Now in the very place to spend Hogmanay - the Cameron Highlands - and we've had a really good time.
Before heading off to the Cameron Highlands we had one more day in George Town so we wanted to make good use of it.There were still two recommended highlights to experience in Penang, Kek Lok Si Temple and Penang Hill, which is reached by way of a half-hour funicular ride. We arrived at the funicular station around noon only to find that all the tickets were sold and the first train we could get on was at three o'clock.Fortunately, Kek Lok Si Temple is fairly close by so, after buying our funicular tickets, we went off to do that first (and actually it's just as well we did because you need much more time to do Penang Hill).Kek Lok Si is a huge Buddhist temple, comprising a number of buildings, built on a steep hillside.But it's mainly known for its massive pagoda which has been built in three different styles: Indian at the bottom, Thai in the middle and Chinese at the top - from which there are great views of George Town and the surrounding hills.Pretty soon, however, it will probably become more renowned for the huge 120 foot bronze statue of Guan Yin Bodhisattva standing under an octagonal 200 feet high pavilion which is being built even further up the hillside.The temple complex was pretty impressive, but really spoilt by the alleys of tatty stalls selling tatty junk that we had to pass through in order to get to the entrance.The half-hour funicular ride up the 2,700 feet Penang Hill is very slow (it was built by the Swiss in the 1920s) and has to be done in two stages.Although it was very crowded it was good fun and it was well worth it for the views from the top - not to mention the fact that it's slightly cooler and less humid.We enjoyed a delicious Cameronian Cream Tea (with fruit cake as well as scones!) at David Brown's Strawberry Tea Garden - a fine English Tudor style building in a lovely, peaceful garden - before quick visits to the Hindu Temple and Mosque near the summit.The best bit though was the canopy walk which is just over 2 kms along the road which takes you down the hill.It is a 500 metre series of rope bridges between the tops of the tall hardwood trees - and it is very, very shooglie!!Waiting for the funicular back down we were entertained by the macaque monkeys looking down on us - because we were in a fenced off area waiting for the train it seemed as if the tables were turned and we were the ones in a zoo. By the time we got back down the hill and drove back to the hotel it was well after 7pm.We had things to do before an early departure tomorrow but managed a couple of gin and tonics across the road at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel once more, and some more street food at a nearby food market.Next morning we were up early and away to catch the bus for Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. This was another step further towards the feeling of really being on the road again.It was helped by the fact that our bus was a rickety old affair (50% polyfilla) which struggled up the many hills while all the other coaches zoomed past, seemingly effortlessly.We snoozed on and off but our occasional glimpses out the windows gave us views of the sort of scenery which we had imagined we would find in Malaysia.A 15 minute stop at Ipoh gave us the chance for a toilet break and to grab a snack, although this turned into a 45 minute break while a mechanic worked on what appeared to be a clutch problem - much bleeding was taking place!The next part of the journey was on even steeper, windier roads but eventually we wheezed into the bus station at Tanah Rata. After making some enquiries about buses for our onward journey, a very helpful chap pointed us in the direction of the taxi stance where we could get transport to our hotel, Bala's Holiday Chalets.At about 1.5 kms out of town it was easily walkable, but not with 40 kilograms on our backs and uphill all the way!Bala's advertises itself as a British Indian Hotel and Restaurant.With its Tudor style architecture - it was formerly a British colonial school - it really lives up to its claim, and internally with its horse brasses and Christmas deckies it is even more so.In fact, when we walked into the sitting room next to reception we felt really at home as it was just like walking into Julia and Freddie's sitting room in Ashtead! We enjoyed their set meal that evening - true home-cooked Indian fare including Kashmiri chicken, chapattis, pakora, veg and all the trimmings. Our room is called Stirling so the Scotts in the Cameron Highlands for Hogmanay is turning out to be quite a traditional affair.The following day, after a long night's sleep broken only by the call for prayer from the local mosque - at 4am in the morning and which M felt sounded as if coming from the room next door!! - and a mouse scratching around, we took a tour of the local sights in the company of our guide, Mutu who aimed to let us see as much of the area as possible. We had a very full day, starting off with the top of the nearest highest hill (6,000 ft) for a magnificent 360° view of the highlands and then a walk through the densely forested jungle.Then it was on to the more touristy things of a visit to a honey farm, a hydroponics vegetable and strawberry farm where we had an interesting and jokey chat with the owner and bought a jar of their own strawberry jam, a garden centre/nursery where Mutu's main concern was to show us Malaysia's many plants and flowers, and Mutu's own home at Robertson's Rose Garden (which was formerly owned by a Scottish family) where he looks after the garden and the elderly owner.One of the most interesting visits was to the Boh Tea Plantation which covers several hectares of the hills with soft, velvety tea bushes fitting into the contours of the hillsides. One of the reasons it was most interesting for us was that we had visited its sister plantation in Queensland.The Nerada Tea Plantation is owned by the same company as the Boh plantation - and the Scots also feature here - the Russell family, originally from Scotland, own and manage the plantation. Of course we had to sample the produce and enjoyed a cuppie and cake. What made Mutu's day was M losing hers sunglasses down the toilet - right down and never to be recovered!! An interesting finale to our day out was to see the house where Jim Thomson stayed when he visited the Cameron Highlands.Jim Thomson was an American businessman, whose main home we'd visited in Bangkok, and who went missing from this house in the Cameron Highlands in 1955.His body has never been found, nor his disappearance explained.The strange thing today was that Mutu was able to show us inside the house, which is now owned by a Chinese person from Kuala Lumpur and has been empty for some time.Apparently, since Jim Thomson's death no-one has wanted to live in or buy the house because it has a bad feeling.It is now totally empty but Mutu knew an unlocked back door and we had the chance to look inside.It's a beautiful house in a great location with wonderful views and has enormous potential - but clearly it has a sad history and the future doesn't look too good. Mutu had a few theories on what happened to Jim Thomson - one is that he had been a American spy during World War II and was bumped off because of that; another that he had been kidnapped because he was wealthy; and third, that his young Thai wife wanted his money more than she wanted a husband!Whatever the truth is, probably no-one will ever know - unless there is someone out there who does??? We spent New Year's Eve relaxing while E 'tidied up' the laptop and M wandered in to have a look around Tanah Rata. It was nice to have some time to ourselves to catch up with some rest, reading and relaxation - since arriving in Malaysia we seem to have been constantly on the go.We were pleased that Bala's (where we are staying just outside of town) had something planned for Hogmanay - but we didn't know what to expect other than that it was a 'New Year's Eve Dinner'.Our chalet sits on the highest point overlooking the main building and gardens and with a wonderful view over the surrounding hills.During the day we looked down on much activity taking place - food supplies arriving, tables being set up out in the garden, music being tested amid cheerful chatter etc.In our best bib and tucker (basically the best of the same stuff we've been travelling in for the last 16 months!) we headed down the steps to a really great evening.The tables had been set for festivity, with poppers, tooters, candles etc, in a garden which had been wonderfully festooned with lights, balloons etc - it looked magic. We were fortunate to share a table with Joe and Marie-Louise who were here on holiday and were great company and were a really good laugh.They were a couple of young teachers who were working at a Lebanese International School in Bahrain - Joe a typical Londoner from Bromley (who looked a bit like Jude Law) and Marie-Louise a Lebanese from Peru. The crowd was very international with people from France, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Marykirk - yes Marykirk just outside Montrose!!E had a blether with the woman, who's now married to a Cornishman, although in exchanging possible common acquaintances none struck any chords. Food kept arriving at our table - bruschetta, tofu, poppadums and assorted curry dips, prawn puffs - and these were only the starters.However, one of the odd aspects of the evening was that we managed to grab the only bottle of white wine in the house and virtually every bottle of red was different - it made for a very merry evening!The main courses were BBQ meats, paella, pasta, salads followed by a really yummy plum pudding - it is a British Indian restaurant/hotel after all.It was all delicious.We met so many nice people from Malaysia who were all well up for a good party and were very hospitable.The music and dancing (with M gie'in it laldy on the dance floor) went on until about 1.30 when we staggered up the long steep steps to our room for a good night's kip.In the morning it was nice to see so many text messages from friends and family.
New Year's Day dawned cool and overcast, cool enough to warrant our fleecy jumpers - yes, fleecy jumpers in Malaysia! After our Hogmanay exertions it was good to spend the day just lazing about and, in the afternoon, enjoying tea and scones in the tea house while outside it rained.We did, though, stir ourselves enough in the evening to pop down into town for a couple of beers and New Year's Day cocktails before having a bite in a local eatery.Bala's Holiday Chalets was an excellent choice, despite some problems we had with the hot water (we discovered how 'refreshing' a cold shower can be as we only ever managed to get one hot shower each despite a change of room), and the quirkiness of the service which seems to be based on the motto 'If we feel like it and have time'. But it was comfortably efficient and all in all we enjoyed our stay at Bala's - they know how to enjoy themselves and we had a really great New Year there.Next morning we were up early to pack before breakfast and get into town in time to catch the 9am bus to Kuala Lumpur, the first leg of our journey to Melaka.This bus was also a bit of a tub but at least was one step up in the comfort and reliability stakes from our bus from Penang. It took a scary two hours to drive south out of the Cameron Highlands before picking up the main highway at Tapah and a further three hours to KL. The road south out of Tanah Rata was incredibly windy and steep - so much so that M got a bit nauseous, but was proud to keep hold of her breakfast - unlike one passenger who threw up twice! But the road was also incredibly picturesque with many traditional Orang Asli villages along the way.Their thatched wooden houses built on stilts reminded us of the villages we had seen in Laos.We forgot to mention that on our first day we had been taken to an Orang Asli village just outside Tanah Rata. The houses here though were more modern versions and the villagers looked more prosperous.Mutu (our guide) told us that the Orang Asli are descended from the peoples who migrated from Africa many, many thousands of years ago.The Australian Aborigines are also descended from these African peoples but got 'stranded' when Australia became an island. Both communities still have a similar language/dialect.But the Orang Asli have decidedly Asian features and don't look at all like Australian Aborigines - presumably as a result of mixing with other Asian races over the centuries, whereas the Aborigines didn't have that opportunity!.
A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ONE AND ALL
E M xxx