Monday, September 27, 2010

Malaysia #1

When last we met with our intrepid traveller, she was awake at an ungodly hour of the morning, slaving over an homage to Asian cuisine. On the cusp of striding boldly over the Thai-Malaysia border, she knew little of what lay in front of her, but felt excited at the prospect of wringing out after the soggy town of Krabi, and in need of a fresh environment after too much lazing about and crappy Western-friendly Asian food in south Thailand. She had realised that while a portion of island living was fun, she was no Tom Hanks, and would need more stimulation than a soccer ball and white sand to keep her sane…

The Dutchman-with-the-Mexican-meal-name and I left Krabi, Kev and Yass (and her broken foot) on a drizzly morning, and took a minivan all the way to Trang (and sunshine!). The town was darling, with a large dollop of Chinese influence, and a 1970s industrial town sort of feel to it. The little men who ran stores were charming, their wives were no-nonsense (I felt obligated to buy a pair of shoes that didn’t even fit me properly- the small woman had so much anger in her eyes! She made me do it!). The girls wore cute school pinafores and had matching bob haircuts. There was no doubt we were the only tourists in town at the time. I loved the bean cakes, pork buns, wandering at the night markets, and our dim sum feast just before leaving town the next morning.

A bus to Satun, a taxi to the pier, a slight hitch involving the realisation that both Taco and I had overstayed our welcome in Thailand and some subsequent fee-paying (to very apologetic Thai border officials), and on to the ferry to Pulau Langkawi. A new stamp in the passport: triple-check allowed length-of-stay this time, and we were in Malaysia.

From the outset, Langkawi was a bit non-eventful. We were there for the last couple of days of Ramadan, so a lot of locals had left to return to their hometowns (or were just staying inside conserving their energy since they weren’t eating very much). The beaches were nice, but not that nice. The food was OK. A motorbike trip around the island revealed some interesting road kill (giant lizard, monkey…), a giant statue of an eagle, and lots of trees. Oh! And I did learn how to play backgammon.

It was not with heavy hearts that we boarded the ferry to Penang. Not heavy hearts, no, just a lot of children who I think consumed more than enough sugar at end-of-Ramadan celebrations. We arrived in Georgetown at night, but I felt as though the yellow lights of the port we pulled into were saying to me: “Claire. Welcome. Come on into Georgetown. I have pretty buildings and clean, wide streets and the sense of coolness that you have been searching for…” We hauled heavy bags to Love Lane, and were beckoned into The Secret Garden guesthouse by a bunch of people sitting out the front eating satay. And how can you say no to people with satay, really? The foyer was more like a really classy living room, with French-feeling d├ęcor, high ceilings and classy tunes on a sweet stereo system. We were taken out that night by one of the locals to Little India, which was well and truly alive and kicking. It was sensory overload squeezing through the streets: bright yellow trishaws with pinwheels and tinsel, loud Indian pop blaring out from shops, big strong wafts of curry and incense, and men slapping rounds of roti dough on sizzling slabs of cast iron. There was a lot of ooh-ing and ah-ing on my part, I may have danced gleefully at some stage, I’m not going to lie. Masala dosei + Kingfisher beer= very happy tumtum and the best welcome to a town thus far.

Just next to Little India sits Chinatown. I really swooned over the grotty, whitewashed buildings with signs from the 70s painted on them, crammed with their chosen wares (stationary, random electrical goods, shrines and streamers…) Oh and the food!...
• Char kuay teow thrown together in a wok with perfect amounts of oil/garlic/chili/soy;
• Little satay skewers fanned lovingly by dudes with their caps on backwards;
• Wontons in soup made from rice papers so fresh they were almost dissolvable;
• Cendol: shaved ice in a little bowl with pandan-leaf glutinous little wormy things glowing bright green in coconut milk and palm sugar syrup;
• Freshly deep-fried banana balls…
A grazing approach was employed: eat consistently, try everything.

What else did Panang provide?
…A few glimpses of monkeys at the (world’s smallest) national park.
…Lots of cheap beer and Yahzee playing fields at a (?slightly not entirely legal) little booze shop around the corner
…A big, bright, beautiful Buddhist temple- Kek Lok Si
…Nice chats and dice-rolling with Teo the Scotsman
…A place I felt I could hang out in for a longer period of time
…One more day than intended due to missing a 5am bus: curse you Casio watch! You may look cool but where are your obtrusive and insistent alarm abilities when we need them?!

Stay tuned for installment 2: Escape from Penang.

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