Hello for the first time from Malaysia. I'm currently sitting in an Internet cafe in Georgetown - the principal city on the historic island of Penang. This place seems like a different world from Thailand, and its certainly a very different destination to the island of Phuket, which I left yesterday morning. The journey here was pretty gruelling even by my standards. My public bus left Phuket City at 7.30am, taking 7.5 hours to reach South Thailand's largest city, Hat Yai. I was fortunate enough to be seated next to an English speaking hotel receptionist for the first 3 hours, but she left the bus in Krabi and a smelly and annoying young lad got on in her place. The bus seemed to take all the back roads so as to access as many villages as possible, and I got very frustrated at times. The scenery we passed wasn't bad though - first karst scenery around the Krabi area, and then tree covered mountains as we approached Hat Yai. I was once again the only white person on the bus and we stopped for lunch at a very local service station. There wasn't much to choose from but I elected for a curry and it turned out to be seriously spicy. All the while in Thailand I had been thinking their food wasn't that spicy, but I was obviously eating dishes that catered for tourists!
Before we arrived in Hat Yai I was worried about whether or not any minibuses would still be running to Penang as it was just past 3pm. My fears were totally unfounded though as I was mobbed by hordes of touts when I got off the bus. I had read in a guidebook to ignore them as they will rip you off, but one of them followed me into a nearby travel agency and basically claimed me as his customer, and there wasn't much I could do about that! He was very friendly with the agency owners. I undoubtedly paid a higher rate than the locals, but I still didn't think 9 pound was that bad for a 3.5 hour bus that dropped me off at my hotel. The minibus came within half an hour for me, so I ended up leaving Hat Yai almost as soon as I'd arrived. The passengers were nearly all Malaysians, but there was one old English bloke from Stamford with his non English speaking Thai girlfriend. He was doing a visa run to Malaysia, which is a very common thing for foreigners to do. It was 50km from Hat Yai to the border and on that stretch of dual carriageway our minibus had a minor coming together with a Malaysian registered Mercedes S Class - easily the most expensive car I've seen on the Asian roads. The brand new Merc was in the inside lane indicating that he wanted to pull out in front of us into the outside lane. In Asia indicating does not so much mean "please let me out", but rather "I am coming out". More often than not drivers will let people out as they know that otherwise they'll be barged out of the way! Surprisingly though our minibus driver did not concede any space, and the Merc pulled out and clipped our front wing with the area of his petrol cap. He pulled over to the side of the road immediately to inspect for damage, but amusingly our minibus driver carried on for about 5km before stopping to check his bus. Remarkably it didn't appear that there was any damage done to either car, and the Merc driver later overtook us without incident.
The border town of Padang Besar was typically chaotic, as all land borders seem to be. As we pulled up under the huge metal canopy where passport control was located it just started to rain, and there were some hellish cracks of thunder overhead. This was the first rain I'd seen since North Vietnam, and in my entire time in Asia it had only rained there and on my 2nd day in Bangkok right back in January. We hadn't had any storms though prior to this, and the thunder here certainly beat the distant rumbles I heard in Australia's Top End. It was a good job immigration was under cover! The rain didn't last long though, and the sun was almost out once we got a few miles into Malaysia.
Despite Thailand's rough edges and dodgy tourism industry I actually liked the place more than I thought I would. I found the majority of Thai people to be nice and friendly, and there is something quirky and different about the place. Thai culture is almost the trendsetting culture for other countries in the region, and even though it is westernised compared to Laos and Cambodia, its population is big enough to allow it to retain a strong sense of identity. It also has a diverse range of beautiful scenery - from the mountains in the north to the paradise islands of the south. There is still a lot there that I didn't see.
When I came from Laos to Thailand I thought Thailand seemed westernised by comparison, but going from Thailand to Malaysia was even more of a shock. It was like being back in the western world. Everybody was driving nice cars, the motorway system was fully developed and smooth, and there were no shacks at the side of the road. In the fields I even saw combine harvesters taking in wheat (strange to think its February). Such a machine would be well, well out of the price range of farmers in any of the other Asian countries I've visited. As we approached Penang I could see modern high rise buildings on the horizon, and loads of huge cranes around the Butterworth docks. Having come from scruffy Hat Yai in Thailand, I felt like I was in another world. The place also seemed so clean to me, and even on the roadsides there was barely any litter. As much as I enjoyed Thailand I am glad to be back in a country that is more organised and easy going - especially since this time next week I will be in India!
We arrived just as the sun was setting at around 7.30pm (Malaysia is one hour ahead of Thailand, and 8 ahead of the UK). There was masses of traffic on the roads though, and by the time we'd dropped everyone else off it was almost 8.30pm. The minibus dropped me off as promised at my hotel and I was checked in by a really friendly Indian guy who allowed me to exchange my Thai Baht for Malaysian Ringgit (there are approximately 5 ringgits to the pound) even though he wasn't supposed to. This allowed me to go over the road and buy some dinner, which I was long overdue for as by now it was close to 9pm. The blokes at the cafe were very friendly and invited me to sit down with them for a drink. One of the guys was a resident of Leicester, but he was back in Penang visiting his family over Chinese new year. The restaurant owner was also Chinese and he too spoke good English. It was nice to have some company and they've invited me back tonight.
Today I have gone about my usual city tour ritual of walking round everywhere exploring. Georgetown really isn't the biggest place, but in the heat I still managed to tire myself out. Its also not an ideal city to walk round, largely due to the fact that most streets have no pavements or sidewalks! Everybody here has a car or motorbike, and crossing the road is pretty challenging at some intersections. Despite this, the city has a lot to offer culturally. The centre is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its unique townscape and multicultural architecture. It was founded in 1786 by the British East India Company trader Francis Light. Unlike Portuguese and Dutch settlements further down the peninsula (which later became ruled by the British), Penang operated as a free trade port and prospered as a result. The booming trade industry attracted an influx of people from China, India and other parts of the world, and many of their descendents are still resident here today. As such the place has a real multicultural flavour to it. Georgetown is especially populated by Chinese people, who make up a sizeable minority of the Greater Malaysian population. I today explored a couple of the Chinese temples, and also some historic sights related to the British rule. The Fort Cornwallis miltiary base set up by Francis Light is now a museum, and I had a look around that. It was pretty badly preserved though, and I got stuck there a while because some super friendly Australians wanted to tell me all about their 2 week break in Penang. It seems they spent most of their holiday either sat on the beaches around the other side of the island, or in one of the island's many shopping malls. I couldn't think of anything worst.
I also visited a Chinese mansion (which had a British red phone box outside) and have explored the city's ethnic districts - Little India and Chinatown. There wasn't much to see in either, but I did have a laugh when I saw the meakest looking policeman ever sat down with a massive pump action shotgun on his lap. I'm used to seeing police in this part of the world carry pistols, and in some places large rifles and M16s, but this shotgun was absolutely huge. The small Indian policeman barely looked like he'd be able to lift it. He said afternoon to me in his high pitched Indian voice - I almost asked him for a photo, but decided against it as photographing police is usually illegal in Asia.
There isn't an awful lot else to Georgetown but I've enjoyed seeing the cities eccletic mix of cultures. Buddhist temples will adorn one street, English churches the next, and there are also plenty of mosques about. Malaysia is after all an Islamic country. There are lots of nice old buildings from colonial times as well. For me seeing Britain's influence on a country so different to ours has been pretty surreal, but I definitely think we have impacted this part of the world positively. Malaysia became independant in 1957 and it seems to have gone from strength to strength since, but I still think they hold the British in fairly high regard.
I was hoping to spend this afternoon visiting Penang Hill, which was the primary thing I wanted to do here. However, when I arrived I found out that the mountain railway which takes visitors to the top was closed 3 days ago for refurbishment. Expensive jeep taxis are instead ferrying visitors to the top, but I couldn't even work out how to get to their base as the bus that used to run there has also ceased. With the weather clouding (smogging) over I decided it wasn't worth the effort.
Tomorrow morning I set off for Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur. Its nearly 400km south of here but the bus is only scheduled to take 4.5 hours - pretty short for me! 400km in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam would take at least 8 hours, and probably similar in Thailand. I am spending 2 nights in KL and will update from there.