Ben and I were having a peaceful sleep on the soft-rocking bus when we were rudely awoken by the bus stopping at a derelict roadside. The bus driver promptly told us to get off the bus and we stood there with our backpacks as he sped off into the dusty distance. We appeared to be at a bus terminal, but we were definitely not in Georgetown, where we thought we were going. My phone GPS decided it was at this time it would choose not to work. We had no idea where we were or where to go. Where is Penang? Taking the most logical approach, we walked around the bus terminal looking for one to Georgetown. There were none; and we couldn’t find anyone resembling an authority on our location.
We proceeded to wander aimlessly around the area until a taxi driver came over to help us. He informed us that Georgetown was on Penang Island and that we could either take a ferry or a taxi over the bridge to get there. He warned us that the ferry wasn’t running for the next few hours and we would be in for a long wait. Despite him rescuing us from our dire position, our frugal nature and scam-sense overruled and we opted to wait for the ferry instead. Luckily for us, the taxi driver was lying and there was a ferry ready to go by the time we found it. A cool $0.45 later and we were being slowly moved the short distance across to the island.
Penang had a number of accolades from reputable organizations calling it one of the “ten best budget travel destinations” (Forbes), “best exotic place to retire” (US News) and “top food destination” (The Lonely Planet). If I have learnt anything it is that high expectations lead to disappointment. Whilst I can’t say Penang blew me away, it was a charming place to visit and the food was above average.
Our accommodation, the Malabar Inn, was on the edge of the main centre. They had given us a room with a large “Our Wedding Day” mural on the wall. For $27NZD a night, it would make an affordable honeymoon destination. Our location gave us easy access to the multitudes of street murals and artwork, plus the famed foodie stops. Our first day we spent wandering on foot, taking photos and absorbing the new-age, cool vibe that had taken over the old British-colonial-styled town. The footpaths were covered with arches of various heights, causing Ben to have to stay on high alert at all times. The architecture (pun intended) was not something we had seen in any other South East Asian town. The footpaths were also lined with deep, uncovered storm water trenches, meaning yuppies that walk around with their eyes glued to their phones wouldn’t last long here.
The next day we took a public bus to the Penang National Park to go on a hike. It was interesting to find that no matter where you are in the world, crazy people still take the bus. I don’t think I have ever been on a public bus that didn’t have at least one person singing loudly and another swearing non-stop to themselves. As we began our ascent into the forest I reflected on the fact that today I was more scared of scorpions, snakes and killer monkeys, than the bear, cougar, and wolf combo that I had grown used to fearing in Canada. I sorely missed the New Zealand forest where if anything attacked you it would be your own hair flying around and hitting you in the face.
Along the way to Turtle Beach we came across many monkeys. We could hear them flying through the tree tops, as the branches they broke fell down around us. The odd monkey was sitting on the path as we came along and was spooked by our approach. Despite their cute, cuddly appearance, cuddling is not recommended. This is how you get rabies, which we were only partially vaccinated against (because there is no vaccination for 100% protection). After a strenuous climb in the sizzling heat we made it to the beach. The beach had gloriously white sand, sparkling water, and no one was around. Stopping for lunch, we eyed a covered picnic bench. However, upon further inspection we found bats asleep in the rafters. They have eyes on their eyelids, and quickly destroyed my appetite.
At Turtle Beach there were turtles (surprise, surprise). There was a sanctuary where baby turtles are held in captivity until they are big enough to release into the sea. We watched the tiny turtles swim back and forth in a big plastic bin munching on lettuce. It’s unknown how the turtles manage in this situation, as turtles always return to the beach they were raised on to have their own turtle babies. If they are raised in a bin, where do they return?
On the hike back it was even hotter than on the way in. It was now mid-afternoon and the heat of the day was oppressive. Despite being under tree cover, the sun’s intense gaze seemed to break through to cook us as we walked. I’m not sure I have ever sweated that much in my life. Admittedly though, living in England, New Zealand and Canada doesn’t exactly arm you with much in the way of heat defense. As we walked along the trail Ben disturbed a ridiculously large lizard by standing on its tail. The poor thing was too well camouflaged and didn’t think to move out the way as two thundering King Kongs walked past. The lizard was nearly a meter long and looked like an oversized tuatara. If only I knew these existed I would have had the chance to be scared of them.
That evening we met up with an old school friend of mine, Wei, from the University of Waikato. He is Malaysian and was living nearby. Having not seen each other for nearly ten years, we had a lot of ground to cover. He took us to a local Chinese Malaysian restaurant to try a local delight, which was a delicious pork soup. The soup came with every imaginable cut of pork and it warmed up over a flame as we watched and sipped tea. I met Wei through SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise) and he had turned into quite the international businessman. His tales of wheeling and dealing in Malaysia and surrounding countries were fascinating and I’ve no doubt the next time we meet he’ll be at the helm of a multi-million dollar company. Wei gave us insight into life in Malaysia, which in invaluable as a traveler in a new place. There’s nothing like an insider’s point of view and I’m thankful that technology was able to connect us after our lives took us in different directions. Facebook might get a bad reputation for encouraging narcissism and destroying privacy, but its ability to connect people all over the globe will keep me scrolling along and posting photos at least into the foreseeable future.
Click here for the next in the series.