So where were we? Ah yes, the bus journey from hell. Technically, it started with a night boat, which we were encouraged to take because "it has beds and you'll be able to sleep". It turned out the word 'bed' was a bit of an exaggeration.
There was very little sleep to be had. We then boarded a small shuttle bus, that was filled with other passengers and all of our luggage, which, since the boot was too small, was stuffed into the aisle between our seats. As we set off with our knees pressed against the back of the seat in front, we refused to believe that this tiny bus was going to take us the 6-hour journey to Penang. We were right; but only half-right; it stopped in Hat Yai where we were transferred onto an equally tiny bus to complete our journey. As we rattled into Georgetown, every bum in the road jolted us almost out of our seats, and even though we were dropped off on a random street with no map and no Malaysian currency, I've never been so relieved to finish a journey in my life. Luckily our hostel had the best shower in Asia to brighten me up.
Penang was a real mixing pot of cultures; like most of Malaysia it’s a combination chiefly of Thailand, India and China, but influences from the Middle East and Britain can also be seen. The best indicators of the city’s multiculturalism are found in its architecture and its religion; on our first day we walked a Heritage Trail around Georgetown, Penang’s main city, and found many British-style buildings, constructed during Penang’s time as a colony, such as the Town and City Halls. On our walk we also discovered a wide range of places of worship; churches, mosques, Taoist and Buddhist temples mingle in the narrow streets as if religion had never caused a war in all of history.
One of the most interesting features of Georgetown is the clan jetties, where various Chinese clans have built small towns on the wooden jetties that stretch out into the river. Mazes of streets have actually been constructed, and contain houses, shops and even the odd café. Entire communities live on these jetties, but they do feel a little fragile; indeed, one of the clans was asking for donations to replace the wooden supports that were rotting in the sea water. We ventured onto the boards with a little more trepidation after that.
After a few days we moved on to Kuala Lumpur. The capital has clearly had money poured into it, and it’s now a daunting maze of glass skyscrapers and giant shopping malls. Therefore it seems only fitting that the city’s main attraction, The Petronas Towers, combines both of these features; the impressive towers play host to an up-scale shopping mall at its base, housing the likes of Louis Vuitton, Armani and Chanel.
Although we did find areas of peacefulness and beauty at the National Mosque and the Perdana Botanical Gardens, for us Kuala Lumpur exuded a cold and impersonal air that we had rarely encountered in Asia, and we soon escaped to Melaka, a small town further down the west coast. The town is fairly small, but has a vibrant Chinatown and a ruined old church with beautiful views over the city. Our hostel was one of the best we’ve stayed in; the owner was so friendly and organised nightly trips to various street markets around the town, where we could sample authentic Malaysian food and get to know other residents. It was with a slight pang of sadness that we departed the hostel and headed for Tioman Island on the east coast.
Tioman was perfect. Quiet, rustic, undeveloped; it was everything we hoped the Thai islands would be. We were without internet for the duration of our stay, which in this day and age is fairly close to being off the map. The beaches were small but sandy, and the water was so clear you could swim out until you were treading water and you could still see the sea bed. We went diving and had our best experience yet; the visibility was incredible and we even saw our first turtle! Its only in water of this clarity that you can truly get a sense of how vast the ocean is, and how little of it we are able to explore.
After three days of blissful relaxation, it was time for the final leg of our Southeast Asia journey, to the decadent city of Singapore. Like Kuala Lumpur it was a shopper's heaven, but it was also so much more. The city had a vibrancy that was missing in KL, and the architecture was simply stunning; we found ourselves marveling at offices and shopping centres.
The bay area is particularly spectacular; a 'garden' of huge trees that light up at night have been constructed, with a real garden circling their base and a view of Singapore's wheel in the distance. Although we didn't get to see them at night, they were impressive enough during the day.
We enjoyed a final cheap-but-delicious meal of chinese chicken curry and rice at a popular place near our hostel, and with that we left for the airport on a high. Goodbye Asia, and hello Australia!