written by Caroline
As Dave, Sadie and I travelled up north from Kuala Lumpur to Penang for six days, the warmth of the people would dissipate as we headed up towards the touristy areas of Langkawi and Penang. The plan had been to take the train to Gopeng and couchsurf at a white-water rafting campsite for two nights with a lovely rafting instructor called Ash; take a 6-hour bus ride to Kuala Perlis where we were to catch a one-hour ferry to Langkawi and stay the two nights; and finally ferry to Penang and eat our hearts out before Sadie left for her Borneo tour while we took a five-hour bus ride home back to KL to prepare for house renovations.
My first couchsurfing experience had not been a pleasant one. Dave and I had met the host in Tawau, Sabah in 2011. He claimed he had a resort by a beach, which ended up being a run-down place that was used as a “love shack” for the villagers close by. I still recall old sweat (and God knows what else) sticking to my skin as Dave and I clung each other tightly as we lay on the mattress that looked like it had been unwashed since the 80s. Thankfully, we survived with stories to tell.
I must admit that I was a little nervous about the second attempt. We arrived in Gopeng, a sleepy old ex-mining town with a few locals somnolently sitting in the shade, and we passed the time admiring street art and chatting to the coconut vendor while waiting for Ash. Ash eventually picked us up, and we instantly took a liking to his soft-spoken, friendly character. We drove through narrow, winding roads past old Malay kampung houses and abandoned rubber and oil palm plantations before arriving at the Radak Adventure campsite.
Radak was a humble yet charming little campsite surrounded by forest, and only a few steps away from the river. We met a couchsurfing couple, Alejandro (or Ali) and Elif from Spain and Turkey, who had already been at Radak for three weeks, volunteering to set up a vegetable garden for Radak to use in the future. The rest of the Radak crew were extremely friendly and happy, always laughing and making fun, and also very talented with their culinary and outdoor skills.
For the two nights we were at Gopeng, we had swum in the river numerous times, eaten local meals made expertly by the Radak crew, visited a Malay house to celebrate a one-year-old’s first step on ground (apparently an old Indonesian tradition as the baby does not touch the ground until they are a year old), climbed up a valley for a beautiful view of the limestone formations and caves that stretched all the way from Ipoh, and rafted through white rapids in the night amongst a glitter of fireflies. And all this only in exchange for helping to cook the meals and building friendships. Leaving Gopeng was difficult. As it happened, we ended up hosting Ali and Elif at our place for a week after our trip and became good friends.
As we set foot in Langkawi, we knew that it wouldn’t be as welcoming as little Gopeng town despite the amazing views of the verdant islands scattered across the sea. For a bunch of islanders, they didn’t seem to smile much and there were a lot of touristy activities available that seemed rather unethical. One of the guides, who took us to swim at a private beach and Dayang Bunting lake (also known as the Pregnant Maiden), mentioned that they used to have shark-feeding as an activity in the polluted Pulau Payar Marine Park… until his friend got his finger bitten off. Dave and I had previously gone on one of these “eco-trips” that were rampantly advertised in Langkawi, and were appalled that to observe the endemic eagles of Langkawi in their “natural” habitat required people throwing raw chicken skin at them as bait. Mudskippers and mud crabs living along the mangroves were also living amongst plastic bottles and random trash. It was very sad to see the locals exploiting the wildlife for the sake of tourists, and tourists happily paying for these awful trips because they were cheap.
Another interesting thing about Langkawi was “Arab season” – apparently, many Arabs come to Langkawi to shop for duty-free items around June to July. This explained why there were so many Arabic restaurants and hardly any local food apart from nasi lemak and highly priced seafood where we were. Despite the awful touristy areas, we still managed to enjoy ourselves and appreciate the wildlife that thrived at a village we stayed at for the two nights.
I was relieved to leave for Penang, and we entertained ourselves on the ferry watching movies with terribly transcribed English subtitles filled with suggestive innuendos and gibberish. As we walked off the ferry in Penang, we saw a huge swarm of taxi drivers ambling our way like flesh-hungry (or money-hungry) zombies to which they belted out their chorus of “TAXI? TAXI?” while we quickened our pace and shook our heads constantly until we escaped.
It was a lot easier to get away from the touristy parts of Penang, especially as public buses were easy to find and we could walk around the areas that locals frequented for food. We must have eaten about ten different dishes that day, mostly cheap and delicious, and we explored the heritage sites where Ernest Zacharevic, a famous street artist, had painted local scenes of everyday Penang on the peeling walls of Georgetown.
By the time we called it quits, it was already nighttime and we sauntered back to our hostel. Sadie and Dave arranged taxis to the airport and the bus station for the next day, and the receptionist at the counter smiled, “It’s 40 ringgit.” 40 ringgit?!?!?! For a local, that’s extortion. I ran down to see the receptionist, “This is too expensive. Can’t you get us a metered taxi?”
“There are no metered taxis in Penang,” she explained sweetly. Which was a complete lie. In the end, I cancelled the taxi. Dave and I decided to get to the bus station via public bus. It ended up being 4 ringgit for the both of us.
Langkawi and Penang had their charms; don’t get me wrong. But if I had to choose between a luxurious getaway at a resort in Langkawi versus camping in a leaky tent in heavy pelting rain at Gopeng with a genuine and modest bunch, I’d choose the latter.