I departed Siem Reap for Bangkok, then immediately boarded an overnight bus south, as I wanted to swing back through Koh Tao for a few more days to get in some diving and see all my friends I’d left behind there. It was a typically exhausting journey, getting dropped off on the side of the road in Chumphon at 2 am to change buses, arriving at the ferry dock at 4 and sleeping on a bench while waiting for the 7 am ferry to Koh Tao. You know, the usual. I had just a few days to spend there before I needed to move on to Malaysia, where I planned to reunite with Megan in Penang.
Koh Tao was lovely, as always. Baden was still there, of course, as were my pals Josie and Paddy from my certification course. The diving was great and when it was time to go, I was sad to have to leave my friends at Simple Life all over again. Coming back to train as a divemaster remains an incredibly tempting idea, but for now, I had to make moves.
The journey to Penang was probably the most uncomfortable voyage I’ve made in all my travels, which is really saying a lot. It started with the night boat from Koh Tao, which is basically what it sounds like. Inside the boat, there are rows and rows of pallets on the floor where you sleep, tucked up right next to your neighbors. I managed to fall asleep right away and didn’t wake until we arrived at the pier in Surat Thani at about 4:30 in the morning. Perhaps the boat ride didn’t agree with me, but whatever the reason, I was feeling pretty crappy as I lugged my stuff off the boat and located my transport to the next destination. A bunch of us were dropped off a few blocks away at a small travel office, where we sat in uncomfortable plastic chairs and waited for something to happen. After an hour or so, I was driven to another office across town where I spent another 2 hours trying (unsuccessfully) to doze on another row of plastic chairs and hoping that my stomach would settle down. I thought I’d booked a bus from Surat Thani to Penang, but when my ride arrived, it was a cramped van and (naturally) the only seat left was in the very back. I did manage to catch a few zzzs back there, mostly due to sheer exhaustion. Some hours later, we arrived in Hat Yai, where we careened through the streets, dropping off various passengers at other travel offices for their connections to wherever. The city driving was not making my stomach very happy and I nearly chucked in the van, but managed to keep it together until I was delivered to my transfer point.
Myself and one other passenger from my van were herded into a new van, driven by a manic Malaysian man who drove like a bat out of hell. All my efforts at keeping my breakfast down (read: the two cookies I’d choked down to try and put something in my roiling stomach) were to no avail, but I managed to get a plastic bag out in time. The crazy driver (who I’m calling Mad Max) kindly pulled over to let me puke in peace, but once I was back in the van, he did not moderate his driving style at all and the miles rolled by in misery. Mad Max did not have much regard for the rules of the road and was constantly veering into the opposing lane to try and get a few spaces ahead. We finally reached the border crossing and found ourselves in an utter downpour and impenetrable gridlock. This did not make Max happy and he was constantly inching forward, only to slam on the brakes a second later. This happened over and over. And over. And over. I came very close to tears (though luckily had nothing left in my stomach to lose). At long last, Max stopped and told us all to get out and walk to the passport control and he’d meet us on the other side. We slogged through the pouring rain to the booths and got stamped out of Thailand, then (reluctantly, on my part) climbed back into the van on the other side. We drove a few meters further, then disembarked again (this time with all our luggage) to get processed into Malaysia. As immigration processes go, this a very easy one. No visa, no shakedown for “fees,” just a stamp and (gasp!) a smile. It wasn’t so easy for everyone in our van though, as a man with a Kenyan passport was pulled out of line and taken away to a mysterious office in the back. Everyone else got back to the van and the Kenyan failed to appear. Mad Max disappeared for a while, then came back, started the van and drove away! A couple of us tried to ask what had happened to the Kenyan guy, but Max just waved his hand and said something unintelligible. I will probably never know what happened to that poor man, stranded at the border, but I hope things worked out for him.
Once we were into Malaysia, the road quality improved immensely, but it made very little difference given Mad Max’s demonic driving. The skies opened up again and we careened crazily through the downpour until suddenly Max started alternating slamming on the brakes and the gas, back and forth, making the van rock and slide on the wet pavement. I was sitting next to a German guy in the back (the only other gringo aboard the van) and we looked out the back window to see a police car on our tail, flashing its lights. Max kept going, repeating the brake slam thing a few times, and finally pulled over another mile or two down the road. He leapt out of the car and confronted the cops, screaming and yelling and waving his hands in the air. All I could think was that, thanks to Mad Max, I was moments away from being chucked into a Malaysian prison. Suddenly, the cops wrenched open the van door and demanded passports from all the passengers. I really didn’t want to hand mine over, but didn’t see that I had much choice. I thought they were just going to look at them, but after they collected the whole stack, they jumped back in their car and drove away! None of us had any idea what was going on and the German guy and I just stared at each other in mute shock. Max got behind the wheel and took off after the cops, weaving in and out of traffic and eventually passed the police car. They got right back on our tail and we screamed down the road for another several miles before Max abruptly slammed on the brakes and pulled over again. The cops (thankfully?) pulled in behind us and Max went back to go yell at them some more. The cops stayed in the car and Max knelt by the open door, flailing and pleading and slamming his fists on the door frame. Nobody could figure out what was going on, one of the Thai ladies said that maybe the cops want money, and two older Malaysian guys shushed her. We sat there for what felt like 100 years before Max suddenly reappeared, and blessedly, had our passports in hand. The police drove away and we were soon back on the road, still having no idea what in the world had just happened. Down the road a ways, we saw the same police car had pulled over another van, perhaps another load of passengers was about to go through the same terror, but we flew past and out of sight.
The rest of the ride was blissfully uneventful, and Max even managed to drive like a marginally sane person for most of the way. At long (LONG) last, we arrived in George Town and, in a welcome stroke of luck, were dropped off just a block from the hostel where I’d booked a bed. I have never in my life been more thankful to get out of a car, I very nearly got down and kissed the ground. The rain had started up again and I dragged my suitcase down the street and made it to my hostel, likely bearing a strong resemblance to a drowned rat. The receptionist there was absolutely lovely, though, and checked me in, told me I could pay later (as I didn’t yet have any Malaysian currency) and showed me to my very nice, clean and comfortable dorm bed. After a shower and some cold pizza (carried in a takeout container from my last meal on Koh Tao, totally soggy, but about the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted), I crawled into my bunk and passed out in the glorious, glorious air conditioning.
Everything looked better in the morning and I was excited to meet up with Megan again, who I’d last seen in Hoi An, Vietnam. Her bus had arrived and we exchanged a few messages about where to meet, when I suddenly got a message from Tracy, who was also in Georgetown! I went to meet up with her and her boyfriend, Sean, and we were soon joined by Megan and her friend James. We wrangled a deal on a room for the 5 of us, then set out for Batu Ferringhi, a beach community about an hour away. Tracy and Sean rented a motorbike, but I had quite enough of those in Vietnam, so Megan, James and I took the bus. We spent a lovely afternoon lying on the beach, ate some delicious food at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and then explored the night market.
One of my favorite things about Malaysia is how the language deals with foreign words. Rather than coming up with a new Malay word, oftentimes they will just cobble together a phonetic spelling and call it good. Some classics: kompleks, motosikal, farmasi.
In the morning, after a fantastic breakfast in a little joint called Yeap Noodles, we all packed off to the ferry terminal and headed for the island of Langkawi in the Andaman off the west coast of Malaysia. A taxi hiccup caused us to cut it very fine, but we made it onto the ferry with minutes to spare! The ferry terminal on Langkawi was far more bustling than I’d anticipated, almost like an airport, and we grabbed a taxi to Cenang, a beach town about 40 minutes away. We found a great guesthouse right on the beach, a huge room big enough for all of us to sleep comfortably, and the door opened right out onto the sand. We spent a couple of lazy days there (and found an amazing falafel stand where I ate nearly all of my meals), but the lack of sun and ominous weather forecast drove us to abandon Langkawi and trek across the country to the Perhentian Islands off the opposite coast. We elected to stay on the smaller of the two islands, Pulau Kecil, which is a little slice of paradise. Like Koh Rong, it has no roads and our speedboat from the mainland dropped us at the Long Beach pier. There was a light drizzle and we had to slog along the sand looking for a place to stay. (Curse that stupid suitcase!) We finally happened upon the Lemongrass Chalets, a cluster of very basic bungalows at the far end of Long Beach.
They had space and the price was right, so we decided to stay. This is the end of Megan’s trip, so we decided to just park here for a week, relax and soak up the sun. The bathrooms are shared, the showers are cold, the wifi almost non-existent and the electricity is only turned on for a few hours a day. In short, a perfect island getaway. All of the restaurants have the exact same menu, and we soon decided on our favorite, the Andy Cafe, and ate nearly all of our meals there.
James wasn’t such a fan of the rustic living (particularly the lack of wifi) and moved on after a few days. Tracy and I managed to get in some diving and saw so many incredible things out there, including a bamboo shark, several blue-spotted manta rays, moray eels, and dozens of Nemo families living in anenomes! The sun came and went, but we got in plenty of beach time. The water on Kecil is the clearest crystal green I’ve ever seen in my life and we spent hours and hours just floating in the waves. After another few days, Tracy and Sean moved on and then there were 2! Megan and I ended up staying a full week on the island and it was one of the most blissful and relaxing times of my whole trip, maybe even my whole life! The limited electricity and scanty wifi meant we had no choice but to totally unplug. We adventured across the island to Coral Beach where we found the Ombak Resort, which plays free movies every night in their beachside cafe, and we ended up going back there most every night for the rest of our stay. The choices weren’t the greatest (Ice Age 3, Step Up 4: Revolution) but it was fun to sit on the comfy couches, eat ice cream and kick back.
Our days developed a routine, which revolved around timing our meals at Andy Cafe (because we were there during Ramadan, we had to eat dinner early, as after sunset the owners finally got to break their fast and shut down the kitchen). We lounged on the beach, read countless books, snorkeled in the amazing water and got tanner than either of us have ever been in our lives. When it was finally time to move on, my heart broke a little. It had been so wonderful to just stop for a while, but now were were back to making moves!
We made our way to Kuala Lumpur by overnight bus and spent a couple of days exploring the city. As cities go, it wasn’t one of my favorites and I don’t really have much to say about it. We did find a great falafel stand though, which was a nice bonus.
I came into Malaysia not really knowing what to expect. I didn’t have any preconceived notions, really, and so came into it totally open minded. On balance, I think it’s a great country and since I was there with great company, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself. Aside from my harrowing border crossing and entry, things couldn’t have gone better and I’m glad the stars aligned for me to spend so much more time there than had been in my original plan.
Megan’s trip was coming to an end and so we moved on again from KL to Singapore, where she had to catch her flight home to Canada. We elected to travel by train, which made a nice change from the endless buses. Arriving in Singapore was a bit of a culture shock though. Gone was any vestige of a developing nation; we were squarely back in the modern world (and with prices to match). We had a couple of hours together before Megan took off, and then I settled in to my space at Plush Pods. The bed cost about triple what I’d been paying anywhere else in Asia, but it was kind of a fun little self-contained capsule where I could close myself off from the rest of the dorm. Unfortunately, it wasn’t soundproof and I ended up right above a world-champion snorer, which meant I slept very badly. My slippers also got stolen from outside the room on my first night, my first and only theft during my entire Asian adventure. This all helped to justify my decision to splurge for my final 2 nights and get a real hotel room at the Oasia, which I did and don’t regret for one single minute.
My days in Singapore passed pretty lazily. I got together a few times with Monica and Brad, friends from New York who moved to Singapore a few years ago. We wandered the marina and gardens, had some food and drinks and enjoyed catching up. I also spend a whole day exploring the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a fabulous oasis of nature right in the middle of the city.
Once I checked into the Oasia, I lost all motivation and spent my last two days hard-core lounging, taking baths in the giant tub, watching the free HBO and occasionally venturing out for food.
And so I came to the end of the Asia portion of my trip. What a time! I ate so much great food and made some fantastic new friends that I know will be keepers. I will have to come back again, as I feel like I only scratched the surface, but the time I did have was so wonderful and I’m grateful for all the experiences and encounters that made up my time there (yes, even the bad ones). I got a lot of insight into the lives of people very different from me and I think I also got to know myself a lot better.
For my last hurrah, it’s back to the Western world as I take on my final continent: Australia! See you Down Under!
(Don’t forget to check out — and Like! — my Facebook page for full photo albums from every destination and follow me on Instagram @itskimonawhim for the most up to date info on where I am at any given moment)