My first and only visit to Penang had been on my very first overseas trip, nearly 18 years ago. I was not particularly impressed with the island that time, but I wondered what these more experienced traveller's eyes would make of it now.
In a similar vein I had only flown AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok return back in 2008. They were quite okay then and I was interested to see how they compared in the LCC stakes after so much flying on Jetstar.
I had originally wanted to fly Jetstar Asia from SIN-PEN as they were cheaper, but AirAsia were more frequent and not too much more expensive for the three of us. I paid for prebooked seating (not available last time) and for checked luggage and checked in using my mobile phone.
We caught a taxi from the Parkroyal to Changi, running under the familiar tree canopy.
AirAsia currently leave from Terminal 1 at Changi, the most familiar of the terminals for me. I rather enjoyed the kinetic raindrop sculpture at the entrance to the departures level.
The busy AirAsia check in area only had a single functioning automatic kiosk which refused to scan passenger's phone QR codes. Even if it does, you still have to go to the document check desk and then queue up for the baggage drop. Boarding passes were of the dreadful thermal paper kind. So far not impressed by the efficiency of the setup.
We had a late breakfast at the Ruyi cafe landside and I sneaked off to get some cranberry kuih lapis from the Bengawan Solo outlet - my addiction.
|Cranberry Kuih Lapis|
It was now fairly late and we had to make our way airside. Immigration was typically fast and there was time for some photos in the open garden area, which feels a bit like wasted space, but is quite pleasant.
We watched our aircraft, a flying advertising board, arrive at the gate, but B still had to do some last minute shopping...
|Ahh Skytrax, that mob that call Malaysia Airlines 5 star.|
ETD: 11:45 (local)
ETA: 13:05 (local)
Maps generated by the
Great Circle Mapper -
copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
Boarding was done by zones. Being in the eighth row we entered through the front airbridge. I found the seating to be comfortable enough (better than Scoot) and the legroom adequate for short-haul. The flight attendants looked quite casual in jeans and short-sleeved shirts.
|Cute legs with sexy legs behind|
|Hot seats are red|
Alex soon fell asleep while still on the tarmac and B busied herself in the airline magazine with an article about Taipei, an upcoming destination. I was being your inflight representative and trying to pay attention to all that aviation stuff, one-handed.
|SQ 777 and FireFly ATR-72 500. Flew on the latter from KUA - SIN in 2010.|
We took off towards the north and soon entered some rather bumpy clouds.
For most of the rest of the flight the clouds obscured most vision of the landscape below, which was probably mostly palm oil plantations and a bit of jungle anyway. I settled back, put Kitaro's soundtrack to Heaven and Earth, my soundtrack to that first trip, on and just dreamed away out the window. Last time we visited Penang we took the land route, travelling by train from Johor Bahru to Butterworth, with a stop in Kuala Lumpur. I still remembered the cries of "Curry pap (puff), curry pap" and the endless repeats of advertisements forMamee noodles and Kancil cars. But there were also views of local Malaysia, of tiny jungle villages with Hindu temples adorned with colourful gods.
Lost in my reverie I suddenly saw the seatbelt lights switch on and thought that it must be due to the ominous looking clouds ahead. I was surprised to discover that we were on final descent into Penang Airport.
While the island of Singapore is surrounded by vast numbers of ships, Penang Island was surrounded by a small flotilla of tiny fishing boats. It did feel like we were landing on an island resort, despite the size.
|On the tarmac in Penang|
I'm glad we arrived over ten minutes early. That dark cloud looked very threatening, and despite the presence of airbridges we used the stairs.
Penang's International Airport was shiny, but felt unfinished. It was a long walk through a separate path to domestic passengers to get to immigration. Customs and luggage was completed very quickly - I really like the fact that you don't have to fill out cards anymore, but once out there was virtually nothing to see or do. The tourist office was deserted except for a sign saying "Out to lunch". No taxis appear to pick up from the airport except for a rather expensive prepaid "limo" service and a tout that we didn't like the sound of. We though of catching a bus all the way out to Batu Ferringhi, but that big dark storm cloud threatened. We eventually acquiesced and used the limo service, our driver taking it very slowly in the heavy tropical downpour.
We stayed at the Parkroyal Penang Resort at Batu Ferringhi. We rarely stay in resorts and the whole family loved this one. Very friendly, great breakfast with local dishes alongside the standard fare, waterslides, a kids club with play area. On the evening of our arrival there was a snake show featuring a very scary king cobra and nutcase snake handler! The resort is right alongside the beach and the sunsets were gorgeous. Unfortunately there are jellyfish in the water and Alex got a minor sting on the foot while wading.
Unfortunately, a bit like the first trip to Penang, this stay was somewhat spoiled for us by the presence of Mother-in-Law, who insisted on eating boring-I-can-get-this-in-Sydney Cantonese cuisine rather than the range of local delicacies. I am yet to get a great appreciation of Penang cuisine, especially of the Nonya variety.
|Batu Ferringhi beach|
|The pool at the Parkroyal|
|Penang Butterfly Farm|
|Giant millipedes, Penang Butterfly Farm|
|Penang Hill Tram, my only railway trip in Malaysia|
|Unfortunately, not great views atop Penang Hill due to cloud.|
|Penang Assam laksa|
|An empty food cart in Georgetown|
|Sunset at Batu Ferringhi|
|We went on a markets tour with the executive chef of the Parkroyal. These are pickled fruits.|
|This Georgetown market is mostly empty now. People shop at airconditioned supermarkets.|
|Move over Val Kilmer, *this* is Iceman.|
Neither B, nor anyone else in her family, had ever visited the Eastern Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. Whilst B and her mum were interested in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, I had seen a photo of Kuching and knew I just had to visit.
It is fortunate that we picked Sarawak instead of Sabah, as M-i-L would have freaked out about the insurgency in the east of the latter. The Malaysian armed forces had deployed artillery and dropped bombs from F/A-18s. Despite the nasty violence perpetrated by the insurgents it did seem liked overkill to me, but it's an election year, the government was doing badly in the polls, and according to the Malaysian newspapers that I read anyone who had any doubts whatsoever was a traitor. It appears that critical thinking skills are in short supply in the Malaysian media, which should be good for their job prospects should they wish to join one of Murdoch's newspapers in Australia.
The downside of getting to Kuching was that there is a single direct flight from Penang and that it departs at 7am. With Penang Airport being up to an hour away from Batu Ferringhi, plus the need to check in 30 minutes before departure, that made for a very early departure from the hotel.
Our breakfast was delivered to the room at 4.30am and half an hour we were on our way in the taxi. We were flying with AirAsia again, but this time their kiosk (an older, non-touchscreen model) allowed us to check in. Then we dropped our bags off with the unsmiling lady at the appropriate desk.
We made it through security and continued airside past still-shuttered shops. Inside, the terminal was bright and clean. Outside it was still dark.
ETD: 07:00 (local)
ETA: 09:00 (local)
Boarding was via stairs and again we were seated near the front. The aircraft looked pretty packed.
This time the flight attendants were back in tight fitting red skirts and jackets. After doing a safety demonstration we pushed back into the darkness.
At take-off there was only a brief view of the lights of Penang before the view was obscured by cloud.
We soon encountered the first touches of the morning light.
Not expecting to get any breakfast at the hotel I had pre-ordered two nasi lemaks for B and I and some sandwiches for Alex. B and Alex were asleep when these were delivered to our seats. I opened one nasi lemak - it was quite okay, though not the best I've tasted. The sandwich bread was a little stale, but when Alex woke he ate some of it. When I offered the other nasi lemak back to the flight attendant, she offered to put it in a bag for us to take away, which was a nice action, I thought. It never got eaten though.
|The nasi lemaks|
|Coconut rice, fried anchovies, curry chicken, peanuts and eggs.|
Alex was now awake and playing with "his" camera, a cheap Nikon we had bought in Prague when B misplaced her bag. Unfortunately, the internal charging circuit is faulty.
Yes, I had given him the window seat, but later he swapped back with me so he could play with both Mum and me.
It was quite a pleasant flight above the clouds and blue seascape. I slept briefly before the captain's announcement woke me up. I could make out the flat coast of Sarawak, threaded by rivers and with just a few isolated mountains poking up through patches of cloud.
|Approaching the coast of Sarawak|
|Somebody is smoking|
The captain announced that we were coming in to land. I found the announcements not particularly clear, but at least there was communication. Announcements were made in English and Bahasa Melayu. B got woken up by the autofocus beeps on my camera and the constant clacking of the shutter. One disadvantage of using a better camera.
|Over the Kuching River|
|Looking back towards Kuching|
This time we used the airbridge to disembark into modern looking Kuching airport. The terminal looked recent and very nice, everything clean and modern with quite a few shops. Sarawak have their own separate immigration system to Peninsula Malaysia, so it was necessary to present our passports. Thankfully, it was all quite quick and we were soon in a taxi to Kuching city for a much cheaper, metered fare than in Penang.
I enjoyed our two AirAsia flights. They aren't necessarily the very cheapest airline, depending when you book, but they were still inexpensive flights that did the job of getting us from A to B, both times earlier than scheduled, with the minimum of fuss. The cabin crew were cheerful and enthusiastic, as were the announcements from the cockpit. The short flights were comfortable enough. Their magazine (which I didn't photograph) had some interesting articles and there were some decent items for sale in their catalogue as well. One area for improvement could be the check in process. They offer all sorts of self-check in options, but I'm not sure the technology at the airport always supports it.
I really liked Kuching and found that it lived up to my impressions. There is still a languid sense of colonial history in Kuching, of British rulers in the form of the White Rajahs, and of the Chinese migrants who settled here. The native Iban form a substantial part of the population, and there are the Muslims and the Indians as well.
I splurged a little (not that much really) on a suite at the Hilton with wonderful views of the lazy Kuching river. I've only stayed at a Hilton once before, but this was a more regional affair that felt relaxed and friendly and the views absolutely justified it.
|View from the hotel room, State Legislature building on the right.|
|River at sunset|
In the afternoon after our arrival we took a private tour with Mother-in-Law and friend to the Semmengoh Wildlife Centre where rehabilitated orang-utans roam the patch of jungle. At feeding time you quietly walk through the jungle to an area opposite a wooden platform. The orang-utans climb down ropes from the very tall trees to grab bananas and coconuts. It really was an amazing experience to see these threatened creatures in a near natural state.
The following day we caught another bumpy minibus ride out to the Sarawak Cultural Village, where various local tribal houses (plus some from immigrants) have been preserved. It's a bit touristy, but it was our only opportunity to see this in our limited time.
|Iban warrior house|
|Orang Ulu tall house|
|Melanau tall house|
Kuching itself was quite an attractive colonial city with some great food, including Sarawak laksa (though I didn't get the best example of it), midin ferns and flavoured kuih cake. The Brookes (White Rajahs) were responsible for setting up the Sarawak Museum, which has a number of themed branches across the city and free entry. Exhibits range from stuffed animals, intricate tribal art, Chinese immigrants and (separately) their exquisite pottery, textiles, the Japanese occupation and more. We didn't have enough time to visit everything, but Kuching isn't the kind of place you want to hurry around. Rather, it has a lovely slow rhythm to appreciate at leisure. I'd be happy to return.
|Kuching Museum's Natural History Branch|
|Market food. The green bags contain chendol.|
In the next instalment, possibly the most interesting one from an A.Nut's perspective, we fly from Kuching to Taipei with MASWings and Malaysia Airlines.