MALAYSIAN FLASH TOUR - PART I

With my submarine fish envy as quenched as money would allow, my sights set on the unconquerable ocean-spanning archipelago of Indonesia. But as one can tell with even a glance at the glossy tourist map, a large country stands between Thailand and Indonesia. As the darkhorse anti-hero of Southeast Asia, a regional economic powerhouse, and a cultural melting pot that redefines the phrase, Malaysia seems oddly overlooked by travelers. It seemed like a good time to collect more stamps in my passport, so I decided to make a mad dash through this country, and try to make it to the other side intact.

Malaysia is split into two landmasses, with half occupying the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, and the other half being the top part of the island of Borneo. Malaysian Borneo is lots of rugged jungle and rainforest, while Peninsular Malaysia is a geographic grab-bag that's got a little of everything and houses the  vast majority of the country's population.

Getting through Malaysia by road, boat, and rail is easy because the infrastructure is highly developed. Unlike Thailand, roads in Malaysia usually have lines painted on them and drivers are encouraged to stay within them. The urge for the minivan driver to honk his horn every thirteen seconds has mysteriously vanished. Of course, along with the upswings of traveling in a country with a flush bank account, it's noticeably more expensive. Things are still cheaper than the States by a long shot, but prices are no longer impossibly low.

Hence the flash tour. Get in, see as much as I can, and get out before the bills stack up. No planes, strictly land and sea. Hit the sights and make it to Indo, incurring minimal financial damage while maximizing absorption of culture, scenery, and experience. Like some tourist-commando with a zoom lens instead of a silencer.

Still reeling from my dive trip, I disembarked from the Flying Carpet, laid low on Ko Payam for two days, then ferried back to Ranong and bussed to Chumphon. In a record 11 hour gap between my bus arriving and my train departing, I wandered aimlessly through the functionally boring town of Chumphon. When it was finally time to train up and head out, I backpacked to the station and was hit with some freaky pangs of deja vu - I'd been to this exact spot about a month prior, having been awoken by a group of German brothers who insisted against the facts that this was my intended stop. I shook it off, boarded a sleeper car, and rattled south.

Somewhere along the ticketing channels, I'd been downgraded from second to third class, and I had to ride it out in the smokey steerage car with shifty-eyed farmers and at least eight chickens. Trains aren't really supposed to bounce, but this one did. Every half hour or so, we'd hit a really rough break in the tracks that would nearly pitch us sideways into flooded ditches that ran alongside the train. Undeterred, we chugged through the rain and the night at a speed that seemed just a little too fast, our path bisecting vast plains hidden by churning brown floodwaters.

I woke from half-sleep at dawn in Hat Yai, a no-frills inland junction town where the tracks fractured into numerous routes. Stumbling off the train car, I posted up in a travel office waiting for enough passengers to accumulate to justify a trip to the coast. When more disoriented westerners showed up, we fumbled our bags into a minivan and drove to Satun, the last significant town in the southwest corner of Thailand. Waiting, again, to amass passengers, I spent a few hours in a cafe on a drizzling beach before boarding a fast boat that would bring me into Malaysia.

In the cramped, airplane-style seats of a dank cabin, I tried to sleep as we skipped top speed across the sea to Pulau Langkawi, the largest chunk of land in a 99-island archipelago hovering off Malaysia's northwest coast. An hour and a half later, we skirted into the harbor on the island's east coast. I arrived at my first Malaysian destination, 32 hours after leaving Ko Payam.

Stepping off the ferry into the heart of the duty-free mall, I was cheerfully greeted by a large sign in a bold sans-serif that proudly stated "DRUG OFFENDERS WILL BE SENTENCED TO DEATH." Welcome to Malaysia! Feel free to spend as much money as you can. I banded together with a small group I'd been minivan-ferry-hopping with since Hat Yai, and we split another van ride out to the west coast. I could feel the tensions of traveling lift as soon as I set down my bag and was hit by a cool, salty trade-wind rolling in off the Indian Ocean at sunset. I tossed my crap into the cheapest dorm I could find and went for a beer.

Malaysia's muslim majority was immediately apparent. The skyline was dotted with mosque domes, and the call to prayer was projected across entire towns on scratchy loudspeakers several times a day. All the women were struggling to keep their hair and faces behind scarves and veils that came in many different levels of severity. The men, dressed in shorts and flip flops, were wearing trendy sunglasses and flashy watches while talking on cellphones and drinking Starbucks. Their wives were smothered in thick black gowns that covered every inch of their bodies except a tiny slit for their eyes.

Langkawi is a sizeable island that can't really figure out if it should just relax and enjoy life, or drop everything and start throwing up resort highrises. As was now becoming standard procedure, I rented a set of wheels and explored the island on motorbike. I was accosted by a gang of grey macaques in the jungle, the alpha monkeys dropping down from the canopy to protect their harem from the big ape taking photos of them. I visited the white sand beaches of the island's north coast, walked far out onto a tidal sandbar that stretched almost all the way to a group of tiny islets that were much taller than they were wide. I drove along a river that emptied to a trickle at low tide, with all the boats sunk directly into the mud banks, still moored to the docks.

As I searched for a place to eat on my second night, I realized it was Thanksgiving. It was amusing to be oblivious of holidays that I would be completely absorbed in if I were back home. So I met up with the people I'd met the previous day - an Irish couple, and a girl from Holland - and I ordered the closest thing to a Turkey dinner they had in Malaysia: smoked duck. It wasn't very good, but it's the thought that counts, right? The rest of the night was one of duty-free beers, the cheapest in the country, and the next morning I'd get back on a boat headed south, inching towards Oceania.

TO BE CONTINUED: Penang, Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, and beyond!