PERHENTIAN ISLANDS ARE PARADISE ON EARTH (1 of 2)

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This was my third courier flight with Jupiter Air. I arrived at Los Angeles Airport to meet the Jupiter representative as directed. He was right on schedule, gave me my ticket to Bangkok via Tokyo, and I was on my way.

I had made advance arrangements for my first nights hotel and taxi pickup through entravel.com, with reservations at the Bossotel Inn on the Chao Phraya River in downtown Bangkok. The good-sized $21 room wasnt fancy, but it was clean and very well located. The hotel offers a two-hour massage for $6, which was welcome after the long flight. It was awesome staying along the river where I could use boats for transportation instead of fighting the citys heavy traffic.

In the morning I took a boat to the Grand Palace for 25 cents, making my way to Wat Mahathat Temple of the Great Relic where I wanted to join a meditation class. When I got to the Wat, I was glad to find that the Buddhist monk had a Canadian translator for English-speaking visitors. We had a good conversation but I had the impression that the monks contact with women is very limited.

I then joined a couple from Chile for a two-hour class led by a Buddhist nun at the Wat. Her head was shaven and throughout most of the class, I thought she was a monk who just happened to be clad in white instead of saffron woops! After the class we were led to a room where we practiced meditating while standing, sitting and walking. The classes are free, but donations are appreciated.

I booked an $80 flight to Penang, Malaysia, through the hotel travel agency, and dined at the posh Shangri La Hotel across the street. I feasted on lobster and phad Thai, gazed over the river view and enjoyed live music and a Thai dance review. The relatively pricey $8 tab was well worth it.

I woke early, took advantage of the hotels complimentary Great American Breakfast and cruised the river for 6 baht (13 cents). The $10 pants I got at Robinsons huge department store were marked size XL, which was amusing because I wear size six.

White Knuckle Ride Across Malaysia

The two-hour Thai Air flight to the island of Penang off Malaysias west coast, landed at Penangs nice-looking airport on time, and I took a taxi to the Cathay Hotel. During these travels I used Frommers and Lonely Planets guidebooks both were helpful and up to date.

The Cathay is a great old Chinese building, a little run down but clean and friendly. My $18 room included air conditioning and private bath. I went down to the lobby to check out the hotels Health Club, seems it caters to men only (ahem).

I usually run in the mornings, but a tender ankle kept the runs down to a walk on this trip. I got up at 5:30 a.m. for my walk and a little exploring, and was surprised that it stays dark until almost 7 a.m.

The reason for my courier flight to Bangkok and onward flight to Penang, was to get to the Perhentian Islands on Malaysias east coast. I consulted my guidebooks, travel agents and the staff at the hotel, and determined that there were three main options for getting there. I could take a nine-hour overnight bus, I could fly to Kuala Lumpur and on to Kata Baru requiring a $75 overnight at the airport between flights or I could choose the involved itinerary that follows. It turned out to be a great way to see the country, and provided adventure and good company.

I took a $1.50 taxi from the hotel to the ferry, then the ferry to the mainland was free. The next leg of the journey would be a taxi ride across the breadth of Malaysia. I saw some drivers leaning against the taxi stand.

I need to get to the Perhentian Islands, I told them.

It takes five or six hours to get to Kata Baru on the East Coast, they said. Youd better leave now if you want to make the last ferry from Kata Baru to the islands.

I didn’t want to take the overnight bus; I didn’t want to get in the taxi alone with a driver I didn’t know. I waited for the next ferry from Penang against all the drivers’ advice and sure enough, it delivered two more people who wanted to go to Kuta Baru. The five-hour taxi ride across Malaysia came to US$22 but what a trip!

The roads were decent but they twisted and turned. Our driver pushed along at a speedy clip. He’d pass on a blind turn, then speed up when a car came from the opposite direction. He was oblivious of motorcycles, just ignoring them coming straight for us as he passed! They’ll get out of the way, he said. I was sitting right behind him and saw what he saw yikes!

The hilly terrain was gorgeous. Lush deep-green jungles and fields that looked just like the movie Anna and the King. We pulled into an attractive riverside rest stop…I felt all eyes on me. The children were beautiful; they kept saying Hi and when I responded they would get all excited and begin to giggle.

We finally reached the East Coast just in time to catch the last boat across to the islands at 6:30 p.m. The $5 boat trip took an hour-and-a-half. I met a nice Danish couple onboard, and we decided to hotel hunt together when we disembarked. Another boat had to come out to meet us, for the final sail in. Even in the dark, the shallow water looked clear and inviting. As we headed for Basar, the largest of the three Perhentian Islands, we could see the twinkling candlelight that illuminates the four beachside restaurants and cafés at night.

Conitnued… 1 of 2

-By Leslie Monaco

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