With just two little spurts of internet access in nine days, I really felt disconnected from the world there for awhile. Funny how we have become so dependent on constant connection!
After leaving Krabi in Southern Thailand, we entered country number six on our list, Malaysia. Getting into Malaysia was the easiest country to enter yet, as the country is in good standing with most of the world and allows U.S. citizens a free 3-month visa. Our bus dropped us off in the City of George Town on the island of Penang. There are two impressively long bridges that connect the island to the mainland and it is so large it doesn’t feel like an island at all. George Town is an old imperial city with cute European architecture and colorful culture galore. The two heaviest cultures in the area are Chinese and Indian, and the town has somewhat distinct “China Town” and “Little India” areas. George Town was also sprinkled with beautiful Chinese clan houses, temples, and Islamic Mosques. Being a very historical area, instead of plaques to provide information, all over town we discovered these really neat wrought-iron artistic depictions on the sides of buildings that told about the area like a comic strip. What a cool way to add character and provide information! While in George Town, we also happened to see the largest number of Ferrari sports cars either of us had seen in our lives combined! We had walked to a ritzy part of town where a brand new shopping center just opened a couple days before. I guess the cars were a show-off, grand opening presentation.
Our two favorite things to do in George Town: Eat and explore bookstores! The food was incredible. Being that it was (and still is) Ramadan, very little Indian food was available during the day light hours, so we usually hit up the various Chinese vendors for lunch and headed to Little India for a vast array of dinner options. It has been such a long time since we have had access to really good, really cheap street food, so we went all out. We were able to eat more and still work on getting our budget back down after the expensive places in Thailand. I even had the energy to go for morning runs while we were there! We were a tad disappointed after the first used bookstore we found turned out to be pretty expensive ($30 for one used book that sells new in the U.S. for $20), but after a quick internet search we found a smattering of used/new combo stores in a really rundown market building. There were maybe 8 sellers in the place each with a small room stacked floor to ceiling covering every imaginable place and no order. You could barely scoot sideways through the isles. We returned at least three times because there was just so much to peruse!
After missing out on so many good underwater photo opportunities while diving in Koh Tao, we decided to buy an underwater camera. George Town turned out to have a lot of camera shops and our next stop would be another island, so we spent a day comparing prices and online reviews. We settled on a CamOne Infinity which is about the same as a GoPro but cheaper and with a few more built-in options. The picture quality isn’t quite as good as a GoPro, but it was by far our best option since we can dive with it to 40 meters depth.
(taking pictures at Little India with CamOne)
A night bus dropped us off at 5am in Kuala Besut, the jetty access point to the Perhentian Islands, but the ferry speed boat wasn’t leaving until 8:30am. Just as we were getting into a good sleep on a wooden bench like bums, we were awaken at 6am by the singing voices of a couple men over loud speaker – the prayer calls from a couple mosques nearby. I couldn’t help but really enjoy the moment, it was such a foreign experience to us! Sleeping on our bags on a bench with the strange and beautiful sounds blaring over us.
When we arrived to Coral Bay on Pulau Kecil, the small island, I was instantly in awe over the scenery. From the jetty we were looking down at this perfectly turquoise water over patches of coral, a cute and not-too-developed beach in front of us enclosed by rocky sidewalls, and backed by a very green, thick jungle. Paradise! After settling into a little bungalow we spent some time playing with the new camera in the water and getting run off by these mean black fish who would bite our legs if we went too close to their homes, which happened to be every rock or coral mound off the beach! It was only a short walk across the narrow island to Long Beach on the opposite side, the most popular area, so we went to check it out. The beach was quite large with perfect white sand and turquoise water that went on forever. As soon as we got to the water, WHOA! There were no words, only a gasp! I have never seen anything like this place. The white sand continued as far as we could see, which was a really long way because the water was clearer than a swimming pool. I think the pictures tell the story better than I can.
Even though the water was more pristine at Long Beach, we really did like Coral Bay better for the scenery, the food, and the atmosphere. All over the island we kept spotting monitor lizards, some small at a couple feet and some about four feet long. With such good snorkeling around the island, we decided to forgo the much more expensive SCUBA diving and rented snorkel masks the next day. We took a 25 minute jungle walk along a trail to the small, secluded beach called Mira that claimed to have the best snorkeling on the island. It was fantastic! Along the rocky coast we saw huge needle fish which are still interesting no matter how many we see, parrot fish of all colors and sizes, a squid that changed colors before our eyes, a beautiful little blue-spotted stingray, a huge school of shiny minnow-type fish, and a couple black-tipped sharks! This was the first time I had seen these types of sharks, Bryan had spotted one in Railay. They were just little guys, maybe three to four feet long. After lunch we went back over to Long Beach to see what the snorkeling was like. The white sand really did go on forever! We had to walk south in waist-deep water a long distance from the end of the beach to finally reach some rocks and coral. I was still so impressed with everything we saw. Although we had seen many Parrot fish, the ones on this side were enormous, which is especially cool when it is bright pink, blue, yellow, orange, and purple all in one! I spotted about 4 or 5 Black-Tipped sharks. I could have had great pictures because one of them swam right under me twice! Bryan had the camera, but it didn’t matter because he had taken the SD card out over lunch and forgot to put it back in. Ha ha, so no pictures of that area! That night we tried crab for the first time. It was good but not worth the work for the little bit of meat. They didn’t have very big crabs.
The third day on the island was our 3rd wedding anniversary! We spent most of the day relaxing over tea/coffee while reading our books. We were able to continue the tradition we started while I was in grad school and we were poor: Splitting a cheap meal and a movie! We tried king fish that night (pretty tasty) at a restaurant with a projector and a different movie every night. We didn’t see the end though because a storm came in. Now we don’t know if The Rock kicked ass at the end in Snitch.
For our final day on the island we took a snorkeling tour with 5 stops. One of our coolest sightings yet was a spotted eel fighting a bunch of fish for a piece of a dead clam on the edge of a coral mound! It was slithering in and out of the coral, hiding for only a second as I got close with the camera before snapping at the fish and slithering its head into the open clam shell. There were some mean teeth on that thing! Bryan pointed out a couple swimming squid to me that were going along at the bottom of a school of fish and blended right in with their tentacles and skirts tucked in. We also had a lot of fun with the playful clownfish here who seemed to pose for the camera! I held out my hand to see what they would do, and one swam into my palm just like it was going to take a seat. On our third stop we putted around a deep pool between the two islands until one boat guide spotted the main attraction, a huge sea turtle swimming along the floor. Everyone from two boats flew into the water at once, frantically kicking each other in faces and stomachs, and Bryan was the first one to take a deep breath and swim down to the turtle’s level. He got a couple good pictures. It was maybe 4 feet in length and just casually swam along under this horde of people until one idiot went down and touched it on the shell. It didn’t stick around too long after that.
I have been eagerly awaiting our next Malaysian stop for a long time, Taman Negara National Park. This is the first country we have been in that has real National Parks, not just expensive traps for rich tourists. Not only was it cheap to get into, but we could hike on marked trails on our own, WITHOUT A GUIDE, a service every other country has required and charged hundreds of dollars for. This was also the first time we got to experience real jungle, which actually seems pretty well protected unlike what we have seen elsewhere. Mind you, this is not a large portion of jungle compared to what used to exist (we passed cleared jungle – turned palm plantations all the way to the NP). On the bus ride we made new friends with a couple from Ireland and talked the entire way there, then enjoyed dinner with them as well. We look forward to hopefully seeing them in the U.S. as they are completing their long trip in 2015 before going back to Ireland.
Our first adventure in Taman Negara was the famed Canopy Walk. I imagined a solid walkway built high in the trees for spotting and photographing birds and other tree life. Not at all! It was a series of swinging rope bridges linked to small platforms in the trees and as high as 45 meters (147 feet) at some points. It was really pretty cool as we were walking just under the highest canopy level, a view not seen otherwise, but being such a popular attraction we had to rush through and were unable to stop for photos while on the rope portions. Not that we would have seen anything because all wildlife was scared away by the sheer quantity of people. To get that real jungle experience I have been longing for, we decided to spend a night in a hide deep in the park. The hide we chose, Bumbun Kumbang, was 11 km out (6.8 miles), with two trail options. On the way there we took the inner-jungle trail and saw nobody after the first half. It was fairly dry and flat, and we relished the foliage and colorful mushrooms. At one point I spotted a cat print in the trail, pretty fresh but not too big. Maybe the size of a medium dog. During a rest stop we were listening to the sounds around us and heard this szchoooooooooom (like a baseball flying past your head) BANG CRACK! *(#&!#*#%! All kinds of things flew out of my mouth as we took in what had happened. A small stick fell from a very high tree and landed about 6 feet from us and then broke on the log we were sitting on. That was the end to that break! Just before reaching the hide we came to a large creek we needed to cross. As we were pulling our pants up I spotted blood on Bryan’s leg and we realized a leech had had its fill and left him bleeding. Ha ha, little things love to torture him! The hide turned out to be pretty cool, maybe 20 feet off the ground with 12 hard wood bunks inside and a long window and bench overlooking a small semi-clearing in the jungle. There were three Spanish guys there already who didn’t seem to be very experienced in the outdoors. Pretty soon the trees were starting to come alive with sounds and we were getting in place at the hide window. No luck. The guys kept going in and out and were not that quiet. All we saw was a squirrel and fireflies. Just after crawling in bed a downpour began, sadly drowning out all the jungle sounds, and continued all night. I took post again in the morning but never saw anything. We heard from a guide later that the previous night a group stayed up all night with a spotlight and saw an elephant, 2 tapirs, and a spotted leopard. Next time we will bring a big light! For the hike out we took the trail that followed the river, now made muddy by the rain. The trail continuously dipped down and up muddy embankments and difficult inclines, which kept it interesting but exhausting. Thanks to the rain, the leeches were feasting. With me walking ahead of Bryan, I alerted them and then they scored their catch when he passed. Too bad for them he was paranoid and checked every few minutes and managed to get away with zero bites for the day despite maybe a hundred leeches on him! Much better than me, being that I wasn’t as paranoid. I had many fewer on me, but nearly half scored with a total of 9 bites! I also stirred up another surprise for him when I passed a huge scorpion and put it on defense. I didn’t see it among the leaves at the base of a tree, but with its tail up, pinchers open, and looking at Bryan, he didn’t miss it! The body alone was at least 4 inches long not including the tail, and it was a deep turquoise color. Really odd color being that it was on brown leaves but maybe it hides well into the shady green undergrowth. Beautiful! A little while later we heard crashing through the tree tops and after a few moments of straining our necks finally spotted a monkey very high up. Shortly after that we heard something grunting and rooting around the undergrowth not far off the trail but couldn’t see it. We think it may have been a tapir. In the end, we didn’t spot anything big and rare, but I didn’t expect we would. What is important is that I have checked off another item from the Life List – trekking in a real jungle! I am really happy with our experience, and it won’t be the last. Pretty soon we will be in Borneo with more National Parks and jungle treks.
We are now having a quick stay in Kuala Lumpur before heading to the Cameron Highlands where we will get to cool off at a higher altitude. We checked into a cute little guesthouse we chanced upon here, and to our surprise, our new Irish friends we met up North were in the room right next to us. Of all the places to stay in this huge city, we ended up at the same one! This is a pretty cool city so far, but we’ll save that for the next post.
By the way, if you have any suggestions or requests for more/less information or pictures on certain subjects, leave a comment and we will do our best.