There are two sections to our Malaysia diary.
This part covers our trip up the west coast, stopping at Malacca, Pulau Pangkor, and Penang.
Part Two covers our time spent in May/June visiting Sabah to see the orang-utan at Sepilok, and to the Perhentian Islands on the East coast.
Thursday, February 12, 2004
Crossing the border to Malaysia
Up at 6:30, then into a taxi to the express bus for Melaka, across the border in Malaysia. After some of the dodgey transport we'd experienced in Asia in our previous travels, this was a delight! Although it was a full size coach, there were only 3 seats across and 10 rows, so each seat was massive, and lay back miles. It was just like business class on a plane (except much, much cheaper). We had to get out at the Singapore/Malaysia border, for the immigration and customs checks, but other than that we just lay back in the seats and relaxed. By the time we arrived in Melaka, 5 hours later, we'd all caught up with a bit of sleep, and noticeably cooled off.
Then the local transport option took over we walked a few hundred yards to the local bus station, and sat and waited on the Number 17 bus for the driver to appear. Half an hour later, as we were beginning to wonder if it could get any hotter in the bus, he hopped in and we were off without any warning. We drove all around town (chaotic because 'the Tour de Langkawi' cycle race was also in town) and then finally arrived at the end of the street where our hostel is. By this time the girls were hot and bothered, and had both fallen asleep in the heat. So we made ourselves really popular waking them up, handing them their rucksacks and setting off down the road. (Perhaps with hindsight, the £1 taxi option would have been better than the 15p bus option, but these are the things you only learn with hindsight). Anyway, the Travellers Lodge hostel turned up trumps an air-conditioned triple room with en-suite for £9 (the most expensive they had, but the only one left) and it is quite the cleanest hostel we've seen anywhere in the world. So far then, great marks for Asian family accommodation.
Friday, February 13, 2004
Day one in Malaysia
Since we arrived in Asia, Emily has consistently asked for one thing to eat coconut. Unfortunately here, they don't tend to have the hardened brown coconuts we have at home, so the flesh is quite different to eat. Instead, they chop open a green coconut, pop in a straw and drink the milk. The rest, including the flesh, is thrown away. We've tried to explain that to Emily every day, but it didn't seem to be getting through. So in the end, we went to a coconut-drink stall and got them to pop open a coconut for Emily to eat the flesh (until it matures, its quite slimy!). But she enjoyed half of it, and we took the rest of the flesh away in a plastic bag for her to eat later. So she has finally had her coconut, and we can finally get some peace!
We saw a couple of key sights in Melaka the Baba Nonya Chinese house and the Museum of Beautification. The museum was especially interesting, as it displayed hundreds of painful looking ways of disfiguring the body to make it look beautiful, from all over the world. Things like filing teeth to points (New Guinea), lip plates (Africa and Indonesia), brass neck rings (Burma) and most horribly, skull flattening and elongating from New Guinea. We thought they were all horrible (even the corsets, which could reduce your waist to 13 inches) but our special favourite yuck one was the bound feet of China, especially with the graphic details and photographs displayed alongside tiny pairs of shoes. The girls were completely grossed out (I know that's not a proper word, but its a great description) and we had to go to the Kite Museum to take their minds off it (or rather, bore them to sleep!).
Our final sight of the day was the hawkers and stalls in the main square. Food stalls selling coconut drinks, curry puffs, curries and stir fries. Stalls selling t-shirts, stickers, name plates etc. And trishaw drivers offering scenic rides around town every few feet that we walked. In the end, we got so engrossed in watching the Malaysian honeymooners get their photo taken with a monitor lizard, that Charlotte and I decided to have a go too. As you'll realise, the smiles are false! My haircut, on the other hand, is real.
Saturday, February 14, 2004
What a romantic Valentine's Day
Oh, to be in Asia, now that Valentine's here. Following on from the wedding anniversary spent on a Chinese hard-sleeper train, we managed to spend today on a bus. Malaysian buses are pretty impressive, compared to normal Asian standards, but there are still elements of Asia in the organisation. We had tickets for the 9:30 bus, with a warning to 'check in' half an hour before. So we did what idiots! We turned up at 9.00, and although our bus was there, waiting in the bus park, we weren't allowed to board until the driver parked it beside the terminal which was at 9:45. If only we'd known, we'd have crossed the road for breakfast, but as we weren't sure, we thought we didn't ought to take the risk! Anyway, at 10:00 sharp the bus roared out of the terminal, and we all tilted our seats back and had a rest. As well as the four of us, there were four other passengers, so it we were all able to spread out a bit.
We'd been told it would take 6 hours which we thought meant we'd arrive in Lumut at 3:30 plenty of time to catch the ferry connection. But that isn't how it worked out! At 12:30 the bus stopped to drop off the other four passengers in Klang (about 200km north of Melaka), and pick up two new ones, and then we sat on the forecourt of an Esso garage for an hour. The driver said it wasn't a lunch stop, so we didn't go and get any food, but fortunately we did buy some drinks and go to the toilet. Then, as if he'd suddenly woken up, the bus suddenly lurched away again, and off we went towards Kuala Lumpur. Then we got stuck in horrible traffic, caused by the Tour de Langkawi cycle race (hmm, getting used to massive detours thanks to that!). At 3:30, after finished our drinks, and then realising that we really, really did need the toilet, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Emily spent the whole time inside clutching her nose, because of the smell of rotten fish. Come back, Happy Eater, all is forgiven. We knew we must be behind schedule because (i) buses are normally arranged to stop at lunch time, 12:30, rather than half past 3 in the afternoon and (ii) because we still had 220km (130 miles) to go! So our great plans to link up with the ferry were no more. Eventually we reached the town of Lumut at 7:30pm, and decided to find a hotel in town rather than take a night ferry crossing, and arriving on the island of Pangkor in darkness. Fortunately we found a nice Chinese hotel (called Hotel Indah for some reason) and stopped our hunger pangs with a Chinese meal. (Malaysia is a lot cheaper than anywhere we've been before the bus cost us £4 each; the hotel room cost £8 with bathroom and air-conditioning, and the meal cost us £7, including beer, a whole sweet and sour fish, and other dishes.)
All in all, not the most romantic of Valentine's days, but hey, nothing's normal when you're travelling!
Sunday, February 15, 2004
Pangkor Island at last...
It's only a day late, but it was worth the wait. We've now reached Pangkor Island, just off the west coast of Malaysia, above Kuala Lumpur. The ferry across from the mainland took half an hour, and cost 60p, and then a taxi took us to the west coast of the island to Teluk Nipah, a small bay with a range of backpacker accommodation near the beach. We arrived around lunchtime, so had plenty of time to check out the different hotels before deciding on splashing out on the Water Front.
It is right on the seafront, so costs a little more, but the room is clean, modern and huge there's more than enough space for the extra bed for the girls. The others we looked at were away from the beach, and some had pretty dingy rooms, or weren't big enough for 3 beds. And what does this extravagance cost us? Well, the cheapest rate at the others we were quote for a triple room was 60 Malaysian Ringgit (£8), and we're paying 90MR for this (whoa, a whopping £12). And the little bungalow has a balcony looking over the sea towards the sunset.
Monday, February 16, 2004
When you're in a tropical paradise, and you wake up and open the curtains onto the sea, then there's no alternative but to spend the day on the beach so we did. And because its Monday morning, I thought I should share it with you. To say anything else is unnecessary! (Well, apart from the fact that the sea water is around 28 degrees, and the day reached 34 degrees) It's hell.
Tuesday, February 17, 2004
When we went for a walk this morning, we didn't have to get very far to see exotic wildlife. Sitting on the roadside opposite our room were three hornbills, waiting to see if they could nab a tasty morsel from the food stall. Sadly, down on the beach we came across a beached, dead Leatherback turtle. The horizon here is full of fishing boats, day and night, so I suspect it might have been caught in the nets of one of them, and then discarded. It was huge, much bigger than Emily, and sad to see. After breakfast we canoed across the bay to a small island, and fed the fish on the reef.
And after that exertion (what, did you miss something?), we had to take it easy on the beach in the afternoon, swinging in the shade or resting on the sand, watching the world go buy. We've found Malaysia to be a very relaxed country to travel in, and Pangkor Island is more relaxed still. Unlike other Asian countries, there's no hassle or grief trying to do things it is all very easy, and there aren't touts waiting outside every taxi/bus/restaurant/bus stop. Its certainly, after Singapore, another easy introduction to Asia before the hassle and rush of Thailand ahead!
Wednesday, February 18, 2004
One of the facts of travel is that over time you get used to tropical temperatures. When you first arrive somewhere like Asia the heat and the humidity hit you like a wall, and you feel unfit and unable to do anything (add that to jet lag, and imagine what a life our friend Peter has, as an international sales manager visiting Asia from England's winter). Upon our arrival in Asia, it had still got to us, as New Zealand wasn't exactly tropical when we left. And it zapped all of the energy out of us, and infused us with lethargy. So it has been good the spend a few days getting acclimatised on the beach (what a great excuse!). Your body adjusts by thinning down your blood over about two weeks, so that you can cope more easily with the heat (the same happens to our bodies in England, as we change from winter to summer, and vice versa but of course it has longer to do this).
The result of all of this thinning is that "cold" takes on a different meaning. Each night, as we've gone to bed, we've set the air conditioning to a 'cold' temperature, Over the last four days that has gone from 22-degrees being too cold with just sheets on the bed, to last night, when we had to turn the air-conditioning off because it's maximum of 28-degrees was too cold! What a contrast to England, where we have the heating set to 21-degrees, and have to turn it off at night or we get too hot. So here, we're now acclimatised to 28-degrees being cool (which is exactly the night-time temperature here), and are starting to get to used to 34+ degrees during the day.
Thursday, February 19, 2004
Moving on from one island to another
We finally moved on from Pangkor Island, heading to Penang Island, 200km further north. Considering that's only 120 miles, its not quite believable that it took almost 7 hours! We started at 9am, taking one of the island's shockingly pink taxis to the jetty (4 miles, £1.20), then across to the mainland on a catamaran (8 miles, 80p), then breakfast while we waited for the bus to Butterworth. The bus was a zippy three hours (103 miles, £1.50), then we had a wait while I booked our sleeper train tickets for next week to Bangkok. Then onto the Penang ferry (4 miles, 8p).
Finally, once we were in Georgetown (the main town on Penang Island), we took a trishaw to our hotel (1 mile, 80p). In most other places in Malaysia, trishaws are used only to do tours for tourists, but in Penang they are used by locals and tourists alike for short city hops. Although they are more expensive than taxis, because we need two, it was an experience not to be missed. The traffic in Penang has changed beyond all recognition, and is a total nightmare, and from the bonnet-high perspective of a trishaw, you soon spot the tendency to jump red traffic lights, weave around and generally drive like a lunatic! Taking a trishaw also involves an ethical decision, as its driven by human power, and were in a pretty hot country.
The girls, however, decided that it was no more inhumane than pushing a buggy or a wheelchair, and you have a bike to help you do it! But it is clearly hard work, and although as tourists we pay more for the same ride as locals, sights like the photo here still make you stop and think. Its one of the trishaw men, who was having his early evening nap on the road, holding onto his trishaw so it couldn't be stolen. And meanwhile, the rest of the world carries out around him, ignoring the everyday scene.
Friday, February 20, 2004
Eating Asian style
Some people regard eating in Asia as a game of Russian roulette, where you're always likely to get ill from a meal, but just don't know when. I'm sure that during our three months here, we'll eat some dodgy meals, and end up getting temporarily ill from them, but on the other hand, we've got some rules of thumb that help us avoid it as much as possible and they fly in the face of what many other people do!
Rule of eating in Asia Number 1: Eat where you can see it cooked
Which means that we avoid restaurants, and especially buffets, in favour of 'street food'. The picture on the left shows stage one of the making of streetfood a food stall being pushed down the road to be setup on the main road in Georgetown, right alongside the stream of traffic. And not only does it contain the kitchen, and the food, but piled on top are the tables and chairs that make up the stall too. They are stored away overnight, and in the morning different stalls are pushed out to make breakfast treats (like rice porridge). In may look unhygienic, but curiously, we like eating at street stalls because you can see the food, you can see it being cooked right in front of you, and it is served up to you the minute its ready. Okay, so it doesn't always look safe, especially when there's a rack of chicken, or a whole chicken, hanging behind the glass all evening, without anything like a fridge, ice etc.
Rule of eating in Asia Number 2: Eat like a local
If a restaurant is packed out with locals, you know it doesn't make a habit of making its patrons ill! It's exactly the opposite logic of some who believe that a restaurant full of tourists must be good, because you can get away with anything in there after all your customers leave the country in a fortnight at the most! Tonight we ate Indian, at a 'banana leaf' restaurant. They serve all of their food up on a banana leaf instead of a plate, and they don't bother with unnecessary stuff like cutlery. Charlotte loved the idea, until she had dollops of rice and curry served onto her leaf, and realised that she actually had to dip her fingers into that. But the look on her face was actually because she'd just spotted a mouse running across the floor!
Rule of eating in Asia Number 3: Be a flexi-vegetarian
When you've seen the chicken hanging in a warm window all day, then perhaps it's wise to leave it to another customer! If there's any doubt about how old the chicken/beef/fish is, then its easy to eat vegetarian in Asia, where the vegetable dishes tend to be really, really good (even for me, who normally feels there's something missing if there's no meat in my meal). And that rule gets stricter on Sunday, when we cross from the relative safety of Malaysia (bird-flu free) to Thailand (where bird flu continues to rampage all over the country). Even though WHO say that you can't catch bird flu from properly cooked chicken, there are so many deaths clocking up in Thailand, that we've decided to be over cautious until we feel somebody has a full understanding of the facts.
Saturday, February 21, 2004
For the last few days I've had a sore, inflamed throat, probably caused by the dry air of an air-conditioned room. Yesterday it also became a really nasty hacking cough, and started with all the symptoms of a cold. So I went to a pharmacy (easy to spot in Malaysia, where they're called Farmaci!), and got given this horrible syrup to take ("Chinese medicine sir, very good for you"). It's only when I got home that I discovered that its made with birds nest.
The Chinese tend to want to chuck Birds Nest into anything they can - food, soup and obviously medicine. We've walked past shops selling Birds Nests in the raw - they're like one of those intricate melted sugar nets that fancy restaurants put onto a desert. So I haven't got bits of twig and feather floating in the medicine, because the swallows that make these nests make it with their spit. So to cure a sore throat I'm now taking (three times a day) this disgusting black liquid made of bird spit. I think I'm going to get better really quickly, so I can stop taking it!
Sunday, February 22, 2004
Taking the slow train north
Time to head north and to leave Malaysia for Thailand. After spending so long in other countries 3 months in Oz, a month in the States, Canada and New Zealand it seems odd to be leaving Malaysia after just less than two weeks. However, we have spent over 2 months in Malaysia before, and this trip was mainly for the girls to get a feel for it, and to see some of the things we remembered from last time. It has been great to visit the food especially is a highlight of Malaysia, because of the many different types available. The other main memory will be the backstreets of Georgetown, with all of the Chinese shops and houses squeezed together, with barely enough space to live in. Because of the open nature of the house-fronts, its easy to see how sparsely furnished their houses are, and how many people are packed into a small space. This was especially true down one of the narrow alleys lined by shanty huts, where whole families lived their lives in a space the size of our spare room at home.
We caught the afternoon sleeper train to Bangkok although it is a 22 hour journey, we always prefer to travel by train, as there's normally more space and freedom to move around, and you see more of life drifting past the window. The girls were looking forward to the 'sleeper' moment, where the railway staff convert the seats to beds, and we all settle down for the night. But as you can see in the photo, it turned into a 'non-sleeper' train, as they were so excited by it all that they couldn't get to sleep. No surprise there then! Eventually, by 10 o'clock, they were sleeping soundly and we were all tucked up in our blankets, trying to escape the icy blast of the air conditioning.
Read on to Part Two covering our time spent in May/June visiting Sabah to see the orang-utan at Sepilok, and to the Perhentian Islands on the East coast.