Published: August 6th 2007May 29th 2007
Well this is it - almost a year on, I'm finally writing a blog from Blighty! It's been an amazing trip but to be honest, my feet haven't really touched the ground since arriving back home. I've spent the time since, visiting friends and relatives (still more to go!) and have just got back from a cool camping trip in Dorset with friends from Hampshire. So it doesn't really feel like I've returned to any sort of normality yet - we've even fitted in a weekend trip to Ireland visiting Danielle's family, and we're soon to return in a couple of days! So in the time since my last entry, way back when we arrived into Australia by boat, we've helicoptered and dived the Great Barrier Reef, been to a footie game in Sydney, travelled the Aussie Outback for a month in my little tent with some great Aussie friends and arrived back home via a few days in Auckland.
In my last blog, I skipped the Malaysia and Singapore entry to get the Singapore to Brisbane boat covered, so it's back to Malaysia, one of the most diverse and interesting countries on the trip, where I'll start now.
Just About Any Flavour Of Tea You Can Imagine, Complete With "Bubbles" Of Tapioca, Sucked Up The Big Straw!
Danielle and I had walked across the border from Thailand and after having been fined $6 each for overstaying our Thai visas, we found a group of blokes hanging around in the darkness, all of them ready to drive us to the nearest town of Kota Bharu. We jumped in a cab and off we went, into the night and the bright lights of Malaysia. After settling into the journey, my gaze settled on the front passenger seat where I spied some large, oblong shapes that scuttled off when we hit a pot hole. They soon returned and I realised we were sharing the car with some huge cockroaches. Now then, should I have told Danielle about our fellow passengers, or not? Well, I decided not to, and I reckoned it was safer to pretend I hadn't seen them (ever the brave sort!). After all, we were now stuck in this dingy car for another hour and there wasn't a lot we could do about the long-term residents. Instead, I jiggled my legs up and down to scare them away from the back of the car. The thought of them running up my bare legs and beyond didn't appeal, but
it wasn't long before Danielle said she thought something kept tickling her legs. Nonchalantly, I replied that everyone knows it's best to keep moving to wave away the mossies and that's what I was doing... .
The next day we wandered into town, having checked into Zeck's Traveller's Inn not far from the centre to have a think about our plan to head to the Perhentian Islands. These are reckoned to be amongst the most scenic in south-east Asia as they are apparently largely unspoilt. I say "apparently" because we never got to see them - it was only the start of the season for the islands and they had been deluged the day before by a tropical downpour and our feeling of "let's give it a miss" reached critical mass when we reconciled with the fact that we'd spent the last month or so on beaches and had had our fill of sand. Ahh, the hard-life, eh?!
Kota Bharu proved to be a great introduction into Malaysian life. In southern Thailand we'd seen more Islamic-dressed women but here it was the norm rather than the exception and there seemed to be a different air on the streets.
It felt far more relaxed than anything we'd felt in a long time - it wasn't something tangible, but rather an air of friendliness, with people smiling as we passed and giggles and little calls of "hello" from school kids. As we negotiated our way through the streets, 2 college girls with clipboards came up to us and asked if they could chat. We found somewhere quiet to sit and they told us about life in Kota Bharu - they were doing a project on foreign visitors to the city and were keen to know what we thought of it, especially as it was Visit Malaysia Year. Whilst we chatted, we told them about our trip through Asia and after swapping email address we headed back into the melee.
We spent two or three days here before heading west to Penang. It being Chinese New Year, nearly every bus was full and it wasn't until a stranger was recruited by a bus worker to take us to an alternative bus station that we eventually found a couple of spare tickets leaving the next day. Amiable Zeck from the guest house drove us to the station where we had
a spicy meat and egg brekkie before departing on the 8 hour bus trip across country. The bus took us over the central mountains and eventually to the western coast where we crossed the bridge at Butterworth and into Georgetown, the main town on the island of Penang.
I had visited Penang 15 years ago on my first big backpacking trip so it was good to get back to a place that I really enjoyed the first time - and I was pleased to see that it hadn't changed too drastically. The same, quaint old streets are still there, with Chinese clan houses and shops squashed together in a hotch-potch jumble that adds to the welcoming feel to the town. There are a fair few western tourists here and some definite long-termers who you seem to bump into in every easy-going Asian town, as cycle-rickshaws took around older couples as well as groups of backpackers along the twisting streets.
We visited the old Chinese clan house of Khoo Kongsi, still a home to members of the same Chinese family for the past couple of hundred years or so. Whilst a major tourist destination in Georgetown, it's still possible
to avoid the odd group by hanging around long enough to take in the ornate gold decoration and smell the incense swirling around the lanterns, then watch Buddhist visitors paying their respects. One room has a number of plaques detailing past clan members - a memorial to the past and a link for current members to their forefathers.
After a day exploring, it was time to do our second favourite activity - eating. Penang spoils for choice with a mixture of Malay/Indian/Chinese/Baba-Nonya food and the covered food court just off the main drag means you can graze at your leisure. When we were there, the sound of clinking cutlery and food being ordered was drowned out by deafening fire crackers, lit in long strings and signalling the entrance of the dancing, gyrating pair of Chinese dragons. Chinese New Year was here and signs proclaiming Gong Xi Fa Cai were everywhere, from shop windows to stickers in cycle rickshaws. Everything that could be was coloured red - a lucky colour in Chinese tradition. Even the abundance of cultures in Malaysia did little to dampen the Chinese spirit - signs were up in traditional Malay and Indian shops and homes. The
Kek Lok Si, Penang
government took the opportunity of congratulating its nation of encompassing so many cultures as one nation, with posters on billboards and messages in newspapers.
Whilst dragons danced and people cheered, we soldiered on and tucked into various servings of nasi lemak and barbecued fish. The stalls served pretty much any food you could imagine and as we wandered with our plates, a couple of locals waved us over to join them at their table where we chatted into the evening about the New Year celebrations.
The next day we caught a bus over to see the Kek Lok Si Temple, a tall pagoda that dominates the surrounding skyline a little way out of Georgetown. The bus dropped us off a short way away and we followed the crowds of mainly locals to the entrance. The pagoda is situated on the top of a hill and as you start to climb, you’re enveloped by a plethora of hawker stalls selling everything from mantelpiece models of the Petronas Towers, Visit Malaysia t-shirts and fake English football jerseys (which Danielle joyfully took advantage of!) and little wooden Buddhas. Voices beckon you in offering big discounts and prices seem to drop as
Kek Lok Si, Penang
you step past, whilst their neighbours take over as you make your way, slowly but steadily up the steps and out of the claustrophobic clamouring. The path opens up to a pool filled to the brim with turtles and fish in some rather murky looking water. As a sideline, more hawkers sell what looks like cabbage to feed to the turtles and fish, and the hungry residents clamber over each other in a slow motion feeding frenzy, munching on the green leaves until they slide over the slippery shells and disappear into the depths.
Beggars line the path up to the entrance, some with families of young children, some alone - old women and men sitting with plastic cups of change, until you finally appear at the top. A large group of people is waiting at the top and as we made our way through it, we notice a man painting names and messages onto yellow, clay tiles. For a small donation, you can give them your name and they’ll paint it onto the tile, ready to be placed on the roof of the temple. I visited here about 15 years ago and did the same - but strangely
Kek Lok Si
An Abundance Of Chinese Lanterns
couldn’t find any tiles in situ this time! Needless to say, it didn’t stop us getting our names immortalised.
As we wandered amongst the temples, Chinese lanterns swung in the breeze - coloured yellow, orange and bright red. Thousands of Buddhas line the paths adorned with reverse swastikas, their peaceful gaze looking out over the faithful as they make their way to pray, mingling with us camera-toting tourists. Something undeniably relaxing about Buddhism makes it presence felt yet again - despite the large numbers of people watching or simply standing, where there should be noise, people would pray and appear oblivious to what was around them.
After sitting for a while and taking in the view of the city from the pagoda, we slipped past the hawkers and out to jump on another local bus to take us back into Georgetown. Near our guesthouse on Love Lane (it became clear how this road got it's name, whilst walking through it at night) was the Penang National Museum which gave a useful insight into the history of the island - from the first settlers to the rule of the British and onto the decline of the influence of the
island on international commerce. It also explained the different ethnic groups that make up Penang - the Malay, Chinese, Baba-Nonya (Chinese/Malay) and Indian.
From Penang we caught a bus southwards and up into the hills of the Cameron Highlands. This area is famous for growing tea, as well as different types of fruit that can't grow in the hotter climes by the coast - and it provided a welcome respite from the 35C humidity of Penang. The main town of Tanah Rata is a former hill station, nestled amongst the misty hills of central Malaysia and is a great area to get out and about to walk some trails through the forests. Whilst out walking, you come across beautiful waterfalls and plantations of crops in the middle of nowhere and it felt good to make the most of the cooler weather - and when it rained (and it really knows how to rain here!) it provided a great excuse to sit in cafes and gorge ourselves on cream teas!
The town of Tanah Rata is a quaint, small town very easy to wander around and chill out and we spent many an hour just relaxing and chatting -
Rose At Rose Garden
Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands
making friends with the owner of a curry house eager to invite us to try his food every night. The local speciality was a real hit - a large plate full of meats, seafood and veggies arrives at your table which you then add into an increasingly steaming hotpot.
It's quite a busy area with tourists so it's very easy to organise a trip out of the town to see some of the sights. One day we headed out to visit the Boh tea plantation - one of the largest in the area with big plans to export tea all over the world. As we wandered around the plantation, women in colourful dresses dotted amongst the different shades of short, green bushes picked the leaves and placed them in large baskets strapped to their backs. Most of them live on the site as it is a major employer for the area and we passed a school and church next to the entrance. After making the most of the free samples and buying some flavoured ice tea to take home (gotta make the most of these travelling memories somehow!) we moved onto an insect house, containing various native beasties found
Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands
in the area. It was a very hands-on place - the guides are keen for visitors to touch the residents, from gigantic rhino beetles (we were convinced this was plastic until it moved) to having scorpions run over your arm. Danielle took a very deep breathe and held a huge stick insect and a lizard. I had my hands full taking the pictures, of course ;-) . It's also home to a butterfly farm, where you can walk amongst hundreds of butterflies fluttering around your face, whilst trying not to squash any of the ones that have decided to take a breather on the path in front of you. We then moved onto a strawberry farm where we did our best to demolish several plates worth of said red and juicy fruit in various tarts, jams and cakes.
Having made the most of the fresh hilltop air in the Cameron Highlands, we realised we were a bit over being cold and damp, having to wear socks at night and hankered after some more tropical heat! It was time to move on and head south again, moving ever closer to our goal of Australia. Bus travel in Malaysia is so
Boh Tea Plantation, Cameron Highlands
and we bought a couple of tickets to Kuala Lumpur, the cosmpolitan capital. With it's name usually shortened to simply KL, it felt a world away from sleepy Tanah Rata and Georgetown. Big name shops dominate the CBD, whilst expensive cars whisk past the sky train metro, transporting passengers high above the roads. KL is a swish, modern city and with it's flagship Petronas Twin Towers dominating the skyline it has a very comfortable (if expensive) air to it.
We decided to head upwards and see the view of KL from the Twin Towers - you can get one of the limited tickets up to the Sky Bridge - literally a bridge connecting the two towers, 170m up. It gives an amazing view across the city, but it felt especially surreal once our group had been ushered into the lift lobby and we had the bridge almost to ourselves - and all of a sudden we felt every bit of 170m up - it was definitely time to get in the lift and head down! The Petronas Towers complex is also home to a huge shopping centre, where it'd be very easy to come away with various expensive
watches, silk scarves and clothes - we however settled on some bubble tea which was about as far as our budget stretched! Danielle was able to take advantage of the shopping and buy a dress to wear to her brother's wedding in a month's time.
Whilst in KL, we caught a local bus to the Batu Caves, home to the biggest place of worship for Hindus in Malaysia. Every year the Thaipusam festival is held here, where upto a million devotees congregate to worship - including some who serve penance by piercing their skin with large hooks to either hang fruit or even pull cords attached to frames, including some who skewer their cheeks with large rods. The festival happens every January and it seemed hard to imagine how claustrophobic it must feel with so many people climbing the 272 steps to the cave. The area is also home to lots of monkeys who make a grab for any food that they think you have and once you've reached the top, you're greeted by a beautiful cave system with various Hindu paintings and effigies hidden in the rocks.
On heading back to KL, we made our way over
View From From Sky Bridge, 170m Up
Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur
to see the National Mosque, although we completely mistimed it and realised it was Friday and of course, closed for prayers. Ah well, it gave us an opportunity to wander around the bustling market nearby. Various hawkers yelled out to the throng, anxious to sell watches, food and even miracle cures for disfigurement and erectile problems. Backed up by pictures of disfigured faces, powder was sold that could be taken as a cure for all kinds of ailments, accompanied by pictures showing the resultant "transformation". One stall sold VCDs and DVDs showing grainy pictures of military action - Chechen rebels and fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Saddam Hussein's beheading.
From the mosque we wandered over to Merdaka (Independence) Square, a nice combination of British and Muslim architecture - domes and minarets overlooked a cricket square in the city centre. From there we made our way back to take the obligatory night-time shot of the Petronas Towers from every imaginable angle, finishing up by watching the latest Rocky film!
KL turned out to be one of my favourite cities so far - I think it was because it was our first city for a while (Bangkok
was too smelly, hot and humid) and it just felt good to have a bit of a change - to see western names on shops and treat ourselves, maybe it became more of a holiday destination for us - and it felt good for that. The people in KL also seemed to stick in our minds and we met a fair few people on the streets who would stop for a chat. One such character was a Hindu who we nicknamed Cosmic Ray. Whilst we were waiting to cross the street, he came up to tell us which way Chinatown was. Although this was very friendly, we were actually on our way to Little India and sensing he had an audience (the road was very busy and we couldn't get away), he seized his opportunity and told us how important it was to carry a little Buddha with you at all times. Luckily for us, he happened to have a collection of just such Buddhas with him as he sold them down the road - and we'd be doing him a huge favour if we brought one from him. In return, he'd be selling us something that, via cosmic rays
come from the sky, we'd have such good luck that we'd want to come all the way back to Malaysia to thank him. Indeed, some American tourists had done just that, when after rubbing the Buddha's belly, they'd won the lottery and come to tell him. After parting with what turned out to be at least double the cost of a normal little Buddha and finding out how to get somewhere we didn't want to go, we headed off on our merry way, rubbing the belly and waiting for the cosmic rays to hit us.
Satisfied that we'd had our fill of the capital, it was time to continue south to Melaka. Our sailing date was nearing - March 9th beckoned and we'd still got Singapore to get to. A lot of the buses continue straight through to Singapore and it felt so good to see the city listed on street signs - our last point in Singapore was within a day's travel - we'd almost made it.
Melaka sits on the south-west coast of Malaysia, a city with a turbulent history of Portugese, Dutch, British, Japanese, British (again) and finally Malaysian influence, going back over
Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur
Like it's northern neighbour of Penang, it was well located for nations vying for strategic and commercial influence over the region - hence it's frequent changing of hands. The dominating landmark of the Melaka Fort up on the hill overlooking the town is well worth a visit - fortunately saved from destruction by the British (it posed a formidable fort) when Sir Stamford Raffles stepped in and managed to save at least the entrance. Inside the fort were several gravestones going back to the 1600s, including one with a skull and crossbones, making the mind race imagining tales of piracy on the Melaka Straits. Some were for families with English names and we wondered about what kind of a life they must have travelling from Britain, with nothing to prepare them for the heat and the alien life of the tropics.
In the town square is the old Dutch Christ Church - bright red and dating back to 1753 it still welcomes worshippers today. It sits in the town square, opposite the Dutch Stadhuys Building - the former residence of the Dutch Governor in the 17th Century. This building houses an excellent town museum where a
Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur
guide took us around, giving us an insight into life in Malaysia and particularly Melaka - and how the different cultures have intermingled and thrived.
Whilst walking around, it's impossible to avoid the cycle rickshaw drivers, plying their trade and hoping to transport you anywhere you want. Normally it's good fun to do at least one ride somewhere, but these offered something special. I'd never seen such pimped rickshaws as I did here. They were covered in garish tinsel - pinks, yellows and greens, with flashing lights and car radios providing the entertainment. There was no way we could miss a ride in one of these so we jumped in and were whisked along in a surreal journey through the streets of Melaka, to the strains of Guns and Roses "Sweet Child Of Mine". What naturally follows is the "up-sell", so we booked the chatty driver for a tour of the town the following day. He turned out to be a great guide and took us to a traditional Melaka house and out to sample the health-giving waters of a nearby spring, but perhaps best of all was the ride in his rickshaw, slicing through the traffic like only
rickshaw-drivers know how. It was then back to the hostel to make a halal-based sandwich and to plan our onward journey.
The following day it was time to leave and head south again for our last stop in Asia - Singapore awaited. It felt funny getting on that bus - it marked a significant journey in a melodramatic way. Asia had been so much fun and our last country was coming up, before Australia, but we knew further adventures lay around the corner and as we pulled into Singapore, the heavens opened and we hit a tropical rainstorm. Lightening flashed around the skyscrapers as we crossed the bridge into the city, jumping into a cab and on our way to see Cherry, a friend from home. The cab took us past the port and we craned our necks, looking at the gantries that we'd next see from our cabin window in a few days' time. We arrived at a very plush condo to be met by Cherry's smiling face waiting for us - a lovely welcome after another long day.
We stayed with Cherry for 5 days, enjoying the hospitality and lifestyle that this city has to offer.
Whilst Cherry worked, the next day we headed out to see the famous Singapore landmark of Merlion Park - a curious statue of half-lion, half-fish that has become the symbol of Singapore. I had long planned a couple of Singapore Slings to mark the end of the Asian leg and it wasn't long before we all made our way over to the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel to sample the traditional monkey nuts (you are obliged to throw the shells on the floor like a bizarre ritual), washed down by a Singapore Sling. (It was so good, we visited twice!). Cherry made us feel very welcome at her home in Singapore and took us up the Asia Tower with the highest nightclub and bar in town for an amazing night-time view, whilst working our way through the various cocktails on offer! We hit the town a few times in Singapore, anxious to leave Asia with a bang but it was as our stay was coming to an end - ready to finish it off with a visit to the Ministry of Sound, that the shipping agent told us that the boat was due to leave for Brisbane a day
Sign Showing Dress Code
National Mosque, Kuala Lumpur
We were packed and ready to go - Cherry managed to get back from work in time to wave us off as our cab arrived and whisked us away to the huge port. We were taken through the gates and after having our pictures taken and documents checked, we were driven to the side of the biggest ship I've ever seen. It towered above us as we unloaded our bags from the car and as the cab disappeared into the maze of gantries, we made our way up the stairs to our transportation to Australia, completing my long-held dream of getting to Australia without flying.
I hope you've enjoyed this blog - it's rather longer than normal! Anyway, the next one will cover Australia - from the Great Barrier Reef to the desert town of Birdsville. Bye for now.
There are more photos below