Riding through Penang

So I rented that motorbike like I said I was going to. Very glad I picked up an international license before I left home. I wasn’t going to, because the only countries I intended to ride in were Vietnam and China, and they are about the only countries that don’t accept international licenses. Fortunately I did, because when I went down to the lobby and said “Can I rent a motorbike ?” the guy goes “You have an international license ?” and I said “Sure do” and showed it to him and he went “Oh that makes it much easier. No problems. Here’s the keys, the bike’s outside. Just bring it back full of gas”. “Sweet”, I said and just took off.

… in the pouring rain. It was pelting down. At first I carried my camera thinking the rain wouldn’t be hard or would stop, but it didn’t. I didn’t care about getting wet, but I figured I should put my camera away so I stopped and sqeezed it into my Domo-kun bag with all my other crap and kept going. The rain did stop, or at least slow, but I stupidly headed off down the highway which was covered in massive puddles and despite being able to keep up a decent 90k/h without problems of course I couldn’t hit the puddles at that speed, so I would have to slow down to go through them. When I did so, cars would scream past me through the puddles absolutely drenching me in water until I was soaked to the bone.

This didn’t worry me at the time because it was hot outside and I dried fast in the wind and sun, but in retrospect i wasn’t so good for me as by evening I’d come down with a nasty cold. But riding around was a lot of fun. I went to the Georgetown historical area, but to be honest that was pretty damn boring. There really was only a few old building and a fort. Nothing much to speak of and I left thoroughly unimpressed. But who comes to Malaysia to see old British colonial buildings anyway ?

So I continued on around the coast to Batu Ferringhi beach which was just stunning. The cliffs fell away to these beautiful beaches and rocky outcrops dividing hundreds of little coves. Sadly it was impossible to take photos, because there was nowhere to stop on the narrow winding roads beside the cliff edge. I did try to take video as I rode, but I doubt any of it turned out, because my video camera is useless. It’s always too shaky and doesn’t have a wide enough lens. It might be find for birthday parties but it’s useless for scenic videos.

I passed through the lovely restaurant and bar areas of Batu Ferringhi, one of which advertised 88 different meals in an all-you-can-eat buffet for about $6.60 which sounded amazing. There were a lot of fancy places too, but I steered clear of them. I like the cheap food court food here. It just seems more authentic to me and it’s what I see the locals eat, so that’s what I prefer. Often I don’t even ask what things are, I just point at a big tray of some sort of curry and say “I’ll have some of that with rice please”. I have never had a meal in Malaysia that wasn’t so delicious that I didn’t have to rave about it to my friends online while I was eating.

After that, the built up areas fell away to a fishing village. I could tell, because the stench of rotting fish was palpable. It was very pretty and there were all these really old, run-down wooden and stone buildings just like you expect in a fishing village in Malaysia. I found the marina area where they stored all their fishing boats and rode out along the rock wall. It was really magical and I felt like I wasn’t on a big, built up city-island at all, but some remote, isolated little fishing community with just a small number of people there subsisting on what they caught from the ocean.

I really wanted to head up into the mountains to see what was up there and travel through the lush wilderness, so I took a road heading up a steep incline. I had no idea where I was going and I took a few odd turns, but I have a GPS so I wasn’t afraid of getting lost, although having my bike break down would have sucked and as the road got narrower and more rocky I was wondering what I would do if that happened. I only had a very low clearance on the little scooter and there were a couple of times when I went over big potholes and through ditches that I scraped the kickstand and stuff on the bottom of the bike.

Turns out, where I was going was a Malaysian cemetery. And it was amazing to behold. The hills suddenly opened up on thousands upon thousands of gorgeous, ornate marble and stone grave sites with beautiful words written on them and pictures of the deceased there. I rode around in awe, feeling like I probably shouldn’t be there, but I was sure I was there for all the right reasons so I don’t think anyone would have minded.

The hills just went on and on, and as I went further inland, the sites became more and more overgrown and covered in weeds as I reached graves from generations ago that had fallen into disrepair as the future generations neglected to maintain them. All of them had various animals and carved gods on them of many different varieties and some had unusual things.

There was one that was just a small turtle with its head inside its shell and I wondered if it was a child’s grave because it was off to the side a bit from a site where a couple was buried, but it was one of the few sites that only had Chinese hanzi written on it, so I couldn’t tell what it said. I sort of wish I’d had someone there to explain things to me. Not a tour guide or anything, just someone local who could tell me things in their own opinion.

I really like Asian cultures’ forms of ancestor worship and I think it’s a custom I’d like to learn more about and maybe follow myself. I don’t like how in western culture were are told to put the dead behind us and “let go”. I know people keep photos and stuff around, but I really like the way these people will have photos of the deceased in a special place of pride in their home, above any other photos, and always they will have an incense burner there where they will burn incense every day out of respect.

I departed the cemetery and continued on through the mountains. I passed a huge dam with the sun glistening off the water and wished I had a wide angle lens so that I could have photographed it properly with the lovely mountains and cliffs in the background. I really must get one. Even if I have to cut my trip short and not make it up past Vietnam, I think it would be a very good thing for me to have with me and make my photographic journey so much richer.

The road up here was nearly deserted with only the odd bike coming past every 5 or 10 minutes. The sign said the next region (because I don’t think there are any “towns” up here) wasn’t for another 20 kilometers or more and I had no idea what would even be there, but I had a full tank of fuel and mobile signal and spare batteries so I wasn’t bothered. It’s not like I was hundreds of kilometers off the beaten track in the Cameron Highlands. It was just the mountains of Penang. No big deal.

The road was very windy and it dropped away sharply at the side into huge gorges. The trees became more lush and there were some waterfalls, one of which a car was stopped beside and a Muslim couple were beside the bottom of the waterfall while their daughter played in the water. There were some wild roosters and turkeys on the side of the road and it amused me that just as I passed the roosters with my camera they let out a loud cock-a-doodle-do right on cue for me.

I rode for what seemed like miles until I crested the mountain and suddenly I could see the lowlands and the townships of Permatang Pasir and Sungai Burung on the western side of Penang stretched out below me with huge rocky outcrops stretching into the ocean. It was an amazing site, but again I didn’t have a suitable lens to take it in, and my point and shoot camera had a flat battery as I’d been using it to film with, since it’s a lot better than my actual video camera.

I continued on down the mountain and through the towns. I noticed a guy on a bike in front of me turn off down a side lane in the direction of the ocean. In the spirit of Dirk Gently I decided to just follow him and see where he went. He led me down a narrow little bitumen path not quite big enough for a car through banana plantations and alongside a water channel. It was absolutely beautiful and exactly what I imagined that Malaysia should look like.

It was tropical and lush and there were water channels and farmland and tiny little run-down farmhouses. I really felt like I had finally seen the true Malaysia. Not just Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown. I really felt like the Balik Pulau area was the real Asian tropics that I had come here to see. Yes I loved Chinatown and I love the shopping and the food, but this was a whole other experience. This was the unspoilt Malaysian countryside and I was so pleased that I had rented a bike and gotten off the beaten track a bit instead of just trudging through the busy streets looking at vendors and restaurants. This was the real Asia that I had come to see.

I took some photos and video at the beach, but my batteries were dying in all my devices from having taken so much footage so I decided to head home and see if I had time to charge my cameras before sunset. Unfortunately I didn’t realise quite how far it was cross the island and the main roads through the mountains were incredibly busy with people crossing from one side to the other and it actually took me almost a couple of hours before I finally got back to my hotel, though no doubt the route I took was far from optimal.

I was hot and sticky and starting to come down with a cold from exposure to the rain this morning so I had a luke-warm shower (the hot water sucks at this hotel, but not as bad as their abysmal internet) and lay down in the aircon to process my video. To my horror, all the video after about 4pm was just gone. I checked card after card, wondering what could have happened to it. My favourite bits of footage were just nowhere to be seen. I sighed and felt like crying, but kept telling myself I could go back out again tomorrow and re-take them if I have time.

Here’s the photos of the day and two videos of me riding through Penang highlands during the day and through Little India at night. Enjoy.

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2 Responses to Riding through Penang

  1. Sticky says:

    None can doubt the veracity of this arictle.

  2. todays date says:

    i love your blog, i have it in my rss reader and always like new things coming up from it.

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