15.05.2016 - 18.05.2016
on advensha's travel map.
We had one night's stay in a hotel near to KL airport after arriving back from Borneo. The hotel is called YOUniq (clever I know) and we were in the female dorm. Unusually (and brilliantly) the dorm was empty so we had the whole area, as well as the shared bathroom to ourselves. We were a little gutted we only had a few hours in there. Taking advantage of the privacy I enjoyed prancing around naked until Lauren mentioned that there may be security cameras. What a kill-joy. At breakfast we got chatting to a nice Kiwi guy who was travelling around Malaysia. He later told us that he is 86 years old and his eldest son is 63. What a hero.
We got a shuttle bus back to the airport where we got on our coach to Melaka (aka Melacca); our last stop in Malaysia. Melaka is a state on the Malaysian peninsula and another UNESCO world heritage site, Just like our dorm room, the bus was also empty; just us and a Chinese girl. On top of us having free range of the seats we also discovered that the chairs had inbuilt massaging features. We could fully recline AND have our backs gently vibrated.
During the 2 hour journey the heavens opened and an almighty grey cloud took over the sky. There was actually something quite nice and cosy about being on the bus and watching the rain drip down the windows. It also helps that the Malaysian drivers seem to be quite safe. We made it to Old Town guesthouse and were welcomed by the lovely host Chua who had loads of tips and advice for us. The guesthouse is on the first floor sandwiched between a closed vegetarian restaurant (damn) and a Chinese duck place. It's a huge, open-plan accommodation with around 20 rooms and a massive kitchen//dining/lounge area. There are paintings of Melaka all over the walls and ceilings and paintings of different cities around the world for each of the rooms. We got the Tokyo room. Chua told us we were the only guests so we had the run of the place. After settling in and swinging on the hanging rattan chairs we toddled up the road for lunch at Hui Yuan restaurant; which turned out to be one of the, if not the best vegetarian buffet we've ever had. We knew we'd definitely be back there.
Walking around Melaka we are both reminded of Penang; the lack of pavements, the two-storey old colonial buildings with shutters and archways at the front and the Little India and Chinatown. Unlike Penang though, Melaka is very quiet; there aren't many people walking or driving around and it's certainly nowhere near as gentrified - which is nice.
That night (it being a Sunday), we walked to the weekend night market for a wander around. There were plenty of stalls selling the usual rubbish; fake toys, cheap jewellery, clothes that would never fit a Westerner and street food and drinks. Some of the more interesting street food included turnip cake (law bok gow), durian puffs (and durian everything), hash browns made of stuck-together fries and rolls of ice cream. Towards the end of Jonker Street was a big stage with clunky instrumental backing tracks playing loudly out to the shoppers and nearby residents. This it seems is where elderly Malay and Chinese tourists sing their favourite songs on karaoke.
We didn't buy anything at the market (besides some fried snacks but that goes without saying) but we did enjoy soaking up the weekly event along with the locals and Asian tourists, especially when it started raining and everyone scurried away as quick as cockroaches while we enjoyed the cooling-affect. To end the night we treated ourselves with a Guinness, beer and a Skype with mummy Una.
For our first full day we woke up hungry for breakfast (as per) and realised we'd left our food bag on the coach from Kuala Lumpur. Not only did it have our precious oats and seeds in it, but also a box of Malaysian black tea, Vitamin C tablets AND the pink princess bowl I've been carrying around with me since India. We were a little saddened at our loss but in the grand scheme of things we've been incredibly lucky with bags thus far so we really should count our blessings. Rather some chia seeds than our passports - even if it does affect our regularity. We managed to find some oats in a shop nearby fairly easily and after filling up we walked into Melaka town to the Maritime museum. The museum was within a replica of the old 16th century Portuguese ship Flor de La Mar. It was moderately interesting but to be honest I just wasn't in the mood for maritime history stories and artefacts. There were some hilarious uses of clip-art on show though which kept me entertained. Saturated in sweat we leisurely strolled around a bit more of the town looking at the old semi-crumbled fort and the few churches.
Later in the afternoon, on a recommendation from Chua, we made our way to Restoran Capitol Satay which was around the corner form our guesthouse. There's only one thing you can get at this restaurant; satay celup. Basically you're sat at a metal table-come-stove that has a huge pot of satay sauce/gravy in the middle of it. The restaurant is self-serve so you have to pick your 'stick' of goodies (there's all sorts including bok choi, plenty of meat, tofu, mushrooms and quail eggs), bring them back to your table and plop them into your satay pot for cooking. Periodically a worker comes over to stir and re-season your gravy with crushed nuts, spices and chilli. You also get a plate of cucumber and white bread cubes (for soaking up excess gravy) as standard. Each stick cost approx. 20p so as you can imagine we piled our trays pretty high. I bloody LOVE nuts and anything nut-flavoured so satay has always been a big favourite of mine. Needless to say the satay celup satisfied almost every fibre of my being (just not my waistline). Apparently this type of cuisine can only be found in Melaka so we felt pretty lucky to have had the experience (as it's not always open), even if there was some confusion about what we were supposed to do because to the language barrier.
For a little pre-bed snack later on we popped to the hawker stall opposite us to get one of our Malaysian favourites; popiah. It was by far the best popiah we've ever had - but we think this might have been because of the deep-fried chicken skin we discovered near the end of our consumption - whoops.
Creatures of habit (especially when it comes to eating), we returned to Hui Yuan veggie café to buy food for our long-ish bus ride to Singapore the following day. I also treated myself to a chlorophyll juice that I was expecting to taste like swamp weeds but was actually surprisingly yummy. We spent the rest of our final day walking along Melaka's river; checking out the street art and watching the empty cruise-boats go by. We stopped at a few places including a closed mini-theme park and a mall and took plenty of pretty pictures. It could have been Cambridge. On our way back we browsed some independent shops most notably a little antique store where we didn't make any purchases but did have a laugh chatting with the shopkeeper and his mates about England and of course, football.
That evening we found another veggie restaurant close by and stuffed our faces with soup and wontons; contemplating the end of our Asian adventure and the inevitable sadness that will ensue as a result. But there's one last (brief) stop before the land of the kangaroos; Singapore.
09.05.2016 - 14.05.2016
on advensha's travel map.
On the morning of our flight to Malaysian Borneo we got up early and sat in the communal area of our KL hostel eating breakfast. I lusted over another girl's avocado on toast while chomping on my muesli. Lauren told me later that she was in the toilet next to said avocado girl and that not long after she'd consumed the nutritious green fruit she had loud and violent diarrhea. This made me glad for my muesli. One of the hostel staff kept telling us we were up way too early for our flight and that we'd be waiting around for hours at the terminal. Feeling a little bit shamed we pushed our planned leaving time back by 30 minutes and got on the monorail to good old Sentral station.
From there we eventually (no thanks to any signage) found the bus terminal and got on a coach heading to Kuala Lumpur international airport; KLIA 2. We arrived at the airport and, as foretold by the guy at Sunshine Bedz, we ended up waiting around bored for a few hours. Not wanting to deviate from tradition I continue to blame Lauren's pathological over-punctuality. Our flight to Sandakan (in Malaysian Borneo) was as easy as pie. I was sat next to some sort of film guy who was reading scripts and directing notes. The air stewards were gorgeous young men with plenty of sass and I'm pretty sure one of them was trying to get hired by aforementioned film guy.
After collecting our bags I spotted a tourist couple and, much to Lauren's dismay, ran over to ask if they wanted to share a taxi into Sandakan town to save some ringgits. The couple agreed and turned out to be very lovely; from Holland and on a 3 week holiday to Malaysia. They even gave us more money than they should have for the cab - ker ching!
We were dropped at Harbourside Backpackers hostel which was up two flights of stairs and nestled between two buffet restaurants. We thought we had booked into a shared dormitory but we got a pleasant surprise when the gentleman checking us in told us we were actually in a private double room. He said "I'm really sorry we only have a double room available, all of the twin rooms are occupied. Will this be ok?" We looked at each other and tried our best not to smirk and nodding said "ok yes that'll have to do".
Our most pressing chore was to get the sweaty crud out of our clothes but at 13 ringgit per kilo we politely declined our hostel's rate and stepped out into Sandakan hoping to find a little laundry shop. Despite the presence of 2 KFCs, 2 7/11s and 1 McDonalds, Sandakan felt much more 'local' than Kuala Lumpur. Of course there were a few 'visible' tourists out and about but generally the streets were filled with Malay people, most of whom were dressed in traditional Muslim clothing (women in hijabs and men in taqiyahs). Sandakan is very much a town; there is a long high-street filled with independently owned shops and cafes. There's a market square beside the harbour that's used daily. There's a multi-level shopping mall with many recognisable brands in it and there's also a daily food market set in an old car park. To me it kind of felt like we'd gone from the Trafford Centre (KL) to Salford Precinct (Sandakan) - grittier, more working-class, semi-dilapidated but with lots of character. We definitely observed more people looking and staring at us in Sandakan compared with Kuala Lumpur. It was mostly men who would do double-takes or just full-on stare at us. They seemed preoccupied with our faces, bodies and Lauren's tattoos and we'd often catch people doing an 'up-and-down' look. Yes this is a disheartening at best and pervy at worst but we tried to take it with a pinch of salt and react with smiles and confident eye contact. We never felt endangered or intimidated. We would also remind ourselves of the double-takes and looks that Muslim people get back at home, especially if they're wearing a niqāb or burqa.
We eventually located a launderer; on the 3rd floor of a manky old concrete block of flats. The lovely lady at the window charged 4 ringgits per kilo and said she'd have everything done by the following morning. We chose to eat at the restaurant next door to our hostel for our first meal as we really couldn't be bothered deciding on somewhere else. Consistent with our overriding Malaysian food experience so far Lauren had very few veggie options and so had to settle on boring steamed rice and veggies. I on the other hand selected a delicious, spicy sizzling mee ayam plate (chicken and noodles) that almost smoked the whole restaurant out.
For our first morning in Sandakan we relished the free-breakfast options that included eggs and OATS! All this time I've been squirreling away porridge oats so I don't have to consume the ubiquitous white doughnut bread every single day and now they're here, and they're PROVIDED! We collected our laundry which was not only dry and lovely-smelling but was also ironed and very neatly folded up. What a treat. We's been told by our hostel that there was only one bus to Sepilok (where we wanted to go) and that it left the bus station at 9am. After a bit of our own research we didn't fully trust this information and so walked to the bus station hoping to find another bus. We were directed to a different bus station a few hundred metres head of the one we'd gone to and managed to find out that the number 14 bus went to Sepilok every couple of hours but that the next one was in 90 minutes. We started walking back into the town with plans to come back to catch the bus when a young Malay gentleman dressed in a tight black t shirt, acid wash jeans and dodgy Ray-Ban sunglasses jumped out of a bus labelled '14' and shouted over to us "SEPILOK!". We approached and he told us that the bus was heading to Sepilok Orangutan Centre and that there was room for us. We were understandably tentative and poked our head into the bus to see around 15 teenagers in school uniforms, giggling at our faces. We tried in vain to ask them if the bus was indeed heading to Sepilok and they just looked at us and smiled. We agreed a price and got on; our eagerness to get to our destination overrode our suspicion.
I'm sure you'll be glad to to hear that we did make it to Sepilok and that the journey itself was quite fun. The guy who'd called us over spent the drive showing us rubbish American pop music videos and photos of him with monkeys and an American 100 dollar bill (that was clearly fake).
We first visited the Sun Bear Sanctuary where Bornean sun bears are rehabilitated and put back into the jungle (if suitable). The bears are endangered and are often kept illegally as pets or hunted. What struck us was how small they were; the adults were no bigger than a large dog. The bears have yellow orange or white markings on their chests and these markings are completely individual to them; like a fingerprint. We walked around all of the high jungle walkways and watched the bears playing and chilling in their natural environment. We couldn't get close to them (they're not put on show they just roam around the sanctuary) which I think some people would find (selfishly) disappointing, but we were just happy to catch a glimpse of them in their true habitat and their true state. We also watched a documentary film there called Racing Extinction which was very good and focuses on endangered animals and their plights all over the world on land and sea. On the way out of the sanctuary we came across an orangutan just sat on the wooden slats watching everyone. One brave Chinese woman got up real close and even took a selfie with him/her.
Swapping bears for more big orange monkey-humans we entered the orangutan centre. The centre pretty much does the same thing that the bear sanctuary does, except it has a more intensive and bigger programme including outdoor and indoor nurseries for the little ones. As with the bears, when the orangutans are ready, they are released into the wild of Borneo's jungle (hence the rogue one outside the bear place). These wild orangutans then sometimes return to the area they were rehabilitated in for the twice daily feedings they do on high platforms in the trees. We made sure we coincided our visit with the afternoon feed where we saw big and small, male and female, alpha and beta orangutans coming from all angles of the jungle to snack on cabbages and bananas.
We also saw the baby orangutans playing in the outdoor nursery which was brilliant to watch. Most of the young ones wrapped themselves around the handlers legs and had to be dragged outside as apparently they're not fully confident outdoors just yet. Their personalities were everything you'd hope for; cheeky, mischievous, playful, lazy, argumentative, intelligent, moody and just so funny. We heard about one young female who regularly climbs up onto the roof of the building just because she knows that to get her down the handlers bribe her with food and she's a greedy so and so. I think I've found my spirit animal.
The centre is also looking after some baby pygmy elephants who were found wandering around a palm oil plantation lost. It is presumed that their parents left them behind as they were confused and fearful of the change in their environment. Unfortunately because the elephants were still very traumatised they were not allowing the public to see them but we could hear them loudly roaring (we originally thought it was the bears). After a full day of furry animal watching we got the last bus back to Sandakan. This time we were charged the normal bus fee which was half what the other guy had charged us but that's what we'd expected. We did get a bit of a VIP transit I suppose. That evening we ate at a restaurant on the harbourside and then got ourselves a 'pudding' of what can only be described as fig rolls but instead of fig it was coconut. We hung around the market square a bit watching the locals bartering and queuing up for flavoured milky jelly/bubble tea. We went back to the hostel and put one of the copied DVDs on in the common area - Anchorman 2. We found ourselves spread out on the large U shaped leather (sticky) couches along with 4 other British backpackers. We got chatting after the film and it turns out they all have connections with Bristol (studying and living there) and couldn't praise it highly enough - which obviously made us quite smiley about our soon-to-be new home.
Not content with bears and orangutans the next day we made the 1 hour trip to Labuk Bay centre, along with two of the girls we'd got chatting to the night before (and one Chinese guy who also got on the bus). Labuk Bay isn't quite in the same league as the centre's in Sepilok; it came into being because a palm oil plantation owner realised there was a market to be had with showing tourists the amazing native wildlife in Borneo. It isn't though (as far as we can tell) actively cruel or damaging to the animals (albeit the whole surrounding plantation has ruined their natural habitat). So we got to the centre and bought our tickets and were escorted to Platform B and as soon as we walked through the gate we saw 10 or so silvery lutung monkeys, a couple of them with their bright yellow babies tightly clasped around their torsos.
As we walked further along the wooden platforms we then looked out into the lush jungle and saw a whole load of proboscis monkeys sat around; hanging out, foraging and looking up at us with knowing faces. We immediately spotted the alpha male who was huge; as big as a border collie. Certain other attributes of his were rather large too; firstly his notorious dangly nose, and secondly his long, thin and bright red 'lipstick' that pointed enthusiastically up towards the sky. The proboscis monkeys were quite argumentative and a few tiffs broke out over food that were quickly resolved by the alpha showing off his fangs.
Weirdly, our bus driver also turned out to be a hornbill whisperer. We asked about seeing some hornbills (specifically the oriental pied hornbills that live in Borneo) and he set to work squeaking and squawking for them to come over. And they did. A few times the monkeys tried to steal their banana pieces but luckily they came back and we got to see the amazing birds up close.
While we were being entertained (and mildly scared) by the wild roaming beasts around us, we spotted three little kittens lounging. They were surrounded by large monkeys and they were totally unfazed. I couldn't help going over for a little cuddle. Then I realised I was in a wildlife centre with some of the most endangered species of monkeys in the world and I was playing with cats. One day Lauren will dump me and I can be a spinster cat lady.
After a couple of hours we were ushered to Platform A where we saw a different 'pack' of proboscis monkeys. We also saw a massive monitor lizard having a drink and cooling off in a little pool.
For some reason during our visit to the centre we were followed around by 3 camouflage and semi-automatic gun clad men. We asked a worker why they were there and they said it was normal for gun-toting soldiers to accompany people around tourist spots. Ok then. I suppose one of the monkeys could have tried to kidnap us or something. After another hour in the blazing open sun in the midst of the jungle we had had enough and travelled back to our hostel. We ate at a different harbourside restaurant that served us shit, overpriced tofu dishes. While we were eating something weird happened; I noticed that two young men who were sat adjacent to us were laughing hysterically at something on their phones. I then clocked that they were filming and photographing us while we were just sat chatting and eating dinner. Every move we made, every fork-full that entered our mouths they loudly sniggered at. I started to get really pissed off so turned to them and said "no - stop!". And they did, for about 5 minutes, before starting up again. This time we decided to fight fire with fire and Lauren started filming and taking photographs of them. This was the winning tactic as they soon shut up. Horrible little bastards. We finished the eventful day off by sitting with some other guests and watching some film about old people in a hotel in India that was a bit shit but also a bit funny.
For our penultimate day in Sandakan we pretty much just chilled out. We fully explored the shopping mall in the town; taking note of the many massage chairs and bubble tea stalls. I even bought myself a t-shirt with cats on it. We walked around the ex-car-park that is now Central market, checking out the fresh food on offer. On the top floor of the market was a hawker food court where we had some delicious (and very cheap) buffet plates for lunch. We bumped into Julie the Dutch girl we'd met in Cameron Highlands and filled each other in on our travels. Our main triumph for the day was finally eating the tin of baked beans we'd been harbouring since Phnom Penh.
Our last day was another uneventful one. We did a bit of the 'heritage walk' which mainly involved walking up 100 steps and snooping at the weird English tearoom/restaurant at the top that had a perfectly manicured garden with croquet sets available. We figured it must be the place that British package tour holidaymakers go for dinner as to not upset their delicate sensibilities. In all honestly the menu sounded pretty appealing (it's been a long time since we've had fish and chips) but it was out of our price range by a long shot.
Borneo was great; we wish we would have done more there to explore the amazing environment. Lauren's made me promise that we'll go back there one day to sail along the river. In extreme comparison to Borneo's lush greenery we've now got to go back to the concrete and skyscraper city that is Kuala Lumpur for a night....
05.05.2016 - 09.05.2016
on advensha's travel map.
Our last sleep at Everything English Homestay was another good one; I reckon the 6 hour hike helped. Lauren, Yassin and I all had a synchronised lie-in and woke to the sounds of birds singing outside. After breakfast we said bye to the other guests (and even got a hug off 2yr old Ashran) and made our way to our coach stop.
Our bus to Kuala Lumpur arrived on time and we saddled up for the 4 hour journey. Deviating from our normal bus routine of watching American Horror Story on my Kindle we decided to listen to my rarely-utilised music player on random. We'd forgotten how much we'd missed music and how much it can add to your experience of a new environment. We made the rule that we weren't allowed to skip any songs and I was doing quite well for the first few; a bit of Bob Dylan, Rick James, James Buckley and The Kinks but my credibility was never going to last and soon enough Right Said Fred, Jason Derulo and Kanye West turned up. Lauren pulled her headphones out soon after.
The 4hrs went by without a hitch; it's amazing how our tolerance for bus travel has grown. Nowadays when we see that a journey is less than 8hrs we're thrilled and see it as a short trip up the road. This should stand us in good stead for our next beast of a country; Australia. We were dropped at Kuala Lumpur Sentral which is a massive station that houses a million and one different public transport networks as well as a huge airport-style mall. Oh and it's surrounded by a construction site - which made it a little difficult to get into.
We eventually found our way to the Monorail section (which isn't signposted) and got on our way to Bukit Bintang station. I don't think I've ever been on a monorail before and I couldn't stop singing the monorail song from an old Simpsons episode. While aboard a heavy rainstorm hit and we watched as the sky went from piercing blue to dark grey in a matter of seconds. Thankfully, the storm only lasted 10 minutes and it was dry again by the time we got off. The area we were staying in, like KL Sentral, has a lot of construction work going on, meaning to get to Sunshine Bedz hostel we had to around the world following the trail laid out by a corrugated iron walkway. At the hostel we were greeted by a topless tattooed Malay gentleman who we soon discovered was called Patrick Jones. We're not sure whether it was our astonishing beauty or matching surnames that made Patrick upgrade us from a dorm to a private room but either way, we were pleased.
Our room was very basic and the walls were made of cardboard but at least we had a double bed to ourselves and some privacy. We also had a great view of digital billboards and the monorail tracks from our window. We soon realised that we were flanked by no less than 6 malls; Kuala Lumpur is the city to visit if you're into shopping. Our first venture out was to Sungai Wang mall where we went straight up to the food court. There was very little choice for Lauren so she settled on a really crap plate of Maggi noodles and veg. I fared much better with a claypot Nasi Mee soup; thick udon-style noodles in a delicious broth with plenty of mystery meat and spicy flavours. We found another food court 3 floors up where Loz got her second tea; a vegetarian murtabak (a sort of omelette/roti/pancake thing). We also finally got to try cendol; a traditional south-east Asia desert that consists of jelly stretched green noodles, sweetcorn, aduki beans, condensed milk, chipped ice, coconut milk and plenty of sugar. We didn't like it.
The moment we stepped out of the mall the heavens decided to open and loud cracks of thunder followed by bright flashes of lightening took over. This encouraged us to venture to the posher mall next door; Lot 10. After a bit of window shopping and dawdling around the gourmet Hutong food court (our 3rd food court of the evening) we got bored waiting for the storm to stop and sprinted back to our hostel, getting soaked on the way,
For our first full day in the capital city of Malaysia we had planned to visit the Islamic Arts Centre but we found out it wasn't open on the weekends. There wasn't really much else we wanted to do or see; KL's sights mostly consist of tall buildings with the odd mosque and church. We did walk into the centre via the KLCC pedestrian walkway (apparently an activity in itself according to Trip Advisor) and looked up at the Petronas twin towers for all of 3 seconds. I'm sure the view from the top is pretty impressive but we just weren't interested. Not having much luck with met-free food in Malaysia so far, we managed to find an amazing vegetarian buffet for lunch called Blue Boy that was around the back of a small car park. We got chatting to one of the vendors who was a huge football fan and loved the fact that we were from Liverpool and Manchester. It soon became apparent that late afternoon storms were the norm in KL and so we walked back to our hostel in the rain. One sad but not so surprising observation is that there are a lot of homeless people - men and women - on Kuala Lumpur's streets, many of whom have addiction issues. It must be hard enough dealing with the heat and humidity but the sudden and extreme downpours are another matter.
On day 2 we went back to Sentral station to visit a commercial building just beside it where a free Japanese film was being shown as part of an arts festival. I won't bore you with the details but we spent over an hour wandering around in the blistering heat trying to navigate busy 4-lane roads with no pavements in order to get across to the Pitching Centre that was only a few hundred metres from Sentral station. A combination of inaccurate Google Maps and building work that's closed off almost all pedestrian walkways meant for a frustrated Aisha and an infuriated Lauren.
We made it in the end though and the film, Osaka Hamlet, was brilliant; funny, intriguing and weird, as Japanese films should be. I did leave my amazing cat-sunglasses in the auditorium though which made me sad. On our way back to the hostel we made a detour to 'Food Street' but everything was very meaty (dim sum, fish-head soup, steak) so we found a Pakistani place nearby and loaded up on dahl, rice and gobi and a freshly made naan.
On our final day in Kuala Lumpur we spent the morning planning and faffing around with an incorrect hotel booking. We walked to Central Market and Kasturi Walk where we picked up some fried Indian snacks and wandered around the stalls. The one product that did catch my eye was a name-on-a-grain-of-rice necklace. Some of you may remember the little see-through magnifying lockets from the 90s. Nostalgia wasn't enough for me to part with my cash though. Lauren had a peek at what she would call 'snide' shoes and clothes but the quality is so crap that it really is a false economy.
We walked back and packed to leave, feeling positively underwhelmed and unimpressed with Kuala Lumpur. If you like shopping, exploring skyscrapers and seeing familiar brands then it's the place for you. It's just not the place for us. Luckily our next stop is the island of Malaysian Borneo; which we're hoping will be the perfect remedy to the vacuous bore-fest we've just experienced.
02.05.2016 - 05.05.2016
on advensha's travel map.
We kissed goodbye to our futuristic prison pods and got on a coach heading to Cameron Highlands. For the first time we had to jam our own bags into the luggage hold which, incidentally, we were crap at. We spotted two free seats near the back of the bus and quickly realised why they were unoccupied; the couple in front had fully-reclined meaning you had to limbo slide yourself into place. Our overheated, extra-stretchy muscles served us well and we managed to get seated. It didn't take Lauren long to start loudly huffing and puffing and aggressively kicking the chair in front. This woke the young Italian fellow quite abruptly but did cause him to adjust his recline by approximately 2°.
We stopped for a break after 2 hours and, starving, I stupidly picked a cup of buttery sweetcorn as a belated breakfast thinking it was healthier than a croissant. As we approached Cameron Highlands the roads got steeper and windier and the hot, salty butter in my largely empty stomach began to churn. Somehow I managed to refrain from vomiting but I've not been able to look at sweetcorn since.
We got to Brinchang town and managed to find our homestay using the vague directions we'd been given. We found a sign stating "Everything English Homestay", took and deep breath and knocked. Our hosts Fabian (from Harrogate) and his fiancée Lillian (from Malaysia) were incredibly welcoming and offered us cups of tea immediately (naturally). We were shown to our 'dorm room' but thanks to the cartoon stickers, plaid curtains and McDonalds height-measuring poster it felt more like a cosy children's bedroom, which made us feel warm and safe. The apartment is littered with a plethora of Anglophilic ornaments; there are even pretty china teacups in the kitchen. Twee is an underestimation.
Soon enough, the other guest Julie, from Denmark, came back from her tour and we all chatted for a while while drinking Malaysian tea. She works as a social worker and was on holiday for a few weeks - a really nice girl. I had a nap while Lauren watched the film Everest with her new best friend Fabian and, tummies rumbling, we followed the concrete stairway shortcut to Brinchang town in the search for sustenance. There are plenty of Chinese 'steamboat' (aka hot pot) restaurants in Cameron Highlands which are supposedly delicious but unfortunately they're not very cost-effective when there's only two of you eating. So instead we settled for a very average rice meal at a basic and overpriced Chinese restaurant.
Walking back to the homestay we eyed up the bashed up Landrovers everywhere along with rusted 'retro' cars like a 70s Fiat 131 or 80s Mercedes-Benz 230E taxis (or teksis as their known in Malay). Taking full advantage of the box of copied DVDs, Lauren, Julie and I spent the evening watching Star Wars episode VII (Lauren's choice obv) which was actually quite entertaining; well done Disney.
For the first time in a while we both slept beautifully. Thanks to the perfect combination of no air-conditioning (the Brits originally came to Cameron Highlands to escape the heat - it's much cooler) and complete, natural darkness, we hibernated like baby chipmunks. Expectedly, we didn't want to get up, but we had booked a half day tour up Brinchang mountain to the cloud/mossy forest and so were quite happy to. Our guide was a chap called Navin and he was wise-cracking and knowledgeable like a good guide should be.
We were driven two thirds of the way up the mountain in a fairly modern Landrover and shown the BOH tea plantations; laid out in neat lines across hundreds of hectares of undulating hills. The tea 'trees' (kerala) are pruned every few months to keep them short; otherwise they can grow to be one hundred feet tall. As well, the younger leaves are the tasty ones and so only they get harvested anyway. The plantation is actually owned by a Scottish family and who started the BOH tea company in 1929. The view was pretty spectacular; green for miles, and because of the well-formed lines, there was a scientific quality too. As if we could be looking through a microscope at an amazing geometric pattern created by nature.
We drove up to the summit of the mountain - 2032 metres high - and climbed the rusty watchtower along with many other tourists, some of whom were a little grumpy at the fact they had to wait to climb back down the narrow 1-person wide stairwell (Germans). We then explored the estimated 230 million year old mossy/cloud forest which we learned serves an incredibly important purpose in keeping the entire ecological balance of Cameron Highlands in check. In the forest we watched a young Chinese girl (in flip flops I might add) drop her huge, sparkly smartphone into the spongey moist ground below the wooden walkway. We also got chatting to a lovely Canadian woman in her late forties who was travelling around SE Asia looking for good hikes and shopping destinations.
The last stop on the tour was a visit to the ridiculously busy BOH tea factory, shop and café. Luckily we squeezed in before the queue got too big to drink a pretty good cuppa, but the rest of our group weren't so lucky. In the café were lots of very adorable (and some obnoxious) children to pull faces at. There was one young male tourist with long curly blonde hair wearing only short shorts, wandering around pigeon-chested like he owned the place. The mere sight of this near-naked gentleman turned Lauren and I into middle-aged, conservative Texan women; of course we can acknowledge that it was quite hot but to be getting your little pink nipples out in the company of modest Muslim families is at best misguided and at worst fucking disrespectful. Oh well, a bit of shockery is always entertaining I guess. I've not been inspired to get my nipples out yet though - but there's still time. That evening we found a grubby little Indian buffet where we both ate like queens, reminding ourselves as we do every so often, how much we love India and its food.
We got up early the next day to get a taxi to the biggest town in Cameron Highlands; Tanah Rata, the starting point of our guided 6 hour hike. As always were way too early but we used the extra time to get to know the resident dog known as 'Mum' (who ended up joining us on the hike) and have a proverbial cup of cha. We met Jason Chin, our AMAZING guide who in a previous life had been a conservationist and botanist. A Chinese-Malay, born and raised in Cameron Highlands, there was nothing he didn't know about the flora and fauna of Malaysia. Bizarrely, Jason has what we would describe as a 'posh' English accent, almost aristocratic, which he says he picked up while studying and working in London. Our hike-buddies were a Dutch couple, an English girl (called Lauren) and a French girl. We secretly hoped they were as unfit as we are.
We started fairly gently with Jason stopping regularly to tell us about the native plants and trees we would be seeing a lot of. The warm up didn't last long though and we were soon well-away on trail number 10, scrambling up Gunang Jasar. After around 90 minutes we reached the top of the mountain; 1696 metres above sea level. Here both us humans and Mum the dog rested for a while. Jason pulled out some bread and Nutella and watched our Western faces light up with glee. At this point we felt pretty good; we'd hiked up a pretty steep mountain within thick, lush jungle and over bare sandstone rocks and we hadn't passed out yet. Little did we know the next 4 or so hours were going to be much more intense. The trail that used to be the one back down the mountain (trail 6) was permanently closed a few years ago because it became overgrown and too dangerous. The official way to go back down is to go exactly the same way you came up; along trail 10. Luckily (or unluckily depending on how you look at it), Jason doesn't give two shits about 'official' trails and as we approached the DANGER! THIS IS NOT TRAIL 6. DO NOT PROCEED THIS WAY. TURN BACK AROUND sign, we gulped and prayed.
The proceeding hike was a physical test; it turns out the descent was MUCH harder than the ascent. We were deep in the jungle with a floor of wet moss, spongy tree roots and wet leaves. Needless to say all of us fell over on average every 15 minutes. My main issue was stepping/jumping down off steep muddy and/or mossy ledges with nothing to hold onto except poisonous and/or horned branches. We battled on though, stopping periodically to take in the scenery and rehydrate. A saving grace was how cool the air was - we wouldn't have coped had it have been as hot as Penang. Along the way we saw a few different millipedes including a giant one and heard a variety of birds high up in the tree canopy.
After 3 hours or so we made it out of the jungle and into the Cameron Valley tea plantation where we walked along the sandbag paths and tried to avoid falling in the man-made stream. We walked through the plantation worker's village where Mum single-handedly saved us from a territorial pack of dogs. Jason told us that the workers are brought over from Bangladesh and Nepal as Malay people are rightfully reluctant to do the back-breaking work for very little pay.
Our legs felt like strings of spaghetti and we found ourselves walking in a rather unique fashion;
By the time we made it to Cameron Valley's tea shop and café our bodies were screaming for energy so we got some tea and ruined it with spoons and spoons of sugar. It turns out that tea was a mistake; hot caffeinated liquid sloshing around our empty bellies made us feel very nauseas very quickly. God we're hardcore.
Hike finished, we hopped in one of the vintage Merc taxis to Tanah Rata for some much-needed food. Jason's French wife Val joined us and the two solo girls from the hike for an amazing Indian buffet. We chatted for a couple of hours about Malaysia, Europe, government and culture. Jason even paid entire bill.
We returned to our homestay and were greeted by Fabian and Lillian long with a newly-arrived group of Singaporian women and a lovely young chap from Tajikistan who was sharing the room with us. We had made the mistake of thinking we would be back before anyone else and so had neglected to tidy up the mess of clothes on the floor in our room meaning Lillian and Fabian had had to do it. We were pretty embarrassed but chalked it up to not being given a proper time to follow. That and the fact we're lazy bastards. A young Indian couple with a gorgeous little 2 year old girl turned up later on in the evening and we spent a few hours chatting about their homeland. I'm sure the last thing they wanted to do while on holiday was lament over India with some Brits but they very kindly humoured me.
Our brains very much awake but our bodies shutting down by the minute we retired early to bed, as did our roomie Yassin. We hoped our legs would wake up the next day for our onward journey to Kuala Lumpur.
27.04.2016 - 01.05.2016
on advensha's travel map.
On our last morning we discovered that the sky-walk that had been closed while we were in Langkawi for maintenance had actually been open for a few days as they'd finished their work a little early but just decided not to tell anyone. So we could have spent our last day absorbing panoramic views of the island and beyond from a cable-car and cloud-touching 2300ft high bridge. Instead we spent the day walking looking for better beaches that apparently don't exist. Oh well, it obviously wasn't meant to be.
We had a touching morning chatting with and saying goodbye to Elleaty who we'd really connected with before we head over to Kuah pier to catch our ferry to Penang. The ferry terminal was actually very modern and well-organised, despite lots of construction work. The ferry itself was pretty good and it was showing Bollywood movies that kept us entertained for the 3hr journey. On arrival at Sweetenham pier in Penang we got in the first cab that touted in which the driver fancied himself as a bit of a tour guide and gave us a mini-history of all the sights and streets that we passed. We were dropped at Time Capsule Hotel and we were giddy at being handed a bag each with slippers, headphones and a towel in them - it felt like Christmas. We were shown to our 'pods' and I took the top and Lauren the bottom. The capsules were quite roomy with different mood lighting, a funky circular beauty mirror (with lights), an inbuilt LED smart-TV (that we couldn't get working), a safe and of course a mattress. It even had two pillows; one hard and one soft. Now a normal person may not get excited by the idea of sleeping in a hi-tech cocoon but I have always been well into it. Since watching 2001: A Space Odyssey as a child I've wanted to be encased in my very own sleep-bubble. Perhaps I have some sort of subconscious longing to go back into the womb. Or maybe I was a vampire in a past life. But, it being my birthday I thought it was a good excuse to give it a go - and thankfully I have a laid back girlfriend. I regularly flouted the no nudity rule by walking from the bathroom to my pod in my towel 'cos I'm a fuckin' anarchist.
For dinner we found a little place called Yeap noodles that was well-priced and had lots of tasty options. We were really impressed with the choice of noodles; plain, turmeric, spinach, oat, charcoal, carrot and even peppermint. I also tried a cup of barley 'juice' (because it was the cheapest on the menu) which came as a cloudy, icy liquid that was very sweet but rather refreshing.
I should really give you an image of Penang for your mind's eye. George Town is the capital and 'main bit' of the island and was under British rule for 75 years (until 1957). So as you'd expect, it is laden with English relics and architecture like clock towers, red post-boxes, Anglican and Catholic churches and century-old townhouses. As well, Penang, like Hồ Chí Minh and and others before it, doesn't have any pavements or pedestrian walkways at all. This means you're constantly stepping up and down, on and off curbs and shop fronts and over gulleys and breeze blocks and parked motorcycles. It makes for quite a decent cardiovascular workout. George Town just vibrates diversity; there's Little India, Chinatown, legions of unique independent coffee shops and cafés as well as galleries, art spaces, music, boutiques and surprising gardens. And then there's the street art; fun, interactive, introspective and all over the town. It is diversity personified; in it's history, multiculturalism, multi-faith and blending of the contemporary and the antiquated.
On our first night in Penang we stepped out onto Lebuh Chulia; the street we were staying on and the place where most backpackers and cool-folks hang out. We naughtily chowed down on a hot dog (me) and some crinkle fries from a fast food stall called 'Old Trafford Burgers'. We then bought ourselves two cans to sip on; a beer and a cheapo Guinness. Sometimes it's nice to be in a city.
On our second day we embarked on a self-guided street art walking tour. Amazingly the tour was quite easy to follow and we didn't get lost. Along the way we stopped in an intriguing looking coffee shop called Easy Brew that appeared to be semi-burnt down. A lovely young girl called Rene gave us a free demo of how different coffee beans are roasted and then showed us around the deceptively palatial grounds of the shop which beyond the café/restaurant itself stretched into a large and beautiful garden with old artefacts and twee wrought-iron tables and chairs. A gorgeous place for a party or wedding I thought. They'd even converted the old outhouse toilet into a cute little fountain and plant display. We were told that the building had suffered a lot of fire damage only a few months before but that the owner had decided to keep everything as it was; black charring and all.
After our coffee experience we walked to Chew jetty; one of the six clan jetties in George Town. They are wonderful floating communities with loads of character. We even interrupted a wedding photo-shoot overlooking the straits of Malacca.
For lunch we stopped at a vegan Japanese restaurant called Sushi Kitchen. We actually didn't get sushi but massive noodle soup bowls with delicious light flavours and tofu. In keeping with our nutritious afternoon we then found a pharmacy/health-food shop where we found some much sought-after chia seeds. Sourcing these little bastards made me feel very accomplished - which give you a good idea of how pitiful my life is. After an enjoyable wander around Little India, salivating at the various fried yummies on offer we retired to our pods to watch the John Waters' classic Female Trouble.
On our third day we ticked off some menial chores including printing our by-proxy voting forms at an internet cafe and putting our laundry into the shop opposite. These are the essential but unexciting little tasks along with booking and keeping track of hostels, flights, buses and tours etc. that sometimes take up hours and hours of time and often make us want to rip our own, or each other's', hair out.
Trusting some information we'd found online we walked to a nearby bus stop that was supposed to be on the 'Hop-on-hop-off' tour route. After 20 minutes standing in the blazing sun I suggested we walk around the corner where it looked busier to see if there was another bus stop. Of course as we walked away, a bus drove past us. Lauren's internal thermometer/angermeter rose a few degrees but she managed to stay calm-ish as we walked back to our original stop. After another 15 minutes of waiting a suave looking gentleman in a pink polo-shirt and aviators came over. He asked us how long we'd been waiting and told us he knew of another bus stop around the corner that was frequented more regularly by buses. We somewhat reluctantly followed him back to the place we'd just been clinging onto the hope that he knew what he was talking about. Once again, we couldn't find a bus stop and guess what, we watched in horror as ANOTHER bus drove by, completely ignoring our frantic arm flailing. By now Lauren's face had turned a nice shade of crimson and smoke was bellowing out of her ears. She stomped back round to our original point AGAIN and I sheepishly followed, waving off the man's embarrassed apologies. Never trust an American. Eventually we jumped on a free shuttle bus in order to get to the city's main bus terminal where we were more confident the Hop-on-hop-off would stop. After some fumbling around asking uninterested people for help we finally got on the tour bus.
We rode a long way listening to the crap computer-generated commentary and got off at Penang's Botanical Gardens. By now it was pretty damn hot so we were glad to get under the shade of some trees. The gardens are HUGE with loads of different sections. Surrounded by massive limestone rocks and mountains and impossibly tall jungle trees it really is a sight to behold. Apparently a lot of locals come to the gardens for their daily jogs and what a beautiful motivation it must be. We walked around for an hour taking as much as we could in. We were lucky enough to see plenty of wildlife too including long-tailed macaques, cranes and a large monitor lizard.
We waited at the garden's bus stop for a good half an hour directly under the afternoon sun, watching the monkeys begging at cars for food and listening to the loud scary gun shots that sounded too close for comfort. Back on the bus we sat for a long while peering out at the city and all within it. We got off at Penang Hill and jumped aboard the famous colonial leftover that is the funicular railway. Apparently the steepest one in the world at an incline of 29°. Even though it was low season and Malaysia's Labour Day wasn't for 2 days, there were plenty of tourists about, although we were the only white ones. The ascension was quite fun and when you looked back down at the tracks it really was quite scary. At the top we enjoyed the panoramic views of Penang while munching on a some delicious Chana Masala from an Indian stall. On the way back down we met some adorable Indian children who politely jumped up to let me sit down.
Back on the tour bus and coming to the end of the day we got off at a stop near 'home' - Chowrasta market and picked some street food for tea where we also enjoyed a PINT of sweet sweet masala chai. After a quick freshen up we walked to Prangin mall where we foolishly bought some promotional Frappuccinos from Starbucks (at my request) which were pretty horrid. Lauren's 'summer berries panna cotta' one was like drinking a cheap trifle through a straw. We then finished our evening by visiting the manky cinema and watching the new Jungle Book which was actually very good.
The day after (a Saturday) was my 28th birthday. Woe is me. As a treat to myself I woke up early and did a high intensity cardio workout in the communal area. I'm fucking weird I know. As we had a few hours left on our Hop-on-hop-off tickets we thought it would be resourceful to use them up and so we sat on the bus for 2 hours as it did a loop of both the city and the beach-heavy outskirts of the island. Penang really does have it all; interesting and accessible urban and rural spaces. We unfortunately didn't have enough time to have a look round the National Park which is apparently wonderful. Here's some of our windy experience;
We eventually got off at Komtar to go to Hin Bus Depot art space where there was a great exhibition showing the artwork of learning-disabled people in the community. The space was great and included a large open garden covered in contemporary art. There were also free tea and biscuits. We found our way to the main bus station and managed to get on a bus heading to the celebrated Gurney hawker centre; home to all the street food you could ever wish for. Loz found a veggie Chinese stall and had a bowl of some nondescript soup and I had some Po Piah that I'd been desperate to try since I set foot in Langkawi. It's basically a very thin skinned spring roll but full of fresh vegetables and a delicious chilli sauce. We then found an amazing milkshake stall which made me a birthday-special peanut butter and Toblerone shake. I was knock knock knockin' on Heaven's doors.
Our post-binge high didn't last long however as we could not for the life of us find the bus stop heading back to George Town. It's not as simple as crossing over to the opposite side of the road that you got off at. No, what you have to do is walk for 45 minutes in the dark around the back of a huge mall and down some dodgy streets to join a small group of people and hope they too are waiting for a bus and not just congregating with the intention of mugging you. Thankfully, we did get on a bus in the end and only had to endure a few drug-addled weirdos (ahhh nostalgic). As we approached our hotel we remembered that we were an hour late for collecting our laundry. I've never seen Lauren run so fast and amazingly she made it to the shop just as she was locking the doors. The next day was a bank holiday and the day after that we were leaving early in the morning so we would've had no chance at getting our clothes back.
Our last day in Penang was boringly spent planning for what was to come next. We of course intermittently broke the boredom by eating. Penang has been my favourite city overall so far and the perfect place to spend my birthday. It's actually the first place we've been that I could realistically see myself living in. But we'll give Bristol a go first eh...