Month: February 2012

Driving from Penang to Kuala Lumpur (KL)

You could catch the bus or train, or even fly cheaper. It’s not so interesting to drive, so why would you want to do it?

If you catch the bus you must of course get to the bus terminal.  In Penang that is either Sungai Nibong, five minutes drive from Queensbay Mall on Penang Island, or Butterworth, near the ferry terminal on  the mainland.  If you catch a taxi there it adds considerably to the expense, unless you live nearby.  If you drive your car there you have the expense of parking, and worries about security.  Or you could catch a Rapid Penang Bus there, which may involve changing buses, and would involve carrying your luggage.  In which case, perhaps consider catching a bus or taxi to the ferry terminal and then the ferry across to the bus terminal at Butterworth.  Still, you must carry your luggage for the distance.    Also note which terminal the bus arrives at in KL – you may have again to catch public transport or a taxi to get to your destination, and that could be pricey if it involves a taxi.  The actual time on the bus is only marginally more than driving – but as you must get from home to the bus terminal, wait for departure, and after arrival, get to your destination, the point to point time becomes considerably more. And if you value your safety use one of the more expensive bus companies, and catch a bus that departs and arrives during daylight hours.

The train is very slow, although that may not be a disadvantage, and it is quite relaxing.  But, again, it involves many of the same problems getting to the station in Butterworth as getting to one of the bus terminals.  One useful ploy could be to catch the first class sleeper to KL, shower before arrival, spend the day in KL, and catch the sleeper back.  An efficient use of time and a saving on a hotel.  If you want a shower during the day there is one in the station at KL.  Ensure you take any food or drink you may want to consume on the train. For more details on the train see my earlier article on catching the train to Singapore.

As for flying, it involves advantages and disadvantages that almost any international traveller is already aware of.  It can be quite cheap as well.

So again, why drive?

Leaving Penang (Island) - crossing the bridge to the mainland. No toll in this direction.

You want to do it at least once
A lot of shopping to bring back
Stopping along the way to see / do something
You’re going past KL to elsewhere
There are several people going, so it’s cheaper (at least if you ignore the car running costs)
You can set your own schedule
You need the car in KL
You hate public transport

Heading south - typical landscape

So, some statistics:

Driving at around the (very low) speed limit of mostly 110 kph and with a couple of short stops it takes about 4 1/2 hours, if not caught in traffic
Distance is about 175 miles or 281.58 Kilometers as the crow flies
Road distance is about 370 kilometres

Typical landscape

The occasional car, lorry or motorbike has no functioning rear light – you may want to reconsider driving at night, especially as the traffic seems no lighter at night.
It is mostly an uninteresting drive – however, a few kilometres before Ipoh, and after Ipoh, the landscape is more interesting.

approaching Ipoh the landscape is more interesting

getting closer to Ipoh

Toll charges are about RM45 one way.
It is useful to have a Touch and Go card to pay the tolls.  The queues are smaller than the cash payment booths.  Buy a Touch and Go card before you leave – the web site tells you where.

a "toll plaza"

There are almost no electronic sign boards to warn of any problems ahead.

There are a lot of these hills

unfortunately they are mining these hills and leaving them bare

After Ipoh

There are rest areas along the way.
There are petrol stations at some of the rest stops.
Petrol prices are set by the government, so it costs no more buying on the motorway.
Toilets vary in cleanliness at the rest stops, but none are very good.
There is absolutely no good coffee to be found at rest stops.
You can buy fruit, different kinds of Malaysian food, soft drinks, souvenirs, icecream at some of the rest stops – but some rest stops have only toilets.

a small rest area

For about two-thirds of the journey there are two lanes, and thereafter three lanes. From about Slim River, south, from memory.

A huge percentage of drivers drive in the middle lane, leaving the left lane almost empty on the three lane section. No point having three lanes, really.

three lanes now

Road signage is very poor in KL so a GPS is very handy- as long as you have the maps up to date.

KL ahead!!

Journey’s end


Alternative Media this week

Argentine Advice for Greece: ‘Default Now!’  where Adrian Salbuchi, having experienced a similar experience to Greece’s present economic catastrophe in Argentina a decade ago, gives his advice.

The US & UK etc. are supporting the rebels Al Qaeda in Libya and Syria.  The rebels are Al Qaeda.  So now Al Qaeda are the good guys?   Bob Chapman on the 22/02/2012  “USA PREPARES.COM W/ VINCENT FINELLI”  You may have to subscribe to download this podcast.

How we are moving from the 3rd dimension into the 4th. The earth has a wobble, which has a cycle of approximately 26,000 years. Every 13,000 years there is a change of consciousness, alternatively a raising of, or decreasing of. Bob mentions the type of consciousness we’ve been immersed in for the last 13,000 years and discusses the rise of a new type of consciousness.  December 21st, 2012 marks the end of a 13,000 year cycle, after which we start to have a raising of consciousness.

Interesting thoughts or articles I noticed from the alternative media this week. I don’t endorse or dismiss the ideas – and in many cases I have been aware of these ideas for years, but perhaps there is additional information or there is something new.

Best value in Penang

Most things in Penang are quite reasonable value.

Street parking in Butterworth near the Megamall is 40 sen an hour (8 pence).  On  the island it can be up to double that for street parking, and on weekdays in mall parking areas perhaps RM1 (20 pence) for three hours.  Of course, some parking is free, and some banks and supermarkets have free parking.

Rapid Penang bus tickets are priced according to distance, but are cheap.

Theatre and concert tickets are far cheaper than we’re used to, and the cinema is from RM7 (around £1.40).  The cinemas can be very, very cold, so take something to wear.

Coffee at Mc Donalds is good value – the other famous coffee chains charge pretty much the same as London.  Old Town coffee’s price is not too bad – the new Old Town on Beach Street also has a nice atmosphere. Best value though, is coffee (black coffee is Kopi-O), at a hawker centre – depending on the hawker centre it is about 80 sen (16 pence).

Song River on Gurney Drive, corner Jalan Birch

Eating at hawker centres is quite cheap – cheaper than buying food at the supermarket and eating at home – but when you consider the hygiene levels, the unavoidable MSG, and the preponderance of carbohydrate based dishes, many expats soon tire of them and prefer to eat at home mostly.  Song River on Gurney Drive, does have some nice dishes during the day, and although small, is good and therefore very popular. (Daytimes, about 7AM – 3PM.)  At night, instead, are several stalls selling different ranges of dishes, my favourite being the BBQ chicken stall.

Sarkies, E&O Hotel

But one deal stands out – become a member of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (E & O), and two people can eat a lunchtime buffet for the price of one, on weekdays.  You may have to eat there about five times for the savings you make to recover the cost of the membership. It depends on the day how good it is – sometimes the variety and quality of the food is good, and sometimes excellent.  You also receive some useful, and not so useful, vouchers.  Useful ones are, for example, free afternoon tea vouchers for 1885 – the upmarket restaurant at the E & O, member for a day vouchers you can use when you go with friends – or can give to friends, some good birthday deals at 1885 etc. E & O membership  – 04 222 2000 & ask for Helen

Sarkies, E&O Hotel, buffet

Dim Sum, as in most countries, can be very good value.  There are numerous good Dim Sum restaurants.

And there are a couple of useful free magazines for expats:

The Expat mag –
Expatriate Lifestyle –

Of course, there are free daily newspapers, such as the Sun, Monday to Friday.

Is there anything else I should be aware of? I am sure there is.

Growing stuff on hot concrete – gardening in tropical Penang – episode 1

It’s the tropics – everything grows like weeds, right?  Couldn’t be easier growing things?!  Er, no.

The easy way is to see what your neighbours are growing in pots, and just grow the same.  But with the exception of bougainvillea and a couple more, I had more interesting plants in mind. And I want mostly things I can eat. Oh, and everything should be organic. I want to be able to grow food – and I know it would be much cheaper and easier just to buy it at an organic shop. Following is my experience from May 2011.

I have no ground as everywhere is paved, so apart from a 30 square foot raised brick bed I had made on a concrete slab, everything else I have to grow in pots.  And I move the pots around if I think the plants will be happier with more / less shade, cover, etc. I painted the concrete floor, walls and planter box with a special white paint that reflects the heat – it is manufactured in Ipoh and they deliver.  This means I can walk on the floor and not burn my feet, the plants are cooler, and the house is cooler.


30 square foot planter box, shade cloth and lattice

I’d buy local seeds, sow them, and absolutely nothing would germinate.  Even in my raised bed, nothing would germinate.  I would compost the fruit and vegetable remains, and then put the compost in my raised bed.  And from this little seedlings appeared.  I would nurture them, and they’d grow to about 1″ or 2″ tall, and then they’d wilt and die.

LESSON 1. It’s too hot.  I put up a pergola with lattice, and put shade cloth over the top of the garden bed.  Pots could also be shaded.  I put another layer of shade cloth directly over the raised bed for the hottest part of the day.  And then I watered frequently to keep it all cooler.  Doing the same kind of thing with seeds in seed pots brought some success – carrots, cabbages,  cherry tomatoes…  Shade cloth, watering to keep cool.

So now I had some plants growing up from my compost.  I often did not know what they were, and neither did the nursery man.

LESSON 2.  People tell you there are no seasons and you can sow seeds / plant plants anytime. I don’t believe it.  Passionfruit I grew from seed became about 9″ high and then stopped growing for months – then suddenly around October they took off and grew rapidly all over the lattice.  Now, mid-February, I have had one flower, and a fruit is now growing.  I have 20 plants, so I hope many more will follow. Similar experience with other plants – the time of year makes a difference.

LESSON 3. Talking about passion fruit – if you want to grow the vines, all you have to do is buy the fruit at the market or even Tesco recently (buah markisa – hooray, I can count from 1 to 5 in Malay and I know the word for passionfruit), and then save some of the seeds.  Just have them dry on a dish. If you wish you can rinse them with water to remove the clingy pulpy stuff (sorry, technical language).  While at Tesco, or an organic shop, buy mung beans – other legumes that can sprout may also work for you.  Then put a seed or two in tiny pots, along with a couple of mung beans.  The mung beans will increase the success rate of germination from about 15% to about 90%. Once they have grown enough, repot, and repot until in a pot of at least 12″ diameter.  Full Malaysian sun seems to be OK once they are 9″ high or so. This is where I am up to now.  More info as I observe it.

I tried many seeds in the raised bed – okura, tomato, carrot…. Nothing germinated.  But one day these incredibly strong seeds appeared to germinate – and so quickly – bitter gourd.  I had tried sowing them in this spot, but they also could have come from the compost as I had bought the vegetable at Tesco, eaten them and composted the seeds.  Of course, at this time I had no idea what they were. They are climbers, and eventually they took over the entire pergola.  They fruited like crazy for two months, and I cooked them, froze them, juiced them, and eventually cut down the vines and composted them once their lifespan was complete.  The biggest success so far.

BITTER GOURD RECIPE FOR DUMMIES: Even I could do this.  Cut in half along the fruit and remove seeds. (You can save these if you wish).  Then cut into 1/4″ slices.  Heat a frypan, put in olive oil (and later butter if you wish) and then bitter gourd. When reasonably soft, throw in three eggs per person, and remove from heat before eggs cook too much.  Can add chilli and pepper.

LESSON 4. Seed sowing times/months  I have had success with. As mentioned above, although I have been told you can grow anything anytime, this has not been my experience.  You may be successful at other times, but so far this is my experience:

  • Bitter Gourd. Sowed seeds  in mid-August in planter box, mid September fruit started to appear on vine, 2nd October harvested first bitter gourd. I had three vines. Thereafter the fruit produced copiously for about two months. You can pick green, like the locals, or wait until it turns yellow and it is sweeter.

bitter gourd on vine

  • Cabbage. At the end of September I sowed Gardenic cabbage seeds.  Nothing germinated. On 28th October I sowed Copenhagen cabbage seeds, and they germinated in about three days.  A few days later I transplanted them to pots, and a few weeks later some of them to bigger pots.  They seem to prefer shade.  They are growing very slowly, and here are a couple of photos:

cabbage after germination - November 2nd

February 15th - the biggest and smallest from those seeds

  • Cape Gooseberry. TBA
  • Carrot. TBA
  • Chilli. TBA
  • Lentils. Seeds seem to germinate any time, and grow until about 12″ high, quite weak and spindly looking, and then wilt and die.  I gave up after three tries.
  • Mung Beans.  They germinate after only one or two days in the ground, grow quickly, and then flower, and produce pods with mung beans in them.  All quite fast.  I simply use them as a companion plant for passion fruit as they hugely increase the germination rate of passion fruit seeds, and help them grow well.  Mung beans are great for sprouting and eating in salads, but it is far too much work to grow the volume you need, and even organic mung beans are very cheap to buy.
  • Okra. Absolutely no luck so far germinating them in the planter box or in seed pots.
  • Papaya. Very easy.  it seems any time is the right time. See Lesson 5.
  • Passion fruit. Can germinate seeds anytime, and plants will grow to perhaps 6″ to 9″, and then just stay the same.  But from about October my plants suddenly started growing quickly.  First flower mid February, first fruit – two days after flowering.

passion fruit plants 19th, November with mock orange to left

  • Tomato. My holy grail. Most days I eat some. I love tomatoes, and started growing them first when I was a child.  But is it too hot in Penang to grow them?  No, but it is difficult, and so far the crops are very sparse.   I tried sowing tomato seeds – both from packets I bought and seeds from tomatoes I had bought in Tesco.  None germinated.  But plants did come up in the planter box from the compost, which I discovered in late August. I nurtured those plants, transplanted some into pots and some I spread throughout the planter box.  The plants in the planter box grew much faster and produced better tomatoes.  The tomatoes were not so big, but they were delicious.  By late November I was picking tomatoes at the rate of about 4 a day. After a couple of weeks the fruit flies discovered them.  So I wiped each baby tomato that appeared with white vinegar on a tissue – and had no more problems with the fruit flies. I had tried spraying the tomatoes with vinegar, but it was killing the plants from the overspray onto the leaves.  Cheap vinegar is fine.

tomato plants


  • Cherry tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes may be easier, grow happily in pots – and they are much less bothered by pests. Early January germinated cherry tomato seeds from some cherry tomatoes.

cherry tomatoes - biggest and smallest from same seeds. Germinated early January, now 15th Feb.

LESSON 5. The closest I have to 100% success, no matter what you do, is papaya.  But papaya in a pot, so possibly no fruit, unless you eventually put them into the ground, or find a miniature variety.  I just compost the seeds from any papaya I buy at the market or Tesco; or just save the seeds, wash and sow them.  And up come papaya seedlings.  Repot during/ after rain or when cool.  I like them as decoration, anyway, but am hoping for fruit one day.  I also have three in my planter box that are 10 feet / 3m high.  So far little fruit grow, but the trees shed them and they don’t grow to maturity. Also, papaya need both male and female plants to fruit. Apparently with several plants, I have at least one male.  Growing just one papaya, unless your neighbours have trees too, will mean it’s unlikely to fruit.

baby papaya - they germinate and grow so easily


Alternative Media this week

Vitamin C proven to help protect Fukushima victims from radiation poisoning, cancer

My thought: So perhaps if you really have to fly out of an airport that forces you to go through a full body scanning machine, you can protect yourself from the DNA damage and from the cancer they cause by a two month Vitamin C regime.

Interesting thoughts or articles I noticed from the alternative media this week. I don’t endorse or dismiss the ideas – and in many cases I have been aware of these ideas for years, but perhaps there is additional information or there is something new.

Living with (or even better, without) mosquitoes

Living in the tropics unfortunately means year round mosquitoes.

Of course, the main danger with mosquitoes is that they are a vector (I’ve always wanted to use that word) for malaria and dengue fever.

If a mosquito of a certain type  bites someone who has either of these they will become a carrier.  Then if they bite someone else the person bitten may contract the disease.

Most carriers are apparently illegal immigrants who brought it with them to Malaysia – it’s actually quite unlikely you will stay or go to the same places as them. A possible exception is construction workers building a condo near where you are.  Nevetheless, mosquitoes do not travel very far.

So, how to avoid mosquitoes.:

  • Live in a condo on the 8th floor or above
  • Close your windows around 6PM and don’t open them again until 8AM
  • Alternatively, have insect screens on your windows
  • Buy a mosquito attracting device –   a UV light and fan that attracts them and then traps them.
  • Do not leave water in containers that will allow them to breed
  • Cover your skin with long sleeves etc. in the evenings if you are outside and there will be no breeze
  • If you suspect none of the above will be sufficient, use an insect repellant wipe – much more effective than a spray.
  • And if this is still not enough you can buy an electric  mosquito killing racquet.  It’s rechargeable and much better than using a spray if you can see the mosquito.
  • Mosquito netting for your bed would work, but is overkill for Penang.

And, inevitably, you will get bitten.  I apply a collodial silver gel, which I make myself – in a few minutes the itchiness is gone, and a little later so is the lump from the bite.  I will cover colloidal silver in a future blog, but you can google it.

It is very unlikely that an expat will contract either of these diseases, but I always keep MMS on hand in case I contract either dengue or malaria.  MMS will be the topic of a future blog, too, but you can see

Malaysia is experimenting with genetically modified mosquitoes to make it difficult for disease carrying mosquitoes to breed – so far all genetic modification has been a disaster with food.  Doing it with mosquitoes in the wild is scary to me.

Unsurprisingly, there are male and female mosquitoes.  Males are vegetarians all their lives and will not bite you.  Females will only bite you at the end of their life cycle to lay eggs, because they need extra protein, and will bite on average four times to get the nutrition they need – this last figure being contentious.  Females’ probiscus is much bigger than the males’ – that is how you can tell them apart – at least after you have killed them.  They like blood type O best.

So, sleep tight, and don’t let the mosquitoes bite.

From Penang to Singapore by train

If you want to know about train journeys, it’s hard to do better than looking at The Man in Seat Sixty-One.

This is a short account of my trip to Singapore by train in October 2011. The train trip went smoothly, and was interesting.  I am glad I did it. I am not sure I would do it again, though.

I booked seats through the Malaysian Railway’s (KTM site)- basic but functional. The prices were very reasonable. And anyone, Malaysian or foreign, over 60 years old gets a (50% discount) on all classes. I had to make two bookings for the return trip: Penang – Kuala Lumpur return, & Kuala Lumpur to Singapore return.

The train departs from Butterworth, on the mainland, the station being close to the ferry terminal. From home to the ferry was a few minutes by taxi.  Then you follow people to the ferry, as there is no real signage.

The “waiting room” for the ferry to Butterworth.

It seems the ferry goes every 10 minutes or so.  It’s free to Butterworth.

On the ferry

The ferry takes about 15 minutes to cross.

bye bye Penang (Island)

arriving at Butterworth Ferry Terminal

And then there are signs to the train station, which is about a five minute walk, with a lot of stairs.

signage to station

The bus station is much closer.  Perhaps you can even park at the station, but it doesn’t seem that secure.

Butterworth Station

The waiting room is cool and clean.

platform – left to Kuala Lumpur, right to Bangkok

The tickets I printed off the Internet are sufficient, and I don’t need them checked or endorsed.  There is a food court nearby.

The train – all the passenger trains seemed to have the same appearance.

The train left on time at 1400.  It was quite empty.  The carriages are old and not so clean. Second class carriages are four seats across and I believe no food or water is provided.

The First Class carriage.

The trip is very different from the motorway as you pass through many towns, and is more interesting, and there seems to be a lot of infrastructure work going on – bridges, roads, and it looks like they are laying new railway tracks to make it double track north of Ipoh.  But the train is very slow. And there is no trolley coming through and selling anything, and it seems no restaurant car.  And nothing being sold on the platform that you can get when the train stops.  So what you bring with you is what you drink and eat.  However, in First Class they brought us a bottle of water and a sardine bun.

At KL Station there is a First Class lounge – which again is old, run down, and not very clean.  But empty, with no one checking your tickets. There is Wi-Fi in the station, and also power points in the lounge that you can use.  A kitchenette, and toilets, are also attached.

First Class Lounge in KL.

Just around the corner from the lounge, on the same floor, is a Hawker Centre. I had a meal there.

my evening meal at the Kuala Lumpur Station hawker centre

The train left 10 minutes late for SIN.

inside the first class sleeper carriage

The First Class sleeper was two bunk beds, with a small bathroom attached with shower.


All was old, the bathroom was clean, but the bed sheets quite stained and not so clean. Importantly, it was not smelly.


Noodles and water were provided for dinner.


It was quite a rough ride, with a lot of jolts when starting off from a station that the train stopped at.  I slept OK, but woke a lot because it was so rough.

amenity pack provided

Food was provided when we were awoken around 5:30AM by the conductor.


The train stopped around 6am at Johore Baru for a long time for Malaysian Immigration.  Then on to Singapore.

the train arrived in Singapore

But the Singapore train arrival location is a disaster.  It appears they want only locals to use the train.  There is no info, no ATM, no money change, it’s about a half hour by bus to the subway – and the bus only takes exact money.  The Malay railway guy was helpful, and told me where I could go to find an ATM, and which bus to catch to the subway etc.  Then about an hour on the subway to the centre.

Woodlands Station, Singapore

Also, Woodlands, where the train arrives, has many food courts, and is quite dirty, with a lot of litter.  And people ignore red pedestrian lights and cross the road.  So Singapore is less strict now.

So now it is just too inconvenient to use the train.  The train used to arrive in the centre of the city – until July, 2011.

Not having a map I used the location map at the subway station to find the hotel I had booked.

I caught the Second Class sleeper back to Kuala Lumpur a few nights later, just to see the difference.

Second Class sleeper

And the differences? The second class sleepers are not segregated by sex.  Second Class was more fun, travelling by myself as I was, as I could briefly chat to a few different people before retiring to my bunk.  Also one is awoken later, closer to the destination, as no food is served. However, the toilets were a disgrace, disgusting as usual, and there was not even running water – a bucket of water was provided to wash ones hands.  The value of having a clean, non-smelly toilet, and to be able to shower before arrival makes First Class worth the extra.

As I was in Second Class on the return to KL I had to use the shower in KL Station.  This wasn’t so clean, but neither so dirty, and wasn’t smelly, but cockroaches were wandering around and I was worried one or more would get into my luggage.

the upper bunk