I love the geography of southern Thailand – the incredible hillsides jutting out of the jungle. I was in awe the entire bus trip to Krabi, and once there, I didn’t want to leave. But the idea of durian greatness in Penang was too big a draw.
After a night in Hat Yai, which we have dubbed the Most Ghetto Dirt Hole ever, we took a 45 minute bus trip to Padang Besar, the border town. It took longer to walk across the border into Malaysia because my departure card had gotten torn and the numbers were missing. Thankfully this was not a big problem, and after sitting nervously for awhile in an air conditioned office (which was nice), they simply gave me a new departure card.
|I love the scenery!
The tricky business came once we were safely in Malaysia. We walked the kilometer or so to the town of Padang Besar, where we had been told by the border officers that we would find a bus station. There is no bus station in Padang Besar. Locals told us a bus might pick us up in 3 or 4 hours in front of the green lorry. “What’s a lorry?” I asked Rob. It’s a big truck.
An old man with no teeth offered to take us to the bus station in Kangar for 10 RM in his white car. We weren’t quite certain if the old guy was a taxi driver, or even if the white car was his. He was just hanging out on the corner with an old woman who had been doing some shopping. After a minute, a real red and yellow taxi stopped. He offered to take us for 16 RM. We said no thank you to the taxi driver, but told the old man we would take him up on his offer. But at that point he was conferring with the taxi driver, and they must have decided we were pretty stuck because they both refused to take less than 16RM.
Enter the third taxi. This guy wanted 36 RM to ride in his green car. We declined, as we were pretty certain this bus station was only a few miles down the road, at most. So we decided we would either walk or thumb a ride. We’ve had good luck with this method in the past, especially when stuck. But first, we needed lunch. Thankfully we had some of the biggest lychees I have ever seen, mangoes, and some dried bananas. We sat and snacked under the watchful gaze of all three taxi drivers, who had parked their cars in the road (one in the way of traffic) and were obviously talking about us.
When we finished we stuck out our thumbs. In broken English one of the taxi drivers tried to tell us this method doesn’t work in Malaysia. He said that no one would know what we wanted and no one would pick us up. We decided that the three taxis were not helping our chances at getting a ride. And with full bellies, a walk sounded nice.
The walk would turn out to be very nice, as the countryside is just as dramatic southern Thailand. But first we had to cross over a bridge under construction. It was hot and muggy, and as we trudged along the wasteland of the construction zone trucks rattled past too close for comfort. It brought me back to hitch hiking in other uncomfortably warm places. It was a good feeling, like my life now still has a common thread with my past. It had been awhile since I’d stuck out a thumb.
We were enjoying the walk and the scenery when, lo and behold, I spotted a sugarcane juice stand. There was literally nothing within a mile on either side of the stand, where two little Muslim ladies wearing black head scarves cranked out a bag of sugar can juice for only 1 RM ($0.30). They spoke good enough English to ask where we were going. When we responded “Kangar!” they told us it was still 35 km away. Whew! That was a lot farther than we’d anticipated.
As we walked away from the nice ladies, we realized that our bag of sugarcane juice had ice in it. Which was nice, because it was damn hot, but made Rob nervous. After our last experience with iced sugarcane juice in Phnom Penh, we had sworn to never again accept ice in foreign countries. Luckily, neither one of us got sick this time. And even better luck, a truck stopped to pick us up before we’d even finished the juice.
The driver, a friendly guy who also loves durian, took us a good 10 km down the road toward Kangar. He recommended we try the Cat Mountain King Durian, also known as Mao Shan Wan, Raja Kunyit, or Musang King. This durian sure has a lot of names! A new comer on the durian scene, it’s also the most expensive. At 30 RM ($10) per kilo, it will be a once in a lifetime event whenever we decide to shell out.
Watching the scenery go by, I was excited by the long walk ahead. The truck dropped us off near a field of coconuts, where Rob hopped down the bank and grabbed a sprouted coconut on the ground. I love sprouted coconuts! The inside of the coconut fills with a puffy sweet and salty foam. I like to cut it into slices and eat it with tomatoes, avocado, and sprouts, just like a sandwich!
We had just started walking again when a tiny french car stopped. We weren’t even trying to hitch hike! But we thought we’d better take the ride, as it was a long walk. He ended up giving us a ride all the way to the bus station! What a nice guy.
It was a good thing we chose to take the ride, because shortly after we arrived at the bus station a huge storm rolled in. The storms here are amazing! They roll in quickly, and within minutes of noticing the wind picking up, the rain strikes in a huge, searing curtain that sends everyone scurrying for cover. It only lasts about ten minutes, and twenty minutes after that everything is dry again from the steamy heat.
We got off our cushy (and cheap!) bus to Penang, expecting that now that we had made it to the Island of Durian our adventures were over for the night. We caught the last local bus from Georgetown to Balik Pulau, the major durian area. By the way, Penang has a fantastic local transportation system. We were the only people on the bus as it wound down a dark mountain pass, the driver cranking the steering wheel from one direction to the other. He dropped us off in the town of Balik Pulau, which was dark and quiet except for a store with a front full of fruit! It was past midnight, and I couldn’t believe the store was open. They had one durian, which I of course purchased for a grand total of 22 RM ($6.91), making it the most expensive durian on our trip so far.
By talking to the people at the store, and at a 24 Jam Indian restaurant next door, we learned that Balik Pulau may be the popular spot for durian tourists during the daytime, but it doesn’t cater to overnight tourists. They had heard about one homestay somewhere a few km away, but couldn’t be certain where it was or if it was open. It was 12:30 in the morning and had just rained again. They suggested we go to Air Itam to find a hotel, but with no more buses running until morning we decided that once again we’d have to walk or hitch hike.
We had to do neither. As I was walking across the road with my durian prize, a car stopped. A man in middle eastern garb rolled down his window and asked us where we were trying to go at this hour. Now before my parents freak out, this is a Muslim country, so its not that creepy. His tiny three year old daughter slithered from the back seat into her mother’s lap in the front, and we piled in to the back of the car.
We still have no idea where this family was headed to at such an hour, but they were kind enough to drive us all the way back to Georgetown while we enjoyed the Bollywood-style music they were jamming to. They dropped us off in front of the Oasis Hotel on Tourist Street, and let me say that by 1:30 AM, the derelict building really felt like an oasis. We settled gratefully into our room, barely noticing the high ceiling flanked by crumbling, antique columns. And then it was time to open the durian! At last, a Malaysian durian!
I was all anticipation and excitement. Rob was just tired and hungry. Our durian did not come open easily, we had to hack it and persuade it with force. The rind was very thick! As we struggled with it I was afraid that our expensive durian was unripe, and therefore not really edible. My fears were alleviated when it finally cracked open and the glorious soft, wrinkled cream was exposed. It was better than I could have ever imagined. Hurrah for Malaysian durian! Hurrah for really nice Malaysian drivers!