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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

Taking the P

MALAYSIA | Thursday, 5 August 2010 | Views [1403]

The passengers on the mini-bus to Penang were a mixed bag, some talkative travellers, not so talkative locals and crazy bus driver. 10 baht each for 'overtime' at the border, and we were in Malaysia!

Penang was a real treat - not just as an escape from banana pancake and tourist land, but a chance to meet some fascinating and friendly characters, sample all kinds of wonderful food lah and explore somewhere that felt different from anywhere we'd been before.

It was almost 10pm, and we stashed our bags at the New Banana and headed out for some food, Penang seemed dusty and fairly deserted. The first place we came upon was a bar, the owner came bounding out and introduced himself as Santana, inviting us to have some drinks and maybe he'd sing later. Sadly we were after food rather than drink and he gave us directions to some good food stalls. Three doors down and another owner bellowed out at us while we looked at his menu "We're in the Lonely Planet", then seeing Oli was wearing a metal T-shirt, "I have hardcore that will make you crap yourself - do you like Sepultura?" So we spurned the culinary delights for which Penang is famous (and we'd been talking about all day), and had pesto pasta in wonderful, crazy company. More on B@92 when we returned to drink...

Next morning we left the New Banana and moved to the Red Inn - new place, carefully restored with delightful owner and staff. After the rapid pace we'd kept through Thailand, it was a day for gentle exploring and relaxing. Penang's old town has romantic crumbling colonial buildings, wildly decorated temples and an array of mosques and churches.

Other Penang tourist attractions include Penang Hill, with a fenicular to take you to the top. We got all the way there to find it was shut for renovation so walked around the hill (past huge boulders and a massive monitor lizard) to the Temple of Kin Yuan, a big complex with a giant goddess and various intricate buddhas, flowers and ornate decorations. No pictures sadly as we've broken the camera. We also enjoyed the floating mosque and the national park.  Stumbled upon Penang attractions also merit comment: An Indian rapping festival promotion in a shopping mall with massive crowds lined up on every level, a pet show with cats, dogs, gheckos and a horse, and a 5 foot monitor lizard in the hillside!

Our main mission in Penang was to look for a boat that might take us to India. The no flying objective is not looking good right now. People didn't laugh too much at the port. (Ports are a lot bigger and harder to navigate one you get to them: there are a lot of people who know what they are doing, and they are not set up for two bumbling tourists trying to find a boat...) But we did get some numbers to ring, discover that all the boats from Penang to India stop at Port Klang, and that it's much easier to talk to office gatekeepers when you are face to face.  The food was a step up from before, the new best food of the trip, even above Japan.  After the disappointment of Thai food, Malay was the way.  Roti canai came in at an unbelieveable 40 sen and we ate a huge Thali each for just RM6 - a little over a pound.  The food was so good we instantly gained about 40 pounds.

You can't be in Malaysia for long without noticing the '1Malaysia' campaign - the slightly ill defined term seems to be the buzz word for every politician, it litters newspaper pages and there are slogans, stickers and flags all over the place.. It is interesting to be in a place where Malay, Muslims, Chinese, and Indians rub shoulders, following their own religious and cultural beliefs without much tension. It is multi-cultural in a very different way from London.  Everyone is very very friendly.  We had a great time with a mad Serb called Aleks who runs a bar called b@92, referencing his involvement with the Exit festival which he now considers full of commercial crap.  We were unsure about coming in when he bounded to the door and almost dragged us in.  He'd seen my heavy metal t shirt from Thailand and was promising "hardcore to make you crap yourself".  He had a huge collection of music, two cute kids and a whole villages worth of personality.  He was a real character and on our final night we came across him having a largely Indian booze-up in his bar.  We bought some beers but by the end were drinking the whisky he was throwing at everyone.  He was so generous that the Indians ended up remonstrating with him about how to run a business, prompting calls of "fuck money!  Maybe I don't care about it!".  He never could finish a song - partly because when he was annoyed (which was often) the music magically stopped.

It was with some sadness and some sleep in our eyes that we boarded the 7am bus to the Perhentians. We had a whole minibus to ourselves, and the driver stopped on the road through the jungle for pictures and to try to hear the gibbons. By mid afternoon we were jumping off the speedboat into knee deep water and carrying our packs up the beach.  We stayed at the secluded Mira beach, with a selection of bungalows and - brilliantly - a resident otter. Coral Beach and Long Beach (the bits with bars, restaurants and laundry) are a water taxi or 40min walk away.  The islands were really nice, cool music not Jack bloody Johnson, everything Thailand supposedly used to be.  Toilets were in short supply and we had to walk for an hour in the dark through jungle after a night out which was irritating, but it was a real highlight.

The Perhentian Islands are famed for their diving, but the authorities are about to shut lots of the dive sites because of coral bleaching. Coral has a symbiotic relationship with the algae that live in it. When the water temperature rises, everything changes and the algae start to attack the coral.  The coral then rejects them and shuts down, going white and using about 15% of its normal energy. If the temperature reduces and the coral is undisturbed, it can recover again in a few years.  The paperwork was still being processed when we arrived. We did three dives, which were astonishingly good value compared with Thailand, but for us Koh Phi Phi was still the best experience. The absolute highlight was a wreck dive - called Sugar Wreck, it sunk a dew years ago so was mostly in tact. We swam through the hold, and were happy to see bamboo sharks, giant puffers, boxfish, rays, eels, batfish and barracuda. Wreck diving itslef is murky and quite spooky, but great fun - and interesting to see how quickly the underwater world lays claim to these man-made reefs.  The other two dives .... Sadly our final dive was a disappointment, we had a divemaster who liked to show the group little things inside crags and crannies, which were no doubt wonderful, but getting in to see them was slightly beyond our abilities. Sad to end this chapter of underwater adventure on a sour note, but we're both still really happy with all we've seen and done.

Tips for travel:

Penang - b@92, at 92 Church st; woodlands cafe for great vege Indian food; Red Inn on Love lane, really good owners

Perhentians - it's really quiet, be careful if you want Thai-style nightlife; Mira beach and D'Lagoon are really quite far and the river taxis stop running late


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