Sunday, August 31, 2014

Short Trip to Penang - Aug/Sept 2014

After a week working in Cyberjaya, Kuala Lumpur, I needed some R&R. Already in the neighborhood (so to speak), I enjoyed a short 4 night and 3 day trip to Penang at the end of August / start of September. Friday night after work, I flew out of KL. Off the plane quickly, I was promptly in heavy traffic all the way to Traders hotel Georgetown, which I really loved. In the lobby lounge, I met a few fellow Aussies and had a glass of wine (or 2) before crashing for the night.
Day 1, after a small sleep in, I ventured out on foot to explore Georgetown. Everywhere is close enough to walk, or you can hire a bike. But I just wondered around seeing where my feet would take me. Plenty of willing trishaws around if I get tired...

A few blocks away was Khoo Kongsi temple. It's gorgeous with a display below the temple that had lots of information about the temple and its history, as well as he surrounding area's temples, that was nicely done. Through the main alter room, two doorways lead to some lovely wall paintings on the rear terrace. Small plaques provided the stories and legends behind each picture.

The temple itself is lovely with walls covered with ornate carvings and paintings. I spent over an hour reading the displays and exploring all around. Its a popular attraction with a steady stream of tourists coming through and children running around. Not like other more serene temples I'd visited.

Seh Tek Cheah Kongsi temple was just around the corner with almost no tourists. Only local worshipers burning incense paying their respects met me. From the shadowy side stairs, a toothless old man approached me, pointing upwards. "You go, you go", he motioned. Upstairs, another alter room looked out over a balcony adorned with many red lanterns.
I then wanted to visit a few of the other temples (Teochew and Mahamariamman ) but they were under renovation and closed. I wondered the streets near by, browsing the shops instead.

Of course I saw many of the famous Penang street art. They are easy to find as there are crowds of people taking photos surrounding them, as well as stalls selling souvenirs, snacks and drinks nearby. I must say I enjoyed the street art and found various paintings and sculptures - some down side streets that I just happened upon alone. But you can't walk too far without finding an interesting piece to ponder over. 

I stopped for lunch in Little India and had lunch at Kapitan - which was very very yummy - 10 MYR for 2 cans of drink and a veggie curry stuffed paratha served with chutneys etc. Too good.
Refreshed after my delicious lunch, I wondered to the Clan Jetties and wondered up and down a couple of the rickety decks, but I didn't enjoy them too much. The street food in the area smelt amazing - but I didn't eat. 

I wondered down to the Goddess of Mercy temple, which was crowded with visitors. The streets surrounding it had many stalls selling incense and other devotional items that were bustling with activity. It was like a circus with screaming children, yelling parents, hawkers, and an underlying smell of something that didn't smell fresh. So I didn't stay long and wondered down towards the esplanade.
By now, I was tired and hot so just jumped in a cab back to the hotel where I took a swim and shower. For dinner, I made my way to Upper Penang road - a short stroll away, where I enjoyed another yummy meal. As I was finishing my delicious paneer stuffed potatoes, a motorcycle club (Aprilia) arrived at the restaurant, causing quite a commotion. They noisily parked their shiny, chrome machines in a line along the front, making quite a spectacle for passes by. From a busy diner they restaurant was instantly a crowded party place with many of the riders and their families getting together for food and beers. As it was Merdeka day, there were celebrations planned with fireworks at midnight, but I was too tired.

Day 2 was transfer day from Georgetown to Batu Feriringi (or BF). Through the hotel, I organised a driver to do some sightseeing along the way before being dropped off in BF. First stopped I planned was Penang Hill. As it was Merdeka day, it was crowded with 1000s of visitors. My driver suggested we came back later to see if the crowds subside. So we headed to Kek Lok Si. Leaving me at the top of the rise in front of the huge  Kuan Yin statue, my told me where to meet him and drove away. I spent a lot of time enjoying the surroundings.

I loved the little funicular from the top temple and gardens down to the main temple (with the massive shop with 100s of items on offer...). In the main temple area, there was the "Pagoda of ten-thousand Buddhas", a seven story handcrafted pagoda. I climbed the narrow stairs, around and around the various levels, each with a shrine and balcony to look out, to the very top for the view. From the top, you could look down into the remaining temple area and gardens and over to Tanjung Bunga and Gurney Drive with high-rises lining the beaches.

I also visited Wat Chayamangkalaram (reclining Buddha) and Dharmikarama Burmese temple that are across the road from each other and both free (though I always make donations). Very few other visitors were there with me, so I enjoyed some peace and paid my respects. The reclining Buddha is said to be one of the largest in the world at 33 meters in length. Ringing the huge Buddha are many other Buddhas in varying mudras.

The Burmese temple had much more to see and I spent time exploring the grounds and various shrines. Some monks were offering blessings in the main temple. I approached with a "mingalabar", which they were surpirsed to hear (it being the usual greeting in Myanmar). I had a quick chat to one who knew a few words in English. In a side shrine near the entrance is a magnificant standing Buddha, that reminded me of the huge Buddhas I'd seen in Bagan, Myanmar. At the rear was a huge bell tower with three levels of shrines and carvings. A lovely view met me at the top. This temple felt like a small piece of Myanmar right in the heart of Penang.

By mid afternoon, I was in Batu Ferringi and refreshed before a short walk along the beach. It's crowded with people and full of boats, parasailers, jetskiis and other water sports - not somewhere where you'd want to sit and relax. The beach itself isn't that great either. So I returned to the hotel (Holiday Inn) for a swim and drink. 

Before dinner, I watched the sunset, which was quite spectacular, but far from romantic (for those couples), with all the noise and activities. 

After dinner I walked up to the Hard Rock hotel that was crowded with a queue just to go in. Leaving the hordes, I just browsed the shops down the whole shopping street strip, buying a few things for family and friends back home. All the while, cars crawled along the road with people crossing and wondering along the crowded footpaths. Before bed, I had a glass of wine at the hotel bar away form the chaos of the street, where I met another couple from Australia.
Day 3 - From right outside the hotel, I caught the 101 bus (for the princely sum of 1.40 rigit) to the Spice Garden. It's a lush garden with a huge variety of herbs and spices, as well as rare palms. I really enjoyed strolling around all the trails and taking photos of some of the lovely specimens. I encountered some monkeys up near the shop and met a large lizard (dragon) on the path just near the large lily pond. A really lovely way to spend a few hours.


Stopping to first buy a cold drink from the stall across the road, I caught the bus up to the National park. Armed with a drink bottle, I hiked to Monkey beach. I knew it was over an hour, which normally doesn't phase me at all. But, this one was different. Silly me only had thongs (flip-flops) on so it made it an already hard walk more difficult. However, the jungle was shady and lush, with a few beachy stretches to enjoy. There's plenty of muddy ground over hilly terrain all the way, making it a hot way to get to the beach. 

Monkey beach itself isn't all that great. Nice sure, but not the white sands and peace I was expecting. Once again, there were jetskiis and water sports, not to mention 4 wheel bikes buzzing around in the bush beside the beach. Luckily, there were plenty of stalls with drinks, as I needed to replenish after my sweaty slog through the jungle.
Needless to say, I caught a boat back to the park entrance, choosing not to hike in the heat to return. I caught the bus back to the hotel, and jumped in the pool for a long swim and relax.


My last night, I ate at one of the hawker stalls and had an excellent stir fried noodle dish with a beer that was very tasty. I took one last look through the street market, buying a lovely little pewter lamp, before returning to my room to pack and prepare for my long trip home.

My flight back to KL was at 10am, so I had an early night, followed by an early morning. the traffic was pretty bad, but I made it from BF to the airport in just over an hour during peak hour (lucky I guess)... From Penang, I had to connect to a flight from KL to Singapore, and then 5 hours lay over in Sing to home. Ahh, I do love Changi, but it was so great to be home.  
- K

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Khao Lak Part 2 - Snorkelling Similan and Surin Islands

Day 3 – And another early start with a 8am pick up. At 8:30, our hotel manager asked for the agent’s phone number and called them to confirm everything was OK, informed that they were on their way. By 9, J and I were cursing not having more time for breakfast and a few more zzzzz’s. But they finally arrived and we were at the Tablamu pier quickly and on our boat not long after. The tour company we were with had three boats doing the same multi-stop snorkelling tour. But there were over a dozen boats. They couldn’t all be going to the same place – surely.

Arriving at the first snorkelling site at Koh 9, we saw a few other boats around – but they were a fair distance apart. Grabbing our snorkels, masks and fins, J and I were first in and exploring the reef in no time. Colourful fish were plentiful, but the coral was mostly bleached and damaged. That was the same in most of the sites we visited in the Similans. In places there were signs of recovery with some patches of blue or white corals. For me, I enjoy watching the fish, spotting as many species as I can, trying to recall their common names. Many fish were accustomed to all us visitors, following behind your fins hoping to get some scraps; some even swam right up looking as if they were going to attack.

Just before midday we arrived on Koh 8 Similan island after snorkelling at another spot. Famished from all the activity, J and I mused at the crowd of people from all the tour boats, herded off, into food queues, then herded back onto boats. Each tour company had their own food pass with curries and stir fries to help yourself. Pity they were mostly cold but hit the spot anyway.

Seeing how many people had walked to Sail Rock lookout, J and I decided to head off to the least crowded part of the beach to do some more snorkelling. It was gorgeous to be there just the two of us in the clear warm water. Visibly was so good it felt as though you could see for miles.

On the way back to Khao Lak, most people dozed, rocked by the motion of the boat over the waves. We reviewed some of the great shots J snapped with his underwater camera, with a couple of great shots of the sea turtle that was swimming around with us at one point. We were back at Lah Own by 4:30.

Showered and refreshed, we now a mission to complete: find ‘The Rusty Pelican” Mexican restaurant. This time, we asked the hotel to order a taxi to take us over to Bang Niang town to check it out by night and search for our prize. A fair way down the side road, we finally found it, and we had a very memorable and delicious meal (reviewed in the restaurant section separately).

Back on the main road, a market with lights and children’s rides caught our attention on the other side from the town, so we went for a look. Very few tourists were over there, with local families enjoying a carnival-like atmosphere. A band was playing and people were relaxing at tables with jugs of beer. Children were nagging their parents for money to go on the rides, or play the games, or to buy a treat (like children the world over).

I stopped to talk with some kids and their mother, the girls loading pop guns to play an arcade game where they had to shoot their desired prize. With looks of serious concentration on their faces, they took aim with air rifles almost as big as themselves to claim their treasure. J wouldn’t let me go on the giant jumping castle :( !

Leaving with a few pairs of sunglasses (from a stall that had exactly the same ones seen all over Phuket, Krabi and Khao Lak but for a fixed price of 50 bhat each), and a few crazy/amusing tee-shirts for my daughter, we crossed the road, enjoying a cold beer before heading back to the resort. The local cat come to sit with us on the porch while we un-wound after our big day, and tomorrow would be equally big.

Day 4 Another early start and prompt pick up at 7:15am. From what I’d read, it was a lot further to Kuraburi pier for the trip out to the Surin islands, but I don’t think it took more than about half an hour from Lah Own. A small pavilion provided a staging area for Baracuda tours to sort out who was going to which islands. Two boats were off to Ko Ta Chai, and just our boat to Surin. Mr Big was our tour leader who ran through the day’s plan, dropping in lots of jokes through his explanations.

It took an hour to get out in the twin-hull boat with barely a bump the whole way. Approaching the islands, the colour of the water was an almost unbelievable shade of aqua-marine making us feel as though we were entering into a postcard picture. J and I had gear in hand ready to jump in as soon as the boat had anchored. 

Below, corals provided a vibrant backdrop to all the lively fish of all colours and sizes. There was some bleaching, but at the first site it wasn’t that bad, and was the best snorkelling we did during our entire trip. One of the nicest touches of the tour was the staff being ready with towels and cool drinks as soon as we came in from the sea. It just made the day so enjoyable and relaxing, and we certainly felt well looked after.

Before lunch, we stopped at a Moken village not far from the snorkelling site. Though interesting, it really felt as though our visit was an intrusion. Walking through the simple huts, the villagers stayed away from us as Mr Big told us about their history and customs. During the 2004 tsunami, the villages quickly understood the changes in the sea, running to warn as many people as possible to get to higher ground. In the entire Surin island area, only 3 lives were lost, with over 1500 surviving due to the warning relayed by the Moken people. It was also heartening to see a community centre and school so the whole ‘sea gypsy’ community could receive an education that would well equipment them for future opportunities.

Ko Surin Nam island (or the North island) was our stop for lunch, the absolute epitome of a tropical island paradise. A few bungalows stood under the shady trees looking very inviting, while the tents paled in comparison. I immediately pencilled in an overnight stay on my ‘to do’ list if we ever returned to this part of Thailand. Even though there were other tour groups on the island, it was so well managed that each group’s lunch time was staggered to be half an hour apart, making it feel much less crowded. The food was OK and very similar to the others we had on other snorkelling trips: big platters of not too exciting stir fries and curries, but it was plentiful and hit the spot. 

J and I wondered to the other side of the island, which is only a hundred metres or so. Soaking in the gorgeous scene, we waded in the clear blue water splashing along the sandy shore. Soon we were called to board our boat, leaving behind the stunning island.

As much as I wanted to stay in the island, I was keen to see more and snorkel. We stopped at two more places all fairly close together, where there were more jellyfish than the other site, both the pink ‘moon’ jellies and the tiny stingy ones. I was grateful I was wearing a rashy and shorts to block out most of the annoying stingers. The corals were more bleached than the first site, but there was plenty of colours and fish to make for a lovely experience. I was fortunate enough to have a black-and-white banded sea snake swim right up to me from the bottom, surfacing right beside me. I watched as it took a breath, it’s nose poking out from the water, it’s long body suspended in the water. By the time J came over, it slithered away quickly returning to a rocky ledge on the sea floor.

With fresh fruit and cold drinks in hand, we headed back to the main land much too early for me, but on schedule. I would have been happy to stay our until dark! The time went so fast. On the journey back, we chatted about what we had seen. A few others had seen turtles and a huge potato cod. Mr Big said he saw a big shark, right near us, but he chased it away. The twinkle in his eye quickly gave his tall tale away.

Dropped back to our hotel by 5, we rinsed off all our gear, showered and prepared to get packing. It was our last night in Khao Lak. For our last dinner we chose Sky restaurant that was at the end of the street (reviewed in the restaurants section), and it was absolutely delicious! Highly recommended. Then the last night of shopping on the strip, not that I wanted to buy anything. But J was addicted to the jam filled biscuits that were served on the boat on our snorkelling trips. So we traipsed through the local stores and finally found a large bag of them to take away and snack on during the flight home. Apart from some more snacks and drinks, we didn’t buy anything else. We had a few beers at one of the cafes and headed back, pretty tired from our full day. Neither one of us were looking forward to leaving. At least we had our room until 4pm the next day so could sleep in, enjoy one last day, and pack at our leisure.

Last day was a reasonably lazy one. After a big breakfast, we walked the length of the beach, down past the lighthouse, wading in the clear waters along the way. It’s such a pleasant walk but pretty sweaty in the hot late morning sun. A last dip in the ocean, followed by a rinse in the pool before lunch at one of the beach shacks near Lah Own. Taking our time relaxing gazing over the water and watching the world go by, we enjoyed our last cold beers before the final pack.

All our gear had dried under the hot Thai sun, and we were on our way to the airport far too quickly. I wasn’t ready to leave. And as it turned out, we had a bonus extra day in Phuket, after Jetstar cancelled our flight and put us up in a hotel in Kata for a night. Sure it was a bit of a drama, and the mis-communication and long time waiting on the plane waiting to find out our fate frustrating, but J and I enjoyed another day in beautiful Thailand. But the following day, our flight finally took off (after another three hour delay), and we arrived home; the cold Melbourne air hitting us like a slap on the face. Before we left the car-park on the drive home, we resolved to return to Khao Lak ASAP.

- K