Sunday 22 Sept Hat Yai to Jitra (Malaysia). 90km.
The usual early morning start and being a Sunday in Thailand the roads were quiet. It was a 60km jaunt to the border, which we did without a break as we had used up all our Baht so had no cash to stop for a coffee break. We reached the border crossing just before 9am and although there was a queue on the Thai side, the officials there were super-efficient so we had our exit stamp in a matter of minutes and back on the bikes to get to the Malaysian side. This was definitely the biggest border crossing area that we have experienced on our trip….it was enormous and as big as a ferry terminal, although it was absolutely deserted! We got a bit confused as to where to go but we’re directed to the correct “booth” where we had our fingerprint scanned and had our passports stamped immediately with permission to stay for 90 days….we didn’t even have to fill in a form! The staff were all super friendly and chatty and even the customs personnel were more interested in our bikes and our journey than actually checking any of our bags (it’s the first time since entering Turkey that we’ve actually had to open any bags)….definitely the easiest border crossing we have had on our trip! There was no “welcome to Malaysia” sign so we had to make do with this road sign…..
….. and then it was an onward 30km journey along a tropical highway i.e. one that was lined on both sides with palm trees and when there was no traffic noise you could hear all sorts of creatures whooping and hollering. It was muggy as hell so it was a bit of a sweaty ride so we were glad to arrive in Jitra around 12.30….before realising that Malaysia is an hour ahead of Thailand so in Thai time it was only 11.30! We had made great progress for a fairly big day – a border crossing and a 90km journey in 5.5 hours. Finding an ATM where I could withdraw money was a bit of a faff but I finally had success on the third attempt. Accommodation was also a challenge as the homestays we had ear-marked on Google either weren’t available or only had an entire house to rent, but eventually we got a hotel sorted – and one where they immediately allowed us to take our bikes inside with no fuss! We even managed to sort a SIM card between the money and hotel sagas. A lazy afternoon to recover and early evening we ventured out to stock up on some essentials …we are back to 3-pin plugs again so one of our essentials was a new adaptor! On our errands we spotted a food market so decided to try some local street food for dinner. The murtabak, which is the stuffed pancakes filled with meat and vegetables in the picture was absolutely yummy.
We also spotted lots of cakes on our evening excursion, so I have a feeling that cake watch may be back in action very soon. All in all a very successful first day in a new country!
Monday 23 Sept. Jitra to Sungai Petani. 93 km.
Our new time zone means that it doesn’t get light here until 7am so effectively we have lost an hour of cycling in the cool part of the day. But it does mean an extra hour in bed!
So we set off at first light on our first full day of cycling in Malaysia. We noticed it yesterday but today it became quite obvious very early on as the road was busy….there are so many more cars on the road here than anywhere we have been for a while and they drive quite fast! Some of the drivers got pretty close to us but at the same time it’s balanced with the fact that they are still quite considerate….not cutting us up or pulling out in front of us. And there were a fair few friendly beeps and encouraging waves from drivers, which is always nice. And something else we haven’t seen for a long time was lots of female drivers…probably an equal division between male and female.
Anyway, back to our route….After a couple of hours on a really busy highway we decided or look for a quieter route along the coast as it really wasn’t pleasant. Although it would add an hour to our day we figured it would be worth it to be able to enjoy our cycling…and we were so right. We had about 3 hours along a lovely secondary road that took us into the countryside alongside some paddy fields….
We went around a national park, which gave us a few hills to grunt up, but it also gave us a some lovely views of the Malacca Strait in places. We didn’t have brilliant visibility unfortunately as the air was very hazy and we’re not sure if that’s to do with the humidity in the air or the pollution from the deforestation/burning in Sumatra and Borneo, which has come this way…probably a combination of both. It was fairly hot and humid all morning but the last hour into Sungai Petani was particularly uncomfortable …around the 35 degree mark and 90% humidity, which made it feel much much hotter….conditions we haven’t experienced since mid-Vietnam. We made it to destination around 12.30 and to avoid the faff we had with accommodation yesterday we had booked ahead. Yet again the staff were super friendly and accommodating in letting us keep our bikes inside. One thing that we have noticed already is that the level of spoken English is excellent so it’s even easier than Thailand if that were possible….and our experience so far is that the hotel staff in our two non-touristy stops have been practically fluent. Even the owners of little roadside shops and stalls speak enough English to make our lives very easy.
Dinner was a very enjoyable meal in a restaurant right next door to our hotel, which had a huge choice of very cheap but tasty food. We managed to limit ourselves to just these few options and the entire meal came to £4 – bargain!
Tuesday 24 Sept. Sungai Petani to Georgetown, Penang. 48km.
Set off in the morning rush hour on the main busy road, which wasn’t that’s much fun. We did turn off after about 15km into our journey onto a quieter road, but that didn’t last long as we had to rejoin the busy road again as we got nearer to Butterworth. It’s the location of an old RAF airbase and is now a Malaysian airbase so we did see a couple of ‘big planes’ as we cycled through. That’s my plane-spotting knowledge! But more importantly what a great name for a place….I love it. Does it mean it’s worthy of being buttered?!?!
We weren’t too sure if we we allowed to cycle the bridge into Georgetown so we opted for the ferry. We haven’t been on a ferry for a while anyway and it was a good choice as it was super speedy and efficient.
Arrived in Georgetown around 10am and we could check in early to our AirBnB, which was great as it was already starting to get hot! And what a great choice we had made with this AirBnB. We had booked a room in an old traditional shop house, which used to house a family upstairs while the downstairs was a place of business (for those that know, it’s like Car-Stock, but no longer a functioning business!).
And as our host was out of town we had the whole place to ourselves…..very cool! Got settled in, found a laundrette for our washing and had some lunch before retiring for the afternoon to avoid torrential rain!
A quick note on our washing…One of my friends recently asked if we smell bad…well I can confirm now that Nigel does : ) We normally rinse out our cycling gear at the end of every day to get rid of the salt in our clothes, but coming into Malaysia we got a bit lazy as we knew we had a few days off coming up so could get washing done. I, of course, changed into new gear this morning…Nigel didn’t. As we were setting off from the hotel I was standing near him and an open door complaining about the smell of socks …assuming it was from clothes in the laundry room with the open door. Nigel actually gave a semi-apologetic smile and confirmed that it was actually from the shirt he was wearing as he had worn for the last 2 days. Good grief!! Smelly socks are bad, but when your man smells of bad socks from a distance, and on your wedding anniversary of all days, it’s time to get on that bike and get as far away from him as possible!!
Evening time (after ensuring Nigel had showered well!) we went for a wander around town, had some great food in Little India followed by a few beers in Love Lane (rather apt for our anniversary, ahhh!), which is the hip pub area that we found.
Wed 25 and Thursday 26 September Penang.
Since we have arrived in Malaysia our biggest observation is the diverse mix of nationalities, cultures and religions. It’s a real melting pot of East meets West, populated mainly with ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian people and, of course, European. With all these people comes their associated cuisines and loads of mosques, Chinese and Buddhist temples and even a few churches. Even the signs along the roads and in towns alternate between Chinese, Latin script and Arabic and we heard the ‘call to prayer’ a lot. And Penang island is no different. It was the first British colony in South East Asia so as well as all the other ethnic influences it has lots of grand old British colonial buildings like this…
For some reason we expected Georgetown to be a quaint little place on a par with Hoi An in Vietnam, but it’s very built-up and one of the countries most urbanised states. It’s also Malaysia’s second city. The island’s population is over 50% Chinese, 31% Malays and 9% Indian and although they have settled in very obviously segregated areas they live quite happily alongside each other.
We had 2.5 days here, which was loads of time to see plenty but not exhaust ourselves running around trying to fit too much in. We had a fantastic morning on Penang hill, which was old hill station during the British rule. It’s 800m above sea level and it was a steep ride on a funicular railway to get there. From our research we had read that the main reason to visit was for the views over Georgetown. With haze we didn’t expect to see much but we were pleasantly surprised….
However what was much more impressive than the views was the tropical jungle and landscaped gardens with native flora and fauna……
..and as not many other tourists bothered to walk around we had the pathway to ourselves, or so we thought…..we had one comedy moment when we were moving closer to some trees to look at the view below. We heard a bit of rustling and a very surprised monkey popped up from behind a bush with 2 big white eyes, looking like he had just escaped from the muppet show. If he was surprised to see us we were equally as shocked to see him as we had no idea there were monkeys around, and then for about 5 seconds we all stood completely still just staring at each other before he clambered off to join his mates.
We took a walking tour of the town and discovered that because of the unique fusion of eastern and western architecture it’s a UNESCO world heritage site….and the old shop house where we are staying, with its Chinese shop front downstairs and European-style architecture upstairs (particularly Portuguese, with the wooden window shutters), is one of the many preserved buildings in the old town area.
The tour guide pointed out lots of Chinese cultural things that we never knew such as statues of fish on the roof of a Tao temple mean it’s Cantonese as they believe that because fish come with water, it protects the temple against fire. We learned that in Tao-ism they “pray” to tigers to cause mischief to their enemies and when it happens they reward the tiger with gifts such as eggs! We also learned that have 2 main Gods…one to pray to for money and one for health and lots and lots of others in between (at least 88 …as that is how many were in one of the temples we visited).
We also visited the clan jetties, which are villages on stilts along wooden piers that house descendants of Chinese immigrants. Eight different clans still live here with each individual jetty is named after their surname. This was Chow Jetty…
…and I’m sure the locals get completely peeved off with tourists taking photos of their homes on a daily basis.
There is some great metal street art on nearly every street that tells stories of the history of the city…..
….and they even have their very own Downing Street!
All in all a very enjoyable couple of days, made even better by the fact that we had so much vegetarian Indian food to choose from! We can definitely see why it’s Malaysia’s most tourist-visited destination.