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Published: September 27th 2010
This travel is not such a bad life
Enjoying another sunset on Langkawi
We left China excited to experience somewhere different, and looking forward to relaxing for a few days. We flew out of Guilin to Kuala Lumpur and straight on to the island of Langkawi, off Malaysia's west coast, near the border with Thailand.
We had chosen to start our time in Malaysia on Langkawi, in part to coincide with meeting Dean and Kat for a night on their honeymoon (congratulations you 2 by the way!). However, sadly for them, Kat's eleventh-hour apendicitis put paid to their visit (though, incredibly, not the wedding - Kat you are a trouper!) and they never made it to Malaysia. So we did the chilling out for the team ;-)
On arrival in Malaysia, our first impression was just how much easier things are for travelling. Almost everybody speaks at least some English and things are a whole lot less chaotic than in China. The sudden absence of Chinese people shouting everywhere was almost a shock, and made our lives significantly calmer and more bearable. Langkawi is also a duty free island, which meant a welcome return to gin and wine (yay!), both of which are rare and prohibitively expensive in China.
Mike also appreciated his first good coffee for quite a while, something that is very lacking in most of China (Nescafe does not count as coffee!)
Our biggest exertion was for us both to have a go at parasailing on the main beach which was just the biggest buzz! We were both in turn strapped to a parachute on the beach and then the speed boat (where the other end of the rope was attached) headed off in a circuit of the bay. It was an exhilirating 5 minutes, particularly the initial rush where you are plucked off the beach as if by an invisible hand, and fly up so fast it makes you gasp, as you soar up into the sky and over the sea. You feel like a feather floating above the world, completely alone and weightless - it's like being dropped into a dream and you're temporarily suspended from the real world. Doing it at sunset made for a really dramatic view over the island, with a red sky in one direction and the twinkling of the lights in town in the other. We highly recommend it if anyone gets the chance to try it!
As there is no public transport on Langkawi, we hired a little scooter during our time there. This was the first time either of us has ridden one, so getting to grips with it was good fun, whizzing around the island, to a beautiful beach in the north and to the impressive cable car station that whisked us to the highest point on the island (good recommendation Dean!) and a very shaky suspension bridge.
We also decided to blow the budget and drop into the top-end Four Seasons Resort for a cocktail on their stunning private beach. We were rather excited that Helen's Cosmopolitan came with a little dish of olives - we hadn't seen any of those in months. We were savouring every sip, getting our money's worth of the luxury setting, when one of the extremely attentive barstaff whipped away the dish - before we had even finished the olives! I don't think she caught our distraught expressions...her average customer obviously didn't treasure every expensive olive in the same way as us backpackers ;-)
We did get caught out on our scooter at one point though when the heavens opened to a biblical style downpour. In
our shorts and T-shirts we were totally unprepared and still about 20 minutes from our hotel. The rain got so heavy that we took refuge at a very swish Sheraton resort. Luckily, the security guard on the gate was lovely and took pity on the dripping foreigners in front of him, and let us shelter in his gate house until the worst of the rain passed and even gave us a towel to wipe down our bike before we had to get back on. So you see we got plenty of luxury hotel attention in on Langkawi, one way and another :-)
After a few easy days on Langkawi, we felt ready to move on and boarded a boat for the 4 hour trip south to the island of Penang. We arrived fairly late into the capital of the island, Georgetown, dropped our bags off and went out in search of food. We didn't have to look far before we came upon a hawker centre. These are pretty big things in Malaysia, and particularly on Penang.
We were in for an unexpected treat. The centres are simply a collection of tiny stalls located on
street corners dotted around town and which are set up nightly and/or for lunch. However they cook up something far more sophisticated than your average street food. Each centre will have a large range of food at the many stalls, as well as lovely freshly crushed juice stalls. The typical foods served on Penang are a combination of Malay, Chinese and Indian foods in all sorts of mouth watering fusions. There are spicy fish or prawns with noodle soups, fried noodles with various spices as well as rice and curry type dishes.
Hawker centres are a bit of an institution on Penang (and throughout Malaysia as we have since discovered). Absolutely everyone from locals to tourists frequent them for lunch and dinner. There really is little need to eat at restaurants as the quality and variety of the food is fantastic. It is certainly some of the best (and cheapest) food we have had on our trip to date.
But for us, one of the real beauties of the hawker centres was to observe a real slice of Malaysian life. People come along to catch up over some food and chat about life. The low cost means they
are open to everyone and there is a real energy about them. They are only open for fairly short periods of time, and everything is whipped up in a frenzy of fresh ingredients and cooked on improbably tiny little stalls.
One of our favourite centres was in the Little India section of town. With the Bollywood music pumping out, delicious curries are served up along with tasty Roti Canai's. These are flaky, pastry-like flat breads which are made up and cooked freshly at the stall. We also discovered they can be filled with banana and honey to make a really tasty dessert, with which we became all too well acquainted!
When we could manage to drag ouselves away from the delicious food, we found that we really loved Georgetown. It's a small town with a colourful variety of colonial influences. The town is divided into an Indian section and a Chinese section, as there are large populations of both that live on the island. Both are quite different in terms of architecture and atmosphere.
What's also thrown in to the mix are a number of British styled buildings. Penang is an ex-British colony, and Britain actually still
Vibrant night market, Georgetown, Penang
Great food and catching up on the 'craic'.
controlled it up until the mid 20th Century, due to its importance as a trade centre in SE Asia. It was this wealth that also attracted the large Chinese population which is still resident here, while the Indians were brought in by Britain to work.
This little slice of Victorian Britain (there is even a clocktower in town, erected to celebrate the 60th year of Queen Victorias' reign) provides a very interesting contrast to all the Chinese temples and typical Malay buildings around. We witnessed much of this on a short tri-shaw ride through town, with our very knowledgable Indian cyclist/guide, who gave us great insight into all parts of the city. It's a seductive little town to walk around, and is all about the atmosphere. There a lots of tidy little streets about, with beautiful little colonial buildings from all the influences all mixed in together.
As well as wandering around town for a few days, we also took the opportunity to visit the hospital in Penang. Mike had had a persistent cough for around 6 weeks which he had been unable to kick - a chest X-ray later and the doctor was able to confirm acute
To prove Guinness is good for you....
Even in Chinese, the Malaysians believe it!
bronchitis and a range of medications was dished out to him to try and kick it. He was also told to take it easy for a while, something you probably know he is not used to doing! As we were at the hospital over lunchtime, we of course joined the hospital staff at the nearest hawker centre in what was basically the alley behind the hospital car park - all the immaculately turned out doctors and nurses were decorously eating beautiful little plates of fresh curries at tiny rickety tables under a little awning, roped up to protect them from the searing sun - no packaged sandwiches from the supermarket for these workers!
Teluk Bahang and Penang National Park
In order to see a little more of Penang island, we travelled an hour around the northern coast of the island to the small fishing village of Teluk Bahang, where we stayed for a few days. We mainly visited in order to find a quiet spot on the island to while away some time, indulging in that relaxation we were supposed to be doing!
We certainly succeeded in finding a quiet spot. Teluk Bahang is a sleepy
fishing village on the northwestern tip of Penang with only one place to stay and a really low key feel. We duly stayed at the quaintly named Miss Loh's guesthouse, surrounded by a riot of overgrown flowers and swaying trees in the rambling garden. This is a small tin roofed place on the edge of the village, where you sleep in spartan rooms under mosquito nets and residents pass the days reading on the swinging seats dotted around the gardens or going for walks in the nearby national park.
Miss Loh's was quite unique in terms of the places we have stayed, not only for the old-school colonial, crumbling charm, but also for the number of long term guests. A handful of predominantly British old-timers, seemingly there since the fall of the empire, hang out here for months rather than weeks or days, passing the time playing cards and helping Miss Loh run the place. They sleep there, eat there, try and listen to the BBC on crackling old radio sets and have very little need to leave. They are charming, old-BBC english speaking guys, and have the odd proper Captain Birdseye white beard, and it felt a little
Relaxing at Miss Loh's
Under the mozzie net, soaking wet from the downpour on the way home from the cold curry (?), bronchitis medicine in hand - yet Mike's still smiling!
like we were intruding on a little corner of colonial Britain.
We got into the local groove, and slowed our pace down to a soporific stroll, best suited to the tropical humidity. It did at times feel as if we were in a colonial-era movie, all slowly whirring fans, drowsy dogs lounging around, and sudden frenzied tropical downpours that sound like the wrath of the gods on the tin roof. We took a couple of walks through Penang National Park (The smallest National park in the world, apparently!) to virtually deserted beaches. One beach in the park had a turtle hatchery on it, where the Green and Leatherback turtles eggs are kept, prior to the babies hatching and being released. We saw some very young hatchlings just prior to being released.
On one walk to the appropriately named Monkey Beach, we saw a number of Macaque monkeys. They have become rather too tame due to people feeding them along the paths in the park (no, people, no!). One rather large monkey, with a bit of an evil look in his eye, decided the bananas in Helens backpack would make a tasty lunch. Without waiting for an offer, he
Kickapoo Joy Juice
Softdrink of choice in Malaysia, does exactly what it says on the tin!
approached in a slightly aggressive manner (as we initially observed with interest)...and proceeded to jump onto the pack on Helens back. She duly freaked out, rather understandably. Luckily this was enough to scare off the monkey, who duly retreated. Although I am not quite sure what we would have done if the monkey had persisted at pulling at her pack. I'm quite glad I didn't have to take him on!
After the hot and humid walks to these beaches through the jungle, it was a great relief to have a dip in the crystal clear waters, although it was difficult to cool off completely as the sea water felt a little like luke warm bath water. Idyllic beaches, though - small natural patches of white sand breaking through the dense, untouched jungle. Not a striped umbrella to be seen!
And with that we reluctantly tore ourselves away from Penang. We loved the laid back but very cultured feel of the island, and the vibrant mix of nationalities that (happily) cohabit there. It was the sort of place that left a dreamily lasting impression.
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