There are two sections to our Malaysia diary.
The first part covers our trip up the west coast, stopping at Malacca, Pulau Pangkor, and Penang.
This part 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.
Friday, May 21, 2004
Clocking up the air miles
Back to Kuala Lumpur International Airport again. It has got to be one of the swishest airports in the world, with the modern buildings, and quiet waiting areas. Compared to the chaos and bustle of Heathrow, most Asian airports except Bangkok are amazingly modern and spacious. The odd thing about KLIA is that it is built in the middle of nowhere, about 40 miles from the city, which must be why it's so spacious. Our Air Asia flight to Sandakan leaves on time, and 3 hours later we're arriving, having passed by Mount Kinabalu, SE Asia's tallest mountain.
In the last 3 days we've flown for just 6 hours, but we've saved ourselves almost a week's worth of overland travel. The most expensive part of the trip was the flight to Borneo, mainly because there is less competition on this route, and so it cost us £125 each for a return flight from Kuala Lumpur. But hopefully it will be worth it. The main reason for the flight is to visit the orangutans at the rehabilitation centre, one of only two places in the world where it is easy to see them in their natural setting.
Saturday, May 22, 2004
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
When we were planning our trip, before we left home, the girls had talked about wanting to see orangutans in the wild, as we'd talked about the fact that many people believe they will be extinct in the wild within the next 20 years. We had initially thought about going to see them at Bukit Lawang reserve, in northern Sumatra, but that turned out to be impossible because a flash flood had destroyed the facilities, and there is intensified fighting in the north of the island, as part of the Aceh civil war. (Because Indonesia is still on the list of countries that the Foreign Office advise against visiting, it also means that our travel insurance would be invalid while we were there). It all added up to making the easy trip across the Straits of Melacca from Penang impossible. Our only option was to fly across to Borneo, to the Sabah province of Malaysia, to see the orang-utan at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
Situated on the edge of a 4,000 hectare reserve, the centre houses facilities to take orphaned or injured orang-utan, and release them back into the rainforest. The visit started with a sad film on the reasons the orang-utan are under threat, and the rapid deforestation of their habitat, and then we went for a walk through the rainforest to see one of their rare Sumatran rhinos, wallowing in a mud hole. It was quite a hike, just a muddy trail to follow through 2 kilometres of rainforest, but we managed to avoid being attacked by the leaches, biting bugs and monkeys that live in the reserve.
Later, we walked on the wooden walkway to the orang-utan feeding area, where those that are in the final stages of their rehabilitation are fed. They live and sleep in the rainforest, and just return to the feeding platforms to get their food from the rangers. The girls loved to be able to get so close to them, and to see them fooling around with each other. They especially loved it when a mother came swinging down from the forest, with a baby orang-utan clutching to her chest. In all we saw six of them for about half an hour.
This little trip to Borneo will probably be one of the most expensive parts of our trip - the flights to get here alone cost us £120 each, but it is impossible to put a cost on something which we may never be able to see again in our lives. The girls will have the chance to see orangutans again in a zoo, but hopefully the girls will remember this part of the trip in 10 years time.
Sunday, May 23, 2004
Sepilok Jungle Resort
When we arrived in Sepilok two days ago, we had a bit of a struggle to find good accommodation. The guidebooks raved about a guest house called Uncle Tan's, but it turned out that it was just a 6-bed dormitory, with no private rooms, set in the middle of nowhere (sadly concrete-rubble nowhere, rather than rainforest-nowhere). They also have a wilderness camp, set deep in the jungle, but its three hours away from the orang-utan centre, and only accessible by boat once a day. As we have decided not to take malaria tablets, we don't really want to go and sleep right in the middle of the jungle! Perhaps the guide books are raving about the 'Uncle Tans Jungle Camp', and got their places confused. So then we tried Lebuk B&B, also described as 'excellent' in the guide book, but this looked more like a bed-bug breeding farm, with three disgusting mattresses piled onto each bed. Yeuch!
Finally we found Sepilok Jungle Resort, which the guidebooks didn't mention, which is within walking distance of the rehabilitation centre. The rooms are laid out in amazing grounds, with raised walkways across the lakes leading to the restaurant. We were able to sit on our balcony, and watch the birds fly across the grounds, although we missed the early morning parade of monkeys on their way to the banana fields. Although the grounds are well managed and maintained, sadly the rest of the hotel isn't. The staff are all miserable and surly, which makes going to the open air restaurant a depressing and slow experience.
Despite its lovely surroundings, I don't think we'll want to stay here for four days until our flight back to the mainland.
Monday, May 24, 2004
Sabah Hotel, Sandakan
After four weeks of frantic moving around through Asia, the pace has just started to take its toll. Both Emily and Sarah have got a nasty cough, and Sarah's suffering from a rotten cold. So we've decided to break into our "rainy day" fund. When we set out, we'd said that if we got ill or anything bad happened, we could always just go and check into a decent hotel to recover. And that's exactly what we've done.
We're now in the Sabah Hotel, which is the only hotel within 5 hours of Sandakan with a swimming pool. For our 35 Pounds a night we're getting a deluxe room in a 4-star hotel and quite the best nights sleep for a long time (according to Sarah, we're resting between top quality sheets!).
We're flying back to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow, and if the colds haven't got any better, then we'll be moving to another posh hotel until it gets better. (35 pounds a night - that won't even get us a Travelodge in a month's time at home!)
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
Flying back to Kuala Lumpur
You know how it is. You're checking into your flight, after queuing up for half an hour to get to the desk, and the clerk says (very rapidly) "How many items of hand luggage? Please make sure that it doesn't contain any nail files, scissors, knives, blow pipes, spears, matches.......". Whoa, did she just say "blow pipes" and "spears"? Well, at least you know you're not in England any more! I don't ever remember being asked that at Heathrow! I took a photo of the warning sign, just to prove that I'm not making it up (bad quality, but you can see the Borneo-style spear real nice). As I got on the plane, I glanced down the aisle, just to see if I could see a guy in a loin cloth looking for something else to hold onto! And then I remembered that there's no in-flight meal on Air Asia. Didn't they used to be head hunters until 20 years ago? What happens if somebody gets peckish? Golly, I think I'll choose a window seat rather than the aisle this time.
The flight thereafter was quite relaxing. A great sunset over Mt Kinabalu, as it popped its head above the top of the clouds. Somewhere down there, crowds of intrepid backpackers are getting their heads down, waiting for the 2am alarm call to start walking to the top for dawn. Makes me feel like a wuss!
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
We're in Heaven (well, the Pan Pacific Hotel, Kuala Lumpur)
The colds are still there for Emily and Sarah, so we're still spending our 'rainy day' money. On the Internet we managed to book a room on the Pan Pacific Executive Floor for £40 a night. Including breakfast, free cocktails and snacks in the exclusive Executive lounge from 5-8pm, and all the cups of tea we can drink all day. Now I really don't feel like a backpacker. No, I'll take that back - when I walk in wearing my best trousers and shirt, I feel like a backpacker when the manager looks down at my feet and inspects my best 12-month-old hiking shoes, covered in the finest dirt of the world.
But who cares? We need some recuperation, and I'm not too proud to admit it. After the last six weeks, 5 countries, too many long bus/train journeys to count, and just having been given a suitcase of medicines by a Borneo doctor, Sarah (and the rest of us) deserve it. And surely sitting beside a blue pool in tropical heat is the best way to cure a cold and cough? Just a shame we can't afford to eat in the hotel, or get our laundry done. Maybe next time!
Friday, May 28, 2004
Making the best of the last two weeks
In just over 2 weeks' time, we'll be arriving back at Heathrow. We're just short of our full year away, so we're only going back for a couple of weeks, and then we'll head over to Europe for our last 3 weeks of our full year trip. We decided then to spend our last two weeks in Malaysia 'on holiday' - to laze around a beach, doing very little but recharging our batteries, catching up on sleep and generally washing away the stresses of travel. We've always found that travelling is tiring - you never know what is just around the corner, or what's going to happen when you step off the next bus/train/rickshaw. And travelling with children adds another layer to the anxiety, because you have to always be aware of another two people. Even in Malaysia, where travelling around is pretty easy, things can suddenly pop up that you weren't expecting (like the taxi driver to the airport, who decided that he'd charge us 20% more than the fixed rate the hotel had quoted - it all got very heated when he grabbed one of our bags, and we only got it sorted out by calling the hotel and getting them to talk to him).
We've decided to go to the Perhentian Islands, in the north east of Malaysia. After a quick and easy Air Asia flight to Khota Bharu, we took a one hour taxi ride down the coast to Kuala Besut - where the boats leave for the Perhentians. The flight cost us an amazing 69 Ringgit each - £10 - and the short taxi ride cost us another 50 Ringgit! We chose the Perhentians because we have fond memories of staying here from our last big round-the-world trip, in 1993. Then you got to the islands in 2 hours by fishing boat, and there were maybe ten accommodation options. Now you can opt for a half-hour speedboat ride, and there are dozens of chalets and resorts on both islands.
We went to the wooden huts we'd stayed at last time, Abdul's Chalets, but unfortunately they were full, so we ended up in the Tuna Bay Resort, further along the beach, for a night. The accommodation is in separate chalets, with air-conditioning, facing right onto the beach. Although they're expensive, by Malaysian standards, at £30 a night, it's got a million dollar view from the balcony outside the room. There are a number of separate beaches on the islands, and they are all shining white and sandy, so we might stay on this beach for a few days and then move to another one, perhaps on the second island.
Saturday, May 29, 2004
After a night at Tuna Bay, we've moved now to Abdul's Chalets, where we originally stayed on the Perhentians ten years ago. Although they're basic (cold showers, electricity only in the evenings, and then only for lights and fans), they are perfectly positioned, right on the beach, and in the shade of towering palm trees. It's the kind of tropical escape you dream of when you're sitting at home planning a holiday, so I'm sure we're going to appreciate relaxing and swimming around for the next 2 weeks.
Monday, May 31, 2004
Breakfast on the beach
Charlotte and I have this theory that during this year, Sarah has turned into me. And this photo tells the whole story - Sarah, reading the paper over breakfast. I thought that was the kind of thing I did, ever desperate for 'input'. So it was a shocker that I was able to grab this picture!
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
Marketing in Malaysia
The classifieds section of the New Straits Times makes interesting reading. Alongside adverts from parents searching for wives for their sons ("Parents of Malaysian Telugu professional fair looking gentleman seek sincere Hindu God fearing professional ladies in view to marriage. Must be willing to migrate to UK."), there's the "Domestic Help/Foreign Workers" section (funny, don't remember that section in the Banbury Guardian).
What caught my eye was a photo advert, showing a happy Indonesian maid looking after two smiling Malaysian children, with the headline "Free Replacement 12 months for runaway". After reading the Malaysian newspaper headlines over the last week of the maids that get beaten by their employers, or worse ("Scalded by a Red Hot Iron" boasted the NS Times today), I guess it must be quite an attractive selling point if you're looking to hire a maid and then treat them badly. For all the similarities of Asia to Europe, it's a very different world sometimes.
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
Barefoot beach life
This has got to be the way to live life. For a week now, I haven't put my feet inside a pair of shoes or even flip-flops. We're living on the beach, with sand outside our front door, and an outdoor restaurant on the beach. And because we're all taking the chance to recharge our batteries, we haven't even bothered with doing much other than reading, sleeping, eating and admiring the view. And padding through talc-soft sand has got to be the best form of pedicure around!
Friday, June 04, 2004
Abduls Chalets, Perhentian Islands
We've now been here at Abdul's Chalets for a week, and we're definitely living life at a different pace. The simple wooden chalets, with shutters where there should be windows, and unfortunately screw holes where there should be door handles, are right on the beach, so it takes ten strides (14 when the tide's out) to be in the sea in the morning.
Hmm, perhaps door handles would be good - we were down the beach snorkelling and Charlotte managed to lock herself into the bathroom yesterday just by pushing the door closed. One of our neighbours had to let her out!
The Perhentians have a range of different beaches and chalets - Long Beach for cheap and grungy; Flora Bay for the divers and the Malaysian tour groups; Perhentian Island Resort for the rich; and Abdul's for families and people who can live without beer. We're paying 80 Ringgit (£11) for a family room with two double beds, and the best beach view we've seen this year.
There's nowhere else that we need to go - Abdul's has a restaurant serving great food, including whatever fish the boat brought back at the end of the day (shark, kingfish and barracuda yesterday), and a small shop renting out snorkelling gear. Today we wandered 50 yards down the beach to snorkel over the reef outside the marine protection headquarters. After an hour we'd seen scores of different fish, giant clams and a 3-foot turtle!
Sunday, June 06, 2004
Cyber Café, Perhentians-style
Wherever you go in Asia, there's normally an internet café within a stone's throw. And despite their simplicity the Perhentian Islands are no exception. On our beach it's housed in a hut roofed with palm fronds, and its equipped with a brand new HP computer, a generator and a well-used backup battery. But unlike the rest of Asia, where everywhere seems to be blessed with broadband, it has to cope with an antiquated radio telephone system. It hooks up to the Internet by modem, at a blistering 19,200 Baud - about 1/3 of the normal speed of a modem, or 1/30 of a basic broadband connection. And in return for this fragile, slow connection, we have to pay the most we've paid anywhere - £4 an hour. So while you sit there in your nice cool office, think of us, paying through the nose and updating the website on a steam powered computer!
Tuesday, June 08, 2004
This is it - our last full day on the Perhentians. Tomorrow we'll spend the afternoon packing up, and then we'll be going to bed early to catch the 8am boat back to the mainland on Thursday, to catch our flight back to Kuala Lumpur. We came here on the 27th May, looking for somewhere to have a rest and recharge our batteries, ready for our trip homewards after this coming weekend. We'd chosen it mainly based on our memories of the Perhentians from 11 years ago. Then the island was undeveloped, with just a few chalets dotted around, and few visitors. Now it is much busier, with big groups of Malaysians visiting for weekends and the school holidays , and more backpackers, drawn by the stories of good diving and snorkelling. Our first impression, when we arrived, was of a place that had been over-developed, with too much of the beachfront destroyed by unsympathetic development. But now we've been here longer we can appreciate it for what is good about it still - the jungle backing onto the chalets, the chalets looking straight onto a good beach, and low-level development. Although the first resort with a pool has just been finished, and there's a new 3-storey building going up, most of the resorts consist of wooden chalets and small restaurants. And it doesn't take a long walk to get a beach to yourself.
It may not be the same tropical paradise it was 11 years ago, but it is still a tropical paradise, and it will certainly seem like one in a week's time, when we're back in England, and wondering where all that traffic has come from! (And I still haven't had to put my shoes on all fortnight!)
Wednesday, June 09, 2004
I don't believe it...
This is it. Last day on a beach for a very long time. The last 2 weeks have been idyllic, but at the back of our minds there's the thought that this isn't just the end of a beach-holiday, but also the end of a year travelling. And that next week we'll be back in England, starting to pick up the pieces of our lives. Being normal. Not getting up in the morning in some alien culture and asking the "Where are we going to go today?" question. (To which the inevitable answer in the last fortnight has been "the hammock").
Although we'll miss it, we're also all excited about going home, to see everybody that we've not for the last year, and to have somewhere more fixed to live. To have some time alone (for all of us!). And to have a bathroom that is really clean. Oh yes, there's plenty to look forward to. But in a month or two, I bet we'll be looking back a lot!
Thursday, June 10, 2004
Happy Birthday to me
After a speedboat and flight, we've arrived back in Kuala Lumpur, and have installed ourselves back in the Pan Pacific hotel. Yes, I know it's a cop-out, and we should be tramping the streets searching for our usual standard of flea-pit, but, hey, what's £40-a-night going to get us back in England? Might as well treat ourselves while we can! And the staff are wonderful - when the girls said it was my birthday they rushed around and produced a chocolate birthday cake. And I got a pile of Happy Birthday emails. Aaah.
Sunday, June 13, 2004
Carry on up the Petronas Towers
There's not a lot that we can say about our time here in KL - we've been shopping, we've been to the cinema, we took the lift up the Petronas Towers (well, it was free), and most importantly, we've booked our bus tickets down to Singapore on Monday morning. We fly home at midnight, so we've got an evening to kill in Singapore airport. Sarah's almost as excited about 4 hours shopping as she is about getting home!
Go back to Part One covering our trip up the west coast, stopping at Malacca, Pulau Pangkor, and Penang.