Sunday, June 5, 2011

What I've Been Up To:

 Bangkok and Koh Phi Phi, Thailand: Penang, Malaysia: Bukit Lawang and Danau Toba, Indonesia

Thailand: The last week or two has been extremely hectic.  I rendezvoused with a high school friend of mine in Bangkok in late May.  Chris and I will be traveling together for the next month or so.  After arriving in Bangkok we took in the sites around the city (Loha Prasat and the Grand Palace) and became aquanted with the cities many forms of public transit.  The first day to get from the airport to a guesthouse in the backpackers district we were on a skytrain (overhead train), a regular train and a public bus.   I think each different mode was a step down in class as we began on an air conditioned nearly fully automated train and ended on an bus that looked like it has been doing the route since 1980 and it looked to me like there never was any glass in the windows.  I guess that’s what old AC was.  The Grand Palace was very impressive with the architecture and vibrant colors.    From there we headed to the reclining Buddha which is massive standing at (or I guess I should say laying) 15m tall and nearly 50m in length.  We walked along the river between the two places to take in the sites.  It was cooler by the river and fun to watch the river taxis in action.  The brown color reminded me of something from Willy Wonka however far less appealing.    Later that evening we hoped an overnight bus from Bangkok to Krabi .

The Bangkok to Krabi bus was an adventure in itself.  We boarded the bus at 6pm and were told we would be in Krabi at 6am.  At 8:45 we were sitting at the Bangkok trainstation waiting for who knows what after 1 or 2 loops around the city.  At midnight we stop for a bathroom break and snack and everyone heads to bed upon returning to the bus.  At 4am the bus stops and the driver tells a few passengers to get off because this is their stop (apparently they weren’t going to Krabi).  I fall back asleep.  At 7am the bus stops on the side of a road with a clay field and everyone is quickly ushered off the bus (we are definitely not in Krabi).   The bus pulls away quickly and we walk to a travel agent shack a few hundred yards away.  There we are told to wait 45 min for a mini bus to Krabi.  In those 45 min we find out that a Canadian girl on our bus had $300 stolen from her while she was asleep (a bit creepy) and that we are in Surathani (about 2 hours from Krabi).  A minibus does finally show up at nearly 8 (think underpowered pickup with 2 benches in the back) and takes us across town to another bus.  Now this is 14hours since we started our journey and 2 hours after we were told we would arrive.  This bus doesn’t pull out until 9am and the 2 hour drive easily becomes 3 when you are picking up locals and all of their goods and produce.  We arrive at Krabi a little after 12pm—18 hours after we left! Unfortunately we have to go straight to the ferry to catch the boat to Koh Phi Phi or wait 3 more hours.  It isn’t until 4pm that we are able to sit down for a bite, nearly 22 hours since we had last eaten! 

We were on Koh Phi Phi for 2 nights and after the first night we met up with Meredith.  The beach is beautiful and the island is made up of a beach in between to karsts (like those we saw in China).  We enjoyed doing a bit of swimming from one beach to the other or hiking up to a viewpoint on the mountain.  Whatever we were doing we were enjoying some banana shakes throughout the day.  After the 2nd night we took the ferry back to Krabi and hopped on a bus for Penang, Malaysia.

Penang, Malaysia: Like no place else. 

The bus ride actually composed of 2 mini bus rides, one to a border town and another across the border and the remaining 100km to Penang (and island off the coast of peninsular Malaysia).  It was uneventful except for the border crossing.  The driver tried to tell us we had to pay him 10 baht (30 cents) because he was going to get our passports stamped.  We said no, then he said it was because it was a holidy.  We still said no, but then came immigration.  When Meredith and I were talking to Thai immigration officials (at separate windows) he came and spoke to them.  After this the immigration officials told Meredith she overstayed her visa (she didn’t) and then mentioned some other things.  When officials got involved she (and everyone else on the bus) handed over the 10 baht.  But not me.  Apparently the immigration official didn’t understand which bus I was on because they didn’t demand any money from me.  At least we put up a fight, we don’t want to make these scams too easy for them. 

The island is situated in between China and India and therefore has been a trading port for quite some time.  Therefore, on the island you have many different cultures: Malays, Chinese, Indians, Acehs (an area of N. Sumatra in Indonesia) and many others including some Europeans from the Dutch trading days.  Our first day we went to a wonderful museum about the city before heading to the waterfront to see the old fort.  The two most impressive sites we saw were a restored Chinese mansion that was inhabited by the family until the 1960s and a kongsi (clan house).  It was amazing to see the furniture and jewelry in the mansion.  The opium beds and 2kg gold anklets were the highlights.  Beside the obvious Chinese models hanging around.  There was a photo shoot going on in the house with a Chinese couple wearing the appropriate dress.  It was a site to see in the mansion.   After the mansion we visited the Khoo Kongsi (Khoo Clanhouse)  which used to be the center for business, religion and other community matters for the clan on the island.  They are a successful clan and their kongsi shows it.  The art was stunning but even more impressive was their geneology book—updated every 3 generations to begin with (now each generation) it stretches back over 1,000 years.   The book is massive! The clan started outside of Fujian, China but came to Penang in the 1800’s.  It is still active today. 

We spent part of the second day at Penang National Park doing a quick jungle hike.   It was fun to see the different plant life and the density of it all.  At the end of the hike was a meromictic lake and the beach.  A meromictic lake is one that has both fresh and salt water in it but they don’t mix.  It was fresh water on top and salt water underneath…it makes for a unique ecosystem.  Unfortunately it is only separated for about 2/3s of the year and just looked like a normal tidal lake for us.  A dam is naturally build by the tides and sand each august and is again torn down by the tide each may.  When the dam is up it allows for the water to separate.  We also visited the snake temple and Kek Lok Si temple.  The snake temple is just as it sounds, a temple with snakes (yes live snakes, some of them are even pit vipers) at the alter.  Other than the snakes the temple was pretty unimpressive.  This is in direct contrast to Kek Lok Si temple.  It is really more of a complex of temples each beautiful and wonderfully crafted.  The most impressive part about the temple is the statue of a local healer that sits at the top and is 30m high!  It was quite a site, and a hike up there!

The best part about Penang has nothing to do with temples, jungles, or houses—it’s the food.  With so many different cultures living together you have such a great selection of world class street food.  We had lunch in Little India and the mutton curry and masala tea was just as good as I remember from India back in Feb.  Later that night on the street near our guesthouse we had rice noodles and shellfish for dinner.  Another night, again on the street, we had rice noodles with brown sauce and shrimp—perhaps my favorite meal I’ve had overseas and it was only $1.20.  The next morning we caught a flight from Penang, Malaysia to Medan, Indonesia.  We wanted to take the ferry (4 hours across) but it went out of business a few months ago. 



  1. Couldn't agree with you more on the food. I love the fusion of Indian, Malay and Chinese and even bought a Penang cookbook for Mary, but it hasn't made it off the shelf yet. After reading your description I'm eagerly anticipating my next Penang layover (this month).

  2. BTW, Mary and I are really loving your posts. Between you and Chris, with your different styles, we get not only the who, what and where, but also the sights, sounds and smells. It's lots of fun. Thanks for sharing!!!