Bangkok has become a second home to us now. We always get a great welcome back to our chosen hostel, and the same room each time, and we always discover something new about the city. This time around we discovered the luxury cinemas and a fantastic bar called Saxophone next to the Victory Monument which has live local jazz and blues bands every night. Throw in a bit of shopping and a great tapas restaurant and we had ourselves a very enjoyable few days.
We flew to Penang in Malaysia in one and a half hours, we moved one hour ahead (we're now eight hours ahead of Ireland) and things are very different. Malaysia is the most diverse place I've ever been to. There's a heavy Indian and Chinese influence alongside the resident Muslim population with Hindu and Buddhist temples sharing the same block as mosques. Everyone is quite friendly and the language isn't such a barrier here as it seems most people have quite good English (and as a result I have yet to gain a word of Malay).
I haven't found much difference as a result of being in a Muslim country, although I am conscious of flashing a bit too much flesh as I'm surrounded by a lot of headscarves and the odd burka. I have got quite used to the call to prayer that you hear blasted from the mosques five times a day every day - at sunrise, mid-morning, mid-afternoon, dusk and in the evening - it's quite atmospheric.
Georgetown is the main city on the island of Penang and is a UNESCO World Heritage site (number three on the trip) and is a strange combination of old Chinese shophouses and modern new high-rise buildings. Oddly enough there's one particular street that could easily fit into Temple Bar, a strip of big very loud bars with lots and lots of scantily clad bar girls. There is an abundance of Indian restaurants so we gorged ourselves on naan bread (one restaurant had 13 kinds) tikka masala and chicken biryani washed down with a mango lassi (kind of a fruit smoothie made with yoghurt).
Walking around the town there's a strong colonial feel to parts of it near the waterfront, in particular Fort Cornwallis. An old English fort which now serves as the most boring tourist attraction I've ever seen. It's basically a large field with a large old canon and some stone walls and an excuse for Will to create a ridiculous photo opportunity. There's a nice feel to the town but you only really need a day to take it all in.
We took a local bus (they had screens displaying the time of arrival at the bus station, imagine the technology!) and got out of the city to visit Kek Lok Si, a huge Chinese Buddhist temple complex set high up in the hills. It had a very different feel to it than any other Buddhist temples we have visited. For starters you ascend the hill to the temple through a narrow walkway with hawker stalls on either side selling trinkets and tourist tat. There are at least three relatively large shops selling the same tat actually inside the complex and the whole thing is lit up like a gaudy Christmas tree at night. The strict dress code (of covering your knees and shoulders) is not observed here either and oh how the Chinese like to take photographs of everything (I saw a guy take a photo of a van filling up at a petrol station, something to show the family back home I'm sure) including their friends and family climbing on the statues representing the animals in the Chinese zodiac. There was even a girl with her little dog dressed up in clothes and a nappy! I found it all a bit strange but there were impressive prayer halls in which murals and Buddha statues displayed the original swastika symbol and there were good views from the top of the hill.
Overall Penang is a good spot but I wouldn't be rushing back, Georgetown can be seen in two days and after that I would be inclined to get out to see the rest of the island.
I get the impression that Malaysia won't be so kind to us as regards accommodation as was Thailand. I think we'll have to pay more for the same standard we are used to. Things just seem to be that bit scruffier here which isn't what I had expected, but you know what they say about she who expects too much...
Next stop the Cameron Highlands.