Langkawi; Pantai Cenang and Pantai Tengah

I booked a dorm bed at The Crowded House, Pantai Tengah, for two nights, extended to four, went to Koh Lipe after eight and then came back for another four. It would be fair to assume that I enjoyed Langkawi, but that doesn’t mean I can tell you about the island as a whole. I was happy in the SW corner; pavements to run on, a couple of beaches to chill out on, cheap accommodation (it’s up to 25 now, but was 20rm a night when I was there) and restaurants, and a social vibe that meant I referred to it as ‘home’ when we returned from Koh Lipe, and didn’t bother to correct myself.

A shaded spot, Pantai Tengah beach.
A shaded spot, Pantai Tengah beach.

This was a favourite spot, near to the paragliding experience (long or short, different prices), in the shade of the trees. On some days it was too hot even in the shade, but when not, I spent many hours here.

Beachlife - relaxed
Beachlife – relaxed.
Local jetty
Local jetty (SW corner Langkawi).

On a run, turning left out of my accommodation and running over the hill to the next resort, another left brought me here, a jetty with boats lined up. In the high season, they might be in use. But in May, very little activity.

The Crowded House, guesthouse
The Crowded House, guesthouse.

The picture doesn’t really show it, but each unit is painted a different colour. At the moment, the road is a single track, but on the day I left, the site on the right was extended, to be the basis of a new road. With construction just out of picture, on the right, this spot will not be quite so quiet in time.

Construction, next to Crowded House
Construction, next to Crowded House.

This is a different construction site. It is partly hidden by trees, but at the least will make the road busier.

Never mind the construction, though – wander to the beach for sunset and soak it up.

This last picture was taken from the pavement/sidewalk. Just behind the plantlife is a resort, and on the other side of the road a new one is going up, while that side of the road also has restaurants and shops. But the place is not too busy. Pantai Cenang, by contrast, is thronging. It is certainly not a big town, but being there might seem a little hectic, particularly given just how quiet the beach is. I’d recommend Pantai Tengah – you can always walk, Grab or bike to Pantai Cenang.


Langkawi to Koh Lipe by ferry

The journey between the two islands (and two countries, stepping from Malaysia to Thailand) takes 90minutes. From the Malaysian side it costs about 110rm, a bit less from the Thai. We booked with an agent in Pantai Cenang for 115rm, which included a transfer to Kuah, and the jetty. It’s all pretty simple, though less agile people might struggle a bit with hopping out of the ferry onto a water taxi on the Koh Lipe side. It’s a pretty cool way to arrive, though, going from ferry to taxi, then clambering over the side into the water, and walking up the beach to immigration. The Island Drum website has more about the process, though it suggests you pay for the water taxi, and they didn’t charge anyone on the way in or out for me. We were there in low season – as an idea of how low, one bar had a notice that they would reopen again in October (this in June).

They take your passport from you for the ferry ride, so you reclaim that from the ferry office, then head to immigration. From there, much accommodation is a walk away, but there are taxis to take you to the further flung places.

It’s a beautiful island, but small. It really suffers, of course, from plastic and other detritus being washed onto the shore. Sunrise beach, on the East coast, is probably the highlight – it is long and large, where other beaches are more littered, and have little space before the water.

I travelled with a few people from my hostel in Langkawi, which meant that we had a social time of eating, walking, swimming and drinking at the Akira resort when happy hour kicked in (4-7, cocktail fans). It also meant I turned round and followed them back to Langkawi for more of the same, rather than travelling on into Thailand. Otherwise, Koh Lipe is a good place to charter a boat and island hop, or go snorkelling and diving.

Sunrise beach.
Sunrise beach.
Jungle, West side of Koh Lipe
Jungle, West side of Koh Lipe. This was the end of my run, though it looked like it was possible to scramble down to the beach.
View over Edigyur beach (Pollo on, a walk down from the forest track, West of the island.
View over Edigyur beach (Pollo on, a walk down from the forest track, West of the island.
Maja and Malou photograph their coffee.
Maja and Malou photograph their coffee.
Tremendous snail
Tremendous snail.
Fishing boats, sunrise beach
Fishing boats, sunrise beach.
Beach, water and boats
Sunrise beach – a little splash through the water to get round.
Driftwood floating in the water.
Driftwood floating in the water.
Shoal of fish near to shore
Shoal of fish near to shore – it is quite deep just there.
Near Mountain Resort, Koh Lipe.
Near Mountain Resort, Koh Lipe.
Beach with driftwood and seaweed, hills behind.
Sunrise beach.
Akira beach club, Koh Lipe.
Akira beach club, Koh Lipe.


Beach bum, Pantai Tengah & Pantai Cenang, Langkawi

I have been in Langkawi for a week, or nearly so, and have moved in a loop round the SW corner. I came for a few nights, but the guesthouse is friendly and sociable, the beach is beautiful and despite the solitude of the guesthouse (possibly soon to be changed, as construction goes on around us), the main road is just 300m away, with shops, bars and restaurants.

Perhaps because more or less everything in this area is tourist-oriented, there are even pavements on an 8k or more loop, so running here has been relatively  straightforward, too.

Pantai Tengah beach
Beach view, afternoon.

There are plenty of people out paragliding over the sea; some on short trips for 29RM, others on longer, dearer, ones. I loafed along this beach. Once the tide is out, you can walk past these rocks, but even with the tide in, you can walk over them.

Looking up through palm tree leaves
Remembering to look up – coconuts and palm trees.
Beautiful beach view, Langkawi
Beautiful beach view, Langkawi.

To the right of the view above is the (cheaper) paragliding base.

Clouds scudding over the beach.
Clouds scudding over the beach.
Sea shore, wet sand leading to dry
Warm water, late afternoon.
Tiny but fast-moving crab.
Tiny but fast-moving crab.

Crabs scuttle around on the beach, disappearing into holes if you worry them enough. They move quickly, and can change direction at impressive speed.

Sandy beach panorama, low sun glinting on a flat sea, with a small island in the centre of the view.
Beach panorama.
Black, orange, blue and pale yellow colours in the sky at sunset
Sunset from The Crowded House guesthouse.

Then today, a remarkable moment. I was up early for a run, but otherwise hadn’t left the guesthouse, despite hunger creeping in. Eventually I left and walked along the strip, choosing to go right to head towards town. Any of those decisions could have been different, and had they been, I would not have bumped into Ali, with whom I worked at Birkbeck for 11 years. When he first waved, I just nonchalantly waved back, knowing I recognised him, but thinking only that this was someone staying at The Crowded House, or that we’d had a chat on the beach. But no; he is only here for a few days, visiting from Penang. Remarkable.

Taman Pudu Ulu parkrun, Kuala Lumpur

Taman Pudu Ulu parkrun route.
Taman Pudu Ulu parkrun route.

Malaysia, where there is now a parkrun. I was at event 4, which was still filled with the excitement of the novelty. It took some time, and at least two locations tested, for parkrun to start up in Malaysia, but if the enthusiasm of Harry – who was born here, studied (and ran parkrun) in England – and an international crew of volunteers are any guide, it will go from strength to strength.

Taman Pudu Ulu parkrun meeting point.
Taman Pudu Ulu parkrun meeting point.

If you follow their page on Facebook, you’ll know that the meeting place is the white structure in the middle of the park, and to be there for 7.15am for a first-timers’ briefing. You can’t miss the structure – there it is, in the picture above. It isn’t that big a park, so as long as you find the park, you’ll be fine.

Thanks to a miscommunication, I had stayed at a hostel I believed to be about as close as I could get, 5km from the park. You can get closer than that, and anyway, a number of people there drive, or get a Grab ride there (there’s an app for that). I ran, with the usual idea of being under my own steam and not reliant on anyone, so was soaked through from sweating by the time I got there. I’d also had to dodge across a couple of biggish roads; not a huge problem before 7am, though the city isn’t exactly sleeping even then. There’s a bridge over the stream and highway at the North of the park, mind.

Taman Pudu Ulu parkrun finish
Taman Pudu Ulu parkrun finish.

The run itself sounds more complicated than it is. From the meeting point, head out left (up and right in the map above), then go right twice to do a full loop of the bottom-left section. Head out on that loop again, but this time at the bottom left, once through a wooden pergola, turn left. That takes you on to the ‘big loop’, which has marshals and arrows throughout, other than (when I ran) leaving it to you to turn right to get back onto that first loop, rather than heading out of the park. Pretty obvious. Do the big loop again, and this time you’ll come back to the pergola and again turn right to head back to the start/finish.

Couple of teachers and me
Couple of teachers and me.

It was warm. Really warm. Not boiling, but it’s the humidity that punishes running, and as I stood and chatted with various lovely sociable people, I occasionally wrung another sploodge of water out of my t-shirt. The course isn’t totally flat, either, with a noticeable descent as you start the big lap that has to be followed by a bit of a climb later on. Twice, of course. It’s not huge, in fact eminently attackable, but it all adds to the effort needed.

It seemed as though everyone stayed around to talk afterwards. The two runners in the picture above are teachers from an international school, both decamped from Britain and loving it here. Particularly the Drama teacher, for whom working life is simply much more straightforward in a school without its budget pared to the bone.

Me, Shaun, his sister
Me, Shaun, his sister. Chatted to Shaun before the start, because he wandered up with his suitcase.

Before the run I spotted Shaun, above, with his suitcase and went over to chat. Him turning up like that reminded me of my run at Westerfolds, Christmas Day back in 2013, when I hopped off an overnight bus in Melbourne and took all my stuff to the run. He was travelling with his sister and mother to visit places he used to live in Malaysia, but having discovered parkrun in Tasmania just a couple of months before, he didn’t want to miss out. He is hugely enthusiastic, and ran the whole thing with a smile, before taking his team back to hop on train or bus to Ipoh.

Volunteers and runners wandered across Jalan Perdama Utama, hustling to avoid cars, to the breakfast spot, where we could all have a traditional Malaysian breakfast. Roti for breakfast, highly recommended. I picked up all sorts of tips for places to go in country. More importantly, with no further options for parkrun in the area, I’ll be back to KL next week for another go.

Results from Taman Pudu Ulu parkrun, event 4, 5/5/18.

A follow-up. While touring Malaysia, I visited this parkrun four times, and it was great every time. I felt a proper part of the community as a result, enjoyed the breakfast several times and made some friends. Also, from a performance point of view, my best run here came when I didn’t jog to the start (and barely warmed up). Not being as sweaty beforehand worked for me!

Results from TPU parkrun, event 5, 12/5/18.

Results from TPU parkrun, event 6, 19/5/18.

Results from TPU parkrun, event 9, 9/6/18.

Melaka, Malacca, Malaysia

Melaka, a city I last visited in October 2017, is a UNESCO world heritage site thanks to its history and the buildings that persist. It used to ‘be’ Malaysia, in the sense that it was a kingdom that spread over much of the area of the country, and had huge influence. The kingdom converted to Islam, which remains the national religion, despite colonial influence from Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain.

Apart from that significance, it’s a city of good food, beautiful views over the canal, especially at night, the call to prayer sounding out and the smells of food, joss sticks and lavender as you walk through. I didn’t have long enough there in October, so headed back for six days between Singapore and KL.

The place is a little disjointed. Walking the river is a delight – albeit very hot during the day – while there are several big malls, and walking from one to the other is a pain. There aren’t many pavements, you’ll cross largish roads and be strolling along the side of some of them. You might spot the odd big lizard galloping (away from you) in the drains. Either there isn’t a will or there isn’t the money to setup pedestrian infrastructure. It is very hot, mind, so after a walk the malls are an air-conditioned joy. Each has a cinema at the top – when I was there, your choices were a couple of Chinese films, or Avengers: Infinity War.

Bus in Singapore, skyscrapers behind
Waiting for the bus in Singapore. This is not my bus.
Walkway from the bus station, Melaka
Walkway from the bus station, Melaka.
Sign: Don't mess with Melaka
Don’t mess with Melaka sign. Faintly menacing, but I think it means ‘leave our loveliness alone’.
Construction in Melaka
Construction in Melaka, view from Ringo’s foyer.
Bottle of beer by the river
Beer by the river.
Riverside living, Melaka
Riverside living, Melaka.
Bright Hello Kitty decorated cycle rickshaw.
Bright Hello Kitty decorated cycle rickshaw. These sorts of things are all over the tourist area, and make a right racket.
New mall, by the bay, Melaka.
New mall, by the bay, Melaka. Mostly empty for now.
The Dutch Graveyard.
The Dutch Graveyard.
Tourists milling in the square
Tourists milling in the square.
Proclamation of Independence memorial.
Proclamation of Independence memorial.
Cycle rickshaw making a racket.
Cycle rickshaws gather outside the Stadthuys.
Cycle rickshaws gather outside the Stadthuys.
Narrow street, Melaka
A narrow street.
Canal view from a bridge
Canal view from a bridge.
Canal view from a bridge
Canal view from a bridge.
There is art all around the river.
There is art all around the river.
Wall art (man working at bench, painted onto wall)
Wall art.
Wall art, Melaka (girl leaning out of window, painted onto wall)
Wall art, Melaka.
Tables outside restaurant on the water front
Waterfront eating.
Upstairs at Ringo's foyer, people drinking and talking
Night time at Ringo’s foyer.

2xu compression run Malaysia

2xu compression run Malaysia
Singapore, Singapore

Singapore, Singapore

“Early morning joggings.”

That was the quick summary from the member of staff I’d had to wake to have the front door unlocked, as I stood in my running kit. She was right. It was just after 5 in the morning, I had got up before 5 for breakfast, then sat downstairs pinning on my number and, in all probability, talking to myself, before I realised she was asleep on the sofa next to me. Never mind. Early morning joggings and ramblings, please.

Medal and my race number
Chunky medal.

I had time to check my email and the weather forecast before I left. I’d not had long enough in bed for much to have changed anyway, and with the UK 8 hours behind they were enjoying Saturday night and not mailing during that time. The weather forecast wasn’t worth checking, either-25 degrees, storm. I’m doing it. Cross fingers time.

I’d booked this run a week or so ago. Too late to get a top that fits-anyone fancy a 2xu running vest, large (not a compression top)? But in conversation afterwards it occurred to me that it had required enough organisation, or devotion to running, to put many off. Certainly the ex pats seemed impressed that I had done it; I gave myself a virtual pat on the back. I’d accidentally – again – booked a hostel near the start, too, so I’ll admit to thinking staying here and going to a race was perfectly normal and I might not be alone in heading to the race. I was, but soon found people heading through Almeka square to Padang Merbok, half a mile from my base. I was expecting Padang Merbok to be a place, some kind of destination, but all I could see was a rugby pitch (no cars, markets or heavy petting) and a car park, but at least I was in the right place. ‘Padang’ is ‘field’. Great, I leave Malaysia and then pick up my first word. One day that will be oddly useful.

I warmed up in the rain. It wasn’t bucketing down, and with the temperature as high as it was, these were probably as close to ideal conditions as we were going to get. Starting wet wasn’t ideal, but as I sheltered in the dark, waiting for them to open the start funnel, I was content. After Bangkok I was determined to start somewhere near the front, so headed straight in once people headed for the start line. I had two goals. Have a race – at my pace I ought to be in the chasing reasonable runner pack, I figured – and keep it under the hour.

Totally dark at the start line, crowd of people illuminated on the line
Start line.

Seemed reasonable. In the end I got neither. We set off, and the girls next to me who had got their elbows out to get near the front and stayed there as the announcer had insisted we make way for competitive runners to join the start, edges ahead and slowed to a crawl. Thanks. Still, once round them I was into my running, 20 or 30 people ahead. I felt comfortable without pushing, and didn’t mind the uphill start. It’s entirely a road race, and we were in the dark, which was atmospheric. A bit like the Round Norfolk relay, but with more marshals with torches waving you through.

View down the road to the start line, runners wait under the 2XU gantry
2xu start.

There was a switchback at a mile or so, with the 14km marker looming soon after, again uphill. I’d passed the first European, a chunky German, by now, and counted myself in 12th at the turn. Right, aim for the top ten and see if there were legions of people racing through the pack behind me. The front two, Kenyans, had been disappearing from view, and the next pack was three strong and also away and gone, so at least I didn’t have to tease myself with the thought of prizes – first five only, no age groups. But how many others could I catch?

Red colour as runners set off, with a slow exposure on the camera
Colour at the start. This might have been the 8km, hence the lighter skies.

I passed 11th and 10th quickly, and 9th came as an orange vested local pulled off for a pee. 8th was proving a tougher nut, but I was happy in his slipstream. Doubtless with my heavy tread he knew I was right behind. As we again headed up hill just after 5k-I’d not seen much downhill yet; some early on, towards the switchback, that seemed to be about it. He came back to me on the hill and seemed to let me go through, I didn’t need any extra to take him. From here on, it was a lonely run. I could see the runner ahead, but it was about 200m to him, the gap growing as I started to struggle. Uphill! The first 5k was about 20.35, when I’d expected to ease through in under 20, the next was 22.30, but no one was near me. I knew the last stretch was uphill past the 14k marker, then down to the finish, but what was left?

10km came by, with a sight to make the early start all worthwhile. Day was dawning by now, and through the clouds and orange sky I could see the KL tower, with a guard of trees from the road. Fabulous. Plus it meant we were heading towards the centre again. A little down before some up and then a warning sign to be careful of the down slope. Great; all that work going up, used up in a short sharp downhill. And finally, I turned towards the 11k marker. Going up. Oh crikey, the worst hill yet. I saw a runner go past on the other side – were they..? Yes! They were making us go uphill to a switchback, then yomp back! The two Kenyans were so far gone that I didn’t see them even on the long hill, but the First Lady strode past (she won in 1:00:12, 10 minutes clear of second) as I struggled up the hill, so that made me 7th male. Thumbs up all round for the others, and I turned some way adrift. The downhill must have worked for me, though, that or the smiles and encouragement I was giving other runners made me look like a consummate pro, as a lady came up at the end to ask “did you win? You were flying down that hill!” It confused me for a moment, because I was mentally giving myself the win for the Europeans, and so nearly said yes, but I managed to give her a truthful answer.

On the hill the chunky German wasn’t too far back, so wasn’t as over optimistic as I’d thought from his start pace. He didn’t quite catch my old friend in position 8, but managed to claw some of the gap back. Meanwhile, around 13k I noticed a runner up ahead. I’d passed various very slow runners; I can only think they were taking advantage of road closures to run, as the 8k that was going on too wasn’t starting till 7am to our 6.10. I was gaining on this dude, for the right to be first loser; nothing like futility to motivate, and I kept my pace up.

We rejoined the main drag and I lost him. Suddenly we were running with the middle of the 8k race, who were approaching the 2k marker. Plenty of space, though, so I wasn’t impeded. As we crested a hill I spotted him again, and went past, thinking he might take me for an 8k runner even if he fancied the duel. At any rate, he didn’t come with me and though I only belatedly realised the “15k! Here!” shouts were for me, I made the last turn and finished down the hill.

The central market, afterwards
The central market, afterwards.

7th. Much higher than I’d thought, but over 5 minutes slower than I had wanted, over 65 minutes my time (first ran 49:25, fifth 1:00:21). Some of that perhaps because I hadn’t run all week, more because I had a slight cold and some, of course, the hills. I don’t think fifth was anywhere near, so overall I decided to be pleased to finish that high up and never mind the quality. Afterwards there was plenty of milling and chatting, an energy drink, banana and hefty medal, and prizes done by just after 9. I’ve not raced into the dawn in quite that way before, and it was fantastic. For £15 you get the race and the vest, plus you could pay more for some slightly discounted 2xu calf guards or compression shorts if you fancied. People having to put those combinations together in a race pack had caused the number collection queues, of course, but it’s a decent event.

And I have learnt that Malaysia has few 100ks, making qualification for the Spartathlon a little difficult, and Kuala Lumpur has plentiful hills. Bitching hills.

Summary results from the 2XU Compression Run, 2013.

Wafting about Kuala Lumpur

Wafting about Kuala Lumpur
Bangi, Malaysia

Bangi, Malaysia

Wafting is essentially what I’ve been up to, drifting about the city. I made it to the Batu caves, which can now be reached on the kommuter line trains easily, and walked up the steps (272, or so) feeling fit, and down them feeling fearful of heights. Other than that (a phrase that was used for every subject change by the mc at the race on Sunday – at least it’s better than ‘in terms of’ which his British counterparts would use) I’ve bought a couple of bags, explored bits of the city and kicked about the hostel. Slowing down nicely in time for a week off touring in Bali.

Reading: Larry Niven, The Draco Tavern, Christopher Hitchens, the Portable Atheist.


Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

One Kuala, in fact, and it is Lumpur. KL, pretty much everyone calls it, and I’ll join in eventually; for now it seems to pretend an acquaintance with the place I don’t feel as yet.

Glass arch, with the words "World under one roof". Pictures of Malaysians - Presidents, maybe - are displayed in front of it
Kuala Lumpur, the world under one roof. Somewhere round here. Under that glass, perhaps.

I booked my ticket yesterday. I’d planned to get the train, and double the cost (to under £30) by going first class, but there were no tickets available. So rather than pay that much, have to walk to the river and catch the ferry to Butterworth then sit on a train for 7-8 hours, and perhaps longer on prior experience, I was picked up at the hostel and whisked to the bus station then put on a luxury bus that took only 6 hours. It can be quicker – 4-5, they quote – but with a huge seat and my own on-demand video system I can’t say I was complaining. Significantly better than first class train travel, for the price of second class. Some of the train travel, with the benefit of some knowledge, seems mad. For example, on my friend, he suggests that travelling to the Cameron Highlands might involve a train ride to Ipoh, then a 3-4 hour bus ride to Tanah Rata, though the connections are uncertain. Um, right. Or just get a bus straight there in 3-4 hours. You’d have to really love the train travel to do it – which he does, I know, but as a resource for advising others, it seems odd. Just bear in mind that in Malaysia, the bus is often quicker and can be more comfortable, other than your being at another’s whim for loo stops. My bus had no more than 20 seats upstairs, all with entertainment, and the seats were reclining massage chairs with footrests (albeit without a working massage bit). The same is true of the journey to Singapore. I’d still have taken the train were it an option, but it’s 8 hours (and full) as against a starting offer of 5 by bus.

Sign above the entrance of an underground car park: "Enter the Undrgrnd. Exit the Boredom".
Escape the boredom with some parking.

Yesterday was hot, and I walked and walked. I had a vague goal of reaching Penang Hill. The hill itself comes into view early, as it’s right there on the edge of Georgetown, but I was aiming for the part with a funicular railway. Halfway to the spot I’d picked – a road marked as ‘Penang hill’ – I was hot, and conscious that I’d not actually checked where this thing was, though I’d overheard parts of a conversation that suggested it wasn’t close. Reaching a main road that was even less pedestrian friendly than those so far, I aborted, heading round the top of town, past the turf club, heading for the botanical gardens. It was hot. I had eaten, but needed a drink and there, after a long line of relatively well-to-do houses – older than the estate I’d run through the other day – was a nice outdoor cafe. The owner smiled, so I was sold. He joined me, and was impressed/shocked that I’d walked from town. I didn’t give him the full lunacy of my journey; he was telling me about the buses that would take me to, say, the cable car, and would have brought me to here. Stuff that, but at least from the former I was reassured I had been on the right route. It had been okay to trust my sense that I knew where i was headed. He was surprised I was not married, and thought I should as a result take care. I should also be careful of my kindle (computer, to him), as someone might have it away on their scooter. I shouldn’t drink too much, or I might get taken to a remote place and robbed. And should generally beware. In fact, if this had been my first travelling experience, talking to him might have been enough to see me on the first plane back – crikey, I’ve heard of these things happening in bad places, but if this seemingly friendly place, where the worst problem is the tendency of shopkeepers to come and stand right by you as soon as you pause, and to lose any friendliness as soon as money changes hands, is actually a den of iniquity, imagine how bad a more imposing place might be?

A view of the skyline, from the cricket pitch. A magnificent pavilion is on one side of the green. KL Tower away in the distance.
A view of the skyline, from the cricket pitch.

I made it to the gardens, heading in on the river walk rather than via the main entrance and thereby not having to turn down any offers of tours. The botanical gardens are free, and fairly lovely, though not so big that you’d feel swamped by options. More interesting paths than the road through the middle head off to the sides. I ignored the Waterfall cafe next to the park, thought I had a minute before the bus left and so walked into the Hawker Centre. Wait, that’s in Kingston – ‘Komplex Penjaja’, or Hawkers’ Complex, it was in fact. Calling a spade a spade, there. I’d also liked the ‘Lotus Old Folks home’ I’d seen on the way. The fruity cafe there do a fantastic range of fruit smoothies, complete with spoon for digging out the mixed fruits inside. And the number 10 bus took me back into town – it seemed a long way because it went round and round, but much easier than walking despite the length of the journey giving a false impression. I ate in the food court again, and settled into a much quieter dorm, all the others having moved. 30 minutes later Rainier said hi – he’d actually just gone next door, in search of a lower bunk, but we didn’t get to chat for long. I could check that their room was the same – yep, no windows there, either. Apart from that, Kimberley house was a nice hostel, lots of shared space, sofas in every one and huge high ceilings making it airy, if hot without air conditioning. After the large reception area, the TV room is another big room, staircases off either side, and Rainier and I had watched some hideous film, with Robert de Niro as an American and John Travolta as a Serb. Slightly surreal.

Today’s bus was at 9.30 – in fact, mine left at 9.20. Two of us were taken from the hostel to the station, the bloke before me had his receipt checked and was told to wait, I was asked if I wanted to go now, so I said yes, and might have been put on the earlier bus. Was that my airline upgrade moment? Maybe I should try wearing, as I was this time, an “I heart *your town*” t-shirt elsewhere. KL at 2.30, hostel walking distance and after waiting inside for a huge rain storm I had a wander round the partially pedestrian friendly streets, making it to another Botanical gardens. A walk after a storm is always good, the temperature is typically still mid 20s but it feels a bit cooler and fresher than normally, so I’m glad I took advantage. I also had a quick look in our local mall, which looks to have some good hooky gear, as does the night market to which I wandered after another heavy shower at 9. I’ve replaced the t-shirts that were disintegrating, but I have a hankering for an Osaka top (seen them, like them, been there) and one of the union jack*(seen them, like them, from there) ones for which I’ve finally found some shops. I kept spotting them in other countries, thinking I’d found countrymen and realising these were just for fashion, but never seeing them for sale. Bet they’re everywhere; cousin Ali will remember our game in Venice after I said from my previous experience ‘there are hardly any cashpoints’. I think she won 150-128 in the end. Shopping and sight-seeing, then I’ll end my current run drought (strangely painful ankle is recovering slowly) with the race on Sunday – 2xu, 15km at 6am.

Penang – the padlock, the museum and the mall

Penang – the padlock, the museum and the mall
Tanjung Bungah, Malaysia

Tanjung Bungah, Malaysia

Everyone had gone. In my dungeon room it was dark, but still early. Then the door opened, the light went on and the bin rustled as it was emptied. 8.45 – there’s getting ahead with the cleaning and then there’s a disruptively early start.

A large, gree cannon points out to sea
Sri Rambai cannon looking out.

I was a bit surprised, to say the least, but stoically lay it out and slept on once they’d finished. They may only have started with my room because half the room had checked out, leaving very early. I now think for transport rather than touring, but at the time it made me feel lazy. Fate had made me hang around, though, because I was needed; I’d already had a nice wave from the Chinese girl who moved in to the bed next to mine (checking in at 9, what the hell is going on?) but now I was up and she had spotted my super padlock busting skills. 000 the default combination, but she’d locked her bag for the first time and was now locked out of it. In a jiffy (ten minutes of struggle) I had found 024 worked, and she was in.

I swished my cape and left.

Actually we talked for a bit. We’re headed in opposite directions, so as with Steve in Korea and Karen in Cambodia, I was able to pass on my excess currency, though there wasn’t much left thanks to the willingness of yesterday’s money changer to take small Thai bills.

A man leans forward, sleeping on his moped, in the shade
Sleep where you can.

I wandered into town, sweltering gently. Penang is really the name of the island, George Town the place, but they are used interchangeably. I planned to see Fort Cornwallis and then Penang museum, but stumbled on the museum first. It has an introduction to the history of the place that reminded me of Eddie Izzard’s skit on America;

“Ah, here we are, to claim this new land, an empty land”
‘Excuse me?”
“Yes, a land devoid of people, we shall settle here”
“…who the **** are these guys?”

Penang was already occupied, of course, when Captain Light came upon the ‘desolate’ place as he saw it. It came to be British, through fouler means than foul, failing to support the local ally when he was under risk of attack, then decisively beating him when he aimed to then retake Penang (leased by the British under the condition that they provide military support) and signing a contract to keep it. Though even there, there’s debate:

“Contrary to accepted history, Pulau Pinang was neither leased, granted nor ceded by any written treaty or agreement.”

The museum also comments on its multicultural origins, people from all over SE Asia and further abroad settled here, though it’s predominantly Indian, Chinese and Malay; a heady mix. I found the history gallery upstairs more interesting than the cultural ones downstairs, and upstairs also has lots of interesting art showing the place as it looked in colonial times. The whole place is undergoing refurbishment; I don’t think much was covered up, except for what looked like old cars in the courtyard. Pity, but for a ringiit entry fee, I’m not complaining.

No. 149 advertising on the street. Pastel-yellow and white buildings are crumbling
Old and crumbling.

The fort is a large open space, most notable for the comical order, and faded print, of the history boards in the gallery and for the cannons up top, including the Sri Rambai cannon. The fort was thrown up in a hurry, then rebuilt when it looked like the French might invade, but it was never used in anger, and Penang was never to be a naval base so the fort was never that important. It fits with the gently faded nature of much of the history of the town. I was amused to explore a behind the scenes area and find it full of signs for the big running race here – May, from what I’ve read. Half marathon this way, 10km fun run turn. As if a runner can just sniff these things out.

In the afternoon I walked to the mall. As the guidebook points out, the small street front shops with distinctive colonial arches are more emblematic of Penang, but it’s interesting to see the old by the new, and my walk took me past several mom and pop type stalls before I hit the mall. It’s more like an indoor market, with lots of little stalls and goods spilling out, than a western mall, and like other Asian countries has themed areas; in particular, the electronics section is separate. At the top, where many lots are empty, there’s a deserted walkway to the Komtar building next door; you then have to walk down steps to actually get in, and even down one level from the height of the previous mall, this one seems desolate. It gets better further down, but certainly seems like a ‘we were alright till they built the big one’ place. I managed to replace some dissolving underwear in a ‘but one get two free’ place. All this way for next and debenhams pants. Back in the first mall, I was surprised at the hooky lego. They’ve lost their patent on interlocking bricks now, so cheap competitors are available in the west, but these were knock offs of some of their range, the ninjas becoming ‘spinjitsu’ masters, some with their own ‘Lego’ logo. Beco, indeed. Ultimately I was just disappointed there was no hooky Star Wars range – too long a legal reach to be taken on, perhaps.

Me, in front of the Fort Cornwallis sign
Fort Cornwallis.

The food part of the supermarket – in the basement, where food belongs in Asian malls – had chocolate, even dairy milk, so I polished off a whole bar of some local fruit and nut. Too hot to leave it in the bag, you see. Yesterday’s long run will have to do as mitigation, given that my ankle feels a bit spoilt by that run. Oops. A bit of rest will probably do me no harm, though it’ll be a pity not to run to and through the botanical gardens. At 6km or so away, they’re a good distance hence for an exploratory run.

I stumbled over a half marathon and full marathon sign, tucked away behind the fort
Behind the scenes at the fort. A runner can smell these things

The evening was the opposite of the one before. Last night, the dark windowless dorm had been a curtly friendly place, for me to sleep. Tonight, I wandered in at 7 to get something and was there for two hours, catching up with the Chinese girl and my three Malaysian roommates. Neatly, there was one from each majority ethnic group, broadly (it isn’t as if they’re clearly delineated, and it was interesting hearing them debate who had which extra languages, from a choice of English, Hokaimee (I’ve got this wrong, I’m sure) and Cantonese. Around 9 Rainier and I were hungry, and the other Malay girl was in penang essentially to eat and so joined us. That have me a guard of honour in the food court, talking about their experiences of these outdoor spaces with plenty of different stalls arranged scattergun, often run by a family for years and years. I could see a western couple at the next table looking over enviously, and after a while one of them popped over to ask what I was having. Penang is made for eating – down many of the streets, particularly in the UNESCO area buffer zone, where I was staying, have such food stalls, there night after night and selling fresh cooked food for a pound or so. As I’d found, people go there to eat, so I felt no shame in trying one dish and then another. My appetite may have shifted a little to the smaller portions (even the cornettos are smaller!) but I can still eat twice without breaking sweat.

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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