17.04.2008 - 21.05.2008
I hope you’re all keeping well. I certainly am! Here’s a little bit (hmm, that’s a bit of a lie…it’s quite long really!) about my time in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore..
Well, Malaysia turned out to be a surprisingly interesting and beautiful country to visit with lots of things to do there – I didn’t get to do the half of them, but such is life! I hadn’t heard very much about Malaysia before I got there, fewer people that travel around the SE Asia backpacking trail make it to Malaysia, so the stories that abound about other countries don’t so much for Malaysia…
I chose Pulau Langkawi (Pulau is the Malay word for island) as my starting point as I could get there by boat from Satun in Thailand, and there were stories about bombs and stuff on the trains that run between Thailand and Malaysia. The problem comes from some unrest in 4 of the most southern states of Thailand that are 85% muslim in an otherwise very Buddhist country and they naturally have more in common with their Malaysian neighbours, Malaysia being a predominantly muslim country. Anyways, I have since met lots of people who had no troubles on any of the trains, but I decided I’d be happier taking a boat, and so Langkawi became my first port of call on April 17th..
Pulau Langkawi is an awfully boring place to be honest, I wouldn’t ever bother going back there. It’s apparently one of Malaysia’s number one holiday destinations but I don’t know why.. The nicest beaches, which aren’t very nice, have nothing but expensive private resorts around them. The beaches that are in the busier touristy areas are only ok, a little dirty for my liking.. And the water wasn’t very clear either – I couldn’t even see the seafloor when I was swimming within my depth! There is duty-free shopping on the island, but even that seemed pretty poor to me…
So what did I do there for 4 days?! Well, I did spend a good bit of time uploading photos on the internet. But I also walked along Pantai Cenang (Pantai means beach) which was where I was staying and I hired a bicycle one day to cycle to this cable car that takes you up the highest mountain (it’s a hill really) on the island. I nearly died in the heat that day and had to walk up every single little incline along the way as the bicycle was crap: too small for me, crooked pedals, all the rest.. So when I finally got to the top of the mountatin, I was delighted to meet a lovely English girl called Lizzie at the top, who was taking a taxi back to Pantai Cenang…Needless to say we shared a mini-bus taxi and fitted the bike in too! And was all the cycling worth it? Well, I guess that depends on what I was expecting.. The top was covered in clouds when I got there!! I went up anyway in the hope that the clouds would clear, and they did briefly…And the views would have been amazing if the clouds hadn’t been there! The following day myself, Lizzie and two Welsh girls that were staying at her hostel hired a car a drove around the island visiting all waterfalls, beaches and whatever else took our fancy on the way. It rained a bit and it was nice to see the rest of the island, but it did confirm, for me at least, that there was nothing worth staying there for! So the following day we all left!!
So, from Langkawi we took a ferry south to the island of Penang. Malaysia was part of the British Empire until 1957 and Georgetown, the main city on Penang, is renowned as being a city with lots of classic British colonial architecture…worth a look? Well, we thought so. So, myself and Lizzie spent a day wandering around the city checking out the sights (the Welsh girls didn’t stay as they’d been there already). It was pretty nice and worth stopping. But the one day was enough. I’m sure there’s more to the rest of the island, but we didn’t stay to see.
After Georgetown, myself and Lizzie went to the Cameron Highlands. This is a lovely part of Malaysia with lots of tea plantations. As the name suggests, it’s higher than the surrounding areas which makes it lovely and refreshingly cool! It was long sleeves and long trousers there for the first time in ages!! The first day we were there we did a tour organised by our guest house (called Father’s Guesthouse – well worth staying at if you’re ever there). In the morning we went up to the top of the highest peak in the area. Of course it was spilling rain when we got to the top!! Surrounded by clouds yet again… We did a very short walk (due to the weather) thro’ the mossy forest, so-called cos of all the really really soft moss on the ground and on the trees and everywhere – you could easily sleep there quite comfortably! After that we visited the factory part of the BOH tea plantation, where they turn the fresh tea leaves into tea…that was interesting enough. We’d already passed the actual plantations earlier that day. Because of the awful weather, we weren’t able to do everything we were supposed to do, so our guide took us into the local butterfly garden. This was a fun place full of, well, butterflies obviously, but also lots of other animals indigenous to Malaysia. And because we’d come in as a tour, they got a guy there to take us around and let us hold whichever of the animals we wanted to – that was fun!! In the afternoon we went to visit a local Orang Asli village. Orang means people, and Asli means original, so the Orang Asli are the aboriginals of Malaysia. Our guide reckons that the village we visited won’t exist in a few more years time as all the young people leave to make a better life for themselves in the larger towns and cities of Malaysia, I suppose like lots of small rural villages in every country.. It was lovely to visit tho’. We got to taste some of the local tapioca, which was a root or tuber type of vegetable that reminded me a bit of potato. We also got to try playing their traditional nose flute and we got to try shooting arrows with a blow pipe! It was a lovely day
Lizzie left the following morning but I stayed for another day and I went rambling along local trails that day. I was determined to get to one of the local high peaks to get a decent view – and fortunately the weather was in my favour that day! So I spent the day wandering, got lost a couple of times but not seriously.. Some guy who stayed at our guest house in the past had been lost for 2 days in the highlands!! I barely met anyone as I walked that day which was lovely. The countryside is really beautiful. I passed some farms where the locals were growing chilli peppers, aubergines and other such things that we don’t grow at home. This is definitely a part of Malaysia well worth visiting for anyone that’s fed up with the humidity at sea level or for those who enjoy walking..
So, after the Cameron Highlands, I headed up to the north east of the country to the Perhentian Islands.. This was probably my favourite spot on peninsular Malaysia. The Perhentian Islands consist of two islands; I stayed on the smaller one – Kecil. I shared accommodation with a lovely Lithuanian girl called Kristina that I’d met at the ferry port on the way out. We’d bumped into these two Malaysian guys, Simon and Vincent, on the boat on the way out that were on their way to do some diving there – precisely the same reason I was there as it had been recommended to me as one of the better spots in Malaysia to go diving.. Anyways, we all ended up hanging out together quite a lot in the evenings, eating and drinking mostly. The craic was mighty.. I went diving pretty much every day I was there – there are some lovely sites in the area, unfortunately the sea wasn’t as calm as everyone expected it to be at that time of the year, and the visibility wasn’t up to its usual standards either.. There’d even been a small tornado/typhoon that had passed fairly close to the islands the week before I got there..! Anyways, I ended up staying longer on the Perhentians than I’d planned, which seems to be the way of it for people there – everyone stays longer than they’d planned. It’s lovely because it’s big enough to have enough of a nightlife but small enough that you start to recognize people there. The beach is stunning – up there with any of the Thai beaches but quieter.. I guess apart from diving and beach stuff tho’, there’s not too much to do there. It’s a very relaxing place.. I loved it
After the Perhentians I went to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Luckily for me, Simon and Vincent had driven to the Perhentians and they offered me a lift to KL where they both live…sweet As we arrived into KL, they gave me a quick drive-by tour of lots of the sights..! And then we ate, and so began what was to become 4 days of eating really really good Chinese Malay food that I’d never have come by if it weren’t for the two lads. Every evening they’d take me somewhere random and order something random (they ordered in Cantonese so I never had a clue what was coming til it arrived) and it was always delicious, well, mostly..! They also took me to good drinking spots. In the day times I wandered around a bit. I did a little bit of shopping. I didn’t bother going up the Petronas Towers as tourists can only go up to 170 m to the skybridge (the towers are 451.9 m tall). It’s also free to go up the Petronas Towers, but you have to queue up really early to get your free ticket – and I was never out of bed in time to get to that queue! So instead I went up the KL Tower, which has its viewing deck at 276 m.. And in fairness, the Petronas Towers are much more aesthetically pleasing than the KL Tower, so better to be up the ugly one looking at the beautiful ones no?! I also wandered around the night markets in Little India and Chinatown. I really liked KL. It was a lively city with a lovely mix of asian-ness and westernisms…I’d go back in a flash! Obviously my wining-dining guides had a lot to do with how much I enjoyed myself while I was there (thanks so much guys ). The only bad thing about KL was the bed-bug infested hostel I stayed at, altho’ the staff were lovely!
Some pics from Mainland Malaysia:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626914437871/
So, from KL I flew out to Borneo. Borneo is a large enough island to the south east of peninsular Malaysia. The island is owned by three different nations. Indonesia owns the largest part of the island. Malaysia owns the second largest part all along the north coast which is split into two different states, Sarawak in the west and Sabah in the east. And the tiny oil-rich Sultanate of Brunei owns a very small bit of land on the coast where the Malay states of Sarawak and Sabah meet. I flew into Bandar Seri Begawan, or BSB, the capital of Brunei. Why did I go there? Well, I’d seen some gorgeous photos of a mosque at sunset in BSB, I was curious to see how a rich oil nation lived and sure I’d get another stamp in the old passport – why not?! I spent just the one full day there and that was enough. They’re not big on public transport in the area so unless you’ve a car, it’s difficult enough to get around outside BSB. So I wandered around the city, saw my mosque, did a boat trip up the local river to spot monkeys, did a night tour with a guy from the hostel I stayed at to visit another mosque and the Sultan’s Palace while they were all lit up, and an amazing night food market…yum yum! It was a nice place if a little quiet. Barely anyone lives in the city, so it’s dead at night..
Some pics from Brunei:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157629817508482/
From there I took a ferry to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malay state of Sabah. This wasn’t somewhere that I’d any great desire to stop at, but I needed to organize my trek up Mount Kinabalu and I badly needed to do laundry, so I stayed for a little.. I decided to visit the local museum, which is not the type of place I usually go to, but it was quite interesting to be honest. I knew nothing of the history of Borneo. I was looking for references to head-hunters and cannibals, but I was disappointed! Instead I learned that the Japanese took over the island, well, Sabah at least, during WWII and there was a large POW camp there full of mostly Australians and I learned lots about the atrocities that happened there during that time…I guess my knowledge of WWII is fairly Euro-centric. There was lots more about the history of Sabah, and there was also a section about the natural history, which interested me no end of course! I also visited an Islamic Civilisation museum out of curiosity, which was ok, not particularly exciting. It did have pictures of all the state mosques in Malaysia, some of which are beautiful buildings. Then I headed to the two local mosques, neither of which were as beautiful as the two I’d visited in Brunei. So anyways, Kota Kinabalu wouldn’t be the most happening of places, but it was grand for wandering around for a day or so.. And I managed to get my trek organized and to get my laundry done!
So, from Kota Kinabalu I set out early one morning to Kinabalu National Park to climb the 5th highest mountain in SE Asia: Mt. Kinabalu. The whole set-up for climbing this mountain is the source of lots of complaints among backpackers. The idea is that you spend just one night on the mountain. Unfortunately the crowd that run the accommodation there have a monopoly on it and so charge quite an extortionate amount for the night (including food) by backpacker standards anyway. The idea is that you do the climb as part of an organized tour where you pay up to 700 RM (~140 Euro) and that includes everything: transfers to and from the park, your climbing fee, your guide (nobody is allowed up without a guide), your insurance, your park fee…I’m sure there was more but I’m forgetting it now. Anyways, doing it on my own, I knew I’d get it for about 400 RM – still a lot to pay for a climb of less than 24 hrs, especially when compared with our trek in Nepal, which cost us so little per day for everything.. But the problem is the tour companies book up all the accommodation and it’s often very difficult for people like me, doing it on our own, to be able to book accommodation before we go. The sickening thing is the accommodation is not always full because the tours may not fill up or people may cancel, whatever the reason, the word never filters back from the tour companies to the guys that run the accommodation and so some people I heard of didn’t climb cos they couldn’t get a bed but there was an empty bunk in my room the night I was there!! And apparently that’s often the case! I was lucky enough to be able to book a bed while still in Kota Kinabalu. Anyways, this is one sore point for people who don’t want to pay for a tour. Anyways, I made my own way to the park and began paying all the bits and pieces of fees and insurance and guide. The guide was 70 RM (14 Euro) so I paid for it and then hung around hijacking anyone who looked like they may be about to pay for a guide and getting them to share mine and his cost with me. In the end we were six – four guys from Slovakia, a guy from Sarawak and myself. And so we set off up the mountain. It was a lovely climb up, altho’ the views were a little obscured by the clouds that continuously blew in around us. There were literally thousands of steps along the way, and as I got higher I also got slower! But after 4 hours I reached Laban Rata, where we spent the night, and had a beer in celebration!
So, the reason people climb this mountain is to see the spectacular views over the entire island of Borneo that can be seen from the top. On a clear day you can apparently see as far as the Philippines! Sunrise from the summit is supposed to be magnificent. And early in the morning is the best time for these view as clouds often congregate around the summit as the day progresses.. So people generally are in bed early at Laban Rata and are up about 2 am to begin the climb in the dark to be at the summit for sunrise – sounds mad indeed, but photos I’d seen of the views persuaded me it was worth it! Hmm, well, we set off at 3 am that morning. When we set off we could see a fair few stars…fortunately as we had been worried about cloud cover blocking our view! Well, after a while we could feel a cold damp air envelop us – the clouds had come!! It was already pretty cold up there (>3000 m) and the early hour did nothing to help that. But with the clouds came a dampness that had a way of getting everything wet, despite waterproofs. So, we continued along our way. It was very slow, but that was ok cos at that altitude (the summit was 4095 m) you wouldn’t want to be running! It was tough in some way cos it’s just a big lump of exposed granite at the end of the day – at least above the tree line. And it’s fairly smooth and steep at parts. There are all these ropes along the way to hang on to, but they’re pretty useless cos they’re so close to the ground that you’d break your back if you were to hang onto them. Anyways, we got to the summit at the perfect time, just as it was beginning to get light…hanging around up there isn’t very desirable due to the cold, so people don’t want to get there too soon or too late for the sunrise. Of course, as was my experience on every mountain I climbed in Malaysia, at the summit there was no view, only clouds! Very very disappointing! And it was bloody freezing by then too – the pair of socks I was using as gloves (all my warm clothes went back to Ireland after the trek in Nepal) were soaked thro’ and my hands were almost numb! Anyways, we took our summit pics and turned around to begin our descent straight away. Half way back to Laban Rata (where there was a “hot” brekkie waiting for us..) the heavens opened and it began to pour! Any part of me that may have escaped the dampness of the clouds until that point got well and truly soaked! I was wet thro’ when I got to Laban Rata. And then breakfast was cold! Well, barely warm.. it was a buffet style thing and they weren’t very good at keeping it hot! So, I ate very quickly and ran off down the mountain cos if I sat there any longer I’d have caught pneumonia! I left my guide and climbing mates behind (altho’ I did tell the guide I was going off) and headed for park HQ where I knew there were dry clothes and where I hoped I’d be able to blag myself a hot shower. The descent didn’t take as long as the ascent but it killed my legs. I literally couldn’t walk properly for about 4 days afterwards and that was all due to the descent without doubt! Anyways, at the bottom I got myself a hot shower and dry clothes All along the way down I was bumping into the people that were on their way up and they were asking with expectant faces how it was, how the sunrise was etc.. I didn’t lie to them, but I did hope that they got better weather than I’d had. As it turned out, climbers weren’t allowed climb from Laban Rata to the summit for most of the rest of that week due to the weather – I’m not sure if the people I met on their way up were allowed go up.. I really did pick a bad day to climb that mountain! But I’m glad I did it and will just have to go back another time to see the views from the summit! From park HQ I headed to Poring Hot Springs, also in Kinabalu NP, to soak my aching muscles for a while.. Apart from sitting in the springs, I spend my time there trying to dry clothes!
So, from the hot springs, I headed to a place called Sepilok where the HQ of a tour company that goes by the name of Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Adventures (www.uncletan.com) is found. I’d signed myself up for a 3 day 2 night jungle extravaganza! And it was brilliant fun There was a great bunch of people in my group. We did river trips and jungle treks. The camp is along the Sungai Kinabatangan (sungai means river) which is apparently older than the Amazon! Despite the fact that the rainy season in this part of the world was supposed to be finished in March (this was mid-May), the river was still fairly flooded. This meant that we could get right up to the camp by boat – the boat rides were class – the cox’ns were so great at handling those boats – they sped thro’ narrow channels in the jungle that are presumably not navigable when it’s drier.. I think people on these trips in the dry season probably have to do more walking than we did! Anyways, we did sunrise boat trips along the river searching for any wildlife. The more sought after things were crocs, which we caught a brief glimpse of, orang utans, which we were told we were looking at but it was hard to tell as they were way up in a tree but I trusted our guides eyesight – they could see stuff from miles off! Jungle walks were really mud baths – the smaller your wellies (which they provided) the better because it was very easy to get stuck in knee deep mud, and it’s easier to wiggle your foot out when you’re not also trying desperately to hang onto your welly! There were also lots of wellies full of water! Dirty muddy water! The whole place was teeming with leeches and we all had to check ourselves at the end of each walk. But it was so much fun! One of our jungle walks was at night – scarey stuff! We got to see a stripey swimming snake of some sort – can’t remember what it was called, but I stayed well away! We also saw heaps of creepy crawlies and stuff…it was class! An adult king cobra was spotted by the toilets one day while we were there, but he left pretty quickly – thankfully – going to the toilets was always a bit scarey after that – just in case there was poisonous snakes about the place! There were no showers at camp. We did have the option of buckets of river water – but the river water was brown, so none of us really felt the need! We could also have had a swim, but with crocs about we didn’t really fancy that either!! So we were all pretty smelly by the time we left!! But it was really great fun and we saw lots of wild life.
After the jungle, but before I’d even had a chance to shower!, I visited the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre at Sepilok, because I hadn’t felt I’d really gotten a good view of one in the wild and I wanted to see them up close! It was lovely! There’s a really interesting video presentation on the history of the place and what they aim to do etc. And there are two feeding times each day. I was there for the afternoon feeding. I was lucky enough to see two adults and one baby, and a heap of macaques who come along to see what they can manage to rob when the feeders are gone! Unfortunately there were a fair few tourists there and I didn’t have a great spot for taking photos, but it was still a lovely experience. Some pics from there..Interestingly, orang as I already mentioned means people in Malay. Utan means forest, so these apes got their name from their resemblance to us..
From there I spent one night at Sandakan where I had the nicest shower ever!! Four of the gang from the jungle were also there so we hung out for the evening. The following morning I headed off south to Semporna for some diving. There is literally nothing to do in Semporna but dive. I don’t think any tourists go there for any other reason. And the pull is “one of the top 10 dive sites in the world” (I think there must be about 100 top 10 dive sites!): Sipadan Island. Because of a fairly recently imposed permit system to land on the island itself, dives on this island generally have to be booked a few weeks in advance, altho’ I got the impression when I arrived there that it does depend on which company you’re diving with, I went with Scuba Junkie who were certainly booked way in advance (I’d booked when I was at the Cameron Highlands..). Anyways, yet again the dry season was letting me down! The weather was pretty bad here and the vis was not up to its usual standard. So I did one days diving at Sipadan but, while I could totally appreciate how amazing it was, I decided to go to a different island for my second day. I chose Mabul as it’s famous for macro stuff and I’d hired a camera again…it doesn’t matter so much if the vis isn’t good when you’re taking macro shots cos you’re so closed to your subject.. Anyways, the dives on Mabul were amazing. No, the vis was no better than at Sipadan, but the amount of things I’d never even heard of before that I saw there was incredible. I’d a fantastic dive guide who spotted everything and was very good at showing me them and letting me photo them. He saw one thing that he’d never even seen before, a filamented rough snout ghost pipefish (there’s a mouthful!) – apparently it’s v rare. It’s also impossible to get a photo of cos it keeps swimming away from the camera and it’s quite skinny from one profile so the lens can’t even see it to focus. My guide took over 50 photos of it and I think got a couple of decent ones… I gave up long before that! The Sipadan dives were great for bigger stuff – we saw a few reef sharks, a few turtles and massive schools of barracuda. We also visited the mouth of the dangerous Turtle Cave! The drop off around the sides of that island go from a “shallow” 600 m to a deeper 2 km!!! The wall just goes straight down!! It’s crazy!! I’ll definitely go back there sometime when the weather’s a little better! Three of the gang from the jungle ended up in Semporna while I was there and it was great to meet up with them again
I had to stay at Semporna for one day after I’d finished diving as I was flying from there to KL and you’re not supposed to fly for 24 hours after diving.. Anyways, I flew from Tawau (an hours drive away from Semporna) back to KL and spent the night there with my eating buddies Simon and Vincent who brought me for yet another delicious meal and a few drinks. The following day I met up with them again for lunch before catching a bus to Singapore. Unfortunately it was a bank holiday in Malaysia so it took a lot of effort on their part to help me find a bus company that wasn’t completely booked up by people who were clever enough to realize they’d have to book that particular day! While we were having lunch the two lads bought me the sweetest present ever – a book that tells, with lovely comic strip type illustrations, all about a typical Malay childhood in a rural kampung (village).. It was lovely to read and helped make sense of some of the stuff I’d seen along the way. They were two absolutely lovely guys who went way out of their way to make sure I had fun in KL (I hope you both know how much I appreciate it?), hopefully I’ll get to repay the kindness someday.. Anyways, the bus journey to Singapore was a nightmare – dreadful traffic jams at the border. I’m not sure if it’s always like that or whether it was due to the bank holiday.. But finally I got to my hostel in the Little India area of Singapore. As it turned out I only ended up with one full day in Singapore, but I think that was probably enough, unless I’d wanted to do some shopping.. I was feeling alittle run down by the time I got to Singapore, no doubt due to 2 weeks of running about Borneo and getting soaked up mountains, so I opted for a duck-tour tour of the city. I didn’t fancy walking around myself. The duck tour is done in an amphibious vehicle, so you get to see the city from the water and from the roads. It was fine, nothing to write home about (the tour that is). The city seems quite nice, but with none of the charms or vibrancy of KL or Bangkok. I don’t think I’d ever choose to live there. In the evening I met up with a Scottish girl that I’d first met in the Cameron Highlands and an English guy that was staying in her dorm. We all went to Raffles for a Singapore Sling (that’s a pink cocktail that was first concocted in that hotel) which was surprisingly tasty…not being a big cocktail fan! Later on we met Maureen’s (the Scottish girl) boyfriend, who was at a soccer match because one of the things he has been doing on their travels is going to see a local soccer match in every single country – how cool is that?! Anyways, that was it for Singapore really, and for SE Asia The following morning (May 21st) I flew to Sydney…
Some pics from Malaysian Borneo:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157627039054830/
So, that’s it for now, and that’s probably the last of the long ones too… (phew eh?!)