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days 41 to 46 – penang – where do the chinese go at new year?

Our stay in Georgetown, Penang did not begin well. After having trouble booking anywhere to stay because of the Chinese New Year fast approaching, Helen and I managed to reserve a twin room with en-suite and were looking forward to a little luxury after our recent ultra basic living conditions. We spent most of the six hour journey fantasising about the idea of getting to unpack and having a bathroom to ourselves. However, when we arrived 75 Traveller’s Lodge about 10.30pm, we discovered they didn’t have our booking and all their private rooms were full. It being too late and being too tired to go look for anywhere else, we took a bed in their dorm. At 9 ringgits each, it was at least cheap but seeing that every other bunk had a mosquito nets set up over it should have been sufficient warning about what was to come but neither of us could face rooting through our backpacks for our own nets.

As it turned out, I didn’t get bitten at all but Helen spent all of the next day discovering more and more bites all over her body. So the next morning we went on a search for a new place to stay. We had already ruled out 100 Cintra Street after a guy we had met in Tanah Rata had stayed there and gained bites worse than Helen’s from bedbugs. After traipsing round a bunch of guesthouses in Chinatown (meeting several people who we knew from the Cameron Highlands), we bumped into an Italian guy called Daniele* who we had originally met on the bus the night before. He had stayed with two other girls from the bus in a three person room at Banana Guesthouse but was also looking for somewhere else as the two girls were moving on. It didn’t take much discussion for Helen and I to take the vacated space – to the amusement of the staff at Banana, to whom it looked like Daniele had just swapped women.

Once this was finally done, we could set out to look around the area. It was absolutely dead. If we, along with every other traveller who descended on Penang for Chinese New Year, had thought this through, we would have realised that for the first couple of days the Chinese mostly go spend time with family and everywhere in Chinatown – also the main backpackers’ area of Georgetown – was closed. We went out to Little India to find somewhere to eat and discovered that Daniele had never had Indian food before. I have also discovered a theme with the Italians in that they don’t like garlic to ever be served in large pieces in their food. Not a shared trait I ever expected but each one I’ve met on this trip has complained about it.

We discovered where all the Chinese seemed to have gone when we aimed to go up Penang Hill but slightly misled by Lonely Planet about where the funicular railway station was, only got halfway and after stopping at the market where I bought a new pair of flip flops from a man called William. He also gave us directions and suggested we see Kek Lok Si Temple at night. Which we did, despite still aiming for the railway. It was a particularly impressive temple (apparently the largest Buddhist one in Malaysia), mixing Chinese, Burmese and Thai styles. It was also filled with Chinese people visiting the temple – it seemed like everyone who had vacated Chinatown had made their way up here to Air Itam and Helen and I were two of the very few tourists who were there. Stopping off on the way to have some of the local Laksa, we met William again who explained in great detail (but not entirely comprehensible English) the history of Kek Lok Si, as well as pointing out on our map some good sights we could go see while we were in Penang. We went back to Banana and congratulated ourselves on an unexpectedly good time although then discovered that we had apparently narrowly missed Sian and John – a couple we had met at Father’s in Cameron Highlands, who had come round to see if we were about.

Our bad luck in Penang still wasn’t over. The next morning I woke up and did not feel good. I don’t know what it was but it felt like a mild strain of flu (which I was vaccinated against) – mostly just feeling exhausted and achey. It wrote off the day, which I spent sleeping and listening to audiobooks on my iPod. The next morning I still felt bad but we had arranged to meet up with Sian and John at the funicular railway to get tickets to go up Penang Hill for sunset. So in a pathetic way, I dragged myself back out to Air Itam and walked about 20 minutes (not the five suggested by LP) to the station. We were incredibly late so after hanging around, not sure whether Sian and John had come and gone or not, eventually I slumped on a chair in the waiting room while Helen got us tickets. We went back and I slept some more and when I woke up that afternoon, felt much better and ready to head back out to finally make it up the hill.

The funicular railway was packed but it does make for an interesting journey as it effectively moves up a 45 degree slope. There are signs as you go past with how far above sea level you are and by the time you get to the top – 833 metres above sea level – you’re pretty relieved to get out of the cramped carriage. It’s a nice view but due to it being very overcast, the sunset was less than spectacular. It’s fun watching all the lights come on below you though. We kept an eye out for Sian and John but saw no sign of them and eventually headed back down the hill. Late that evening, we had a message from them saying that they had got to the station even later than us that morning and had ended up going up just after the sun had set. We’d just missed them again.

Helen and I had planned to stick around for the Chinese New Year celebrations in Lebuh Campbell – the street behind Banana – then both take our separate journeys up to Thailand, although we both intended to get the sleeper train to Hat Yai, then I would head up to the island of Koh Tao. With this in mind, and knowing that the Thai government had irritatingly changed the visa waiver period from one month to two weeks if entering the country by land, I paid for a 30 day visa.

As it turned out, all the hordes of travellers who had turned up in Penang expecting huge celebrations for the New Year, were all aiming to leave at the same time too. Tickets were all sold out on the train and my other land option was an 18 hour minibus journey, including 6 hours sea crossing. Instead of going to the snake temple like we intended, Helen and I spent our last day in Penang, trying to sort out what we were going to do. With Sam and Karl’s descriptions of vomiting passengers on their crossing on my mind, I let go of my determination to not fly until the end of my journey and booked a flight with Firefly Airlines to Koh Samui, from where I could get a two hour crossing to Koh Tao.

Finally sorted, we went out to enjoy the festivities. They were just finishing setting up as we walked down Lebuh Campbell; a stage was at one end of the road with four comfy armchairs set up in front of it, then behind them rows of plastic chairs. Behind those were several round tables laid for dinner. Once past there, we reached varying stalls. At one a man painted Chinese calligraphy; the next was long and several small groups of people were folding Chinese red envelopes and sticking them together to build something.

Further down the street started to smell citrus-y and when we came across people handing out oranges to raise money for damage caused by a past fire, we realised why. We also received gold chocolate coins for the same cause. At other stalls free food was being handed out, mostly desserts that neither of us recognised but were either of a crispy, fried nature or tasted of tapioca or I didn’t dare try for fear of nuts. We also reached a stand handing out free, espresso-sized cups of Milo** – the patiently waiting queue was the longest I had seen in a long while, including when we went to get tickets for Penang Hill. I can’t imagine what those people taste in Milo to warrant waiting for that long or if people just saw the queue and joined it, expecting something great at the end. They would have been sorely disappointed.

Then we got to the entertainment. After watching a group of kids (who looked about 12 to 14) carefully place large drums and test them thoroughly for how well balanced they were, we saw them do a long and very impressive drumming performance. It involved them standing on their drums and jumping off at points, which explained why they were so careful about the placement. Some smaller children, maybe aged five to seven, did a dragon dance. They weren’t quite so proficient, at one point getting completely tangled up and needing a teacher to come in and untwist them, but they were very cute. A teenage girl played traditional Chinese music on an instrument I can’t name to great applause. There seemed to be a double act stand-up routine going on but as it was all in Chinese, I couldn’t say how funny it was. Further down a pair were singing traditional songs, while a group of four people in very ornate costumes wandered around having their photos taken.

After lining the red carpet for a man who may have been the Chief Minister of Penang… or maybe the Governor, I’m not really sure, we listened (but didn’t understand) a speech from him before he sat down on one of the comfy armchairs for the staged performances – traditional dances from Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures, more musical performances and a terrifying Wu Shu demonstration. By the end of this, Helen and I returned for our last night at Banana and glad that we had finally experienced a little of what we had come for.

The next morning, we went out and Chinatown had come back to life again. All the shops and restaurants were open and we had dim sum on a very quickly cleaned up Lebuh Campbell before I set out for the airport.

Somehow, in a month I had managed to completely forget everything about flying. I had my trainers tied to the outside of my backpack and I completely forgot about the liquids rule so had to abandon a bottle of sunscreen. When I went through security, the scanner didn’t beep and I was so surprised that my knee hadn’t set it off that I actually looked back at it in confusion and almost demanded to be frisked, on principle.


* While typing this up in an internet place on the riverfront in Phnom Penh, there was a tap on my shoulder and I looked up to see Daniele. This sort of thing happens all the time. The traveller’s circuit is ridiculously small.
** A milky hot drink, a bit like Horlicks. If you’re never had Horlicks, I have no other frame of reference for you.

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days 36 to 40 – ipoh / cameron highlands – high tea and scones

There is not a great deal to say about Ipoh, especially as I arrived there quite late. I was last there 19 years ago and I don’t really have much of an impression of the town itself. I can now tell you that it’s got a pretty good bus station where they sell some very enjoyable sweetcorn in a polystyrene cup that’s absolutely dripping in butter and salt. It was nice to have a room to myself for one night though and in the morning, I sat and read in the Bougainvillea Park, which was pretty. I saw some caves on the bus journey in and if I hadn’t arrived so late, I could have gone out to see them – maybe they would have been less commercial than the Batu Caves.

I was meant to meet Helen outside the HSBC, which according to Lonely Planet is on Jalen Dato Maharajah Lela, near the clock tower. It isn’t. There is an OCBC on that road and HSBC is one over. Our secondary plan had been to have lunch at the recommended FMS Bar and Restaurant a couple of streets from our proposed meeting point. It had closed down. I then spent two hours roaming a four street block looking for Helen, who it turned out was doing the same. How we kept missing each other I have no idea. Every 15 minutes, I would hear the clock chime but not be able to locate it, until eventually I tracked it down to the top of a small hill. There was Helen, who had a terrible hangover and was about to give up and return to the bus station.

Our bus to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands left on time and was very comfy with wide, reclining seats. As you get closer to the Highlands though, the road gets more and more twisty and our bags shot back and forth across the floor at each corner. When we arrived, it had long got dark and I’m glad we’d arranged a pick up with Father’s Guesthouse because we’d have had trouble finding it otherwise. I’m also glad we made reservations. With Chinese New Year fast approaching, a lot of places were getting booked up and three guys who had also come in on our bus were told there was no room at Father’s, which is run by a large family, all of whom seem to be smiling all the time.

Our dorm was of eight beds (not bunks, happily) in old converted Nissen huts and cost us 10 ringgit (approximately £2) a night. It’s a lot cooler than the rest of Malaysia and while in the day it’s sunny and pleasant, on my first night there I was cold in my pyjamas and with two blankets as well as being kept awake half the night by the German guy opposite’s snoring. The next morning we got up early to take a tour of the area and while in the bathroom, brushing my teeth, the same German guy from my dorm caught me yawning widely. “Still tired?” he asked, cheerfully.

“Yes. Because of you,” I didn’t say and very soon got over my morning grouchiness when faced with the beautiful view across the Highlands. The atmosphere of the area is relaxed and the design very colonial. Almost everywhere they serve cream teas with scones and locally produced strawberry jam. There’s even one hotel built in Tudor-style.

Father’s itself is on a rise on the edge of Tanah Rata with its own grounds, restaurant (which serves mostly western food) and bar. They do an incredibly good banana lassi (yoghurt shake) and have a lounge area where you can request films from their (pirated) DVD collection at the cost of 5 ringgit. The one drawback to this system when in a hostel is that Quantum of Solace was on three nights in a row. I’m still fuzzy on the plot though. The best thing about this particular DVD is that despite the film being in English, it also had English subtitles, evidently made by someone who didn’t speak English as their first language and was transcribing by the closest phonetic sound they knew, without any regard for meaning. This meant that a sentence like, “You only get one shot” was subtitled with “You only watch up” and everyone’s favourite was while James is in the obligatory bed scene with the Bond Girl: “You must be furious” was subtitled as “You must be feeling my ass”.

On our first day, Helen and I took a tour of the highlands. We started off at the rose garden, which wasn’t so much filled with roses as it was a lot of different flowers and mostly resembled a very peaceful garden nursery with extremely random stone figurines all over the place, as well as a large boot a la The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. We then headed to the strawberry farm, mostly notable for its vast array of tacky strawberry themed souvenirs, including some very orange-looking Strawberry Shortcake dolls. They did do some amazing jam and strawberry milkshakes.

Our third stop was the butterfly farm, which wasn’t all that big and didn’t have a very wide range of butterflies but did have some impressive insects and reptiles. Amongst others, I got to hold a rhino beetle, a gecko, a tortoise and a scorpion, which caused me a bit of a fright when Helen bumped against the hand I was holding it on and it raised its tail menacingly. We also saw two very large rats put into a snake enclosure. The snakes didn’t seem very interested though as the rats ran back and forth in a panic.

Fourth on the tour was the main reason I’d gone out there, which was to see the Boh tea plantation. It is so beautiful up amongst the tea fields. It’s so green and quiet. Each plantation has its own little town for the workers living there with a small shop, Hindu temple, mosque and church next door to each other. I had a whole lot of facts and figures about tea production but have managed to misplace them all now. I did buy a whole lot of tea though and we sat at their tearoom, looking out over the plantations before heading to a honey farm, which was basically a lot of beehives. Again, an enjoyably peaceful walk. Finally, we stopped at the gaudy Chinese Sam Poh Temple before returning to the guesthouse and so ending the only real activity we did during our whole stay there.

After that first day, our time in the Cameron Highlands was mostly characterised by intending to go on a hike but finding other things to do instead (i.e. laze around), reading, eating, playing a lot of Scrabble (which I was unbeaten at for our whole stay), teaching and playing a lot of Chinese Poker and drinking a great deal of tea. Amongst the many people we got to know was a group of three graduates who had just completed their degrees in Architecture, which was pretty unlucky timing given the non-existent need for architects right now. They had been travelling entirely by land (or water) from the UK, taking the trans-Siberian railway and heading down Asia. From picking their brains about where they had gone so far, they managed to worry me as they described their crossing to the Thai island of Koh Tao, where I was intending to go to dive. The water was so rough, they told me, that about a third of the people on the boat were throwing up. This did not sound good.

We also spent about two days agonising over whether we could make it to the Perhentian Islands, struggling with length of journeys and our respective calendars before eventually giving in and deciding to just head to Penang in time for Chinese New Year.

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days 32 to 35 – kuala lumpur – towers and caves

I am massively behind, I know, as I am typing this in Laos after having been through both Malaysia and Thailand. But here goes with an attempt to catch up.

Sentral Kuala Lumpur (the train station) is lot more swish than Singapore’s although is probably the only thing that is. It was a little bit disconcerting though to turn up and not be met with any form of border control or customs. I just walked on through to get on the MRT. Apart from my leaving card from Singapore, I spent my whole time in Malaysia without any proof that I had arrived. The MRT itself is a bit confusing too. Each line is operated by a different company, so each time I wanted to change, I would have to get off, go through the barriers, cross over to another station and then buy another ticket.

Buses are convenient as long as you can find the stop, which is a lot easier said than done. Once on them though, the drivers are usually very helpful in shouting at you when you need to get off. This is particularly useful as the buttons for the stop bell are on the ceiling. In a nation of short people, I don’t think they thought that one through. I, by the way, feel surprisingly normally sized.

There are people on scooters everywhere. I am still convinced that after nuts an accident with a scooter is what is most likely to kill me before I get home. The riders wear their jackets backwards with helmets that don’t look like they’d give any more protection than eggshells and when stopped by traffic lights, will mount the pavement and go round that way, if they get impatient enough. I was so amazed to see one man on a scooter who apparently had a whole confectionery shop attached to him and his scooter, making him the width of a large car, that I wasn’t looking where I was going, fell over on the uneven and very high pavement and picked up a set of bruises that lasted me well into Thailand. Once on a bus, I was caught in a traffic jam, I looked out of the window to see the cause. A large group of riders with their scooters were standing around at the edge of the road by two police cars and an ambulance and on the floor in front of them, being given a healthy amount of room, was a large tarpaulin spread over a large lump and two flip flops lying on top. I’ve since met a lot of people who’ve had some very nasty accidents on scooters and motorbikes around here.

I stayed in the Hostel Cosmopolitan, which was on the fourth floor of a nondescript building in Chow Kit* between a 7-11 and an internet gaming place and only signposted by a piece of A4 paper next to the lift. I liked it there a lot though – they kindly waived the check-in fee for me turning up exceedingly early and when I accidentally locked my padlock key inside my locker, broke it open for me and wouldn’t let me pay for the damage. Although the girl who did it did laugh every time she saw me for the next three days. Also in the hostel were two cats called Naughty and Winnie. They would be your best friend if you opened up the fish cracker tub and if they ever lost each other, you’d hear plaintive cries across the floor until they found each other again.

It was very relaxed there and sociable (as long as we avoided talking about the Israel-Gaza situation, at which point things got a little more complicated), the one downside was that there were no windows in the dorms so you never knew when morning had come. As a result, everyone seemed very lethargic and there was one American woman staying in my room, Maryann, who had been there for a month. She had In Days, when she stayed in watched television and used the internet, and Out Days, when she went out to the mall and ate McDonalds. I’m not entirely sure that was worth travelling half way around the world for.

The hostel had provided free toast for breakfast, accompanied by a sign saying there was a maximum of six slices per guest. No one ever wanted six slices of toast in the morning but being told that that was our limit, it felt like we were being challenged to eat that many. I never managed more than four, neither did another English girl I met called Helen. Rob, who was coming to the end of his South East Asia travels before going to teach English in Vanuatu**, just about managed his full allocation each morning.

The Petronas Towers are impressive, as you might expect. They are particularly beautiful when they are all lit up. I ended up finding this out by accident – Helen, Rob, an Irish guy called Ronan (I barely resisted Boyzone jokes. He, as Rob pointed out later, looks like Super Hans from The Peep Show) and I set out to on a very long walk in an attempt to find a food market that was meant to be huge and instead ended up at the Petronas Towers by night instead. Happily, they have a food court inside (as well as a five storey shopping centre, complete with art gallery) so we didn’t starve and instead ate nasi lemak and sat out by the fountains talking until they were turned off.

I didn’t go up the Towers because despite it being free, you have to queue up from about 8.30am and the aforementioned lethargy meant I was never up that early. Plus, the Sky Bridge is only about halfway up, so the view isn’t as good as it was from the KL Tower***. They do have a Man U supporting security guard who argued with me about when they were playing Liverpool (I turned out to be right). With my entry ticket for the KL Tower, I got a free KL Tower-shaped bottle of water and tickets to some of their other lesser attractions, which I doubt you would ever choose to pay for. One was the impressively tacky Winter Wonderland – a row of giant plastic snowmen and reindeer, with humongous Christmas baubles hanging from palm trees and fans blasting out fake snow.

The Lake Gardens are lovely, particularly in the heat and the bird park (which I think is meant to be the biggest undercover in the world) is pretty impressive. The restaurant is particularly nice, as it’s on a balcony over the park and birds often fly over and land on your table.

North of KL are the Batu Caves and Helen, Rob and I took a bus out there to go see them. It’s incredible how fast the area changes once you get past city limits and Titiwangsa (heh) – all the tall concrete buildings turn into buildings under construction, then they too drop away until you’re going past short, rundown huts for the rest of the run up to Gombak.

Little bit of background for you: the Batu Caves is made of limestone and is the site of a Hindu shrine and one of the most popular places for pilgrimage during Thaipasum (about a week after we visited). It has a giant gold painted statue of a Hindu deity (Muragan, so Wikipedia tells me) outside and you have to climb 272 steps up to the main cave – I am so unfit, it’s embarrassing. The cave itself is beautiful – sunlight cuts through the ceiling and monkeys run around – what they’ve done to it is not. The ground has been covered in concrete, steel hand railings have been erected and there are electric lamps, like streetlights. There are tacky souvenir stands outside, which I expected and inside, which I really did not. And there is litter everywhere. It was singularly depressing and I can’t imagine how reverent you could feel on a pilgrimage there.

There was a holy woman there giving blessings. I don’t think she could have ever have cut her hair, as it would have been longer then her height and she held it coiled up in her lap. Rob asked her if she would mind him taking a photo, she gestured to a pile of one ringgit notes, which he added to. When he went to take the photo, she refused but offered him a blessing instead, which he refused and didn’t take the photo. Given the number of tourists snapping away without even bothering to ask, it seemed a very awkward exchange. We ended up spending far more time sitting outside in the shade of a convenience store, eating Miaow Miaow Chicken Crackers (very moreish) and talking.

I left Kuala Lumpur from Pudaraya bus station to go to Ipoh, with the intention to meet up with Helen the next day to carry on up to the Cameron Highlands. As you walk into the bus station, there are at least a hundred stands for different bus journeys and companies and people shouting for your custom. The long distance buses are really comfortable, with reclining seats and freezingly air-conditioned. Time-keeping isn’t so great though – my bus left an hour and a half after it was scheduled to.


* Just south of Lake Titiwangsa – a place that every time I read or heard the name of, I giggled childishly to myself.
** A set of islands near Fiji without electricity – I didn’t have a clue where it was either.
***Apparently the fourth tallest communications tower in the world. At what position does it stop getting impressive? Fifth? Tenth?

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