Always enjoying TV series’ that combine travel and cooking in Southeast Asia, Diane and I recently watched an episode of Gordon’s Great Escape, a show featuring famed chef and TV star Gordon Ramsay. Specifically, the episode traveling through Malaysia caught our eye. Compared to the other ASEAN nations he visits in the series, it’s obvious from his comments that Malaysia’s lack of “developing world atmosphere” surprised and even disappointed him. Relative to neighboring countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, it’s true that Malaysia ranks higher in the economic scale and modern western conveniences are more likely to be spotted than small villages still using traditional fishing or farming methods. One of the primary reasons we chose Malaysia, this sometimes creates a good news/bad news situation like the other day when we traveled an hour on the bus intending to buy train tickets to Bangkok for our upcoming Hari Raya Escape Trip.
Having traveled on one of Asia’s most convenient overnight sleeper trains that departed Butterworth at 2 PM and arrived in Hua HIn, Thailand at 7 AM the next morning, we looked forward to an inexpensive and not so uncomfortable journey. (Butterworth is across the channel from Penang Island on the mainland). Unfortunately, Malaysia’s economic advantage changed our plans unexpectedly. Bringing the nation closer to Europe’s modern and fast train network, they’ve been upgrading the tracks of Malaysia’s rail system to facilitate new high-speed trains. Originally constructed by colonialists decades ago, all of Southeast Asia’s railway tracks are different from those used for high-speed trains in Europe, China and Japan. Having just completed the last stretch of tracks, KTM (Malaysia’s national rail system) announced revisions to the national trains system last month and began using all high-speed trains throughout the network. While this is great news for commuters, budget minded travelers and Malaysian families visiting relatives during Hari Raya, it also means the end of the one train direct connection to Bangkok that combined the services of the Malaysian Network with the Thai National Railway utilizing a quick 30 minute border stop with no transfers. Crap. On to Plan B.
Clarifying a bit, you can still travel from Butterworth to Bangkok but the procedures changed and it’s more of a hassle. Before the new system, travelers walked into the little KTM ticket office on the Penang Jetty where the ferry docks and bought a direct ticket on Train 36, also known as the International Train to Bangkok. Starting in Butterworth, the train operated two Malaysian trains that convert into second class sleeper cars. Arriving at Padang Basar a few hours later, passengers left their luggage on board and exited for a customs check. Taking only about 40 minutes, you got stamped out of Malaysia then turned around and cleared Thai customs before returning to the train. Replacing Malaysian train staff with Thai staff at the border town, they added a few cars from the Thai Train network at Hat Yai, the first stop in Thailand. Offering a dinner car, most people on our last trip ordered from a menu and they brought dinner right to our seat. Several hours later the Thai train staff began converting the seats into sleeper berths and before we knew it we woke up and arrived in Hua Hin in time for breakfast. Another advantage was allowing passengers to pay for the entire trip in Malaysia using ringgit which worked out to be cheaper than the Thai fare which is charged in Thai Bhat.
Sadly, Malaysian technology left Thailand in the dust and now they’ve replaced Train 36 with high-speed Malaysian commuter trains that you board at Butterworth and exit at Padang Basar. No longer selling thru tickets to Thailand, thru travelers now need to collect their luggage, exit the train and buy a separate ticket from the Thai Railway system’s station office. Worse than that, Train 36 still exists but it’s now only assigned to the a Thai train known as Train 35 if you’re coming northbound (the reverse trip) and the commuter trains are not necessarily timed with the train’s arrival. Odds are the Malaysian train will arrive exactly on time at Padang Basar because Malaysian trains are unbelievably reliable compared to most places but the Thai trains are notoriously slower and rarely on time. Reviews found on 12go.Asia, a site where it’s possible to buy your ticket online tell stories of long waits at the border for the Thai train to arrive. Additionally, other reviewers mention confusion with the new system because Malaysian agents are not informing passengers of the transfer at the border.
Although I knew about the new high-speed trains replacing the old ones, I guess I didn’t put two and two together. While planning a trip to Cambodia for October the other day, I determined it’s easier and cheaper using the train to Kuala Lumpur and flying non-stop than making flight connections from Penang. Unfortunately, somebody making the new schedules at KTM decided the first express train will leave at 5 AM. Since the first ferry isn’t until 5:30, that rules out getting there in time to make a same day flight connection. And since everyone in this nation sleeps at least until 7 AM, that train departure seemed very stupid to me. Anyway, Diane and I arrived at the jetty only to learn they no longer sell thru tickets to Bangkok and even worse, the commuter trains to Padang Basar on the two days leading up to Hari Raya were totally sold out anyway. Realizing Southern Thailand is largely Muslim, I forgot how may people might be traveling to Hat Yai near the holiday.
Although the friendly clerk at the KTM office told us it’s easy to buy a ticket and continue the train journey to Bangkok from the Thai Rail office at Padang Basar, we decided not to chance it because the commuter train to the border sold out. On that premise, it seemed reasonable that the connecting Thai train might also have no availability an hour before its scheduled departure. Unclear how you’d even buy that ticket in advance, it’s probable you can only buy it in Thailand a few days before like all other Thai trains or using an online service like the one I described above. That’s too bad because all Malaysian trains make tickets available up to 30 days ahead of departure and that included the “Old Train 36”.
Not really wanting to endure another insanely crowded five-day holiday weekend in Batu Ferrenghi with practically all Malaysia’s citizens and half of Indonesia’s, we contemplated ditching the escape idea entirely since it breaks the cardinal rule of retired expat travel (Never travel during busy holidays). But the allure of eating real Thai food for eight days combined with bad memories of two-hour bumper to bumper traffic jams and bus rides filled with enthusiastic teenagers quickly changed our minds. With no other practical choice, we came home and bought another one way ticket on Air Asia to Bangkok two days earlier than we wanted to travel because being anywhere near an airport in Malaysia on Hari Raya is akin to flying anywhere in the USA on the day before Thanksgiving. (We planned on flying back anyway and already had an inexpensive one way ticket home).
I’d like to be the first one to tell the good folks that run Seat61.com, the world’s best website for worldwide train travel, that they need to update their website to reflect the new procedures for overnight train travel from Penang to Butterworth, And although they told us they updated the KTM website, I couldn’t find anything explaining that the new procedures so be aware should your plans include an upcoming train trip from Penang to Bangkok. And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to state that while we’d never choose Kuala Lumpur over Penang, we’ve learned that flight connections are often expensive and difficult from Penang. With its status as Malaysia’s second most populated area, Penang’s small and antiquated airport really needs modernizing. Here’s a suggestion: How about a moratorium on new million dollar luxury condos until someone builds a reasonably sized and modern transportation hub?
Although we know Vietnamese food is rare in Penang and all three places we’ve tried were just OK at best, we had a hankering for some Pho and vermicelli with pork the day we went to the jetty so we planned on visiting the better of the three options. Oddly enough, as we stepped off the bus on Jalan Transfer, we noticed a Vietnamese place called Bach Dang that was either new or somehow not on Google when you type in “Vietnamese food in Penang“. Sporting a picture menu in the window with my all time favorite Asian soup (Bun Rieu), we decided to give it a shot.
Unfortunately, the misspelling of the soup’s description may not have been intentional since it was in fact a bowl of Crap Soup. One of the most flavorful soups in Vietnamese cooking, real Bun Rieu is a perfect combination of tomato broth, crab, shrimp paste, fish stock, pork blood, vermicelli noodles, mint and various other ingredients depending on who’s making it. Ironically, the little Vietnamese woman in my old stomping grounds of Concord, California made one of the best recipes ever and I miss it sorely but never thought I’d have to travel directly to Vietnam from Penang to find it again. Back in April, 2015 I posted a picture and this is what it’s supposed to look like.
Unfortunately, Malaysians don’t know anything about Vietnam and it shows in the few poor excuses for Vietnamese restaurants. Although the menus look relatively similar, what they serve is flavorless, watered down versions of soups with skimpy amounts of ingredients, horribly bland main dishes with a piece or two of low-grade protein and some limes and occasionally seafood like snails and clams that they advertise as “Thai style” but like all Penang restaurants, is never available and they refer you to a less glamorous version of the dish and tell you it’s “lemongrass”. The poor excuse for Bun Rieu seen below had water based broth, mushy noodles, two pieces of pork loin (not normally an ingredient in this soup), some fake fish yellow balls, one piece of pork blood so old the pig may have witnessed Saigon’s liberation and a few mint leaves. Overpriced at about $5 USD, I walked away hungry and disappointed once again.
Only slightly better, Diane ordered the Penang equivalent of vermicelli with pork and at least the broth in our “non-Thai style” steamed clams was good but the order was skimpy and the clams were clearly not fresh.
So now that school holidays over Penang enters the quietest three weeks of the year while Ramadan makes its way through the month of June and culminates right after U.S. Independence Day (That’s irony if I’ve ever heard it given what’s going on in the homeland these days). Speaking of which, many of you told me you’d prefer limited politics and more expat travel stories so I’ll keep that in mind but I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to express my deepest sympathies for the victims and families of America’s worst mass shooting.
As expected, Donald Trump used the tragedy to congratulate himself on “being right about Radical Islam” and doubled down on banning all non citizen Muslims from entering the nation despite pleas from his party to show some dignity and respect if only for one day. Speaking for itself, there’s no need to even comment and I’m still hoping for a change in rules for the first ballot at next month’s convention but since the entire Republican party refuses to dump him as the nominee, they can fend daily questions from the media about their deranged leader for the next five months. Myself, I’ll take life in our peaceful gun-free multi cultural society of moderate Muslims any day over the shit that’s become the United States of White Supremacy.