Now that I’m back from Asia, I am slowly catching up on entries I didn’t have time to write while I was traveling. Here’s the story of my time in Penang, Malaysia.
I thought long and hard about where to spend the Lunar New Year.
China was a tempting option. I mean, we call it “Chinese New Year” for a reason, right?
But I talked to friends in Hong Kong and they advised me against it. Everyone is spending time with their families, and lots of stores are closed. So I decided to look for somewhere that had a large Chinese community, as well as attractions that I could enjoy even if none of the businesses were open (read: beach!)
And that’s how I found myself in Penang, Malaysia on the eve of the Lunar New Year.
Fortunately, I had booked well in advance–1.5 billion people are on vacation during the Lunar New Year, and they make it very difficult for anyone else to get accommodations anywhere in Asia. Several desperate people who came to my hostel were given gear to use to sleep on the beach! (While that may sound romantic, let me assure you, Malaysian bugs are not romantic!)
I took the overnight train from Bangkok, which was both comfortable and fast–I didn’t have time to be bored.
The train drops you off on the mainland, and from there you have to take a (ridiculously cheap) ferry to Penang. I met some American girls who had just arrived in Malaysia to study abroad, and we discussed our efforts to dress appropriately. (Malaysia is a Muslim country, but it is very diverse; you don’t have to wear long skirts and long sleeves, but basic modesty (no thighs, no cleavage) is appreciated.)
Once on the island I headed for the bus station, as the hostel I was staying at was about half an hour outside of George Town, the main city. I was a little nervous to be taking a bus after relying on taxis for so long–would finding the right bus be difficult? How would I recognize my stop? But I ended up running into a British couple that comes to Malaysia every year, and they helped me with everything. And since English is widely spoken in Malaysia, I didn’t need that much help.
I found my hostel without a problem; it was just behind the main (and only, really) shopping street, a short walk from the water. I dumped my things and made a beeline for the beach:
There was lots of activity; jet skis, parasailing–even horseback riding. But for me, the most interesting part was seeing burqa-clad women on the beach, alongside women in bathing suits. (It did make me feel a little self-conscious in my bikini, though. I have never rushed into the water so fast!) All in all, the beach was all right, but it wasn’t as pristine as the ones on Koh Chang, and it was much noisier. It’s not a place I’d recommend for a secluded, romantic getaway.
But the beach wasn’t the only thing to do.
Penang National Park was a short bus ride away.
Shortly after I got onto the bus a woman my age climbed on and asked the driver if it was the right bus for the park. I was standing nearby, so I immediately piped up that I was going there as well in the hopes that she would suggest that we hike together, but she just smiled and walked past me to the back of the bus! I felt a bit rejected until we got to the park and she immediately started walking with me. When I asked what had happened on the bus she laughed and said she just wanted to sit down! Her name was Nina and she was from Hamburg, and by the end of the walk we were promising to visit each other someday.
There is something so exciting about walking in a jungle!
Nina and I rarely passed other people, and I found myself extremely grateful for her presence when I spotted what appeared to be a small crocodile swimming in the surf off the deserted jungle path we were walking! (I don’t think you’ll be able to see it in this shaky video I took, but you can try. Look by the far rocks.)
Later I found out that it was just a monitor lizard. They aren’t dangerous, but they can be huge–this one was about five feet long and a foot wide–and quite scary-looking.
Since we didn’t know what it was when we saw it, it left us pretty freaked out! I kept waiting for a snake to drop out of the trees on us. Fortunately, it was the only large reptile we encountered on our hike.
The path ended at Monkey Beach, which lived up to its name:
We were famished after all that walking, and to our relief there was a stand selling cold drinks. We got some and settled onto the sand.
A small boat (see photo at the top of this entry) had just arrived bearing people who hadn’t wanted to do the whole hike (maybe they’d heard about the monitor lizards?) Among them was a young Muslim family, a mother, a father, and a toddler boy. The mother was wearing a burqa. Even though her entire face was covered, she was busily taking photos of her husband and child. She even waded a little in the surf, which, of course, got the bottom of her long black garment wet. I was dying to know what she thought about, well, everything. Nina and me sitting there in our short sleeves, on vacation alone. Her own life. The world. I wish I had felt like I could have asked her.
I spent another day visiting George Town with a Dutch guy from my hostel, Alex.
The views from the bus’ winding, seaside route were so beautiful that I joked that they should have weddings on the bus. Then I wondered whether a bus driver has the same powers as a ship’s captain to marry people, and we decided that Malaysia should really pass a law making it possible. We then discussed etiquette–would it be gauche not to pay the bus fare for all your wedding guests? Alex thought so. Fortunately, Malaysia is cheap, so treating everyone would not be a burden for anyone.
I wanted to see all the Lunar New Year activity; unfortunately, the holiday meant that most shops were closed, but it was still interesting to see the city.
After a few hours together, Alex told me that he was gay. He was keeping it quiet because homosexuality is highly disapproved of in Malaysia and Singapore, and homosexual activity is illegal and could be punished with jail time! He had decided that even if he met someone he really liked, he wouldn’t act on it, which made me very sad for him. (Ironically, in Malaysia I saw men being more affectionate with each other than anywhere else in the world. They sit on the bus with their arms around each and their hands on each other’s legs!)
That night we joined others from our hostel at a restaurant near the beach. Some dragon dancers came through (they were ubiquitous throughout my stay in Penang–by the end I was cringing and running the other way, since they make so much noise!)
After dinner we moved to a patio on the beach to hear a band. When they announced the last song I stood up and told the men around me that one of them had to dance with me. Alex gamely volunteered, and to my delight, he actually knew how to dance.
There’s nothing as fun as being twirled around by a good friend under a palm tree and all the stars in the sky.