Malaysia – Penang & Perhentian Islands

Our time in Malaysia was split into two parts as we left midway to visit Indonesia. The first portion of our visit was focused on the lovely city of Georgetown, capital of the Malaysian state of Penang. Georgetown is one of the oldest cities in Malaysia and earned UNESCO world heritage status in 2008. We first visited this city back in 2012 but were happy to return in order to spend more time exploring this walkable city. Our accommodation was at the excellent Hotel Mingood (clean, central, and budget with friendly staff). We joined Tig, Helen and Ant for dinner at the excellent Tek Sen Restaurant (one of Georgetown’s most popular eateries boasting home cooked Chinese heritage food). Afterwards, we strolled back to Armenia street where we stumbled upon free performances at the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple (Poh Hock Seah) and the Khoo Kongsi Temple…the lion dance was fantastic, one of the best we’ve ever seen!

Our first full day in Georgetown was spent finding street art hidden around the entire city. Hired in 2012 by Penang’s municipal council to enliven the city, London trained Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic gave the entire city a facelift with his eye-catching murals. Some of his pieces “Little girl in blue”, “Little children on a bicycle”, and “Little boy with pet dinosaur” had dozens of tourists waiting patiently to snap a photo. The highlight of the day was undoubtedly running into 140 “United Buddy Bears” – each over 2 meters tall promoting living together in peace and harmony on their world tour. Dinner was at the hawker complex “Red Garden”. Our order of half a roasted duck (25 Ringget or $6) at the Kimpo stall was exactly what we were looking for. Food in Penang has not disappointed yet! Tig, Gill, Ant and Helen joined us partway through the meal so it was good times all around. Our second full day was full of surprises. Helen and Ant were leaving the trip so we bid them a sad goodbye before heading out to the Hin Bus Depot to check out some more artwork. The murals were well worth a trip, and we slowly wandered around Georgetown checking out other wall murals we had missed yesterday. Connie was beaming from ear to ear at her “Moody Cow” cafe find so we were convinced to check out their vast selection of cheesecakes, deciding on a massive slice of “Oreo Heaven”. Great find…especially when you are craving a tasty dessert. Then it was off to Indonesia for a week before our return trip to Malaysia.

Part 2 of our Malaysian adventure included a trip out to the Perhentian Islands! Located about 20 kilometers off the coast of northeast Malaysia, these beautiful coral fringed islands are part of a protected marine park where fishing is prohibited…perfect for our snorkeling and SCUBA diving agenda. To reach the Perhentian Islands, we had to drive from Penang to Kuala Besut where we hopped on a fast speedboat to the Pulau Perhentian Kecil (“small Perhentian Island”), which is more popular with budget minded backpackers. Due to monsoons, access to the islands is only permitted from March to October, so we were just squeezing in a trip at the tail end of the season. Highlights of our beach time here were spotting a Colugo (Malayan flying lemur, although technically it is not a lemur and it doesn’t actually fly, instead gliding from tree to tree. Normally nocturnal, we were lucky to spot one at dusk), celebrating Denise’s birthday (best chocolate cake of the trip topped with “Winner Whiskey” and “Stanley Morgan Rum”), snorkeling some fantastic reefs (massive humphead wrasse, spotted eel, turtles, blue spotted stingrays, oh my!), and squeezing in 3 SCUBA dives at less than $20 a dive including gear (Tanjung Basi, Tokong Laut “Temple of the Sea”, and Terumbu Tiga “The Three Brothers”). Perhentian Islands – definitely a fantastic place to spend a few days! We still have a few more days in Malaysia before we make the final ride into Singapore. Its unbelievable that our epic journey is nearing completion…

24 Sep – After exiting the Thai border, we had to switch to a new van. Our new ride took us through the Malaysia border at Bukit Kayu Hitam. Once we crossed into Malaysia, there was a one-hour forward time change. It was a short ride to the island of Penang and we were happy to spend more time exploring George Town because the few hours we had during a port of call in 2012 weren’t enough. Hotel Mingood was our central digs for the next few nights. Since it was only 3 pm when we arrived, we still had a half day to explore this funky city. We were on a quest for food though! After linking up with Anthony and Helen, we grabbed some money out of an ATM and headed over to the Chuan Bee Cafe where Tig was supposed to meet us. Unfortunately, it was closed so our backup plan was to check out Armenia Street as it was supposed to be full of food, art and entertainment. The food turned out to be snacks but we wanted something more substantial so we kept wandering and ended up at the excellent Tek Sen Restaurant. Packed with locals, this eatery is a legend in George Town. We told our waitress our budget and she recommended 5 different dishes to try…they were all delicious! With happy bellies, our group split up. Ant and Helen were in search of a bar while the rest of us were keen on checking out Armenia Street in depth. It was a good call to backtrack because we stumbled upon a show in the courtyard between Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple (Poh Hock Seah) and the Khoo Kongsi Temple. Highlights were martial arts, music, dance, and a fantastic lion dance on stilts! One of the best lion dances we’ve ever seen and it was all free. Becky scored some ice kachang and tempted Tig into trying some but she wasn’t impressed. The ice kachang is much better in Singapore so perhaps we should have waited to try some there? After the show ended, we wandered over to the Yap Kongsi Temple for a quick look. We didn’t linger long because costumed performers were singing to loud screeching music which hurt our eardrums. The lion dance was definitely the highlight of our night tonight and what a nice welcome to funky George Town!

25 Sep – Our original plan was to wake up early for some sightseeing before it got way too hot out. But the AC was kicking, the room was pitch black and the bed was so comfy and we ended up lingering in bed for way too long. By the time we finally dragged ourselves out of bed, had breakfast and hit the streets for a bit of sightseeing, it was already 11 am. No matter though, as George Town is a compact city and we were sure that we could squeeze in the highlights in only a few hours. Since it was a Sunday, we walked over to Upper Penang Road for the weekly Sunday street market where we ran into Gill, Denise and Connie. They had gotten up early to sight-see and they strongly recommended that we head over to the Padang Kota Lama Esplanade Grounds to see the 140 United Buddy Bears. Great recommendation because the buddy bears display was really cool! Each bear was designed and decorated by their respective nation and we got to check out some really fanciful and imaginative designs. The USA buddy bear was pretty good (dressed as the Statue of Liberty) and we spent some time here taking photos of our favorites. Next up was the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Clocktower, which is at the end of Beach Street. Then onward to another street market called ‘Occupy Beach Street’, but they were tearing stuff down when we got there. So we took a quick stroll through the Clan Jetties which have completely lost their charm as they are way too crowded with Chinese tourists taking selfies every few feet. Our main goal for the day was to check out as many of George Town’s street art murals as possible. The street art is “hidden” in plain sight and many of the more popular murals are marked on so we quickly stumbled from one to another. Commissioning the murals in 2012 was a brilliant move by the city’s municipal council. The city is flooded with throngs of tourists! We were a bit surprised by some of the long queues to pose with the various murals but at least there is a sense of orderliness and consideration. For late lunch, we headed over to the Joo Hooi Café which is reputed to have the best Laksa soup in town. Unfortunately they were closed for renovations so we went to Bee Hooi street stalls for lunch which was a good consolation prize. After a cool down and rest at the hotel, the gang was keen on a nearby wine bar for happy hour but we found alcohol to be prohibitively expensive in Penang so we opted to check out the nearby Red Garden Food Paradise hawker stalls for dinner. The Kimpo stall had awesome roasted duck and pork which was exactly what we were looking for. After stuffing ourselves silly, the gang (Tig, Gill, Ant and Helen) showed up so we chatted with them briefly before splitting to do a bit of night photography at the Teik Cheng Sin Temple (Poh Hock Seah). It was already closed by the time we got there, so we called it a night.

26 Sep – While having breakfast, we were shocked to hear that Helen was leaving the trip and heading home. Apparently Helen and Anthony were breaking things off on positive terms and had decided this was the best way to do it. It was sad that she couldn’t complete the trip and we wondered if Ant would continue on without her? Several hours later, Ant confirmed he was headed back home too so just like that, we lost 2 members of our group. We hung out in our room until checkout at noon. After putting our bags in storage, we decided to check out the Hin Bus Depot Art Center based on Gill’s recommendation. Well worth a visit for the colorful artwork alone and we were happy she mentioned it. Then we wandered around George Town spotting a couple more murals we missed yesterday before returning to the hotel to say our goodbyes to Helen and Ant who were leaving on the same flight. Everyone else trickled in with reports of their own activities around Penang. Connie was super excited about the Moody Cow for awesome cheesecake. After hearing her description, we were sold! But first we wanted laksa, which is supposed to be a specialty in Penang. We had first tried laksa in Singapore and were served massive bowls of coconut curried noodles coupled with fish and shrimp…heavenly! So we were really excited to try it in Penang since this dish hails from here. And it sucked. Big balls. Disgusting actually. So lesson learned…we have to return to Singapore to get the laksa of our dreams! But the Moody Cow didn’t disappoint (Oreo Heaven was divine) so Connie’s recommendation panned out. By 6 pm, our taxis showed up for the airport. We were on our way to Medan, Indonesia to check out Sumatra. Since our flight wasn’t until 9:25 pm, we grabbed a meal at McDonald’s as we didn’t want to get hungry while on the plane. Goodbye Penang! See you in a week.

26 Sep – 02 Oct – In Sumatra, Indonesia (Lake Toba & Bukit Lawang)

02 Oct – Our flight from Medan, Indonesia to Penang, Malaysia took under an hour. With the time change (one hour forward), it was 8:45 pm when we landed. Traffic from the airport to our hotel was light at that time of night so we made it to Mingood Hotel in no time. After dropping off our bags, it was a mad dash to the Red Garden hawker stalls for roasted duck. Luckily for us, the hawker stalls stay open late, so we were able to get our fix on for roasted duck…mmmm, mmmm, good! Everyone except for Connie joined us (she made a beeline to the Moody Cow for pasta and dessert).Our order of roasted duck, fried dumplings and waffle with ice cream went down a treat…man we’d be super fat if we lived in Malaysia. Hawker food stalls are so convenient with tasty food for cheap! After eating we went with Gill to buy some booze for the Perhentian Islands since it is supposed to be uber expensive there. The store we had scoped out last week was already closed but the owner was there, lounging around in a wife beater watching TV. He happily opened his store just for us so mission accomplished! Back at the hotel, Tig told us that our “sweat monkey” shirts were ready…they came out even better than expected! We loved them…thanks to Helen’s brother for helping with the design and Tig for ordering them for us.

03 Oct – After breakfast, we were on the road by 9 am. Our destination today? The Perhentian Islands, about 10 nautical miles off the coast of Malaysia. But first we had to drive from Penang to Kuala Besut. Lunch was at a local roadside restaurant where we had a buffet meal for only 5 MYR each. We were in disbelief at the quoted price because we were thinking there is no way lunch will be that cheap but sure enough, that is all we had to pay. The fried “Ikan Bilas” served with peanuts was freaking amazing!!! This meal was our best bargain in Malaysia. Bunches of rambutan were on offer for only 3 MYR so we quickly scooped some up. We are definitely going to get sticker shock when we get to the Perhentian Islands compared to these prices. After lunch we continued the drive to Kuala Besut and arrived a little after 3 pm. Tig bought our speed boat tickets while everyone stocked up on snacks. We had read that the speed boats are often overcrowded and sure enough, ours was at full capacity when we finally set off. One of the couples was actually kicked off our boat at the last minute when the driver found out what resort they were staying at. Apparently the water at their resort is too shallow for his boat so they had to wait around for a flat bottom boat instead. Our captain cranked up the speed and had us flying to the Perhentians. We covered 10 nautical miles in 15 minutes, just zipping along. Once at the islands, our captain dropped everyone off at their respective resorts and we were the last ones to be deposited. Our home for the next 3 nights? The Reef Chalets on Pulau Perhentian Besar. Our first order of business was to check out the dive shops since we were keen on a bit of SCUBA while here. Becky wanted to do both SCUBA and snorkeling so she was torn between the two. We spotted a colugo (Malaysian flying lemur) soaring from tree to tree…so cool! The first SCUBA shop we checked out seemed OK, but we wanted to shop around. But first drinks with the gang. While having drinks on Tig’s balcony, it started pouring rain but once it eased off, we went to check out another dive shop nearby. They couldn’t find Becky’s certification online but she managed to find it after scoring some free WiFi. The plan was for Lars and Robby to dive twice tomorrow, while Becky would snorkel in the morning and dive the afternoon. Dinner was at the packed Barat Perhentian restaurant where western fare was considerably cheaper than Malaysia food, so we ordered a chicken burger and lasagna. Surprisingly, both meals weren’t bad!

04 Oct – Not the most comfortable night’s sleep as we partly froze and partly sweated last night. The AC was freezing so we shut it off and the fan wasn’t cool enough. We’ve been playing with it this morning so hopefully we figured out the perfect balance to sleep tonight. After breakfast at Belinda’s Restaurant with Gill, Robby met up with Lars to get snorkel gear from Barat Dive Center (for free) to go for a morning snorkel. The first dive for the day was advanced so they had to wait until 11 am to do their first dive. The two of them were supposed to be paired up for the first dive but Lars (recently SCUBA certified) had a lot of trouble so he ended up pairing up with the dive master while Robby paired with an American diver. The first dive at Sail rock had low visibility but was a decent dive (two stingrays, big triggerfish, lots of other fish and coral). Meanwhile, Becky had signed up for a 3 hour snorkeling trip around the island with Tig, Gill and Connie which was brilliant. Lots of fish, a couple of massive humphead wrasses, a spotted eel, a blue spotted sting ray and lots of clownfish. The 3 hour trip ended up taking nearly 5 hours so Becky was late for the 2 pm dive. On top of that, Becky’s bikini top snapped loose on the tumultuous and bumpy ride back to our resort so she had to sprint back to change bikinis! The second dive of the day was at Tanjung Basi, which had decent visibility. We spotted a turtle, moray eel, sea slug, and lots of other fish and coral. We were starving after diving so a quick trip to Barat Restaurant for an early dinner was in order. Snorkeling without a t-shirt caught up to Becky later this afternoon when she realized she got a sunburn from 5 hours in the water! At 8 pm, we joined the girls to review the GoPro footage from the snorkeling trip…some nice photos and videos. Drinks and conversation ensued, and we were in bed before midnight.

05 Oct – We had to be at the dive center by 8:30 for the first dive of the day. Our dive master was excited to announce we would visit Tokong Laut (also known at “the Pinnacle” of “Temple of the Sea”) which was reputedly one of the best dive sites in the area. There were a total of 7 divers plus the dive master and two other boats pulled up while we were there, making for crowded conditions at Tokong Laut. We spotted a stingray, moray eel, tiny sea worms, and lots of nice fish and coral. Nice dive but nothing to rave about. After an early lunch and nap, Robby woke up with a headache so he decided to skip this afternoon’s dive. He ended up snorkeling and got to spot a black tip shark. Meanwhile, Lars and Becky partnered up at Terumba Tiga “The Three Brothers” which ended up being a good dive. Afterwards, they weren’t ready to call it a day so they grabbed some snorkel gear to see if they could spot sharks on their own. Then it was time for birthday cake! Today was Denise’s birthday and we surprised her with drinks and cake on her balcony. The chocolate birthday cake turned out really well…best birthday cake on the trip so far! Afterwards, we had dinner at Barat Restaurant before returning to Denise’s balcony for more drinks. Connie brought out a deck of Uno cards and we wondered why we hadn’t played Uno earlier on the trip? It was a fun last night on the Perhentian Islands!

06 Oct – Early departure from the island on a speedboat back to Kuala Besut where we got a van to the bus station. Our bus to Kuala Lumpur departed at 9 am. This was a luxurious double decker bus, outfitted with AC, reclining seats, leg rest and power outlets. We were traveling in style! And good thing too because the bus ride was really long, clocking in at nearly 9 hours (with a 30 minute stop for lunch). Kuala Lumpur here we come!

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