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Phuket to Penang

Being failed by Lonely Planet

semi-overcast 33 °C

The ferry from Lanta to Phuket took us back via Phi Phi and arrived in Phuket three hours later. Following the recommendation of Lonely Planet, I'd opted to stay in Phuket town on the east side of the island as opposed to the beach resorts on the west coast. At the port Zoe, Elliot and I attempted to find a taxi to take us the 2km to the hostel we'd booked but the price was a non-negotiable 100B per person (a total of £6! - practically London prices). So we walked. Not far, just about 200m out of the port by which point the fare dropped to first 200 and then 150. We stayed at Ananas backpackers which was a lovely clean hostel with a kitchen and a home cinema room - it felt a bit like being in a large apartment.

Together with a Canadian girl from my dorm we set out to find some dinner. Phuket town was a strange place, a city with seemingly little to see and no discernible centre and I cursed Lonely Planet for convincing me not to stay at the beach. After finding the street food market (which was huge but lacking in English signage) we ended up eating at possibly the most western place of my trip so far as the Canadian had severe food allergies to nuts and fish, both dominant ingredients in Thai street food. It was a huge diner but at least they did big, proper salads for under £2.

Elliot left for Hua Hin the next morning (in search of some Thai girl he'd met there on his first visit who hadn't replied to any of his messages - it seemed like an odd choice). As Zoe was burned to the point of blistering after a last ditch attempt at tanning on the boat deck slathered in oil the previous day, we skipped the beach. I'd have liked to rent a moped and drive along the west coat but the thought of driving it in and out of the city scared me slightly. So instead we went for a massage as a place that had been recommended to us.

Cautiously, after being beaten up by the ex-convict masseuse in Chiang Mai, I opted again for a Thai massage. Again we were given pyjamas to wear and taken to a room for two. This massage was far less brutal than the first (although no less acrobatic) and I managed to refrain from giggling. We also discovered where all the chunky Thai people are kept - in massage parlours.

After a trip to the post office to relieve my backpack of the gifts I'd bought for people back home over the last two and a half months, my wallet too was considerably lighter leaving me with just a few hundred bhat to last me until the following day when I'd leave Thailand for Malaysia and a new currency. Zoe left that afternoon and I was all by myself again. I bought a dodgy street padthai for 40bhat and two beers from 7/11 and headed back to the hostel for a mammoth photo-up-loading session and an early night.

The next morning, unable to afford a taxi to the airport (despite having received 200bhat key deposit back) I caught the airport bus - a notoriously infrequent and unreliable service - and ended up arriving at the airport 80 minutes before check-in opened. I'd booked to fly to Penang when we'd returned to Bangkok from Cambodia as I'd had enough of overland border crossings but whilst the flight would hopefully save me that hassle, it certainly wouldn't save me much time as I'd still be spending the whole day 'travelling'/sat at the airport. And Phuket airport was a horrible place, crowded and full of spending temptation. I managed to spend all my bhat (to the very last one) on water, a chicken sandwich and a few packets of authentic Thai curry paste (that I seriously hoped wouldn't be confiscated from me at some subsequent airport later on my trip).

The plane was one of those tiny ones where you climb about five steps to enter and can see the propellers and it seemed to fly low in the sky. I watched as we passed south over Phi Phi and Ko Lanta and then many more islands that I didn't recognise. We descended towards Butterworth, which sounds like a magical place but looked mostly industrial from above, before landing into Penang. I'd been expecting some issues at border control as I didn't have an onwards ticket but I was given a 90 day stay at no charge, no questions asked - it almost seemed a shame that 85 of those days would go unused.

I took a cab to the hotel I'd booked and checked into a teeny single room the size of a cell but pleasant enough. And I wasn't alone for long. Whilst checking in I met a Dutch girl called Sophie and, joined by a German she'd met on the bus who was staying a few doors down, the three of us set off into Little India to look for dinner. Penang seemingly has a large Indian population (most of them looked Keralan or Tamil) and we ate at an amazing and amazingly cheap thali restaurant. I felt a bit like the resident Indian food expert explaining the menu to them. Seemingly they'd both heard about 'roti' in Penang being some sort of speciality - I tried in vain to explain that, at least in an indian restaurant, a roti was a dry bread to be eaten with curry (or in Thailand a sweet greasy pancake style bread to be eaten as desert).

Walking through Little India Bollywood music blasted from speakers and the food smells were incredible; I could have almost been back in actual India (if not a cleaner slightly better version) and it felt comforting to be back in the land of the head wobble.

After dinner we headed back to the Reggae Hostel where Alina was staying as they did free cocktails for girls after 9pm. The owner (?) was extremely friendly and introduced himself as 'customer service man'. When we went back to meet Alina the next morning he offered us breakfast and gave us both a hug... I think he may have thought we were staying there.

His friendliness was in stark contrast to the man we hired motorcycles from outside. His sign advertised 'happy happy rental' which I can only assume was an attempt at irony as he had a naturally downturn end mouth and an extremely grumpy air about him. After Alina had tested her confidence up and down the street and we'd received detailed instructions from happy happy man on how to take care of his bikes (don't crash, don't drop helmets, don't leave them unattended etc.) we set off with Sophie sat on the back of my bike wielding a map and with little idea of where we were going.

Turns out Georgetown is larger than we'd initially thought and Penang has a lot more roads than were marked on our map. We spent thirty minutes or so getting lost, attempting to change lanes without crashing and generally making a serpentine shape through the city before we found the costal road. We rode along the north side of the island through a 'resort' area (although coming from the beautiful beaches of Thailand Penang's so far paled in comparison) and stopped for a drink by the sea before continuing to the Nature Park.

Once there we ate a lunch of chicken curry, daal and rice with sickly sweet drinks at a decidedly local street stall where the other customers and the owners chatted to us in excellent English. So far the people of Malaysia, or Penang at least, were by far the friendliest I'd encountered so far and I felt that Thailand should pass on the 'Land of Smiles' title to a far more deserving people.

After lunch we headed on foot into the nature park where, along a jungle trail, the girls suddenly stopped and pointed into the bushes. There just a couple of meters away from us was the largest reptile I've ever encountered - over two foot long with stubby legs at each corner and a huge fat tail - it looked like a cross between a lizard and an alligator - perhaps an iguana? As I rushed to get out my camera he waddled slowly into the bushes and I caught just his tail disappearing behind him. He had seemed neither interest in nor bothered by us and I hoped we'd see more of them along the way (just not too close up).

We continued along the trail that was paved in parts and almost non-existent and hidden under tree roots in others for a while until we came to the 'canopy walk', a series of rope bridges strung high in the trees. We bribed the keeper to let us through (apparently we should have bought tickets 30minutes back at the entrance to the park) and wobbled along from tree to tree above a stream. Apparently much further along the trail was a turtle breeding ground which we unfortunately didn't have time to visit. And we were held up slightly on the way back by a guard-monkey sat on a bridge who snarled at us each time we attempted to pass him.

Back on the bikes, our next stop was a tropical fruit farm where we drank fresh juice mixes, learned about some of the products they made and I had an interesting chat with one of the workers about the Malaysian royal families. Families plural as apparently each of the thirteen states of Malaysia has a sultan and for a five year term each state takes turns in having theirs as the king and queen. He also showed me pictures of the prime minister and the governor of Penang.

It had been a steep and twisty ride to the fruit farm and the journey onwards along the west side of the island was no different but fortunately there was little traffic on the roads (and the Malaysians aren't mental drivers like their Thai neighbours). On the way back into Georgetown we passed Penang hill, the highest point of the island with an irregular funicular service running to the top, and a large pagoda. Our bike struggled a bit up the steep hills and we took it very slowly down the other side but somehow we found our way back through the rush hour traffic of Georgetown (without accidentally ending up on the super-long bridge to the mainland) and back to happy happy man without too much trouble. He seemed pleased to see us (perhaps even more pleased that his bikes were in one piece) and as we sat down for beer o'clock he offered to take us to the resort strip that night on two bikes (presumably meaning I'd have to drive one of them) for a free night out which was a bit awkward.

Having seen a lot of the island but little of the town itself, I went for an evening walk around a few of the mosques, temples and churches seeing the preparations for Chinese New Year and some interesting street art along the way. On the way to dinner an Indian man at the traffic lights asked us if we were hungry. When we said yes, I expected him to begin recommending 'my friend's restaurant' or attempt to lead us somewhere. But instead he just walked off...

We did eat more Indian food for dinner at a place I'd passed on my earlier walk (in fairness, with the exception of one 'Italian' we hadn't seen any non-Indian option) before attempting to find a Bollywood bar mentioned it the Lonely Planet. Either I got lost (a distinct possibility) or, in the five years since the book was written, the bar had closed - either way, it had started to rain heavily and we needed to find another option fast. And this was where the LP began to fail us. The only other 'drinking' option it mentioned was a place called Slippery Señoritas.... The name didn't bode well but apparently Sophie's boyfriend had recommended it after a recent trip to Penang himself.

On the way there I got the distinct feeling that we were now entering the seedier part of Georgetown; gone were the quaint old buildings replaced with trashy looking bars and a lot of neon signs. When we arrived at the bar it was confirmed, Slippery Señoritas was not another 'funny Asian name' for a normal bar, it was exactly as it sounded. It was full of men (and one ladyboy) with the exception of three women in the live band. Although their music was actually very good and the rain outside was heavy (it was also raining in their bathroom (and there was a cockroach on the floor)) we left without ordering drinks after just a couple of minutes feeling decidedly uncomfortable and, if I were Sophie, some serious questions as to why her boyfriend had recommended such a place (or even admitted to having been there).

Defeated we began to make our way back to reggae hostel in the rain for a pre-bed free cocktail. En route we were serenaded by a cyclo driver and passed several not-that-lady-boys. We arrived bedraggled and were greeted happily by customer service man - he definitely thought we were staying there. Fortunately happy happy man and his offer of a night out seemed to have disappeared. Instead we were joined by shisha man who asked how we were feeling. When Sophie said she had a headache, he got up and walked off.... I was beginning to wonder if this was some sort of Malaysian thing. He did eventually return however a good ten minutes later with some 'magic oil' that he proceeded to massage into Sophie's head. After free head massages all round, it was time for bed and I was a little disappointed to be leaving Penang the next day - I hoped I'd like Kuala Lumpur as much (and that they'd also have a Little India).

Posted by madeinmold 17:18 Archived in Malaysia

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