Malaysia, baby

Malaysia, baby
Butterworth, Malaysia

Butterworth, Malaysia

Saturday was mostly a day of travel. I was up early enough to fit in a rainy recovery run in at 9-different fellow runners out in the morning. Massages were 300baht on my local strip, but on my first run along the main road I’d seen a sign offering them for 200 (£4) so thought I’d head that way. I didn’t even have to make it to the original place, spotting another sign, wandering past and then realising I had no loyalty nor promise of quality from the first spot I’d seen.

A pile of earth in the middle. A palm tree, and resort buildings either side, decaying
View cliff resort.

I had ended up listening to a comparison of massages in Bangkok. Vicky was a very chatty Irish girl who originally stopped to say hello and left half an hour later. Courtney was my North Carolina rescue American; on my long walk I was around 20 minutes from home when I spotted her, burdened by two big rucksacks and one small. I had just crossed to an island, as she saw me she looked with an expression that said ‘pooped’ and let one bag slip to the floor. Did I know where there was a “ho-tay-al”? Why yes – loads to your left, cheap hostel with me. I felt like a scammer, but she seemed to trust me straight off, and talking to her about experiences with taxi drivers the next day I realised she was no naïf, so felt good about my aura of trustworthiness. She happily followed me to the hostel and checked in, job done^.

Train, old style, with guard rails round the front
Train – late.

Massages. Courtney reckoned she’d just had the best of her life, and it’s what she does for a living anyway. Vicky reckoned hers was all prods and had left her bruised. Certainly a Thai massage, I discovered quickly, involves a lot of prod and hold, and the first digs into my shoulders were uncomfortable. A product of tightness caused by kayaking, perhaps. It was good, and an experience. They use the whole body – at one point she had one hand holding each leg up, and then something massaged the backs of my thighs – I remembered the ‘blue lagoon’ love scene in Top Secret*. I took the pain and the good bits and felt it did some good.

My ferry was at 2.30 from the Songserm pier. My advice to you – pay the extra 100baht for the Lomprayah catamaran. That won’t guarantee you good weather, of course, but the Songserm boat puts passengers down in the bottom of a long boat which then zooms out to sea, prow raised. The passenger area smells of engine oil, and rocks like a bastard. I read for most of the first hour, then the rocking got to me and I had to focus on the flag, all I could see out of the windows up front, to keep the nausea at bay. It’s a nearly 3 hour crossing, and I can’t say I enjoyed it much. From there the transfer to Chumphon was via cattle truck bus, and that I did enjoy – sitting along the sides of the back, filled with backpackers and luggage. We had hours to spare in Chumphon, so I sat around in the station for a while, answering the survey some cute school kids were doing. “Where are you from? Where will you go next? What is your favourite thing about Thailand?” They’d paired up, and both pairs I had asked different questions, which was a nice touch.

After dinner I topped up on water and chocolate – a fifth the price 200m from the station – and waited on the platform. I was interrupted by a frog, and laughed at by the Argentinian next to me who didn’t flinch, as I had, but caught, lost and then caught it again. He was just fitting in some travel after 10 months of working in New Zealand; his train to Hat Yai was delayed by over two hours, and was now due in after mine, delayed by 30mins.

The sleeper train was cool enough. Bunks are along the side of the train, and curtains were drawn all along when I got on after 11pm. I climbed up, stashing my rucksack in a rooftop cage, and with my ticket checked straight away, was free to sleep. I did sleep, on and off, though like most sleepers there was a fair amount of clanking and banging in the night. In the morning I spotted how much bigger the lower bunks are – the width of the double seats from which they are made. Well worth the small extra if you have the option.

Bee Hooi Cafe and Bee Hooi Kopitiam, advertising Tiger and Carlsberg beer, respectively
Food stalls.

Somewhere in the night we lost a couple of hours but eventually we made it to the border. Everyone off, through Thai control and then Malaysian. Quick check of bags and back on the train, very easy. A guard had even greeted me with a smile, helping me to mind the gap by taking a bag from me. A few hours late we pulled into Butterworth. There’s nothing there, and it looks particularly desolate while the station is renovated. I walked to the building, ignoring signs to the ferry, left, to change money. I’d ignored the money changer on the train, using the one in the station – I suspect it’s a wander to a cashpoint, and the rate didn’t seem too bad. Mostly, it was useful to be able to change even small Thai notes which it would otherwise have given away, so I didn’t begrudge him his 4%. Changing more than a few pounds a would lose you quite a lot, but the ferry is only 1.2 ringits (5 to the £1) so I was set with my 34. A taxi driver tried to convince me that I might as well get a cab this side, as I’d only have to get one once off the ferry, but that was nonsense anyway, and he had to admit that I could walk to my hostel anyway.

Job done, I ate and later ran. I made 12 miles, mostly along the waterfront but also through a swanky housing estate. Going out I could we the skyline by day, back by night which was a lucky bit of timing. I’m a fan of the place, it’s a great mixture of crumbling colonial architecture, particularly by the waterfront, old shop fronts in Chinatown, where I’m staying, and newer, high ride buildings by the sea front to the north (the ferry comes in on the east side). The train’s late arrival, plus Malaysian time being +1 hour meant it was after 5 and I now didn’t have the relaxed afternoon to explore I’d expected, so I booked for a third night, which seems to be my sweet spot for feeling I have time to look around without a rush.

Penang waterside run.

Reading: Marina Lewycka, We are all made of Glue.

^of course I carried the bag. I would anyway, but overseas I feel the need to spread the ‘English gentleman’ impression wherever possible.

*they roll together. Camera shifts to the end view. Two pairs of feet. Then three, four, five…

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