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Malaysia Travel Update (Jan 9, 2004)

by Charlie Smith

During Hari Raya, the first week of December there was a bad head-on express bus wreck in Malaysia that killed 15 people and injured many more. There were immediate repercussions in the form of lots of new rules, like: After Jan 22 express buses will no longer be allowed to start their runs between 9PM and 7 AM ­ so a lot of published bus info is now null and void, new skill course for drivers, random drug testing before and after trips, two drivers for each express bus especially if the journey covers more than 300km or will be more than four hours, and many more, including that by December 31 all commercial vehicles were required to display toll-free 24-hour hotline phone and SMS numbers to the Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board in hope people will report drivers who are speeding or driving dangerously. Plus those numbers were printed in the newspapers and straightaway there were 43 calls with complaints toward all types of buses, taxis, and lorries, which the board said will all be investigated.

Then two weeks ago it was reported in the Malaysia paper, the Star, that the CVLB wants to curb accidents during the Chinese New Year period by putting enforcement officers on each and every express bus! There are about 3000 express busses and the CVLB has only 50 enforcement staff so of course they are scratching their heads in reference to where all these bus marshals will materialize from. They hope they can work with police and the Road Transport Department??

The good ferry:
In December, after a trip from Hat Yai to Langkawi I sent a report disclosing that at the mini-bus stand in Hat Yai there were two contradictory 4 trips per day schedules posted for the Satun ­ Langkawi Ferry. But at the ferry landing there was a new, effective from 20 Nov 2003, high season six trips per day ferry schedule posted. Well, scratch that! Now the schedule is back to 4 trips per day and the times are:

From Satun (Tamalang Jetty): 9:30, 10:30, 14:30, and 17:00. From Langkawi: 9:30, 11:00, 12:30, and 16:00. Those are Malaysia time, Thailand time is 1 hour earlier. They say, at the Langkawi ferry office, “That is definite and will continue without change.” !!!!

But I will never understand why anyone could want to go to expensive, no public transport, murky water ­ NOT “blue water”, Langkawi. I only go there because it is a good place to keep my boat, in which I left America in 1993 - and have now been in SE Asia the past 4½ years. And even for that Thailand would be better except that they impose terrible ‘big ship’ rules and regulations and paperwork on us and put a six-month time limit on the stay for the boat.

In Malaysia my favorite places are Perhentian Islands for the great snorkeling, but it is NE monsoon and off season there right now; and Penang for an interesting old style cosmopolitan city plus lots of remote getaways too. And prices are reasonable. Also, for us who speak English there is almost no language barrier as Penang was a British colony for such a long time.

First requirement is lodging and the main budget area is Chulia Street and other streets in that area. I have tried many places along Chulia but found all of them to be minus a lot of stars. Very noisy, spots in the floor where you can not step or you will fall through, sway backed beds, indifferent staff, etc, etc. Even at some that have good mention in the Lonely Planet. So for the last four years I have used only the White House Hotel, good beds and pillows and the only budget accommodation I know of with hot showers! Very clean and well run, you might be walking down the hall and see them mopping the bathrooms, then if you come back in a few minutes you might see them mopping again although the floor is not even dry from the previous mopping. And, although every other lodging place has been laying off staff and complaining about ‘no business’ the past three years, the White House‘s 50 rooms are booked full every night, without exception. Rates are: fan room for 3-6 persons (three double beds) RM30-33, 2-4 persons (two double beds) RM28-30, one or two persons 23-25, all rooms with telephone and hot shower, toilets down the hall. For TV and AC add about RM10. Their phone is (604) 263 2385 or 263 2386, Fax (604) 263 2386, HP 012 474 2385.

They are at 72 Penang Road just north of Chulia Street, next door to the tall Cititel Hotel. If you book the day ahead they will save a room for you until 6PM. If you can’t get a room there you might book for the next day and then walk ½ block east on Chulia and check into the Blue Diamond, also a good place for breakfast. Also, in August the White House opened a restaurant on the ground floor, the ’78 Café’ (78 Penang Road!). It has been so popular that by early December they had to close two days to re-arrange everything to get in more tables. Even resurfaced the city sidewalk! And are now open 20 hours per day, 6AM to 2AM. It is one of those Malay Chinese types of restaurant where the owner keeps the drink concession and there are vender stalls around the perimeter with many types of good food, including dim sum. All prices are posted and I didn’t see anything over RM25 per plate or bowl.

Money ­ Ringget Malaysia (RM) 3.77 +- = US$1

There is also still an ever diminishing cluster of backpacker hostels and restaurants next to a beach at Batu Ferringi, as described in Lonely Planet. Get there in bus #93, The Hin blue bus.

Another all time favorite for me is Restoran Yasmeen, an Indian place that serves the best tandoori chicken (after 5PM) I have ever eaten ANYPLACE! With tandoori chicken, tandoori nan bread, dahl, and two small bowls of sauces at RM5.50. They are at 161 Penang Road, two doors south of Chulia street, and next door to Mustafa, another Indian restaurant. A tandoor is an oven which is actually a large clay pot with a roaring fire in the bottom that could easily melt bronze and you will not see one very often. The chicken is previously soaked overnight in yoghurt and mild herbs and spices. Some places also have lamb.

There is a good all day dim sum place on east side of Cintra Street (Lebuh Cintra) about halfway between Chulia and Komtar. And the biggest dim sum garden imaginable, the Old Winston Coffee House, on east side of Jalan Anson a bit north of Jalan Logan, open very early, close about 11AM.

Penang is well known for its wide variety of foods as so many nationalities are represented. And there are so many eating places that it seems like at any time of day or night at least half the population is cooking for the other half. Prices and variety are so good that many people never eat a meal at home. If you know where to go the many hawker stall villages are a good eating experience too.

And if you eat you gotta shit, here is another one for ‘Toilets of Asia’. Many budget hotels, and most old time hotels in Malaysia offer rooms with shower but no rooms with toilet. But in actuality you do get more than half a toilet. And most of the old hotels provide shower shoes in each room ­ pairs of rubber ‘thongs’, or flip flops. So now you know why they are placed there! And you will only go ‘down the hall’ once a day. Even in many older homes the toilet, or tandas; and the shower, or mandy, are in separate rooms. And more than once when visiting people and asking, “Can I use your tandas?” They have asked, “Just urine?” In which case they would direct me to the mandy. But if my answer were, “No, more serious business” I would have been shown to the tandas, which sometimes is not as clean and not as economical in water consumption for just flushing down a pint of piss. The mandy, in contrast to an actual shower, is a room with a large plastic barrel or a large concrete basin of water with a plastic bowl or dipper floating in it. Sometimes there is also a modern shower head but most Malaysians seem to prefer to splash the water over themselves with a dipper.

After lodging, food, and toilet are sorted out a good stop would be at Komtar. The round and very visibly largest and tallest building in Georgetown at 65 floors. If you manage a clear day the 58th floor viewing platform might be interesting, RM5 fee. And on the ground level there is a long distance bus station and next to it the main terminal for local buses going to all points in Penang, including the free shuttle bus that makes a double figure-eight trip around Georgetown every 15 minutes, 7AM to 7PM workdays and 7AM to 2PM Saturdays. By making the complete trip, about 45 minutes, you will ride for free through some of the most interesting parts of Georgetown and see some of the best of the old landmarks and buildings. The bus stops around Georgetown, for the shuttle, can be identified by large, round, brown or rust red signs (I’m color blind) with the stop number in center and a smaller rectangular blue sign under it with the name of the stop. Once you find one you can also look at the route map that is posted at each stop. When the bus comes just flag him down and jump in, it’s free!

But a most important find at Komtar will be the Penang Tour Guides Association, highly recommended. Lots of maps, books, and info, some for free, 10AM to 6PM Monday to Saturday except public holidays. Find McDonald’s, you know ­ the golden arches, or haunches, on the third floor. And right across from McD’s main entrance look for their blue and red on white ‘tourist info’ sign with arrows pointing the way. Buy the monthly ‘Penang Tourist Newspaper’ at RM2. Very useful and interesting wealth of info with lots of maps, pictures of points of interest including bus route numbers for getting to them, helpful phone numbers and addresses, differing hours for reduced phone rates to all parts of the world and within Malaysia, phone numbers of the many foreign missions in Penang ­ for getting visas ­ including longer term for Thailand than you will get at the border, stories about old landmarks, etc (etc. in this case means more info than contained in many of the popular guide books that are sold for big bucks.) If you are a nature and solitude lover buy the book, ‘Nature Trails of Penang’ with maps and descriptions of almost all the remote trails and walkways, how to find them and where they go. Including to some of the beaches and mountain tops that few people ever see. If you like history and old buildings ask for the free Georgetown walking tour map. If you got screwed over on some kind of a deal they will tell you how to find the Consumer Association. And what they can show you or tell you goes on and on. There are many tourist info centers, tourism promotion boards, etc. but this one is the best of the lot, the only one worth your while.. Don’t be confused by the Komtar Information counter which is close by but only has info for the Komtar shopping complex, which is a maze of hallways and corridors going all directions on 4 levels and covering about 6 city blocks in which it is very easy to become confused and disoriented.

At present one of the disappointments is that in December they were replacing a two-kilometer piece of cable on the funicular railway that goes to the top of 800-meter Penang Hill and a clamp broke, releasing the cable to go snaking and snarling and tangling its way down the steep hill. The cable was from Switzerland and they had to order another one, so the rail will be closed at least three months. If you do get a chance to go up there be sure to look for the ‘canopy walk’. Another freebie and a new thing 1.8 km walk from the top rail station, or take a truck for RM2. It consists of a series of swinging suspension bridges strung off the hillside between extra tall trees and you look down sometimes 30 meters to the tops of the other trees of the forest below. But if you are afraid of heights you will not like it.

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