Malaysia – our 17th and final country with Odyssey. After a week on the beach in Thailand I’m not sure any of us are quite ready to throw ourselves back into sight seeing once more. Thankfully we are spending one day in the city of Penang and then it’s back to the beach, Malaysian style.
We head straight for Malaysia and Penang from the ferry port. Another mega long drive day ensues in which Yvonne and I entertain ourselves by singing along to Mama Mia, Les Miserable and cackling at the top of our lungs to Kevin Bridges latest stand up routine, as you can imagine this delighted our fellow passengers no end.
We arrive into Penang late. A city set on a small island just off the north west coast of Malaysia we have to cross the water to get there. I’m not sure what I was expecting but this small urban metropolis, full of colourful and brightly lit high rise buildings sets a striking tone as we cross the bridge and for a fleeting moment images of Hong Kong spring to mind.
We have one day to explore the city and a few of us set out late the next morning. We head first to the Fort Cornwallis, a star shaped fort built in the 1700s it was an old meeting place for British soldiers. Built by the East India Trading Company the fort has never been engaged in battle and has mostly been destroyed due to lack of funds needed to maintain it.
Whilst the history of the place is interesting the fort itself has little to capture our imagination for more than half an hour. We leave to do what we do best – eat. Malaysia is full of cheap but impressive food courts where dishes from all around South East Asia are served. Imagine an enormous school canteen serving an overwhelming array of delectable and delicious dishes costing between £1-4 and you’re someway to envisaging a Malaysian food court. With our bellies full and our minds on tomorrow’s destination we make our way to the roof of our hotel to celebrate Jo’s birthday with a drink and a slice of cake.
We wake the next morning at 5am, we have a long drive ahead of us and for a change the crew have decided its better to be safe than sorry. Our destination is the Perhentian islands, a small collection of islands off the east coast of Malaysia, we have to make our way across the country to get there.
We arrive at the ferry port at 1.30pm and are told it will be a few minutes before we can board the boats. We look around, puzzled, can this be right? We have arrived at port ahead of schedule? We will be on the islands in a matter of half an hour? This doesn’t happen on an Odyssey tour, where’s the catch? But no catch comes. We board the boats, two of them, that will take us over to the tiny islands. As soon as we are clear of the port the pilot opens the throttle and we’re off at breakneck speed bumping along the open water towards another two peaceful and relaxing days on the beach.
Whizzing along to the islands
Once we arrive on the island there is the small matter of manoeuvring ourselves plus all of our luggage from one small boat to a slightly smaller boat in order to get to land. This is no joke when your bag weighs as much as a small child. Luckily the locals know what they’re doing and we all make it to solid ground without getting wet.
The islands teem with wildlife, before we have even been introduced to our rooms we have encountered a friendly bright green tree snake and a lazy skink that refuses to move despite cameras clicking left, right and centre.
(snake photograph courtesy of James Paterson)
We have two days to relax and explore the islands. We spend most of it in the spectacular underwater world that makes up much of the coastline. By the end of the first day we have swum alongside a grazing turtles and watched five foot long black tipped reef sharks basking below us. The colourful fans of shelf coral teem with fish and any number of sea molluscs, whilst the big brain coral bulge between rocks appearing to undulate in the rippling current.
Exploring the islands
(Thanks to James and Mahala for the photographs)
Every evening as we sit down to dinner the nightly storm rolls in. Rain thunders down like nothing I have ever experienced (and I’m British). Lightening crashes overhead lighting the small stretch of sea between the islands where we witness boats in turmoil, struggling to stay afloat in the turbulent waters. A stark contrast with the calm clear waters of the previous day.
We leave these wistful islands desperate for more time, Louise and I try and figure out a way we can stay, unfortunately with our flight out of Kuala Lumpur already booked this isn’t an option and we clamber into the speed boat reluctantly, leaving our hearts behind as we whizz away, back the way we came.
Back on the mainland we find our final mode of Odyssey transport waiting for us. We hop on board our private bus and are soon on our way to the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The drive across Malaysia highlights the extent to which the countries rain forests have disappeared. Palm oil plantations stretch out as far as the eye can see. Rolling hills topped with this squat, ugly tree. It is easy to condemn the devastation from our western high horse but the wealth and opportunities it brings the country are clear to see.
We arrive in KL late afternoon, heading straight out to China town for dinner. After a mediocre meal of chicken satay and fried rice we make the obligatory trip to the Patronas Towers by night. These impressive structures are surprising difficult to see at times between the high raise buildings that dominate the city.
Dinner in China town
As we arrive we marvel at the level of lighting, mumbling something about Earth Hour it dawns on me that these towers are owned by one of the world’s leading oil distributors, they’re probably not too involved with environmental charities.
The Twin Towers by night
(Photos thanks to Louise McCarthy)
Despite my environmental concerns the towers are no doubt impressive. We wander around the base before taking a swift look at the shopping centre housed inside. Fiona and I gravitate towards Topshop, squealing with excitement when we realise there is a sale on “these jeans are cheaper than at home” I holler across the store, much to the amusement of the sale staff. You can take the girl out of London…
Our final day with Odyssey is as packed as ever. We wake early with the intention of heading to one of KL enormous shopping centres, the girls have heard there is a roller coaster inside that they are keen to try, yes seriously inside the shopping centre! We arrive to find the roller coaster does not open until midday and so we make a mad dash across the city to the TV tower where we are assured that we will have a better view than from the Patronas Towers and at a smaller price (marginally).
Quick dash across the city by monorail
We buy our tickets but find the view somewhat underwhelming, perhaps we should have frequented by night. We dash back across the city to the roller coaster only to discover it is out of order, thankfully we all have plenty of shopping we need to do and so we get stuck in. Lou and I are successful in our hunt for a cheap second hand laptop after the death of her previous machine.
A closed roller coaster in a shopping centre
We have arranged to meet everyone at the Reggae bar for our final farewell drinks but at the last minute we realise we have failed spectacularly to buy Teresa and Simon any form of ‘thank you for getting us from A to B’ gift. What ensues is five of us running up and down escalators, pushing and shoving unsuspecting shoppers out of our way as we try to pick out suitable gifts from the Waitrose style supermarket. We deliberate for what seems like years in the alcohol aisle, trying to decide what kind of wine they would each enjoy, that is until someone points out that these are the two that sold us Georgian “wine” as delicious a mere six months previously. ‘You’re right’ the rest of us retort, clearly not wine connoisseurs, ‘we’ll go for the one with the prettiest bottle’!
Decision made, it is yet another mad dash across the city to dispose of our bags at the hotel, rushing straight back out to meet what is left of the group, just an hour late for our own leaving drinks. Thankfully Simon, Teresa and Mary have ended up at the wrong bar and haven’t managed to find the right one yet and most of the others are still hundreds of meters above the city on the Patronas Towers viewing deck.
The Reggae bar where the ladies drink for half price and the men hide behind their girl friends asking them for cheap glasses of rum and coke. When the rest of our groups finally arrives the party really does get started. Despite constant and recent protestations that I don’t want to be on the trip or around these people anymore I find myself genuinely sad for it to all be over. Those heading on to Singapore, where the trip officially ends, (no longer Darwin – we’re still unsure where that city fell off the wagon…) have an early start but that doesn’t stop us dancing until the early hours. We share memories about our time together and raise a glass to our incredible adventure.
Come 6am the next morning there are a number of thumping heads at the breakfast table. We congregate in the lobby of the hotel embracing each other in genuinely heartfelt goodbyes. The odyssey is over, we’ve gazed upon the highest and driven through the second lowest points on earth, both physically and occasionally metaphorically. We’ve driven and flown over 26,000km, we’ve visited 16 independent nations and one disputed region. We’ve suffered through one broken back and many upset stomachs. I’ve enjoyed the highs and the lows, every single one! It hasn’t always been easy but it has always been a privilege to share the past six months of my life with such a fine group of people. I’d do it all again in a heart beat.
As I retreat to my room, alone for the first time in six months, I find myself choking back tears. Don’t leave, I don’t know what I’m going to do without you…