From Thailand, our goal was to get to Singapore – in the most scenic way possible. I mean, why take a direct train through Malaysia when you can island hop from Thailand?? So of course that’s what we did. The ferries between islands cost a significant bit more than the buses on the mainland but we decided it was worth it to see the Malaysian islands of Langkawi and Penang before finally landing on peninsular Malaysia and busing to Kuala Lumpur.
The first thing that struck me when we arrived on Langkawi was how devolved the island was. The second thing that struck me was how run down it was. It’s as if the tourist boom and subsequent development hit Malaysia 20 years before Thailand. There were definite benefits to the development – more accommodation options, way more food options, and overall cheaper prices. The food industry also seemed a lot more on top of sanitary practices and I happily ate raw veggies in my falafel wrap (and didn’t get sick!). There were also significantly more activities on Langkawi than you would find anywhere on the Thai Islands – everything from jetskiis to paragliding. Although we didn’t see many people partaking in the activities – the beach town we were staying in (Pantai Cenang) seemed fairly empty while we were there. The consistently cloudy weather may have had something to do with it.
While we didn’t spend much time at the beach, I did manage to get in a little shopping – did I mention the ENTIRE Island is duty-free?! Considering the heavy tax Malaysia puts on liquor (which we later learned the hard way) it was nice to have some cheap beers. Shopping aside, Dan was still recovering from his dengue fever and for the most part we just relaxed. We had planned on renting a scooter and exploring more of the island which I think would have proved to be beautiful (there’s even a cable car that boasts fantastic views) but it didn’t happen – maybe next time!
Contrary to Thailand, seafood was about the same price as everything else and we treated ourselves to an amazing seafood dinner (twice…) at one of most popular restaurants, Orkid Ria Seafood Restaurant. It definitely wasn’t the cheapest meal available but the quality and freshness of the seafood was unbeatable – not to mention the delicious flavour. Clearly we weren’t the only people to think so because even though the beaches were empty this massive restaurant was absolutely packed every night.
After three short days on Langkawi we took a ferry to George Town, Penang. I’d heard many contrasting views about the city – it made the Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2016 but on the other hand, many travellers had said it was simply a stepping stone on their route to Langkawi and not worth stopping more than a night. We decided to find out for ourselves and spend three nights.
We happened to arrive the night before Chinese New Year began and found out there is a massive Chinese-Malaysian population on Penang . We weren’t sure what this meant but quickly learned it meant non-stop fire crackers all day and all night. If we hadn’t known better I would have thought we were in the middle of war zone. It was obnoxiously loud and the noises didn’t cease until the wee hours of the morning (and were back again the next evening). The Chinese New Year also meant most of the stores and restaurants were closed. Unlike our New Year’s Eve celebrations where the main focus is parties and counting down the new year, Chinese New Year lasts much longer and seemingly focuses more on family and visiting temples (and taking time off work for somewhere between two days and two weeks). Our Airbnb host (who was Chinese-Malaysian) left that evening around 1AM with his brother to go pay their respects at one of the temples. He also politely educated us on a few taboos and superstitions which we had to abide by for the evening in the house. He informed us that he had spent all day cleaning his house and his parents house as sweeping or dusting should not be done on New Year’s Day for fear that good fortune will be swept away. He also asked us to ensure all the lights on the main floor of the house remained on.
We walked through George Town the following day and it seemed like a complete ghost town with so many businesses closed for the New Year. During World War II, Georgetown was heavily bombed by both the Japanese and later by the Allied forces. In 2008, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its long history as a cosmopolitan city. Today, George Town is well known for its culture, heritage and street art. (Supposedly, George Town is also known as a medical tourism hub which explains why our Airbnb host – who is a nurse – spoke about hosting patients).
While much of the streets were empty, there were still hordes of people all trying to get the signature photo with each work of street art on and around Armenian Street. I couldn’t be bothered to wait for the twenty some-odd people before me (who weren’t in the most organized of lines but rather all pushing each other) and settled with having strangers in my photos.
After hours wandering around a mostly empty town and settling on Indian food for lunch (it was the only thing that was open!) and roasting under the intense sun, we attempted to get home. We learned the hard way that the “rapid” bus system on Penang is anything but rapid. We ended up walking much further than we intended and while we were dying of heat, we stumbled upon an abandoned and uniquely beautiful old school, as well as some form of a massive lizard crawling out of a sewage pipe (therefore, we nicknamed him a ‘sewer-lizard’).
The next day we attempted to be ‘real’ tourists and visited one of Penang’s main attractions – Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera) which rises 821 metres above sea level. We were told by our host that morning that the first day of Chinese New Year is spent indoors with family and the second everyone goes out. Thus, we were a tad worried that the funicular would be incredibly busy. We wanted to get to the top for sunset and then head down to the nearby Kek Lok Si Temple in the evening to see it lit up (which only happens during Chinese New Year). We again mistakenly put our faith in the Penang Rapid Bus system and it took over two hours to get to the bottom of the funicular meaning we missed sunset. The only good news (or so we thought) was there was no line at all! It was way more expensive than we had read – I guess they recently raised the prices – but we had wasted hours getting there so we decided to go up anyways. HUGE MISTAKE. The second we got to the top, our hearts sank. There must have been two thousand people waiting to get down in a giant line that seemed to stretch forever and not move. After spending five minutes or so taking a few pictures (nothing spectacular) we wandered around hoping to find somewhere to order dinner and wait out the line. After seeing the incredibly marked up prices of food and alcohol we almost cried. We managed to find a hawker-style food court that was just closing down but we got in our order for a noodle dish at a reasonable price.
When we finally made it down it was quite late but I really wanted to see Kek Lok Si Temple all lit up for the festivities. *Kek Lok Si Temple is a large Buddhist temple complex that was founded more than a hundred years ago. It was only a short walk away from Penang Hill and I am extremely glad we went. Entrance was free and it looked magnificent sparkling in the clear evening. It was packed with worshipers and as a result we didn’t go inside any of the buildings instead enjoying the outside.
We then attempted to get home and after waiting about 30 minutes for a bus, we realized we had probably missed the last bus back to town (it was after 11PM) and tried to find a taxi. Standing on opposite sides of the road by complete chance two taxis drove by at the same time and Dan and I both asked for prices. Dan’s driver said 80 MYR while mine quoted 20 MYR. I flagged Dan over knowing that was a fair price but we were again dumb-struck by how drastically prices can vary. While I didn’t mind arriving home late it sucked because we had planned on going to the grocery store to pick up breakfast and snack food for our all-day bus to KL the following day…
‘Just another big city?’ – many will ask. Sure, but I love cities and find that each one offers something new. Notably, KL was incredibly well connected in terms of the road infrastructure – I’ve never seen anything like it, the overpasses and underpasses and eight-lane highways through the middle of the city. We booked a room through Airbnb in an apartment shared with two other rooms also booked out to guests. The apartment was spacious with a living room, kitchen and dining area. Being in a big city again meant (for the first time in weeks) we had reliable, fast internet. We also had a nice table with chairs to sit at (I’ve never been one to enjoy typing on my laptop from a bed or couch).
As it turned out we did almost nothing “touristy” in KL – maybe our last ‘tourist’ expedition in Penang had turned us off that for a bit. The first day was eaten up mostly by a dentist appointment I booked that ended up being about a 40 minute drive away (thankfully KL has Uber). The rest of the day we spent booking flights, accommodation, going through photos, uploading photos, writing the blog, updating the blog and everything else that is the closest thing we do to ‘work’ these days. We also took advantage of the fact that the apartment we were staying at came with access to a gym and pool!