An overland journey home

Kiwi journalists Mauricio Olmedo-Perez and Charlotte Whale are taking the scenic route home from London.

Thailand and Malaysia: Beaches and melting-pot cuisine

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Swimmers at Thailand's Ao Phra Nang Beach. Photo / Charlotte Whale
Swimmers at Thailand's Ao Phra Nang Beach. Photo / Charlotte Whale

Over the past weeks, Charlotte and I have had to deal with very dodgy transport systems in countries that really need to sort out their tourism links. So it was great to finally be in Thailand where getting from A to B wasn't such an ordeal.

We wanted to get from Bangkok to the Andaman Coast in the south and there were lots of good, cheap package travel deals which included rail, bus and transfers.

We jumped on a very comfortable overnight train from the Thai capital to Surat Thani. There, we joined throngs of young backpackers, mostly full moon party-seekers, heading to Ko Phangan and Ko Samui.

We were heading in the other direction to Krabi, which we reached after a two-hour bus ride. Then, after a short taxi ride, we finally saw the glistening beaches of Ao Nang. It was a long haul but it was such a comfortable set up that we were refreshed and fully prepared for what lay ahead... a lazy day on a beautiful beach eating, drinking and dozing.

Most people stay on Ao Nang's main beach, but we were glad we weren't because the main waterfront street was loaded with shops selling tacky beach clothes and accessories. There were cheesy-looking bars everywhere and it seemed there were more Italian restaurants than Thai ones.

We'd heard about a very quiet beach nearby called Hat Nopparat Thara. The lovely owner of the place picked us up from Ao Nang. She was so happy to have Kiwis coming to stay because she was thinking of sending her daughter to study in New Zealand and was full of questions.

She didn't want to send her daughter to America because she was worried her pride and joy would party too much. For some reason she was adamant this wouldn't happen in New Zealand: we had to be diplomatic in our answers as Charlotte and I both remembered our crazy university days.

Sand Beach Resort was exactly what we were looking for. It was secluded, with no electricity during the day and we were the only guests there apart from one other couple.

The beach was deserted, the forest came right up to the sand and we spent a perfect day being greedy, swimming in warm water and getting a bit too much sun.

The only downside was the continuous drone of longtail boats taking people everywhere - they sounded like fleets of Cessnas.

The day was topped off with a classic beach sunset and it was great to know the next day we'd be doing pretty much the same.

Next morning, we woke up looking like lobsters but we decided to brave the elements for more serious relaxation time on what's considered one of the world's top ten beaches.

We took one of the sea Cessnas to Ao Phra Nang. The beach was picture postcard perfect: crystal clear water, ridiculously white sand set in front of lush jungle and an amazing limestone cliff backdrop. It's a real gem and extremely clean. This was surprising as it's so popular, but it wasn't nearly as crowded as we thought it might be.

We really were starting to feel close to home as well because it seemed half the people on the beach were Kiwis and Aussies.

We bought lunch from longtail boats that had been converted into floating kitchens. On offer were delicious barbecued meats, pad thais, cocktails and fruit shakes. You can have a meal and beer for around three New Zealand dollars... just brilliant. It's the kind of place you could happily stay for a week - or even a month - but of course our journey called.

The next day it was back to reality and a long ride in a minibus down to Malaysia.

We were easily able to avoid the restive region of Malay Pattani, where there is a violent ethnic separatist movement going on. There are various warnings about avoiding the area, so that's exactly what we did. We've already been through a couple of dodgy areas on this trip and there's always a risk, but you'd have to be incredibly unlucky for something bad to happen.

The most dangerous part was actually our driver. He was running late and my guess was that he'd had a big night on the turps. He looked exhausted and I was keeping an eye on him at the wheel because he was getting sleepy. He had to stop for coffee a few times and it was one of those tricky situations where you wonder to yourself whether or not you should say something and cause a scene. Luckily the caffeine worked and after a busy and chaotic border crossing, we finally reached Malaysia.

It's always interesting to see the contrast between countries when you cross a land border and the first thing we noticed here was the traffic.

The motorway was extremely modern and efficient, there was even an abundance of traffic lights, what a luxury!

Drivers here actually used their lanes as well. But the biggest change was the silence. Ever since Eastern Europe we'd been exposed to incessant beeping. It sometimes seemed like honking car horns was just a terrible addiction - a reassuring noise that often achieved nothing.

It was hard to figure out why things suddenly changed in Malaysia, but whatever they're doing, I hope it spreads to the rest of Asia.

The other thing we noticed on the roads were boy racers. You could hear and see awful-looking, racing sticker-plastered suped-up cars everywhere. It brought back memories of the bogans going round and round the square in my hometown of Palmerston North. We really were on the home stretch.

We arrived eight hours later at Georgetown, the main city on the island of Penang, where we immediately hunted for a place to eat.

My favourite ethnic food is Malaysian, an obsession that developed through eating countless roti canais at the excellent Malay restaurants in New Zealand. Eating from stalls is the norm here. Hawkers at open-air foodcourts offer dishes which represent the country's ethnic diversity: Chinese, Indian and Malay are the main ones, but most other southeast Asian countries are also represented.

All you have to do is grab a table number and go round the stalls selecting what you want... before you know it, you have a mix of Asian cuisine brought to your table for only a couple of dollars per dish. The best thing is that the government has strict hygiene standards so you can eat from the street with much more confidence than in many other countries.

The next day we hired a scooter and headed out to see the rest of the island. For NZ$10 dollars you get the bike for the day. We went to a butterfly farm which, despite being a bit touristy, was really interesting and also had loads of reptiles, spiders and insects from the region.

Back on the bikes, we weaved our way on very good roads through lush and beautiful jungle. We got lost a couple of times in Chinese fishing villages, but this was all done on purpose. The locals give you confused looks but they always have smiles on their faces and are happy to point you in the right direction.

The only downside in the tropics is the rain. We'd read about the tragic flooding in the Philippines and the area we were in was affected by the same weather system. They really do know how to do rain here, it's relentless but quite refreshing after being a sweaty mess during the day.

The next day we continued our journey south. We aimed for the old Portuguese, Dutch and British port town of Melaka. We'd decided to not stop in Kuala Lumpur but our bus drove through the massive city anyway and we managed to see the big Petronas Towers: tick the box.

We hadn't booked anywhere to stay in Melaka which turned out to be a mistake because it happened to be the start of the school holidays and the town was a favourite for Singaporeans to visit. I had to leave Charlotte with our bags and join the race against many other backpackers searching for an elusive room. It took me an hour, but I think I found the last room in town, in a Chinese guesthouse where we were the only westerners staying.

Melaka was one of the region's wealthiest kingdoms a few hundred years ago and because of the Western influence many old European churches and buildings remain.

It's a beautiful wee town, a real treat and because there was a holiday festival in the town, many of the roads had been closed off and everyone was in party mode.

There were live bands, packed food stalls and a buzzing night market was in full flight. People were coming up and asking us all sorts of questions, intrigued to find out about us. We've found Malaysians a very curious bunch and not scared to start up a conversation unlike the citizens of some of the other countries we've been in.

We only had a fleeting visit to Malaysia and I will be coming back again. The people are the friendliest we've met so far, and because there is such a mix of ethnicities you can experience so many other parts of Asia in just one country.

Best of all, the food is incredible because it reflects the ethnic fusion that is Malaysia.

Our next stop is Singapore, followed by a long ferry ride to Indonesia.

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