouched Beaches, Unexplored Forests, and Other Unexplored Wonders" but we doubt these can be found in modern Malaysia.

Kota Bahru is in the northeast corner of Malaysia, right on the Thailand border. We arrived at 3:30 and soon found a backpacker place which cost us RM20 per night plus RM5 for towels ($6.60) and let us watch DVDs on the TV in their lounge. We wandered around the city for several hours, using a map which did not show all the streets and was vague about the locations of major buildings. Nina bought some locally printed cotton batiks at the central market, and we admired the spectacular array of vegetables, fruits, fish, and other items for sale. We got lost, and some of the taxi drivers we consulted didn't know how to find our hotel's street even though we knew it was only a couple of blocks away. Finally we were pointed down the right alley and got back to watch one of our DVDs in the backpackers lounge. Some of our inexpensive DVDs were apparently made by photographing movies in public theaters, so they have extra laughter and coughs with diminished sound and picture quality, but that's acceptable for most movies. The next morning we had a good breakfast at an Indian restaurant featuring nan (bread) with egg cooked inside. Then we visited the Kraftangan Handicraft Village even though it was Friday and most of it was closed because Friday is the Muslim religious day and this area of Malaysia is almost 100% Muslim. Nina found some nice souvenirs, including a watercolor of a local tricycle rickshaw. Even the cultural center is closed from October to March as there aren't many tourists. We decided not to stay an extra day just to see the museums. This turned out to be a good decision as we read in the paper that many roads were closed due to extensive flooding. One local asked bluntly why we came at this time of year, when many tourist attractions and facilities are closed, and the monsoon rains are at their worst. What could we say?

We used the Internet successfully to book a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Angkor Wat (Cambodia) on Air Asia December 29 and return January 5. The entire air package cost only RM606 ($160), which seems so inexpensive that it would be silly not to go. It was raining hard, so we finally bought an umbrella (the first one we've ever owned) and started learning how to coordinate so we both keep somewhat dry. We ate outside under a tarp in a ferocious downpour, trying the local specialties: "Nasi Dagang" and "Nasi Kerabu" (rice dishes with sauces, spices, and various other ingredients.) They were okay, but not as special as we had hoped. We wanted to browse in the "night market" but the vendors didn't set up their tables in the rain so we went back and watched another DVD.

The next morning we wanted another good breakfast, but the rain stopped us from walking all the way to the same Indian restaurant and we tried the restaurant at another hotel. It really wasn't very good, and we wished we had decided to get wetter. We took a taxi to one of the express bus stations on the edge of the city, and at 9:30 were on a 7-hour bus trip back to Penang. The road crossed through the mountains at the top of Malaysia, and was fairly scenic even in the rain. Many of the villages were flooded, and we saw people up to their knees outside some houses. The rains have been exceptional this season, the worst in 30 years. The paper reports over 20,000 people homeless due to flooding. Railway service to the northern part of the country was suspended the day after we left the area and has not resumed and the North-South "Ekspresway" was closed for a few days. There are dams and power stations up in the mountains so the rains were doing some good. However, the newspaper reported that one dam had to release water to prevent the dam from bursting. In one town the water level had reached the rooftops of houses. In another town two flood relief centers were closed due to rising waters. (Huh?)

We went through a large national park where some native species still survive in this fast-developing country. They claim to have huge flocks of hornbills, some tigers, rhinos, wild oxen, barking deer, tapirs, mouse deer, and much more. There was one caution sign for elephants, but we didn't see any. Outside the park we saw new plantations being created. After the area is clear-cut, earthmovers create narrow terraces on the steep hillsides. Each terrace holds one row of rubber (or palm oil) trees and the result is a forest of identical plants. This is probably good for profits, but seems a poor substitute for the incredible complexity and variety of the original rainforests. As we approached the west coast, housing became much denser, and we saw how swampy land was drained and filled for large developments. There were industrial parks featuring companies such as Intel and Panasonic making high-tech products. At 4:30 we reached Butterworth and took one of the many "feris" to Georgetown on the island of Penang. Our dinghy was nearly full of water, so Penang had gotten rain too. It was an interesting trip and we learned a lot, but we returned without many photos because of the rain and the nonstop buses.

Now we're seeing Penang's attractions and enjoying its restaurants at a leisurely pace. After sailing most days since leaving Brisbane in April we're ready to relax. The local bus system is excellent, and we're getting to know it. We found an Indian restaurant full of locals where we got a wonderful dinner for a total of RM18 ($4.75). The next night we ate at an Indian restaurant labeled "the best in Malaysia" by the Minister of Tourism (more expensive but no tastier) with an Australian couple on catamaran "Gone Troppo" who told about their earlier cruise to the Mediterranean and back. We toured Fort Cornwallis and saw a Chinese temple dedicated to Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. We took the cable railway on an incredibly steep track (finished in 1923) to the top of Penang Hill, where Europeans established second homes in the early 1800s to escape Georgetown's heat. We walked all the way down the long, STEEP road, giving our knees some serious exercise. For two days after Nina could really feel the muscles in the back of her lower legs and even her hips hurt. We visited a Thai Buddhist temple which has a 33 meter long reclining Buddha, a Burmese Buddhist temple which has an enormous standing Buddha, and another Buddhist temple whose statues include one of Confucius. All these temples are filled with art and lavishly covered with ornate carvings and gold paint, in tremendous contrast to the New England churches we used to attend.

On our anniversary, Nina found a shop having a Christmas promotion sale of 3 ringitts per DVD, and bought 76 DVDs that we hadn't seen for a total of 228 RM or $60 US. Even if some are not the best quality we aren't doing badly at that price. We now have enough movies to watch for well over a year at the rate we watch movies. We walked back towards the marina and found a vegetarian Indian restaurant and had another very nice meal.

(view Penang photos)