Last weekend, what with it being another round of Malaysian celebrations (and accompanying public holiday), we decided to make good our escape from Kuala Lumpur and abandon Tune by heading up North to Penang for a couple of days. Incidentally, it turns out nearly every Malaysian had the same idea – buses were nearly all sold out, difficult to find, flights were selling at ridiculous prices and to top it off, the few websites that were still accepting bookings, were accepting bookings from Malay nationals or for those holding Malay credit cards only. Disaster – thankfully, I dispatched Anna out to Bukit Jalil, KL’s current (temporary) bus station to see if she had better luck buying tickets in person. As it happens, she did have much better luck, the only downside being the bus journey was one-way ticket only and the ticket alone cost 50 Ringgits (that’s about â‚¬12.50) – she was however assured that it would be the ‘Super VIP’ service (which I touched on before). Now, one of the things I like about KL (and Malaysia in general), is that so far, it seems like when they want to go and do something, they get on with it and do it. In Ireland by comparison, it’s tough to imagine Busaras ever being closed for renovations without years of delays, a couple of high-level court challenges, maybe even a planning inquiry or two, by which stage they could have done the work a couple of times over. Here, on the other hand, they closed the bus station bang on April or so, shoved all the bus companies and stalls out to a load of tents out in Bukit Jalil and that was the end of it.
Anyway, we turned up early on Friday morning and waited. And we waited – and waited – and checked-in, which I didn’t realise was a necessary part of a bus journey – and waited some more, before some man finally assured us that the bus was ‘coming from Penang’ but that it was ‘very nice bus’. Great. Finally, around 9:30, we were all gathered up and herded to the outskirts of the bus station onto the ‘Super VIP’ bus. Now, I don’t know what it is about bus services over here but they seem to go wild trying to make the buses look like crazy luxury – nearly every coach has 3 seats across, air conditioning, and this particular one also came with ridiculous amounts of legroom and personal TV screens like on a long-haul flight. And don’t get me started on the built-in massage that soothed away the stresses and strains of hauling my backpack around KL so early in the morning; I shouldn’t even need to say that I spent a good 3 hours of the four and a half hour journey fast asleep, and it seemed like no time between me waking up and us suddenly pulling into Penang bus station (incidentally, also a kip). Anyway, what about Penang? Well, we had to get a bus from where we were down to Georgetown first (which also doesn’t look great in so far as it has a bunch of old buildings, but all haven’t really been kept maintained in any shape or form). From there, we took a bus out to where we were staying, Batu Ferringhi. Now, unbeknownst to me, this seems to be the hotspot for anyone visiting Penang – it’s where most of the hotels are, the beaches and the shops and markets. And people. Lots and lots of people. We were staying in a house a little bit up the road in a sort of private estate so we didn’t really see too many people at our accommodation, but there were more than enough down at the beach.
After arriving, we wandered down to catch our first glimpse at the beach and when I say the word ‘busy’, that doesn’t even come remotely close to describing the situation – it was one of the most uncomfortable, busy beaches you can imagine. There were people trying to sell trips on a banana boat, jet skis, paragliding, people standing around not getting in the water but just standing there, then there was an English couple and their accompanying families and friends getting married at another end of the beach, all topped off by the fact that the water itself was far too dangerous to get into given the amount of marine traffic between all the jet skis, the boats pulling the banana boats and so on – not to mention that, after we sat down at one point for a few minutes, we ended up having to flee our chosen spot in something of a rush after one of the paragliding trips came to an abrupt end exactly where we were sitting. All in all, it was organised (possibly) lunacy. So, we stayed about 20 minutes and abandoned ship (and there were plenty of them to abandon!), opting instead to arrive at the night market early. But unfortunately at that too, early simply wasn’t good enough and it was already packed to capacity, such that we ended up not getting any food until nearly 10 at night since we firstly couldn’t get a table and then even when we could, we couldn’t actually order because the stands were all too busy. Something had to be done – so Anna made a call.
And the next morning, a very nice man came over in his car to drive us around Penang and see if we couldn’t find somewhere better to go and relax for the day – and it didn’t take long. We drove out of Batu Ferringhi and almost immediately things got a bit emptier. The next beach we came to was nothing short of deserted and by the time we reached the end of the road, we’d seen more than enough empty patches of beach to last us a lifetime. He drove us around all sorts of places for about 40 minutes before we all more or less decided that the best thing to do would be for him to drop us off at the end of the main road where the original beaches had been that we’d seen earlier and what was also the entrance to the national park, which he informed us was also good for an empty beach or two if you didn’t mind walking. Finally, we’d found somewhere more or less idyllic. The fishing village was beautiful in its own way (i.e. you’d call it a kip back home but it looked just so unusual and peaceful to anything at home – or even in KL), even if I was concerned that the jetty we were walking on was half a step away from collapsing into the sea. Buoyed by the successes so far, we decided to try our luck with the national park. The national park was, without doubt, truly spectacular and as we wound our way past monkeys, dense foliage and unspoilt stretches of beach, the path got smaller and less ‘developed’ for want of a better word, until finally we were literally walking along a mud path through a rainforest, occasionally having to climb up and over a big rock or wander through long grass that I’d convinced myself earlier a snake would probably be hiding in. But the beach at the end, I can tell you for a fact, was more than worth the walk – even if we did look like a pair of hot, sweaty messes.
And when you find a beach that looks that good, you don’t leave it again – and there was no need anyway, we were the only two on it for most of the time. We swam, relaxed, saw plenty of crabs and just generally took it easy, before the treacherous walk back (and when I say treacherous, I mean it in terms of the local wildlife that probably had to take shelter from the amount both of us were sweating). That evening, we went back to our own local beach, which was incredibly busy as usual and remained thankful that even if only for a few hours, we’d gotten to have our own completely unspoilt, incredible and empty beach – although, as I was thinking all that, one of the jet skis parked on a trailer behind me coughed out enough exhaust fumes to have me hallucinating for a week, so we moved on to try our luck with the night market and getting dinner once again. This time round, we meant business so as soon as I walked in and saw an empty table (even if it was a bit dirty), I immediately dived for it and took a seat, refusing to get up for anybody or anything – I imagine that even were the whole place to have started crumbling in an earthquake that very moment, I would still have been found clutching onto the edge of the table. Anyway, we finally had a table to ourselves and with that, the beer and food could begin flowing. We ate until we could have no more and then took in the final sights of the night market before retiring back home for a relax ahead of what would turn out to be the bus journey from hell the following day…