|America's Interstate Highway|
System: Road Trip Nirvana
So it was with this mindset that I suggested a Malaysian road trip of sorts to my friends. Two of them were participating in the annual Penang Bridge Run, an international marathon that attracts thousands from all over the world to run across the 13.5-km Penang bridge, itself one of the world's longest. There are categories for a full marathon (42 km), a half marathon (21 km), and about a quarter marathon (10 km). My friends were doing the 10-km run, which started at 6 a.m. (The full marathon began at 2 a.m.) They invited me and some others along, so I booked us a two-bedroom suite a couple of months ago -- which even then was hard to come by since the race attracted a record 27,500 runners this year from 67 countries -- and then two of us planned to continue a road trip beyond Penang after our stay there.
Everyone following this so far?
So I proposed that we just head north from Penang, drive into Thailand, go wherever we felt like there, then come back to Malaysia, drive over to Kuala Perlis (at the very northern tip) and take the ferry to Langkawi. No real plans, no hotel reservations beyond Penang, just going where the road took us.
|At the Gurney Drive Hawker Center|
|Firing up an order of|
spicy Char Kuey Teow in the wok
|Ivan and Cat at 5 a.m.,|
modeling their official racewear
So Ivan and Cat both finished in the top half (or maybe top third) of their respective categories (10-km men, 10-km women), got their medals, and walked back to the hotel room, where all the rest of us were still very much passed out asleep. They napped for a bit after returning, and after we had all taken our respective showers and gotten packed, we checked out around 1 p.m. and once again, ventured in to Georgetown, and stopped at a seaside restaurant for some lunch. Then some of the group headed back to KL, while some of us went north to Thailand and the beginning of the real road trip.
I had never been further north by car than the Penang Bridge exit on the North-South Highway, so for me, that's where the adventure really kicked in. Everything was fresh and new, although I must admit, the landscape looked the same. Ha ha. So we drove the two hours to the Thai border, coughed up even more money in tolls (the total bill for tolls on this trip was alarming... more on that later), and stopped at the big "Zon" duty-free shop, the same one that's in airports, that lies between the Malaysia and Thai borders. Officially, I think it's still in Malaysia, but it seems to exist in this sort of limbo, where you've sort of left Malaysia, but haven't technically entered Thailand yet. We popped in and I bought a 5-liter box of Australian wine, some Scotch whiskey, and a bottle of creme de cacao liqueur. Oh, and a couple of beers. I don't really drink beer here much (certainly not the local swill), but I do like to use it for cooking -- it's great for making breads and batters, but a single can is so expensive here, I never bother. Duty-free, however, a can of beer only costs about RM2, so I picked up two cans. Ivan headed straight for the chocolate and bought, I think, about a metric ton of it.
|Here's the border crossing... luckily not too crowded|
After that, we proceeded on to the border, which is best described as a 50/50 blend of chaos and apathy. It was bizarre. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to the process... some people were just waved through, almost no one was stopped nor any car inspected, and yet we still had to do the whole thing twice to get it right. First we had to drive into Thailand and park behind this big building. Now technically at this point, we are fully in Thailand and could have just driven merrily on. There was no one to stop us (except a random monkey sitting there picking through the garbage, no joke). But we took our passports and documents to the walk-through section, took care of that, then went and got in the car to drive on in. However, at this time, there WAS an actual non-simian person there, who said we had to go around the other way. So we backtracked around behind the aforementioned building and drove back through one of the "entry" lanes, where we were directed to park (at the same place we had been before... sigh), and fill out more paperwork to bring the car into Thailand. Because of old tariff regulations that are still on the books, what you actually must do is "temporarily import a vehicle for the purpose of tourism." I had researched this ahead of time, so I knew to have the registration form with me. So the lady printed up the form while eating a piece of cake and dropping crumbs all over the book I had to sign (this was the apathy part of the blend), and once I signed that, agreeing in fact to re-export the car within 30 days or pay a big fine, we drove on into the border town of Dannok, just a couple of dozen kilometers south of Sadao. (As an interesting note, all the dates on the form were in Buddhist calendar form... I think this is year 2554 in the Buddhist era. So I was agreeing to export my car from Thailand before December 21, 2554.)
|Streetside in Dannok, Thailand|
|"Excuse me, sir? Sir? I'm gonna have to ask you to|
move your elephant."
|Sliced pork belly... otherwise known as BACON!|
|Waiting to be cooked|
|A portrait of happiness on aluminum|
|The Dannok McDonald's...|
Probably the nicest place in town
|Ivan and his Corn Pies|
We drove a bit further into Thailand, but ultimately decided not to go all the way to Hat Yai, a good-sized city (Thailand's fourth-largest) about an hour north. So we turned around, drove back into Malaysia (which we had to do twice because, once again owing to the apathy part of the blend, the immigration folks couldn't be bothered to stamp our passports or collect our immigration cards as we exited Thailand). We also had to "export" my car, too, which consisted of handing the form back in. Then it was finally back to Malaysia.
Shortly after crossing the border, we took the new highway from Changlun to Kuala Perlis, stopping along the way to photograph some of the rice paddy fields. It was really a nice bit of scenery.
|Looking north towards Thailand|
|So much GREEN... everywhere we looked|
|I love these flattened-looking trees!|
|Awaiting the ferry to Langkawi|
This was my third time to Langkawi, maybe my fourth... I can't recall. It's a nice place to visit... quiet, nice beaches, lots of history and legend to learn about, and a big enough island to spend a few days exploring. As it turns out, we only stayed one night, but I think it'd be fun to go back and spend more time there and really wander around.
As we got off the boat, we were accosted by a swarm of taxi drivers, naturally, but one of the guys asked if we wanted to rent a car, which we did. I told him I wanted to spend about RM60-70, and he said that was fine. So we went to the big jetty arrival/departure building (it's like a small airport but without planes... restaurants, duty-free shops, the works) and waited for the car to be delivered. Once it arrived, we put our stuff in the back, I got in and sat down and looked at the utter despair of this vehicle, which I think was a mid-90s model of Proton that isn't even made anymore. Even in the dark, it looked pathetic. Honestly, my old Tiara was in better condition. So I actually got out, chased the rental people down and told them that this car simply wouldn't do. It was just a total piece of sad crap. So they made some phone calls and procured a much better Nissan Sentra for us. It cost a little more, but was totally worth it.
The next day consisted of wandering the beach (Pantai Cenang), having pizza at Artisan's Cafe, shopping, and going to the really amazing Langkawi Cable Car and Sky Bridge at about 3 p.m. For whatever reason, I had never been there before, but I'm glad that's no longer the case. Very much worth the price of admission (RM30 for me, RM15 for Malaysians). It was completed in 2003 and is really an amazing piece of engineering. The steepest incline is 42°, one of the steepest in the world, and the longest free span of cable, which is almost alarming to behold from above, is a staggering 950m, which is over 3,100 feet long without any support. The Sky Bridge, which is accessible via a short walk down a steep forest-surrounded series of steps from the top of the cable car, is equally impressive. It's a single-point, side-spar cable-stayed bridge, that's dramatically curved and terminated on each end with a triangular viewing platform. At 650m (2,145 ft.) above sea level, the views of the sea, the numerous islands, and the forested peaks of Langkawi, are spectacular. We were really lucky with the weather... just enough clouds to lend interest and impact to the blue sky, without obscuring any of the land. I'll just post a series of pictures here, most of which need to be clicked on and enlarged to be fully appreciated...
|Blue sky and clear water at Pantai Cenang|
|At one of my favorite streetside cafes, Artisan's...|
pretty good pizzas here!
|Cable car ride (left) over the forest canopy|
|Here's the drama: The 42-degree plunge along a|
nearly 1-km length of unsupported cable
|The Andaman Sea and a handful of islands in the distance,|
from the Middle Station of the Cable Car ride
|Approaching the Sky Bridge:|
Not a place for acrophobes
|Looking out on the horizontal cable section between the|
Middle Station and Top Station
|A full view of the amazing Sky Bridge from|
the Cable Car as we began our descent
After spending a couple of hours at the Cable Car and Sky Bridge, we meandered back to Kuah and the jetty, so we could catch the final 7 p.m. ferry back to the mainland.
|The view from the jetty as we boarded the ferry|
We reclaimed my car, a muddy, filthy mess by this time, and headed east on the highway back to Changlun. There, we stopped for a dinner break, then got back on the road, which soon joined the proper North-South Highway, and the extortionate tolls recommenced. All told, we spent about RM125 in tolls and another RM200+ on gas. But what a fun trip! Oh, and on the five-hour journey from the northern extreme of Peninsular Malaysia back down to the KL area, it literally rained the entire time. The good news, though, is that my car was considerably cleaner when we arrived back home than it was when we left Kuala Perlis!
So on the road trip, because I've always found it important to note such details, we logged 1,069 km, or about 640 miles. It was definitely an enjoyable experience... one I'd certainly repeat, this time maybe going further into Thailand and/or staying longer on Langkawi!
Coming soon... a three-week trip back home to Colorado for Christmas and New Year's. I can't believe 2011 is almost over!