Saturday, April 28, 2012

Kuala Lumpur

Amber: Due to our bus departing Georgetown so late, we didn't arrive in Kuala Lumpar until ten thirty at night. It was dark, hot, and we were not deposited at a bus station. Just a street. We got out and got our bearings. Thankfully, our bus driver had dropped us not far from the budget district of KL; Chinatown. After finding Chinatown, we started looking for guest houses. The first place we came across was Wheelers. It was highly recommended by Lonely Planet, so we were excited to have found it so quickly. As we inspected the room, however, we were less excited. Shared bathrooms are the norm in Malaysia, but we weren't expecting tiny, worn rooms with little to no furniture aside from a foam mattress on a small bed frame. As it turns out, Tim and I have been spoiled. We went back out onto the street and carried on, looking for something bigger, cleaner, and closer to what we had been experiencing in Georgetown. As it turns out, nothing like that exists in KL. We were given options of bunk beds, dirtier rooms with worn, stained carpet, one of the places had very obviously not had the sheets changed. And they all cost more than the first guest house we had viewed. We admitted defeat, and went back to Wheelers and booked a room.  We broke out our silk travel sheets, just in case.

The next morning we got up early and found a place for chicken and rice for breakfast.  We're not sure if it's becoming our favorite or if we are sick of it.  It's a toss up.  The restaurant we went into was packed, so a nice elderly man offered to let us sit with him and tell us about what to eat.  He recommended the chicken and rice. We shared an order, and also had a dish of Rojak,a red bean peanut sauce over deep fried and vegetables, noodles and shaved cucumber, and two iced coffees.  Not a bad start to our day!

Tim:  We opted for a self-guided walking tour of Chinatown with its old historic buildings. We visited our first Hindu temple and a Chinese Temple as well. We then walked over to the state mosque of Malaysia. Amber and I had to put on robes because we were wearing shorts and Amber had to put on a head scarf. I think it might be a new look for Amber. This was the first time either of us had been in a mosque. We walked around the complex and took pictures, and even read some pamphlets about Islam.

After the mosque we ventured over to the Islamic Museum of Art. The architectural exhibits with models of all the major mosques around the world was the most interesting. We had skipped lunch so we were starving by the time we were done with the museum. We started dinner with lime and salted prune juice which is actually really delicious and would make an excellent margarita mix. After that we had chicken curry puff pastries followed by BBQ pork and rice and a interesting floor noodle dish with minced pork. Beer is fairly expensive here so we have not been buying drinks when we go out to eat. I found some cheap Dutch beer in the convenience store so we took those back to our room.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Penang Part 2.

Tim:  On our third day in Georgetown we opted to rent a motorbike for $8.25 per day. We headed out towards the north of the island where there was a national park with hiking trails out to a nice beach and a light house. We dropped our bike off at the park headquarters and began the one and a half our hike. The trail followed along the edge of the water through dense jungle. We went swimming at "Monkey" Beach. The water was the warmest ocean water we had ever been in. It was more warm than cold. The water temperature was actually warmer than many of the showers we have had in SE Asia. After our swim, we continued along the beach were we saw the wild monkeys that give the beach its name.

Another 30 minute hike up the side of a hill and we reached the lighthouse which had nice views of the island. We hiked the same way we came in. After our hike we returned to the same hawkers stalls for dinner. This time we had an amazing oyster omelet and Asam Laksa, a sweet and sour Malaysian soup with noodles and fish. The hawker stalls were located right next to the largest mall on the island so we went to the movie theater and watched Wrath of the Titans, which wasn't worth the time, fortunately we only paid $3.33 each.

On our fourth days we slept in, had chicken and rice again for brunch. We scheduled a bus ride for 3:30 in the afternoon for Kuala Lumpur. We had four hours before our bus so we took the motorbike to the botanical gardens. We saw two varieties of monkey, several monitor lizards, and the biggest beetle I have ever seen. We went to a late lunch at the mall because of the aircon. We tried some more Laksa as well as Malaysian pastry puffs with chicken curry. After that we head off to meet our bus.

Amber:  The hike out to the light house was beautiful!  At first we weren't sure if we wanted to just laze on the beach and catch some rays or attempt the 5 miles in the 90' heat.  We decided to be ambitious and do the hike.  It was through the jungle pretty much the whole way, so we were able to stay cooler than we though we would.  We were still dripping sweat tho.  It is so hot here!  The only sun we saw was when the path lead us to a beach.  We took the opportunity to go swimming.  The water was ridiculous!  It was seriously the temperature of bath water!  So much for cooling down, but it was still fun to go for a dip in the ocean.

The next morning we got up late, as usual.  Chicken and rice for breakfast, then we took the motor scooter over to Georgetown's botanical garden, then rushed back to the travel agency where we had booked our bus to Kuala Lumpar.  It was only going to be five hours, and we were stoked when the mini van taxi dropped us off at the bus terminal.  The bus was empty, and had the biggest, most reclining seats we've ever seen.  We left Georgetown and went over to Buttersworth, to gather more passengers. We assumed.   Our bus was supposed to leave by 4:30pm, but we waited and waited.  And waited!  We remained the only two people on the bus.  And it stayed put.  Finally, a single lady boarded.  It was five thirty.  The bus driver gave up on filling his bus and we left the terminal.  The bus had 32 seats, and only three were filled.  It was a quiet ride to Kuala Lumpar!

Koh Tao to Georgetown, Malaysia

Tim:  We had a wonderful three day visit in Koh Tao. We were able to book last minute sleeper train tickets from the mainland down into Malaysia. We took the slow boat from Koh Tao back to the mainland city of Chumpon. We had a few hours to wait before our train so we grabbed food and beer at a nearby night market. Once we got on the train we went in search of our bunks. A purser helped us find our bunks, but It appeared the entire train staff was drunk. He was stumbling down the isle and had a hard time locating our bunks numbers even though they were obviously displayed on the privacy covers. We found our bunks, but they still had dirty sheets from the people who had vacated them in Chumpon. We had to flag down two different pursers before we finally got our bed sheets changed. The pursers appeared drunk as they were stumbling and giggling. I tried to help change the sheets on one of the bunks, but apparently messed it up so the purser went back for a new set of sheets. Our original reservation only had us booked to the boarder town of Hat Yai, so at 7:00 in the morning we had to get off the train and go into the station to book the continuing portion of our travel to Georgetown, Malaysia. We had to rush but we made the train again.

The boarder crossing went without issue. You can get into Malaysia without a preplanned visa. We arrived in Buttersworth the mainland city next to the island of Penang where Georgetown is located a little after one in the afternoon. From there we walked to the ferry terminal. We only had to wait five minutes for the next ferry to depart. The ferry ride was only 20 minutes. We walked to China town where the Lonely Planet Guide said most of the budget guesthouses were located. We settled on a room with aircon and a shared bath for 40 ringit or $13.30 a night. After getting settled we went out for the Malaysian famous chicken and rice which is pretty much just what it sounds like, but it is delicious and really cheap, about $1.50 a plate. We were really tired from our travels so we took a few hour nap. Four dinner we found a great Indian food restaurant and had honey chicken, tandoori chicken, and butter cheese nan, delicious!

Amber:  The first morning in Georgetown we got up, had some chicken and rice for breakfast, and did some of the Lonely Planets walking tour of Chinatown.  We were able to go to several temples, a mansion that was converted into a museum, the old army fort built when the English had control of Georgetown, and another museum.  Very informative about the diversity in Penang, and it gave us a bit of a barring on Malaysia as a whole, as well.  For their coffee, for example, instead of roasting the beans, they fry them in butter and sugar!  Sounded yummy, but upon tasting it, we still find Vietnamese coffee, hands down, the best either of us have ever tasted.  Sorry Kaladi's. 

We found ourselves standing at a bus station for quite some time only to be told that they had shut down for the evening.  It was at that point that we realized we had lost an hour when we moved over to Malaysia from Thailand... no wonder things kept shutting down on us while we were out and about the evening prior!  We took a cab up to a bunch of hawker stalls and had some Malay food.  We asked our taxi driver what he recommended.  Once at the hawker stalls, we tried his suggestion, as well as some other dishes.  Not quite as good as the Indian food we had had the evening prior, but an experience just the same! 

After dinner, we went to the beautifully airconed mall and splurged and watched a movie.  The bus was still shut down when we were done with the film, and we are cheep, so we walked back to our guest house.  It had cooled down, so the walk back was pleasant, but thunder and lightening in the not to far distance made us hurry the several kilometers 'home'.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chang Mai to Koh Tao

Amber:  Our last night in Chaing Mai ended up being our second to last night.  We had booked a VIP bus to Bangkok with the travel agency picking us up and transporting us to the main bus station between 6:00-6:30pm.  We had a nice dinner of Woodies (this ridiculously fattening, delicious burger shop Justin and Rico introduced us to) and were back at our guest house five minutes to six.  We waited in lobby with no fan or air con until 7:45pm.  We had called our travel agency several times and they assured us that the driver was on their way, but being as our bus was to depart at 8:00pm, our guest house host told us to walk out to the main road and wait at the gas station.  Sure enough, no bus.  We got back to our guest house and called our travel agency one more time to see what the next step was.  They told us the driver had been waiting for us the whole time.  We told them no, that was not possible, and we were able to convince them (nicely) that we would be getting a refund. 
The next day we rented a motor scooter and found our way to the actual bus station.  All the late busses were fully booked, or had only the least desirable seats available.  I would have been fine with cramming myself into a seat for the ten hour ride.  Tim's 6'3'" frame is much less compressible, so we searched around for the best options.  Finally, we found a VIP bus that left at 6:00pm, arrived in BKK at 3:00am.  The two seats we booked were the best on the bus, with ample leg room for Tim.  Right after we booked them, we got a text from Rico.  Fai, our friend from Koh Tao that we had gotten our Open Water scuba certificate with, had seen Whale Sharks on Koh Tao!!!!  Tim was able to find a bus - ferry from BKK to Koh Tao that worked perfectly with our early departure from Chaing Mai.  With just under 24 hours on a bus, a little lay over in BKK, another bus, and a ferry, u  were set to go to Koh Tao to visit Fai and try and see a whale shark. 

Tim:  We arrived in Koh Tao at 3 PM after 20 hours of travel time, ughh!  We are getting better at it though.  We settle in an air con room thanks to our friend Fai at Ban's Dive resort. We relaxed the rest of the afternoon and evening after some lunch with Fai. We signed up for two afternoon fun dives the next morning. Fai had to work earlier in the morning, and was "on the rocks" about whether or not to join us for the dives. At the last minute she decided to join us and went as our dive leader. The three of us were the third, fourth, and 5th divers into the water once we anchored up. Within 30 seconds of submerging, we spotted a huge mass just 20 meters away. It was a 4 meter long WHALE SHARK! Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. Our friend Fai has been diving in Koh Tao for over two years and had yet to see a whale shark under the water, so you can gage just how lucky we were that there was a whale shark right below us at the very moment we dove into the water. The shark was swimming very slowly and we were able to swim within inches of the shark for about 20 minutes. After about 20 minutes it swam away from the reef pinnacle that it had been circling. Not even everyone on our dive boat saw the wale shark, so it was possible to be within 50 meters of the shark and not even see it. We were so excited that our air consumption was way faster that it usually is. We were almost hyper ventilating under water. We were only down for 36 minutes and usually we could have been down for 45 minutes or so. This was definitely a highlight of the trip!

Amber:  We had such an amazing time with Mr. Whale Shark... which happened to be BABY whale shark... it was twice as long as Tim.  It was so beautiful and so amazing to be able to swim with it, on top of it, under it, along side it, for so long, and all within a grasp!  It was amazing, but as it turns out, Fai was looking for his momma!  Apparently, they get to be twenty meters long, so about the length of the house I grew up in!  I was quite brave and snuck in a small touch of his tail while swimming with him (very naughty, but I couldn't help myself). Had momma showed up, I am pretty sure I would have pulled my emergency air and gone straight to the surface!

We were able to go on three more dives while on Koh Tao, but never sighted another whale shark.  Tim was on his seventh dive ever, and I was on my sixth.  Our friends have dove hundreds of times and have failed to sight one, let alone swim with it for so long. We were content with our dive with the whale shark being one of the most amazing dives ever, so decided to book a train on to Malaysia to avoid an over stay in Thailand. 

Chang Mai and Songkron Festival

Tim:  Traveling by train is always more enjoyable than traveling by bus. We can walk around, and the sleeper trains have full bunks for each person with sheets and pillows. The train arrived more than an hour later than it was suppose to. After we got out of the train station the five of us (Rico, Justin, Joe, Amber, and I) caught a truck ride into the center of town. Even though it was the day before the festival officially started our truck drive closed the side windows on the truck bed cover to keep people from throwing water through the sides. On the back of the truck was open and it is not uncommon to have people run into the street and empty entire buckets of water onto the people in the back of the truck. We were a little concerned because of bags with our computers, electronics, and everything else. We ended up only getting a little splashed with mainly squirt guns. Because of the festival it took a few minutes to find a guesthouse with available rooms. We ended up being split up between three guesthouses. After getting settled, we changed into different clothes and prepared for a water fight.

First we went to a restaurant on the main road next to the moat for some Khao soi before starting. Khao soi is amazing! It is a red coconut curry dish with egg noodles, deep fried noodles, chicken, and onion. It is similar to the red curry you would have over rice, but in this case you just eat the curry as if it were soup. I had Khao Soi no less than 6 times while we were in Chang Mai.

The afternoon was spent standing at a main intersection along the moat. We bought one large squirt gun and 3 quart buckets for everyone with a rope attached so you could fish water out of the moat. As people walked or drove past on tuk tuks or trucks we would splash or "face clap" or "back clap" as Rico and Justin referred to it. The consisted of through water at peoples face or back as hard as you physically could, and the sound the water made as it hit the usually unsuspecting person was a loud CLAP! Fun...!

This habit of arriving at our same location on the moat carried on for four days. After lunch we would make our way to the moat and splash people with water all afternoon. We also received our fair share of getting dowsed with water. The streets were crammed with people and vehicles sharing the road. Many people would walk down the main streets and subject themselves to almost continual dowsing. Other stood along the moat along the moat and handed out their "blessing."

It was over 90 degrees each day while we were in Chang Mai, so getting dowsed with water shortly after leaving the room was a nice way to stay cool. By the fourth day my clothes that I had been wearing each day smelled of soured moat water.

Amber:  We could not have been in Songkron with more perfect companions.  Justin, Rico and Joe found the water festival just as fun on the last "face clap" on the forth day as they did on their first dousing the day we arrived.  We were the loud, fun, crazy Americans on the side of the corner of the moat that surrounds the old city of Chaing Mai.  We would laugh and laugh at the joy of dousing some poor, unsuspecting person as they walked by or drove past on a motor scooter or in a tuk tuk.  People either armed themselves with mote water or with tap water held in a garbage pale with a nice block of ice.  People either had cold water or dirty water.  We were the ones with dirty water... an endless supply of water from the moat that literally had street water (and probably sewage) flowing into it.  There was a dead, bloated rat floating in the moat a ways down from where we were stationed.  After the first dousing, you didn't really notice the smell.  You just tried not to swallow any.  We started by purchasing one super soaker that could span the whole street and the rest buckets, but soon realized that it was much more satisfying to just blast people in the face or back with a bucket of the dirty moat water. 

There needs to be more celebrations in Anchorage, Alaska like Songkron, we had a blast!