Malaysia is jungle, jungle and more jungle, with an incredible number of palm trees. I soon stopped counting them in the train from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth.
Getting out of Kuala Lumpur was a challenge we hadn’t expected. The province of Penang, in northern Malaysia, was our next stop. We first wanted to take the bus and walked to Puduraya, the central bus station, to buy tickets. But the bus station was under renovation and we were sent to a temporary location, which turned out to be almost an hour away by public transit. We ended up in a far suburb and the bus station was nothing more than a huge tent with dozen of counters and touts inside it. There was no way we could make the trip there again with our backpacks by public transit and this station was too far from everything.
So we decided to take the train. The ticket to Butterworth, a seven-hour trip, was only about $20 and KL Central wasn’t too far from where we stayed in Chinatown. The train wasn’t full and even though it wasn’t fast, it was pretty comfortable.
Once in Butterworth, we jumped on the ferry to Georgetown, on Penang Island. I’m not sure what we were expecting exactly but the city threw us off at first. Traffic was almost as bad as in Kuala Lumpur and you didn’t feel like you were on an island. Most stores were closed (presumably because it was Friday, the Muslim day off) and for a popular city on the backpacker trail, well, there weren’t a lot of people out in the street.
Eventually, we got around the idea that it wasn’t the type of paradise island we had somehow imagined and enjoyed it for what it was, a colonial world heritage city. The local beach, Batu Ferringhi, was quite dirty and mostly used for watersports, such as parasailing. Yet, Penang is intriguing. The province’s world-famous tasty food is great. The empty streets were bustling with activity at night: we were right in Little India and we could almost taste the smell of incense, burning in front of most shops. We were also close to a Mosque, and the first night, we suddenly woke up to the sound of the prayer call in the wee hours of the morning—it was pretty surreal.
It’s funny how quickly you learn about a foreign culture. I didn’t know much about Malaysia before coming here, and I didn’t know a single word of Bahasa Melayu. But I noticed I picked up a few words here and there: jalan, lebuh, lorong, masjid, pulau, bandar, pasar… and air, which means “water” and confused me at first! A lot of words are easy to understand because they are so close to English, such as “bas” (bus), “tren” (train), “januari” etc. There is also a large Chinese population and being able to read Mandarin is a huge help. Pretty much everybody can speak some English, which amazes me—tourists would have a hard time getting by in most of Latin America, China or Europe speaking only English.
We also learn other customs, which can be a bit puzzling at first. For instance, all hotel rooms have an arrow stuck somewhere on the wall or the ceiling that reads “kiblat”. Eventually, we understood it shows Muslims the direction of Mecca. We noticed that a lot of Indians and Malays eat rice-based meals with their hand, this is why most restaurants have a communal sinks to wash your hands before and after eating. Toilet paper is pretty rare but there is always a hose which you are supposed to use as a bidet.
If you want to lean more about Malaysia, I strongly encourage you to visit Kyh’s blog (he is based in Penang), and Kenshiong’s blog. Both write in English and have great pictures and insights about the country—I learned a lot from them.
You can see the complete set of pictures taken in Malaysia on Flickr.