Weekend journey to Malaysia! We had one goal: obtain a non-B immigrant work visa. To work in Thailand, all English teachers must submit heaps of paperwork to the proper authorities, including, but not limited to, a work visa. In order to get the visa, you have to leave Thailand and visit a Thai Embassy in one of the neighboring countries.
So we headed to Penang Malaysia. Our closest neighbor to our southern province.
We sludged through the border control at 5:30 on a Sunday evening (new travel rule: NEVER CROSS A THAI BORDER ON A SUNDAY NIGHT). After four hours of standing in line for one measly stamp, we were finally on our way to Penang, the small island just off the Malaysian coast in the Malacca Straight.
In Georgetown, a quaint little British-influenced city and the main metropolitan area on the island, we hired a taxi to a local guesthouse that a friend recommended. In center of the backpacker neighborhood on a street called Love Lane we found the Old Penang Guesthouse, luckily with one room to spare for the evening. A quaint open air building with gorgeous wooden floors and a balcony that looks out at the common room below, we were happy to stay in such a laid-back and clean guesthouse. The bathroom was the most fascinating setup. On the second floor just near the guestrooms is the shared bathroom. You must step OUT of the building, literally outside, onto a platform on which you’ll find the toilet stalls and showers, all lined with beautiful slate floors and walls. On the end of the platform was the common double sink, open to the street alley below and the sky above. It’s easy to gaze up at the stars and listen to the motos chugging up the street as you stand there brushing your teeth at night.
We dropped off our passports at the Thai Embassy the following morning and with nothing else that could possibly aid in obtaining the work visa, we decided to enjoy ourselves a little. We hired a taxi driver who took us to his own guesthouse where we could rent a moto for the day. He armed us with helmets and a map of the island, recommended the Tropical Spice Garden (ooh!), the Tropical Fruit Farm (ahh!), and a swim in the ocean. So we did just that.
Not far along the winding mountain path towards the north end of the island was the arched entrance sign for the Tropical Spice Garden. At the ticket counter, the locals held a plate with various spices and fruits, explaining each one and which ones we would find in the Garden. The paths are organized by foliage type. Along the orange path, you’ll see spice plants, along the green path, ferns, along the red path, gorgeous flowering plants. At the back of the lush garden is a GIANT wooden swing where you can plunge yourself above the people strolling through the park below. What a gorgeous oasis of fresh air and solitude among a busy street.
Of course the path leads you (Disneyland-style) directly to the restaurant and gift shop at the end of your self-guided tour. With nothing to do for the day, we decided, since we were on vacation, we could treat ourselves to a gourmet array of Malay and Thai food. First course: lemongrass martini with a chili rim, followed by the betel leaf platter. Into the betel leaf, you spoon bites of chili sauce, dried shrimp, toasted coconut, lime, onion, peanuts, ginger, and other spices. A simple and elegant combination of flavors. Second course: Thai and Malay appetizers like shrimp wrapped in banana leaf and simple, crunchy and fresh spring rolls. The restaurant sat on a porch overlooking the ocean below and provided a quiet and relaxing place to reflect in the shade of the billowing trees above.
After a lazy couple hours at the Spice Garden we decided to explore the rest of the road that circles the island. We buzzed our way up the mountain side to the Tropical Fruit Garden but decided it would be nice to have another reason to come back to Penang. Instead we zipped down to a park at the northern end of the island and decided we could hike our way out to the Meromictic Lake just before the ocean. The hike, a stair-master’s dream, led us two hours onto jungle trail lined with Jurassic Park trees and ferns, descending finally onto a bridge over the “lake.” Turns out the tide was out, so the lake was dry. We wandered along the beach instead. A picturesque scene of an empty beach, pure white crabs scampering across the peachy sand, mountains thick with tropical forest rising just out of the ocean and, off in the distance, a turtle sanctuary. We wandered over to find a new batch of baby turtles growing healthily in a safe swimming tank at the sanctuary and museum.
While on the beach we passed another family who had ridden a long-tail boat from the pier where we first began the hike. Noticing the sun beginning to descend over the horizon of the ocean, we decided the hike back would be treacherous in the dark, so we asked to share their taxi boat back to the pier. The friendly family from Singapore graciously let us share their return ride, complete with the boat captain pointing out the white hawks soaring on the mountain side overhead as the fresh ocean spray misted our cheeks.
Day two: Tuesday. We needed to plan our time wisely if we were to make it all the way back to Nakhon that evening. So we explored the area near Love Lane on foot, searching for the word-of-mouth suggestion of excellent Indian food. We zigzagged our way up and down the streets in the Little India district, meandering in and out of the Bollywood music blasting from various storefronts, each with a different beat and melody competing for my ear’s attention. We finally settled on a bustling corner restaurant with bare walls and no décor inside. It looked more like a cafeteria-style eatery with servers bringing terrines of steaming curries and laying out banana leaves of rice for people to pick at with their fingers. It was in this simple frill-less restaurant that I’ve eaten the best Indian food I’ve ever tasted. A heavenly balance of spicy heat and spicy flavor- peppers blended with sweet cardamom and airy nutmeg. Oh how I’ve missed Indian food.
Tuesday afternoon at 2pm sharp, we gathered our new work visas. Well-fed, relaxed and in awe of the country’s absolute pristine beaches, we left for Thailand again. Malaysia was a pleasant surprise for a business-focused trip. A journey I would happily enjoy again.