#110 - Penang, Malaysia - Tuesday, 15 January 2019

This morning we are off to Langkawi. Our group of fourteen, which will later be joined on Langkawi Island by two more, will board a 78-seater prop plane (ATR 72-500) for a thirty minute puddle jump north to the Thailand/Malaysia border. I type this from my final pre-dawn breakfast feast at the Hotel Equatorial Penang.

Yesteday our entire herd visited Penang Botanical Garden and then Penang Hill. We had the same driver with his large van and his service over two days was excellent. Today at 10 a.m. he’ll pick us up along with a smaller van that will transport our luggage. Our flight leaves Penang at 12:25. One of the advantages of a larger group is splitting costs. We paid 80RM per hour to have a private driver take us where we chose and wait as we explored our destinations. Yesterday’s 6.5 hours was 520 ringgits or $127, which split among 14 becomes a very reasonable 9 bucks for a day’s chauffeur service.

A thirty minute Monday morning traffic ride from Hotel Equatorial ended at the gates for Penang Botanical Garden, a free park that appeared popular with both locals and tourists. It was our first encounter with monkeys of the trip as long-tailed macaques were seen immediately. On Langkawi you see macaques everywhere and they are even along the road from the airport to our resort. The resort itself has both macaques and dusky leaf monkeys or langurs in abundance. Here on Penang they aren’t seen in the heavily populated area we are staying or in the even more urban George Town.

The Penang Botanic Gardens, also known as the "Waterfall Gardens" because of the cascading waterfall nearby, is a public park situated on Jalan Air Terjun in George Town, Penang, Malaysia. Unfortunately, it’s fenced greenhouses are closed on Monday. I mostly wandered the grounds alone looking for macro photography subjects and was able to photograph a land planarian (“hammerhead worm”), dragonfly, etc. See Instagram/Facebook feed. The park was a bit less interesting than I had hoped and about an hour after arrival we paid for the “Jeep” ride up to Penang Hill. There is a funicular that also climbs the mountain, but the extremely steep private road (“Jeep track”) starts right at the botanic garden gate. 160RM per vehicle of 4 gets you a round trip to the highest peaks on the island. The three mile or so road was one of the steeper I’ve ever been up and among the most windy. The drivers don’t really have jeeps, but rather small pickup trucks that most have tricked out with some off-road gear even though the road is paved. They drive up as quickly as possible, whipping around the hairpin turns while blaring their horns to warn oncoming traffic.

As soon as we arrived at the touristy Upper Station we sought cold beers and I ordered a dozen chicken satay to share with Mark and Kim. We were surprised that even though it is a tourist complex the food choices were inexpensive. The stalls were much nicer looking than those at the hawkers centers we had visited the previous two days, but you could still get laksa or Char kway teow for about two bucks. A dozen skewers of satay was $4.

Mark and his brother-in-law Alan and I left our group after our refreshments. Our goal was to look for the two species of tarantula - the terrestrial Coremiocnemis cunicularia and the arboreal Omothymus schioedtei. We walked up a steep perimeter road looking for one of the three trail routes you can take on top the hill. There are “by paths” that are paved trails that lead into the tropical forest. We stopped at a scenic overlook and continued away from the crowd until we found a path. Not long after our walk away from the road began Mark spied the first tarantula burrow on the hill embankment. Rather than having its tunnel entrance covered with silk, he immediately saw the spider visible at the opening. We quickly found other burrows, all also open and with their resident spiders in partial view. Mark moved up the path a short distance and found a larger spider while I tried to extract the first. It ended up deep within the trail side almost vertical embankment and I dug at the very wet clay/dirt. I exposed about two feet of silk lined tunnel, but lost track of the burrow while Mark worked at extracting the other spider and Alan found a few others. We ended up getting the largest spider out for photographs, tickling smaller spiders into view and, later, walked back up the path to try digging the one I had been working on out of its lair to no avail. We were unsuccessful in locating the arboreal tarantula, but saw at least six of the terrestrial species. The path ended up at another road below the Upper Station and we faced a brutally steep walk up the hillside in oppressive heat and humidity. I had expected the temperature to be cooler on Penang Hill but it’s only an elevation of 2500 feet. The Botanic Garden below is 200 feet above sea level and after descending the crazy road and seeing one driver coming up have a tire blowout, our driver took us back through George Town to the hotel. Ten minutes after our return the Pennels and I were in the cool water of the hotel pool and were soon joined by the rest of the party.

i enjoyed a couple of Singapore Slings with Mark and ordered a steak sandwich for an early dinner. Many of our group planned to go into George Town again for dinner, but the rest of us stayed behind and my poolside dinner ended with a vodka and tonic at the pool bar with Mark before I retired to my room to pack and kick back and watch a movie in the air conditioned comfort. Now with breakfast complete I am waiting for the sun to rise a bit before taking a swim.

#109 - Penang, Malaysia - Monday, 14 January 2019

Once again I am up before the dawn and typing. This time because at dinner time when I went up to my room to prepare for the evening I crashed all night. During the day our entire group had traveled to northwest Penang Island to visit Entopia Butterfly Garden. It was well worth the trip and on the return our driver took us to a food court close to the hotel in Bayan Lepas. Super Tanker, a large covered open-air building, was bustling on a Sunday afternoon and about two dozen individual stalls offered Malay, Chinese and Pan-Asian food. One was even called “Frozen Frogs Westeen Food”, which one member of our party enjoyed Black Pepper Steak from. The rest of us all opted to sample the local cuisine. Like our previous day’s adventure at New Lane Market in George Town, here you grab yourself a numbered table and then cold beers from the drinks vendor before touring the varied offerings cooked fresh upon order. I enjoyed the Char Kway Teow so much at New Lane and headed straight to a vendor stir-frying the flat rice strips in a big wok. I asked for a big plate prepared with duck egg and prawns that I asked be made spicy and five minutes later was satiating my butterfly garden walk hunger with the delicious dish. It didn’t contain the lovely flat bits of sausage that the cook added at New Lane, but I enjoyed this spicier version even more. Mark and Elli had chosen Curry Mee from a different stall and it Looks so good that after I finished my plate I had a second entrée. The Curry Mee was a brothy bowl of both fine white rice noodles and thicker spaghetti-like yellow noodles and contained both tofu and these gelatinous “pork” cubes. On top was a spoon of chili paste and adding the entire thing made it an amazing spicy “ramen”. The first plate was 7RM - less than $2 x and the bowl was 4RM, just under $1! Two cans of Tiger washed down the delicious meal and they were 8RM each so I spent a total of 27RM, currently $6.59. Yep, two entrees and two beers for less than $7. By contrast, the burger and one beer at the hotel is almost 80RM, about 20 bucks. Chicago prices. Local fare is so superior both in flavor and experience and the price amazing. It’s the way to enjoy culture and holiday and not eat substandard and overpriced fascimiles of Western food.

Before our 10 am departure for Entopia yesterday, I practiced using my Macro Diffuser on the hotel’s nature trail with excellent results. Then I took a quick cold shower as any movement in this hot and humid climate makes me a sweaty mess, and met the group in the lobby. When we returned to the lobby five and a half hours later after our outing we all quickly changed to pool attire and cooled off in the refreshing pool. Pools aren’t heated in hot tropical climates as the sun does all the work, but it has been mostly overcast during our stay so the initial leap into our pool’s waters is a bit of a shock. But then it the cool water soothes. Of course, after 8 ringgits for a beer paying four times the price is another shock. The entire beer and cocktail menu is basically 30-35RM so Mark and I opted for two rounds of Singapore Slings (34 ringgits each, $8.31). Then the skies finally broke. As I sipped my cocktails I had been watching the dark skies moving in and a drizzle quickly shifted to torrential downpour with poolside umbrellas being knocked down and displaced. We moved out of the rain for a couple more drinks before everyone went to shower for dinner. That’s when I crashed and didn’t join the group for the evening. Next thing I knew it was 2 a.m. 😴

Our same Indian driver and his van that fits thirteen crazy Brits and one mad American will be picking us up this morning at 9 a.m. I am about to head to breakfast — I’ve been the first one in when it opens at 6 a.m. each morning — and then will visit the hotel nature trail again. I collected a beautiful metallic green male jumping spider yesterday that I haven’t been able to photograph yet. I may have to slow him down with an hour or so in my hotel room mini bar as he frustrated me during yesterday’s photo shoot attempts. Then I’ll shower and meet the group at nine. I’m really looking forward to visiting Penang Botanical Garden and Penang Hill today. Penang Hill is also known as Bukit Bendera, although that technically refers specifically to Flagstaff Hill, it’s highest peak. I’ll describe both destinations in detail during my next blog entry.