● For full details on our route, transport info, hotel details, etc, look at our Google Maps page

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Pulau Penang

27th October – 29th October

Penang is small island off the north west coast of Malaysia, the first settlement on the Malay peninsular by the British based East India company, a move intended to break the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade.

The New Banana Hostel was cheap and central. We spent the afternoon of our first day exploring Georgetown on foot – unfortunately everything was shut up as it was a public holiday again! This did little for the atmosphere of the place but at least we didn’t get any hassle as we made our way around the sights. We spent some time at an old fort and visited numerous temples and mosques, too many to mention – as if we could remember the names anyway! For dinner we followed the Lonely Planets recommendation and for once it turned out to be a good one! Chinese from a small place round the corner was delicious leaving us wanting more.

Renting a scooter for a trip around the island seemed like the best way to see it all in a day. We arranged the usual Honda Dream 100 from our hostel, and after an argument over petrol and ‘you think me try to cheat you’ conversation with the hostel, we were on our way!

Top Traveller Tip #1 – Always check the level of fuel in the tank when you hire a scooter or motorbike – don’t just rely on the gauge! The gauge often stays on full even when the tank is almost half empty, leaving you to pay for more fuel than you really used when you return the bike! (We’ll be adding more of these top tips from now on!)

First stop was the huge Tesco outside town. We had heard that they were all over south east asia but this was our first sighting since we left Clapham in March! Sam had her heart set on a Tesco Finest sandwich, but this was not to be and we left with some cheese spread, brown bread, and a packet of AAA batteries! Onwards to the Snake Temple, which was a little disappointing as there were only a couple of snakes. Riding for another hour took us round the southern part of the islands, over the hills and up the west coast to a tropical fruit plantation. Along this route we came across lots of new road construction where the lush forest was being bulldozed to make way for an elevated road to link the west coast with the (not so distant) airport. Tragic!

A butterfly farm and forestry recreation park followed on. We spent just a brief time at each, hoping to reach the beaches before the afternoon monsoon storms arrived. The idyllic resort of Batu Ferringhi wasn’t quite what we’re used to and we were relieved not to have chosen to stay here instead of Georgetown. The beaches felt distinctly European, with lots of milky white and bright red bodies accentuating beer bellies and bad tattoos! We found a spot further up the beach where the sand was finer and the bodies more beautiful! Returning back to Georgetown, we dropped in on a number of temples (see photos) and took a ride up Penang Hill in the evening to check out the view and admire the sunset.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Cameron Highlands

25th October – 27th October

It took a whole day to travel from KL to the Cameron Highlands. We hoped to catch the 10.30am bus and be in the highlands by mid afternoon. Unfortunately for us it was the bank holiday weekend of Deepavali and the whole of KL had the same idea! There was no chance of leaving before noon so we secured some seats on a 1.30 bus and passed a few hours in nearby Nandos (not all bad then!). More unfortunately still, the scheduled departure time came and went and after an hour we were told the service was cancelled – no explanation given. We were rebooked onto the 4.30 bus and sat around some more!

In a suspended state of British Colonial calm, altitude-loving tea fields dress the undulating hills in an emerald coloured corduroy scattered with strawberry and honey bee farms. The Cameron Highlands sit at up to 1800m above sea level giving a break from the tropical climate of the west coast.

Anyway, after an extremely frustrating day we finally arrived at Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. It was pitch black by now and we saw nothing of the climb from sea level to 1800 metres – perhaps a good thing! It was certainly a surprise to awake the next day to a landscape of rolling lush green hills. We avoided the many agency touts for guided tours and fixed ourselves up with a scooter to hop between attractions. This turned out to be the best decision ever as the bank holiday traffic set in and motorists sat in jams the length of the highlands whilst we whizzed by with big smirks on our faces!

We spent time at the Boh Tea plantation and the Big Red Strawberry farm during the morning, making ourselves sick on strawberry desserts. We hiked up the Gunung Brinchang summit to check out the view (well… rode to the carpark at the top and climbed the last few metres!). We also stopped at the Sam Poh temple, the Highlands Bee Farm, endured and repaired a puncture and arrived at a tea shop in time for afternoon tea! Tea and scones were order of the day for most people, but neither of us drink tea and the brownie and strawberry cheesecake looked so much nicer!

After so much gorging on puddings we set out to for something more wholesome for dinner. Sam really wanted to try a ‘Steamboat’ which involved being served a variety of uncooked meats, fish and vegetables with a boiling stockpot of spicy broth in which to cook the ingredients. Dumplings, sauces and a number of utensils are also provided which turned a nice meal out into a complicated fiasco of boiling pans and sweating brows. Ady lost the plot and Sam almost almost dunked Adys head in the boiling broth – Ady liked to cook al dente while Sam liked to cook the food to death! The less said about it the better, but we won’t be having steamboat again!

On returning to our guest house, the Twin Pines, a bonfire had been lit and marshmallows were being toasted. Sam partook in this, while Ady ran to the toilet, feeling the effects of undercooked chicken from the steamboat already!

An early start for the 8am bus to Georgetown was the second bus fiasco involving our favourite Malaysian bus company, Kurnia Bistari. The bus didn’t leave until 9.10am and didn’t take us all the way to Georgetown in the end…

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Kuala Lumpur

23rd October – 25th October

After one night in Kota Bharu, we took the jungle railway to Kuala Lumpur. A 13 hour journey, this was the long way to get to KL, but the scenery along the way was great.

Bukit Bintang and the Pondok Lodge hostel was our home for the two nights we spent in Malaysias capital – a good location with plenty of cool bars and restaurants nearby (out of our price range unfortunately!). Arriving at 11pm, we crashed out as soon as we got to the hostel, but the following day we headed out first thing (well, 10am) firstly to see the Petronas towers and to go up to the skybridge. It wasn’t our day as the next available timeslot wasn’t until 4 in the afternoon. Ady was ready to give up on the whole thing but Sam suggested getting tickets for the final slot of the day – 6.30pm – so that we could see the sunset and the city by night too.

From the towers we headed down into the Colonial district to check out Merdeka Square, constructed under British rule and given over to the Malay people in 1957 when independence was declared. There is a cricket pitch, a mock tudor house and a …..It was an interesting architectural mix! The weather was extremely hot and sticky and the place was thronging with tourists shipped in by numerous coaches, blocking any chance of a decent photo. We didn’t stay long.

Nearby Chinatown was next on the agenda and timed nicely for a slap up lunch! We wandered through the crowded streets and found a restaurant packed with Chinese Malay people, offering a buffet lunch. The food was excellent and having filled our boots we spent some time browsing the tat stalls for knock off goods, finding some convincing Ray Bans for a ringit or two.

Public transport in KL isn’t nearly as convenient as in Singapore, though we did take a monorail back to Bukit Bintang and passed over a scooter graveyard full of decaying Hondas and more than a handful of vintage Vespas! We hopped off the train to take a closer look (yes,I know this is one step up from train spotting!) and were amazed at how these scooters were just left to rot, when back home, they would be worth hundreds of pounds. So next time Ady wants to refurb another Vespa we know where to come!

Right on cue for our 6 o’clock ascent up the Petronas towers the heavens opened. We got completely soaked and filthy battling our way through the congestion of the Friday night rush hour. It was impossible to take a taxi and there was no direct transport link to the towers from Bukit Bintang – crazy stuff. We just made it to the building for our slot, only to be ushered into a small lecture theatre and sold a load of spiel on how wonderful the Petronas company is.

The view from the top (the skywalk linking the two towers which is as high as the public can go) wasn’t exactly amazing and the dreary weather didn’t help much. The view from the KL tower is supposed to be much better but you have to fork out a small fortune for this, whilst Petronas is free. In short, I guess you get what you pay for! Disappointed we paid a visit to Sushi King and treated ourselves to a feast before hitting the bars back in Bukit Bintang.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Perhentian Islands

14th October - 22nd October

After an exhausting 17 hours on the road, including one overnight journey from Johor Bharu onboard the coldest bus in the world (the air con was stuck on the lowest setting and even Ady’s teeth were chattering), our speedboat arrived at Long Beach on Kecil Island. The Perhentian Islands are situated 19km off the North East coast of peninsular Malaysia and are a mecca for divers and snorkelling enthusiasts due to the crystal clear turquoise waters and numerous reefs and wrecks just a short boat ride away. The water is normally so clear that even from the boat it is possible to see schools of fish and sometimes even turtles and sharks several meters below the surface.

Two islands make up the Perhentian Islands – Kecil Island (small island) and Besar Island (large island). We opted to stay on Kecil as the beaches are supposedly more beautiful here and the scene is more backpacker oriented, lacking the luxuries (read expensive prices) of the upmarket resorts on Besar.

We checked into the Chempaka Chalets at the far end of the beach. Our mistake became immediately apparent as we realised that not one breath of air was circulating in our hut and within minutes Ady was completely saturated with sweat; sweat poring off
his forehead, nose…I’ll spare you the details of the rest! He ripped off his clothes and sprinted for the sea (the white sand had already reached scorching point!) leaving a puddle of sweat on the floor! That night we were joined in bed by a giant cockroach, how the bugger managed to crawl through the mossie net we don’t know! A second offending bug in the bathroom was the final straw for Sam – that morning we checked out and into the much breezier, impeccable Lemongrass chalets, complete with outdoor showers!

The vibe on Kecil was very chilled, there were no large hotels at all, just a couple of smaller places and a whole heap of beach huts like ours, set back just metres from the beach, so it wasn’t necessary to wear shoes at all. There were a handful of restaurants offering fresh fish and BBQ type fare, and the one bar – Buffalo – serving up Jungle Juice and a good mix of tunes was the only place to spend the night under the stars. There is no mains electricity on the island so small generators are used at night to supply power for essentials, such as ceiling fans in the huts and of course the sound system! Hence most of the lighting was by candles and the bonfire that was lit outside Buffalo each night, a good source of entertainment in itself as the locals would throw petrol onto it and light their majorette-style batons to begin some flame throwing!

We spent a peaceful 8 days in this little piece of heaven, enjoying lots of swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing and some yoga by the rocks – our sessions soon became well known with other travellers joining in! We spent a few mornings diving, taking advantage of our newly acquired Padi Diver status by exploring the amazing Temple of the Sea, and sending Padi some more of our money as we became certified “Deep” and “Wreck” divers by diving the Vietnamese and Sugar wrecks. Both were great fun, though the visibility wasn’t the best. We even swam inside the large cargo holds, in low light, something neither of us would have wanted to do just a few weeks ago! Our deep dive was a very slow descent to 24 metres (ear problems again, but at least we take as long as each other) to see the Vietnamese wreck but now we’re qualified to go down to 30 metres on future dives.

I think that if the season wasn’t drawing to a close with the imminent arrival of the monsoon, we would have stayed even longer, living this simple dreamy beach life! As it was our favourite restaurants were starting to shut down and the need for good food was enough to drive us back to mainland. Besides, Buffalo was running out of Jungle Juice!

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


10th October – 14th October

Singapore confirms and undermines popular stereotypes in equal measure. Yes, it’s modern
clean and organised. No, it’s not stifiling, straight laced and dull. What you have is a 21st century metropolis with a culture, history and cuisine that’s remarkably rich for a place so small.

Our flight from Miri brought us to Johar Bharu, in the very south of Malaysia. From there we took the bus to Singapore, involving two border posts and the hectic causeway. We stayed in the Prince of Wales (PoW) hostel in Little India – a world away from the Singapore we had imagined! A double booking meant that the private room we had reserved would not be available until the following night – no problems though as there was space in one of the dorms, and it would save us a bit of money too!

Tired and hungry, we went for a curry nearby, which turned out to be the best food that we had had in quite some time! The PoW is a hostel and Australian style bar, so we had a drink there and enjoyed the live band that was playing. It wasn’t a late night by Aussie standards, as we knew that we
had a busy day ahead of us exploring Singapore!

Ady was on the top bunk with Sam below, and out of the 18 beds only 3 others were occupied… we drifted off to sleep and were dreaming to ourselves until one of our room mates returned home. It must have been around 3am, we’re not sure exactly, and he wasn’t alone. He’d invited a young Swedish girl back to the room to take a look round… before long they were banging away on the bed next to Sam….! To give him his due, he managed it 3 times (Ady’s words BTW…Sam was horrified), but by this time the rest of the people in the room were getting a little bit peeved. Sam had earplugs in, but they were no match for the creaking bunk, whimpering and moans that were emanating from the other bed! We would have said something, but not knowing what the dormitory etiquette was (we’ve managed to steer clear in other places!) we didn’t want to interrupt!

In the morning, the other people in the room were as annoyed as us at the antics – entertaining at first, but then just rude! We had to set out on our day sightseeing with less sleep than we would have liked.

Wandering out of the hostel by day, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in India as the surrounding area was a mass of India
n restaurants, shops and people that gave off a real Indian atmosphere. 10 minutes later, stepping of the MRT (train) we were in Chinatown where street food and shops transported us to another country of Asia. There are many Chinese temples in Singapore, you can see some of these in the photos. Sam had to don some very fetching loan sarongs in order to look around as she was showing a bit too much arm for some peoples liking…!

Singapore is home to a mass of shopping centres, where you can pick up absolutely anything. Sam turned one corner and spotted an M&S, and we headed straight to the food department. It was difficult to bring ourselves to buy anything there though, as for the price of a bag of crisps we could have a full meal from one of the food hawker centres! Resisting the temptation on this occasion, we strolled on and walked to the waterfront, where many fancy restaurants and cafes backed onto the water. There was some boat racing going on and we sat and watched for a while, before stumbling upon a cricket match on the pitch in the city centre. The picture of the game of cricket with a backdrop of the skyscrapers shows how much of a city of contrasts this is. We missed the Formula 1 Gran Prix by a couple of weeks, but some of the city streets still had crash barriers up, and Ady got his photos standing on the track!

For Saturday night, Clarke Quay is the place to be. It reminded us of the waterfront area of Cape Town, South Africa, with outdoor restaurants lining one side of the river. For another break from asian food, we chose to splash out on a Mexican restaurant. We won’t be recommending it though as the service was shocking, and the food mediocre. Afterwards, crossing the river brought us to an undercover arcade full of more restaurants, bars, cafes and clubs. It was lucky that this area was undercover
as the rain decided to pay us a visit. On our never ending search for cider that we seem to be encountering on this trip, we found Strongbow on draft! A pint and a half cost $24 – about £10! After that we’d ran out of cash, and took the last train home.

Sentosa island is an oasis south of Singapore city centre and the monorail ride over the harbour to get to it reminded us of the entrance to Alton Towers. Our fellow passengers, crowds of young Singaporeans were all very excited at their upcoming day out – we were equally as curious as to what we were about to do over the next few hours. The man made beach was a sight in itself, with several attractions along the sandy strip, from the flying trapeze to Café del Mar!

After walking along the beach we found a spot with a great view of the shipping lane into Singapore harbour! The sea wasn’t particularly clean and the temptation of the pool within Café del Mar was too much for us! We wandered into the complex and dropped our things onto a large double sunbed. We picked them up pretty quickly when we were told that there was a minimum bar spend of $100 to use the bed! Instead we took a stool at the pool bar and had a juice which we made last as long as possible. The clientele were an interesting mix of people, from rich young Singaporeans to rich western tourists and several of Singapore’s finest gay contingent sporting shorts even smaller and tighter than Ady’s! Actually, they were disturbingly small, not even covering the arse crack and certainly leaving no room for the guys package!

As the sun went down, we decided to splash out on cocktails – Ady had a Singapore Sling (what else!?) and Sam had a creamy chocolate, coconut, strawberry and Baileys concoction! Not being able to stretch to dinner at Café del Mar, we took advice from the Lonely Planet and caught the bus out of town to a specially recommended curry restaurant, going by the name of Samy! The food was good, but didn’t warrant the effort of getting to the place – we could have eaten just as well next to our hostel in Little India for half of the price!

We woke on Monday morning to the sound of torrential rain on our roof, not a great start to the day we had to spend out and about as we had checked out of the Hostel. We took a loan umbrella and headed out into the downpour. Craving something different to eat, Falafal to be precise, the Arab quarter was sure to be able to satisfy our needs. It didn’t and we couldn’t find Falafal, so had to make do with a pie from a bakery instead! After wandering aimlessly around the centre of Singapore for several more hours it was time to go take the bus north back into Malaysia, then on to Kuala Terrenganu for the Perhentian Islands.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Malaysian Borneo

27th September – 10th October

Bali to Borneo
We had always intended to fly into Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) and then across to the Malaysian side of the island via one of the overland borders. However, the Indonesian authorities impose silly rules on how travellers must produce evidence of an onward flight before being allowed to enter the country, wit
h no flexibility given to tourists who might wish to leave by sea or land routes. There was also the rather limiting 30 day visa to consider – for a country (or rather a republic) the size of this (Sumatra, Java, Bali, Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Maluku and Papua!) it becomes impossible to travel extensively without leaving and re-entering the country. After a limited amount of research (and rather too little as we came to later realise!) we instead bought a flight from Java (our link from Lombok) to Kuching, capital of one of the two states of Malaysian Borneo. Kalimantan will have to wait for another time. Besides, the Indonesian state is notoriously difficult to explore; with inadequate public transport and the sheer size of the place we wouldn’t achieve much in the two weeks we had to spare.

As always with first impressions, Kuching rather surprised us! We passed through the airport with startling efficiency, and decided to hop in a cab for the short transfer to the city. There was a small queue but very few taxis and we waited some time before catching one. We later found out that the residents of Sarawak are so
wealthy (largely due to oil and the industries that have grown up around it) that absolutely everybody owns private transport and gets whisked away by awaiting family members. The journey was a little bit of an eye opener and we felt as though we were in somewhere fancy like Hong Kong or Japan, a far cry from the chaos of Bali or Lombok.

We’d reserved a budget room at the Mandarin Hotel, again rather a surprise after some of the dives we’ve stayed in. The location was fab,
in between the old and new city, and a stones throw from the main Chinese and Indian districts. This made for some excellent eating, as you can imagine!

The following day was Sunday, which means only one thing… the Sunday market! Held in a labyrinth of streets to the south of the city, traders compete with one another for your wallet. The array of produce on offer is bewildering and we weren’t sure what all of it was! We ate Laksa soup for breakfast (takes some getting used to!) at a hawker stall, swiftly followed by some delicious pancakes.

The never ending hunt for suncream began, and we whisked around some pharmacies. This was our first real encounter with what we’ll call the “Whitening” phenomenon. On request, shop assistants would all produce bottles of lotion, sometimes well known brands such as Nivea and sometimes dubious local brands. All, without question contained agents to “whiten” the skin! The girls in the shops simply could not comprehend why we wouldn’t want to bleach our skin white the way they seem to be so fond of doing! What… white skin after all the blood, sweat and tears (well, lots of sweat anyway) developing tans on the Gili’s! These girls with their dolly, china white faces who were found in Kuching became more a feature during our stay in Malaysia and their bid for whiteness (umbrella carrying etc.) made us smile several occasions. BTW you can even buy whitening deodorant!

We’d arranged a visit to the nearby Bako National Park for Monday with a guy we met at a backpackers lodge. Sean had been acting as unofficial guide for the park for sometime, taking groups of travellers and showing them around. He was undertaking his final tour that day due to the clampdown on guides without licences. We were a little dubious at first and are used to making arrangements ourselves but he didn’t want money from us – only enough to cover our costs of chartering a boat and admission fee and he seemed keen to have some company.

It turned out to be a good decision and we spent a really enjoyable though hot and steamy day exploring some of the trails in the park, seeing lots of wildlife including the elusive proboscis monkey. One of the trails we walked terminated at a beautiful beach where we spent some time swimming in the bathtub warm water. Due to a small handicap that is Sam’s sprained ankle (getting better though!) we had the highly convenient excuse of staying at the beach while the rest of our group continued on another trail. We were collected by a nice boat man and given a personal tour of some of the other bays in the park – the scenery was stunning and the emerald green waters of the South China sea made you feel like you were in a film set for Bond! The only downside to the day and a lesson we won’t forget was the plague of mossies and sandflies that attacked us on the trails. Having survived the Amazon with so few bites we hadn’t thought to pack any repellent!!

On the return journey Sean took us to a Chinese temple he attends and showed us around. It was really interesting, though we couldn’t pretend to understand even half of what it was all about. The dinner at a Chinese restaurant afterwards was certainly more on our level!

The Longhouse Disaster
The next stage of our tour through Sarawak involved making our way upstream into the interior. Our Lonely Planet guidebook (which later became known to us as the “Lying Planet”) raves about the longhouses (homes to local tribes people) and how a visit to one of them is the highlight of a visit to Sarawak.

At this point Sam must apologise to her cousin Clare who has already heard this story as it was ripped from the email she sent last month!!

We spent a day travelling by boat to a small town called Sibu and a further day travelling up-river to a dead end town called Kapit with hope of being invited to visit a longhouse or two whilst there. Unless you arrange a tour through official channels (and what these are is anyone’s guess), which will cost around £300 for three days and two nights for the both of us, you can usually be "invited" to visit a longhouse by a local person who you would get "chatting" to on the boat ride up! Well, this is the advice from Lonely Planet anyway...needless to say we didn't get talking to any locals at all, which is unusual in itself, and certainly didn't get any such invites! It was also the end of Ramadan and the holiday was still in full swing so maybe this didn't help.

Anyway, not to worry we thought, there was one longhouse that could be visited without an introduction, and this was just 10km away from Kapit. It turns out that we couldn't even catch a bus to this place, we'd have to charter a van for some outrageous amount and that actually, our guide book was well out of date and that you couldn't just turn up without an invitation after all! By this point we'd already bought a huge bag of sweets to give to the children there. Argh!!

So we stayed one night in the grimiest place we'd ever seen and returned downriver the following day. What a waste of time. Plus we'd planned to spend a few days there and even travel upriver to the next town, which you needed a permit for and we couldn't get because the bloody office was shut for the holiday!!

We later met numerous people who’d had similar experiences to ours; infact not one person we spoke to seemed to have “done” the longhouse experience successfully, and not for lack of trying! It also turns out that Lonely Planet have never actually undertaken this journey themselves but simply sought and published the advice directly from the Malaysian tourist board!

And so we arrived in Miri, another oil-rich boom town, three days ahead of schedule. Unfortunately our flight out to Singapore wasn’t for another five days. We tried to change the flight but it was going to cost us, so we resolved to make the most of the rest of our time in Sarawak. There were a few national parks around, plus a number of beaches - always a good way to while away a few hours.

One of the parks we wanted to visit was Lambir Hills, situated just 30km south of Miri. As always, wanting to cut the costs of taking a guided tour (and avoid being shepherded around) we cobbled together our own itinerary using public transport. To cut a long story short, the two buses we used are so infrequent it took half a day to get there, and a little faster for the return, allowing for just 2 hours in the park itself. In the end this was as long as we actually wanted to spend there – right on cue the heavens opened within our ascent of the first hill. Oh, and why we didn’t realise that trekking steep, muddy, tree-rooted, ankle-spraining slopes would be part of the action I don’t know! With Sam walking with the speed of Gran (and definitely not Supergran) we were relieved to find our way back to base and out of the heavy storm, by which time has receded from scary fork lightning and torrential rain to just a bit of drizzle. We didn’t see much wildlife this time either – I think the animals had decided to uproot from shabby Lambir Hills to much nicer Bako park!

Mulu National Park is another of Borneo’s attractions – some say maybe the single most impressive destination in the whole of Borneo. Unfortunately the park could only be reached by air and the cost of this and the compulsory fees to join a guided tour to trek any of the trails was beyond our means on this trip. We heard nothing but good reports from people who had come from Mulu and would definitely include this on a future trip to Borneo.

We whiled away the rest of our time swimming and eating and catching up on gossip from back home – including the disastrous collapse of Landsbanki Icelandic bank where our travel funds are held. In desperation, we filled a morning visiting the petroleum museum and home to the Grand Old Lady – the first oil rig in Miri. It was actually quite interesting but a little like being back in school…lots of memories about oil fractions came flooding back! We also participated in our first Asian karaoke, having been subject to many a sleepless night from the din emanating from these bars in other towns. More often than not the wailing continues until breakfast time. Even more unfortunate is the locals tireless need to sing tragic love ballads. Argh!!!

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