19.02.2013 - 06.03.2013 30 °C
We arrived in Georgetown late at night, after a long 12 hour journey that involved a very bumpy speedboat ride and a mini bus driver who appeared to have Tourettes. The first indication that we were going to like this city, was that when we finally reached our hostel and asked the man at reception if it was too late to find somewhere to eat, he laughed and replied: 'This is Penang! People eat here 24 hours a day!' He then proceed to write out a list of restaurants we had to visit, and dishes we had to try, and then highlighted 4 and told us he wouldn't let us leave until we had tried them!
Penang is famous for food, and with a little India, a China town and innumerable Malaysian hawker stalls, there is a lot to choose from. So we got started that night with a platter of tandoori chicken, a big wad of naan bread and a plateful of different curry sauces. Over the next few days we treated Penang like an all you can eat buffet, working our way through the list. We tried Roti Cani, Char koay Teow, Wan Tan Mee, Mee Goreng - even Hokken Mee complete with pig entrails, and the famous Fish head soup, Laska (neither of which are particularly appetizing - but we've come to realize that things described as 'delicacies' rarely are!). We enjoyed the Malaysian food, but what we really loved was the Indian food... claypot Byrianis, gapatis, Puri, Masala Tonsai, curried potato and chickpeas and a dozen different currys.
But anyway, apart from eating we spent the days working up an appetite with some serious sight seeing in the blistering heat! Georgetown is a really interesting city to explore, with grand mansions and colonial architecture alongside eccentric Chinese wooden houses, ornate Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques, churches and cathedrals. The busy streets are strung with Chinese paper lanterns and dotted with imaginative street art. We visited a beautiful hilltop temple that had an enormous bronze statue of The Godess of Mercy, a koi carp pond where the fish swam in a perfect figure eight, and a liberation pond filled with turtles where you can make a wish. We went to the botanical gardens that were over run with black Macaques and huge monitor lizards, and we also spent an uncharacteristic amount of time in museums and art galleries - mainly to take advantage of the air conditioning!
On our last day, Shaun said it was his turn to decide what we did... so we went to a pet shop, the cinema and McDonalds... 3 of his favourite things!
As the Cameran highlands never really reaches above 20 °C, it was a huge relief from the sticky, sweaty streets of Penang. The town has an abundance of English tea, strawberries, scones and hikers - and seeing as it rained every day we were there, it kind of felt like home! Whilst we were there we decided to go on a trek to see the Rafflesia flower; the biggest flower on earth that is only in bloom for around 4 days. So we trekked for over 2 hours in the jungle, in the pouring rain, over rivers and fallen trees, wading through thick mud and getting attacked by leaches - to see one very big flower.
We also went on a trek to the mossy forest, which is apparently one of the oldest in the world and filled with prehistoric ferns and carnivorous pitcher plants. The guide knew everything there was to know about the forest, and as the place was so damp, eerie and dripping with moss, it felt as if we'd stumbled onto a Lord of the Rings set. After the guided trek we thought it would be a good idea to trek back to town with some German hiking enthusiasts. As Shaun was the most reluctant member of the group, it was quite surprising that when the trail turned out to be harder and more complicated than we were lead to believe, he ended up leading the way and got us all home unscathed! Even if he did fall over spectacularly down a particularly slippy embankment and had to walk the rest of the way covered in mud.
Whilst we were in the highlands we also visited a strawberry plantation, where we had strawberries and scones; a butterfly farm where we held a rhinoceros beetle, an orchid mantis and a dried leaf frog; and Shaun's favorite place so far, the tea plantation. This is where we saw the whole tea making process and then sat on a balcony overlooking the picturesque plantation whilst drinking tea. As I don't actually like tea, I took this opportunity to eat an enormous chocolate cake.
The only problem with the Highlands was that there wasn't really anything to do at night, and the only place open past 10pm was a Starbucks. Consequently, we spent most nights just gorging ourselves on Indian and Chinese food!
At 130 million years old, Tamen Negara is known as one of the oldest rain forests on earth. To get there we had to take a two hour boat trip down a fast flowing river with dense jungle looming over us on either side. From the boat we could already see playful monkeys swinging from branches and colourful tropical birds flitting between the trees, so we were really excited to start exploring the rainforest.
We reached the little village at the national park headquarters, and after checking into our hostel we went on a guided night walk through the jungle. Unfortunately, the tour was a little overcrowded, and as our group contained four girls who screamed every time they saw an insect, it's a surprise we saw anything at all. However, we did see stick insects, huntsman spiders a bird eating spider, lizzards and snakes, and even a small deer like animal that I can't remember the name of. But the best thing about being in the jungle at night was the deafening chorus of toads, frogs crickets and circadas, making the whole place feel completely alive.
The next morning we started the day with a walk along the tree top canopy walkway - a series of rope bridges between the tops of the trees. After that we went on a short trek through the jungle. As the trek was predominantly vertical, it was around 90% humidity and I have the fitness level of a dead frog, we did find it quite difficult. And so when we finally reached the top the spectacular view definitely looked better than we did!
The next day we went to visit an Orang Asli tribe; the only people who are allowed to remain living in and living off the national park. On the way to the settlement we were floating down the river in a little wooden boat, when two huge monitor lizards floated past us, clinging on to each other and looking completely bemused! The visit to the tribe was really interesting, and our guide was so knowledgeable that we seemed to get a good insight into their lifestyle, religion, history and culture. In fact the only question he couldn't answer was about their life expectancy as no one seems to keep track of their age - but we did notice that everyone appeared to be chain smoking, including the children! The children were really cute, and looked curious but wary as they peered at us from behind their parents. The chief showed us how they can build a fire in less than a minute, and how they make blow darts and blow pipes for hunting. We were then given a blow pipe demonstration before trying it out for ourselves. I don't like to boast but I think it's important to point out that I beat Shaun.
Kuala Lumpa had all the sights, sounds and smells of a typical Asian city, but without the chaos and overcrowding that we've come to expect. Its filled with decadent malls, air conditioned to arctic temperatures and crammed with pristine designer shops that we couldn't set foot in wearing the bedraggled clothes we've been living in for the past four months. There was an abundance of fast food restaurants (that we took more advantage of than I'd like to admit), clean spacious parks and gardens, impressive architecture and bustling markets. We visited the Petronas towers which look amazing lit up at night, especially from Skybar at the top of the Traders Hotel - even if we could only afford to have one drink in there! We went to the top of the KL tower for a panoramic view of the city, bartered in the huge central markets and paper-lantern adorned market streets of China town and wondered around lake gardens before escaping the heat in huge air conditioned malls. It was also a relief to have something to do at night again, because with the Cameran Highlands and Tamen Negara completely shutting down after 10pm, we'd grown far too accustomed to early nights over the past week! Overall it was a great place to wind down for a few days before heading to Sulawesi.