Thursday, May 07, 2009

Penang to Krabi

Our final stop in Malaysia was on the island of Penang. It's not really an island like the tropical beach island you are thinking of but is more of a historically important one. Penang is where the British set up their first settlement on Malaysia and began their trade rivalry with Dutch Melaka further down the coast. The original plan was to just visit for 2 days and then head into Thailand to find some beaches. Ha, didn't quite work out that way. In the end we actually stayed 9 days, the longest we've stayed anywhere since leaving Cairo in December.
Our decision to stay in Georgetown, Penang was more of an accident than anything. We were feeling rather lazy and had found a pretty good deal on a room big enough to comfortably fit the 4 of us (as in nobody was on the floor for a change). The hotel was a strange one because Penang has a lot of tourists and our hotel was full of mostly old white guys running around all day in their towels. We actually felt like we were in a retirement home or something and a lot of these guys are effectively retired and living there. They spend months (or years) at a time in the hotel and cycle through a handful of cities in South East Asia so they've all known each other for years as well. Some were quite friendly and interesting to talk to, and full of good stories and information as you can imagine.
There is quite a bit of old British architecture dating from the 1800's around though I must confess that apart from a few half-hearted wanders on my part we didn't really go out to see stuff. Instead we spent most of our time reading and trying to work through the massive pile of books that Paul had brought us. It's just too much weight to carry so we were trying to lighten the load a little, haha.
The reason we were delayed so long was because mom bought a laptop in Kuala Lumpur (computers are all evil and this effectively was the last nail in the sightseeing coffin) but it had a defective part that we had to get fixed. It took a couple days and went over the weekend. Fortunately for us, Penang is famous for it's great food. Paul and mom became the pro-Chinese/Malay team, while dad and I were firmly on the Indian team (complete with real masala tea, yum yum!).
But that brings me to another point about the whole Malaysian experience. I know there are Malay people, but it really doesn't feel like their country and sometimes I wonder where they are. It is such a melting pot of Chinese, Indians, Malay and Westerners and all possible crossbreeds that I don't know who dominates. We'd been couchsurfing with Chinese (who then patronize Chinese food joints) and in Penang we were on the edge of India town (which is everything about India except for the cows, garbage and staring). Because of their own religions, there are lots of Chinese and Hindu temples around and they often outnumber the mosques. Malaysia is an Islamic country (and devout in many ways) that I've heard quite a few complaints about from travellers who were harassed or had to pay a little more for a beer than they'd want to, but I really feel like I had to go out of my way to find Islam most of the time. I do remember sitting in front of one of the mosques in Georgetown as the mid-day prayer was called and seeing the worshipers enter. I had to think of Jake because most had beards and no mustaches which is an uncommon (but proper) style of appearance for devout Muslims. So they do exist, but they were really a non-issue in Malaysia for us.
It is still really warm and humid here and every day in Melaka saw us receiving more and more rain as the monsoon season is about to start on the west side of the peninsula. Fortunately the east has a different rainy season so we (and everyone else) will just have to adjust our itinerary to the east.
Being on only a 1 month holiday, Paul naturally got impatient and ran off a few days early into Thailand. We were lucky that we were delayed though. While at the hotel we learned that Thailand is only giving 15 day entries on arrival at land borders now. This seems like a stupid idea designed to further cut into their already hurting tourism (they've had a lot of political problems in the last year or so) and obviously somebody somewhere realized that, because for the next 2 months the Thai consulate in Penang is giving free 2-month visas out. Sign me up! On the day we picked up the computer we also got the visas and the next day we left for Hat Yai in Thailand.
If Malaysia was a small step down from Singapore, Thailand is a bigger step down from Malaysia and it was immediately obvious at the border. Gone were the nicely paved roads and in again were the chaotic masses of powerlines, run-down, dirty apartment blocks, potholes, chaotic driving, less developed farming plots, etc. Actually, I think one of the biggest changes is that we are now looking at signs in the Thai language. Unlike all the other countries we've been to so for since returning to Asia, Thailand is the first to have it's own alphabet and a tonal language. I know nothing of it so it's strange to look at a sign and not be able to identify a single letter. But I like Thailand, they call it the land of smiles for a reason :) On the peninsula we had found Malaysians to be quite friendly and helpful but the Thai are known for being amongst the most welcoming in the region (I'm still voting for the Filipinos so far though).
A night in Hat Yai and we were into another minibus for a completely psychotic drive to Krabi. Much of the highway was 2 lanes but wide enough for 3 cars across. Well, I guess that means it was really a 3 lane highway with our driver having the special access to the mysterious and invisible third lane. He would continue driving at his cruising speed of 120km/h, lean on the horn and straddle the centre line regardless of who was oncoming. If by some strange twist of whatever safety system was working in his mind that deemed a particular moment unsafe, he would tail the car in front so close I don't know how we didn't hit anyone. I was in the front passenger's seat and pretty sure some of his moves were impossible until they happened. It was quite stressful and now I remember why I prefer the chicken buses of the world....
We survived and in Krabi I learned just how much having a laptop can affect your ordinary travel decisions. We wanted wireless and set out to find some guesthouse that had some. There are a lot of tourists in Krabi, mostly in transit to or from some of the beaches and islands nearby, so there is a very well established area of backpacker guesthouses. Most guesthouses, also serve as restaurants, travel agencies, and internet cafes so really nobody ever need set foot outside of their hostel (I am anti this type of tourism development as it is essentially just very budget resort mentality without spreading the wealth to the community or even promoting cultural exchange or interaction). Anyway, free wireless would be business suicide for a lot of these guesthouses because they make a huge profit from it. As a result we ended up in one of the newer, nicer and more expensive guesthouses, the only one offering free wireless, because with our own laptop we were now going to save money overall. So now we need to spend several hours a day on the computer just to justify staying at this hotel. Hmmmm..... I'm not sure this is a positive development for the trip. In Krabi we also met up with Paul, who had a successful 5 days without us. We are still on the west side of the peninsula and not out of the rain yet either. Paul only has a couple of days left before he has to fly back to Singapore from Phuket so that will be our next destination.


At 12:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ammon
Alas the slow devay back to western civilization has begun.... first the computer, then increased contact, then VIOP calls, then viseo conferences with sudden pleadings to come home, then homesick....yes yes excellent. Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated in the Borg collective.

Funny how shocked you sounded returnig to the kind of driving that in the past was shrugged off. Anyways, what now?

Love and Bear Hugs to all
THe Bear


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