I arrived in Georgetown after a 23 hour journey. I didn’t get onto the train until 1:30 am and only got a little sleep before things got noisy at around 6am. I didn’t know this but we were nearing Hat Yai and most of the passengers were to get off here. I just saw that all the beds around me were up and converted into seats, so got up as well. Half an hour later as we departed Hat Yai the carriage was quiet and I noticed some sensible people at the other end had stayed tucked up. I live & learn. A couple of hours later we are at the Malaysian border where we get stamped out of Thailand and into Malaysia. The train is stopped here for around an hour and a half to give time for immigration and to allow the Thai loco to be swapped for a Malaysian one.
As we set off a blind guy was making his way up the carriage asking if a seat is free and I indicate the one opposite me. He is on his way to an Easter Christian gathering of the blind on Penang (the island just off Malaysia’s coast containing Georgetown). We chat for a bit and the he asks if I can do him a favour. As I will be catching the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, as he needs to, would I mind guiding him? It’s OK by me but I point out as it’s my first visit I may get lost. I needn’t have worried; the transport in Butterworth is really well integrated with the train, bus and ferry stations all next to each other and the routes well signposted. We parted company at the bus stops in Georgetown when we found the correct bus for him.
After a long journey I was looking forward to a bath, followed by falling asleep watching BBC World whilst drinking a beer. The Lonely Planet contained several possibilities that wouldn’t break the bank and on arriving at the first, which looked really nice, I checked in. It turned out that the bath plug wouldn’t seal so I had to run the water continuously to keep it filled, the TV only had 3 channels all in Malay and the minibar was empty and would have broken the bank to fill it. Despite the bed being really comfy I was too restless to snooze so set out to get a first look at Georgetown and posted the original message in this slot.
My initial impressions of Georgetown weren’t great, though being tired and having just left my beach idea of paradise was probably colouring my view. What it did have was great food, Malay food itself being a cross between Indian & Chinese cuisine with a hint of Thai. In addition there were plenty of good Chinese & Indian restaurants themselves. It did seem that the town was fairly empty of tourist, especially backpackers. Though good during the daytime seeing the sights it tended to make the evenings quieter that hoped for.
The town was interesting for a couple of days, old historical buildings mixed with more modern architecture and a few scruffy lanes of restaurants and hostels contrasting with hotels like the Shangri La and Eastern & Orient. As I’d be coming back here to catch the ferry to Indonesia I didn’t stay long, leaving stuff to see for my second visit.
I did manage to make Fort Cornwallis, the original British fort that unfortunately is now run by a private company which has filled the previous empty centre with a small theatre, souvenir shop, snack bar, etc and started to charge entry. Nearby was a lovely clock tower donated by a local businessman to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. I also headed to the main shopping complex housed in a plaza at the base of a tower block. It’s quite unlike most western plazas with its small number of large chain shops and far greater number of small independent shops / stalls. That combined with the very 60’s / 70’s atmosphere (low ceilings, tiled beige walls, crap lighting) reminded me of the old Birmingham Bullring.
I caught the sleeper train from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur after a couple of days. I wanted to see the capital and in addition it seemed the best place to see if I could get a longer Indonesian visa in advance than the 30 day non-extendable one now given out on arrival.
I decided to stay in Chinatown on the train and listed 4 hotels that seemed OK & not too expensive. The first 3 were full and I was getting worried when I found a place at the 4th. Even better I could have the room now at approx 10am and not have to wait until the afternoon. Before I went for a snooze I sent an email to an old colleague of mine from TRW who lives in the city. I had meant to send an email before but every time I was in an Internet cafe it slipped my mind. Steve called me a few hours later, catching me at the end of a quick sleep to propose we meet up that evening for a meal and a drink with his wife. I had been lucky to catch him as he had spent much of the past few weeks abroad.
It was a very pleasant evening with a meal and a few drinks in the Bangsar area before a quick tour in the car round KL, Steve & Chrissie pointing out the sights I should see over the next few days. It proved to be a great help over the next couple of days and I thank them both.
Job 1 next day was to head to the Indonesian embassy and see about the visa. After queuing for a bit to get the forms, queuing a lot longer to photocopy the passport and queuing again to hand in the documents & fee ($40) I was told it was all OK and to pick up the visa in 3 days. When I did head back 3 days later they found fault with my travel arrangements out of the country and I had to buy a refundable plane ticket out of Bali and head back the next day.
Kuala Lumpur is a shopper’s delight with a lot of really good shopping malls in the city. One section of Bukit Bintang street has 3 alone and as this is the closest point public transport will get you to the Indonesian embassy I was here a few times. The best shopping mall is at the base of the Petronas towers, the world’s tallest buildings (excluding comms towers). They are not only large but the design is very elegant with them tapering towards the top and the stainless steel catching the light. The floor plan is based on Islamic art with two overlapping squares 45 degrees apart creating a star shape. The inner angles of the star are rounded out by semi-circles and the overall effect is superb. Architects round the world need to take note as they are the finest skyscraper designs to my mind since the Empire State & Chrysler buildings which were built in the 1920’s. All the shopping facilities gave me a consumerist twinge I hadn’t felt since I left home, one that I couldn’t escape even at my hotel as the street outside converted daily into an incredible market with a fabulous glass roof the length of the street.
On a cultural front I headed to the Islamic art museum that was within walking distance of the hotel. However there was a small river, a railway and some highways between me and it, and I couldn’t work out a way through. I gave up and jumped in a taxi that took a route that reminded me of those maze puzzles you used to get as a child. The museum was modern and elegant showing exhibits quite different to those you normally see in a western art museum. As painting pictures of things is seen as creating icons Islamic art is dominated by calligraphy (normally passages of the Quran) and patterned surfaces (cloth, metalwork, architecture). It was interesting but as a non-Muslim I needed more explanation of the context and significance of most of the items.
Nearby, in the Lakeside Park, is a bird park and an orchid garden. I set off on foot passing shelters every so often provided to protect pedestrians from the sudden tropical downpours you get here. I must have looked hot as a taxi driver picked me up for free and dropped me at the entrance. I was only in there for 15 minutes or so before I gave up. The birds were spectacular, unlike those I had seen before but it was so hot & humid I was getting drenched by sweat and becoming very uncomfortable. It meant I had seen little of a wonderful exhibit and missed the orchids completely. Malaysia is definitely hotter / more humid than Thailand.
Many of the cities I have been already on the trip have communications towers with observation platforms high up on them for tourists (Toronto, Auckland & Sydney) but I’d not been up any of them. As the Petronas Towers only let you up to the bridge between them less than half way up I didn’t bother with them for a view, I headed to the KL tower instead. I got within spitting distance of them on the monorail but couldn’t work out how to get up there and once again had to use a cab. Again the route was tortuous and meant heading to the opposite side of the hill from the nearest public transport. It did give me a chance to see a strange sight, a small area of tropical rain forest perched on a steep hill in the middle of the city. The view from the tower was good, allowing me to piece together the areas I knew and had visited.
I’ve decided against heading to Singapore now, it would be a second thriving Asian city in a row and would probably go underappreciated. I fly there from Perth in June so will see it then. I now have a bus ticket up into the Cameroon Highlands for a bit of nature and where the altitude will hopefully knock 10 degrees (C) off the heat. After that it’s back to Penang and then on to Indonesia.
I stayed a very friendly guesthouse in Taneh Rata called Father’s Guesthouse, though its a touch pricey for what you get. I hiked down one of the nearby trails past the pipes, dams and collectors for a small hydro electric station. At the bottom of the hill I then hiked up to the Boh tea plantation to unfortunately find that the visitors centre is closed on Mondays. The Cameroon Highlands is a lovely place to be and much cooler than KL.
After 3 nights I headed back to Georgetown for a couple of nights, splashing out on a suite in the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Best place I have ever stayed in. The suite was over 50 feet long by around 15 wide, had a bathroom with a huge bath, separate rainfall shower, toilet in its own cubicle, a dressing room (a first for me), sleeping area with two double beds and a living area with a bay window, couch, writing desk and 2nd large TV. Unreal as the cost was around 50 pounds a night; anywhere else I know of of this quality would have been hundreds. If you’re ever in Georgetown treat yourself to a night here.
I hiked up Penang Hill. On reaching the top I found there wasn’t a view because of the trees & I’d not taken any photos on the way up. I took a different trail down involving climbing down ladders formed by tree roots and using knotted ropes to lower myself down steeper slopes. About half way down I met the road that curls up the hill and heading down it. I have never got as sweaty as that before in my life and can’t imagine what I must have looked like as a re-entered the E&O.
Off to Medan, Indonesia tomorrow. Sorry for this update being short but I have limited time on this terminal; I’ll add more later.