Singapore, Malaysia, Ko Tao, Ko Phangan, Khao Yai

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Asia » Malaysia
November 8th 2007
Published: November 7th 2007
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Just as Thailand was beginning to feel a bit like home, we were on the road again. We coordinated some longer traveling with our mid-semester break, so we had more time for this excursion. After a few more days of class my friends from San Diego and I were off to Singapore. AirAsia has monthly promotions which make it very cheap to fly within Southeast Asia.
We arrived in Singapore late on a Friday night and were astonished by the cleanliness of the country. We assumed that it was a result of the ridiculous laws imposed in the country. For example it is a 500$ fine for having food or drink on public transportation, a 1000$ fine for littering, and a 100$ fine for jay-walking. The laws seemed to be quite effective. The only thing I couldn't figure out is how everything was so clean without any public trash cans. I assume people just hold on to their garbage because waste baskets were scarce.
We enjoyed our short lived time in Singapore. The country is only comprised of the one city/state with a small population on 4.5 million people. The island country just south of peninsular Malaysia is about 15 miles in diameter in both directions (but I don't know how to figure out the circumference). The cultural aspects of the country were interesting, but other than that, the city/state did not have much to offer. As far as tourism goes, there are a few historical museums, and a Bush Gardens sort of theme park, but that is really about it.
Demographically, Singapore's population is very diverse, comprised mostly of Chinese, Malay, and Indian. We spent the majority of our time in Little India but also in China Town as well. Little India was great. The food was unbelievable, we at Indian banana leaf curry and masala dishes for ever meal. We didn’t know what most of the food was, but it tasted great. The Malay and Himalayan food we ate was quite different from Thai. English is actually the official language of Singapore, so it was quite easy to get around. The city was significantly more expensive than Thailand, almost as expensive as the States. The most gaping difference between the two countries were religious aspect; Specifically in Little India where the majority of the population practiced Hinduism. Although Buddhism stems from Hinduism, we recognized that the Hindus didn’t seem to be quite as welcoming as the Buddhists. This could also be a nationality stereotype, but I think it may be more related to religion. Nonetheless, we enjoyed learning about and seeing the lifestyle of the Indian based religion. We were lucky to be in Singapore during the annual Hindu Deepavali Festival. We were told that the month-long festival represents life over death and wisdom over ignorance. To celebrate the festival, the entirety of Little India was decorated with colorful lights. The streets were flooded with Indians and all the Hindu Temples were full of people. We managed to squeeze into one on our last night. The temple was full of statues of the Hindu Elephant God, Ganesha. The temple was very colorful, rich with traditions, but not quite as profound as the Buddhist Temples in Thailand.
I enjoyed our time in Singapore, but I prefer to travel elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Early in the morning of our third day in the country we took a bus across the border to the Malaysian city Kuala Lumpur. I would place Malaysia somewhere in between Thailand and Singapore on the spectrum of prosperity. (geographically as well) Demographically, Malaysia had the same mix as Singapore, but the majority of the population was Malay instead of Chinese. Malay is the main language, but English is commonly spoken as well. The value of the Malay currency, the Ringgit is higher than the Thai Baht, but lower than the Singapore Dollar. The landscape of peninsular Malaysia is very similar to Thailand. Rolling hills of jungle rainforest, with occasional hill villages and cities, surrounded by tropical islands and beaches on the coast. We spent the majority of our time inland, again focusing on many of the cultural differences, again most notably religious.
Malaysia’s national religion is Islam, although other religions can be practiced freely. When we arrived in Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur, we didn’t quite realize what we were getting into. The streets were completely packed with Arabic men celebrating the Islamic Ramadan Festival. It was literally impossible to navigate through the sidewalks, and the streets were at a standstill. As westerners, we certainly didn’t get a welcoming vibe, being pushed and pulled and bumped into by Arabic men, who seemed to be in a hurry to go absolutely nowhere. It was strange to see the streets so crowded with men, and not a woman in sight.
Our experience in KL was short lived as well. It was very difficult to get around in the city and we received a negative vibe from most aspects of the city (except the banana leaf Indian meals). At dusk we managed to make it to the top of the tallest tower in Kuala Lumpur. It was a good time to go because we got to see the cityscape at sunset and nightfall. Perhaps we just visited the city at a bad time, but my traveling cohorts and I agreed to try to get out at soon as possible.
So it was, and next on the agenda was a national park in central Malaysia: Taman Negara. Our experience in the natural setting was much better than in the metropolis. We were glad to be able to experience both settings, but we enjoyed the jungle significantly more. The national park was a five hour bus ride from KL, followed by a 2 ½ hour longboat ride up a river. We quickly got situated in a hostel style bungalow and became comfortable with the setting. Our first night we came to understand that food was going to be scarce due to the end of the Islamic Ramadan Fast. Apparently the food supply from outside cities had been completely cut off, so as a result, most restaurants were closed. This was one of the few times I’ve recognized that demand has outdone supply as far as tourism is concerned. Hundreds of people in the national park were all searching for meals, and we were lucky to get two scrappy buffet style meals each day.
We didn’t dwell upon the food factor, because there was really nothing we could do about it. The nature was gorgeous though. Our first night we went on a night safari through a palm plantation. The back of the truck was full so I sat on the top with our Malay guide and shined owls, wild bores, leopard cats, snakes, and a variety of birds. It was cool to see the wildlife in it’s natural habitat, particularly during the night.
The next day we woke up early and trekked through the jungle to the world’s longest rainforest canopy walkway. It was really impressive. We were over 50 meters off the ground in the tops of trees in the middle of the jungle. The board and rope walkway spanned over 800 meters, which is quite a ways on treetop. The walkway was quite a thrill as well. There were nets on each side, in case someone fell, but I certainly wouldn’t want to test them.
Following the canopy walkway we walked upstream a ways from our bungalow. We opted to drift downstream with the current. All the Malays pointed and laughed at us and yelled crocodiles, leaches, and snakes to exploit foreigner’s fear of the Asian rivers, but we made it out safely. It was a relaxing float with the decently paced current. When we got out we took a longboat downstream to go spelunking in a bat cave. The cave was very wet, dark and murky, but fun. There was kind of an eerie feeling inside, especially when we arrived at the portion where thousands of bats were swooping around our heads.
Our Taman Negara experience in the jungle was pretty intense. We were worn out, but couldn’t slow down quite yet. The following day it was on to the Cameron Highlands, a five hour ride west of Taman Negara. Again, the landscape was beautiful; rolling hills of forests and tea plantations. The highlands are notably famous for their tea production, strawberry farms, and cactus plantations. At an elevation of 5000 feet, the temperature was a bit cooler. We welcomed this with great pleasure. It was nice to finally be out of sweltering humidity and heat. The highlight of our stay in the highlands was our guest house. We met some great travelers by the bon-fire isolated back in the jungle behind the bar in the guest house. Most nights we were out until about sunrise meeting other travelers and discussing our experiences. Come daytime we were pretty worn out, but still managed to do some touring of waterfalls, the tea plantations, strawberry farms, and of course, eat our banana leaf Indian meals with masala tea.
From the Cameron Highlands we had a full 24 hours of travel until we arrived in Ko Tao, Thailand. I’ve discovered that even though all we do is sit on a bus or a boat, traveling like this is really exhausting. We had a one hour bus ride from the Highlands to Ipoh followed by a four hour bus from Ipoh to Butterworth. Then a six hour bus from Butterworth to Hat Yai (walk across the Thai boarder). From Hat Yai a five hour mini-bus to Surattani. Then an eight hour night ferry from Surattani to Ko Tao. We arrived on the northern most island on the eastern side of Thailand’s peninsula, Ko Tao at 6:30am, bright and early, ready to start out day. We were lucky to be able to catch the last three mattresses on the night ferry (and when I say mattress I mean something that resembled a long piece of Styrofoam, no wider that shoulder width, and saturated with something I don’t want to know). The mattresses were packed side by side, and it was impossible to roll over without rolling into the person next to you.
On Ko Tao we found an Open Water Scuba class to get our diving certifications. It is a bit cheaper to do it in Thailand than in the States, and the underwater scenery is much better than that of a swimming pool or inland lake. Our diving instructor was a 35 year old Norwegian guy who had made a career out of being a diving instructor. I think when we first met him he was predisposed to think that it would be a rough class because we were Americans, but we had a lot of fun with him. He wasn’t the most patient of individuals, but we got along well (big Liverpool, Risse fan!) The instruction lasted four days. We did four dives off the coast of Ko Tao at the Sail Rock and White Rock dive sites. The corals and sea life were absolutely astounding. We were lucky on our last day to come across a sea turtle. Although Ko Tao means Turtle Island, many of the sea turtles have disappeared since the island has seen more traffic. Our instructor told us he hadn’t seen a turtle in five months.
On Ko Tao we had a pretty viscous battle with the rains. We had thought we could beat the monsoon, but it had arrived in Ko Tao a few weeks earlier than normal this year. It rained, big drops, hard, every day, every night. Many portions of the island were flooded and completely inaccessible. I will say though, if I could spend my time one place during a rain storm it would be underwater, scuba diving.
From Ko Tao we took a ferry south to our last destination of the excursion, Ko Phangan. This notorious traveler’s getaway island is most famous for the largest Full-Moon Beach Party in the world. We spent three days on this island; Mostly motorbike exploring waterfalls, beaches and the rainforest. Our beach bungalow was nice, a bit off the main drag, thus quieter. We met some good company and really enjoyed our stay. The monsoon was just moving in, so it rained quite a bit, but we salvaged what sunlight we received. On our last night we went to the famous Full-Moon Party on Haaddin. It was absolutely wild, but I must say a bit too wild for my tastes. We met up with some other students in our program from Rangsit, and all of us agreed it wasn’t exactly our scene. All the island bars were blasting competing trance and house beats, which were just plain obnoxious. We chose to observe the party more than to partake, which I think was a good decision. Every year there are full moon accidents which have claimed the lives of many. The combination of alcohol and ocean creates a dangerous scene. I am glad to have experienced the party, but I wouldn’t want to go again.
The following day it was back to our university. We took a high speed catamaran ferry to the coastal city Chumpon, then a bus to Bangkok, and a taxi to our University. When it was all said and done, it was good to be back. I have really learned to appreciate automatic flush toilets with toilet paper, warm showers, and dry clothes. These are a few of the many luxuries we had to sacrifice during our three weeks of travel. It was a good excursion; One that was more about the journey than the destination. We saw a lot in a short period of time.
Upon arrival back at Rangsit, it was time for mid-terms. They went well and now it’s good to be on the home stretch until finals.
Most recently, this past weekend I spent some time in Khao Yai National Park about three hours northeast of Thailand. I didn’t quite realized until I arrived, but not many tourists go there. I camped in the jungle, and only saw a handful of westerners the entire time. Many Thais vacation in this national park. I spent three days utilizing day light for jungle trekking. I had some good experiences, most notably having monkeys trying to excrete both liquids and solids on me from 50 feet high up in the trees. It was pretty easy to dodge what was coming from so high up, and I gave them a piece of my mind with the sweetened cured plums that I threw up at them. The scenery and landscape in the park was remarkable. The waterfalls were very impressive. I spent much time at the Heaw Suwat waterfall which is featured in Leo’s hit movie, “The Beach.” Again, I saw some good wildlife including crocodiles, wild elephants, and barking deer, but what I appreciated most about this trip was my interaction with the Thais. They’re always willing to give me helping hand to try to make my experience a little bit better. It’s a great dynamic, and it made my experience one to remember.
For now, it’s another week of class, then off to Vietnam and Laos.


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