Leaving Malaysia: A Few Days in Georgetown
Jul 17, 2007
It is as if we are in India again. Bollywood film music blares from a shop down the street. On the corner, mangos are arranged on a makeshift cart while a boy lounges nearby with a scale. The sidewalks are blocked by parked motorcycles and boxes. Sometimes the sidewalks simply end. So we venture into the road with passing cars, one way traffic, motorcycles merging with backing-up cars doing U-turns, piles of garbage, and weaving bicycles pedaled through it all by aging, wrinkled, spindly old men. It is little India. Cleaner, quieter, and more organized, sure, but still recognizable for its namesake nonetheless.
Except that around the corner is a Chinese temple, two meter sticks of incense smouldering in front as if placed there by giants. Worshippers gather in front. Colourful red banners flutter in the hot still air around the rising incense smoke. No, this isn't India.
We arrive at our guesthouse with the repeated help of our map. The place had been recommended to us and is clean, air conditioned and affordable. Our room has a green composty smell of foliage or vegetables as if we are settling in for a few days rest in a lush vegetable garden. The air freshener sent in my Christmas package from home remains useful: the smell of compost is quickly -- though temporarily -- transformed into the scent of "fresh linen".
We returned to Little India after settling into our room. The restaurant Laura guides us to makes me nostalgic for India. It's a plain, white-walled restaurant with plain white-topped tables. An elderly man with hollow cheeks and a gummy semi-toothed smile waves us in, smiling with a wide-eyed slightly crazed look. Two Indian men sit at a table in the rear, eyeing the Westerners with curiousity and what looks like amazement. Perhaps they're wondering what we see in the place. Our banana-leaf thali is tasty but the vegetables are mostly cold. We're asked if we want cutlery and are met with surprised looks when we say no. It feels good to eat with my hands again, blending the dahl and rice with my fingertips into a good thick consistency before scooping it mouthwards.
We leave full-stomached to explore Georgetown. We wander into a souvenir shop and peruse the pewter paraphenalia (pewter being the big thing here apparently). I'm temped by a Chinese chess set carved "from fish bone" I'm told. Onward we wander ... past the famous Eastern and Oriental hotel (where Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham were regulars) and toward the ocean where men linger, chat, and fish. Food stalls nearby cajole us toward a oceanside table where we order cokes and watch the late afternoon sun on the water. Our gaze joins those of a nearby family watching a large sea snake slowly swimming ashore, its head held out of the water as its long body propels it through the waves.
We return to the food stalls at 9:30 that night for dinner. Its full of families, bustling with activity, even so late at night. A nearby restaurant advertises a jazz night and we venture in for a drink. The music is enjoyable, if not exactly stellar. Anne Murray sings "Snowbird" over the PA during the break however, rather shattering the mood. It is a good night nevertheless.
We head to the local museum the next day after a breakfast of (you guessed it) dosas. The Chinese wedding costumes (different ones worn for almost each day of the two weeks following the ceremony) and ornate furniture are all quite beautiful. It is a relaxing, air-conditioned way to spend the late morning.
After lunch, we relax, write, browse the internet and read until dinner. Then out to a busy dim sum restaurant with plastic tables sprawling out into the street, food-laden carts wheeling between the tables filled with steaming dumplings, crispy wontons, and other treats. It reminded me of being in Richmond again. Next, we wander the street market, buying some ant-covered mangosteens before heading back to our guesthouse. Needless to say, the mangosteens aren't the best ... but have potential to be quite tasty.
We return to our guesthouse through darkened streets cast yellow and orange with light from restaurants and half-shuttered houses. Tightly dressed women wait short-skirted on streetcorners. Perhaps they're younger than they look. Later, a middle-aged woman walks slowly past our guesthouse and is turned away when she asks for an hourly rate. She looks to be in her mid-forties, drawn, her hair pulled back as if to tighten wrinkles from her skin. Nowhere have we seen more prostitution than in Malaysia.
We awake the next morning to the noisy rattling horking of a man in the bathroom. It is one of the most Asian of sounds; I would greatfully wake to the sound of a rooster or barking dog -- even a siren -- if I could avoid the lengthy, echoing, vividly wet sounds of phlegm in the morning.
We're soon in a taxi winding our way toward the Thai consulate. We spend longer looking for the taxi than we do standing in line waiting for our Visa application to be processed. We're reassured that extending our visa won't be a problem (we need to stay a few days longer than our 60 day visa will allow) before returning to town for breakfast.
We decide a day trip outside the city is in order, perhaps partly to compensate for our lack of activity the day before. We catch a local bus (as seems typical for us, we wait until the hottest time of day) to begin our trip north to the town of Batu Ferrengi (foreigner's rock) where our guide tells us there is a spice garden and a tropical fruit orchard to visit.
What the guide doesn't tell us is that the bus will stop for 30 minutes at the station, then crawl at walking speed (or slower), stopping every twenty metres to load or unload, and cover the thirty kilometer (at most) distance in just under two hours. Incredibly, Laura is able to nap through much of the winding, jerky, sweltering journey. I watch the size of the resort hotels grow, their overt luxuriousness increase, until we arrive in the tourist town centre.
We find ourselves at a quiet intersection well past the tourist hotels and amenities. A sign points toward the tropical fruit farm but its too far to walk. There are no taxis in sight. We start to walk. Before long, a woman stops us, asks where we're going, points us back the way we came. No taxis will come this way, she tells us. Go back.
As we turn back, a local stops and offers us a ride for 30 ringgit ($10 Cdn). We turn him down. A taxi will be much better. The taxi, when it arrives, offers the same rate. And another 30 for the return trip, an extra charge to wait for us, and it will be 50 ringgit to get in. In total, the trip to a fruit farm will cost us $40, over half our daily budget. We've tastted tropical fruit before. We opt instead for a ride back the road to the spice garden.
The garden is more than just spices: it is a well-signed, informative walk through the jungle. For each spice, the traditional medical uses are also given, telling us which is used for digestive problems, malaria, bad skin, fever, parasites ... just about everything. Its a good place for photos and I snap plenty, ignoring the mosquitoes feasting on my arms and legs as best I can, before we head back to the road for the long bus ride to Georgetown. Dim sum calls to us again and we enjoy another feast.
The next day I spend writing and updating our blog. Georgetown likely has much more to offer than we've seen, but I think we're losing interest in the "must-see" sights, the costly day trips. Perhaps we just need a rest. We return to the Thai consulate in the afternoon, however, to pick up our visas. Next stop: Thailand!
We wake early on our last day in Malaysia. We're packed by 7AM and exploring the city, looking for somewhere that's open for breakfast. Thankfully, an Indian restaurant has just opened, blaring the Hindi of a television announcer into the street. Dosas and masala tea. The tea is syrupy sweet with generous amounts of pepper added to give it a bite. I'm not sure if I like it, but it will be our last meal for a while. I gulp it down.
We hurry back to our guesthouse, check out, and have just enough time to share a mango I'd purchased a couple of days before. The size and shape of a large apple with a hard, almost apple-like firmness, I had no idea it would be so tasty. Utterly sweet with a heady lavender-like smell, it is by far the best mango I've tasted. If only I knew what it was called!
By 8:30, we are loading into a minivan. An hour later, we are ending our circuitous route through the city in search of passengers and are finally leaving Georgetown. Several hours later and we cross the Thai border, an uneventful stamping of documents, and continuing on to the town of Hat Yai. There we are shuttled to the bus station where we decide, rather spontaneously, to change our destination. Instead of trying to make our way to the quiet island of Ko Libong (to a resort we don't know is open), we buy a ticket to Krabi. It takes an extra four hours to get there -- we travel over eight hours in total -- but by the time we check in to a guesthouse in the little town, we feel confident we'll be at a beach and relaxing soon. We're ready for it.
The dim sum was yummy, the sea snake was cool to see, the flower at the Spice Garden was amazing and it was a relaxing a few days spent on Penang. But that is it.
I am not exactly sure why, but I am tired of Malaysia. Matt and I have discussed it at length and it appears that perhaps Malaysia is just not offering us anything interesting. Maybe I am just tired of traveling or maybe I am just comparing it it more dynamic destinations like India. Either way, I am done. I am no longer interested in visiting attractions, eating bland, overpriced traveler's fare or wishing I am somewhere else. It is time to get to Thailand. Malaysia has a lot to offer someone with money, but budget travelers have a hard time here as the good restaurants are too expensive and the decent guesthouses are out of our price range.
The beaches of southern Thailand are calling and we are off. I just want to do yoga, read my books and soak up some sun. And, apparently there are a few good places to do that just north of here...
Malaysia Summary (INCLUDES BRUNEI)
Most expensive days: $190 CDN on June 18. Air ticket from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu; $166 CDN on July 6th. Air ticket from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur; $109 CDN on June 23rd. Last day at Uncle Tan's Wildlife Camp and transport back to Kota Kinabalu.
Least expensive day: $32 CDN on July 1st. Hike day at Similajau National Park. Nothing to buy except lunch and dinner ... just a long day of walking
Average Cost/Day: $68 CDN. Excluding flights the average daily cost was more like $58. But since you really need flights to travel in Malaysia, you can't really exclude them.
Average Cost/Day: $68 CDN (excluding the flight from Kolkatta). Surprisingly, exactly the same as for Malaysia ... except that we really didn't do anything except eat in Singapore.
Laura: standing in Borneo seeing an orang-utan (very cool!), seeing a huge flock of bats leaving a cave at dusk, getting a chance to hike to a totally secluded beach, and finally feeling some cool weather in the Cameron Highlands
Matt: wandering through the incredibly huge Niah caves with squeaking bats overhead and the otherworldly trapeze-like wooden struts reaching up into the darkness for harvesting bird nests. Also walking through the rainforest at Similajau and spotting boar, huge lizards, and a little crocodile (at least I think that's what it was!).
1.) Do some extra saving before heading to Singapore as it is so expensive and might not be able to afford all that it has to offer (Laura)
2.) Don't fly from a flooded, poverty-ridden city like Kolkatta to Singapore. Your head might explode from the shock and frustration. (Matt)
3.) Don't be afraid to get a bit wet and mucky in Borneo - it is worth it to see the variety of animals that live in the rainforest here (well, what's left of it anyway) (Laura)
4.) Don't let the marketing fool you: there's not much rainforest left that hasn't already been cut down (though some is regenerating). Palm plantations (and before that, sugar cane plantations) are more the norm. (Matt)
5.) Avoid cheesy tourist sunset cruises at all cost (Laura)
6.) Go to the caves. They are very very cool and strangely, not many tourists seem interested in them. (Matt)
8.) If you're doing a long trip like ours, go to Malaysia first. Its an easy place to visit with well organized tours, transport and such. And you won't notice the general lack of really interesting sights as you won't have much to compare it to yet. (Matt)
10.) Malaysian food can be quite good (contrary to reports we heard before arriving) but only if you eat at the local food stalls. Unfortunately, deciphering the menus -- none of which are in English -- is a little tricky. Best to just order and hope for the best (Matt)
12.) Go diving. Not that I know how to dive or went diving or could even afford to do so on our budget ... but everyone says its fantastic. Not planning to go diving? Well ... maybe consider Thailand instead (Matt)