Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Penang and Langkawi

During my recent trip to Malaysia, I was thinking about how to go about writing this post. I wondered how I might keep the content fresh and interesting after so many travel blog posts over the last few years. I mean, seriously, unless you’re someone like Bill Bryson, it’s hard to make these little word doodles intriguing time and time again. Then I thought about something much more relevant—I am so damn lucky to have this as a challenge in my life. Honestly, this is more than just a #FirstWorldProblem; this is the thinking of an ultra-privileged individual, who’s probably been on more vacations in the last three years than 99% of the people I see on my journeys. Lucky is an understatement. Oh and another thing I’ve been ludicrously complaining about recently. This summer, I need to go to the US Embassy to get more blank pages stuck in my passport. There are only two left and I’ll need a new work visa soon. Woe is me!

Before getting into my adventures around Penang and Langkawi, let me just digress a bit more and list off all the travelling I’ve done since I came to HK in July of 2011. And I won’t include the handful of trips to Guangzhou and Macau as those cities are too close to really call “travel destinations” OR my annual Christmas trip stateside, which is the longest journey of all. I’m talking about truly new sights for these fortunate eyes.

Taipei, Taiwan, August 2011
Palawan, Philippines, January 2012
Bangkok, Thailand April 2012
Sabah, Malaysia, August 2012
Guilin, China, August 2012
Hua Hin, Thailand, February 2013
Northern Vietnam and Yunnan, China, March/April 2013
England, Ireland and Scotland, July/August 2013
Bali, Indonesia, February 2014
Northwest Malaysia, April 2014

That’s ten trips in less than three years. One of the main reasons I came to Hong Kong was to explore new territory and I’ve been able to do that with gusto. Not to mention two more trips planned before next school year. So, um, lucky stars? Thanks. Sincerely, scrawny 25-year-old from Bainbridge Island, USA.

Anyway, brief summary of the trip, Sharman and I went to two islands just off the northwestern coast of Malaysia. The first was Penang, second was Langkawi. Very different from each other, but each charming in their own way. We stayed for about three days on each island.

Without further ado, here are the (monster truck voice) TOP FIVE TOTALLY AMAAAAAAY-ZZZZZING EXPERIENCES OF THE HOLIDAY, IN HELLA CHRONOLOGICAL ORDERRRRRRRR  (wailing guitar solo)

1. The view from Kek Lok Si Temple

On our first full day in George Town, we weren’t sure what to do so we just wandered around the city, trying to follow one of my guidebook’s unclear itineraries. Once we reached this old Chinese-style mansion turned museum, which was closed, there was a taxi driver named Hardie who asked us if we’d like a tour around the area. Normally I automatically say no to strangers who ask for tourist business like this, but after talking with the good-natured Hardie a bit, and considering the fact that we’d just wandered around for ages to find a museum that was closed, we took him up on the offer. Hardie told us that Kek Lok Si was the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia and once we arrived, we could see its magnitude. (Side note: one may not expect the largest Buddhist temple in SE Asia to be in a small, Muslim country but that’s just another part of Malaysia’s fascinating diversity). The place wasn’t just one temple; it was a whole system of connected temples. One might say it was like an entire mountain of Buddhism, with gift shops in abundance to keep the ringgits rolling in. The highlight of our walk about the place was the tip top of the main temple, which is a unique blend of Burmese, Thai and Chinese architectural styles. From the top, we could see all of Eastern Penang, including George Town and the coast. These were probably my favorite photos from the trip, as the sky, ocean, Penang skyline and color of the smaller temples just beneath us really were breathtaking. Even more than the view from higher up Penang Hill, which felt too crowded and touristy, uncannily reminiscent of Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak, tram and all. The convenience took away from the site’s majesty I thought. At the top of Kek Lok Si, it was only Sharman and me. Thanks for climbing up all those stairs with me, darling!

2. George Town bike ride

For our second day in George Town we booked a bike riding tour around the oldest section of the city. This area is designated as a UNESCO heritage site and it biking turned out to be an excellent way to see it all up close while moving along quick enough to see the key places. The group of eight of us rode were able to see the old Chinese family jetties, Little India, an old Hindu shrine, the temple of a Chinese secret society, the central Mosque and remnants of British colonial buildings from when the Brits used Penang as their trading port in Southeast Asia. The variety of culture and history was extraordinary and one of the reasons we came to George Town to begin with. And along with the sites, we gorged on delicious food and were led by the entertaining and knowledgeable Ken, who blared music from his bike in the front to keep us all on course. We began our ride with the international anthem, "Gangnam Style." It started out as mildly embarrassing, but eventually we came to embrace his eccentricity.

3. Parasailing

Last time I came to Malaysia (see Sabah post linked above) I tried scuba diving for the first time. This trip, I tried parasailing for the first time. Yes, one activity took most of a day and the other lasted a few minutes, but still, the country has enabled me to be both a bird and fish and for that I’m grateful. Unlike the scuba excursion, I had no idea that I was going to go parasailing beforehand. After checking in to our Langkawi hotel, Sharman and I naturally made our way to the nearest beach, Pantai Tengah, as it was still only afternoon. Before we even arrived at the beach, we saw parachutes floating ahead of us, well above the seductive turquoise water. Once we got there, a handful of Malaysian beach boys asked us if we wanted to try. When I saw how easy it was to sign up and go, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to resist. After a quick swim, I returned to the posse of Malay para-hawkers (yes pun intended) and got strapped in for the flight. As I said, it was only for a few minutes, but what a feeling. Did I mention the weather was perfect, not a cloud in sight? Wish I could’ve brought my camera to capture the view of Langkawi from above, but obviously, the odds were high I would drop the camera into the ocean and I didn’t want to take that risk. When I came back to earth, I could not stop smiling. People use that as a cliché, but I mean it. My mouth was stuck. It was weird. Blissfully weird.

4. Kayak trip through the mangroves

Our second day in Langkawi, we went on a kayak tour after reading excellent reviews on TripAdvisor, possibly my favorite website, after baseballreference.com of course. After starting out at the base of the Langkawi Geopark, we got into our kayak, and started following stellar tour-guide Mandy down the Kilim River. Sharman and I shared a boat, and our group included two English couples and a family of five from France. In addition to getting quite a workout during the long kayak voyage, we saw beautiful karst formations, an otter, eagles, mudskippers, multicolored crabs and of course, mangrove trees with their complex root systems. After that, we walked through a bat cave and saw a number of different fish at the fish farm/aquarium, most notably a number of large stingrays. And by large, I mean their barbs must have been at least two feet long. They gently snuggled right up to Mandy when she stuck her hand in the water with some fishy snacks. Thankfully, no barbs were unhinged. At the end, my back was sore and my knees were a shocking shade of crimson thanks to the relentless sun, but it was well worth it.

5. Sharman's chips being stolen by a monkey

Okay, so this isn't exactly a highlight in the usual sense, but it was memorable and I wanted to recount it here. On our last full day, we went on an island hopping speedboat trip around Langkawi. It was cheap and therefore all the stops, though beautiful, were filled with tourists on similar trips with similar companies. There wasn't much to do other than walking around and swimming. Towards the end, we got to sit out on the beach of a little island called (something). After a brief swim, Sharman and I came back to our stuff and out of nowhere, this macaque appears and decides to open up Sharman's bag, where he discovers her small bag of chips. He got there a second before I did, and I saw the culprit snacking, I felt a mix of amusement, confusion and awe, with more than a bit of fear as well. I may have grown up in a rural area, but that doesn't make me particularly comfortable being within spitting distance of a wild, mangy mammal. I grabbed the rest of our stuff away but let him have the chips, and watched the monkey nonchalantly chow down. He then finished the chips, tossed the bag (a thief AND a litterbug) and made his way down the beach. Moments later, he started rummaging through a bag just inches away from a sunbathing bald western man, who realized a few seconds later and snatched his bag back just in time. That monkey was ruthless!

Thanks for reading this outrageously long post. Here are some photos from the holiday.

Penang from Kek Lok Si
Thirsty after that spicy soup!
I think it was dead, but didn't touch it to find out
Much better than the Bruce Lee statue in HK
George Town sunset
Clock Tower, from Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee
Turns out the USA isn't the only place that uses an eagle as its symbol
Pantai Tengah
Not me, but someone parasailing around the same area I did. It's an umbrella, it's a plane, it's Super Tourist!

Mangrove forest, basically kayaking through mud at this point
Eagle feeding
Rogue monkey