Cameron Highlands – the Birds and the Bees (almost)
Firstly, let me apologise for the long break in communications. We’ve been too busy having fun! I have taken notes along our journey from the Cameron Highlands though, so hopefully I can recall the highlights. I will try to keep them to highlights, otherwise this will make for one very long, very boring post.
After my last post we had one more day in Tanah Rata. We went to see the bees and the butterflies, as well as some rather unsavoury insects and reptiles, down the road at Kea Farm, as well as savouring some tasty food in the most unexpected place – literally a shack on the roadside next to a building site. But we are fast discovering that these local places serve the best food at the best prices. We caught the local bus service out there, and I practised my new word – terima kasih, meaning thank you. The lady bus conductor seemed happy with my pronouciation and said “Why you got to be so smart like that”! But in a nice way with a big grin on her face.
We headed back to Tanah Rata and took a walk around a park, and it felt like we were in the Lake District in the UK, the weather was cool and pleasant, and we were surrounded by hills and trees. A welcome break indeed from the searing heat closer to sea level.
That evening at the bar attached to our hostel there was a Halloween party being held, so while chilling out in the communal area we had the entertainment of watching some of the other guests getting dressed up in their costumes. If you know me, you know I love fancy dress, but as we were heading to Penang at 7am (yes, 7am!!) the next morning we decided to take it easy and instead of joining the party, sat down to a game of cards. We are not old, we’re just becoming more aware of our limits. I know what would have happened – we would have gone to the party with the intention of staying for a couple of drinks, and that would have swiftly rolled into not going to bed at all and having to contend with a 4 hour minibus journey with stinking hangovers. No thanks.
Nevertheless, at about 10pm the obnoxious young American lad, whom Mark had nicknamed Dopey, bowled through to our nice quiet area where other guests were relaxing in small groups as well as us, and started ordering us to obey him, socialise, and enjoy ourselves. Nothing like being bullied into having a good time. We respectfully declined. We then struggled to get a good nights sleep as all the partygoers came staggering back to their rooms full of alcohol and full voiced. We did manage to get some shut eye eventually, but were sorely tempted when we awoke at 6am the next morning to go and hide our alarm clock in their room. We did no such thing. We’re too nice. But the thought was there.
Feeling virtuous we squeezed into the minibus with seven other people and all their luggage, and headed on the most uncomfortable, but surprisingly quick, journey yet to Penang. We arrived at 11am to begin our new explorations.
Penang – Georgetown and Beaches
Penang is an island which has been designated city status, off the north west coast of Malaysia. Georgetown is the biggest settlement area, and also houses Little India and Chinatown. Everywhere we’ve been to so far has both of these! Our guest house was right on the outskirts of Chinatown, and for the money we were paying it was fabulous! Really modern airy feeling to it, room was a huge size with a big comfy bed, the shared bathrooms were also very modern and newly equipped, and seldom used as the majority of the rooms had en suites. “What’s the catch?” we thought.
We soon found out. One of the big plus points of the guesthouse is that it’s right next to a hawker centre, housing foods from Asia and further abroad, beer stalls, shops, and live music. One of the big minus points of the guesthouse is this very same location. You may remember me bemoaning the state of the live “band” that we had seen in Malacca. I really thought that nothing could be worse than that. I was wrong, because not only did the in house live act sing similar songs but with even less talent, they also came in a trio rather than just two, making the out of tune signing even more noticeable.
This was of course hilarious on our first night when we were sitting there, beers in hand, laughing away to ourselves. We had by then made our first new friend in Penang, a man whose name I never learned, because when I asked him instead he told me a rude word in Malay, which I duly repeated to his delight. We could stagger back from this first evening’s fun encounter and pass out quite happily, to wake up the next day slightly worse for wear. But every night this cacophony of noise pierced through our windows from 9pm to 1am. Then once that finished, a horrific looking bar called Soho aimed at all the rich westerners staying in the area competed for the very same title of most terrible 80s rock music/highest volume. Thank goodness for earplugs and booze!
Aside from that, we really enjoyed our stay. We wandered the streets of Chinatown and Little India day and night, looking for food, bargains and good photo shots. We caught a bus out to Batu Ferringhi which is one of the beaches that Penang is famous for. Beautiful paradise, though a little too catered towards rich tourists. I’m not jealous… While on the beach we saw a Muslim couple, the woman dressed in a full Burkha with sunglasses on! She must have been baking hot!
We also heard the call to prayer several times, but the one at Batu Ferringhi really sticks in my mind, as it was very moving. Imagine the peace of the beach, the waves lapping the shore, then overlay that with the most powerful emotive male vocal drifting from the nearest Mosque. It was a really beautiful moment. The mischievous side of me however did start to think about the man behind the vocal, and what it must feel like if it’s your very first time. Do they get performance anxiety like any other musician, or like a superstore tannoy announcer?
We had to escape from the beach when a massive thunderstorm hit, and it was amazing sitting in an undercover bar right on the beach front watching the thunder and lightning roll in. One of the local cockerels came wandering in, and even his crow seemed a little scared. Rather than the usual confident “Cock a doodle doo!” it was more like “Cock a doodle dur?” We were also told by one of the locals that they never usually have rain like this every single day, which is what we experienced while we were there, and have done ever since we got to Singapore. We’ve obviously not chosen the best year for our travels! But hey, it’s all about the adventure – and I love a good storm anyway – as long as I’m under cover with a beer…
Penang – Hills, Storms and Temples
We decided to extend our stay in Penang by one night despite the new contenders for the worst ever Malaysian Pop Idol contestants. We wanted to take the funicular train up to Bukit Bendera, or Penang Hill, and also wanted to visit the spectacular Kek Lok Si Buddhist temple near the foot of the hill. The hill is 830 meter high, so it’s a nice cool atmosphere up there compared to Georgetown, although nowhere near as cool as Cameron Highlands.
At the top it’s a little like a seaside town that’s become a bit abandoned and disused. There is a Hindu temple and a Mosque, a very English restaurant advertising strawberries and cream, which was unfortunately closed, and what was once a stately home of an English settler, which has now been turned into a hotel with a bird aviary attached. Perhaps it’s because it’s monsoon season and off peak at the moment, but it had that stale air of somewhere that’s fallen out of favour with the tourists. But the view was great, you could see all the way from the beaches at the northernmost point all the way across to Georgetown on the northwest coast and further south.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever experienced a monsoon storm heading straight towards you. As we were travelling up the hill there were a few rumbles of thunder, and this got more distinct as we walked around the top. We found a perfect place to watch the storm rolling in, and kept telling ourselves that we would start to make a run for it back to the funicular station as soon as we could no longer see the beaches. It was getting darker to the north, but Georgetown and the Straits still had sun shining on them. It was the most awesome sight. And to coin an Eddie Izzard phrase, awesome as in the original meaning of the word, not awesome as in Americans saying “Awesome socks dude!”
Soon enough the clouds came rolling across, and seemed to just miss us at the top of the hill, but then suddenly we realised that they were heading straight for us, and we decided to play chicken. For those of you not familiar with this game, when I was growing up we would ride our bikes towards each other really fast, and whoever swerved away first was the chicken. Well, we played it… and we lost. Mainly because I panicked, and squealing very much like my childhood self was signal enough to the run back to the station. This was quite embarrassing, as there were many school children on the top of the hill that nonchalantly strolled back. And it was in vain anyway, as the station, although having a roof, was otherwise woefully inept at protecting us from the elements. I now felt as if I was in the film The Fog, although thankfully without scary red eyed pirate ghosts trying to kill us all.
We safely made it back to the bottom of the hill and headed for Kek Lok Si temple. It’s the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia, and is still actively used by the local worshippers. We made it half way up to the temple (after a couple of wrong turns accompanied by the now familiar phrases “This can’t be right” and “Are you sure this is right?”) The first half of the steps going up have lots of stalls either side trying to sell you T-shirts, ornamental Buddha statues and the like. I swear one of the sellers said “Your shirt’s s***, buy one from me instead” – bloody cheek. One of them had clearly had a long day and had become quite jaded, because the extent of his patter was “Come buy stuff”.
We walked past all of these, following another family clearly heading to the same place, and eventually got to a sign saying “Temple this way” accompanied by a large metal grill which was impassable. I’m pretty sure this tells you that something is closed. I pondered why all of these sellers wouldn’t have enlightened us (haha, get it? Buddha… enlightened…), but then I realised that if someone ignored me trying to sell them my wares that I probably wouldn’t do them a favour either. May be a clue should have been that all the stalls were packing up to go home.
No bother though, we just went back in the morning, confident in the knowledge that we now knew which bus to get, where to get off, and where to walk to. And we found it! I’m not big on religion, but every temple that we have been to on our travels has had a very peaceful atmosphere, and this was no exception. Plus it was high up on the hillside, so again had stunning views, and it also had the smallest pond housing the largest collection of turtles that I have ever seen. And you could feed them! Although turtles by nature are quite slow in a lot of respects, so I was very amused to watch a few of them open their mouths just after the food had floated past.
I actually did buy a CD of Buddhist chant, as the song playing in the gift shop sounded so nice. Little did I know that it is the same passage played over and over again for 30 minutes. And the B side is exactly the same. Elliot and Midge, I’m not joking. You can borrow it. It sounds nothing like Tina Turner’s chant in “What’s Love Got to Do with it?”
After this peaceful end to our Malaysia adventure, we headed to the airport to catch a plane to Bangkok. We’re recognising that we have overextended ourselves in terms of the time we have to see as much as possible, so rather than take overnight trains that may or may not be running due to floods, we have turned into posh backpackers for a short period of time. I know they say that half the adventure is the journey, but it’s nice to actually get to see some stuff too.
I do have to say that I was glad to escape the slight oppressiveness of being a western woman in a Muslim culture. I felt men regarding me with something akin to disgust, if not full on disgust, when I was wearing anything other than a long skirt or trousers. I also began to become a little frustrated with men only addressing themselves to Mark and not to me, even when it was I who had asked a question. I understand that it’s important to respect other cultures, but I don’t expect anyone who comes to visit the UK to take on our culture’s religious beliefs. Neither do I force them to wear Morris dancing outfits, the chav uniform of Burburry, or like our female friends in the north, close to nothing at all even on the coldest wintry nights.
However, on the whole I have really enjoyed Malaysia. It’s such a melting pot of cultures and people, and very vibrant. With the odd exceptions, people have been very friendly and welcoming, eager to speak with us about our culture and our travels, and of course the food has been fantastic. Although we never did get to sample the ramly burger…
Bangkok was literally an eighteen hour stopover at a hotel near the airport before getting our connection to Chiang Mai, but one point to note was that the restaurant hotel seemed to have been hired out to the Bangkok faction of Come Dancing. As we ate our first Thai meal, which still managed to burn my mouth off even though they can see I am farang (foreign) and therefore lack the ability to cope with 7 chillies in each meal, I had to move my chair around to sit right next to Mark. This was for fear of being tangoed into next week by one of the few talented ball dancing couples, or more likely by the unlikely coupling of old drunk woman who appeared not to give a s*** plus young man who looked like Peewee Herman and was taking it very seriously. And the music… well, come back Penang band, all is forgiven….