Seeming longer than four days, our first stint as tour guides in our newly discovered expat haven came to an end as we texted our favorite Uber driver and sent Jamie on her way back to the airport. (Here in Penang, there’s no Uber drivers way out by us so we use a personalized driver that usually comes or sends a friend and then we request the Uber ride when they’re in range. LIke most things in Malaysia, drivers go out of their way to accommodate.) Having a visitor so soon after arriving turned out to be fun because it felt like we rediscovered the island all over agin. Because Malaysia is such an easy place to become an expat in terms of adjusting we almost felt complacent already and they haven’t even stamped our MM2H visa. Fresh off a few days in Thailand, Jamie immediately felt the difference between the neighboring nations and really appreciated the unobtrusiveness of Penang’s laid back island environment. Spending some time in Bangkok and Phuket, she liked the beaches but hated the “in your face” attitude of Thailand and was ready for some relaxation and immersion.
Unfortunately, peace and quiet wasn’t part of my itinerary and I planned to use her time her as an excuse to do some things we’ve meant to do anyway. Hiking to Monkey Beach was high on my priority list so we hopped on the 101 bus, headed the other way and got off ten minutes away at the end of the line. Never attempting to use this blog as ether a “travel” or “foodie” blog, I wouldn’t attempt to describe things in a TripAdvisor review format. Instead, I’ll just write about experiencing a relatively simple jungle trek for two middle-aged fit people and a Pilates trainer. Hint: Jungle hiking is harder than typical North American hikes including high elevation day trips, which we’ve done many times when we lived an hour away from the Canadian Rockies. Recommending you start on a partly sunny day that doesn’t have any immediately threatening storm clouds, mother nature was on our side with some overcast popping out between the beautiful views. Last time we visited Malaysia’s smallest National Park, there were only four registered hikers all day but on this particular Friday morning, there were already a dozen or so hikers that chose to hit the trails including two Americans. (Hikers must register at the information desk and you’ll need to know your passport number.) Stopping for a quick pee, we headed out on the trail about an hour later than I would’ve preferred but her flight didn’t arrive until the evening before so we didn’t get much sleep because we had to hit Kafe Long Beach after she checked in.
Speaking of checking in, I went back and forth trying to get Jamie a place to stay when it occurred to me there’s a phenomenally convenient serviced apartment tower literally next door. Almost looking like a smaller and less luxurious version of our condo (Bayu Ferringhi), the Sri Sayang provides short and long-term rentals of two and three bedroom apartments at reasonable rates (less than $100 USD) and comes with daily maid service, parking, a pool and sea-facing balconies. Highly recommended should you need a place to stay while checking out Penang’s primary beach town, Jamie fell in love with her “mansion” (as she called it) and simply walked five minutes up the hill to meet us every day.
Returning to the hike, we love jungle hiking and trekking out to the famous beach is the way to go for enjoying sweeping views of the bay as well as viewing wildlife. Starting out as a paved walkway, the first few minutes reminded me a bit of the Na Pali Coast of Kauai with shorter mountains. Before the heat and sweat begin, you get to a junction where opting for the canopy bridge means turning left and ascending a bit. Already feeling the heat, we headed for the coastal trail that skirts the beach. Mostly shaded, it’s slippery after heavy rain so we recommend footwear with traction like sneakers or light hikers, although many locals practically run through it in flip-flops. Including several spots that require careful climbing and one steep area where you can use a rope to keep your balance, it’s considered an easy to moderate hike but don’t kid yourself. Despite the short 2.5 km distance to the beach, the humidity quickly takes its toll and Jamie called it challenging even though she’s incredibly fit. (She lives in the freezing cold fog of San Francisco which is the complete opposite of Malaysian climate). Reaching the first beach, we stopped for some pictures and ventured on when we spotted some monkeys making their way through the trees and close enough to enjoy some monkey company.
Reaching Monkey Beach felt rewarding and both Diane and I were completely covered in drenching sweat head to toe although somehow Jamie appeared tired but not as sweaty. Used to multiple showers and daily changes of clothes, Diane and I are already strangely adapted to the discomfort of sightseeing, hiking and walking long distances with 99% humidity and temperatures that always hover in the 30 to 33 degree mark. Disappointment often sets in for tourists that pay for a boat to take them to the beach where they find a litter strewn stretch of average sand with multiple guides waiting around. Occasionally a monkey might pop on the beach but the name seems a bit ridiculous as there are dozens more monkeys right outside our car park and frolicking around by the bus stop than on the beach. Fortunately, there was a guy selling coconut water so we relaxed a bit before heading back.
Thinking they should rename the beach or at least the trail, we came across a few monitor lizards on the way back. Amazingly docile for their large size, monitor lizards roam the beach, the jungle and even swim in the ocean looking for garbage. Running into some Chinese locals, they told us the lizards help them clean the beach and although it sounds crazy, it’s actually true. Eating almost anything, they roam slowly, mostly oblivious to hikers and onlookers, although I’m told to never get close enough to chance a bite. Only komodo dragons are larger, so for my money, its fascinating viewing the world’s second largest lizard up close without much effort.
Taking the lead on the way back, we contemplated hitting the canopy bridge but Jamie told us she was ready for some food and quality time spent at the infinity pool so we bypassed the right turn at the junction and headed back. Noticing she was panting a bit on some of the uphill, it reminded me how different climatic environments make an enormous difference on how your body reacts and being physically fit doesn’t guarantee a cakewalk when it comes to jungle hiking. Reminding me of the awesome times we had while jungle hiking in Borneo, Diane and I are no doubt heading back there sometime in our first year but we think Jamie’s body might be happier returning to her triathlon training with the lingering fog of San Francisco Bay in the background. Ironically, we had another lizard encounter right in the middle of Batu Ferringhi on the way to lunch. Sitting right on a rock by a small food stand, we found this awesome guy.
Unfamiliar with this creature, I immediately referred the question to my Facebook and childhood friend Normand, a herpetologist and resident expert on almost all creatures big and small. Within five minutes, he responded and I learned a plethora of information proving once again that early retirement beats sitting in the cubicle, at least from an educational point of view. Here’s what he told me:
young water monitor ,very beautiful and brightly marked i might add . The males get larger than females and can be 5-6′ long but very heavy (fat) and at the moment are being exported to the west in the pet trade. Many also die as roadkill! Even though they grow very large , as pets they become very docile and dog tame . I dont know if you ever saw the movie “The Freshman” with Brando and Matthew Broderick but the “star” of the movie is a komodo dragon which is actually played by a gorgeous male water monitor . As mature adults these guys weigh 35-50 lbs and the biggest ever recorded was at a Sri lankan zoo and was over 10′ long and upwards of 100 lbs. They also breed prolifically which is why you see many young ones. They have 15-25 eggs per clutch but can have 3 maybe 4 clutches a year…… males grow to 4′ in just over 2 yrs under good conditions so the ones you are seeing are pretty young , and if there are young ones around there should also be some bigger mature 4-5 footers nearby ! By the way these are some of the most intelligent reptiles in the world ! They say that in Malaysia there are as many water monitors as macaques .
Clearly not as impressed as I was, the two women in my life that day enjoyed hanging out at the pool more than lizard lessons so we relaxed for a few hours before heading out to Kafe Viva, our favorite local food court. Realizing there’s over 200 food courts on the island and that it’s almost impossible to plan each day trying to conquer them all, we settled into a routine of occasional visits to new places when we have plans for a new sightseeing excursion or cultural event but decided to show Jamie a proven favorite. Calling herself a flexitarian and claiming the word really exists (it does; I looked it up), she was eager to try various seafood, soups and chicken dishes but wasn’t too keen on beef or lamb which is just fine in Malaysia. Ordering a feast of healthy seafood including a whole octopus, stingray and tom yum soup with squid, we went insane but somehow finished it all, probably due to being famished from jungle hiking.
Completing one day of experimental tour guides proved fun but tiring and we all slept well. Using the second day to explore Georgetown, Diane and I bought three tickets to a dance performance for Saturday, Jamie’s second day out of four. Knowing she’d love it since she also teaches dance, it so happened that the Georgetown Festival is going on all month-long and they touted the show as the premier performance of the month.
Featuring an all male dance troupe from Spain, the show combined flamenco and hip hop and was held in the Sri Dewan, Penang’s largest auditorium. Seeing it’s time for me to get out of the house, the second through fourth days of playing tour guide clearly becomes part of my next post. Meanwhile, Diane and I are getting ready for a six-day trip back to KL where we complete the MM2H visa process so please excuse me if I don’t get to the rest of the story before our trip. Regular readers know I love to share, since that’s the real aim of the blog so hopefully I’ll post more before we leave next Monday. Right now, however it’s time for Diane to find pictures suitable for House Hunters International’s questionnaire while I head out for a bowl of hokkien mee and a haircut. (for whatever that’s worth; hopefully not much more than a few ringgit since most of my hair is south of my head). Cheers for now and thanks for following.
Please share your thoughts and comments; the advice is awesome and we love to keep learning