Mosque in Georgetown in Penang

Mosque in Georgetown in Penang

I just got back from a quick 1 week trip to Malaysia with my friend Richard. It was more a vacation, but also to satisfy my visa requirements. Our original plan was to train from Bangkok down south, but since we realized the night before that the train was fully booked, we booked a flight directly to Penang. On the plane, we met an American guy who was also traveling to the same place, and we decided to hop on the bus together. He was an interesting guy, who had spent the last 5 years living in Burma working for an NGO. He had just finished his contract and was in the process of getting a new contract, so he was also traveling a bit in the meantime. After leaving the airport, we hopped on a bus for about 45 minutes to head north to Georgetown. In Georgetown we walked through the small streets and came across a neat little hostel, where we would stay for the next couple nights.

After checking in, we walked more around Georgetown – it isn’t too big, but quite diverse. There are a lot of interesting buildings and landmarks that show the history and culture of the area. We ate some excellent Indian food for dinner in “little India”. The next day we walked north west for a few hours exploring the northern part of Penang. We were planning on walking to Bayu Ferringhi (main beach attraction in Penang), but we realized later that it was much much further than we thought. So from where we were we caught a bus, which took about 20 minutes. On the bus we met a women who lived in Penang, though she was originally from Scotland. She had lived all over the world for the last 40 years, running a company that manages government foreign aide such that the money doesn’t get wasted in corruption. Very friendly and interesting lady.

Once in the Bayu Ferringhi area, we walked around “Long Beach”, which was empty, and the sand was very rough. The waters were also very rough, and looked quite dirty.  There were condos and hotels everywhere. We went into the first restaurant we could find along the beach (there weren’t many open), and relaxed there for a few hours. We ate lunch, had some drinks, and played some chess. Around sundown we headed back toward our hostel in Georgetown. This night was the big celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year, so the bus had quite a few Chinese Malaysians on it. Once back at the hostel, it was nice to relax and sit down after a long day of walking. By bed time, the fireworks were still being lit off, literally outside our window, so I just put my earphones in and fell asleep, while others went out on the roof to watch the fireworks.

Looking north west from Georgetown in Penang

Looking north west from Georgetown in Penang

The next day we woke, walked 20 minutes east to the ferry port where we could purchase train tickets that left from Butterworth (closest Malaysian mainland city). We wanted to book our train back to Bangkok since it was full before (from Bangkok > Butterworth) – we wanted to experience what the 23 hour train offered. So we bought those for a week later, then walked back to the hostel, grabbed a few things, and walked to the Express bus office about 10 minutes away. They offered bus services all over Malaysia and southern Thailand. We booked an overnight bus, leaving at 9pm this day, which would take us to Kuala Besut, arriving at 4am. While withdrawing money from the ATM next store, we met a Swiss-German girl (living in Zurich) who was having issues with the ATM. So together we went to another ATM to get money. It turns out she was interested in chess (the Zurich Challenge just happened in Zurich – with the top chess players in the world). So after getting our money, Richard, her (Evelyn), and I went and played chess for a few hours. Toward the evening we packed up our stuff, and went to buy another bus ticket for Evelyn, then she packed up her stuff, and we all headed out to dinner. Taylor, the American who lived in Burma, scoped out a good Indian place and we ate there. The food portions were much smaller, but it still tasted excellent. After that, Taylor headed to another place to eat, and the 3 of us caught a bus south to the bus station. We arrived about 30 minutes early, so we grabbed some water and snacks. By 8:50pm we were on the bus.

Penang was highly overrated.  While Georgetown was a nice area, and the entire northern part of Penang was lined with condos overlooking the water, the beaches were terrible, and I couldn’t quite understand why there was so much rave about Penang, or why so many condos were built there.  I guess some people like it, but it was not at all what I expected, and I wouldn’t go back.

Map showing Penang relative to Perhentian Islands

Map showing Penang relative to Perhentian Islands

The next day we arrived in Kuala Besut around 4am, and a woman approached us telling us to follow her to buy ferry tickets. So we went to her place and found several other people at her office buying ferry tickets as well. She said buy now, and at 7am the ferry would leave. The ferry would take us from Kuala Besut to the Perhentian Islands. Around 6am, we walked to the only cafe that was open and had some coffee and a bite to eat while we waited for the ferry. 15 minutes before the ferry left we walked back to the port, and got onto the boat. It was hardly a ferry, more so just a speedboat. It took about 30 minutes to get to the islands. It first stopped at the big island and dropped a few people off, then headed to the smaller island and the rest of us got off.

The beach was quite empty at 7:30am. Not only had the peak season not begun, everyone was mostly asleep. We found a nice cheap place right along the beach, and then took a short nap. We then woke, we grabbed some food and drinks, and walked to Long Beach (15 minute walk through the jungle to the other side of the island) to relax.  In the afternoon/evening, we met some fellow travelers, had some great discussions, and had a few drinks.

Arriving at the Perhentian Islands - water looks turquoise though it is crystal clear.

Arriving at the Perhentian Islands – water looks turquoise though it is crystal clear.

The next day we spent snorkeling.  It started at 10:30am, and finished around 3pm.  5 of us were on the boat – an older Italian couple, Evelyn, Richard, and me.  There were 5 points we would visit: Turtle Point, Shark Point, Coral Point, Light House, and Romantic Beach.  I had average expectations, but this trip ended up being incredible.  At Turtle Point, we saw at least 3 giant turtles, probably a good meter wide.  The thing about the Perhentian Islands is that the water is crystal clear, so we were snorkeling and could dive down and swim with these turtles.  After that stop for 30 minutes, we went to Shark Point, and saw at least 5 different sharks, the biggest being probably 2 meters long.  They tended to stay along the coastline, and the water wasn’t too deep, so you could get pretty close to them.  It was fascinating.  Coral Point and Romantic Beach were just icing on the cake – Coral point has lots of really cool fish, coral, and exotic plants.  Romantic Beach was a small beach in an isolated part of the island where you could snorkel around – apparently there were baby sting rays around there but I wasn’t able to see any.

In the evening a group of us made a bonfire on the vacant Long Beach, and we had some more great conversations, and listened to some music (someone had a guitar).  The sound of the waves was also very nice.  A few us skinny dipped, which was nice since it was reasonably warm and the water didn’t feel too cold.  The following day most of the group we were hanging out with went kayaking around the island, but I felt just like realxing.  So after waking, I sat and talked with a few friends still around until they left at 4pm, and from then I browsed the web, and ate some excellent food.  I also captured a few nice pictures of the beach.  It was really a relaxing day of doing nothing but thinking.  In the late evening the entire group grabbed dinner and had many more drinks.  A local was playing the guitar and singing some beautiful stuff. It was a good way to cap our last night.

Can't complain about beach sunsets like this

Can’t complain about beach sunsets like this

The next day, we woke late, ate, and caught the noon ferry (ferries leave at 8am, noon, and 4pm) back to Kuala Besut.  The bus from Kuala Besut to Butterworth left once a day at 8pm, so we were left with 7 hours in Kuala Besut. When we arrived, we found a cafe and ate some excellent buffet food, and drank some much needed water. After a good meal, we found some shade, and napped. After a couple hours there, we moved to some benches that were covered and much more comfortable. Somehow a couple hours later my face was completely burned, even though I made it a full week in intense sun without getting burnt.  There must have been some UV reflection as I was in the shade the entire time. Disappointing to say the least.

The overnight bus was interesting – about 3 hours into the trip the bus stopped at a bus station, which is normal.  The driver came and told us to get out and switch buses.  So we go over to the bus he points at, and they tell us to go back to the other.  They then tell us to wait there for 15 minutes for another bus.  So I go to the toilet, and as I return they are ready to leave telling me they have been waiting for 5 minutes and were going to leave if I didn’t show soon.  Nonetheless, we got on that bus and made it to Butterworth a few hours later at around 4am.  When we arrived in Butterworth, we walked around the area looking for a place to sleep.  There weren’t many options so we laid on some benches next to a bus stop.  However, the mosquitos were everywhere so we just decided to head back to a cafe we saw open earlier (probably the only thing open within a couple miles).  We went in there and it was full of people watching a Manchester United football match.  We grabbed some awesome breakfast and coffee, and relaxed while we got online.

The place closed around 7am, and around that time we headed back toward the bus station.  We relaxed around the food court there, then went to check out the train station a couple hours early.  When we arrived there in the morning (the bus dropped us near there), it was all closed and appeared under construction.  When we checked again, the office was open and a few others were waiting there.  An older couple from Australia talked with us, and the man came with us to pickup some lunch.  It was excellent food.  After lunch, we grabbed some drinks and boarded the train (at 2:45pm), which would take 23 hours to Bangkok.

The trip back went smooth.  We had to get off at the border for immigration, and while there I ate dinner at the food court.  After that stop, the train extended a couple cars and added a restaurant.  The rest of the night was spent talking and cubing with Richard over a bottle of whiskey.  We slept around 1am, and woke around 11am.  We arrived into Bangkok around 12:20pm.

Once again another great trip.  While it was short, we knew it was more of a vacation than anything.  It was the first trip in awhile where I didn’t bring my laptop.  It was nice to have a break, but at the same time, it is nice to be back.   My next trip outside Thailand will be in 2-3 months when my brother and his friends visit from the US. In the meantime I plan to do some traveling around Thailand and do a bit of scuba diving.