Friday, 7 March 2014

Farewell Thailand, Greetings Malaysia

That last evening on the coast was a great finish to our beach holiday. We rode back into the village for a cheap and tasty noodle soup dinner, chased down with a sweet roti. On getting back to our hotel we went to say hello to the owner, and quickly got chatting. We ended up spending the evening drinking whisky with him and his visiting friend, although were careful not to overindulge, as we really did need to get back on the road in the morning! The little dog had also taken a shine to us, and kept popping in to check on how things were going, even accompanying us back to our bungalow and standing guard for a while. Oli had become really attached to the little fellow, and was really sad to think of having to say goodbye.

The following morning we were up and about relatively early, eating a leisurely breakfast on our porch. It really was very tempting to stay one more day, but we were fast running out of visa days and needed to get on our way. Regretfully we packed the bike and tootled off down the road, pausing to take Peter (the British expat) some beers as a thank you for his assistance on our first night. We really did appreciate him coming to the rescue when we were faced with having to navigate the pack of unfriendly dogs!

As we did not have too much distance to cover, there was no need to get straight to the main road. Instead, we followed the coast road as far as possible. As is almost always the case, taking the more minor route turned out to be far more interesting and totally worth it. The road took us along the palm fringed coast and snaked through tiny fishing villages. We followed it until we eventually got stuck at the edge of a river delta, where sadly we had to call it a day and head back onto the main highway.

We made it to our destination (Songkhla) in the mid-afternoon. On first riding around it seemed pleasant enough, although a little thin on the ground for hotels. We asked around at a few places, two of which were pleasant but not great. At one of the hotels we had a most decidedly un-Thai experience, as the woman looked at us as if she frankly couldn't care less if we slept in a ditch, glaringly showing us the price on a calculator without a word or a smile. We thanked her cheerily and got straight out of there, riding around the corner to discuss which of the first two places we should stay at, which basically came down to would we rather manage without hot water or a window.

However, we had unwittingly stopped outside of another guesthouse, the owner of which invited us inside to see a room. It was the cheapest of all the options we had seen so far, with en-suite, wi-fi, a window and hot water. As an added bonus the bizarre choice of Father Christmas bedsheets made it a winner for us, and we immediately agreed to take it. The bed was unexpectedly comfy for the ridiculously low price (£6), and we exhaustedly lay down for a rest.

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If not for the fact that we were hungry we would have been very tempted not to stir. However, Songkhla is lucky enough to play host to a busy weekend night market, the main focuses of which are food and cool clothing. Knowing how much we were going to miss Thai food, we both saw this as an opportunity to fill up on some of our favourite treats before leaving the country. With this in mind, Oli excitedly set to work, but peaked far too soon as he overindulged on the fried chicken. Feeling upset that he was then too full to try everything he wanted to, he made me promise to manage his eating the following evening. My favourite food of the evening had to be the kanom buang, tiny crispy pancakes with an almost meringue like filling and a sweet topping (like this). They really are an excellent dessert, and we are definitely going to have to learn how to make them when we eventually settle.

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We had a slightly nerdy day of touristing planned for the following morning. Oli had read online that there was a free tour of the city, leaving once an hour from the information office. Delightfully, we would be transported on one of those dorky mini trains that you tend to see around the seaside in England. We were pretty sure the tour would all be in Thai and that everyone would think we were weird, but that just added to the appeal. Disappointingly though, as we stood eagerly awaiting the train, a lady came out of the tourist office and told us that the trip was not running at all that day, Realising the futility of pointing to the sign that proudly declared it a daily thing, we thanked her and decided that it was instead high time for lunch.

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Our walk to the restaurant took us through the older part of town. Happily, many of the original shop fronts are still intact, albeit in varying degrees of tidiness. This happened to be one cool town, with several quirky looking cafes occupying some of the units, tucked in next to noodle shops and messy mechanics. In Europe the area would most likely have become super expensive and a hipster's paradise, but as it was it was just quietly ticking over. A town going about it's day to day business.

The place we picked for lunch was a lovely little restaurant, famed for their signature papaya salads at decent prices. The food was excellent, with a delicious sweetness perfectly balanced by  fiery chilli. It was so spicy it almost made me cry, but it was utterly brilliant. Thai food really has been one of the stand-out cuisines for us on this trip, and this had been a great treat for our last day.

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After our tasty lunch we spent a little more time wandering the back streets and taking in the details. We ended up going through a few markets, so decided to spend a little time exploring them. Oli was keen to buy a Thai football shirt, but sadly they only had the Songkhla United ones in enormous sizes, so that was a bit of a fail. Nevertheless, it is always good fun to poke around a working market, so it wasn't a pointless diversion. Interestingly, as we left the market and recommenced wandering, we saw the (apparently cancelled) free tour train merrily pootle past, and felt slightly excluded!

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By this time it was late afternoon, so we took ourselves back to our guest house for a much needed pre-dinner rest. We had timed our visit to Songkhla well, and our two nights in the town coincided with both nights of the market. Wanting to make our last night in Thailand count, we spent the evening slowly walking around and taking it all in. Our wanderings were punctuated with well timed stops at various street food stalls. It was lovely to be able to sample many of our favourite Thai foods, and when this was combined with the atmosphere of the busy night market it made for a very enjoyable evening. It was a great finish to an amazing few weeks in a wonderful country. Oh how we love a random small Thai town!

The next morning we were up and ready, excited to see Malaysia but also apprehensive about the border crossing. When we had crossed back into Thailand from Laos the customs guys had insisted on using our carnet, and had not followed the temporary import process that we knew was required. Technically our bike was not in the country legally, so we were slightly nervous as to what would happen when we tried to leave with it. Surprisingly it was actually okay in the end, as the RAC had kindly printed Thailand on the document, even though it is not valid there. The customs official seemed happy enough to accept this, and we were done in no time.

The Malay side was even easier, and they didn't even ask us to take off our helmets when stamping our passports. Paperwork to bring the bike into the country was minimal, and unusually they knew what to do with the carnet straight away. Exiting Thailand and entering Malaysia had taken us less than 25 minutes, which was super speedy as far as land borders go. If only all crossings could be so painless. As an added bonus, a huge motorbike festival had been taking place in Thailand, so we joined countless other big bikes as we rode away and hit the highway.

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Bizarrely, Malaysia immediately felt a lot hotter than Thailand. Although it is usually not exactly cold here, they are in the midst of a heatwave, which cranks the temperature up to the very high thirties. When combined with humidity it is energy sapping, and it wasn't long before we decided to pull off the highway and take a lunch break. We ended up at a tiny place at the side of the road. The ladies spoke English, so we explained that I didn't eat meat and they gave us some tasty Malay ice drinks to try while we waited. It was going well. However, when my meal arrived it contained what was most unmistakably chicken. Apparently that doesn't count as meat here, so it was a lesson to be careful to fully explain and specify! Thankfully all was swiftly corrected, and in the end the food was delicious.

We rolled into Penang in the late afternoon, sweaty and utterly exhausted from the heat. We were staying with Kean, a friend of Oli's from his Formula Student days. We managed to find his building fairly easily, which turned out to be a rather well-to-do sort of place. Evidently dirty, dishevelled bikers are not a regular occurrence, and the security guards were quick to stop us at the gate. They asked if they could help us, to which Oli replied after a pause and a long 'errr' that we had a friend that lived there. The guards looked unimpressed, and asked for the flat number. As we had failed to write this down we were unable to produce this basic information, which didn't exactly allay their suspicions. After us texting Kean and getting the number the guards called him at his flat, and also asked to see Oli's ID. They seemed very surprised to hear that we were actually expected, and we were finally granted access to the car park.

After a lovely evening and great Indian food the night before, we had a few jobs to get on with the next morning. We hopped on the bike and rode off in search of the Penang KTM garage, as they are known to be good with big bikes. Not only did they sort out the problem bolt on our front brake caliper for free, but Oli also finally managed to find some replacement kevlar jeans. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on what way you look at it, they are stitched with a small KTM logo. Oli has taken this as a sign that he definitely needs to buy a KTM Enduro, which seems to be rather milking it a bit.

Our next couple of days in Penang were spent doing a little sightseeing in the day, followed by awesome food when Kean finished work. Penang is a fascinating place with a rich, multicultural history. It was under British rule between the years 1786 and 1957, and we learned from our trip to the excellent state museum that our unscrupulous friends the East India Company had been at it again (see Golden Triangle post). Essentially the Sultan had told them that if they took possession they needed to pay 30,000 Spanish dollars in order to compensate for loss of trade. The E.I.C. got around this awkward problem by simply not replying, and then moving in anyway.

Penang grew into a bustling trade city, attracting people from a staggering variety of nations. For the most part people seem to have peacefully coexisted, and today the main population is made up of Chinese, Indian and Malay people. Georgetown was perhaps one of the modern world's first truly multicultural cities, a legacy of which it is proud and is still very evident in its character and cuisine.

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As well as the museum, we also took the time to visit the Peranakan Mansion. This carefully restored house provided a glimpse into the unique Baba-Nonya culture, migrant Chinese assimilated into Malaysia. Although the furnishings and interior are re-created rather than original, it gave a fascinating insight into a different way of life. The style of decoration was opulent and lavish, with plentiful details to draw the eye. Our favourite part of the house however was the open air temple outside. This was an imposing structure, but remarkably peaceful. Although there were plenty of visitors at the house, we were lucky enough to have this part to ourselves, with our only company being a few snoozing bats clinging to the lofty roof.

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We had enjoyed a lovely few days in Penang, and will be returning at the end of our Malaysia tour in order to ship the bike to Sumatra. Kean had been a great host, and we really appreciated him giving us houseroom in his beautiful apartment. The views from the balcony were stunning at both day and night, and we didn't tire of gazing out at it for the duration of our stay. We will be back in a few weeks, and are already looking forward to tasting more of that wonderful food that Penang is so rightly famous for.

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