We have just returned from a wonderful visit with Siew, Peter, Donovan and their friends in Penang, Malaysia.
We decided to travel by overnight train which took about 22 hours, from Bangkok to Butterworth station in Penang.
Our trip to Malaysia began with a taxi ride to the train station. Unfortunately, one of the things we dislike about Thailand is that out of the various countries we have visited, it seems to be the most dishonest. This is sad because Thais are renowned for their honesty and goodwill and generosity. Unfortunately, visitors to modern Thailand don’t see this side of Thai culture. From hotels and restaurants, to taxis and travel agents, there is a consistent effort to provide less than you are promised, or to take more than the stated, reasonable price. Taxi drivers are terrible everywhere on earth, but here they are the worst. A taxi ride to Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok should cost around 80 baht by metered taxi. Most drivers flat out refuse to use the meter. The driver we approached to take us to the station put up a ridiculous fight for about 15 minutes as Scott and he went back and forth about the cost.
Scott: “We’re going to Hua Lamphong.”
Taxi: “Two people? 300 baht.”
Scott: “No. 80 baht.”
Taxi: “290 baht.”
Scott: “No. 80 baht. Use the meter.”
Taxi: “busy traffic and such a long way.”
Scott: “No. It’s a short way and it’s only 10:30 in the morning. No traffic. 100 baht.”
Taxi: “Ohhhhh… Uhhhhh… 250 baht…”
Blah blah blah. And on it went until Scott got him to agree to 160 baht, double the price Thai locals would pay. Then on the way he asked if we had train tickets, how much did we pay, have we been to the jewelry market? It gets very old, very quick.
But we digress…. He got us to the train station in about ten minutes (no traffic and not a very long way…).
Taking the train in Thailand is very easy and straightforward. And they’re well-run and safe. We boarded our train and settled in for our long journey.
At almost every stop, hawkers would board the train selling tasty Thai treats. Yum. It is very hard to eat healthy while traveling. But it is even harder to eat healthy in a country that has so many fantastic treats.
A few hours later a waiter came through with a menu and we were able to pre-order our dinner and breakfast to be delivered to our seats at a set time.
At almost exactly 7:00pm our dinner arrived.
After dinner, our seats were converted into comfortable beds. It is quite the set up converting the whole car from seats to beds. We were really impressed with how clean and organized the train was and unlike some of the other trains we’ve taken on this trip, these compartments had curtains which meant that we had a bit of privacy – making meditation a little easier in a public place.
Morning time arrived and so did our breakfast! The sleep wasn’t ideal given passengers embarking and disembarking from the train at various stops through the night, and lights were bright and sounds were loud. Early risers that we are, we ordered an early breakfast, so the train staff had not had a chance to make up our beds. No problem. We just ate our breakfast as if we were picnicking. 🙂 Our favourite breakfast food is rice congee and this was a really tasty one.
A few hours later we arrived at the Thailand/Malaysia border and were quickly processed through Thai immigration and into Malaysia immigration. We both had a laugh at a prominent green sign at Thai immigration that explicitly sets out the criteria that officials would use (back in 1979) to refuse entry to Thailand for anyone who looked like a “hippie”…. literally the words used on the station sign. We wanted to take a photo, but authorities are always a little touchy about photos at border crossings. But thanks to the interwebs… we found a photo that someone more gutsy managed to snap….
Ha. Karen read through the sign… phew, no grounds for them to deny our entry. Strictly, we’re more like “aliens” with the yuppy characteristics preferred by the Malaysia Ministry of Tourism.
After clearing the border crossing into Malaysia, we arrived at Butterworth Station in Penang a few hours later. We thought we were about 1 hour or so late, but we didn’t know Malaysia has a one-hour time difference from Thailand so we were actually 2 hours late. Poor Siew! But a really nice fellow passenger let us use his mobile to call her and let her know our train was late.
Malaysia is a beautiful and modern place. Siew drove us from Butterworth over the third-longest bridge in the world and took us to a huge shopping mall on the island of Penang where she lives. Walking through the mall we thought we had died and gone to heaven. Karen said to Scott, “I think we might have to move here.” It has been a while since we were somewhere so modern. Wow. Aircon that works, the Gap, modern. Wow. wow. What a treat.
We had delicious Malay food and even better kopi, a special local type of sweet coffee. Afterward, we walked through the mall and then went to the Penang airport to pick up Siew’s sister, Angie. Angie lives in Singapore and was coming in to visit the family for a few days. We drove to Siew’s mother’s house, the place where she grew up. It turns out Siew’s family imports coffee beans from Indonesia and roasts them into kopi powder, the coffee that is used to make kopi. She introduced us to her mother and showed us where the coffee is still roasted and made into powder. It was so cool to get a tour.
Then we drove to where Siew, Peter and Donovan lived. It’s a beautiful home.
After showers Siew treated us to dinner at their restaurant, Strada. Delicious. Strada is a beautiful restaurant right in Georgetown, and Siew and Peter have designed a fantastic menu that combines the freshness of local Malaysian ingredients together in western dishes that really sing.
Next morning, Siew and her son Donovan took us for local dim sum on Gurney road in Penang, right by the ocean. Then we went strolling around historic Georgetown in downtown Penang. Donovan loves this sort of thing. You know how 12-year old boys just love sight-seeing historic places… Much better than playing video games. Not.
Penang has been a prosperous settlement since the 18th century when the British seized the island port from the Sultan of Kedar. Since then Penang has been home to thousands of Chinese migrants from Fujian province in China. The community is hundreds of years old and has been central to the economic success of Penang. Along with Chinese migrants, there are many Indians and muslim Malays. Each community has contributed to the very multicultural milieu of Penang. We wandered through Little India, visited the Kapitan Keling Mosque and the famous clan temple of the Khoo clan, a large influential and prosperous family in Penang.
We also visited a couple of Buddhist temples, one Thai Wat and the other a Burmese vihara (monastery).
At the Thai temple you can get a fortune from a smart little coin-operated machine. Unfortunately for Scott, his fortune isn’t good.
Looks like it confirms what Scott has always known… ‘they’ really are out to get him! Ha ha ha ha…
Luckily, Karen’s fortune looks like it’ll suffice for both of us…
Our day ended with a visit to the Kek Lok Si temple, where we got to feed some very eager turtles at the liberation pond. People come here to release turtles where they will be fed and looked after and have many, many turtle friends.
Then we had dinner at Strada again, this time with friends of Siew and Peter.
Because Siew and Donovan were flying the next day to Vancouver, Siew’s friend Ashley (third from the right in the photo) agreed to look after us. We were very grateful.
The next day, Ashley took us to the other side of the island for lunch. Then we went to the Tropical Spice Garden while Ashley ran some errands. The Spice Garden was really interesting with paths that wound up and around a large jungle garden filled with examples of various spice trees and plants. After an hour or so, we went back to the Monkey Tree restaurant for a cool drink and respite from the heavy afternoon heat and humidity. Then we crossed the road for a photo by the spectacular beach.
The highlight of our day with Ashley began when she returned to pick us up with her husband Brian behind the wheel. They had plans for us… big plans.
Penang is famous for many things, but among the Chinese Penang is best known for the quality of its durian fruit. Now, durian is one of those culinary specialities that people have very, very strong feelings about. Some so love it that their interest verges on an obsession; and they’ll pay a lot of money to fly from distant places just for the chance to taste durian here when it’s in season. And it just so happens that we’re here in high durian season. Other people hate (hate) the smell, taste, and texture of durian.
For our first durian experience, Ashley and Brian drove us to the far side of the island to a well-known durian farm. There, we were greeted by the family owners who went and fetched us two kinds of durian to try: one from a very old tree originally planed by the owner’s father, and one from a younger tree planted by himself.
The taste difference is very noticeable. There is a connoisseur culture surrounding durian, sort of like scotch or cheese. The younger tree produces a fruit that is moist, sweet, with a very slightly bitter after taste. The oldest trees produce durian fruit that is dry and very sweet with no bitterness. Scott preferred the older fruit, Karen liked the moister durian. In fact, Karen loved durian. Loved it. She may even fall into the “durian obsessed” category mentioned above. The texture, flavour, everything – she just loved it. Everyone was quite surprised that we had no problem with the smell let alone the taste of the fruit. When Siew’s husband Peter called to check in with Brian, he was totally shocked that we were eating durian! Peter can’t stand it.
The reason Malaysian durian is so prized has to do with the fact that the fruit must ripen and fall off the tree. Unlike other durian fruit trees, Malaysian durian cannot be picked green and ripen off the tree. This makes it a very special treat indeed, with a short window of opportunity to indulge in the rare fruit. We were very lucky and are grateful to Ashley and Brian for our great durian experience!
After our busy two days of sightseeing in Penang, we returned home to pack and rest for our long train journey back to Bangkok the next morning. Early the next day, Peter took us for dim sum again (yay! have we mentioned how much we love Hong Kong and miss the food there??), then drove us to the ferry where we got the chance to cross the water from the island to Butterworth. The ferry reminded us of the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, but a lot bigger with a level just for cars.
After a short walk over a bridge we arrived back at the Butterworth train station with several hours to wait for our train. Despite being one of the hottest days we’ve had, we were quite comfortable in the small air-conditioned station.
It was in the station that we met a monk from Thailand who took a keen interest in Scott. When Scott offered him an orange and then gave out oranges to a few other locals waiting in the station, the monk beckoned him back over. He asked Scott how he knew he was a Buddhist monk. Scott decided not to point out that his shaved head and dark yellow robes were the biggest clues. Instead, Scott told him we practiced meditation and that was how we knew he was a monk. The monk was delighted! Vipassana!? You know Vipassana!? Very good! He then reached into his yellow bag and pulled out the tiniest carved statue of the Buddha we’ve ever seen and handed it to Scott. Scott said “thank you, bhante,” and left. Bhante is a respectful form of address used when speaking to monks.
After about an hour or so the monk came over to our seats and loudly said, “Scott! Come please and speak to me for five minutes.” Then he turned and walked away. Scott followed him around the corner where the monk asked him if he knew walking meditation and then demonstrated how to do this. Scott told him we don’t do that, but we practice vipassana sitting with eyes closed. The monk asked him more questions about our practice and Scott explained to him what we do. We calm and concentrate our minds with a samadhi practice called ana panna, then we practice observation of our body sensations. Experiencing the arising and passing away of all physical sensations, we experience the constant changing nature of all reality. This leads to insight. The monk got very excited about all of this. And he was very shocked. He had never heard of farang (foreigners) who practiced the Buddha’s teaching of meditation. It was fascinating for him. We ended our conversation with him asking how old Scott was. The monk is 41 and has been a monk since he was 10 years old. He was very sweet.
Our train journey back to Bangkok wasn’t as efficient and organized as the journey to Penang. Things started off badly when the train was delayed for almost two hours. Passengers waiting for the train all got a chuckle out of the prominent signs posted by the Malaysian railways (KTM): “On Time, Every Time.” Okay. Guess it’s more of an aspiration than a commitment…
Our train in from Bangkok had about 11 cars. The train that showed up to take us back had only two… Hmmmmm. To be clear, we are traveling first class: air-conditioned, sleeper cars, where we don’t have to share our birth with other passengers. Now, where are all these people going to fit? Turns out they all fit by sitting in the aisles a la 3rd class non-assigned seat style… A couple of hundred unfortunate school children on their way back to campus a few hours outside of Penang had to spend the several hour journey on the floor of the aisles.
Adding to the misery was the fact that there were several delays and the air conditioning couldn’t compete with all the bodies. By the time we reached the border it was nearly 9 PM. It took us almost 6 hours to complete a 3 hour journey! Oh, well. We’re on vacation… there’s nowhere we need to be.
After the border crossing and another long delay due to immigration hold ups (some travelers weren’t eligible for landing visas…), we crossed back into Thailand and were offered a very late dinner before they transformed our seats into a bed and we turned in for the night. We awoke early the next day, had breakfast, then settled in a long day’s journey across Thailand back to Bangkok. We arrived at Hua Lamphong about 2:30 pm. We went to get a taxi, but this time Scott was determined to get us a fairer price. We headed for the taxi stand, but couldn’t find a taxi willing to take us (no reason why, they just looked at us and refused…sigh…. oh Thailand why must you be like this…). Finally a young man approached us and said, “tuk tuk?” A tuk tuk is a three-wheeled taxi used all over Asia. We told him we were going to Pra Athit road and he said, “How much you pay?” Scott told him we’d pay 80 baht. He frowned and pondered the price, then asked which hotel on Pra Athit. We showed him the address, then he thought some more and said he’d do it for 100. We said, “done” and hopped in. Within 15 minutes we were back at our hotel, happy and ready for some food.
We had such a fantastic time visiting Siew, Peter, and Donavan. And we absolutely loved meeting Ashely and Brain. They were just fantastic people. We hope our paths cross again some time. We can’t thank Peter and Siew enough for their incredible generosity.
With just 6 days left in Thailand, we will be getting ourselves ready for our course in Indonesia, catch a few more of the sights in Bangkok, and start planning our next leg of our trip.
We’ll write again before we leave Thailand…. but before we close this post, we have a question for all of you…
One of the tracking features on our blog shows where in the world people are viewing our blog. Every time someone in a country views our blog a little flag will show up in our tracking system.
About a week ago someone from Suriname checked out our blog. So our question is this:
Who viewed our blog in Suriname??
If you know… please satisfy our curiosity and let us know by leaving a comment below!