happnin' Malaysia - big animals and yet more beach


Yolandaís bit
And after a bit more nothingness, we took a mini bus to Penang Island on the north west tip of Malaysia. 12 hours, no thrills. By dark we checked in the first hostel on the list of "budget accommodation" section of the Lonely Planet guide, as we did usually. The place was not great for the money and turned out to be much worse when we went to bed. The air-con was not only not working, but gave the room a cheesy-vomity smell. Millions of bed bugs were happily picnicking on the beds -and they always go for me-. They were red and big like small beetles. Around midnight and after a few bites we knew they meant business. I went down to reception to complain and to be transferred to a different room and this progressed into a heated argument with the Indian hostel manager. Even after showing hem the numerous bites I had and a crushed bloody bug he still denied there could be any bugs in his hostel, with a smile. I gave up on that and conceded to agree with him that I just wanted to change rooms.

Next room's air-con was fine but the beds were equally infested. It would be the same in the whole place and it was too late and we were too tired to go somewhere else. We covered the beds with our own sheets, sprayed the whole place and ourselves with DEET and I psyched myself up and used all the mind control I could free from horror and convinced myself that everything would be fine and with strong determination I fell asleep.
I crushed about 10 bugs every time I woke up through the night.

Next morning Miles had a couple of bites and I was completely eaten (I counted about 60 bites) and raving with itchiness. We moved to the Swiss Hotel in backpackers' land. Clean, big and luminous.
Georgetown is an OK place. Big mix of Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indian communities dividing the small town into contiguous sections. We even found a perfect reconstruction of an English pub (The King's Head or something) where I had a Guinness at an exorbitant price.

The beach was only a few kilometers away but we decided to speed up what was left of Asia and we also changed our route.
After a couple of days in Georgetown we jumped on a bus to Kota Baharu on the north east coast. In Kota Baharu we had dinner at the remarkable night market -closed just for an hour at Muslim evening praying time- in the middle of town where about a hundred stalls serve the most yummy and varied food and there's free seating all around in plastic tables and chairs. I had to have the blue rice with fish. It was really lively and the best (and only) experience in town from dusk 'til midnight. Everybody was there, locals and foreigners. No alcohol though, we were in Muslim land now.

Next day we took a ferry to the Perenthian Islands. Never saw clearer water. The small island -travelers' type- was quite expensive in spite of being still relatively unspoiled and not having many facilities, so we stayed at the only cheap bungalows, the most basic ever (no fan and no electricity except for a squalid light bulb which was on from 7pm to 10pm) but very charming too. Situated at the south end of the beach, they were on top of a little hill in the middle of the forest. We had a great view of the beach and a few animal guests.
There was a family of huge ghekkos living with us. They stayed immobile most of the day, looking after the ten or so eggs stuck in rows on the wood wall high up -naftaline balls type-, growing bigger every day. Strange thing that such cold blooded animals had a strong family instinct.
There were plenty of other big animals around. Extra-fast squirrels, huge bats, lizards and snakes. Plenty of birds and insects too.

The shared showers and toilets (uuuuuuuuuuugh!!!) were at the bottom of the hill. One fine day I went down to have a shower -they were pretty open to the surrounding nature except for a metallic half-door. Both the snake and I had a terrible shock when I stepped in. We were both in vertical position, looking closely at each other, only a few centimeters apart and we both looked very scary. We both jumped out of the shower in different directions, me screaming, she hissing. The amused locals gave me a reassuring "it's not dangerous" with a smile.

There were some fishing and diving trips from the island. Other than that, it was the beach and its bar-restaurants and one email place set up from a mobile phone because there were no phone lines on the island.
The heat was worse than ever before, it was unbearable, specially because there was no way to hide from it. No cooling places, no fans, the only relief was to dip in the cool pristine sea. Truly paradisiac place if you can cope with the heat. At night there was music in all the bars and the atmosphere was good.

We got to know the Malay bloke who run the mobile phone - email place and it was really interesting chatting to him. He was quite with it and told us about the story of the island. How it had been going -for tourists, that is- only since the last twenty years or so and it run the risk of becoming another Ko Phagnan in a few more years so we felt quite lucky to be there now. He set up the first restaurant in the island, followed by the first bungalows (the most luxurious ones at present) and recently the email place. He also organized fishing and diving trips and told us about his business/marketing ideas for the future. He had quite a good domain name registered, first one with the name of the islands in it, and was planning to expand through his web site when he had one. So we quickly got him started and designed a basic start-point web site for him and gave him a few clues about how to keep it going. It was a pleasure talking to someone about "real life" and "real issues" rather than about traveling for a change; with a real native in a real place, for the first time.
Last night in the island and a magnificent storm fell upon us. We watched in amazement.

Back in the mainland, it took three taxis to get to Cherating in the south east coast. We arranged shared taxis for a good price and by dark -after stopping for an hour on the road in the middle of nowhere for the driver's evening prayer at a road Mosque- we were at Matahari bungalows, 500 meters back from the beach. These were about twenty luxury bungalows (with fridge!) carefully decorated in a really good taste, all set around a very well taken care of garden. And it was really cheap! At the entrance they had the famous Batik workshop and almost everyone fell for it. I did too.

Once more, the Malay people attending the place were really cool and friendly. We found that in all Malaysia but with a different taste than other parts of Asia. They were cool and friendly and there were also "normal". There was nothing hidden or dodgy or interest ridden in their being friendly and cool. It was natural, or maybe it was just a closer mentality to ours due to various cultural and historic influences, or maybe it's just that their economic situation is better, or maybe all of the above. It felt more comfortable to socialize with them and they looked more comfortable and happy about it too.

There was a long beach and a long street with all the amenities. Not hugely touristy, very Muslim, and a strong Chinese influence. The food was great again.
The best thing to do was to hang around the bungalows doing stuff and chatting to people. There was this Scottish girl and her boyfriend who were doing a similar trip to ours. They had been going for 15 months already! and were back in the UK in a month. They seemed pretty cool about it though they did suffer the "traveling crisis" about eight months in, specially him. Missing home, friends, work and stuff. Got over it after.
The place was a bit like a hippy commune but without hippies.

It took me a few days to finish my Batik sarong (usually people did it one day) but I was having fun and wanted to enjoy it. It was a new technique for me and it's difficult to do anything good the first time. All you can do is try to get to grips with how it works and what you can and can't do do but it was fun. Once it was processed and dry we set off for Singapore on a minibus (two, I mean).


Milesís bit
We took a bus down from Koh Lanta to Penang in Malaysia. It didnít take too long (about 10 hours), we crossed the border and arrived at night. As it was late we couldnít check many places to stay and consulted "the Holy Book" (Lonely Planet) and choose an Indian owned place. We ate out (and saw 2 cat sized rats in the street) and then crashed out, as it had been a long day, only to be feasted on by bedbugs. There loads of them. We went down to the reception to make a noise about it (the aircon was blowing hot air as well) and after a bit of a fuss we changed rooms. Same problem again. It was too late to leave the place so we put our own sheets on the beds, sprayed them with insect repellents and tried to cope with it. Yolanda came out worse than I did with loads of bites all over her. Horrible stuff. We checked out early the next morning and found a place down the street (first of all checking the bed).

We didnít do much in Penang, the weather was rainy and we werenít much impressed so far so the next day we took a bus across the country to the east coast to a place called Kota Baharu. We arrived in the afternoon, found somewhere to stay and did a quick bit of exploring the town. There was a huge night food market where everybody went to eat, so we did likewise. Everything stopped just after sunset and everyone emptied out for a short while at 6pm for Salat (Islamic prayer). The next morning we headed out by bus and then boat to the Perhentian Islands, a group of islands with the whitest sands and the clearest blue sea Iíve ever seen. Cheep accommodation was scarce and we ended up in a rickety wooden hut (no fan, no electricity, dodgy beds) on the side of a hill in the woods by the beach. There was plenty of wildlife very close by. We shared the room with a family of large nesting Geckoes on the ceiling. They stick their eggs to the walls and hardly moved for days. Yolanda bumped in to a snake in the open topped communal showers, and at night we saw huge bats with massive wig spans.

The beachlife was quiet. The place is not much developed (no phone lines, electricity, or running water), although it may not stay like this for long. The sun was too hot in the day to do much, at night everyone would eat on the beach in the few restaurants. The food was good. At night we would use an oil lamp, no electricity - no fan and no computer either (after the battery ran out). We had an interesting talk with one of the café owners (he was also a local land owner) about the island, tourism, the Malaysian Government and development of the island. He had an Internet connection using a generator and a mobile phone and was asking us about HTML so we built him a small web site for his domain name heíd registered. He had a great meal in return and sat and watched the huge lightning strikes of the storm that evening from his café.

A week later we moved further south down the coast to a seaside town called Cherating. We stayed in a great place for backpackers that cost almost nothing and was comfortable and clean, it even had a fridge. The beach was nothing special but there were good cafés and restaurants. We spent sometime at our bungalow working on some new Sony pages for the website (we modeled and animated the spinning Vaio). Yolanda also spent some a few days painting a Batik while I tried to figure out a problem with our CD Recorder.
Next stop - Singapore.


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