A hold over from my childhood and being island bound by fog or mechanical failure is that whenever I am changing locations, I obsessively leave as much time as possible between legs of my journey. Second leg an evening flight? No problem. I’ll get an early morning flight, barely restraining myself from catching the red eye, for the first leg.
Travelling in South East Asia it takes a certain level of self control not to take this to a whole new level with the constant delays and borderline horror stories passed by word of mouth down the traveller grapevine. There is always a friend of a friend of a guy someone met who got stranded next to a rice paddy somewhere.
Hence, I set out for Bangkok early on the day of my departure. I arrived at the ferry terminal from George Town to Butterworth around 0930 (apparently free in the George Town to Butterworth direction). By the time the “regular” ferry arrived in Butterworth it was 1030 and the “hourly” KTM Komuter train up to Padang Besar would not be leaving for another two hours. Finally boarding the train, I flopped into a seat and devoured my book until we eventually pulled into Pedang Besar station some time around two.
Navigating the border crossing was confusing, purely from the point of view that I and the small pack of other foreign travellers had no clue where we were going. Did we walk across the land border and find a different train station on the other side? Or were we somehow supposed to navigated the unmanned Malaysian and Thai border boxes on the floor below the canteen?
Eventually, we scraped together a vaguely straight answer that we were to wait until the boxes opened and then pass through the Malaysian and Thai boxes at the opposite ends of the ground floor. Next came another wait for the sleeper train that would carry us to all the way to Bangkok (naturally it was delayed by just under an hour). I passed the time playing card games with a lovely Swedish chap.
A few more games and dinner on the train passed the few hours before we turned in for a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. Just as we were leaving for the somewhat rickety dinner cart, the steward came through and converted each booth into a set of bunk beds, complete with pillow and blanket. While not huge, the top bunk was fine for my vertically challenged nature and I managed not to fall out despite only two straps to prevent me from doing so.
The next morning, the beds were converted back to seats and I tucked into my somewhat squashed roll that had travelled from a 7-Eleven in George Town with me the day before. Only about an hour and a bit late we were making good time into Bangkok when disaster struck. Driving through a cross between building site and railway siding the train suddenly shuddered to a halted to the accompaniment of much shouting and gesturing from some workers.
No information provided, we waited on the outskirts of Bangkok unsure if we were going to have to walk the remainder of the way. Eventually the passengers in the last coach relocated to ours, before theirs was disconected and we rolled back into motion. We finally made it to our Hua Lamphong Station only three hours late, so all in all, very good time was made.
A twenty minute walk to boat stop N3 and we got the boat up to near Khao San Road (N13) and out respective hostels.
Ferry from George Town to Butterworth: free
Train Butterworth to Pedang Besar: RM11.40
Train Pedang Besar to Bangkok: 870 Baht for a top bunk plus a online booking fee of around 30 baht
The traditional tourist tactic of heading from A to B with blinkers on is not an acceptable way to visit George Town. It is a town made to been meandered through aimlessly, drinking in the historical architecture and gorging on a delightful fusion of cuisines. With a whipstop a day and a half stay, the amount of food to be indulged in was somewhat limited but my artistic spirit feasted continuously throughout my time in Penang.
The architecture, the street art, the colourful signs, and aesthetic hipster cafes, there was always something to look at and admire. Utilising a map from the tourist information centre I quested out the most well known pieces of street art, keeping my eyes peeled for the amusing wrought iron “Marking George Town” cartoon pieces. This gentle rambling around eventually saw me devouring a plate of one of the local dishes, char koey teow, a kind of flat rice noodle with eggs, bean sprouts and prawns. With limited table space, I ended up sitting with another English traveller and chatting about out experiences of travelling solo.
The next day I ventured down to Fort Cornwallis and nosed around for about half an hour. Aside from a decent view of the Straights of Melaka, there was very little to see within the fort. There are a few cannons, the outer wall, and the old gunpowder storeroom but very little in the way of plaques explaining and expanding upon the historyof the site.
With an awkward amount of time before the tourist office’s free walking tour, I tested out one of the hipster coffee shops nearby, sipping a black coffee as I read my book.
The short walking tour was a little hard to hear at times but what I could hear was very interesting and had I had more time, I would have liked to visit a couple of the place we looked at in more detail such as the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, a house turned museum on Church Street that used to be used by a Chinese secret society, the Ghee Hin.
The Englishwoman I had met the previous night was also on the walking tour so we joined forces afterwards to amble through Georgetown, picking roads at random. We eventually found ourselves sampling some blissful eggtarts at Ming Xiang Tai. There was a brief moment of internal panic when I misread the sign as RM20 per tart but upon rereading the signs it was only RM2.20, so a slight difference there.
After that it was more wandering before we eventually called it a day and went our separate ways.
Sunday saw me departing from Kuala Lumpur for the Cameron Highlands. Stepping off the bus in Tanah Rata, it was a delight to not be immediately struck down by the furious heat and humidity that the majority of South East Asia is afflicted with. I fully understand the desire of the colonialists to escape here over a hundred years ago.
While agriculture is the biggest industry in Cameron Highlands, with the fruit and veg grown here shipped to much of Malaysia, there is still a tourism industry that cashes in on the colonial nature of the original town. This made it rather an odd experience as one of the main attractions were the strawberry farms where one could go and pick strawberries and many of the buildings in Brinchang were painted to try and emulate the Tudor houses of old.
After booking a tour to the Mossy Forest and BOH Tea Plantation for Tuesday since the plntaion factory was closed on Mondays, I set out to walk from Tanah Rata to Brinchang along trail five. While trail four was the more commonly walked route, it finished about halfway to Brinchang, leaving one to walk along the road the rest of the way. I eventually found trail five but upon seeing how overgrown it was and having already experienced the lack of signage, I decide I didn’t really fancy getting lost in the Malaysian jungle or the chance of meeting a snake. Instead I returned to trail four, I knew that in theory I should be able to branch off to trail six which would take me to Brinchang without having to walk along the road.
This was all well and good, however with a large number of unmarked paths leading off the trail, I reached the road before I discovered the start of trail six. This wasn’t the end of the world and walking beside the golf course was quite pleasant in the cooler climate of the high altitude. The real downside was it gave local drivers the opportunity to catcall at me as they drove pass, an issue that several women I’ve met have all encountered. Arriving finally in Brinchang, I slogged the remainder of the way up the the Big Red Strawberry Farm.
For RM25 (about £5) I picked half a kilo of strawberries, taking my time to be pedantic over colour and ensuring only the most perfectly ripe strawberries were deposited in my basket. There was little else to see at the farm but it was amazing to see the number of strawberry themed foods in the cafe and gifts in the gift shop. My favourite was a box of “strawberry white coffee” being sold in the shop.
In Brinchang I also visit the Sam Poh Temple. I was the only visitor and the temple had a wonderfully tranquil atmosphere permeating throughout. Even a potted tree that had some kind of beehive on it seemed less threatening and more fascinating (from a safe distance) within the confines of the temple.
Heading back to Tanah Rata, I stopped at the Smokehouse for a Devonshire cream tea. Approaching the somewhat incongruous old Tudor style building and walking past its gardens made me feel like I had walked through a portal to a distorted parallel of England. Enjoying the memories of a cream tea at La Sablonnerie in Sark. I slathered my scones in appropriately large amounts of cream and devoured them. The still warm scones were the perfect combination of fluffy and crumbly and so sublime that I requested the recipe, an action I have never felt moved to do before.
The next day dawned bright and early with not too many clouds, presenting the perfect weather for a trip to the Mossy Forest. The guide, Mr Satu, was a third generation local and he put his excellent knowledge to the test, there wasn’t a question asked that he couldn’t answer for us. Instead of visiting the tea plantation first as is standard for a lot of tours, we drove straight up to the Mossy Forest, arriving well ahead of the crowds. Walking along the boardwalk that is in place to help protect the moss and other fauna, Satu explain the uses of a variety plants to us, including showing us the ipoh tree that the local aborigines use for the poison on their blowpipe darts.
Ascending the watch tower, we were rewarded with a stunning view of the highlands stretching out before us. Having taken all our photos, Satu talked about some of the animals to be found in the Cameron highlands and I can only say I was increasingly glad not to have walked trail five the previous day when it came to talking about snakes. A final loop of the boardwalk and we started back to the carpark, just as the crush of tourists began to arrive and crowd the pathway.
Driving back down the mountainside we stopped at a viewpoint over the BOH Tea Plantation. It seem to stretch for miles and I cannot imagine how they manage to pick the whole plantation in the twenty one days before they start over at point A. The two person petrol blade that is dragged along the top of each plant probably helps somewhat but even then it seems a momentous task. Walking around the factory was interesting if very quick. Seeing how the mental imgage of a labour intensive manual process has infact been modernised and mechanised was a shift in perspective and an enjoyable knowledge gap to fill.
With the tea tasted and the tour over, we returned to Tanah Rata and a late lunch. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the hostel and planning the next stage of my journey.
From Melaka, I caught the bus up to Kuala Lumpur for a few days. Arriving on the first day of Ramadan, I was assaulted with the delicious aromas of curries and BBQs from the array of food stalls directly outside my hostel. They were set up and selling food every afternoon for the month of Ramadan. On my way to Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, I indulged myself in wondering through this small market in the process of setting up. Eventually finding my way to the reserve, I bypassed the Kuala Lumpur Tower, deciding that once one’s been to the top of one telecoms tower, one’s seen them all. Besides the visibility is normally much reduced and somewhat disappointing in comparison to the views promised in brochures and I imagine that the low hanging afternoon clouds of Malaysia do little to aid it.
Instead I ventured along the canopy walk, praying the looming storm would hold off long enough for me to finish the walk. Naturally I was halfway along the first bridge when the first roll of thunder peeled out like the battle drums of an approaching army. I picked up my pace and tried not to think about the warning signs not to enter the park during storms. Chased by thunder and darkening clouds, I found myself wondering about the likelihood of being struck by lightning and, if I survived, how cool the lightning scars would look. This was perhaps a tad morbid but standing on a metal bridge in the treetops with a storm rapidly approaching will do these things to you. I made it safely back to the main road just in time, with the rain still holding off.
Meeting a group who had entered the park just as I exited later that evening, they said how lightning had struck a couple of trees just over ten metres from them and I have now resolved not to be in any forests after about three thirty, the earliest thunderstorms normally start in Malaysia. Making my back to the hostel, I was admiring the lightning as it flickered on the horizon and waiting to cross the road when I felt the first drops of rain begin to fall. By the time I made it to shelter on the opposite side of the road, I was soaked through and a wall of falling water curtained off the outside world. Unwilling to venture out, I settled on a bench in the shopping centre I found myself in and read my book while I waited out the storm.
My first day in Kuala Lumpur finished with scrumptious samosas and a huge chicken and tomato skewer, devoured at the table in the hostel as I talked with other guests.
Day two dawned bright and early and found me planning where to start my explorations. Setting off for the Islamic Arts Museum, I caught the purple line of the GOKL buses, a free bus system the runs in the Kuala Lumpur city centre. Getting off the bus at Pasir Seni I passed the National Mosque as I walked the remainder of the way to the museum. I was unable to enter the mosque because the time I was passing by coincided with prayers, but just walking around the outside was enough to be impressed by the vast scale and simple but elegant architectural style.
The Museum cost MYR14 and was well worth a visit in my humble opinion. Unlike the art one would expect to find in the Louvre, Islamic art focuses more on making everyday objects into works of art themselves. Upon entering, I perused the models of famous pieces of Islamic architecture, including the Taj Mahal, as the melodic sound of a recitation of the Quran played in the background. The next section showcased breathtaking examples of illuminated Arabic script. In many cases the Quran but also a number of Firmans, edicts of sorts, from the Ottoman empire. Of particular delight to me is this section were a number of astrolabes and navigational tools as well as the intricately detailed ink pots and matching quill boxes.
Moving on there was a wide range of artefacts to illustrate the blending of different cultures with Islamic art, in particular, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian. This included everything from textiles and furniture to jewellery and weapons. While paintings and sculptures may be far less common in the world of Islamic art, there is no doubt in my mind that the objects created are just as beautiful as any painting, if not more so for their practicality.
Exiting the museum, I made my way to Masjid Jamek, another mosque, via the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman Temple. The temple was pleasant to look around briefly and the mosque was certainly impressive from what I could see of it, even though I could not enter. Instead, I headed to Merdeka Square where Malaysian independence was declared and which is ringed by and impressive selection of colonial era buildings and headed by a huge flagpole, proudly supporting the Malaysian flag.
Continuing on, I backtracked past the National Mosque and made my way to the Butterfly Garden. At MYR25 I felt the cost was a little steep but enjoyed my time wondering around the miniature garden jungle even if there were less butterflies than I had expected to find. Halfway round I again found myself frantically dashing for shelter as it began to rain. Fortunately there were a number of small seating areas within the garden and I was able to read my book even as the rain poured down all around me.
A quick stop to look up at the Petronas Towers and I headed back to the hostel for the evening.
My last full day in Kuala Lumpur saw me teaming up with another guest to visit the Batu Caves. We set out around nine thirty in the hopes of seeing the cave while the temperature was still somewhere around sweltering instead of Mordor on a bad day. Sadly our cunning plan was not to be. Being backpackers on something vaguely resembling a budget, we had elected to get the train rather the a Grab car or taxi. We did not however account for the varying train times of Kuala Lumpur. I for one, am used to inner city trains running on a regular and frequent schedule and did not think to check train times. Then again, I am not convinced checking train times would have made a difference.
We waited twenty minutes for the monorail to KL Sentral while two went in the opposite direction. At KL Sentral we were redirected to a free bus shuttle that was running to KTM Sentul instead of the train. We sat on the bus (blessedly air conditioned) in the station for another fifteen minutes before being told to switch to a different bus. Upon making it to Sentul we waited a further half hour before the train drew out of the station on the last leg to Batu Caves. We finally arrived a mere one hour and forty five minutes after we had set out compared to the fifteen/twenty minutes it would have taken by car.
Thus we found ourselves climbing 272 stairs up to the main cave with the sun doing its best to cook us alive. The cave was impressively huge, even with most the manmade structures within it cocooned in scaffolding. However, for me the cave was a little disappointing because aside from the size, the geological features were not amazing and almost everything else was behind tarpaulins. Furthermore, the smell of monkey urine was rather unappealing. Neither of us was particularly inclined to see all the insects and bats that call the Dark Cave home so we skipped over visiting it.
The journey back was somewhat quicker and we parted ways at KL Sentral, agreeing to meet again later. I had another long journey ahead of me. This time walking to Thean Hou Temple where the nearest public transport spots were all a uniform forty minutes away. Despite this I really enjoyed walking around the temple, perhaps my favourite in a while. It offered excellent views of Kuala Lumpur and had counteracted the fading and peeling of paint that strikes all buildings in this hot and humid climate with a fresh coat of paint. This meant lots of brightly coloured dragons perched on the eaves looking as if they could come alive at any moment.
With the long journey times these were the only attractions I visited during the day, venturing out with the same young lady that evening to watch the sunset at the Heli Lounge. Our plans were foiled once more, this time by the weather. A light shower meant we could only go up to the top deck for a brief round of photos before being ushered back down into the bar. With clouds blocking the sunset, it was something of a wasted trip although my gin and tonic was quite pleasant. The day ended with delicious feast of mango and mangosteens from a nearby food market.
Arriving in Melaka the evening before, I eventually resorted to getting a taxi to my hostel instead of the bus as it seemed the majority of buses had stopped running for the day. Another thing that seemed to close extremely early was the majority of restaurants, which all seemed to be closed by six. Fortunately not everywhere closed and I had some noodles in a little cafe on Jonker’s road. The rest of the evening was spent chatting with other guests and the staff on the rooftop of my hostel, a group of mostly solo travellers making for a sociable crowd.
Breakfast devoured, I set out into Melaka. It was something of a false start as about five minutes later I found myself huddling in a five foot way sheltering from a sudden downpour. A chapter of my book later and the rain cleared so I was able to resume my exploring. There is not a huge amount of things to see in Melaka, unless one has a deep and passionate love for all kinds if museums, so I very quickly saw the key sites which were of interest to me.
Not yet willing to return to the hostel, I went to the Maritime Museum. This was a lot of fun as the first half of the museum in a replica of the Portuguese vessel the Flor de la Mar that sank off the coast of Melaka. It was also fascinating to read about the rise of Melaka from a fishing village to a major port of trade. How the colonisation of Melaka, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British, combined with their varying religious persecutions, changed the port from one of free trade to a state monopoly of declining significance was well explained. However, the order of reading for the information plaques a little unclear in some cases.
A (very) late lunch of scrumptious pork satay later and I spent the rest of the afternoon reading my book before getting ready for the hostel’s cycling trip to Masjid Selat Melaka, the “floating” mosque, for sunset. On our way, we briefly stopped via a group of locals play a cross between volleyball and football with a wicker ball. Kicking the ball back and forth over the volleyball net required an impressive level of flexibility and foot eye coordination. At no point were hands used to hit the ball but there were a few well aimed headers.
Watching the sun set as we sat next to the Straits of Melaka as the call to prayer rang out, was a beautiful experience. The lights of the Masjid Selat Melaka gradually strengthened as the light of day slid from the sky which faded from blue to orange to purple and finally black.
Heading back to the hostel with a flat tire rattling my joints out was slightly less fun and mildly terrifying as all road signs were ignored by our guide and most other road users. The solo travellers from the bike tour grouped together for dinner. Electing for an Indian place the hostel owner had recommended, we all satiated the appetites we had worked up cycling with the self serve plate, none of us quite brave enough to pick something unknown off the menu. This was just as well a fish complete with heads and tails was a menu option I saw someone ordering and is a meal I intend to never eat again if at all possible.
The day concluded with a round of beers and Cards Against Humanity on the hostel roof, so while there may not have been much to see in Melaka, there was still a great many people to meet and laughs to be had.