Vail Daily travel feature: Island-hopping through Southeast Asia
August 24, 2013
Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part travel series on Southeast Asia. To read the first installment, visit http://www.vaildaily.com.
Phuket, Thailand, and George Town, Penang, Malaysia — A turquoise sea glistens under the clear-blue sky. The water is a comfortable 85+ degrees, the sand is super-fine, but more importantly, my cell phone is packed far away and has no international calling plan.
We're on the island of Phuket in southern Thailand, escaping the aptly named mud season in Colorado. We later learned that late-spring snow storms plagued the Vail Valley while we jet-setted to exotic locations throughout Southeast Asia — we were happy to have missed that.
In Phuket, where we had been before in May of 2010, we ran into some weather problems, too, aboard a speed boat that hauled us and some other tourists out to the Similan Islands. We had a perfect day of swimming, snorkeling and lying on pristine beaches, but on the way back to the mainland, we headed directly into the darkest storm cloud I had ever seen. The swells were at least 5 feet, and the rain soaked everyone and everything on board.
Laughter was quickly silenced by fear — there was a real concern by the roughly 20 passengers on the boat that this might not end well. We all rushed to put our life jackets on, and my boyfriend, Ryan Leland, took video footage of the chaos. Perhaps the filming calmed him. It calmed me as he pointed his camera toward me — I laughed some more, but it was obvious that the situation had turned serious.
I looked up toward the boat captain. He had his hand in front of his face to try and block the rain from slamming into his eyes. The throttle was down — we were going really fast. Some of the passengers who embraced each other as if death was imminent didn't help lighten the overall mood, either.
We were probably in the thick of it for about 15 minutes, but it felt like hours. We could see the boat had no radar or GPS — the captain had probably driven this route a thousand times, but what about other boats? The visibility was zero — he could see 5 feet in front of the boat at best. What if a huge freight ship was crossing ahead? These thoughts did nothing to ease my fears, either.
Luckily the swells, heavy rain, thunder and lightning strikes lessened as we got closer to land. We pulled into the dock and everyone cheered for the captain. We felt that he really did save our lives.
Back to paradise
The next surprise came in the hour-long van ride back to our hotel in Kamala Beach: You can actually get cold in Thailand in May. We were soaked and freezing, but we were on land and alive — an outcome that wasn't certain an hour earlier.
Back at the hotel after a hot shower, paradise returned. We walked about half-a-mile to the local family restaurant we had discovered on our first day in town for our nightly Thai feast of lovely curries and noodles. The restaurant, called Zatu, is also a smoothie bar and a hair salon. The place only has four tables, all of which are outside. A woman makes fresh papaya salads right there, street-side, while the hot dishes are made in an unseen back kitchen. The smoothie business was booming, but unfortunately we couldn't try one because of a 2010 incident in which ice in Phuket made me violently ill for three days. We had just about everything on the menu during our six-day stay in Phuket, though, and it was all delicious, authentic food in a setting where there was no sight of other tourists. It was perfect.
Thailand was the relaxing portion of our three-week trip to Asia this year. We had 14 flights in three weeks, but we stayed in Phuket longer than anywhere else. We soaked up the sun, enjoyed cold beer, local markets, another snorkeling trip out to the Phi Phi Islands — the tropical islands featured in the movie "The Beach" — massages on the beach and swam in our hotel's pool almost every night.
We cruised up the coastline to Bangtao Beach on a motorbike we rented for $5 a day, reminiscing of our last trip here in 2010. We paid our respects at the memorial for the victims of the 2004 tsunami that devastated this island but also proved the resilience of the Thai people.
The experience reminded us why we wanted to return here, and also why we'd go back again.
The next stop was Penang, an island in eastern Malaysia that isn't far from Phuket, although we had to fly through Kuala Lumpur to get there.
Penang is a special place. George Town, Penang's capital, is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its old-world charm and unique architecture. It's a melting pot of cultures — the city has large Mandarin Chinese and Indian populations, as well as native Malays. The impact of such ethnic diversity on the city's food is remarkable.
George Town is a food city — the perfect place for Ryan and I who like to eat our way through the places in which we travel. To travel halfway around the world and not to eat the local food would be deplorable.
So we ate. We ate at the hawker food stalls that are everywhere. We ate local Malay dishes including Hokkien Mee, yellow noodles cooked in prawn soup, and Char Koay Teow, a flat noodle stir fried with shrimp, cockles, Chinese sausage, eggs, soy, bean sprouts and chives. Nasi Kandar, a rice dish served with many curries, and an oyster omelette were also local standouts.
The best stuff we ate, however, was the Indian food. We couldn't believe how much of it we found and how authentic it was. The little India section of town had countless restaurants to choose from. We asked a local for a recommendation and sat down and ate fresh curry off a banana leaf with our hands — it was fantastic.
With just two days in Penang, it was obviously hard to see everything. We hired a driver to whisk us around the island to see places such as the Snake Temple and the Kek Lok Si Temple — a massive structure overlooking the city that claims to be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. We also couldn't resist a trip up to Penang Hill via a cable-pulled train ride, which provided spectacular panoramic views of the city from more than 2,000 feet above, including views of the 13,500-meter-long Penang Bridge, which connects the island to the Malay Peninsula.
It was one of those magical travel moments where you realize how lucky you are to be in such a place.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-777-3125.