Thursday, March 30, 2006

Back to the jet-age

Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur is a mix of old colonial buildings and modern skyrises.

We arrived at a curious little hostel, which occupied the two upper floors of an old colonial building with the space divided up into many tiny rooms separated by plywood and flimsy sliding doors. It was stuffy and our room had no window, and as a result the temperature held steady at 30' all night long. But the staff were friendly and the place had a pleasant enough atmosphere, and there was even a functioning sink outside the shared bathroom (we had heard lots of horror stories about hostels in KL, so we decided to make do).

We decided to visit the famous Petronas twin towers, which used to be the tallest buildings in the world. It was quite a change of scene to be surrounded by so much fancy glass, metal and polished marble. We were suddenly thrust into a thoroughly modern world.

The visitor video made a big deal out of the double-decker lifts, but when our turn came to go up to the sky-bridge on the 41st floor it was just the regular kind. After our chaperone gave us her practiced spiel, I asked her if we could ride on the famous double-decker lift, and she looked embarrassed and said "I'm sorry that is not possible". They don't let you up to the 84th floor either, but the view from half-way up is still pretty good.

Throughout our visit to Malaysia I had been looking out for satay - an old favorite of mine. I expected to see it everywhere but it was suprisingly hard to find. In Taman Negara we saw a restaurant with a satay sign and went there for lunch only to be told that satay was only offered at dinner time. We returned for dinner to be told that the guy who does the satay was away that day to play football. So when we stopped for lunch the next day in Chinatown, and we saw satay listed on the menu under the heading Typical Malay Food, I thought it was my last chance.

I was bitterly disappointed by the deep-fried, grizzly, glutinous product that was served to me with chili instead of peanut sauce. It was also our most expensive meal in KL.

The previous night we had gone in search of a posh restaurant listed in the Lonely Planet, and gave up without finding it and ended up at a neon-lit, muslim south Indian fast-food restaurant where we had the tastiest local meal we've had in Malaysia for about $4 for the two of us.

The next night we tried another indian restaurant across the street where the food was fine (although I suffered a little with my mutton) but we saw an enormous rat saunter confidently from one side of the kitchen to the other.

So it was with some eagerness that we anticipated our in-flight meal when we arrived at the Kuala Lumpur international airport (which is a full 75km out of town). We made full use of the glisteningly clean toilets and slowly stopped sweating as we readjusted to the air-conditioned world of the jet-age. We were soon strapped into our economy-class seats, enjoying a decent meal with white wine and our own entertainment centre. What luxury.

We had an overnight layover in Hong Kong airport, so we scoured around the departures area looking for the best spot to camp out for the night.

First we tried these lounge chairs in a resting area (the eye-mask was a Christmas present from me), but later opted for a set of benches where we could stretch out horizontally. Fortunately the announcement system turned off at midnight, but the musak played on. There was a whole cluster of other travelers (one wearing a full business suit) doing the same thing. They even have special lounges where you pay $60 to spend the night with a shower, small gym and internet centre. As it was, we managed ok, although we both got a little cold. There's even a special website that specializes in tips for weary travelers camping out in airports.

Our arrival in Bali was marred slightly by a long wait to get through immigration. But we soon found ourselves plodding around the streets of Kuta looking for a place to stay. It turned out that the next day was Nyepi (the Balinese New Year, or day of silence, where everything is shut, you are not supposed to leave your home, even electricity use is frowned upon). So we knew we wanted to find a place where we could chill out for a few days, and a pool seemed like a pretty good idea.

After much to-ing and fro-ing in the heat we finally settled on a nice place with air-conditioning and a pool, and headed out for dinner. On the way we passed a street procession in the dark (many shops and restaurants were already shut down) for the New Year celebrations. We found a cozy place to eat and I, finally, had a glorious satay dish.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Rumble in the jungle

Entering the Taman Negara National Park by boat, you travel upriver for about 3 hours passing monkeys on the river banks to the small town of Kuala Tahan and the park headquarters.

The attraction of the park is its 4000 sq. km of primary rainforest that has been steadily doing its thing here, supposedly unimpeded by ice-ages and continental drift, for over 130 million years.

Although it's only about 28'C in the jungle, it is incredibly humid and when we went for a hike we were immediately drenched with sweat. Our hike included a canopy trail on rope-walkways swinging in the tree-tops 50m above the jungle floor.

A lot of the time the vegetation was so dense that you couldn't actually see the ground to tell how high you were. It was fun, but a large local group ahead of us was shrieking and laughing so much that it shattered what could have been a magical ambiance.

We were however, very lucky to have a family of wild boar rush across the trail behind us a few minutes later - the mother came charging along first, crashing heavily through the bushes, followed moments later by two anxious youngsters. It was a slightly terrifying moment, but over before we could react, and a reminder that some very large animals (elephants and rhinosceroses) are at large in this jungle.

We saw several monitor lizards, a dead scorpion, and watched two hornbills arguing loudly as they flew over us, but fortunately no snakes. Our other memorable wildlife encounter was the discovery of a leech on my leg (see the photo on Katie's blog). We had prepared for leeches by wearing long trousers (unbearably hot) and long socks which we had sprayed with insect repellent - but apparently this hadn't deterred this fellow.

You can't just pull a leech off because (like a tick) it's teeth are embedded in your skin in the relaxed state, so you only succeed in separating its body from its head which remains firmly attached. What you need to do is persuade it to let go before you kill it. People use cigarettes to burn the leech, or sprinkle salt on them. We tried a squirt of 100% DEET which was like spraying holy water on a vampire - my interloper started writhing in disgust and suddenly there was blood all over my leg. It didn't fall off though, and I finally had to flick it off with a stick.

At this point Katie started squeeling and hopping about - "oh, Oh, OH! There's one trying to get into my shoe!". It was trying to bite into her sock and when we went after it with the stick it made a determined effort to burrow into the crack between her sock and the shoe. We had just managed to extract this one when we noticed two more coming at us across the leaves, one from each side. It was like that scene in King Kong where the creepy crawlies keep coming out of the rocks from all sides.

Leeches have a decidedly predatory way of moving. There is no mistaking them for anything safely vegetarian like a slug or a caterpillar (although I remember seeing them as a child, after they had gorged themselves when they expand to the size of a small slug and can barely move - they just fall off their hosts). They move rapidly and confidently towards dinner like an athletic inch-worm with a mission - taking a quick sniff between steps. They're very creepy, especially so when they're all around you.

I watched one advance towards me from several yards (while Katie was pleading for us to get out of there). It headed straight at me, until it was between my shoes, sniffed left and right then turned 90 degrees and went straight for my right foot. Clearly it was not a great place to hang around.

We headed back to our guest house where we celebrated the glory of our cold shower (and thoroughly inspected each other for lingering blood-suckers).

We had been trying to find a cheap way to fly from Singapore to Bali, since that would be preferable to our OneWorld ticket which goes from Kuala Lumpur to Bali via Hong Kong with an inconvenient overnight 12 hour layover). Unfortunately there are no discount airlines serving this route yet, and we were just about out of time, so we stuck to the original plan and headed to KL.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Peace and quiet

Since the only dives that sounded interesting were being offered one at a time in the mornings, we would have had to extend our stay to do more. Instead, we decided to head back to the mainland where we managed to find our way down the coast to Cherating.

The town was wonderfully deserted. We found a cozy place to stay next to a cafe offering good food (run by an American and Malay couple), and settled in for a few days of pampering (we were both recovering from sore throats we had picked up on the island).

Going for a morning walk, we found ourselves sharing a couple of kilometres of beach with only one other person. It was like we owned the place, and we could have stayed much longer but we wanted to visit Taman Negara before our time in Malaysia ran out.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Perhentian islands

We had 11 days left in Malaysia and we decided that we wanted to see the Perhentian islands in the northeast before heading further south. After a long day in a minibus we arrived at the jetty at 5pm and were told that the slow boat left at 3pm (the ticket we had bought the night before at our guesthouse) but that we could upgrade for 10 ringit ($3) to the last fast boat that was just leaving. Ok whatever.

By 6pm we were moving, but shortly after leaving the harbour, we had to turn back to drop off a crewman who was suddenly seasick. Underway again by 6:30pm for what was supposed to be a 45min ride, we didn't get to the island until 8:30 (long after dark) and it then took about an hour to drop people off at each beach. This was a precarious process - a small boat (some were scarcely bigger than canoes) would come out from shore and transfer passengers from the ferry to the beach in the pitch black darkness. When we rounded the island to the last two beaches there was quite a dramatic swell - we rolled over so far at one point that the water was up against the cabin windows. No boat was prepared to brave the surf to come fetch us, so we were forced to retreat to a beach on the 'big island' to spend the night. This was annoying since it meant paying for a water taxi in the morning to finally get to the beach of our choice.

We did finally make it however (after wading with our bags from the water taxi through the surf to the beach - there are no jetties here), and the beach is beautiful.

We had originally planned on staying at a beach with just one establishment - which would have been more peaceful but possibly with monopolistic pricing. Instead we opted for Long Beach where there are perhaps a dozen places with restaurants and bungalows.

Our bungalow was fairly basic and we soon discovered that with their mosquito net you could barely feel the overhead fan, so we abandoned it and after much fiddling, we inaugurated our own double mosquito net which worked a lot better.

This room had a sink, but the tap was tied shut so we didn't really use it. Here's Katie going local, doing a little laundry in the bucket.

We signed up for a wreck dive which was the first time Katie and I had actually dived as buddies together which was nice. The wreck was pretty cool - thoroughly encrusted with sea urchins and clams, etc after only six years. It was a 50m freighter carrying sugar that ran aground and when they opened the hold to dump the cargo to get off the sandbar, the sea flooded the ship and it sank, falling on its side. We got to swim into its open holds, which are big enough not to be much of a hazard.

On the boat ride back (this is a small, open speedboat carrying 10 of us) we entered a squall and the rain was pouring so hard we couldn't see more than 50m ahead of us and lost sight of the island. After a few minutes of turning this way and that, the boatman realised he had no idea which way to go and we were all crouched in the boat shivering in the wind and the rain, with greyness all around us and choppy seas. With a bit of compass navigation from one of the instructors dive-watches we proceeded in one direction for a while, and eventually the clouds cleared enough to make out the island again. The worst part was that Katie and I were both desperate to take a leak and every bump was torture, so it was with eternal thankfulness that we finally made it back to shore.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Butterflies and bedbugs

After Penang the appeal of the cool Cameron Highlands was hard to resist so we went there next. We stayed in a lovely, relaxed place called Father's Guesthouse, surrounded by bizarre condos with faux-tudor or swiss chalet pretenses combined with Malaysian details like clotheslines strung between balconies and piles of rubbish in their parking lots.

We rented a scooter the next day and went exploring. First we rode up to the Boh tea plantation (they produce half the tea in Malaysisa) where we watched how the tea is produced in their factory. The narrow road winds up through thousands of acres of rolling hills all covered with tea. It was at this point that I wobbled off the road trying to negotiate a speed-bump, a corner and an oncoming minibus at the same time. Fortunately we were barely moving by that time, so it was mostly just my pride that was hurt, and after straightening a mirror and pulling some grass off the foot-rest, we were back on our way.

There was another tea plantation on the way back where we stopped for tea.

But then it started raining so we retreated to our guesthouse for a couple of hours before venturing out to the butterfly farm which also housed some other scarier creatures for us to imagine in the jungle around us.

There were also all kinds of beetles, including these fellows - the man-faced beetles (how weird is that? :)

The next day I noticed that the few bites I had seen earlier on my arms were part of a widespread affliction that included a cluster of 100 or so bites on my back. Bedbugs I think, but I'm not sure if they were really at this otherwise pristene guesthouse, or if I had picked them up in one of the seedier places in Penang.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Tsunami alert

A day after arriving in Koh Lanta we were browsing the internet and discovered to our suprise that there had been ongoing Tsunami warnings the last two days and we had heard nothing about it (our hotel was right on the beachfront). Apparently the tourism board was getting quite upset about the warnings as they were scaring away tourists - we heard later that the entire island of Phi Phi had been evacuated to higher ground for several hours (with no evidence of any tsunami in the end), but we had heard nothing from our hotel.

The next morning our 7:30am minibus arrived to pick us up at 7:00 so we left in a bit of a rush and then had to wait for an hour while we collected everyone else before leaving the island.

We crossed a couple of rivers on car-ferries and rolled into Trang a few hours later to change to another minibus to take us to the Malaysian border at Hat Yai. There we were able to change our remaining Thai Baht into Ringit at a diamond dealer at a much better rate than the local bank and we squeezed into our final minibus for the ride across the border and on to Penang.

Malaysia was instantly familiar in some ways from my childhood: the mix of English, and the accent, in the local speech; the rythm of the language; food smells; the easy laugh; rubber plantations. This is the first country on my trip I have previously visited (25 years ago).

We arrived after dark (crossing from the mainland on our third car-ferry of the day) and our first two choices of hotel were full and the next one was musty and expensive. We tried another one that was even worse - sagging mattress, no sheets, no outside windows, no mosquito screens and a fan that wasn't even over the bed. It was very hot and humid, and we had been travelling all day and I think Katie had lost faith that we would find anything decent so we decided to take the room.

We had a miserable night, baking in the heat. Katie opted for copious applications of insect repellent and I lay motionless beneath my mosquitoe net and had another shower at 3am to cool off.

The next day we found an air-conditioned room at another hotel, but found the mid-day heat so oppressive that we barely accomplished anything else appart from a little wandering around our neighborhood in the Chinese district of old Georgetown.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Swimming with the fishes

On Koh Tao, Katie did the Open Water course which is what I did in Honduras last year, and I took the Advanced course that introduced me to deeper dives (30m) and night diving. Katie seems to have enjoyed it and I was happy that I didn't encounter any more of the equalization problems.

The visibility underwater has been poorer than usual which is disappointing, but nothing we can do about that. The island is beautiful and the weather has been perfect.

I love the feeling of getting out of the shower dripping wet, and being dry a few minutes later. I have been meaning to get another haircut, after the last one (in the 'brothel' in Vietnam - see Katie's blog) left me a bit lopsided. So I took the plunge and had a number 2 buzzcut, which is definitely a new look, and pleasantly cool in the sea breeze.

We were curious to see what Thailand's west coast was like so we took a ferry and bus to Krabi and then another ferry the next morning to the island of Koh Lanta.

We are planning to spend 3 days here doing very little and have treated ourseles to a place with a nice pool and a view out over the Andaman Sea.

Monday, March 06, 2006

One night in Bangkok

We arranged to travel from Siem Reap to the Thai border at Poi Pet by taxi and were lucky enough to find a Chinese couple to share one with us, making the journey as cheap as the bus. The taxis are all Toyota Camrys for some reason.

Ours had the necessary Cambodian upgrades to its suspension which allowed it to drive down a dirt road full of potholes at 80kph. We were traveling in luxury, with air-con and only 5 people on board.

We passed pickups piled high with cargo and passengers, often with one or two people sitting on the hood.

The vehicles roared down the road in front of a vast plume of dust. Motorbikes and bicycles were making slow progress as they were forced to stop every time they were engulfed because their visibility was reduced to zero and they were caked in dust (not a pleasant journey for them I imagined). The kid driving seemed to be in a bit of a rush and on top of all the other challenges of the road he was driving with the wheel on the wrong side (wherever the car had been imported from they must have driven on the left) which made overtaking that extra little bit exciting for me in the front passenger seat.

Thankfully, we arrived in Poi Pet in one piece and sweated our way across the border where we managed to find an air-con bus to Bangkok. Now this was a bus: air-con that actually kept you cool, a snack and an ice-cold bottle of water handed to you as you step on board. Yes, we are back in Thailand we thought.

Arriving in the early evening, we struggled to find a decent place to stay in Bangkok and ended up in a dingy, stuffy room with no window for $10 - probably the most expensive place we had been for a month. I didn't agree with my dinner for some reason and barely slept.

After a little research, we booked a combination overnight bus-ride and ferry ticket down to the island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand to do some scuba diving.

After some sweaty delays getting started, and a second sleepless night on the bus, a morning thunderstorm waiting for the turbulent ferry ride, we finally collapsed into bed on the island.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The many, many temples of Angkor

Arriving in Siem Reap the bus was surrounded by about 100 taxi-touts screaming for our business. A policeman was keeping them back with a baton, but being the first off the bus Katie and I found ourselves immediately surrounded and separated in the sea of desperate yelling. Someone had previously recommended the Smiley Guesthouse and I caught sight of a man holding a big placard with a yellow smiley face on it and I only had to make eye contact and give the slightest nod for him to disappear into the scrum and reappear next to me an instant later. With a few sharp words to the mob he extracted me and Katie and our bags and deposited us in his tuk-tuk.

Considering ourselves lucky to have gotten away as easily as we did, we leant back to enjoy the ride through town. About halfway there, our driver pulled into a deserted street and stopped the engine and turned around with a slightly apologetic look on his face. Our spirits sagged as we anticipated some additional financial complication. Our man explained that the ride to the hotel was free (the hotels pay drivers a fee for delivering guests), but he hoped that we would consider him to be our driver for our tour around the temples for the next couple of days (he was trying to secure our business before we got to the hotel where all his buddies would also be competing with him). His face was sympathetic, his English wasn't bad and he was asking the going rate in 'The Book'. Our hearts wanted to say yes, but our travel instinct was hoisting red-flags about the selling tactics.

In the end, we told him we would think about it, and after we saw our room and conferred a little we decided to go with our man - without pitching the drivers against each other in a price war, without bargaining, without looking for alternative forms of transportation. I think we both were yearning for a positive experience after everyone trying to rip us off for the last month, and this gentle soul seemed to offer the greatest hope that not everyone is out to get you.

I'm happy to report that our faith is somewhat restored, and we had a pleasant couple of days wandering around the temples of Angkor, and listening to our driver tell us stories of his life coming of age during the rise of the Khmer Rouge, living in the refugee camps in Thailand, rebuilding a life in Cambodia and now trying to get his children started in their lives with an education and decent prospects in the tourist industry.

Angkor Wat has a big reputation to live up to, which tends to make me apprehensive as I am so easily disappointed. I have to say, I wasn't stunned by the main temple, but it was impressing nevertheless. I think we were lucky to still see it while one can clamber all over it - I can imagine that 5 years from now, much of it will be cordoned off for protection.

It didn't help that we had to share our experience with hundreds of other tourists, some of whom gathered in large groups of 30 or so with their guides lecturing past each other in different languages so at times it was like visiting the tower of Babel.

I actually prefered the unrestored carvings as you could at least marvel at the original craftmanship. In my opinion, much of the restored work lacks artistry. But I guess they have their hands full just keeping the place from falling down any further.

After Angkor Wat we escaped to the relative calm of some of the smaller temples where we had a more intimate experience. Many of these temples have received very little restoration and they sit in the jungle all a tumble, forlorn but retaining their air of majesty.

In places, nature has the upper hand.

Here you can see some local people coming to pay homage to the white godess...

We visited the so-called women's temple, which although small, is ornately carved.

Each temple had its own delights.

The most visually alluring, is Bayon in the Angkor Thom complex, which contains 240 serene faces gazing down upon you from all angles.