We arrived in Penang, Malaysia, at around eight in the evening. Once everybody had checked in we headed down to China Town. It was the first true Chinese market we had found. A ball dancing floor was cordend off in the centre, with a good couple of oldies strutting their stuff, to what we decided must have been last week’s Karaoke winner, wailing at a microphone. The stage and dance floor were surrounded by a hundred tables and all this engulfed by a hundred food kiosks.
Each kiosk sold its own speciality from a Balti curry to Chicken foot Wontons. Tables all had a number and minutes after ordering from your chosen chef, a plate of steaming food was placed in front of you, easily washed down by the endless supply of cold drinks and beer.
It was a great evening, with only a couple of dishes deemed too ethnically interesting to eat.
The next morning those ready for a bit more culture headed off on a self guided walking tour, enjoying the sights and history of this mixing pot that is Penang. Others milled around the hotel taking advantage of the free wi fi and aircon.
Next morning we headed for Kuala Besut, literally a stop off point, before we found our way to more island time on the beautiful Perhentian Islands. When we arrived, it appeared that the town had been closed down due to lack of interest, and our hungry tummies were all a bit distraught. Eventually though, we found a lonely merchant who was selling some fine grub, and the entire group took over his tiny premises. With not much to do but wait for the ferry out to the islands the next morning, folks went for strolls down the beaches or wondered around the harbour, until we all met up for dinner, which proved to be excellent for such a sleepy little hollow.
Those who had thought the thumping heart of adventure had begun to flutter with all these quiet towns, were soon to have a re awakening. ”Fast Ferry to Island” was what the resort promised and they definitely did not disappoint. Two massive 200 horse power outboards, pushing along 10 people per boat, soon saw manic smiles and shrieking cries trying to pierce the sound of the roaring engines, even the less nautically enthused had to admit it was a great way to travel.
Upon arrival at the island, being low tide, we had to transfer to smaller boats to run up the beach. This did not please the lesser boaty types, but with life jackets and all, we were soon safe and sound on a beautiful tropical island.
Picture palm trees hanging low, swaying in a gentle breeze, their shadows dancing on the beach .We were all staying in small bungalows, hidden in shade, a stone’s throw from the crystalline water.
The beach front restraurant served up all kinds of local and western tasty treats. Being in a Malay area, the change in flavours was welcome, with some amazing curries on offer. The BBQ seafood was also incredible. A couple of hours watching the fishing boats drop off their catch for the day, soon tipped you off to what would be the tastiest option that evening. A popular favourite for breakfast was a roti canai, a thick pancake served with sweet curry sauce, followed by a platter of assorted fresh fruits. It’s tuff on the islands, but someone’s gotta do it.
But enough of the food, the main reason for coming to the Perhentian islands is the sea life. Whether you are an avid diver or not, there is something for everyone here.
A lot of people had a taste of diving when we were in Nha Trang, and decided to do their open water diving course on the islands. The lodge we stay at has a PADI dive school attached, run by Pete and Anke, who do an excellent job. Karcher and Rich chose to enrol, turning their island break into a serious studying affair, but they did not complain. With a few hours a day spent in the class room and the afternoons spent diving amongst the coral reefs, this sounded to be a truly amazing experience.
The next best option to get up close and personal with the marine life is snorkelling. For 6 dollars a day you can hire fins and snorkel. Many folks had done a fair bit of snorkelling before, and at first there were only a few takers, but by the following day, anyone who could swim, and there was only one who couldn’t, was out, ass in the air, paddling amongst the coral. The island is really geared for this type of activity and large snorkelling areas are marked off on the surface, to keep any nasty boating accidents at bay. In terms of what you get to see, the stunning bright colours of the tropical fish are only the start, giant turtles grazing on grass only a few meters away, and black tipped reef sharks zooming around, add a little bit of racing pulse to the days swim. The coral is incredible, with huge sea urchins and giant clams. Nemos hiding in sea anemone‘s and sea slugs squelching along the bottom. Somebody should have been keeping score cards, as the lists of have and have not seen were shouted out over dinner.
If it’s not diving or snorkelling you are after, the island is dotted with resorts along the coast, and the interior a great jungle for exploring.This is unchartered territory, walking paths have been made, but the maps aren’t great. With most the light blocked out by the jungle canopy, one can easily lose your bearings, as Shinnik soon figured out. Luckily with the whole island only being a few kilometres coast to coast he soon found his way out.But all go, go, go is not what we are about. Five minutes’ walk away finds you on a beautiful beach, sandy and perfect in every way, the water lapping at the soft white sand.
Four days disappeared too soon, and only the thought of blasting our way back to the mainland on the speed boats, bought a few cheers from a rather happy, if not worn out group.
Causing chaos on the railways was becoming quite a regular affair for the Odyssey Group; catching an aircon overnight train is a great way to travel. The trains are spacious and clean, each person gets their own bunk, which becomes a little cocoon once the curtain is drawn. As there are twenty of us we easily book out most the carriage. So from the islands we hopped onto an overnight train to Kuala Lumpur (KL). Arriving early the next morning gave everybody an extra day to explore.
People soon said that KL was one of the first big cities they would like to live in, the atmosphere and good natured people almost contradicts a city stuffed with sky scrapers and honking taxis.
KL is also home to the Petronas Towers, these were the tallest buildings in the world till 2004, a truly spectacular sight, best viewed from the amazing vantage point more than two hundred meters up, from the fourth largest broadcasting tower in the world.
Jo had been looking forward to KL for quite some time, as she would be reuniting with an old friend from the UK. They had agreed to meet up when she arrived and, he, being well connected, was to take her out on the razz ma tazz. The complication was that it was also Carolyn’s last night with the group, and in Odyssey style everybody is expected to attend sad goodbyes. So Jo phoned her unsuspecting chum, and asked if she could bring a few friends, he intern said no problem, would they all fit in his car. Well, with all twenty of us heading out, the answer was a very firm NO, and Odysseys’ new local guide for KL was born.
He didn’t disappoint either, first we strolled down to a Chinese market, dodging all the tourist stalls, we ducked and dived down a couple of alleys. Right at the end of the road was a small place under a tin roof. A couple of instructions from our new guide and tables were being rammed together to seat the lot of us. It was decided that, rather than each person ordering their own food, we would order a mix of platters to keep the waiting time down to the minimum. Soon there was food fit for a king scattered all over the table, and the silence of the group was testament to the quality.
So tummy’s full, we were not letting Carolyn get away without the customary Odyssey Blue. Our guide said he had heard that a Japanese Reggae Infusion Band was playing at one of his local haunts, and so off we went. A great night was had by all.
The next morning was set aside for exploring, some folks explored the amazing shopping centres, and others the incredible architecture. Rich managed to lose himself for hours, after finding an entire shopping arcade dedicated to computers and technology, with some incredible deals to be had.
That evening a bunch of folks headed for the local cinema they had found, movies, popcorn and all, while others decided on an easy night in, with takeaways delivered to the front door from all your usual fast food suspects.
Kuala Lumpur was a great city.
Arriving in Melaka, after a short journey in a couple of mini vans, gave us the afternoon to explore the town. Originally a Portuguese trading port, the mixture of architecture and food is interesting to say the least. The local specialty is a curry based on both Portuguese and Malay cooking, and although fiery hot, is very tasty.
The town has plenty of charms too, with its old churches, something we hadn’t seen for quite a while, and mosques, adorning the town square.
The local Cyclo-drivers take great pride in their bikes, decorating them with flowers, lights and sound systems that churn out the local love song of the week.
Once over the bridge and into the small cobbled streets, you enter the shopping area. Melaka is one of the top holiday destinations for Malay people, and so the streets are jammed with restaurants and shops selling all kinds of clothes and tat. It’s also always nice to know all the market stores aren’t aimed at western tourists, and the locals get touted too. It was a great place to wonder for the afternoon.
That evening was a big affair. It was the “Fungi”, Mike H’s Birthday, and also the last night before the Borneo & Brunei separatists were heading off in their own direction.
We headed down to a local restaurant called the Geographer, a great place with a good mix of western and local food; taking over the entire top floor we soon had the establishment in chaos, as twenty orders for food and drink were asked of the already busy staff.
The party went on till the small hours of the morning with Mike T. wowing the crowd with the old Irish Favourite ” My lovely truck, driving through the hills”, which after several encores may well be on its way to number one in Japan.
The following morning we met up for a lot of sad goodbyes, Pete (Tour Guide), Richard, Karcher, Jen, Elaine, Mike S., Alexa and Jo were off to Borneo. The rest of us were heading to Singapore the following day. After six months of travelling together, goodbyes don’t come easy. Everybody on the trip had had their highs and lows, and the rest of the group were always there to help where they could, that’s what group travel is all about.
The last of us: Chris, Maura, Simon, Ann, Mike H., C, Mike T., Andrew, Edel, Cheryl and I, had another day to wonder the streets of Melaka. We all met up at about three in the afternoon and headed off to a Korean bar that was advertising Doctor Fish. All feeling a bit sad that the group had split, and the holiday that was so long it would never end was starting to wind down, we all agreed we could do with some kind of treatment.
Sitting in a cool courtyard with our feet in the water, calming fountains trickling nature’s tune, while tiny little fish nibble at your feet, may not have been everybody’s first choice, but after you learn to control the fits of giggles between the tickles, as a little doctor fish nibbles the gaps between your toes, it’s a great way to spend an hour or so.
That evening we met up for another local delight at a satay house. Basically it works the same as a French fondue, but instead of having cheese or oil, you have a bubbling pot of peanut satay sauce in the centre of the table. You then select a fist full of skewers and pop them in to cook. It makes for a really nice social evening, as you snack on this and that, while having a chat.