Malaysia and Singapore - 25.03.11 - 4.05.11
When we finally boarded the flight to Kuala Lumpur it was all calm following the events at Jakarta airport. We had arrived at the cheapo's terminal of the airport but it was still a very impressive and clean place. We were able to easily get a bus into the city centre as the airport is about an hours drive from KL and as we waited for the next bus I got my first taste of the chillaxed Malaysian humour. There were many signs stating that there was no smoking so Adam asked the bus boys where he needed to go for his ciggy, the guy told him it would be fine to smoke right where he was, at that Adam pointed to the sign and in response the guy said "Oh, that only counts in the morning" Again we were perplexed and the man chuckled and responded "Well the guy that issues the tickets only works in the morning"
An easy journey into town followed and what would have been a very short walk to the monorail had I not somehow led us to the next station up the track by mistake we arrived at our choice of hotel and it was yummy. By far the best bed we had seen since we left Australia and the first place in South East Asia to have a shower cubicle. All the bathrooms and showers in Indonesia featured very compact facilities some of which you really could have a s***, shower and shave all at the same time!
The next day we awoke and headed to one of the infamous KL malls. If I wanted to go shopping, KL is where I would come. Of course I did want to go shopping but there's only so much stuff that's going to fit in my backpack. Although the clothes were not really cheap, it was still less than at home and with so many malls to choose from where they have up to 16 floors spread over 4 wings you really couldn't go wrong. We even ended up in one mall where there was a theme park inside and a full size rollercoaster looping around outside McDonalds.
My first impression of the capital was that there is a lot more money within the Malaysian economy than in Indonesia, this is mainly to do with the oil market and the success of the Petronas company. (Well so I think, I just made that bit up) The amazing Petronas towers shimmer and reflect the sunlight in the day and sparkle at night as they are lit up with fairy lights and special effects. You can go up the sky tower to get an awesome view but you have to pay to do that so we found a posh hotel with an cool bar on the top floor and a swimming pool and spent our money on drinks instead. We sat and sipped as day turned to night and the towers shone even more brightly.
Amongst all the amazing things we get to see and experience from day to day I hate to shatter the illusions in saying that the mundane often creeps in and our time in KL was no different when we had to visit the post office. While in Indonesia I had bought a beautiful picture which I didn't want to carry around anymore and I was worried that the heat was affecting the oil paint so it had to go home along with my wonderfully cheap Buddha head. The reason why I mention all this is because of the stupid amount of time we spent in the post office. They have one complicated system in there, we ended up having to queue 4 times collecting Sainsburys style deli counter tickets and paid for the fact that we didn't speak the language when we selected the wrong option on the ticket spitting out machine. The good news was that the postal service was so cheap and the picture arrived home within 2 weeks, unlike the sucky Australian post service or our very own royal mail where you're just thankful if it arrives at all after parting with you arm and half your leg at the till.
My day remarkably improved after leaving the post office as I did only what any normal person would have done after wasting all morning in the post office if they could - I went to bed and then had a TGIs. KLCC mall under the Petronas towers was just another huge mall reminding me how I could not afford Louis Vuitton handbags so we went for a wander and ended up roaming through Little India and into Chinatown. Many temples later we stumbled upon Petaling Street night market where there were lots of Louis Vuitton handbags that I could afford!
After spending too much time sleeping eating and shopping it seemed about time that we did something so we decided to head into the Genting Highlands. I'd love to say that this was a highly successful excursion but we should have stayed in bed again. Gambling is illegal in Malaysia but in the Genting Highlands there is a casino and I was feeling lucky. There is a huge resort built in the mountains and you even have to use a cable car to reach it. The views would have been amazing had we not actually been in the clouds, the theme park would have been great fun had it not been raining, the skydive simulator would have been wicked had they not been fully booked and the casino would have made me a millionaire had we been able to enter wearing flipflops. The whole day turned into a long way to have gone to get a Baskin Robins!
Back in KL we had booked tickets to go to the Malaysian Grand Prix but this was still over a week away and I wanted some more beach time so we caught a flight to the island (pulau) of Langkawi.
This island is completely duty free and very cheap. We stayed in a nice place and treated ourselves to air con, woo hoo! The main area is called Cenang beach and this is where we were based. We met a slightly crazy Australian dude and a Frenchman who openly told how he felt he had to fly the flag for his country in regard to impressing the girls, rather a few funny stories spilled out as the duty free Tiger beers took hold sitting in a bar called Babylon on the beach at sunset. I can't say that our trip to Langkawi was particularly enlightening, we pretty much sunbathed the entire week. We did however take a boat trip for an island hopping tour visiting the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden, the land that surrounds the lake is made up of many hills and if you look at it right it looks like a pregnant lady lying down, very interesting is the fact that if you drink from this lake when trying for a baby then it will happen for you, funny how they dreamt that one up! It's one of those funny things that I've seen on my trip that no matter how much a rock looks like a rock or a mountain looks like a mountain someone can tell you that it looks like an elephant holding a stick or a child playing with a dog, amazing what you can see if you really look for it. Time for some eagle feeding then off to some other paradise island called Pulau Singa Besar which was home to crotchety monkeys, they just looked like your average "I'm going to steel everything you got from you when your back's turned" monkeys to me but what do I know LOL. It was such a hard day that we had to take the next day off for sunbathing but were ready for another day of adventure after we had rested so we hired bikes and went for a little island exploring. I was really excited about going to the cable car as you enjoy panoramic views of the island and back to the mainland, well apparently but not on 2 days of each month when they close it for maintenance, I spent the rest of the morning in a grump, very mature of me I know. We did see some beautiful countryside though among which scenes from the film Anna and the King were shot and as always we found a waterfall. As waterfalls go this one was average but waterfalls are unfortunately becoming something I see all the time so I've gotten to be a bit of a waterfall snob. The good bit about this waterfall was that you could go to the top of it and see what was feeding it. After many steps we arrived to find what is known as seven wells, I couldn't see seven but apparently they're all there. The small pools of water are linked through a series of mini waterfalls running over smooth rock so it was off with our clothes and into the natural made water park, it was really good fun.
Kuala Lumpur Part 2
We arrived back in KL for the Grand Prix and headed to the stadium for the second day of the 3 days. I was really pleased with the seats, we had a good view of at least 3 corners as well as being able to see the starting straight. People were offering earplugs for sale which I didn't really understand but Adam insisted that they were necessary, what a waste of money I thought and how wrong I was. The sound of the cars was deafening and by the end of the first day I had a thumping headache, the sound you hear on the TV barely does it justice, it was overwhelming. We watched a race as part of the Malaysian super series, one of the cars didn't get off the starting grid and after 4 cars behind it managed to miss it, one went straight into the back of it making a real mess but no-one was hurt. Next we watched the practice laps and this was where my earplugs came in good, the atmosphere was just amazing and though I had been dragged along in the first instance I was looking forward to race day. Whilst sitting in our posh seats we met a lovely American guy called Bert. Bert was living in Singapore setting up a new business for travellers throughout Asia finding accommodation for those of the flashpacker variety. Just to clarify I do not qualify as a flashpacker, you have to stay in vaguely decent accommodation for that! As we started to leave and wait for the bus to take us to the bus it became clear that we could be waiting a while, we were at the last stop on a loop and the bus kept driving past us completely full. Bert offered us a ride back to the city in his cab (it's an hour from the track to town) but we still needed to get to the main entrance, time for some hitching. We made it back to KL eventually but it was completely chaotic and it seemed that they hadn't thought about the transport at all. All's well that end's well as they say as we were dropped off at the Ritz where Bert was staying, only 1 monorail stop away from our hovel.
The day of the race was awesome, the stadium was packed, we could see a TV screen but not very well so fortunately for us Bert, our rich friend, had paid £30 for a set of headphones that played the commentary, first in Malay then in English much to my amusement. He was able to give us the information we needed, at first it was easy to see who was leading but as the best racers were lapping the other's and they were in and out of the pits all the time I ended up losing track quite easily. When there were only about 5 laps of the race left Hamilton and Button were second and third but unexpectedly Hamilton went into the pits and ended in 7th place, I still don't know what happened but we had such fun, I found myself shouting out at them to hurry up which was rather stupid. We learnt our lesson when it was time to leave and ran to the bus stop getting back to town in good time to treat ourselves to TGI Friday's!
We took a bus up into the Cameron Highlands in a speedy coach, the road was very windy and I was starting to feel rather travel sick but as the journey progressed this turned to sickness due to anxiety as we snaked our way up the perilous roads. There was an abandoned car at the side of the road, part of the road had given way, there were mud slides blocking the road and a tree had fallen in the middle of the road, we were constantly stopping and starting and Adam slept through the whole thing. The views on the other hand were stunning, lush green tea plantations that looked to be floating amongst the clouds, we were so high up and the locals who sat chilling on the road side waved and smiled to welcome us. The coach snapped me out of my daydreaming as it screeched to a halt again, this time for the sake of not hitting a dog who, by the looks of his missing leg, hadn't learnt of the perils of the road.
The weather in the highlands was cold in comparison to the offensive heat of KL, I was wearing 2 t-shirts, leggings, a skirt, cardi and a scarf. The best thing for us to do was to go off exploring the tea plantations. The plantation we visited is the largest in Malaysia and it's where they produce BOH tea. I hadn't heard of it till I was in Malaysia but there that's all they drink. We were given a lot of information on tea and the tea making process but the most interesting thing for me was to learn that there is only one type of tea in the world, red, green and black teas are just dried for different amounts of time and that the expensive tea from India is only expensive because most teas can be harvested many times through the year but Darjeeling can only be harvested once so it is limited in it's supply, hence the price. The work is labour intensive but unlike those working in the rice paddies in Indonesia the workers rarely come from Malaysia. They earn 25 sen per kilo of tea leave and can pick 200 to 250 kilos on a good day but there are many days, especially in rainy season when they cannot work so our guide told us it would be unfair to count this as a daily wage. There are 100 sen to 1 ringgit and 5 ringgits to a pound so that makes a good day's wage £12.50, better than the Indonesia £1.40. We also visited the factory and tried some of the teas, the flavoured teas still tasted gross in my opinion but the tea itself was lovely. We decided to walk back to town (about 7 km) and stopped in to pick some strawberries at a strawberry farm, I had chocolate coated strawberries too, yummy. We continued on our walk back to town as the heavens opened and we only made it as far as the next village before giving up and grabbing a cab, so much for enjoying the great outdoors. I was soaked through and wanted nothing but coke and chocolate so I went off in search of my prize, Adam on the other had decided that he wanted some more pain so went to find a waterfall with 2 guys we had met. On my chocolate hunt I was covered head to toe as it was so cold and couldn't help but laugh at the fact that the locals still wolf whistled at me. I must just be a stunner! Woohahaha!
Time for another bus journey, this time to an island city just off the west coast, it is linked to the mainland by the longest bridge in Asia, I love how they have to brag about everything. It was a pleasant enough city but there was nothing spectacular about it, I've already started to get very spoilt. The street food is really what Georgetown is known for and I'm not sure I can see why. We ate some good dinner but I opted for a desert, what a mistake. The concoction was known as ABC and was crushed iced with condensed milk, jellied mixed fruit, cendol beans and topped with sweet corn, personally I thought it tasted of vomit but unsurprisingly Adam finished it off without a problem. Georgetown is a Unesco world heritage site though I swear those guys list everything these days, it is made up of many old buildings built during the French and British reign of power in what was then known as Malaya and they were indeed very beautiful. We also took a trip outside the town to visit Kek Lok Si temple, a huge bronze Buddha statue, they threw some more statistics at us as we walked in which thankfully I can't remember. We took a bus and thanks to the Lonely Planet I knew what bus number I needed to get and where to catch it from but the locals clearly thought we looked clueless and found it their duty to ensure we ended up on the right bus, 4 different people asked us where we were going and told us how to get there, what a welcome treat and so different to all those bus disasters we experienced in LA all those months ago.
We enjoyed more street food in the company of 2 lovely people we had met in the Cameron Highlands and I sat in shame as Adam felt the need to recount almost every embarrassing story he could think to tell about me, many of which have occurred on this trip and are far too shameful to make it to the blog. I certainly feel no need to catalogue them as I will not be forgetting them for a while but it made for a funny night.
Perhentian Island - Kecil
There are 2 islands that make up what the foreigners call the Perenthian islands and we visited Kecil island meaning small, I'm sure you can use your imagination as to what the other island is called. The boat journey out to any island is the boring bit but you just sit back and enjoy the scenery. This was a boat ride with a difference. In Queenstown, NZ people pay nearly $100 to be able to ride in a thrilling high speed jet boat and this ride only cost me £15 return and I was holding on for dear life. I have since learnt that this stretch of sea is known for being a bit rough but 40 minutes of bouncing around and getting drenched I could have told you that myself. We had to swap into a much smaller boat to get to shore and this was no calmer, as the boat went racing towards the sand it showed no sign of stopping or slowing down even, in fact it sped up and we finished up in the boat on the beach, they pulled the engine out of the water at the last second, no boring island hopping for me. The ride was worth it though, the island was incredible, not untouched but still very beautiful with white sand, clear water and even surfers. Lush cliffs rose up at either end of the bay as beach front bars sat with the sea lapping at their feet. Only a 10 minute walk through a mini jungle and we were at the opposite side of the island where it felt so different. The bars were replaced with cafes and the surfers for snorkelers as the water was so calm, it was amazing to see the difference. We fell easily into island time, having a drink on the beach with a bonfire and fireworks and diving and sunbathing in the day, my idea of heaven. We ate some local food at ¼ of the price we normally paid and lazed around talking about how in the UK no-one really talks to each other whereas when you're travelling everyone wants to discuss the 4 W's. What's your name? Where have you been? Where are you going? and Where are you from? I ponder that evening about life back in England, how will I fit back in to a world where if someone talks to you in Tesco you automatically assume they're a psychopath? The problem with travelling is that everyone's either been or is going to wherever you've been or going to so it doesn't tend to make for too interesting a conversation, therefore I conclude that I'll be fine, I'll just ask the guy in Tesco the same 4 questions and though the answers aren't going to be so relevant at least they might be more diverse.
Taman Negara is the oldest rainforest in the world and is approximately 130 million years old. We decided that we needed to pay homage to such a beast so we hired a guide for 2 days to carry our food while we trudged along. This is apparently necessary, they only allow you on certain paths without a guide as a girl got lost hiking alone and they took 18 days to find her, incredibly she was alive shortly after her parents put up a 100,000 ringgit reward. Armed with our guide we made the trip by longboat 1 hour up the river. A longboat is just that, a long narrow boat, traditionally they would paddle the boats but thankfully ours had a 25bhp motor on the back. We stopped to walk on the longest canopy walkway in the world (see another useless statistic, I bet you think I making all this crap up) it was pretty cool to be walking amongst the tree tops but Adam wasn't finding it too much fun, the bridges were very old and looked like they might break at any moment. It was 9.30 and I was already sweating as we started our walk through the rainforest. It occurred to me then that when we were in the Cameron Highlands and we did a short walk through the mossy forest it was the west side of this very same rainforest, I recognised it from then!!! There are elephants, tigers, panthers even rhinos in this jungle and we merely saw leeches and hundreds of them. The first one I saw was on my leg, it was so tiny I actually thought it was cute, that soon changed when I found one that had crawled up the back of my leg to under my shorts and onto my fleshy bottom, by the time I realised it was there it had taken a nice suck of me and I was screaming with my shorts round my ankles in the middle of the path. You can just pull them off your skin but as you do they dig their teeth in even harder and it makes it more painful, the best way is to stun them by burning them first and then you can pull them off after so Adam held a lighter to my ass and off he came. I was extra vigilant after that but I'm afraid there was little we could do, they sensed the vibrations on the ground and attached themselves to you any way they could. The rain that brought the relief from the heat also brought out my nemesis. We did also see monkeys though I have seen so many of these it's like seeing a dog now, and we saw elephant poo and footprints, we later found our that the group in front of us saw the elephant that made the footprints, I was pretty disappointed to have missed out.
After a long day of trekking we arrived at our accommodation, a cave. We slept on the floor and washed in the stream, not my idea of clean but we had a laugh as we ate chicken in a can around a campfire and slept with bats pooping on our heads. Day 2 was as uneventful on the wildlife spotting front but with the rain came more leeches and a lot of mud, I lost my shoes on numerous occasions as the gloopy mud sucked them right off. We finally got back in the long boat to complete the journey and going downstream in the rapids meant we arrived back completely drenched, a fitting end to the 2 days, all in all an experience I'm not likely to forget in a hurry.
We took a bus from Taman Negara to Melaka but we had to change in KL, the bus depot we changed buses at was amazing, it was like being in an airport. There was a departures and arrivals board, check in counters and gate numbers, escalators and toilet roll in the toilets, quite frankly a near miracle. Melaka was one of my favourite places in Malaysia, there was a real charm about it. Set on a river with lots of beautiful old buildings many built by the Dutch settlers, those guys got everywhere, and also a UNESCO site. We set out on a journey of culture and found that Mr Raffles, the guy who commissioned the restoration of Borobudur was also paramount in keep all these buildings in order as well however, the history lesson ended when Adam's toothache got too severe and we ended up in the dentist for 2 hours. Adam had open drainage and a temporary filling put in as he really needed root canal work doing and we thought it best to wait till we were back in the UK, the 2 hours plus antibiotics and painkillers cost £8.00, not bad value. One thing I noticed while driving (aka being driven) from Melaka to Singapore was the abundance of Singer shops. Not shops that sell vocalists but shops that sell and repair old Singer sewing machines, a sign that whilst Malaysia is clearly at the high end of Asian countries it still has a way to go.
Singapore is a city known for its fines. In Singapore you can be fined for almost everything, smoking in the wrong place, taking a drink on the tube, throwing litter or gum on the floor, in fact chewing gum is as good as banned in Singapore seeing as no shop in the country is allowed to sell it, I myself rebelled and smuggled 3 sticks through customs! After a bit of a trek from the bus station we arrived at our hostel. In Malaysia just an hours drive away we had paid £8 for our own room with a shared bathroom yet here in Singapore, just across the border we were forced to take the cheapest option which at £10 each for a bunk bed in an 8 bed dorm was a bit of a shock to say the least. However the hostel was the best I've stayed in during my travels, it was super clean and really modern with massive black sofas, 42 inch Plasma TV with a nice selection of DVDs, free breakfast and Wi-Fi, AC and the best bit, our own light above our bunk, funny how you seriously appreciate the little things after a while. Our hostel was in the heart of little India and although Singapore was far from offensive I was a little disappointed with the country in general, it was little India that made up for all of Singapore's blandness for me. The warm scent of spices and freshly cooked food filling the air, the steaming street and the bollywood music with locals talking shop while sitting on the pavement or lazing over their motorbikes with a beer could do little but make me smile. We ate in the busiest restaurant, a good sign when you have no clue where to eat, and the waiter chose for me, Paper Thossai, and when it arrived I could see why. This "thing" was served on a silver tray accompanied by pots of sauces and a pile of rice, the "thing" was about 50cm long and 15cm high, my face must have been a picture, I just stared at it. After a few moments amusement the waiter stepped in to help showing me that it needed to be folded in to 3 and then squashed, to my relief it started to resemble the kind of meal it would only take 4 people to eat and not the 400 as before. As I started to eat, it tasted of Indian heaven and I ate every last morsel, it was without doubt the best Indian meal I have ever had.
The lovely rich man we met in KL at the Grand Prix lives in Singapore so we arranged to meet up for the day with our friend Bert. In the morning Adam and I went down the infamous Orchard Road to remind us of all the money we don't have. Orchard Road is Singapore's version of Rodeo Drive filled with shops like LV, Gucci, Prada, Rolex and the likes. From here we wandered through the waterways that make up a number of quays. The country still has a huge industrial port and out to sea you could see what looked like a traffic queue of huge vessels waiting to dock. Wandering through the park we discovered that the lake we thought we were going to see was actually a reservoir and raised up and behind barbed wire, clearly not there for our viewing pleasure, in fact so much so that the sign showed a picture of 2 stick men, one had a gun and one had his arms up, needless to say I changed my mind about trying to sneak a peek. A wander through the Chinese market forced me to buy some more tacky souvenirs and we photographed picturesque temples. It was time for some food and as we wandered to the best hawker centre in Singapore we passed through a street of stalls selling just satay sticks, this made me laugh I don't know why as this type of thing is a common occurrence throughout Asia. Whatever you're looking for you will find it next to at least 10 other shops selling the same thing, bicycle street, shoe street, restaurant row, pub street, it's even the same in markets which makes bartering easier because you just threaten to go straight to the stall next to where you are and buy it from there instead. The thing that is most ridiculous about the way they do business is that the street sellers always sell the same things, in one town they might all sell bamboo fans that look identical and then in the next town they will all sell lighters that have flashing lights on, the whole set up is entirely bizarre. It seemed Singapore was no different on this front though in almost every other way it was. Having separated from Malaysia in 1965 the country has done very well for itself and its economy is clearly booming evident in the most expensive hotel ever built being the key feature of the skyline as we sat drinking through the sunset in the late evening on the roof top of a hotel bar. Bert merrily lied that we were staying at the hotel itself in order to get us up there and very kindly paid for the best glass of wine I'd had since leaving New Zealand.
Raffles was calling and Adam was convinced we should go and have high tea in the famous hotel so off we tottered the very next day. We wandered around the grounds and as Adam looked marginally more scruffy than me I decided to try and get us into the hotel reception which is reserved for guests only but the doorman was clearly no fool and asked me where I was going straight away, when I said I wanted to ask a question at reception which was indeed true he demanded to know what I wanted, I said I wanted to go to high tea that day and he just brusquely said that it was full, well, that told me! After our Raffles rebuttal it was just time for some more wandering around shops and cafes, a DVD in the hostel and then ready for the flight to Borneo, back to Malaysia.
Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
Before arriving in Kuching I had big plans for where were going to go and all the sight seeing we would do but after finding a lounge with a huge DVD selection in the guest house I'm afraid to say we spent a lot of time catching up on the latest releases eating popcorn and only venturing out once in a while to hit KFC. There are many KFCs over the world that are run solely by deaf people but this one was the first I'd seen and initially I just thought they didn't speak and English and that's why I had to write my order down but after a while I realised (in fact it took me an embarrassingly long time to notice)
Kuching means cat in Malay and though it is unlikely that this town's name ever came from the humble cat they play on it a lot and every souvenir has one of the aristocats on and there are more than enough cat statues dotted around the city. The city's riverfront location and super friendly locals gave it instant likeability factor and I was pleased that we had a week to kill here. Most visitors take a trip on a long boat to spend time with the Iban tribes people but it sounded like this was more of a money making tourist exercise rather than a culturally enriching experience so we decided to give it a miss and instead head for Semenggoh Orang-utan sanctuary.
The sanctuary has only 24 orang-utans and though they say that the area around the sanctuary is too small for them to survive in the wild, every so often they disappear for a long time and sometimes never return so it looks like the program is working. Because the orang-utans are free to come and go as they please they cannot guarantee sightings but they always put the fruit on the same platforms so if the orang-utans need the food then they know where to come. For once, English being my first language had an advantage over the local tourists as the trainer was speaking in English and telling us which platforms to go to at what time so we had front row seats. One of the orang-utans came down from the tree tops with a baby in tow, it was so sweet and felt really natural rather than seeing them in a zoo, such a wonderful experience.
We clearly hadn't had enough of hanging around with our primate friends so on to Bako national park to try and spot the unusual proboscis monkeys aka the monkeys with a willy on their face. The national park can only be accessed by boat so on another long boat we get, with a really lovely couple me met in the guest house called Emily and Rich, just in time for the rain to start falling. We run under cover as soon as we get ashore passing a wild boar on the way, these things seem not to shock me any more. The rain subsides to a drizzle so we venture out and see our first and only proboscis monkey, we see a load of macaque monkeys but that's no surprise. The landscape is beautiful with a rainforest meets the sea effect but it's too miserable for us to realise the true beauty of the place. Cold and wet we decide it's time to leave.
A day in Kuching takes us to the museum and across the river to visit the royal palace, well we're not allowed in so not quite visit, wander through an orchid garden, learn about Charles Brooke, a British man who was elected as Sultan in Malaysia, we enjoyed a reflexology massage and another trip to the dentist to get Adam another filling and another telling off by the dentist. A spot of retail therapy in a handicraft workshop we learn that in the traditional carving of the tribesman, a figure sitting with one hand on each cheek is said to look after things so is commonly carved on boxes and that the hornbill and dragon which is again seen a lot is similar in meaning to ying and yang. Wandering back to the guest house we peer in to the traditional tin work shops as they go about their days work while rats scurry about under our feet in the open drains, just another day in Borneo.