A romp through Penang and Bali

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February 11th 2011
Published: February 12th 2011
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Once again, it was our winter break and we headed for warmer climates. This year it was off to Malaysia and Indonesia after recuperating for the first week of our holiday at home, getting over a cold ( I thought!!). As we flew into KL, the only thing visible from the plane were miles and miles of palm oil plantations. It is the largest agricultural product in the country. The airport is located 60-70 km from the city but only an 8 MYR (about $3) bus ride away. After landing, we hopped on the LCCT-KL Sentral bus and headed for the city. Once again, mile after mile of palm plantations greeted us out of both sides of the bus. From the bus station, we walked to the nearest monorail station and took the short trip to our hostel. Following Internet instructions given to us by the hostel, we made our way through a large mall, out a back service door and across the street to our little budget hotel, home for the next three nights. And then I proceeded to get sicker by the minute. Instead of three days of seeing the sights of the city, it was mostly spent in bed or watching movies in the theatre in the mall across the street from where we were staying.We did get to Chinatown and the local market for one day, our only venture away from our immediate vicinity.

The first thing you notice about Kuala Lumpur is the heat and the incredible humidity. And it was beautiful since we were coming from winter in Wuhan. The second thing we noticed was the diversity of the population. It is definitely the most multicultural place I have ever visited. Malaysia has an ethnic mixture of Malay, Indigenous, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and others, including many displaced western expats looking for a warm climate. Islam is the major religion practised so many of the women have the traditional scarf head-covering. Of course, with many teens, this is the only part of their attire that is visibly different. Tattered jeans and runners often complete the "look". There were a handful of women wearing the full body covering of the burqa with only their eyes visible through a small slit.

We stayed in a great little place called the Classic Inn Budget Hotel that came with a freshly made Malaysian breakfast each morning, including wonderful fresh local fruit. The owner and all her employees were really friendly and helpful. It's always fun staying in these places and chatting with the other people passing through. Tons of twenty-somethings along with a smattering of older travellers are the usual clientele.

I could have sworn the clunky, little monorail was a left-over from the past but apparently it was only completed in 2003. The trains consist of two coupled cars and only cover a total distance of about 3 miles and 11 stops. The concrete rails look like something out of the 60s and the train crawls along from station to station. You need to navigate long narrow staircases in many places to get to the stations (which are poorly marked) and the escalators only go in one direction...up. The last monorail I was on was at Expo '67 in Montreal. That was over forty years ago and, as far as I can see, the technology hasn't changed much!

From KL, we headed to Penang, an island in North-western Malaysia. By now I was sure my "cold" had turned into full-blown bronchitis, which was confirmed when I visited a doctor on the island. It was a great little walk-in clinic and, as always, we had no problem getting right in to see a doctor and obtaining medication She put me on antibiotics and I continued to cough my way through another few days. We stayed in a little area called Batu Feringhi, right across from the beach. We were not that impressed with the area but had a good time eating out at beach-front restaurants and exploring the beaches and local area. One morning, as we walked out to the main street, we were greeted with monkeys swinging their way across the power lines and nearby tress. Of course, still being sicker than hell probably didn't add to the appreciation of the area! There were tons of great little local cafes nearby and the coffee was great. One of the best parts about visiting all these places is sampling the local food and drinks.

So a week into our holiday, I was still sick and Nancy was getting her cough back again. She had also been sick the week before we left. At this point, we actually started wondering if we should just go back home and forget any more travelling...until we thought about the temperature in Wuhan. We decided we would rather be sick in a warm place than a cold one lol. So we stuck with our original plans and headed off to Bali. It could only get better!

And it did. Bali was wonderful. For the first five days we stayed a a small bed and breakfast in the countryside, a few hundred meters from Echo Beach, a well known surfing beach to the locals. We were away from the crazy tourist towns of Kuta and Ubud, which we checked out later in the week. The place was surrounded by rice paddies so we got a flavour of the local area. The beach was nearby with several great little restaurants within easy walking distance complete with built-in entertainment...watching the surfers. We rented a scooter two or three times and rode north and south to some of the bigger tourist areas and towns. Another day, we hired a driver for the day and headed north into the centre of the island to see the volcano, batik centres, wood-carving shops and other stuff you wouldn't get to on your own. There are an incredible number of crafts in Bali and every village has its specialty....wood carving, bone carving, rock carving, batik, pottery, sculpture...it is endless. Every roadside is literally covered with groups of hundreds of identical carvings as you drive along. It is overload after awhile and finally, you just start blocking it out! I'm sure they export tons of the stuff. We have all seen it in malls all over the place. Seeing a few individual pieces in a shop is one thing, seeing 500 identical carvings is something else again.

But what's with the currency!! In Indonesia, every bill has at least 3 or 4 zeros. With an exchange rate of roughly 10000:1 for Canadian dollars, you can see how it would add up, even though stuff is a lot cheaper! I just started dropping four zeros to quickly get an idea of how much stuff cost! It is pretty weird carrying around millions in your wallet. And as for the coins, you might as well just throw them away. You never use them to buy stuff, they are only used for change. Even the locals referred to it as Monopoly money!

By now, Nancy's cough was dreadful and we knew it was time for her to see a doctor. We tracked down a small clinic about 15 minutes away from the hostel and she was put on more antibiotics and other stuff. At least we were no longer feeling bad, just coughing up a storm. At the end of our five days, we had to make a decision...do we carry on to the Philipines as originally planned or do something else. We did something else! We were finally starting to feel normal again and really didn't want to head off on another few plane rides to the Philipines. It seems that air travel always brings out the worst in anything you already have. So instead, we checked into one of the famous all-inclusive five-star resorts in Southern Bali and did absolutely nothing except eat, drink and hang out at the pool around the clock and get catered to non-stop. Once they snapped those little all-inclusive wristbands on us we could forget about life for three days! The staff was awesome, the food in the three daily buffet meals was incredible, the nightly entertainment was good and the room was to die for! And the Balinese massage was wonderful! We spent one morning paddling along the beach (all the non-motorized sports were included), the only exertion we put in during the time we were there. We have never done this kind of thing before but I would certainly do it again for a few days. We met some fun people including a Canadian married to an Australian, now running a furniture business in Bali. There were staying at the resort while their house was repaired from wind damage suffered during one of the storms.

Two last little tidbits of info. We visited a coffee plantation where one of their products is Kopi luwak civet coffee, the world's most expensive and low-production coffee. It is made from the beans of coffee berries which have been eaten by the Asian Palm Civet (a strange looking little animal). A civet eats the berries for their fleshy pulp. In its stomach, proteolytic enzymes seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids. Passing through a civet's intestines the beans are then pooped out, keeping their shape. After gathering, thorough washing, sun drying, light roasting and brewing, these beans yield an aromatic coffee with much less bitterness, widely noted as the most expensive coffee in the world. At last search on the web, it sells for about $1000/kilogram. It is referred to as "cat poop coffee" lol. Needless to say, we didn't buy any!

The second one...I paid my first bribe on any trip so far! We were heading for the departure gate at the airport in Bali on the way back to Malaysia. On the way, we were stopped at a booth to pay an airport tax of 300,000. We had tried to get rid of most of our cash before we got there and had no idea that we would have to pay this crazy tax on the way through. Of course they only took cash, so I left our stuff with Nancy and headed downstairs looking for an ATM. I asked the security guard at one of the entrances where the closest ATM was and he proceeded to tell me it was outside the terminal. I couldn't go outside and back in without a passport and boarding pass and i really didn't want to go all the way back upstairs to where I had left Nancy. "You help me and I'll help you.", he says. At this point, I really didn't care. I agreed and he walked me out to the ATM, back through the "no entrance" door, and through the security line at the airport (took me right to the front of the line I might add!), all for 100,000. The equivalent of about 10 bucks. He was very polite and friendly and we chatted away throughout the whole exercise lol.

Anyway, we are now back home in Wuhan and it is snowing...bah humbug. I am still coughing but it is a lot better. I figure if I finish this bottle of Jack Daniels tonight, maybe it will go away forever!

Hmmm....we have another week before school starts. Maybe we should head off to Sanya and more hot weather for a few days.....

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