Upon arrival in Hat Yai which appeared to be a modern, clean yet unremarkable city from what little I saw of it, we arrived at a cafe staging post from where the minivans centred. It was the easiest option just to take another onwards then, a straight through service across the border into Malaysia and onto Butterworth. Most people were predictably heading for the nearby beaches and national park of Penang, but swapping onto a third van at the border would get me direct to Butterworth for the ever onwards connection to Kuala Lumpur. Though a major crossing point it was easy to deal with, with polite efficient service both sides. The headscarves had already made a partial re-appearance in southern Thailand and that asides, Malaysia appeared upon first impression to be little different. The cars on the road were perhaps a little older, the indiginous Proton in the main, the odd petrochemical flare became evident, as did predictably the mosques. Of more importance was the realisation that Bahasa Malaysia the national language was written in the Latin script and therefore easily discernible, many loan words were also immediately apparent such as Kaunter (counter), Kastam (customs) and Sentral (central). And so the sign hailed Selemat Datang ke Malaysia (welcome to Malaysia), my second visit after my previous short pit stop on my way back from Oz almost 5 years ago to the day. Man, had it really been all that time? I recalled how upon my return home at that time I had intended being back on the road within a matter of months to finish the job of Australia and New Zealand, and here I was half a decade hence only just getting round to it.
First stop in Malaysia was Butterworth then, the waypoint for reaching Penang via either a 20 minute ferry ride or the snazzy causeway bridge. I had failed to see Butterworth on my previous visit and so wanted to check it out. Apart from being a base from which the Australian Air Force operated, all I knew about it was that it was a transport hub, and indeed bar a small service centre of banks and underwhelming shops thats all it seemed to be. A local restaurant, in true Islamic form, proferred mainly rice and curry but could not even muster such basics as tap water, lemonade or change. The local headscarved babes were most definitely now not available and so safe in the knowledge that I wasnt going to be pestered either, it was a refreshing change. They tended to be bigger with rounder, less delicate features, and a strange hybrid concocted courtesy of Islam whereby they would cover their hair but it was still OK and indeed standard more often than not to wear jeans, hence showing their bum. Of course women are beautiful the world over and when theyre good theyre very good, but unfortuantely I didnt think Malay women would get many votes as the flavour of choice. There was a distinct cultural mix in Malaysia however due to its long historical and colonial legacy, with sizeable communities of Chinese and Indians, mainly Tamils adding to the mix. It was a remarkable success story that such a diverse culture managed to co-exist, but such was the spirit of tolerance everyone seemed to just be getting on with their lives. Unfortuantely that still meant that you had to endure young kids chanting the Koran on TV!
With singularly nothing to detain me in Butterworth I bagged beyond all expectation a ticket for that nights sleeper train down to K.L., the Thai train down from Bangkok had been booked solid for nearly a fortnight. I then realised that I could manage a trip across to Georgetown on Penang in the meantime and so jumped aboard the ferry. Aiming for the heart of the town took me through Little India, a procession of streets brightly lit with all the wonders of the subcontinent on offer. From there you emerged into Chinatown, where after Nasi Goreng (fried rice) I spotted the joint where I had stayed 5 years previously. I had left it a bit tight for the return ferry and though distracted by some very fine colonial architecture I had to leg it in the realisation that there was the serious chance of missing the train which did not bear thinking about. Locals milled about seemingly mystified as to why the ferry wasnt operating, it was normally a constant rolling service, and an old couple gave up on it. I watched the minutes count down excruciatingly until I had to accept the inevitable. Eventually reaching the other shore I didnt even bother making a dash for it, but incredibly the train was still there though it should have left 20 minutes ago. It was as quick as I could grab my bag from the station repository (disconcertingly unlocked and unmanned) and I ran round to find my cosy looking berth all starched sheets and very plush. In the end we waited another 20 minutes for the train to spring into life, and it was a marked difference in what I had hitherto become used to. The station was completely devoid of hawkers and touts, with not even a necessary bottle of water to be had. Grateful to get out of my sodden clothes in my curtained cubicle, I had the best nights sleep I've ever had on a train, and all for only 6 quid.