Penang, land of backpackers


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April 14th 2014
Published: April 14th 2014
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In Krabi I had been thinking about where to go to end off my time in Thailand. I thought my visa was due to expire on the 16 April so I had about five days left. I was strongly considering the Similan Islands for Nicobar pigeon – close to Krabi but also fairly expensive because the only access is via tour-operators. I mused over Thale Ban National Park, down by the border with Malaysia, but looking at it on the internet it didn't seem like I should bother. Then there was Hala-Bala National Park, also near the border and a great place for mammals apparently, but it seemed a bit tricky to get to with only a few days to spare (I think you need to pre-organise visiting). So instead I just went to Malaysia a bit early. While waiting for a bus changeover in Hat Yai I idly flicked through my passport and found the Thai visa – it didn't expire on the 16 after all, it expired on the 12 which happened to be tomorrow! Good thing I didn't find that out while sitting in the Similan Islands! And that means that, yes, it had already been an entire month since my trip finished....

Over the course of that month I picked up over ninety birds which were new for my Thailand list. Partly because I had only been to the north of Thailand once before and that was back on my first trip there so there was lots of stuff I missed or just couldn't ID. Partly it was because I haven't been to Thailand in winter before, and there are lots of migrants common then but not seen any time else.

And so I arrived at Georgetown on Penang Island, Malaysia. Back amongst the dumb-ass backpackers. They say that youth is wasted on the young. Well travel is wasted on the dumb. There was an early-twenties (maybe late-teens I guess) Canadian in my dorm room who was bragging to me he had “just done the whole of Malaysia in six days” and now he didn't know what to do so he was just sitting in Penang doing nothing. I could have given him some suggestions, mostly involving my boot.

In Georgetown I was staying at a place called Couzi Couji, a self-proclaimed party hostel. You know it's a party hostel because “Party Hostel” is actually part of the name, it says on the door “Party Friendly”, the reception desk is also a bar, the guy at the reception-slash-bar doesn't wear a shirt, and in the common-area there was a blow-up pool with balloons floating in it. I was only there because I had met a nice German girl (German girls are always nice!) on the bus down from Krabi and she was booked there and it was probably about as cheap as you're going to get in Penang (20 Ringgitt per bed). I didn't remember anything from my last visit to Penang in 2006, so I just went there with her. The good thing with a party hostel is that the noise doesn't interrupt my sleep (remember I'm deaf in one ear, so I just sleep on my good ear and I can't hear anything :D) but in the morning when I get up the place is like a morgue because nobody else is in a fit state to get up before midday.

The first morning I went to the Penang Bird Park which was much more interesting than I expected, with a very diverse collection of mainly southeast Asian birds. I will definitely be back there again whenever I am next in the area.

I was also going to go to the Aquarium that day but at the Bird Park they told me that it was currently closed for renovations.

I ran foul of the Party Hostel on the second morning when I planned to leave early to get to the Penang National Park. The previous morning had been fine because the Bird Park didn't open until 9am so I left quite late in the morning. This morning I found that that the front doors of the hostel were padlocked shut, the back door was padlocked shut, and the windows are barred so couldn't even climb out one of those. Too bad if there's a fire I guess! Myself and an English guy who wanted to leave early as well had to hang around twiddling our thumbs until someone randomly stumbled into the reception at about 7.30am to unlock the doors.

The National Park is easy to get to. Just catch bus number 101 from by the ferry terminal and an hour later it stops almost literally at the gate of the park. It was of course quite late in the morning and very hot by the time I got there, so birds were not exactly in abundance. Funny thing, when I was leaving the park around 1pm was when most other tourists were arriving. Granted they aren't there for birds but surely common sense would say not to start off “trekking” (as they call it) in the middle of the day? Anyway, I saw a plantain squirrel which was new for the year list, the second flying dragon of the trip, a small clouded monitor, a few many-lined sun skinks, and about three birds!

I took the bus back as far as Gurney Drive because I had read it was a good spot for wading birds. I wasn't sure if it was a good time of year or not, but worth a look. I only found a small area of mud-flat, perhaps the tide was wrong, but there were quite a lot of great and little egrets, a couple of green herons, a common sandpiper or two, and three whimbrels. Also a Chinese pond heron in breeding plumage. I have mostly been putting pond herons down as just “Ardeola sp.” because in non-breeding plumage they're impossible to ID, but they are colouring up now so I'm happy giving them titles. There were also a lot of water monitors amongst the shoreline rocks further along.

When I got back to the bus terminal I bought a ticket for tomorrow morning for the Cameron Highlands. I want to get somewhere cooler again! I've never been to the Cameron Highlands because it is a regular backpacker hangout thanks to Lonely Planet, and I prefer Bukit Fraser. However it is cheap and I thought I would give it a go. There should be lots of year birds there at least, and hopefully even a mammal or two as well.

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14th April 2014

Many years back I also met a very sweet young lady on the train to Butterworth. We got along great inspite of me being such an oldie at 30. We parted ways after she kindly refused my invitation to stay at the same hostel. Well, later on as I was waiting for transportation the same girl was walking around the back packers asking if they wanted to share room with her. No success. She meekly came up to me and said; 'ok, I'll accept your offer on one condition, no foul play'. Ha! Well, being a nice guy I stuck to my words and a 'proper' friendship developed.

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