#113 - Langkawi, Malaysia - Thursday, 24 January 2019

Ok. I suck. I could make excuses about why my promised, alleged, intended daily blog entries during Malaysia III have failed. There are loads of plausible reasons. But, I just suck.

I truly had hoped to share daily, but I also selfishly just wanted to have a journal of each day’s activities. I’m old. Memory fails.

I certainly can’t recollect well enough to recount each day now, four days or so after my last post. There was beer and beach and pool and, of course, wildlife and photography. Tuesday night we even had an amazing private beach buffet dinner for Mark Pennell’s sister Chris’ 60th birthday.

Two evenings stand out for me though. Mark, his brother-in-law Alan (Chris’ husband) and I made two treks from Berjaya through the nearby Oriental Village to a jungle path and up to Seven Wells Waterfall. Both last night and the first trip, we met in the resort lobby at 6:30 and got back at about 11 pm, tired and sweaty and telling our group assembled in the hotel lobby bar tales of spiders, scorpions and bats. The Chilobrachys tarantulas haven’t been as easy to find as during previous visits and we have so far failed to observe Omothymus tree tarantulas, but we have found Heteropoda and Pandercetes huntsman spiders incredibly abundant, their astonishing camouflage betrayed by the eye shine caused by our flashlight beams.

I have failed to find snakes at night (an amazing snake story will follow, however), but we have seen frogs, Tokay and flat-tailed house geckos, bamboo rats, bats, etc. Our two night walks have been the highlight of the visit for me.

OK - snake story. Monday night as our group was heading from our individual chalets to meet in the lobby for dinner, one couple was taking numerous iPhone snapshots during the walk. Just clicking images of the grounds and the spectacular view of the pool, beach and Burau Bay on the Andaman Sea where we are so fortunate to be. As Julie snapped her series of photos an Oriental Pied Hornbill landed on the ground and she pointed her iPhone camera its way. These are spectacular birds. Even though it is the smallest of the three species of hornbills found on the island, hey still are larger than a small dog. What Julie could have never expected was that she would see that Hornbill killed as just then a Reticulated Python attacked and thrust its shiny coils around it quickly constricting the doomed bird. Others in our party came over and many iPhones became pointed at the coils of python wrapped around the majestic black and white bird with huge ivory bill. I actually wasn’t there as I had a very late lunch/early dinner in Oriental Village and wasn’t joining the group dinner. I was in my room when Mark texted me and I threw on clothes just as Kim knocked on my chalet. Sadly, by the time I arrived at the scene about two minutes walk from my chalet the snake had been disturbed enough to release the now dead Hornbill and crawl into a subterranean cave beneath ornamental rocks that had been cemented together. This is right next to the prayer building and 50 yards from the pool!

I have tried to see the python again to no avail. Based on the size of the bird and the photos and videos the amazed onlookers captured, I would guess that the snake was about eight feet long (retics are slender for length). It’s amazing that it lives in a resort with a almost 500 chalets and a staff of several hundred and is not seen again. But the grounds are heavily forested and landscaped and wildlife is abundant. Large monitors visit the pool so a python beneath the Muslim prayer room isn’t unusual, I suppose.

Our group are on a private sunset cruise on the Andaman Sea right now, but I declined to join them for a number of reasons. I did do it on my other two visits. I know they’re having a blast and I have enjoyed a peaceful day alone, doing what I enjoy.

#112 - Langkawi, Malaysia - Saturday, 19 January 2019

I am behind a couple of days, but the past few days of been mostly holiday relaxation. Pool, beach, pool, walks into Oriental Village, pool, beach, pool. Thursday evening dinner en masse at the hotel’s Oriental Pearl restaurant, last night our entire group - which now numbers sixteen after another couple’s arrival yesterday - dinner again at the Beach Brassiere where we have breakfast.

This morning five of us, Mark and daughter Elli, his brother-in-law Alan and his daughter Emily, and one tattooed American naturalist are going up to the mangroves at the northwest of this island to look for Flying Foxes and one of my chief targets, the Mangrove Viper (Trimeresurus purpeomaculatus). We will be guided by Wendy Chin who we have spent time with over the past handful of years. Her operation is appropriately dubbed Langkawi Nature Guide and Alan, Emily and Mark’s sister Chris joined her two nights ago for some “owling”. They saw both types of Civet, giant red flying squirrels, nightjar and two species of owl among other things like Greater and Wreathed Hornbills. When I was here two years ago we took the longboat trip with Wendy into the mangroves and I was able to photograph one specimen of the purplish-brown Mangrove Viper. She messaged Mark yesterday afternoon after seeing them and we booked an outing for this morning.

Speaking of hornbills, there are three species here. The two that Alan & Co. saw the other night up the mountain (Gunung Raya) with Wendy are less often observed, whereas the Oriemtal Pied Hornbill is most abundant and often seen around our resort. It is the smallest of the three species, but is still one helluva large bird. Each evening just before dusk they often can be found near the hotel lobby and as I walked to dinner last night I saw a dozen or more.

Although the past two days have been pretty chill, I did have both a morning and then an after dinner walk on little jungle trail that is at the western edge of the resort. There I am looking for the Beautiful Viper (Trimeresurus venustus). Yesterday Alan and Mark and I also walked up to Seven Wells waterfall area, and found a handful of tarantula burrows but were unable to observe any and did not attempt to extract. I’ll go back at night so I might photograph without disturbing them.

Yesterday I was able to get good images of both species of monkey found on Langkawi — the Dusky or Spectacled Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus) and the Long-tailed or Crab-eating Macaque (Macaca fascicularius). I’ll try for the Oriental Pied Hornbill this evening — last night I just filmed with iPhone for Instagram story. I’m also hoping to see otters on the beach before long and who knows what we will see today?

#111 - Langkawi, Malaysia - Thursday, 17 January 2019

Writing at sunrise at Beach Brassiere restaurant on Burau Bay at Berjaya Langkawi Beach Resort. It is our second morning on Langkawi Island and I am sitting at the same table where I sat yesterday after a predawn beach walk among the crabs out to a natural rock breakwater at the eastern end of the white sand Berjaya beach. I set up my tripod and did some long exposure photography as the sun rose over some early fishing boats.

Yesterday we arrived on the island after a thirty minute flight from Penang and were greeted after baggage claim by two drivers from Berjaya. Twenty minutes later we were receiving a VIP welcome in the resort lobby with cold Tiger beer. This is Mark’s second home, but even on only my third visit there was something familiar and comforting. I was assigned chalet #2112, which is very fitting for a lifelong Rush fan. After getting settled into our lodging we donned our swimwear and I was first to arrive in the sunken pool par, set up to my waist and drinking another Tiger.

Our resort is on the southwestern shore of the island, away from the population center of Kuah Town in the northeast. The climate immediately seemed a bit warmer and muggier than on Penang, and the two lane road running along the coast a contrast to the busy roads near our Penang hotel. The roadside was populated by macaques, who even sit on the pavement oblivious to the vehicles crossing the center line to avoid them. Langkawi is actually an archipelago made up of 99 islands off peninsular Malaysia's west coast straddling its northern border with Thailand. Surrounded by turquoise sea, the interior of the main island that we visit is a mixture of picturesque paddy fields and jungle-clad hills.

After yesterday’s breakfast I spotted a colugo on a tree trunk during the short walk from the pool and beach to my chalet. I set up my camera on a tripod and while I was photographing it I noticed a larger colugo closer to me and only about eight feet up the trunk of its tree. Popularly and incorrectly called “flying lemur”, the Sunda Colugo is certainly not a lemur and does not fly like a bat. It is an arboreal and nocturnal mammal that belongs to its own Order and glides from tree to tree at night searching for soft plant food like tender young leaves, shoots, flowers and fruits. The resort has a large population of these amazing mammals, which by day can be seen still and camouflaged on palm and other tree trunks, and also hosts large populations of long-tailed macaques and dusky leaf monkeys, the latter also called spectacled langurs. In truth, the dusky leaf monkey is not a true langur, but rather a lutung—but I’ve never heard anyone use that term. The macaques are pesky and rowdy and will go after your food and drink and require some caution, whereas the “langurs” are peaceful and gentle leaf-eaters that always seem contemplative or meditating.

After a day in the pool, our first evening we all convened for dinner in the same Beach Brassiere where we have our daily breakfast and then it was off to the resort’s lobby bar where there is live entertainment. The hotel in Penang also had the standard Malaysia evening bar experience - Muzak version of Western songs performed most often by a guy with a laptop playing backing tracks while he adds guitar or keyboard while two or three women in matching skintight dresses sing and move to some limited choreography. Rock and roll it ain’t.

As I wrote, I rose before the sun and did some landscape photography yesterday before breakfast and my after meal colugo photography. Later Mark, Norm and I walked around the expansive jungle grounds of the hotel looking for spiders and such. I had my entire 30 pound camera pack on so I suffered even more than them and they were quite hot and sweaty by the time we completed our walk up the steep network of paved roads that access the almost 500 rainforest chalets. We grabbed our trunks and hit the pool and spent midday drinking Tiger and enjoying some scenery. Later Mark and I went to Oriental Village, a complex of shops, restaurants and tourist recreation on the road into Berjaya. You can walk ten minutes (we did on the return) or take one of the Berjaya open air shuttles (as we did for the ride down). With a resort so huge and steep, there is a fleet of these shuttle buses that take you between lobby and chalet, but they also go down the road to Oriental Village.

Our evening meal was at Perdana Quay, known informally as “Harbor Park”. It’s about ten or fifteen minutes by taxi from Berjaya and has a handful of restaurants with Malay imitations of Western food and other cuisine. It is where many yachts are moored and ferries launch for Thailand and nearby islands. Half our group including me took a van taxi back towards the airport to visit a “supermarket” that is the only place you can buy takeaway liquor. The duty free shops in Oriental Village used to sell it, but there was a strict licensing change here in this liberal yet largely Muslim country. Our group ate at Mare Blue, an “Italian” restaurant and the other half of our group of fourteen chose Tapas.

After returning to the hotel I believe that everyone went straight back to the room for a good nights rest. I sure did. And after sleeping in a little past sunrise this morning, I have not had my breakfast, photographed another colugo, and am planning what to do with the day. I know that some of our party plan to go to Oriental Village, where you can the Sky Cab take a half of the mountain as I did two years ago. I don’t think I need to do it again, but the views are incredible. I’ll probably rest and do a little riding, and then walk the grounds again looking for bugs and reptiles.

#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.