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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Penang: The Long Road Here

What did I see on the long bus ride(s) that took e from Chiang Mai to Penang? Towns and small cities that pretty much look all alike. The same street stalls, and the same people eating noodles at 3 a.m. Strange gray karst rock formations rising from the plains. A fishing village built out over the water, with gray wood houses and a raised wooden sidewalk winding between them. Old rubber plantations, the trees tilting, displaying few leaves and no taps. One or two working plantations, taps in place, a lone man collecting the latex sap. Roadblocks near Surat Thani, with the police only asking those in the mini-bus, "Farang? Farang?" Once they knew we were all foreigners, we were free to go on.

The road to Phuket was long. I took a VIP day bus to Bangkok (aaaah, clean air! No, I'm not being facetious. The air in Chiang Mai was awful enough to make the news in the US.), and then planned to take an overnight train down the peninsula. It turned out to be the beginning of school holidays, and the train was booked. So I took a bus that left from the train station, and then a mini-bus. By the time I'd reached Phuket, 28 hours had passed since pulling out of the Chiang Mai station. The beach was a perfect place to rest.

Then to get to Penang, I took a first class air-con bus to Hat Yai, then changed to a mini-bus to cross the border. All that went pleasantly enough, and it only took 14 hours. The big surprise was seeing the Butterworth/Penang area, which has developed a lot of very modern, very big-city areas since my last visit in 1993.

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