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Thai Tales

View From Ireland to New Zealand (Nov 07-Jun 08) on niscratz's travel map.

Hi all,

Hope you're all well...here are some stories from Thailand..

Well, we (myself, Marcus and Dani and Simon (the South African couple from the Gibbon Experience)) arrived in Thailand at the border town of Chiang Khong on March 12th. We settled ourselves into a mosquito-infested guesthouse and had our first (of many for me) Pad Thai dinner...yummy... But, apart from the food and the fast internet connection, my first impressions of Thailand weren't very good to be honest. All the way up thro' Laos , whenever I'd been able to see Thailand accross the Mekong River , it had always looked very developed compared with Laos (not surprising in fairness). When I wandered around Chiang Khong I felt like I was in a western country...7-11s everywhere, lots of cars...I didn't really feel like hanging around. I know that this part of Thailand (the north) has lots to offer in terms of treks and local minority tribespeople not to mention ancient ruins and heaps of history, but I just felt it would all be more touristy, more expensive and less "authentic" than everything I'd done in SE Asia up until then. And so it was that I only spent about a week north of Bangkok .

I first headed to Chiang Rai (alone, Marcus went straight to Chiang Mai and the other pair flew to the south somewhere) to a hostel that sounded lovely in the guide book – situated on the banks of a river: perfect for just chilling out at. Unfortunately when I arrived it turned out that they were in the process of building a new bridge over the river right beside the hostel…hmm…not so quiet and relaxing then. Instead I decided to head to the hills about 25 km to the north west of the city to another guest house run by the same people (from the local Akha minority hilltribe - so all profits etc go straight back to the village and Akha people work in both guesthouses). The guesthouse in the hills was right in their village. It was lovely – nestled right at the top of a valley surrounded by trees and a waterfall. Very quiet – the road didn’t go any further than the village so no traffic passed thro’. I spent 3 nights there and pretty much did nothing apart from visit the waterfall (walked the height of it and “swam” in some of the larger pools) one of the days with a French-Thai guy called Wasan who was also staying there. There were only 3 guests there that day – lovely! Otherwise I just chilled out, ate lots (great food), drank a little, read lots and enjoyed the views from the comfort of the terrace of my bungalow :)

After that I headed to Chiang Mai for a few days. Again I did very little there. I was definitely feeling a little jaded from the traveling at that stage and that feeling wasn’t helped by the temperature which was creeping up day by day and sapping all the energy out of me! I did wander around the Sunday Walking Market – an evening market that takes over a lot of the streets in the city centre. Marcus was still in Chiang Mai when I arrived so I went out for pre-St. Patrick’s day drinks with him and Liam, an English guy we’d met in the Mekong Delta who’d been traveling with Marcus for a while in Laos . Unfortunately both of them were flying down to Bangkok the following day (Paddy’s Day) so I had nobody to celebrate the actual day with :( Apart from wandering around the city centre (Chiang Mai is Thailand ’s third city), I went for a foot massage at the local women’s prison. Prisoners learn trades when doing their sentences, and those with less than 6 months of a sentence left get to give massages to the public in order to save a bit of money for when they get released. These ladies aren’t hardened criminals - I’ve no idea what my lady was in for but I was dying to ask and maybe if there hadn’t been any other customers around I would have.. Anyways, it was a fantastic massage – almost full body. Another thing I did in Chiang Mai was a Thai cookery course – that was really great fun!! We started out in the morning at the local market buying our ingredients with the help of one of the ladies from the cookery school. Afterwards we headed out to the school itself, run by a celebrity Thai chef, and learned how to cook six dishes…and ate them all! The celebrity chef himself was our demonstrator for half of the courses – he had me in stitches laughing – a very funny man indeed with a very subtle sense of humour. The cooking bit was hilarious as well!! As soon as the gas was turned on under the woks it was like a race to get all the food into it in the right order without overcooking any of it…it was very funny but somehow we all managed to cook all our dishes and they were delicious!! I couldn’t believe I’d actually cooked them – I’m not the biggest fan of cooking! I went away from that day stuffed and with all the recipes of what I’d cooked and more – I’m not sure how easy it will be to get some of the ingredients outside of Thailand however… That was pretty much it for Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand – I flew down to Bangkok on March 19th.

I really enjoyed the four days I spent in Bangkok . I met up with Marcus again and we had the great fortune of being put up by two of our friends that we’d met on the Halong Bay trip in north Vietnam (thanks again guys – very much appreciated). That meant that I didn’t see the infamous Khao San Road where most backpackers end up staying… probably a good thing! I didn’t do a whole lot of anything in Bangkok either – we (myself, Marcus, Cayla and JJ) just hung out in the evenings cycling around their neighbourhood to good local restaurants and bars. On March 21st Marcus was flying home to England , so the previous night we bade him farewell with a few drinks…it was sad to see him go even tho’ I hadn’t really been traveling with him for the month prior to that. I wandered around the city a little organizing stuff (posting stuff home, getting a visa extension and other boring stuff..). I didn’t see a single tourist site apart from what I wandered past accidentally. Cayla took me to her hairdresser and I had a very much needed hair cut - the first since leaving Ireland . There were internet facilities at the hairdressers for customers to use when waiting!! I also had my first (and only to date) bottle of wine since leaving Ireland while in Bangkok – they just don’t do wine properly in this part of the world! I hung out with Wasan (the French-Thai guy I’d first met in the Akha village up north) a little bit too while I was there… We went to the weekend market at Chatuchak one morning – that was really interesting, full of some crazy stuff. I felt so sorry for all the animals tho’ – all of them were dehydrated and dying for a drink. What else did I do there….? Really not much…I was still not really feeling like doing touristy things, just wanted to chill out. I did enjoy taking all the local transportation around the city (I really love big cities!), my favourite was the river boats that went along the canal just behind Cayla and JJ’s apartment block… Anyways, enough waffling about Bangkok..

So for me, Thailand really started when I headed south of Bangkok to the islands, beaches and dive sites!! It was the perfect antidote to the jadedness that had come over me from the heat and from having seen too many temples, waterfalls, jungles etc etc… As soon as I arrived at Koh Tao – my first destination – I felt revived and ready to go again.. Koh Tao is the smallest of the three main islands that make up the Samui Archipelago on the east coast of Thailand (i.e. in the Gulf of Thailand ). I stayed at a beach in a bay on the south west of the island. It was lovely – not as busy as the main beach on the island but enough people and bars to keep me happy. Koh Tao is full of dive centres – about 50 I think on the island- it’s a factory for PADI open-water courses and churns out an incredible number of PADI certs each year – apparently only Cairns in Australia issues more annually! I dived with a crew called Buddha View who were great: very friendly, welcoming and professional. My first dive with them was a night dive the night I arrived…it was a pretty amazing start to diving in Thailand – I saw three turtles (had never seen one while diving before), three blue-spotted sting rays (hadn’t seen them either) and three octopus as well as lots of other stuff…it was great dive! I ended up diving a fair bit with them while I was on Koh Tao. It was morning dives mostly and the afternoons I spent on the beach or wandering around the bay – I didn’t actually leave the bay area at all while I was there! Wasan, the same French-Thai guy from the Akha village and Bangkok , came down to Koh Tao while I was there so I spent some time with him too. Unfortunately, on the day I was going to leave Koh Tao I got food poisoning somehow – still not sure what it was – but it meant I spent 2 nights in hospital on a drip feeling pretty crap on the first night. The second night was better – I was able to appreciate the air con room, watch films on tv and generally be thankful that my travel insurance was coughing up for the whole thing! So anyways, finally, a week after I arrived on the island I took the night ferry to Surat Thani and made my way to Khao Sok National Park .

So anyways, Khao Sok National Park is a really old native rainforest area on the Thai peninsula. It would have been lovely to visit for a day or two if I hadn’t spent time in hospital on Koh Tao – but time was precious and I wanted to get on to the Andaman coast on the west, so I only ended up stopping for one night here. I was still feeling pretty tired and not so full of energy after the whole food poisoning episode, so I didn’t go into the national park at all altho’ reports from other backpackers were that it was brilliant… Anyways, at Khao Sok I saw my first real rain in a very long time – perfectly timed on April 1st, the first day of the low season! It was great to sit and watch the rain. It was a real torrential “rainy season” type downpour and it brought out all the colours in the landscape… Little did I know as I sat there watching it that it would be a fairly common occurrence from that point on on my trip! I’m afraid I got a bit carried away with the rain and its effects…

So, the first stop for me on the Andaman coast was Ton Sai Beach . It’s located on this tiny isthmus to the west of Krabi and you can only get to it by boat from Ao Nang as it’s “blocked in” by high limestone cliffs. Most people who visit this area do so for the rock climbing. On the way from Khao Sok I’d met a lovely American girl called Katy, so we shared a room while we were there. The beach at Ton Sai itself wasn’t that nice. But it was next door to a fantastic beach called Railay West (where accommodation is beyond the budget of most backpackers!). While I was at Ton Sai I did a half day rock climbing course that was great fun. I also hired a kayak and mask and snorkel and kayaked around the area stopping every so often to snorkel. The area is all limestone – large rocky islands – think the James Bond movie ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’… It’s a beautiful area. For two of the three days I spent there there were heavy downpours in the late afternoon. This wasn’t so good for sunset-spotting (the Lonely Planet had described sunsets from Railay West as being psychedelic and orgasmic..!), but fortunately my last day there was gorgeous so after a morning hanging off the rock faces, I found the best tree on the beach to sit under (I’ve gotten pretty good at finding spots out of the sun…hence the almost still as pale as when I left complexion…well, shade and factor 50 suncream!) and read until the sun began to do its thing. It was lovely and relaxing… I love beaches :)

From Ton Sai I took a ferry to Koh Lanta with Ben, an English guy that was staying in the bungalow opposite ours at Ton Sai. For me, Koh Lanta was all about the diving. I’d been recommended a few dive sites worth visiting by a guy who worked in Budda View on Koh Tao and the first of them is closest to Koh Lanta. It’s a pinnacle (well, there are two of them) called Hin Deang. Hin Muang is the other. They’re both the only pinnacles in an otherwise fairly deep blue area of the sea so they attract a lot of big fish life. They’re most famous for manta rays – usually seen on at least 50% of dives there, but it was just about the end of the season when I was there and the mantas were nowhere to be seen. It was an amazing dive site tho’ – I could have stayed there all day! I went there on the poshest dive boat I’ve ever been on!! The previous day, I dived another great site called Koh Ha. The visibility on the day I was there was fantastic and the rock formations were amazing – lots of swim-thro’s including one called the chimney. I’d love to have had an underwater camera there…and on Hin Daeng too. Beautiful :) I didn’t do anything else on Koh Lanta. It was a fairly quiet island, not one of the most impressive in my opinion but anyone I’ve met who’s been there loved it. I think because it’s quieter than the more touristy islands. We were treated to yet more storms, but some were way off in the ocean and the lightening was amazing!! I’ve never seen such lightening as I have out here over the past few weeks… Our accommodation on Koh Lanta was perfectly situated right on the beach and right beside a dive centre/bar/restaurant – we didn’t need to walk very far for anything!

From Koh Lanta, myself and Ben took another ferry, this time bound for the gorgeous Koh Phi Phi Don. We stayed at Long Beach , which proved to be a great choice during the day but dead at night. Most people stay in the main town on the island. This is Thailand tourism at its worst. I mean it’s absolutely stunningly beautiful, but it’s jam packed with tourists and apparently is worse than ever after the tsunami hit – as in, they didn’t rebuild things to blend in with the natural surroundings or anything.. But it was well worth a quick visit – too expensive relatively speaking to stay very long. Accomodation was expensive given what you were getting relative to other islands. We spent one day on a day boat trip around the islands of Phi Phi (there are a few but only Koh Phi Phi Don is full of resorts – the rest are uninhabited). Koh Phi Phi Leh has one particularly famous beach on it – Maya Beach , where the film ‘The Beach’ was set. I’ve never seen the film (surprise surprise), but the beach is gorgeous. Again overrun with tourists and boats bringing snorkellers, but that’s what you have to put up with there unfortunately. Our trip also took us around a few other islands, the nicest being Bamboo Island – white sand like I’ve never seen before and turquoise seas (all the beaches along the Andaman coast had turquoise blue seas – like picture postcards!!). It was stunning. That was a day of snorkeling, kayaking and hanging out in the shade on the boat…a lovely day – pity bout the number of other tourists! Oh, and we got to snorkel with black tip reef sharks – another first for me :) And that pretty much was Koh Phi Phi. Really all along this coast it was much more diving/chilling out than doing stuff all the time…much more a holiday feeling than a traveling/backpacking feeling…

So after Koh Phi Phi I left Ben behind and took a ferry to Phuket town on Phuket Island . This was a one night stopover on my way north to Khao Lak where I’d to meet a diving boat for a 4 day and night liveaboard. As luck would have it, as I was looking for accomodation in Phuket town I met a lovely Italian guy called Ivan who was going on the same liveaboard as me. So we shared a room that night (I could count on one hand the number of nights I’ve had a room to myself since Bangkok , or even since Marcus and I went our separate ways – it’s makes things so much cheaper to share..). It was fortunate that I met Ivan as he had the low down on our liveaboard, like that the company would collect us in Phuket town – I was going to make my own way up.. So the following day we were picked up outside our guest house (which incidentally was also used in the film ‘The Beach’) and driven up to Khao Lak for the beginning of 4 great days…. Another small world story as only Irish people seem to experience here – while being kitted out with gear at the dive centre before getting on board I bumped into a girl from home whom I hadn’t seen for at least 10 years – remember Melanie Kocher girls? Anyways, she hasn’t changed a bit!! Unfortunately tho’, the company we were going out with had two boats departing that evening and she and I weren’t on the same one…so it was a fairly fleeting reunion!

The liveaboard itself was absolutely brilliant!! I loved every minute of it. Surprisingly there wasn’t much drinking on board at all – I was one of the last to go to bed every night – and that was at like 10 pm having tried to persuade people to stay up…! The diving was fab. We were treated to three manta rays (or the same one came up to us three times maybe?) on Koh Bon (reknowned for mantas). Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any whale sharks. But the rest of the life was amazing too. Lots of turtles, some leopard sharks, amazing fish and invertebrate life... Oh yeah, the liveaboard trip was to the Similan Islands Marine Park area but we went up north as far as Koh Bon and Richelieu Rock and I think one of our dives may have been at Surin Islands Marine Park. This area is very close to the Burmese border. I hired an underwater camera for the whole trip and had a great time taking pics of all the beautiful life in the area. Some of the tropical relatives of our Irish marine life are so feckin’ class!! I could certainly get used to this tropical water diving lark!!

The day we got back to shore a few of us stayed at Khao Lak and pretty much made up for all the lack of drinking over the previous four days…Emilio’s (an English guy) idea of whiskey and coke on the beach aprés-pub unfortunately took hold, altho’ we never actually made it to the beach as we stumbled upon a private swimming pool in some resort instead and stayed there until the wee hours drinking and swimming…not a wise idea at all for me as I had a long long drive south to the Malaysian border the following day with an early start!! I slept most of that day, only waking up to change mini-bus in different places.. I spent that night in Satun, a town right down close to Malaysia . The following day (April 17th) I took a ferry to Pulau Langkawi in Malaysia – I was very sad to say good bye to Thailand and would have loved more time there exploring the coastline and the beaches and island, and of course more dive sites…but time was pushing on and my budget was starting to feel the pinch of all the diving and of 5 weeks spent in the most expensive country I’d visited to date…still way cheaper than home of course, but it all gets relative out here..

Some pics from Thailand:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157633168587429/

And some pics from the Similan Islands:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157627523581449/

Anyways, I think that’s all for now… Will tell ye bout Malaysia soon enough :)

Take care xx

Posted by niscratz 07:14 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore

View From Ireland to New Zealand (Nov 07-Jun 08) on niscratz's travel map.

Hello all,

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?!)

Chat soon,

Aoife xx

Posted by niscratz 18:18 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

The End...

View New Zealand II (Jun 08-May 09) & From Ireland to New Zealand (Nov 07-Jun 08) on niscratz's travel map.

Well finally…7 months, 10 countries, 10 flights, 4 train journeys, a gizillion bus trips, a few litres of suncream, plenty of litres of beer, too many malaria tablets, 42 dives, 4 “romantic encounters”, 1 hospital visit, -7000 euro, 4 pairs of sunglasses and 3 cameras later…I’ve arrived in the beautiful country of New Zealand: my home for the next 12 months I hope :) So indeed, while this is the end of the first part of my adventures, the second part is only just beginning!! But before I sign off and go job-hunting, I’ll tell you quickly about my 2 weeks in Sydney…

One of my mam’s many aunts lives in Sydney and I was very fortunate to be invited to stay with her for the entire time I was there. During the first week Elizabeth (my grand-aunt), or Lily as we all call her back home, was there so I spent most of my time with her. Altho’ she’s usually a big walker and swimmer, we went for more drives than anything else as she’s waiting on a knee operation in the near future and wasn’t up for too much strenuous activity. So that week was lots of relaxing, sleeping eating (lots of yummy “Irish mammy dinners”!), watching TV and generally just chilling out after all the traveling.

The following week I was on my own as Elizabeth went on her annual trip home to Ireland leaving me with keys to her apartment and her car :) I spent most of that week in downtown Sydney internetting and catching up with friends, one of whom is an old diving buddy from uni and the rest live in Sydney - I’d met them while traveling. It was lovely to catch up with them all (yes Marcus, I did buy Phoebe that drink I owed her!). I didn’t do a single touristy thing in Sydney, having visited most of the major sights and beaches last year. But I did go to see a performance of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ that was absolutely brilliant!! I had seen the first half of it about 9 years ago in Dublin, but due to “technical difficulties” at the theatre, I never saw the second half… Fortunately my amazing memory didn’t let me down: I couldn’t remember any of what I’d already seen, so it was all like new…and I LOVED it!!

And that was pretty much my time in Sydney..!

So, that’s it…yesterday I flew from Sydney to Wellington – the views of NZ were amazing on the way in. The plane flew right over the north coast of the south island and the skies were clear as far as the eye could see. The Southern Alps were snow-capped and looked stunning. We passed over Nelson and the Marlborough Sounds, and if I hadn’t been so mesmerized by it all I may have managed to get my camera out and take some pics – it was amazing!! Mairead, an old friend from uni, met me at the airport and I’m hanging out at her place until I find my feet (v much appreciated!)… I’m meeting Kieran, an old friend from home home (i.e. Waterford), later this evening for drinks and I’m meeting Cushla, the Kiwi girl that did the trek in Nepal with myself and Marcus, tomorrow evening hopefully :) And in the meantime I’ve got to start job-hunting..!

And oh yeah, before I forget (as if I could!), this Sat, I’m off to see the Ireland V All Blacks rugby match that’s on here in Wellington with Mairead, Kieran and Kieran’s girlfriend Helen…And for all you avid rugby fans back home, I do promise to try to learn all the rules of the game and all the names of the Irish players etc. before Sat…ha ha!! And if a TV camera goes by I promise I’ll wave to ye all too :p I can’t wait – the atmosphere is going to be electric…I hope to god they put up a decent fight! Now, off to town to buy some green facepaint…

So, that’s it! The end of long group emails! Thanks a million to all of you who’ve stayed in touch with me over the past 7 months – it always meant so much to hear from home (and from friends not in Ireland of course!).. I promise to try to do much more of the personal emails from now on…I know I owe lots of ye emails – sorry! If any of ye are in this part of the world in the next 12 months make sure to get in touch and we’ll go for a drink or 5..

Take care,
Aoife xxx

Posted by niscratz 19:47 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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