Tag Archives: Malaysia

On the DL in KL

We had such a homey experience in Kuala Lumpur. In fact, here we felt more like “real”people than we have in months. (Real people of course meaning those with things like “homes”and “jobs.” Things that are sounding more and more foreign to us 😉 ) Life on the road is grand, we can’t complain. We absolutely love getting out and exploring the world (hence the actually doing it), but every once in a while we really just want to throw on a pair of sweatpants, order a pizza and watch a movie on Netflix while we sit on the couch all day. Our couch. This does not happen on the road. So we took a week to stay in Kuala Lumpur and rented a downtown studio through Airbnb, as a means to do two things: first, to catch up on blogging, bills, taxes and all things life and WiFi related after a packed trip through Southeast Asia and before an even more packed trip through Nepal and Central Asia. And second, as a way to feel kinda like normal people for a while. So our first day in town, we woke up, grabbed coffees, and walked to the supermarket! We were so giddy, walking around and gleefully filling our cart with cereal, milk, cheese, crackers and wine. I’m not even kidding; I was ecstatic doing the dishes, because for the first time in four months, I had dishes to do! And I could make my own dinner! Ah, it was wonderful.

Also contributing to the feeling of homey-ness, we had a fantastic evening with a friend of Alan’s mother who is living with her husband in KL. They invited us over for a dinner party, which was the first time we attended a home-cooked dinner party since before Thanksgiving. It was greatly appreciated and we loved getting the ex-pat’s insight to the area. It was one of those small world coincidences, which was even more small world feeling when another friend of hers – from Alan’s hometown! – visited a few days later and the four of us went out to explore KL together. Teeny tiny world, it is.

Our friendly hosts guided us to the spot for our first experience being massaged by the blind, which was lovely and cheap, but more hilarious than anything. Alan’s masseuse was a chatty one, opining on such things as how Alan “looked” young, by which he meant 40s. (It’s OK, those with sight know he really looks 20-something 😉 ). He may or may not have also compared Alan to Chuck Norris, among other entertaining tid-bits. We shared a room and Jenni could barely stop giggling listening to all this. Then Jenni’s masseuse took a phone call and never stopped massaging. Albeit one-handed, but she never skipped a beat. Impressive, if not entirely zen-like. Also, two blind men walked in while Jenni was changing. Now there’s a situation that causes a disconnect between your rational brain and impulses.

Afterwards we grabbed a solid Indian lunch at Anjappar in Brickfields. Always a good decision to eat Indian food in a restaurant where you are the only non-Indians present. We also learned a little bit about how to maneuver your way through the city via malls and air-conditioned walkways so as to minimize your time out sweating in the hot humid streets. While some of the trains are air-conditioned, the above-ground monorail was quite hot and overall we thought the public transit, as with much of the city, felt somewhat less modern than Singapore or Hong Kong (that said, it’s super cheap and fairly easy to navigate). This theme extended to the overall vibe of the city for us. While KL has a reputation for being very modern (the Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world for a while, and they remain the tallest twin buildings), and it is very much a developed city with malls that rival (perhaps even put to shame) those you’d find in any western metropolis, after visiting Hong Kong and Singapore on this trip we were actually struck with the opposite impression. It is somewhat less modern than we’d expected. You do still see the mixing of old and new, finding hawker stalls a hop, skip and a jump away from the Ferragamo at the Suria Mall at the base of the Petronas Towers, and of course the decidedly less modern Chinatown and Little India neighborhoods nestled in amongst skyscrapers (Malaysia is predominantly a blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian).

Aside from these excursions spent with our new friends, we did little exploring (opting instead for aforementioned couch, cereal and wine and cheese), but we did check out the KL Hop-On Hop-Off bus to orient ourselves to the area, which conveniently stopped right nearby our apartment. It took us around to many of KL’s highlights, and we alighted at Central Market as well as Merdeka Square. And our last night we did manage to go out after dark to compare two bars known for their views of the Petronas Towers. The verdict: SkyBar at Traders Hotel trumps Marini’s on 57.

Practical Info

We were warned repeatedly about KL’s motorcycle bag snatchers, so take caution. You should also bring an umbrella (or buy a cheap one here) or raincoat as it poured (torrential downpours!) our first five days sometime between 4-6 pm, and our last day it began around 2 pm.

Note that KL Sentral and KLCC are different places. Our friends said that BFM is a great radio station. Time Out Kuala Lumpur is likely a good resource. When I lived in NY, it was my nightlife bible. It is worth noting here that we heard good things about Fraser’s Hill (and Shahzan Inn there), which is a couple hours away.

Transportation: The airport is quite a hub (and is the hub for Air Asia). We arrived after midnight and took a taxi which cost 112MYR, reflecting a 50% surcharge in effect from 12-6 am. It took about 45 minutes to KLCC. You can also take a train or bus (8MYR each) to KL Sentral (different from KLCC). And if you’re headed back from the city to the airport, you can check in (and check bags) at KL Sentral and then take a train. Our taxi from the city to the airport at 5 am cost 100MYR (you could probably find a cheaper one if you tried) and again took about 45 minutes.

Public transport is said to be very good here. We took the subway from KLCC to KL Sentral and it was painless and cheap at 1.60MYR each. We also took the monorail from KL Sentral back to Bukit Bintang which allowed us to see a bit more though it was crowded and hot (despite A/C). It cost 2.10MYR each. As with most places, you need your token to exit. I’m told taxis are cheap but often dishonest and may refuse to use the meter.

Accommodation: We stayed at an Airbnb apartment near KLCC. There are many luxury hotels and prices tend to be a lot lower than what you might find in other cities. We saw high-end chains for under $150/night. While we didn’t see the whole city, it seems like staying around KLCC or Bukit Bintang is probably a good bet, or possibly Bangsar though I’m less informed on this. I think there are more backpacker options in other neighborhoods. KLCC felt very safe, and there is a small running track in the park.

Food and Drinks: We went to the grocery store (Cold Storage at Suria KLCC) and ate many meals in our apartment. We dined one night at Healy Mac’s, a popular Irish bar on Jalan Ramlee. It was not bad, and the pint of Guinness was welcome (114MYR for salad, pizza, Guiness, sangria). Sushi dinner in the Isetan food court of Suria KLCC was pretty good and reasonable. Our Indian lunch at Anjappar (an international chain) in Brickfields was very good and inexpensive (about 12 MYR most mains).

Jalan Alor is a popular food street. There are tons of food courts in shopping centers and elsewhere. Lot 10 is said to be good. While perhaps pricier, the food court at Suria looked great. We heard Little Penang Kafe there is good. Old China Cafe is another eatery recommended to us.

We barely dabbled in the nightlife, but I’m told it is abundant in Kuala Lumpur. Our one (early) nighttime jaunt took us to Marini’s on 57 and SkyBar at Traders Hotel. We were a little underwhelmed by Marini’s bar area. There is a dress code and a wee bit of snootiness, and the music and vibe were so-so. The views of the Petronas Towers are nice, but you are so close that it’s hard to fully appreciate the grandeur. The restaurant and lounge may be nicer. We preferred SkyBar, which at least on Monday night played tunes like Marley, CCR and Clapton. We just missed that happy hour as it ended at 8 pm, but I think the bartender said Wednesday night is ladies night with free margaritas all night. Make a reservation or put your name down on arrival for one of the window seats, where you’ll find spot-on views of the towers plus the light/fountain show at Lake Symphony.

Changkat Bukit Bintang is lined with bars. There are a handful more on Jalan Ramlee right by our apartment. Zouk is a popular club. I think the Bangsar area has a bit of nightlife.

Activities: If you like to shop, you will not be bored. There are malls and stores everywhere. One day we took the Hop-On Hop-Off bus around the city. It is a nice way to orient yourself, though it can get pretty crowded (and if you’re standing and can’t easily look out the window, it’s less enjoyable). It costs 45MYR for 24 hours or 79MYR for 48 hours. You cannot board with a beverage, unless it’s bottled water (or maybe anything in a closed bottle?).

Central Market was formerly a functioning wet market, nowadays it houses varied craft shops and some F&B options. Kasturi Walk is a covered way alongside the Central Market, and I saw a sign advertising cultural performances every Monday-Saturday at 9 pm and a martial arts performance every Sunday at 9 pm. The other place we disembarked from the bus was Merdeka Square. It is here that the Malaysian flag was raised for the first time in 1957 to replace the Union Jack. The 95-meter flagpole at one end anchors an enormous flag. The attractive Sultan Abdul Samad building (housing government offices) is here.

I thought the blind massage was great, and cheap at 35MYR for 45 minutes. They also do reflexology.

Since we don’t have any particular insight to add on most attractions here, I’ll just list some out for you to consider. The bird and butterfly parks; National Mosque; Masjid Jamek; National Museum; Sin Sze Si Ya Temple; The Annexe Gallery; Brickfields (we still can’t tell if this is the same as Little India?); Chinatown and Petaling Street; Petronas Towers; KL Tower. Outside the city but I think reachable on public transportation are the Batu Caves.

March 25 – April 1, 2014 (Tuesday-Tuesday)

Penang

What do you get when you mix trendy bars sporting mid-century modern furnishings with the unrivaled affable nature of Southeast Asians, some of the best and most unusual street foods in the world, and a veritable melee of cultures? The impossibly cool city of Penang. We adore Penang! Street art galore, funky coffee shops and bars to get all hipster in to your heart’s delight. It’s like what Portland, Oregon is trying to be, but cooler. It’s not so much hipster-ism as it is awesome-people-ism, because the pretentious element is completely missing, replaced instead by an enriching openness and sense of engagement. You like yourself more in Penang, because everyone is so nice and friendly and happy that you want to be nice and friendly and happy, too.

It’s a place where you can meander down Love Lane and pop into an art gallery where a small band coos over acoustic guitar, and then wander over to an open-air bar for cheap beers while you mingle with tourists and the nicest locals. You can stroll around stopping occasionally to admire the street art and tiled sidewalks abutting a great mix of Western and Asian architecture.

And to top it off, you can order drinks with ice, eat street food without a dose of Pepto-Bismol, and go home and brush your teeth with tap water! Can I get a “HELL YEAH” for (moderately) clean water?!

A highlight (for Jenni at least) might be the coolest new trend of 2014: a tea shop where you come in, drink tea, and – get this – play with cats! Cats, books, life is good. Funny enough, we read an article a day later pronouncing this is an up-and-coming trend in various Asian countries. I’m considering bringing a puppy and tea shop to America. New career? I think so. Purrfect Cat Café (yes that’s their name) hadn’t opened their doors to the public yet, but kindly invited us in to play with the main attractions. I was delighted to be photographed as their first kitten-petting guest.

Perhaps what Penang is best known for is its food. Penang is a foodies haven, particularly the cheap and delicious street eats on offer. And we tried our fair share of what we could squeeze in our bellies over the course of a day and a half. Below is a breakdown of some of the spots and (sometimes strange!) delicacies we enjoyed.

Tek Sen: we went here for dinner our first night. Highlights:

  • The homemade barley and lime drink – tastes kind of like Quaker Oh’s cereal (my absolute favorite cereal in the world, how is it not more popular?)
  • Double roast pork with chili padi – one of their signature items. Delicious. Sweet and fatty.
  • Less impressive were the braised duck with dried oyster and the stir fried bitter gourd with salted duck egg, minced pork and minced prawn. Though I think I may just not be a fan of bitter gourd. Note to self, avoid items with bitter in the name.

Red Bean Ice at the hawker stands near the corner of Lebuh Carnarvon and Lebuh Chulia: Despite Kenny regaling us with a story of how he ate so much of it one night that he literally made himself sick, we found this one a little unexciting. Not bad, but I definitely would never eat enough to make myself sick.

Kafe Mews: we tried the guava mojitos, good but quite sweet. Jenni was tempted to order scones with cream, but abstained, saving her calories for more unique Malay treats to come.

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Aik Hoe Dim Sum: we went here for breakfast. White coffee is superb, like a hot frappuccino. The dim sum is primarily self serve, you just go and pick up little plates of whatever calls your name from those steaming baskets of goodness. The water chestnut and prawn dumplings were DIVINE. I could have eaten seventeen of them. We tried a few others whose contents were a mystery, though a gingery dumpling was quite good as well. We ordered pork buns after seeing them on someone else’s table. They didn’t quite rival the BBQ pork buns we had in Hong Kong, but they were good nonetheless. We also ordered the fried noodles on our waitress’ suggestion, which were good, but arrived after we’d stuffed our faces with so many other items we could barely make a dent.

Food stalls outside Fort Cornwallis: Hainan chicken rice, meh. Mee goreng from Mee Sotonic. Real spicy, kind of like pad thai. The lime is key. Sadly, the coconut shake place was out of cendol so instead we tried ice kacang.  In addition to something you might hear on Hot 97 FM, ice kacang is a scrumptious and unusual conglomeration of flavors and textures.  Rather than spelling out each dish we will assume Google has that covered, but just as an example here’s a paraphrasing of how ice kacang is described in this foodie map we found: fill a bowl with finely shaved ice topped with sweetened red bean, creamed sweet corn, attap chee (palm fruit), strips of dried nutmeg as well as colorful jellies drenched in palm sugar syrup, sarsi and rose syrup.  For a finishing touch, drizzle liberal amounts of rich evaporated milk.  And add a generous scoop of ice cream.

The tea truck (Otea2u) outside Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was awesome. Impressively detailed list of teas with various add-ons like tapioca pearls, grass jelly, coconut jelly, etc. Alan tried the peach green tea with coconut jelly and Jenni the strawberry pearl milk tea, both are recommended.

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At a warehouse-like store selling bulk candies, dried goods, jellies etc, we sampled some superb oat chocolates. The blue potato chocolates fell short.

China House is a funky, cool, mixed space with galleries, food and beverage.  There is live music at Canteen Bar on weekend nights. Vine & Single is a cozy bar that serves cocktails but specializes in wine and single malt whiskey.  Beach Street Bakery is best known for tiramisu but our coconut milk chocolate cake did not disappoint.  Not even a little. There is a tapas menu and also a courtyard where one can dine.

Hawker stands by Carnarvon (again):

  • Wan tan mee was Jenni’s favorite dish in Penang: ramen noodle with sliced pork, dumplings, bok choy, chili.
  • Lorbak: pork wrapped in red bean and deep fired. The accompanying sauce was phenomenal.
  • Alan ordered char kway teow and loved it.

Special thanks to Robyn Eckhardt, a prominent food writer, who was unavailable to give us a tour but provided great suggestions in a personal email.

For the non-foodies, Penang still has plenty on offer, perhaps most notable is the abounding and impressive street art. We went on a bit of a scavenger hunt to find a number of these bad boys. And more and more keep popping up. We even spotted one guy in the midst of painting a new one.

The art doesn’t stop at the streets; there are charming shops full of hand-made crafts and stunning photographs and paintings. The galleries on Armenian Street were particularly lovely. We hope one day to return to Studio Howard when we have a home to decorate, and our fingers will be crossed that the sweet grandmother who chatted us up will still be there.

There are a number of intricate and eccentric temples and clan houses dotting this city.  Penang has a rich history as a trading post and has attracted large communities of Indians, Chinese, ethnic Malays and Europeans.  Some of these settlers built small compounds or villages specific to their own clan.  Khoo Kongsi is perhaps the most famous clan house. We enjoyed lingering around this one, and the attached museum below, admiring the intricate stone carvings and delicate details painted inside.

In addition to clan houses, the waterfront is home to six remaining clan jetties.  These mini-villages built on stilts are still home to clan members but tourists are welcome to walk around the planks.  We checked out Chew Jetty where Jenni may have uttered “that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life” for the first time on this trip. She tends to be less than discerning in her use of this platitude, but these amphibious creatures were like little dragons. Dragons, I tell you. They alternate between land and water by taking out their arm/leg/fin things. They’re like tadpoles on steroids (not yet urine-tested by the MLB). Their faces puff up into giant triangles, they stick out shark-like fins when they fight (mate?) with other dragons. They have two eyes bulging out of the top of their heads that face opposite directions but touch each other.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as Le Maison Bleu for its deep indigo-colored exterior, offers daily tours. It houses a heritage bed and breakfast and one may also rent out the entire property for weddings and events. The building is lovely, but we were not so impressed by the tour. That said, our guide is bringing back the balding woman’s rat tail trend like it’s nobody’s business.  And Cheong Fatt Tze was apparently quite a guy: when he died in 1916, Dutch and British authorities ordered flags be flown at half mast throughout their colonies.

For the SJP, SATC, and pure Jimmy Choo enthusiasts among us, we’re told you can go to the factory where Jimmy Choo made his first shoe at the age of 11.

Granted our standards have been somewhat lowered along the way, what with our champagne taste and backpack budget, but Chulia Heritage Hotel rocks. It’s clean, the lobby is pretty, you get FOUR pillows! And the icing on top: a blowdryer. I don’t think we’ve seen a blowdryer since we left America. Did we use it? No, but still. Downsides: rooms are not huge, a bit loud, and I guess if you’ve spent a significant amount of time in psychiatric wards the all-white design scheme might cause flashbacks. Also, a rather large cockroach did make an appearance in Alan’s shoe as we were headed out the door, so, there’s that.

Practical Info 

Penang is a state and actually covers some mainland territory in addition to the more famous island portion.  The island itself has some nice hills and supposedly good beaches on the north and west, though we limited ourselves to historic George Town, the main city on the northeast corner.

Transportation: We took a ferry from Langkawi, which cost $39 for two and took a bit over three hours.  Upon arrival at Kuah Jetty in Langkawi you can pay a small fee (10-20 MYR depending on bag size) to check your luggage, which is a good idea.  This ride was inside a proper boat and infinitely smoother than the ride from Koh Lipe to Langkawi.  They were even showing Dark Knight Rises on the TV screens, albeit without sound.

There is an international airport here, and I believe ferries from Malacca in addition to Langkawi.  There is a very long bridge connecting the island to the mainland.

While sightseeing we walked everywhere.  If you wanted to visit the beaches (or stay at the beach and visit George Town), you would need to take a car or motorbike.

A taxi from our hotel in George Town to the airport at 6 am took 20 minutes and cost MYR 60.  The front desk said it usually takes 30-40 minutes and costs MYR 40.

The airport at Penang is quite nice, but at least Air Asia’s terminal in Kuala Lumpur (where we stopped en route to Chiang Mai) was much grimier.  Three hours free WiFi is available at each airport.

Accommodation: We stayed at Chulia Heritage Hotel in George Town’s UNESCO heritage district.  It was cheap and nice for the price at $40/night.  Options are abundant.  Other names we came across for George Town include the classic Eastern & Oriental, the heritage B&B at the restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, and Muntri Mews.  There are several beach resorts in other parts of the island.

Food: We covered this pretty well above.  After all, it is arguably the main attraction. Various food tours are available, and that would probably be a good idea. Prices were not dirt cheap, but far cheaper than in most developed countries.  I think our meal at Tek Sen cost less than $20, including a Guiness foreign extra stout.  Breakfast at Aik Hoe was ~$7.  Most food stall meals cost $1-1.50.

Activities: Eating.  Beaches on other parts of the island.  Visiting Fort Cornwallis, temples, Khoo Kongsi (admission is 10 MYR each), the clan jetties, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansions (the tour costs 12 MYR each), etc.  There is also a funicular to the top of Penang Hill which probably affords nice views on a clear day.  Alan’s mom’s friend recommended going to Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and asking for Joanne who gives city tours.

January 22-24, 2014 (Wednesday-Friday)

Langkawi

Getting to Malaysia was among the least pleasant travel experiences of Jenni’s life. The journey began with moderate trepidation. The tide was super low when we left our little slice of paradise in Lipe, so we were unable to take the longtail boat. Instead, we had to call a “taxi” to take us by land over to the immigration stand at Bundhaya Resort on Pattaya Beach. A taxi on Koh Lipe is basically a moped with a sidekick module attached to the side. And by sidekick module I mean a little metal basket. The engine was apparently not powerful enough to carry the both of us and our luggage up the hill from our resort so the driver picked up our bags and told us to meet him at the top of the hill. Then we hopped on and I, being of course a person afraid of approximately 87% of things in the world, hopped in the front as we began zooming down the semi-paved road. I held on to the damn seat for dear life as I imagined which bone would be protruding from which part of my body when I went flying face first into the pavement.

Alas, we made it to immigration. As is now par for the course, we encountered obstacles. All the normal tourists have their itinerary/confirmation pages for their ferry tickets printed out and neatly presented in little laminate pockets. We had an email on an iPhone, which didn’t make the cut. So Alan walked around to the resorts, trying to find WiFi to e-mail the immigration/ferry lady a copy of the PDF so she could print our tickets. Of course, though, the one resort where WiFi had worked well before…now not so much. It’s becoming comical how often technology fails us.

By the way, one of the cardinal rules of international travel is to never let your passport out of your sight.  But it’s impossible to follow that rule.  So don’t be alarmed when they take your passport at the immigration office in Thailand and then call out names and hand out passports (already stamped) 45 minutes after you disembark in Langkawi.

The “ferry” from Lipe to Langkawi was horrid. Perhaps someone could have warned us that it is not, in fact, a ferry, like the ferry we took from Railay to Lipe, but rather a motorboat cum amusement park water ride. Expect to get absolutely drenched. Not a little “sea spray,” friends. Soaked. Like how wet you get when you shower, and not a shower in India or some place where the water pressure sucks. Like a shower with a rain shower overhead and those side sprayer things coming out of the wall from three sides. I normally wouldn’t mind the wetness, but for the fact that everything of technological value was stored in a non-water proof bag I desperately tried to keep dry by hoisting it above the ground between my legs and covering it with my lifejacket when I wasn’t holding on for dear life as the boat and my stomach dropped over harrowing waves that caused all the Asian women on the glorified “ferry” to scream like I do when I see spiders.

The rational man’s take: It was a tad scary, but mainly a rollicking, rough ride.  Four factors jump to mind that often lead to accidents with casualties: a vessel in bad condition; passengers beyond capacity; lack of life jackets; inclement weather.  None of the four was present.

First impressions on arrival, however, are quite positive. The harbor is attractive, feeling less industrial and more like where your wealthy Malaysian friend might keep his yacht.  The backdrop is comprised of steep, jungle-covered mountains and the Langkawi cable car.  Langkawi is actually an archipelago of 99 or 104 islands, depending on the tide.  But the name usually refers to the largest, main island.

Here does not feel remote as Lipe did, and it seems decidedly modern. There are high quality signs with (almost) perfect English. (To be fair, though, passed and past are at least both words, as opposed to “showa,” as some Thai ads boast. I’m from Boston, but I don’t think the rest of the wicked smaht English speakers of the world would agree it counts.) Our taxi driver, while naturally charging us a bit of a rip-off price, was friendly, spoke pretty good English, and engaged us in conversation about both his hometown of Langkawi and our experience in Lipe.

We stayed a little bit off the beaten bath. We decided an ocean view for a reasonable price (with some compromises of course: shared bathrooms and no actual beach) trumped an expensive beachfront resort or a cheap place off the water. So we opted to stay in a tube. Tubotel is a strange little spot with “rooms” built into what are essentially large concrete pipes. They’re just about big enough for a bed (with your bags stored underneath) and a lamp. It’s definitely a funky and unique place, with lounge music, abstract and somewhat hipster art, a fun common area complete with day beds, plunge pools (pretty much just a couple large concrete tubs of unheated water, but pleasant enough to cool off in), a pool table, homemade pizza and mini-kegs on offer from the fridge.  The airport is nearby, and we quickly learned that Air Asia here is like Southwest in Los Angeles.  You see their planes constantly, easily identified by color.

Perhaps what we appreciated most about Tubotel were the “eco-pirate” tours they offer on a daily basis, shuttling guests to and from the nearby islands for free provided they pick up trash while on the beach. Even though we weren’t able to participate, we loved this idea, especially after our inspiration in Railay where we made a small contribution to remove some garbage from the otherwise magnificent beach.

Tubotel is just across a little inlet from the very popular beach (Pantai Cenang), but it takes about 20 minutes to walk there because the bridge is inland a bit. Once you do reach Pantai Cenang, be sure to look both ways when crossing the sand to avoid being hit by an SUV (they drive along the beach, jet skis and banana boats in tow). The beach is deep and the water is calm, albeit not so pristine looking and the sand quality is mixed. Picky comments for sure, but we’re coming from Thailand, and Cenang, my friends, can’t hold a candle to Lipe or Railay’s beaches. Though the sunsets were consistently marvelous on our three nights here.

Casa del Mar, a pricier resort on the Cenang strip, seemed like a great place to post up. So much so that we spent the better part of a day at its beach-side restaurant using WiFi and drinking sangria. The sangria was necessary, because much of this day was spent trying to pay for our new and improved (and by improved I only mean more expensive. Except for that pediatric dental care. That will come in handy for all the children’s teeth we’ve hoarded) Affordable Care Act health plan (seriously, how has this been so hard), and dealing with getting our credit card replaced (and all of our automated bill-pays updated) because the first time we shopped at a Target in probably two years was the week before we left the country and coincided with hackers stealing the credit card information of all Target shoppers.

The street just behind the beach resorts is abuzz with restaurants and shops. We thoroughly enjoyed Yasmin’s chicken shawarma. So much that we considered getting it again the next night, changing our minds only when we found a Turkish restaurant, Istanbul, where we wolfed down a chicken doner kebab sandwich and spicy lamb iskender kebab with yogurt sauce.  Near Yasmin we bought some potent Carlsberg special brews (8.8%!) at the 7-11 and noticed a sign that alcohol sales are only for non-Muslims.  By the way there are so many 7-11’s in much of Asia.

Langkawi manages to strike a nice balance between action and relaxation.  The main strip is lively and the beach has jet skis, but you don’t see rowdy partiers or hear much untz-untzing.

We did something here that we hadn’t done since leaving the states almost two months before: we drove! We rented a car to explore more of the island. It was such an incredible feeling of freedom we’d forgotten, to be able to go as we please, wherever we wanted, with no haggling or ten minute conversations with a tuk-tuk driver to try to communicate a destination, and just throwing anything we might need for the day in the trunk. Alan was a pro with the steering-wheel-on-the-right, keep-left style driving, which was made very pleasant by the fact that there are super nice, rule-abiding, non-aggressive drivers here! It’s interesting that we have traveled exclusively in countries that drive on the left so far this trip (Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Malaysia). You’d think this means I know which way to look before crossing the road by now, but it still isn’t quite second nature. The roads are also well-labeled and well-maintained, which made the contrast of roadside monkey clusters and later a herd of water buffalo crossing all the more intriguing.

We first drove up to what had been described as the nicest beach on the island, on the north side, where some fancy schmance resorts are (Four Seasons and Tanjung Rhu). It’s a nice beach for sure, but still can’t really compare to Koh Lipe or Railay. That said, it was very interesting to see some women sporting bikinis next to Muslim women covered entirely head to toe. And we arrived at low tide to some really cool sandbars, one of which Jenni walked out to. It was a very long path and she lost her way on the return. A Malay man wanted to talk, know where we’re from, welcome us to his country, but Jenni was having a mild panic attack worrying that if she couldn’t find the sandbar to lead her back the way she came then would she step on those sea urchins with the crazy long needles? Asian sea urchins are far more destructive looking than the ones you see in the U.S. Which reminds me, I found it amusing and impressively resourceful when a kind European man we’d met in Thailand warned us to be careful to avoid stepping on the urchins in the direction we were headed by describing them as “sea porcupines.”

There are lots of women by the parking area at Tanjung Rhu offering one or two-hour boat rides to visit the mangroves and watch an eagle being fed.  We passed, but I did see some mysterious animal poking out of the ocean that may or may not have been a crocodile. Or do they have seals here?

We planned to check out Datai Bay but stopped for lunch at Scarborough’s fish and chips.  This nice little beachfront spot caught a hold of us with its free WiFi, and it was here over fried snow fish and spring rolls that we took the plunge into joint blogdom! (Only to run into…you guessed it…technical difficulties that were not resolved for weeks).

::why don't they sell this in the states?? jasmine iced tea. so good::
::why don’t they sell this in the states?? jasmine iced tea. so good::

Hours later, we drove over to the Langkawi cable car at Oriental Village hoping to catch the sunset. This is a great opportunity to get views of the island, and a very popular activity for visitors. It was absolutely terrifying. I’ve been on aerial trams before. I ski. I’ve been on those sky-bridge platform things in the Australian jungle. I’ve taken the tram to Sandia peak in New Mexico. This was by far the scariest one. I cried. Both ways. Going up I made it to the first “stop” and to my horror I realized Alan wasn’t kidding that the ride wasn’t over. That’s when I cried. On the way down I tried closing my eyes, but it didn’t help. Wow. If you’re afraid of heights, maybe this one is not for you.

Fortunately for Jenni, at least the sky bridge at the top was closed so she was spared the horror of walking across this suspension path spanning a deep chasm.  It was a bit hazy so the views weren’t great, but we could still see quite a bit and the jungle covering these mountains is impressively dense and verdant.

Overall we would say that Langkawi is quite a pleasant place and good for a Thai visa run or perhaps a quick beach escape with its international airport.  But we would not advise traveling a great distance to visit Langkawi alone.

Practical Info

The main commercial area on the island is Kuah.  The most popular beach area is at/around Pantai Cenang.  The north coast is quieter with some fancy resorts.  There are ATMs in Kuah and also at Telaga Harbour and Underwater World.  Langkawi is duty free which means alcohol and chocolate, among other less important things, are cheap.

The exchange rate was 1 USD = 3.3 MYR.

Transportation: We took a ferry from Koh Lipe, Thailand which lasted about 1.5 hours.  As noted above, it was a rough ride.  We bought the tickets on Telaga Terminal’s website and paid $74 for two but the boat said Bundhaya on it.  This ferry lands at Telaga Harbour, which is closer to the beaches and resorts on the west of the island than is the Kuah Jetty.  There is an ATM and mini mart here.  From Telaga it was about a 15 minute drive to Pantai Cenang (taxi cost 30 MYR).  There is an international airport (and this is Air Asia territory), and also ferries from Penang and the mainland.

Our ferry to Penang left from Kuah Jetty, and a taxi there from Tubotel cost only 30 MYR and took 30-40 minutes.  The Kuah Jetty area has a Starbucks with free WiFi, several other F&B options, ATMs, SIM card shops, etc.

Many visitors rent a moped or car, which is a good idea because it’s fairly cheap and the driving is very mellow compared to many Asian destinations.  We got a Nissan Sentra automatic for 24 hours, delivered to and picked up from our hotel, for 90 MYR.  A manual transmission would have cost 60 MYR.  Petrol is subsidized and inexpensive at ~2 MYR/liter, far less than we pay back in California.

Accommodation: We stayed at Tubotel, an interesting property just west of Pantai Cenang that we described above.  There are loads of properties on Pantai Cenang.  Casa del Mar is very well-reviewed, and Meritus Pelangi is a big resort on the western end of that beach.  Many fancier resorts are on the north side of the island, including Four Seasons and Tanjung Rhu at the eponymous beach, and The Datai on its namesake bay.  There are also some less expensive, well-reviewed places off the beach in the hills.

Food: There are abundant options on the main strip at Pantai Cenang.  Yasmin is a Syrian joint with a small, proper restaurant as well as a nearby sidewalk stand where we enjoyed chicken shawarma (10 MYR).  Palm View offers seafood plus meats like deer and ostrich and was crowded.  Orkid Ria was packed each night.  Tomato is popular.  There is Starbucks and a 24-hour McDonald’s.

Istanbul was closer to Pantai Tengah, the beach just southeast of Cenang.  If you are near Tanjung Rhu then Scarborough’s is a good option for fish and chips.

There are also Dunkin’ Donuts and Dairy Queens in abundance in Langkawi and Penang. How is it easier to find a Dunks in Malaysia than it is in California?

Activities: Perhaps the star attraction is the cable car, ascending ~700 meters in less than 15 minutes.  Tickets may be sold in combination with things like a 3-D movie, but we did just the cable car and it cost 30 MYR each.  Pantai Cenang is the most popular beach area and it’s loaded with jet ski rentals and parasailers.  Underwater World is located here.  There are also some crafts centers, Telaga Tujuh (aka Seven Wells) Waterfalls, a museum or two and duty free shopping.

January 19-22, 2014 (Sunday-Wednesday)