Ringing in 2011..
.. on the beaches of Langkawi. That’s what we did on 31st night & this is a post about our vacation.
WARNING: This is an extremely long and extremely rambling post!
What happened was that in mid-December, the Mrs and I found our calendars cleared for the last few days of December. Which is just ‘power executive’ speak for there will be no work to do in the last week of December.
Now with free time on hand, my usual plan is to spend it on one of my always ongoing hobby projects. So while I was planning on features & enhancements, the Mrs was researching all the places we could visit on such short notice. Guess who won?!
Within the constraints of interest, cost, visa availability and a few other variables, we settled on visiting the island of Langkawi in Malaysia. This triggered a (non-deterministic) search for the best return flight fares to Langkawi. After much (pseudo-scientific) deliberation, we settled on the following itinerary:
- SIN (29th @ 1045 hrs) -> LGK (29th @ 1215 hrs)
- LGK ( 1st @ 0925 hrs) -> PEN ( 1st @ 1000 hrs)
- PEN ( 1st @ 2110 hrs) -> SIN ( 1st @ 2230 hrs)
That’s right, we got a day to spend in Penang! Two cities for the price of One!
Next began the search for a place to stay. This being holiday season, all the beach resorts were either sold out or priced out of reach. The latter, if you ask me, is effectively the same as the former. So we booked a room with the Azio Hotel in Kuah, the town center of Langkawi that is far, far away from any beach.
On 29th of December, after a slightly delayed flight, we landed on the rain-drenched island of Langkawi. We rented a pre-paid taxi from the airport to take us to our hotel. Taxi fares in Langkawi are standardized. Airport to town: RM x; Town to beach: RM y; beach to airport: RM z. There are no meters to be found anywhere.
The Azio Hotel is an interesting beast. The rooms are excellent. Clean sheets & towels, comfortable bed, functioning air conditioning (which we didn’t use), a clean shower, basic toiletries and even slippers. The fit, finish & lighting is top-notch. If I had a complaint about the room, it would be the lack of a mini-fridge. And the lack of a phone to call the front-desk.
Actually, scratch that last part. At Azio, there is little sense in talking to the front desk. The front desk’s core competency is taking your money while checking you in & returning your deposit while checking you out. They don’t have any supplementary competencies. Questions like, “where’s the nearest money changer?” or “which is a good tour agent?” go either unanswered or - worse - incorrectly answered. To sum up, the Azio is a bunch of great rooms and a cashier.
Since we couldn’t get any information from our hotel, we walked a couple of blocks to the City Bayview Hotel, a three/four star property. We got all our questions answered by the Bayview staff and on their suggestion, decided to start the vacation proper by going to the Cable Car. They even called us a taxi!
After a forty five minute ride, we reached the Oriental Village which is where the cable car starts its upwards journey. This cable car takes riders all the way to the top of Gunung Mat where there’s a Sky Bridge offering spectacular views of the island. Or so we’ve heard. When we reached there, which was about 4:30 in the afternoon, they had stopped operating the cable car for the rest of the day due to inclement weather. It was just a drizzle! Disappointed at our bad luck, we walked around the Oriental Park for a while before hiring
another the same taxi to go to Pantai Cenang, the most popular beach in Langkawi.
We walked along Cenang beach for a while, making plans for the next couple of days. Among all the ‘tourist’ activities that are popular in Langkawi, we decided to do just two: a snorkeling day trip to Pulau Payar Marine Park & a half-day Island Hopping trip. This would also give us time to try our luck with the Cable Car once again.
Time to put the plan in action. We talked to a few agents & then booked the snorkeling day trip for the next day. This left us with one day - 31st - for Island Hopping and Cable Car. Next, we considered our transport options around the island. It costs RM 26 for a one way taxi from our hotel to the beach. It costs RM 25 to rent a 125cc scooter for a day. No-brainer: scooter rented for two days.
With our plans fixed, we walked along Jalan Pantai Cenang looking for a place to have dinner. That’s when our bad luck from earlier in the day chose to return and made us enter Raj Darbar, a purportedly Arabic & Indian restaurant. I was keen on having some falafel but they didn’t have any starters from their Arabic menu. Since we weren’t that hungry, we decided to order some fried onion pakoras for starters followed by an aloo paratha & gobi paratha for main course. The pakoras were decent while the aloo paratha was awful. When the gobi paratha came, I noticed a large, (thankfully?) dead mosquito stuck to the paratha. I called the waiter & pointed it out to him. He looked at it for a few seconds and then took it to his boss. Both of them discussed the paratha for a minute before sending it back to the kitchen. Then we waited.
Eventually, I called the waiter and asked if he’s getting the paratha or not. The waiter looks confused. “My boss told me paratha cancelled”. Now I am confused! And pissed. We had a similarly bad Indian food experience in Bali. Thankfully, the service in Bali wasn’t this atrocious. We left that place with a new resolution: never eat in an Indian restaurant outside India. The odds are, it will suck.
It was getting late by then so we decided to start our ride back to the hotel. After a pleasant forty minute ride on our rented scooter, we reached Azio and called it a night.
On this day, we were scheduled to go on the snorkeling day trip. The tour organizers were to pick us up at 9AM. Since Azio has no restaurant, we had to go searching for breakfast. This was important since we had no idea when and what kind of lunch we had in store for us! Eventually, we found a food court where we had some veggie mee goreng & plain thosai. The delay in getting breakfast caused us to reach the hotel a few minutes too late and our pick up bus left without us! Thankfully, we managed to run and catch it while it was picking up more folks at the hotel across the road.
The snorkeling trip involved going to Pulau Payar, a small island some 20km south of Langkawi. The bus took us to the Langkawi Jetty where we transferred to a
boat ship something-between-a-boat-and-a-ship. At about 11:15, we reached Payar where we were given snorkeling gear and we soon waded into the sea.
Here’s two things you need to know about snorkeling in Payar:
- Compared to Tioman and Redang, the coral is practically dead.
- The fish are very aggressive and will start nipping at your legs as soon as you stand still.
The coral in Tioman is really beautiful, full of colour and life. In Payar, at least near the beach where we were allowed to snorkel, it was dull, brown and lifeless. I guess that’s why the fish were so aggressive, any new food source is welcome ;-)
On the plus side, we did see a few sharks swimming in the shallow waters. Not huge, the biggest must have been a metre long. Luckily, the bite marks on our legs were from the smaller fish & not the sharks :-)
We were at Payar till about 3:30 in the afternoon after which we returned to Langkawi in the same something-between-a-boat-and-a-ship and to our hotel in the same bus.
When we reached the hotel, it had started raining which dashed our plans of taking the scooter out to visit the Eagle Square and the Legend Garden. Thankfully, it stopped late in the evening and we were able to end the day with a relaxing massage and a nice dinner of pizza and pasta at the Cappucino House. If you happen to be stuck in Kuah looking for food, you can’t go wrong with this cozy street corner cafe.
This was our last day in Langkawi and as luck would have it, we woke up to clear skies with nary a cloud in sight. Perhaps we could take the Cable Car ride after all!
We quickly got dressed & took out our scooter. After having some thosai at the same food court as the day before, we set out on the long ride to the Oriental Village. The weather was great and made the hour long ride an excellent one.
Alas, lady luck struck again! When we reached Oriental Village, we found that the cable car operation had been suspended yet again, this time due to “high winds”. They wouldn’t start operating it for another couple of hours and even then, there was no guarantee since it all depended on the weather conditions. If we took our chances and waited for operations to resume, it could mean missing out on the Island Hopping tour that we had planned to do in the afternoon. Trading a possibility for a certainty, we bid adieu to Gunung Mat and set out for Cenang beach.
At Cenang beach, we booked two seats for the Island Hopping tour that afternoon from an agent we had talked to the day before. The tour was to start at 2:30 which gave us ample time to have lunch and roam around a bit. The former was done at 3 Amigos, a Mexican restaurant which served decent fajitas, while the latter was done near the Underwater World where a dozens of shops sell identical clothes & souvenirs.
Come 2:30, a van picked us up and took us to the jetty in Pantai Tengah due south of Cenang beach. Here, we got into small speed boats with a bunch of other folks and set out on the Island Hopping tour. The first stop was the Pregnant Maiden Island, named for the shape that the peak of the island’s hills seem to take - that of a reclining pregnant woman. While the giant, pregnant “lady” is just an amusing trick of perspective, what’s really interesting is what the island hides: a huge fresh water lake just a few hundred metres away from the wide open sea.
The lake is really something and if you are taking this tour, you must dive into the lake! For non-swimmers like the Mrs and myself, jumping into the lake was scary at first - the lake is really deep and the sensation of having nothing beneath your feet took some getting used to. Thankfully, the life jackets helped us relax and enjoy just floating around in the cool, clean water. Pro-tip: when visiting the lake, bring a change of clothing and the life-jackets from your boat. If you don’t plan to swim, there are also paddle boats that you can rent and explore the lake.
After about forty five minutes of enjoying the waters, we returned to our boat. There are several monkeys on the path between the jetty and the lake. On our way back, we encountered one fine member of the tailed species enjoying a bottle of Chivas :-)
Next on the agenda was Eagle feeding off Pulau Beras Basah. The boatman took us near the coast where dozens of eagles were soaring in the skies. Every once in a while, they would swoop down from the sky to the water surface & grab a catch from the sea. While the display was magnificent, I really doubt if these are actual “feeding grounds” for the eagles. I think they hang out in that area solely because of the tour boats whose operators throw out pieces of chicken to show off “eagle feeding”.
After a few minutes of this show, something unexpected happened. My camera ran out of storage space! Note to self: always delete photos from the previous trip before starting a new one! Oh well, it was time to move on anyway.
Our last stop was a nice secluded beach on Pulau Beras Basah where we found a nice spot to sit munching some chips with Coke, enjoying the view. Across the beach in front of us was another island that was covered in mist. It took just a couple of minutes for that “mist” to reach us in the form of pouring rain! Everyone on the beach ran for cover to the one available shelter! Well, everyone except for those already in the water.
After about ten minutes of waiting under the shelter, it was clear that the rain wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. So we ran back to the boat and started the ride back to Langkawi. By 6 pm, we were back on land making our way back to Cenang beach in the same van that had picked us up. Although we couldn’t enjoy the beach at the last hop, the wonderful experience at the pregnant maiden lake more than made up for it.
This was the new year eve and so we asked around which would be the best place to spend the evening. The seemingly universal answer: “On the beach!” Well, that’s where we’ll be then! After some pizza for dinner, we returned our rental scooter which we wouldn’t be needing any more. Then we headed to the beach & found a place close to a large, yet to be lit bonfire. (Is there a word for that - a yet to be lit bonfire?). We spent the new few hours chatting, watching the waves & the crowds as the clock ticked towards midnight.
As 2011 inched closer, a number of people were lighting up & releasing lanterns into the sky. At one point, I reckon there was a lantern being flown every 5 seconds. Whoever was selling those was making a killing :-) At midnight, the beach exploded in a splendid display of fireworks! There were rockets launching from at least three different places along the stretch of the beach. What a great way to ring in the new year!
Since we had an early morning flight to catch on the 1st, we left the beach at around 12:20 and hailed a taxi for our 40 minute ride back to the hotel. Back at the hotel, I set the morning alarm before we hit the bed & fell asleep in no time.
Our flight to Penang was scheduled to depart at 9:25 in the morning from Langkawi. Based on that, we woke up at 6:30 with a plan to be at the airport at 8. After a quick shower & packing up, we checked out at around 7:15 and then waited for a taxi that the hotel called for us. After the first one didn’t show up, we called for another one which came around 7:30. We figured it’ll take half an hour to reach the airport but thanks to zero traffic and an adventurous driver, we were there at 7:50.
The Fireflyz check-in counter was closed & wouldn’t open till 8:15. We looked around for a place to have breakfast. Although most of the shops in the airport were closed, there was a Starbucks open at the far end. We had a muffin, a croissant and some orange juice before checking in and heading to Penang.
Before the trip, I had asked a friend who’s from Penang on what we could do in a day over there. Based on her suggestion of visiting Georgetown & Gurney Plaza, we made a plan. We would leave our bags at a locker service at the airport, then head to Georgetown, walk around the historic district for a few hours, then head to Gurney Plaza for a bit of shopping before returning to the airport for our 9:10PM flight back to Singapore.
The best laid schemes of mice and men…
The first problem was that there’s no baggage locker service at Penang. Some international airport this! Since we couldn’t (enjoyably) walk around Georgetown with two big bags dragging us down, we had to change our plans. We figured we would go to Gurney Plaza first & find the mall’s locker service. If they have one, we would be all set to roam free of our burdens!
With the new plan in mind, we sought out the Rapid Penang inquiry counter to find out which bus would take us to Gurney Plaza. The very helpful guy at the counter suggested that we drop the idea of going to Gurney - we would waste too much time travelling in the grid-locked weekend traffic - and instead visit the Queens Bay Mall. It was much closer to the airport and he was pretty sure they had a locker service. We thanked him for his help and proceeded to take the bus to Queensbay Mall.
When we reached the mall, we figured we had come to the right place. This mall looked huge! I mean if a mall has a South Zone but the North Zone is nowhere in sight, you know it’s going to be gigantic! With our hopes up, we went into the Queensbay Mall. While the Mrs. waited with our baggage, I went looking for the information desk to enquire about the locker service. The good news was that they did have a locker service. The bad news was that it wasn’t yet operational :-(
That was disappointing, to say the least. It appeared as though our best option to spend the day would be to spend hours doing window shopping and perhaps catch a movie in the mall before heading back to the airport. Since it was past 11 AM and we were quite hungry, we decided to have early lunch. While eating subs at a Subway, it occurred to me that there might be a hotel nearby which could help us out with our baggage situation. I stepped out of the mall & found direction signs for a Eastin Hotel. Although I couldn’t see the hotel, I figured if it was at least a three star property, we had a chance.
So we finished our lunch, picked up our bags and headed out of the mall, following the signs to the Eastin Hotel. Turns out, it was just around the block and much to our delight, a four/five star hotel. We were ushered in to the lobby by the staff and we approached the reception desk.
I informed the receptionist that we had a flight late in the evening and asked if they had a baggage drop service. She immediately called the concierge and asked him to take care of our bags. The concierge started filling out a baggage claim tag for which he asked my name and whether this was pre-checkin or post-checkout. We said we’d checked out. Then he asked for our room number. The trick here is to provide a valid room number. You can’t say 1503 in a hotel that has only three digit room numbers! I had anticipated this question and had spied a room-service sheet at the reception desk earlier with a couple of room numbers written on it. I recited one of those numbers to the concierge who then took our bags, provided us the claim tag and we were on our way to explore Penang!
We immediately took a cab to Fort Cornwallis in Georgetown, the northern section of Penang. This fort, built by Francis Light, isn’t much of a fort if you ask me. Having seen forts in India, this seems like a small barricade in comparison.
From Fort Cornwallis, we embarked on a walking tour of the Georgetown area. First was the City Hall which is separated from the Fort by a open air park called the Esplanade. From there, we walked to the St. George’s Church, the stately Court building and to the Penang Museum.
The Penang Museum, which charges a very small entrance fee, hosts a very interesting and varied collection depicting the history & culture of Penang. We particularly enjoyed the various types of clothing & other artifacts of daily use on display. What makes it particularly interesting is that Penang is quite multi-cultural and so it’s interesting to compare the culture & lifestyle of the different ethnic groups that have lived there over the years.
Leaving the museum, we started walking along the old streets of Georgetown and found a couple of Chinese temples nestled amongst the old-style houses and shops. Two blocks away from those temples was the Little India type area with lots of Indian shops and couple of Hindu temples. Here, we took a little breather drinking some cool and fresh coconut water.
Recharged, we started walking further south, passing through the Muslim and Lebanese sections of town before finally reaching the Kapitan Keling Mosque. This mosque looked like an oasis of order, cleanliness and tranquility in that part of town. However, it wasn’t open to visitors at that time.
We had been walking for quite some time now and had run out of places that we wanted to see in Georgetown. Since it was getting late too, we figured we should head back to Queens Bay Mall. We had a bus route guide with us according to which, we could get a direct bus from the Jetty. But we had no area map which could show us how to get to the Jetty.
We found a bus heading to the Jetty so just started following it in the hopes of catching finding a bus stop where we could take a Jetty bound bus. Much to our surprise, the Jetty was just a couple of blocks away! Once there, we found out that the next bus to Queens Bay would be leaving in half an hour. With some time to kill, we walked around the Jetty area, watching cars being loaded/unloaded from the ferry plying between the island and the mainland. At the scheduled time, we took the bus and reached Queens Bay Mall after an uneventful half hour ride.
Our early lunch had disappeared by then so we found a Dome cafe at the mall to placate our hunger. They served us an excellent pasta and an excellent sandwich - by far the best meal we had during this entire trip. Satisfied, we walked around the mall doing a bit of window shopping.
Around five thirty in the evening, we decided we should make our way back to the airport since seeing the gridlock traffic near the mall, it looked like it would take at least an hour to reach the airport. But before that, there was the little matter of getting our bags back.
So we went back to the Eastin Hotel - a wee bit nervous that our little lie had been caught. Luckily, no such thing happened and we were in and out of the hotel in under two minutes! Marvelous service! I can’t recommend this hotel enough. :-)
We took the bus back to the airport and proceeded to check in and clear the security check. Then both of us just relaxed for an hour, reading books until it was time to board the one and half hour long flight back to Singapore.
That was the story of our New Year vacation and I just can’t believe that you read this post till the very end! Be honest though, you just skimmed over half of it, didn’t you? Alright, even if you read only parts of it, here’s a reward for getting this far.. a gif of a monkey engaging in some, well, monkey business. :)