After spending a couple nights and a full day in the Cameron Highlands of the central Malaysia peninsula, I took a bus to the town of Butterworth for 30 RM and a ferry across the small straight to Penang, an island containing Georgetown. Georgetown was one of the first trading ports in Malaysia to be colonized by Europeans.
The Cameron Highlands are said to be a place full of stunning natural beauty which must be seen when visiting Malaysia. True, the narrow winding roads and steep drops, the occasional indigenous looking people and huts, the jungle, the few waterfalls, and the semi-colonial looking construction nestled deep in the hills was nice. It reminded me a lot of a tiny Leavenworth, WA. Of course the architecture and heritage here is not German, but some of the hotels have tried to make themselves look it, and the pine trees which may actually grow naturally (I hope they weren't imported by one of the colonizers in their time here) were a welcome sight which I have missed for over a month now. I spent my only day there going on a day trip to see the world's biggest flower (wtf?), an "aboriginal" tribe - bogus - a tea plantation which was cool looking, but there's really not much to learn about tea, and going to the highest mountain in SE Asia that you can drive on top of (6,666 ft). They also took us to the "mossy forest" - which was just a forest with a lot of moss in it, like any old growth rainforest I've seen before.
Basically this trip served only to feed my dislike of the tourism industry, package tours, and the exploitaition of indigenous peoples by governments.
I decided I had seen enough, and although the hills were beautiful and I caught a great sunset, it was surprisingly not anymore special than so many mountain scenes I have seen before. It was a little more green, a little warmer (although at nearly 7,000ft it was only about 55 F), and had some different plants, but I would argue that the views from Oyster Dome or many other high vantage points in Washington are more spectacular.
I had seen enough, and my guesthouse was vastly overpriced as I had decided to ensure a room by booking online the night before, apparently they add about 30% to the price online. I went to Georgetown with a couple guys I had met in the Cameron Highlands, and though I won't say it was a mistake to travel with them and agree to seek out lodging together for the sake of saving money, it kind of was. Andreas took a different bus from Matt and I and should have arrived at the same place about 20 minutes behind us, but took it one stop too far and we ended up waiting over 3 hours. I took this time to call a few of you (unfortunately I couldn't get to some people's numbers so my options were limited, don't feel bad if you didn't get a call) and have a snack, but would have much preferred to be at the nearby CS BBQ which had been organized so graciously, or exploring the beautiful old colonial buildings and forts on the island. I suppose expecting people to get off at the right stop (the one we discussed the night before) is too much to ask, and I shouldn't expect people to be capable of finding their way around - it took Andreas over 2 hours to find his way from a bus terminal about 15 miles south up to the area we were waiting in. He's also addicted to his lonely planet, which in my (and I would suspect most locals, restaurant and guest house owners as well) mind pegs him as a bit of an idiot who is overly dependent on his guide and scared to find things for himself. He insisted on going to a restaurant they recommended (which sucked bad, terrible service, expensive food) and delayed us further by having to stop to consult his book every few steps to make sure we were on the right path to cheap lodging. I had been given a map and instructions from a French guy staying at my guest house in KL a few days previous and had taken the time while waiting for Andreas to familiarize myself with it and the town so I could avoid having to stare at it constantly.
In the end we made it to the CS event and met some pretty cool people, although as an event apparently it was quite lacking - the charcoal didn't arrive until 40 minutes before the BBQ was to be clear of people and not many brought any food. Some of the locals took us out and showed us around, but seeing as most of the travelers attending are on a tight budget, the clubs they took us too were all a bit pricey (12 RM for a glass of beer, not even a pint. That's 4$ - FOUR?!?!) and we opted for a poorly lit pub with a crooked pool table which you could play for free, complete with tipless cues and exceedingly drunk older locals. Some of us didn't even drink, but those who did were only paying 6RM for a bottle of beer, still $2 but not nearly as bad.
Today I am getting picked up by one of the CS locals to go to the BBQ again and actually bring food, take advantage of the wonderful pool, etc. The owner of the condo who is having the open house/BBQ is a CS Ambassador who has been to over 200 events globally and after 3 years of traveling RTW (round the world) he decided to settle here in Penang with his Malaysian boyfriend. He signed a 2 year lease on a very nice condo on the 16th (top floor) overlooking the beach with views of the sunrise and sunset - he pays 1000 RM/month - that's just over 30 RM/night, about $10. That's not much more than most guest houses charge, and for everything he has I would say he found quite a deal. He is very gracious to invite all these strangers to his home and has totally set it up as a CS haven - 5 individual beds for CSers to come crash on for free! Hopefully the BBQ and everything today will be much more enjoyable.
Monday I will be seeking malaria pills at the pharmacy so I can safely travel through the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Bali for a night or two. If I can get them in Penang it will save me the trip back to KL and a pretty penny on a flight too, as I can fly from Penang to Medan (on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia) for about $40, the cheapest I found from KL to Jakarta or Bali was over $60 one way. I may also be able to take a ferry from Malacca or Penang which could be great fun too. Time will tell!
No pictures yet, but the internet connection here is surprisingly fast so maybe I'll get some uploaded.