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A Sunrise Re-Entry to Malaysia

Our goodbyes to David had to be made through the fog that accompanies undersleeping. It was 5:00 am again, and the Rucksack Inn was still filled with the same six – eight zombie-like Internet users that had been there when I had retired for bed some four hours ago.

As David climbed into his cab to Changi airport, and we climbed into ours to the train station connecting Singapore with Malaysia (mysteriously not connected to the subway system…), we bid farewell to the strange and wondrous chapter of the trip that David had ushered in, with a phraseology that David and I had used in college: “Goodbye forever,” I told him, knowing full well that I would see him in the next year or two. “Yeah, goodbye forever,” David replied.

And then we were off. Our cab driver was extremely polite and efficient, sporting a cab full of flat screen monitors advertising Chinese New Year’s gifts to us. We lugged our shiny new bikes into the crumbling white colonial behemoth that was the entryway to Malaysia, and I sat on the steps playing Mama Rock Me, watching the sun rise on Singaporean Tamil men unloading goods from lorries, and  machines scrubbing the street with rotating brushes.  Inside the railway station, we took stock of our surroundings and confirmed the tickets.

Scott dozed in the giant waiting room, and in no time we were working our way through a system of inspections, detections, and checkpoints, making our way to the train.

The train itself was old, but comfortable, with plenty of space to store the bikes.  The lack of a window near our seats, played a supportive role in our sleeping through the majority of the 14-hour ride.

At one point, we were awakened by a loud, but unintelligible transmission coming from the overhead speakers. All transmissions on the train were ushered in and out by a rising and falling set of tones, which must have at one point or another been quite similar to those used on the metro systems of Hong Kong and London. However, due to some malfunction in the innards of this behemoth of a machine, the train’s announcements were subjected to a kind of radical Doppler shift, creating disconcerting parabolas of tone that were quite effective at rousing both one’s attention and the hair on the back of one’s neck.

From what we could tell, this transmission was commanding us to exit the train and go through customs, which we did, exiting Singapore, and receiving a number of stamps on our Malaysian entry cards. Eight hours later, when we next awoke from our slumbers, we were deep in Malaysia. It seems somehow, we had missed the official entry into Malaysia, and had made our way into the country without getting a stamp. We said a short prayer to the gods of immigration and customs, in hopes that this would not cause us trouble down the road, and fell back asleep, rocked by the rails, snaking our way through the Malaysian jungle toward Butterworth.

Butterworth was the end of the line, and the sun had already set when we packed up our things and climbed off the train. We followed our fellow passengers toward the ferry to Penang Island. So far, peninsular Malaysia felt very comfortable. The presence of moderate amounts of rubbish and less well maintained structures was comforting after the sterile polished exterior of Singapore. We were quite surprised to meet a school teacher from North Carolina, traveling with her two young children. It was one of our first clues that Malaysia would prove very safe and manageable. Most everyone we had yet encountered spoke very good English, and even public signage was almost always translated.

We were able to purchase tickets on the Penang ferry for about USD 0.35 and spent the ride over to the island gawking at the very developed, well lit island on which we were to spend the next three days and down at the brownish sea, which was quite visibly crowded with large white jellyfish, pushed aside by the hulking ferry. On the other side of the water, we mounted the cycles, and rode into the city. Penang was well lit, and festooned with red lanterns and banners in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New Year. As we had seen in Singapore, most everyone here appeared to be of either Han Chinese or Tamil descent. The sharp cheek-boned islander ethnicity  we had seen so much of in Indonesia, Borneo, and even on the train ride to Butterworth seemed absent here. Perhaps this is what our Malaysian Bureau Chief, Smita Sharma, had meant when she described these as Chinese straights towns?

Thanks to the ease of communication in Penang, we were easily able to find our way to the Hutton Lodge, an establishment that had been recommended to us by our most esteemed Malaysian Bureau. As would prove the rule, the recommendation was stellar, and the Hutton Lodge welcomed us with a clean room, a nice view of the courtyard, friendly staff, and promises of free breakfast with infinite coffee.

We dumped our belongings on the beds and quickly unfolded the speed TRs to head back out into the fray in search of food. Since we had slept all the way through the train ride, we were operating on just a few biscuits in the stomach, and even without having wheeled that day, we were starving. Luckily, as Smita had outlined for us, Penang was a food lover’s destination, sporting a new style of restaurant, which AsiaWheeling had not  yet experienced. It was a kind of emergent restaurant, where the many cooks establish small kitchen stalls around a central seating area. Patrons are then issued a table in the seating area by some central authority and invited to peruse the surrounding stalls, from which the many cooks quite vocally tout their wares. Diners select foods that look appealing, order, and the food is brought to the table.

We feasted that night on fried chicken wings, a local fried noodle dish by the name of Char Koay Teow, and some strange medicinal soups from a Chinese vendor. With the exception of the soups, which were just a little too medicinal for our liking, the meal was delightful, and we climbed back on the bikes, ready to get a little shuteye after our long day of sleeping on the train.


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