We entered Malaysia on Dec 28, by bus.  First, we bid our luxurious hotel room in Singapore farewell, and enjoyed one final breakfast buffet bonanza in the dining room.  I snuck a few extra treats into a bag when the staff weren’t looking.  Then we headed to the bus stop.  We missed our bus by mere seconds, and instead of waiting around for the next one, hailed down a cab, and asked to be taken to the Golden Mile bus station.

When we arrived, we noticed that things at the station just didn’t run quite as smoothly as the rest of the city did, and we realized it was because we were about to enter third world territory again, on a bus operated by a third world company.  Now, you’d think it would make the most sense to have one company operate the bus routes between Singapore and Malaysian destinations, since that would make things easy.  Well, there are at least ten companies, and we had the fun task of finding the one we’d booked with.  There were people and buses everywhere, and nothing was well signed.  When we finally found the right counter, we were told to sit and wait for our bus.

We sat.  And we waited.  Buses pulled up, people got on.  We waited some more.  One bus had been idling near the curb for some time, and I got up to ask if it was ours.  We were politely told to sit back down again.  Our departure time came and went.  I got up to ask again, if the bus out front was ours.  The gentleman shook his head and told us to wait.

There was a group of us, and nobody seemed to know where to go.  Finally a woman came around to look at tickets because it appeared they had a few buses waiting for passengers.  It’s not like you could tell whether she worked for the company or was just a nosy passenger, but she seemed to know what was going on.  Well, it turned out the bus we’d been staring at was in fact, our bus, and we got on.  Of course, if we’d been told that in the first place we would have spent the previous half hour enjoying a comfortable seat instead of the pavement, but whatever.  Perhaps a few signs advertising bus destinations would be a good investment for these companies . . .

The bus wasn’t even half full, and although each padded chair came with it’s own back massaging device, there was no washroom on board.  Our trip was ten hours long, and I was thankful for the few stops we made along the way.  I certainly wasn’t motivated to stay well hydrated on that ride.

The drive was nothing special, since we spent all of it on a big highway.  Taking the train would have been far more scenic, but it turns out trying to book tickets with a third world train company is even more problematic than the bus company.  So, the bus, it was!

Weary and tired of sitting, we emerged from the bus at 8pm, and aside from the fact that we knew we were on the island of Penang, had no idea what our exact location was.  Bewildered, we looked around for some sign of where we might be, and saw nothing but buses, people and traffic.

I spotted the words Budget Hotel across the street, and we decided to head in that direction.  We entered the shabby establishment, and although we should have run for the hills, enquired about a room.  The prices were a bit shocking, considering we were used to the Philippines, but we took their cheapest room.

$25 CAD does not get you far in Malaysia when it come to accommodation, as we discovered that night.  And having come from one of the finest hotel rooms Singapore has to offer did not, at all, make the situation any more pleasant.  Our room was windowless, and had two tiny beds, one at either end of it.  The bedding was tired, but appeared clean.  The dilapidated washrooms were down the hall, stuck behind the broom closet, and without toilet paper.  The fact we were given towels proved to be a bit of a joke, considering the showers didn’t work.

And to add insult to injury, our next door neighbours were a group of men who sounded like they were enjoying a bachelor party in full swing.  Needless to say, we put our earplugs to good use that night, and slept in later than anticipated, since we weren’t woken up by daylight.

The following morning we were feeling pretty dejected, and didn’t know what our next move should be.  Did we want to stay and explore the island of Penang, or did we want to board the next bus to Thailand, which would certainly mean spending another night in our current situation.  I decided the place didn’t deserve our business, so we packed up our stuff and headed back to the bus station, where we boarded a city bus that took us into Georgetown.  What we were really looking for was some much-needed beach time before heading to Phnom Penh, and Georgetown, with a population of 1.2 million, was certainly not that.

We crossed the street and headed towards the bus station.  I heard Tyson exclaim, “Oh my God!” and I turned around to see what he was looking at.  He was staring intently into a grate I’d just walked over, wide-eyed.

“What is it?” I followed his gaze, and beneath us in the sewer was a huge Monitor Lizard.  The thing must have been almost four feet long, and when it realized we were gawking at it, splashed off into darkness.

By this time we’d acquired a much-needed map of the island, and we spotted what looked like a promising destination, on the northern side of it.  Another city bus took us there, and after the 40 minute ride, we got off to find ourselves in the resort paradise of Batu Feringghi, surrounded by white tourists in hawaiian t-shirts.  We don’t have a problem with others of our kind, but we know that any location oozing with foreigners is taking full advantage of their pockets.  We spotted a nearby eatery, and stopped for a bite.  Our previous night’s accommodation was already more than we could afford and we found it hard to believe we’d find something cheaper – and nicer – here.

Disheartened further by this notion, we decided to board the bus again, and head into the next town.  When the bus driver yelled “last stop!” we got off, and looked around at our new surroundings.  The sleepy village of Taluk Bahang offered a small national park and a sliver of beach, but not much else.  We set out to find accommodation, determined that we could use the next few days here to relax.  The first and second places we checked were surprisingly expensive.  By this point I had more water rolling down my forehead than I did in my body, and we were exhausted.  We stopped at a gas station to ask if there were any guesthouses nearby.  A friendly gentleman pointed across the street, and told us to go find the woman who lived there, and ask her.

We did, and were greeted by a lady who spoke no english.  She opened the rusty gate and led us into the ramshackle, cluttered house, where we were introduced to an ancient woman who owned a guesthouse not far away.  Her prices sounded very reasonable, and her place was listed in our Lonely Planet guide, so with renowned hope, we headed there.  A fifteen minute walk with all our gear felt like eternity, and I was looking forward to shedding my backpack and pounding back some water.

The room we were shown ended up being a dorm, which did not interest us.  We were told it was the only thing available, but when we threatened to leave, we were taken upstairs and shown a very dingy private room with an unreasonable price tag.  Needless to say, we left.

We headed back to the bus stop, but we still had to decide where to go.  Did we want to go back to Batu Ferinnghi to scour for the kind of cheap accommodation that felt unattainable, or did we want to head into traffic-choked Georgetown and attempt to get out of Penang the following day.

We reached the bus stop and removed our backpacks to let our sweat-soaked backsides breathe.  Any minute the bus would round the corner, and we had to make a decision.
“I really don’t care,”  I said.
“Neither do I.”
“No, but I mean I actually, really don’t give a shit, so whatever you decide is fine with me.”  At that moment I spotted a couple of foreigners approaching our bus stop, and they were smiling, and seemed very happy with their decision to vacation on Penang.  I decided to approach them, and ask them where they were staying, since it appeared they knew something we did not.

Pavel and Lenka are from Slovakia, and they are extremely friendly people.  They informed us they’d found a guesthouse in Batu Feringghi, in an area away from the resorts.  And although expensive by our standards, it was in our price range.  They invited us to follow them, and when the next bus came, we all boarded together.

We checked into Baba Guesthouse, which sits right on the beach, and is close to many little eateries and shops.  The place is two stories high and looks like a number of buildings stuck together, but the staff are extremely helpful and friendly, the wifi flows freely, and the shared bathrooms even have hot showers.  We decided to stay five nights.  Only after checking in, did we discover it’s right next to a Mosque, which pumps out Muslim prayers frequently, and at an alarming volume.

That evening we went for drinks with Pavel and Lenka, and discovered we have a lot in common with them.  Sadly, they were leaving the following day, but we shared many stories and laughs with them that night.

The Malaysian people are very friendly, and although we haven’t been here long enough to really get a feel for the culture, we’re surprised at how strikingly different Malaysia is from the Philippines.  People here are either Indian in race, or an Asian blend, and most are Muslim.  Malaysia is not nearly as poor as the Philippines, which certainly has been reflected in our spending.  The food here is delicious, and quite cheap, but the beaches are nothing to write home about.

Tyson and I spent New Years on the beach at a party, dancing in the warm waves as they rolled over the sand.  Half soaked and with big smiles, we rang in 2012 together in a surprisingly idyllic setting.

We’re planning on catching the train from Penang to Bangkok in the next few days, and we’re going to head out tomorrow to purchase our tickets.

Happy New Year, everyone!