Living it up in Penang!

(Emily) ‘Welcome to Malaysia’ was emblazoned in big bold letters as we crossed the border, and welcome is certainly what we felt! Customs was a breeze and while James was inside getting the carnets done, I chatted with one of the border guards who taught us a few useful phrases – this is how we usually get some initial familiarity with a few key words in the language of a new country, there never seems to be time beforehand (James: it also helps to ‘warm up’ moody officials – all part of our cross-border charm offensive)!  The border post deposited us straight out onto the highway and immediately it was clear that Malaysia is significantly more developed than rural Thailand; big cars and sports bikes flashed past us and things just looked more streamlined and planned out. Also, being a former British colony, we could quickly identify elements of this heritage in the propensity of English language signs and road names. The sky had been looking pretty thunderous all morning and on the way down to Penang, we got hit by a few very heavy showers – it comes straight down in this part of the world, no messing about (James: quite literally, it’s like something out of film. You can ride along in clear dry air, and up ahead you’ll see a wall of water through which you can nothing. You get closer and closer to it and because there is not a breath of air, you can pretty much ride right up to it, stop, get off and stand and wait twenty metres away without feeling a drop!) But the Malays have a great system to help bikers caught in wet weather; under each bridge, of which there are many, there are special sections marked out where mopeds and motorcycles can pull into gaps in the barriers to seek refuge from downpours. We were extremely grateful for this facility, especially after the third or fourth shower! We also loved the fact that at each toll station, motorcycles (who don’t have to pay) are diverted round on their own little narrow route through the undergrowth at the side of the highway. It didn’t seem entirely necessary – there’s always room past one of the end toll booths – but we enjoyed the novelty factor!

In Penang, we were very lucky to have been offered a place to stay with James’s brother Ben’s wife Jo’s (got that?!) cousin (James: our cousin-in-law?). Andrew lives in Bukit Mertajam in mainland Penang and we were surprised and extremely gratified to be given exclusive use of his flash bachelor pad while he went and stayed with family down the road! And Andrew’s generosity didn’t end there… He’s a self-confessed car nut and has a whole network of like-minded auto enthusiasts all over the city. The very next day, he led us down to a local garage where his friends gave the bikes a thorough going over (this was after we’d come out of the house to find Andrew hosing our grubby motos down on the forecourt!) This mini-service turned out to be just as well as we knew that James’s rear brake pads were on their last legs, but more fortuitously, one of the bolts that hold his exhaust on was apparently about to fall off! The guys at the garage sorted these issues (btw thanks Dad for bringing the spare brake pads when you came out to Thailand) and gave the bikes a general sprottle. They even wrapped some heatproof bandage around our exhausts (Andrew insisted on this after seeing James’s pink right leg from riding the sort distance to the garage in shorts!) And for all this we were charged the ridonkulous fee of just 30 ringits, which equates to about £6!

Our ever-obliging host also made it his personal business to drive us around to see various sights in Penang while we were there.  Near Georgetown, we visited the Penang Clan jetties (a UNESCO world heritage site),which is a cluster of residential  piers on stilts that extend up to 80 metres out into the sea and are remnants of what was once a larger network of villages. Originally, each jetty was associated with a particular Chinese clan and those who shared the surname settled as neighbours; today the precariously appointed homes (some of which are surprisingly spacious) along each particular pier still house residents with a common surname. (Apart from ‘Mixed Surname Jetty’ – for all the odd stragglers, perhaps?!) While we were in the area, we also had a stroll around the star-shaped Fort Cornwallis – located on the point where Sir Francis Light first landed on Penang and thus began the colonisation of the island. There isn’t a whole lot to see nowadays but James and Andrew liked the cannons (boys, eh!) Later in the week, we visited the ‘military museum’, formerly a British forces training camp but used during the occupation by the Japanese in the WW2 as a prisoner of war camp (James: and one in which we believe my grandfather was held after being captured). There wasn’t much to see, as slightly bizarrely, those who run the camp have decided to make it dual purpose so it remains part museum and historical record, and part paintball centre! There were just old building left without much in the way of  any information to speak of so we left remembering it mostly for being perhaps the most mosquito ridden place we’d yet been to! Definitely not a place to spend years as a prisoner! We also took a gentle climb up a forest trail (lush rainforest is literally right on your doorstep even though Penang is a major city) replete with cooling fresh water pools and some very cheeky monkeys. (James: Although there’s only so far you can walk up hill when it’s 40 degrees and about 90% humidity!)

So, as you can see, Andrew was more than a bit of a star. And I haven’t even got to the best bit yet: during our ten days in Penang, he ensured that we sampled a whole smorgasbord of tasty local cuisine (James: and you know how we like our food!)which, due to the melting pot of cultures in Malaysia, comprised of Chinese, Thai, Indian, Indonesia, Malaysian or a fusion of food from different nationalities (even the British Isles gets a look in – chicken in Guinness anyone?! It was delicious, as was marmite chicken!) Finding places to try all these dishes with a local’s insight was just awesome – thanks Andrew! A particular favourite was guay chap (James: the spelling might be a little off…),  a rich duck soup just bursting with flavour,  plus James was rather taken with asam laksa, a sour but spicy little soup number. And let’s not forget the little breakfast parcels of rice with sambal that Andrew would bring over for us in the morning. It’s fair to say we were well and truly spoilt! Our time in Penang coincided with our first wedding anniversary (always good to still be on your honeymoon when that comes around!) and we somewhat lowered the gastronomic tone by consuming a bottle of wine and a bar of Dairy Milk in front of a movie that night – ah, the romance!

So, you may be wondering why we hung around Penang for so long. Well aside from the great time we were having with Andrew, really it was because our goal was to arrange the shipping of our bikes from Malaysia over to Canada while we were somewhere cheap (free – even better!) with decent internet access. We just didn’t bank on it taking over a week! I must have sent out quote requests to at least forty shipping agents and slowly but surely, they started to trickle back but there were days of endless dialogue back and forth about crate dimensions and optional services  and so on and so forth. What did become clear within a few days was that shipping by air was pretty much out of the question; as much as we wanted to get the bikes across the Pacific in the shortest possible time in order to get maximum touring time in the states, £4000+ (yes, really!) just wasn’t viable (and that wasn’t including our own tickets). So, half way through the week we did a bit of an about turn and started looking into sea freighting instead. To us, this was a far less desirable option: aside from the time issue, we’d just heard so many horror stories about horrendous delays or bribery at the port of destination. Still, it didn’t look like we had much choice, and at least we were shipping to Canada, more of a known entity. When we started getting yet more extortionate quotes and, worse, projections of  35 day sailing times that wouldn’t even be leaving port for several weeks, I began to get rather concerned. Maybe America was going to have to be ‘another trip for another day’ – at this rate we’d barely have time to cross the states and, more importantly, only a fistful of dollars left with which to do it.

Eventually though, we struck lucky and were in a position where we had three viable options: Andrew’s friend who works in shipping (James: Andrew, seemed to know everybody in Penang!), a freight forwarder who two fellow bikers had recently used out of Kuala Lumpur, and an agent with a company called Crown Relo (much more big scale) who seemed to know what he was talking about, gave prompt replies to my queries and had some flexibility on rates depending on what we required. Naturally, it was a Friday afternoon near the close of business when things really came to a head and we were making frantic calls to all three parties trying to get a final quote so we could make our decision. Our bikes are our babies, remember  – putting them on a random ship and hoping they turn up where you want them to is not something to be taken lightly! (James: shipping by sea can also be a pretty torrid affair. Unlike air freight where the bike goes on a set flight and arrives hours later, the shipping world is far murkier. You’re never sure if your ‘low priority’ crate is onboard, whether it was unloaded at another port en route etc, so the estimated sailing and arrival times tend to be best case scenario. A good example is Fabian, who you’ll hopefully remember from China and Pakistan. He shipped his bike from the same port at new year. His projected sailing time to South America was 4 weeks so he spent them backpacking in Indonesia. Upon his arrival he went to get hid bikes but they weren’t there. In the end, he waiting 2 months in Argentina before he got his beloved bike back!) In the end, with the other two faffing about a bit and time running out (it was minutes before 5pm when they’d all be going home for the weekend), we went with Henry at Crown Relo. Henry, who it turned out was a Brit, (no bad thing as it means less room for losses in translation when agreeing details and fees!) was confident that as long as we got down to Kuala Lumpur by Monday to do the paperwork and crate up the bikes in good time, the bikes could sail on the Friday. Suddenly, it all seemed very real!

So, after abusing Andrew’s hospitality for well over one week, we prepared to leave for Kuala Lumpur. Andrew was gracious to the last, welcoming us back should we need a cheap place to kill some time once the bikes had gone, and as we rode off, we felt very lucky to have received such generous hospitality. Thanks Andrew! Our plan for the day was to head into the Cameron Highlands, an area of outstanding natural beauty famous for its old British colonial tea plantations, and stay there for one night en route to KL. However, those pesky storm clouds were at it again. We had to pull in at service stations and moto-shelters several times along the way to avoid heavy rain (at one point pulling in a tad late and getting absolutely drenched), and as we neared the turn of for the Highlands, it was clear that the miserable weather would pretty much render this scenic route pointless if we were cold and wet and not even able to see our surroundings! It was a shame to pass by – we were all too aware that we’d hardly ridden in Malaysia at all yet and the bikes would soon be nested in their crates, not to see the light of day again until they reached Vancouver – but we’re not gluttons for punishment! So we pressed on towards the capital and, typically, the sun came out in full force by early afternoon. We knew that KL was going to be busy and manic but once we saw the glimmer of skyscrapers in the distance and caught our first glimpse of the enormous Petronas Towers, we couldn’t help but feel rather excited!….

For photos click here.

4 Responses to “Living it up in Penang!”

  1. julian says:

    Hi EmnJ. Computerdad gets the first comment in. Your most avid reader and wife had a nice sunny garden based lunch with Susanna today. Your photos indicate your interest in cuisine! I took photos of the flowers instead of the food though. Check Fbook! X

  2. Jo and Ben says:

    Hi guys,

    James’s brother Ben’s wife here…ha ha ;) Hope all is well with you now you’re back on the road. Good to speak with you on skype the other day.

    Glad you had a great culinary experience in Penang guys. James I’m with you on the Assam Laksa front…one of my absolute favourites. When you get back to London there’s a little restaurant in Chinatown that does a good Assam Laksa (obviously not as cheap as Malaysia though). Mum is especially pleased that you really enjoyed Penang, being her hometown and all!

    As for the spelling of guay chap you’re not too far off Em, it’s kuay chap. With regards to Andrew, what’s family for?! He was glad to show you around and give you a place to stay. Look forward to hearing more about your adventures.

    Lots of love
    Jo (and Ben) xxx

  3. Gary says:

    Hi James & Emily
    Great to read your latest post and to check out your new photo’s , I’ve caught up now having read the entire blog from April 2010 , it’s been a fantastic read so far and I now wait with enthusiasm for the next post , great to see you have now moved on bet it’s great to be back on the bikes on the open road , enjoy keep safe .



  4. Jackie (AKA Mum) says:

    Reading your blog and looking at the photos makes our stay in Malaysia seem years ago but spoilt you were and so were we – amazing hospitality !
    Assam Laksa has to be the best. Next you’ll be heading to the land of the BBQ Ribs and giant burgers.

    Stay safe and take care. Love, Jackie xx

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