OR: "ALRIGHT MATE, ARE YOU LOOKING TO GO DIVING AT ALL?"
01.08.2011 - 11.08.2011 33 °C
With only three days left on my Thai visa and a list of at least five nearby islands I wanted to visit, I was forced to suck it up and cross four of them off. I settled on Ko Phi Phi Don, a tropical paradise that I'd heard only good things about. While definitely not the most 'travelled' island in Thailand (that accolade tends to belong to those on the East coast), I soon found out that this is like saying 'not the busiest street in London'. Its still going to be a hell of a lot busier than nearly every other street in the world!
I had imagined the crossing would take place on one of the cute longtail boats that I had gone snorkelling with a few days before. Instead, I was directed to a several hundred-seater ferry already packed to the rafters with backpackers. I spent the choppy two hour journey wondering if and how the island could actually fit all these tourists in, given that there were three of these ferries every day. On arrival, both my questions were answered. It turns out the island could indeed fit everyone in, though it was a tight squeeze, and that the island does so with marvelous efficiency. As we stepped off the ferry, a local man began funneling the crowd into two lanes: 'locals' and 'tourists'. Our side got hit with a mandatory 'island cleanup charge' and then found ourselves herded down the streets to destinations unknown. After passing numerous dive shops, where the hawkers selling the packages happened to all be English, we arrived in what was undoubtedly the backpackers' district. Despite their abundance, Ko Phi Phi's guesthouses were the only ones I have come across in my travels that were often full. When I realised that haggling for room prices just wasn't going to work here, I settled for the cheapest room I could find. Despite costing over three times as much as a room in Krabi, this one was not an improvement in any way. When you wonder if you're actually dirtier after a shower than before it (tip: water that smells like rotten eggs is a dead giveaway), you know its not going to be value for money. It also didn't help that the hallway outside overlooked a beautiful hotel with a more than inviting swimming pool!
Venturing out into the Ko Phi Phi evening, it was quite a shock to see how the population had swelled even further. Music was pumping out from every angle and even more English people lined the streets, handing out flyers for various clubs and bars. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the island would have been a lot of fun with a group of friends. But as a lone traveller, I found it all a bit overwhelming and it was here where I felt the most homesick. Walking back to the hotel after dinner, I passed numerous calls of 'Massage? Massage?', though the handwritten signs the women were holding were offering something else entirely.
A couple of days of inactivity later, with most of the population yet to wake up to an inevitable hangover, I checked out of the hotel and found myself with a few hours to spare before the ferry back to Krabi. I took the somewhat foolhardy decision to climb to the island lookout points, with all my possessions in tow. Sweating like I've never sweated before (not even after a Tuesday night badminton game) and embarrassed by my level of fitness, I arrived at the peak. I was greeted with the most visually stunning landscape I've had the pleasure of coming across in my travels so far. The strip of land that connects the two sides of the island seemed impossibly thin, and the numerous boats zipping across the bay made the water seem almost as bustling as the streets below.
As I slightly rued being put off by the partygoers and not making the most of my time on Phi Phi, I headed back to Krabi. The novelty of being able to sleep in silence soon put any regrets to rest and it was at 6am the following morning I caught a bus to the Thai border. One long immigration line later and I was on the final stretch of my journey to Butterworth. This sea port town serves as the entry point to Penang, a historic island on the West coast of peninsular Malaysia. It was about two minutes after hopping off the minibus in Butterworth that I realised I had left my shoes behind. I was now left with only the flip flops on my feet and the disgusting Bangkok plimsolls which I was close to binning anyway. Having carried the shoes since my flight to Vietnam over a month ago, I think my subconscious had decided it couldn't be bothered any more, and let them slip without me noticing. After mourning the poor, helpless footwear for a moment, I hopped on the ferry and caught my first glimpse of Penang.
After just a few hours in the city of George Town, I remembered what had made me fall in love with Malaysia the first time around. With a rich history, excellent food, a developed infrastructure, friendlier people, a much more relaxed vibe and certainly a lot less travelled than Thailand, Penang quickly became my favourite destination so far, followed closely by Melaka, also of Malaysia.
A couple of days later, in which I'd explored the beautiful colonial streets of Georgetown, I took a short bus ride to the beachside town of Batu Ferrenghi. While the shore is lined with shops and expensive eateries, the local dishes of fried noodles and rice actually seem to be similarly priced no matter where in Malaysia you are. And while luxury resorts and hotels tend to dominate the skyline, the tourists are minimal, and it is easy to find a stretch of empty beach to unwind on.
After just a few hours in the sun, I began to get very jealous of the locals riding up and down on their jet skis. After a bit of price comparison with the numerous sellers along the beach, I bagged a 15 minute ride for the equivalent of about 12 pounds on the very jet ski in the picture above. I was given the briefest of safety instructions, established that there was only one control ('Go') and set off across the waves. With more horsepower than my Ford Ka at home, and about three times lighter, oh and running on water, the power in the Yamaha was incredible. It seemed to go from standing still to top speed in just 3 or 4 seconds, and that top speed must have been about 100 knots. A few minutes in and I was getting confident, jumping off of the waves and sliding into tight turns. I didn't quite have the guts to stand up like the locals were, but I felt absolutely exhilarated as I jumped back into the water at the shoreline. That is until a powerful wave knocked me off my feet and I found my face and pockets had filled themselves with sand. Then I just felt silly.
The next day I headed to nearby Teluk Bahang. This small fishing village is by no means a tourist spot. I was pleased to find what I thought was a streetside aquarium, with hundreds of crabs, lobsters, fish and squid held in well over 20 water tanks. I then noticed a few tables and chairs on the other side of the tanks, and quickly realised that this was actually a small seafood restaurant, with an unbelievably huge menu. Wandering the deserted beach further, I came across a small temple, with not a soul in sight.
On my way back to Batu Ferrenghi, I stopped at the Tropical Spice Garden, which was a garden housing many varieties of spice, most of them tropical. In addition, there was a huge selection of exotic and bizarre plants on display, many brought from overseas. The plant in the photo below is actually only one organism, with a centre deep underwater and the lilies sprouting up from beneath.
While I've noted before that I'm not very good at sitting idle, one of the few things that has captivated me for long enough is the sunset at Batu Ferrenghi. The colours on display each evening were just dazzling, as the locals continued to have fun in the sea in the fading light.
With just a week to go before my next flight, I headed back to George Town to see the last of the island's sights. On Wednesday, I headed out to Penang Hill to find the Tien Kong Than temple, a magnificent structure that while ornately beautiful itself, offered even more stunning views across the city.
Nearby was a local shopping market, with a densely populated pond in the centre.
As I write this, I have just a few hours before I catch a sleeper bus to Singapore. Living in Penang has been a truly invigorating experience, and a refreshing one after the hedonistic playground of Ko Phi Phi. Of all the places I've visited so far, Penang is the one that I would heartily recommend for an extended visit. The lifestyle is infectious, and I can only hope that I find just one more place like it in the next few months!