Thursday, 29 October 2009

After the sticky humidity of Taman Negara’s jungle and it’s leaches, mosquitoes and vipers, our next stop in the Cameron Highlands was a welcome succour. Sitting at altitude which varies between 1300 and 1800 metres the Cameron Highlands is Malaysia’s largest hill station. It is not too difficult to see why; the temperature sits between 10 and 21 degrees the whole year around. The air is fresh and cool and the rain comes in torrents that dissipate as promptly as they appear. It is an area of stunning beauty, lush, verdant and fecund. The area takes it’s name from William Cameron, the surveyor who first mapped out the area. Shortly after Cameron’s expedition the Cameron Highlands became home to tea plantations, flower and fruit farms. Swiftly flowing rivers dissect green valleys and dense forests climb mountainous terrain. Wild animals and many reptiles live in these jungles, whilst an abundance of orchards and flowers grow naturally in the area. Culturally, the town is typical of Malaysia with Hindu temples, Mosques and Churches all built at close propinquity. We stayed in Tanah Rata, one of the three main towns in the area. The towns, sadly, are a bit tacky and detract from the beauty of the highlands. Large Tudor style apartment blocks dominate the some of the closer hills like warts on an otherwise unblemished face, whilst slightly further out of town hideous concrete developments blight the hills they are built upon. This is not to say that the area has been irredeemably lost though. A short walk out of town will bring you to the famed jungle trails, whilst along the roadsides strawberry and flower farms abound.

The Cameron Highlands became our home for about five days. We stayed at the ever-hospitable Father’s Guest House, the blackened sign post nailed to a tree trunk displaying a Bob Marley look alike, seemingly crucified on the trunk of a pine tree. Father’s was comfortable, the owners affable and full of honest, practical advice. The restaurant and coffee area was unobtrusively social and the second hand bookshop had Ngugi’s River Between and Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliant Memoirs of Hadrian, the latter of which I am currently battling through, dictionary in one hand and with Wikipedia open to assist me with my rusty history of Antiquity. But back to the Cameron Highlands, we could quite easily have spent a fortnight there. There are multiple walks to do through the jungle, a golf course should you feel so inclined and tours of the tea estates and the Mossy Forest. I spent a bit of time attempting to keep up the cultural front, visiting the Sam Poh Chinese Temple with it’s 10 000 mosaic Buddha tiles and the Hindu Temple in Tanah Rata, where the admonition of the priest for not removing my shoes still rings in my ears. Having upbraided me he promptly disappeared. I had rather hoped he would show me around but it seems this was not to be. After seven months of vaunted temples, churches and museums my usual avidity is beginning to wane, but I continue to make the effort in the knowledge that this time next year I will no longer have these opportunities. And at each turn I am rewarded and I feel enriched by the experience. Of course, being in Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands is host to all sorts of mouth watering restaurants, serving Dosa’s and Tandori’s and Murtabach and a frighteningly wide selection of roti’s. It is also home to some less appealing establishments, MarryBrown’s for example, serving wretched Halaal deep fried chicken to songs by Nickleback. Or the Lord’s Café, a worn out tea house that sells “Beef Bacon” for breakfast (am I missing something here?), Cheese Cake that actually tastes of cheese. Adorning the walls a picture Mary Magdalene stares gloomily across from her wall at a dirty copy of a Van Gogh opposite, beneath which well thumbed copies of Readers Digest gather dust. Or indeed (and maybe the most detestable and appealing alike) the ineluctable Starbucks Café where locals and foreigners alike, surrounded by the best tea in Malaysia, go in for exorbitantly priced but very mediocre coffee. Alas the forests of Cameron Highlands seem to be under threat. There is rampant logging in areas, whilst poachers make regular forays into the jungle taking with them rare snakes, orchids and natural plants. I found out that one of the men I working at the guesthouse was involved in trafficking snakes to Germany and bitterly regret not having done anything about it. On one hand there is the moral dilemma of knowing that this friendly, smiling man would stand to lose his job and source of income if I had reported him. On the other there is the sheer outrage and contempt I have for the destruction of the forest and the abominable cruelty involved in smuggling animals abroad. I wish the latter sentiment had prevailed.

For our last day in the highlands we went on a tour that included the Boh Tea Estates in the hills North of Birchang. In spite of the rain that was lashing down the beauty of the estates was still very apparent. A rather uninformative tour of the tea curing process was included, but the real value of the trip is just being among the green valleys with neatly clipped tea trees climbing up the undulating valleys. We stocked up on ginger and lime tea bags and then continued on to the strawberry farm for chocolate and strawberry waffles. Had the rain been less persistent and time a little freer, a full day tour of the tea farm would have been very worthwhile. The estate is steeped in the history of J A Russell’s family who set up the enterprise in 1929 and whose progeny are still involved with the estate to the present day. They’re rich now, you better believe it.

The World Heritage site of Malacca with it’s clay red buildings and surprisingly authentic China Town was next. We seem to be on a bit of a roll with guest houses at the moment and our accommodation in Malacca is without doubt the best place that we have stayed in so far. It is spacious, clean, comfortable and welcoming. The owners, Raymond and Mani, are supremely friendly and refreshingly interested in getting to know the people that stay with them. It was down to their superb guesthouse and unrivalled hospitality that we ended up changing our stay in Malacca from two days to one week. Nestled on the Malacca River, the town of the same name (or alternatively Melaka) was the greatest trading port in South East Asia in the 15th Century. Unsurprisingly it became the focus of interest for many successive invaders and the cities rich blend of cultures reflects this. There are remnants of the Portuguese, the Dutch and of course the English. Add to this the Chinese, Islamic and Buddhist denizens of the town and the diversity and invigorating multiculturism of Malacca begins to take shape.

The vibrancy of Malacca is not just limited to the multicoloured temples and buildings however. Beneath giant trees the din of parrots in the evening is deafening, whilst along the banks of the river locals line dance to an assortment of music.There is even a cameo appearance by the Tourist Police, dancing to “Rock Around the Clock.” To add to the music that abounds on the streets, garishly decorated yellow cyclo’s patrol the streets playing anything from Michael Jackson to Metallica. Guided river boat tours plough through the water, the progress of the boats preceded by a sound that is akin to a sudden downpour of rain and had us starting up to look out of the window. Our time in Malacca was spent avoiding the oppressive heat of the day, immured in the guest house between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. We were up early to explore the ruins and Dutch graveyard at Bukit St. Paul (St. Paul’s Hill) and the wonders of China Town with it’s melee of Chinese and Hindu temples, mosques and nearby churches.

The ruins of St. Paul’s church are particularly enigmatic at dawn. A ghostly white statue of St Francis Xavier, one hand missing from his marble wrist (Sharia 1, Xavier 0?) surveys you loftily, whilst behind the empty shell of the cathedral dominates the hill. As any guide book will tell you St Francis Xavier was briefly interred here after his death in China. His posthumous stay in Malacca was brief however, nine months later his remains were taken to Goa, where they are to this day. Behind the deserted church old Dutch graves have a commanding view of the city below, where Chinese locals practice Tai Chi and swordsmanship in the early light of the morning. Likewise the Chinese cemetery atop Bukit China just outside town comes alive in the cooler hours of the day. The cemetery, straddling the hill for positive feng shui, is rumoured to be the largest Chinese grave yard outside of China. In the evening the contrast of joggers limbering up and stretching after a run offers an amusing contrast to the cold graves that punctuate the hill like many decaying teeth. The old town of Malacca has enough to see without leaving its narrow streets though. The lanes with their Chinese lamps. The old dilapidated buildings, vibrantly painted yet whose walls are pitted by age and roughly textured.
The Chinese temples, filled with devotees lighting incense and impaling offerings of cigarettes before the effigies. The substantial Malaysian Christian community and the grand (and some equally quaint) churches. Malaysia’s finest charm for me has been it’s enervating multiculturism and acceptance of one and all. This is embodied by it’s food and more importantly by the proudly Malaysian people; a common thing to hear when chatting to a local is “My family were from China / India / Timbuktu but I am Malaysian. And nowhere is this multiculturism more apparent than in Malacca.

The days drifted by and we were so happily ensconced at Raymond and Mani’s that we would stayed there longer had they not been fully booked the following weekend. Reluctantly we packed up and were on our way once more. We caught a series of local buses first slightly up North to the seaside town Port Dickson and then deeper South to Johor Bahru and then the godforsaken fishing village of Kukup. Port Dickson is a local retreat for those living in Kuala Lumpur. It is a fairly soulless place, but to be fair if we were to do it justice we would have needed a car. It’s redeeming factor was meeting Addy, a twenty five year old local to the area who had studied sound engineering in Leeds and who worked as a music journalist in KL. He went completely out of his way and helped us find accommodation, took us to the very worthwhile food market that evening and then later on an expedition to find beer at the El Cactus Mexican restaurant.
For all Addy’s helpfulness he was not too hot at distances, his five minute walk to the pub took closer to 45 minutes, uphill, both ways. The following day we went to watch the nearby ostrich racing which was outrageous in it’s cruelty and for the sorrowful condition of the ostriches. It was an unparalleled low as far as seven months of travel goes, an abysmal experience all round. The nearby lighthouse was, however, a lot more satisfying. The less appealing flip side of this walk was that the early evening descent was marked by mosquitoes the size of canoes. Slap your back and you’d get two at a time, then you would have to roll them off your fingers like fat, bloated slugs. On both evenings we ate at the local Pizzeria, run by a garrulous Austrian called Tino. Tino had been settled in Port Dickson for 15 years, and we got the feeling that whilst he didn’t rue the day he moved there, he wasn’t exactly ecstatic either. He sat at our table each evening, eagerly asking us questions ranging from Europe and London to our impressions of Malaysia and Thailand. He seemed visibly thirsty for conversation, but he was good company and offered us some helpful information.
On reflection it was down to his personality more than his pizza that we ate there two nights in a row. One of his ambitions is to climb Mt Kinabalu in Borneo with his son. “I’m Austrian. We see a mountain and we have to climb it. That’s the way it is with us,” he charismatically chuckled. Two nights in Port Dickson were more than enough and we headed South to the town of Seremban before getting a connecting bus to bustling Johor Bahru which is on the border with Singapore.

The next day saw us travelling ever further South to the fishing village of Kukup. I am inexorably drawn to fishing villages. They are a light bulb to my moth, nectar to a bee, a mountain to an Austrian. If money were no object, I’d live in a fishing village. I’d have a boat, a Jack Russell and I’d be happy as Larry. In fact, Happier. This would be on the condition that that fishing village was not Kukup. Or anywhere near that cursed village and it’s su
lphurous waters. The great war photographer (and a kind of personal hero if I were to have such a thing) Robert Capa once described Hollywood as “the biggest pile of sh*t I ever stepped in.”

Clearly here was a man that had never been to Kukup. Much of the town is built over the muddy banks of the ocean inlet and rests onwooden and concrete stilts. There is the overwhelming stench of drying fish in the air. Furthermore the town is redolent of sulphur, which is not really surprising as when you use the toilet you peer through the bottom of the bowl and down into the dark brown banks of the ocean bed below. Making your way along the walkways it is not unusual to see dirty shower water or worse dropping from the bowels of one of the houses. On arrival I was assailed by a podgy and surly adolescent thrusting his hand at me and saying “Give me money.” He then tried to grab my arm. I dispatched him with a few blunt words and a look of malice, yet ten minutes later he was back again. With in the space of an hour he approached me four times. My threats grew more and more animated. As it is he proved to be one of the more friendly people in town. In general we got the impression that Kukup was a little insular. It was a local town for local people. And apparently a hoard of Singaporeans who come across at the weekends. Of course this is a massive generalization and some of the people that we met were helpful enough, if not exactly effusive upon seeing us. The happiest signs of life in Kukup seemed to the ubiquitous Salamanders that basked in the mud beneath the stilts, blithe, fat, bloated and seemingly as happy as pigs in the proverbial, of which there was no shortage.

Having retreated from the fishing village, that hateful light bulb, the comforts of Johor Bahru seem wondrous. The streets here are very much alive and no more so than at night when neon lights turn the town incandescent. Food markets abound and sell all manners of delicious snacks and meals. You can buy a snake or two for virility should you wish (personally I don’t but it seems that many do) and all sorts of other charms and medications. The barber shops allegedly sell women along with their haircuts, whilst I was offered “jiggy jiggy” whilst waiting for Nipun outside a 7/11. Aphrodisiacs are big business here and unsurprisingly the city has a tawdry reputation as Singaporeans flock across the border to escape the clinical and Draconian rules of that city, where even jay walking results in hefty fines. Lets not split hairs, Johor Bahru is a veritable Sodom, but it sure beats Kukup.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Friends Re-United

Entry back into Malaysia was a sobering experience. Halfway through our flight I was handed the usual arrival card and customs gumf, attached to which was a bright yellow slip of paper that mentioned the extremely high probability of a premature death should you be found bringing any drugs into the country. It goes without saying that we were not carrying any illegal substances, nonetheless that slip of paper seems to weigh you up with a cold gaze and say “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.” And then it winks and says “So did you pack your bags yourself then? And no one tampered with it at all did they?” Upon arrival in the airport terminal a couple of hours later a large video camera surveys you, and if you are not already panicked enough, another piece of brightly coloured, cautionary literature is thrust at you. It tells you that H1N1 is alive and well and living in these parts of Asia. Furthermore if you have a temperature or flu like symptoms you are probably going to die unless you repair to a doctor post haste. If the illegal substances and our in- house executioner doesn’t get you, then thebird flu will seems to be the message.

We made it through customs unscathed and in record time, then jumped onto the shuttle bus into KL, dozing along the way whilst incandescent neon lights and high rise buildings silently slid past. By the time we got to Sentral it was midnight, which was kind of bad news as we had not booked any accommodation. On account of the hour we took the first place that had vacancies, right above the reggae bar . Alas there was to be no “kinky reggae,” for it appears that the Reggae Bar actually plays drum and bass. It plays drum and bass of the crap variety furthermore and the room itself was as clammy as a steam bath. The bedroom walls were grim, dirty and stained and smeared with blood along one wall (suicide!?). Never a good sign for a comfortable nights sleep. Still, we were exhausted. We jumped into the sorry-looking steel framed single beds and then tried to sleep. For about two minutes or so this seemed to be going well. And then the DJ downstairs began to holler into his microphone. The beds vibrated, the window (facing out into a public corridor) rattled and the bedbugs awoke from their fitful slumber. It started off with a couple of twitches, then both of us systematically slapping ourselves. When the light went on a little later Nipun was sitting up in bed fully dressed, a pair of long blue and black socks rolled up each arm and a set of air plugs protruding from each auditory canal. If we were not so bad tempered by this stage it would have been funny, though as it was the hysteria was confined to the type of tears and out pourings of rage. I battled on trying to sleep, Nipun left the room and reappeared three hours later having taken to the streets for a feverish walk rather than endure the confines of our room. We checked out of the guesthouse at five o’clock the next morning, the Indian caretaker good humouredly admitting that he would rather sleep in a ditch than one of the rooms in that place. By this stage our lassitude was such that we just smiled wanly, scratched our wounds and disappeared into the soft light of morning, the streets empty save clutches of lady boys making their way home and the first denizens of the new day.

In “Little Dorrit” Dickens remarks that “One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.” I would have been quite keen to have put him up in the KL Backpackers Travellers Inn for an evening and seen if he revised this line. And indeed KL in general. The first time we were there I loved it for it’s architecture, the steel and glass skyline and the trains that hurtle overhead, banking left and right as they bend their way through the city. The second time around though I found the city oppressive. Little India was authentically filthy and China Town seemed to be a giant flee market catering for tourists. There were an abundance of homeless souls on the streets and the number of beggars we saw was depressing. In some cities you expect to see poverty, but in KL for all it's wealth and glitz, it is a nasty surprise. In Petaling Street (the pedestrianised drag of China Town) we saw an old homeless man assaulted by a gang of bullying shop keepers. The shop keepers, healthy young and muscled slapped the old pariah across his face with a wooden cane before sending him hurtling with a kick to his stomach. No doubt he transgressed some line (petty thefy maybe?) and this was just rough justice, but on your second day in a new town this kind of thing does little to make you love a place. Various other manifestations of pent up anger (a young woman, her foot bloodied and smeared, kicking her boyfriends motor cycle to pieces, an aggressive verbal confrontation between two passers by) made me feel that KL was just too claustrophobic for us. On the plus side some of the Malaysians we met in KL was supremely affable, in fact a casual encounter with a stranger can leave you chatting away for a half an hour. And of course the food in KL is wonderful, be it from the street markets or some of the restaurants where an ambrosial feast for two will set you back a mere £4.00. It was a relief however when David and Yolanda, our friends from Holland, sent us an email mentioning that they were thinking of heading out to Teman Negara, one of Malaysia’s national parks. We got the next bus out of town and headed straight there.

Taman Negara covers over 4300 square kilometers, which twice the size of Luxemborg or triple the size of Surrey, depending on your preference. It is a swathe of primordial jungle, dating back 130 million years. Given it’s geographical location the jungle in Taman Negara has eluded the ice ages and volcanoes. The trees and natural growth are so thick as to be impenetrable in places, the ants look as if they were raised on anabolic steroids and the leeches that abound the jungle floor are quicker than an Olympic sprinter when they detect you moving towards them. The journey into Taman Negara took the form of a bus as far as Jerantut (three hours from KL) and then a boat ride up river for three hours in a small dugout powered by a 40 HP outboard engine. The journey upstream is wonderful, verdant jungle climbs the valleys on either side whilst occasional water buffalo’s drink from the river and monkeys make whatever noise monkeys make in the trees. Wiki answers was not this much help on this particular one:

We spent four days in the jungle with David and Yolanda, trekking and walking the jungle canopy by day and watching a box set of Heroes by night, the four of us crouched around our laptop whilst the night exploded with jungle sounds around us. On about the third day three of us developed a dodgy stomach which must have been down to the food as they don’t sell beer, a matter of some considerable consternation at the time (the beer that is). It was really good to see them again, and then we were on our way once more, bound this time for the Cameron Highlands, famous for it’s tea, forests and the great explorer Jim Thomson, who went for a stroll in the Highlands and never returned.

Saturday, 10 October 2009


Landing in Bali for the first time is a somewhat alarming experience. Peering out the window you can the see the ocean beneath getting ever closer. Fishing boats pop up at your window complete with exasperated fishermen making rude gestures for flying too close whilst white surf churns outside surprisingly close. The spray almost seems to fleck the pane of glass, behind which you are testing the seat belt and looking for the oxygen mask. It is with considerable relief that suddenly the tarmac runway appears below, the sea still swirling on either side. And then with a slight bump you are down and the sea vanishes swiftly behind.

Throughout our travels every country has had it’s own quirks and surprises, idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. One thing though has been entirely consistent: the unfriendliness of the clerks as you enter a new country. Of course the type of unfriendliness varies, In India it was sullen insolence, in Cambodia they tried to extort bribes and instil fear and in Thailand it was just unadulterated boredom. Universally it seems that the officials do not go so far as to convey hostility; rather they just make you very aware that they are doing you a massive favour by letting them do their jobs. Arrival in Bali was no exception. They were of the intolerably bored and slightly rude variety. Not so rude as to merit a complaint, but hovering just to the side of that line. The official snatched the US$25.00 visa fee without so much as looking up, stamped our passports with exaggerated efficiency and then hollered “Next” before his stamp had even returned to it’s rubber pad. Thus served we made our way through customs and out of the airport. Along the way we were assailed by a long line of money changers waving energetically from their booths, (all of them quoting exactly the same rate) and then, on exiting the airport, the process was repeated by a horde of marauding taxi drivers, each with “a lean and hungry look” to quote that fellow Shakespeare.

We found ourselves in Bali after planning to meet James and Jens there for a ten day break. Being in Malaysia, Bali was cheap to fly to and promised good diving and a host of other activities to keep boredom at bay. Alas Bali is a big place and fate was conspiring against us that evening. Our phone charger had given up the ghost, followed shortly thereafter by our phone and our rather haphazard planning meant that we knew our friends were in Bali, but not exactly where. Furthermore it was 11 o’clock in the evening, all the hotels in the area were full on account of Eide and things generally were looking rather glum. After an hour of everything going pear shaped (and yes, I had a tantrum of the whining and stamping variety, sorry Nipun) Nipun saved the day by locating an internet café where an email awaited confirming the whereabouts of James and Jens who had booked accommodation for us nearby to boot. The evening thereafter consisted of much (too much?) merriment and chatter into the early hours, followed by a swim in the ocean the following morning to set us right again. And then back in a taxi to Ubud.

Ubud is generally accepted as the art Mecca of Indonesia. It is vibrant, filled with galleries and local crafts and has the atmosphere of a town that celebrates it’s cultural heritage. You cannot swing the proverbial cat without fear of braining the poor wretch on a sculpture or traditional dancer. It must be the only place on earth where it is kinda uncool to own an art gallery. Good eateries and bars abound, but somehow the town retains a sense of dignity as opposed to feeling horribly over commercial. Furthermore the geographical area in which Ubud lies is magnificently beautiful. Verdant rice paddies blend into the undulating hills around the town, a multitude of stream and rivers dissect the town and there is a sense of pride in the way the building are maintained and presented. Once we found accommodation it offered very good value, less than £6.00 per night for bungalow with a balcony, breakfast included. We set about arranging the next few days activities, in the form of white water rafting that afternoon, followed by a 2 AM start the following day to climb the still active volcano Mt. Battur. The rafting was excellent, not so much for the rapids (it was more like floating down a briskly flowing stream on a rubber dinghy) but for the scenery alone. The trip takes you through winding green valleys, cultivated where the gradient allows, rice paddies and waterfalls. Behind you and in the distance volcanic mountains turn blue in the distance, their peaks pushing through crisp white clouds. The rafting takes a couple of hours and finishes with a brief rush of adrenaline when the raft goes over a three metre weir, catching at first and then dropping like a stone amidst whoops and nervous giggles. And then there is the inevitable climb out of the valley, legs shake and conversation slows. The climb is, however, a morning stroll compared to what was in store the following day.

It is hard to have a sense of humour when your alarm goes off at 1.30 am and it is not a mistake. Our taxi driver seemed to share this opinion and when he arrived at two o’clock to pick up us up he was a silent somnambulist, nodding at us briefly before settling stonily into the drivers seat. Jens had failed to sleep, Nipun and I had managed a few hours whilst James in stark contrast was positively pukka. He had snuck off to have a massage the previous day and slept like a king. We made a brief detour for coffee and banana pancakes before meeting the impressively large crowd of other climbers. There must have been about 100 people, all congregated at the foot of Mt Battur for the 2 AM start. As we all wound up the hill the experience was something akin to a pilgrimage, the darkness of the night glinting with a hundred small torches all winding spiralling up the circuitous and treacherous foot path. There were regular breaks to catch our breath, and then amber cigarettes glowed alongside the head torches below and above. Finally we reached the designated view point. It was cold, windy and the coffee was overpriced. Gradually a layer of very soft light crept between the land and the sky and slowly forced the day open in shifting shades of orange and blue. Despite the early rise and the climb at such a God forsaken hour it was definitely worth it. We followed this with a hike around the volcano before heading back down and going for lunch at ten o’clock in the morning.

The next day we left Ubud after what was an action packed few days. We had done more exercise than I did last year, eaten delicious food and sampled the local whisky (Arak). Between Jens and I, we sampled a considerable amount of local whisky. I can thoroughly recommend it, mixed with lime juice and brown sugar, then shaken and served on crushed ice. Happily the whisky is cheap and hangovers are small. Everyone, as they say, is a Winner. Or at least that is what it feels like at the time.

Our next destination took us via taxi and speed boat to the island of Nusa Lembongan, famed for it’s diving and surfing and lack of an ATM machine. Ok, not so famed for the last bit but we learnt the hard way. There was a brief panic as the dive schools all seemed to be fully booked and warned us people sleeping on the beach due to a shortage of accommodation, but things looked up for us and we found both before the end of the day. The island is in many ways a breath of fresh air, having failed to become a purely commercial enterprise geared purely towards tourists just yet. The locals (and mischievous children) are welcoming and there is a tranquil air to the place. The last few years have seen rapid development (the island is dubbed Little Australia because so many Aussies have opened up businesses and bought land, indeed land prices are quoted AUS Dollar) but the locals have taken this in their stride. It had bought them some economic empowerment and 24 hour electricity, but speaking to one local dive shop owner he admitted that there were concerns that too much was being ceded to foreign investment.

The next day we spent diving which was fantastic, the second dive being a drift dive in currents of water that propel you along the reefs with the fish and the coral all passing you by. It is an amazing experience, other than the occasional wiggle of your flippers you expend hardly any energy and cover a fairly large area during the dive. We spent a few more days on the island, scuba diving with Manta Rays by day and eating sea food by night. It was a very relaxed break and when it was time to say goodbye to the island I felt that I would be back sometime in the not too distant future. The diving was great, my ears were perfect this time around and Nipun’s diving is getting really good. I’d like to think that we will make it back to Nusa Lembongan at some stage, certainly not this trip but in the not too distant future.

For the trip back to the mainland we caught the public ferry that leaves at 7.30 each morning. The ferry is crammed with backpackers and a couple of locals alike, and in fear of rough seas and the inevitable casualties to motion sickness I decided to join Nipun at the front of the boat. This proved to be somewhat foolhardy. The sea was indeed rough, and the front of the boat lacks very little protection. We got drenched, which would have been a blast if I did not have £4000 of camera equipment with me. As it was I managed to get the rain cover over the bag and spent the rest of the journey acting as a human shield to my bag, which thankfully survived but has left me paranoid about the effects of salt water on cameras. Time for a service me thinks.

We spent our last night back on Bali at Jimbaran Beach. The area is very close to the airport so this made sense (well done Nipun) and is home to a fishing village. That evening we ate sea food on the beach with the surf rolling three metres away from our table. We ate lobster, fresh fish, calamari and prawns. James was nursing a very belligerent tummy bug, so we ate his too. And then drank his share of the beer. Thanks, erm I mean sorry, James! Nipun and I checked our email and discovered that our flight left the next day as opposed to two days time like we thought. And seemingly just like that we were back in the airport, hunting down my journal that I had lost ten days prior (I found it thankfully) and then stepping on to our plane. We arrived back in Kuala Lumpur at eleven o’clock that night with no booked accommodation and when we found some had to share it with ten foot bedbugs…. But that is another adventure for another day. To James and Jens, thanks for making the effort to come out, it was great to see you.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

South Thailand and Malaysia

Having planned to do as much of our trip overland as possible there always remained the uneasy question of Southern Thailand. As you get into the deep South of the country it ceases to be the land of smiles and is more like the land of random bombings, shootings of school teachers who are not Islamic and general anarchy as the insurgence continues. Happily we found a route that managed to circumnavigate the affected areas by heading through Koh Sok and into Krabi, down to Satun and then taking a ferry into Malaysia. Local buses and boats, happy days.

With Koh Tao behind us our next stop was Khao Sok National Park, two hours inland from Surat Thani. Khao Sok is famous for its verdant scenery and stunning lime stone karsts that are dotted around the inland. The national park is situated in the highlands, is refreshingly cool and is punctuated by rivers, mountains and lakes. There are over 150 species of birds and the dense jungle is home to tigers, leopards, gibbons and gaurs. It is the type of place that when you wake up in the middle of the night, you hear more sounds than you would during the day. The night vibrates with the noises of insects and animals and breathes with life. The karsts are enveloped with cloud above and winding rivers below, the white crags of the karsts dominating the landscape like slabs of alabaster.

The one factor that was slightly against us in Khao Sok was the weather. It rained a great deal, so much so that the owner of our guest house was heard to express concerns of the river flooding it’s banks. Antediluvian rain. Day and night. Then night and day. As we were on the aforementioned banks this was a bit of a concern, but happily the rain dissipated on our second day and left us free to take a tour of Cheow Lan Lake, about an hour from our guest house. The lake is beautiful and accommodation is available in simple huts built upon rafts. Alas we did not stay here but the setting is stunning and would be a must if we did the trip again.

It was during our time in Khao Sok we were lucky enough to befriend David and Yolanda from Holland, who became our erstwhile travel companions for the next five days. We met them shortly before they fed the cutest puppy in the world a mouthful of electricity. Or more accurately one evening during which the guesthouse owner's puppy decided to nibble on an extension cord we were all using. There was a yelp, a howl and a slightly grumpy pup that was then seen heading for the comfort of his basket. The next day he was back on form, his razor sharp milk teeth incising anything in sight. David and Yolanda were fantastic company, and at the end of our trip together we had swapped numerous book recomendations, music and movies. On the subject of music, David was (until recently) the bassist for Dutch band Alamo Race Track. They're famous... They've played Lowlands. See them here -

From Khao Sok we then travelled together across the peninsular to the fishing village of Krabi. Being the Low season Krabi was almost like a ghost town, the guest houses were half empty and the promenade along the river front was patrolled by boat drivers touting for business. “Where you go today? Motor Boat? Mangrove forest? Island? Beaches?” They were friendly enough, in contrast the manager at our guest house was a nightmare. Every time we so much as walked through the restaurant or peeped into reception he was trying to flog us a trip. When we told him that we would be getting a local bus further South as opposed to his mini van his petulance increased ten fold. He was the type of character that made you want to slip a packet of anti depressants into his coffee, if not to cheer him up then just to make him go to sleep.

Krabi is beautiful and again is marked by the same limestone karts that dominate the landscape in Khao Sok. The town has a sleepy appeal with some unusual sculptures that include a set of large apes clutching onto the traffic lights at Soi 10. These semi simians represent the 40 million year old remains of the Siamopithecus Oceanus that were found nearby. Or to put it simply, some of the earliest remains that suggest the ape to human evolutionary process. There are many that think that the theory of evolution is daft. I am one of them. Surely we would have known better than to move out of the trees in the first place. And as Douglas Adams remarked, there are those who even question why we would have even left the oceans.

The four of chartered a boat (called “Free Dom,” almost like there is a girl called Dominique who has just split up with a tyrannical boyfriend) that took us through the mangrove swamps and then on the island of Ao Nang. As you head down the river towards the swamps you pass through Khao Kanab Nam, twin limestone karts that rise out the water, one hundred metres in height and so readily identifiable that they have become the symbol of Krabi. In an inspired moment I took a photo of them from the boat, and then laughed my socks off when I saw that The Rough Guide to Thailand has an almost identical picture on the first page of their book. The mangrove swamps are fascinating, with their roots bared by the tide like a poor set of teeth sticking out of failing gums. The banks of the swamp are home to millions of Fiddler crabs; as you work your way deeper into the swamps the atmosphere becomes positively eerie and the jokes about running out of fuel seem to lack much humour.

After three days in Krabi it was time to move further South, carefully avoiding the areas around Songkhla, Hat Yai and Pattani where the insurgents are bombing, shooting and killing on a daily basis. We took a local bus further South to Trang, and then after a couple of hours wait we connected to another bus to Satun. In all we travelled for a full day, but it was fun and with good company. Local buses are often a lot more interesting than a stultifying ride in a minivan and this journey was very true of that. We spent a night in the no frills local hotel at the bottom end of town and visited the nightmarket in the evening. The market consisted of mostly second hand clothing and vendors who, refreshingly, left us completely alone. Satun was a really interesting town and the Muslim influence was very apparent. Many women wore burquas, we saw several men with prayer caps and in the evening the chanting from the mosque cut through the night. We only spent one night in Satun before making our way through to the ferry terminal at nine o’clock the next morning. Form here we cleared immigration in record time and boarded the ferry that took us to Langkawi Island in Malaysia. After a few hours in Langkawi we boarded a second ferry that took us to the quaint World Heritage site of Georgetown.

One of the first things that any visitor to Georgetown will pick up on is how ethnically diverse it is. There is a Little India that sells very fine food and boasts a variety of luminous colours to the sound of blaring Bollywood music. Then next door there are mosques and around the corner are the Chinese temples. Architecturally it is wonderful, there are so many styles of buildings on every street, from grand old colonial houses to stylised mosques and flamboyant temples. There is an abundance of colour of noise and life. The harbour lends a commercial feel to the town, whilst in the distance the modern glass and steel office buildings of Buttherworth contrast sharply to the beatific air of Georgetown. It was in Georgetown that we finally bade farewell to Yolanda and David, before boarding the overnight train through to Kuala Lumpur. Thus far we have only spent a day in KL, which is magnificent. We fly back there is a few days time from Bali, where we are diving with our friends James and Jens. This is such a hard life!

50/50 - Crossing the Halfway Mark

There are times when I feel I should have called this blog High Maintenance as opposed to High Mileage. Again it seems an age since I last wrote so here goes. Current location is the top bunk of a sleeper train between Butterworth (Malaysia) and Kuala Lumpur. In true Malay style the train left at exactly the right time and now winds away smoothly into the night. Overhead the fluorescent lights wrap around the smooth curves of the ceiling and the sound of the wheels on the tracks punctuates the otherwise silent carriage. Unlike Thailand there are no men hawking beer in the aisles or ladies selling pungent foods. And unlike India no one has yet appeared shrieking “Cha, cha cha Chaiiiii! Coff, Coff, Coff, Coffeeee!” In some ways this train feels slightly more clinical, but it is clean, comfortable and trains are such a great way to travel. I would say the best, but for me boats win by far. Sorry Paul Theroux. More practically though, and to the point, the battery life on the laptop promises about another 45 minutes which is handy really, because then I will close my eyes and wipe the sleep from them seven hours later when we arrive in KL at 5.30 AM.

We’re now six months into our trip and still talking, oops Freudian slip, I mean going. It feels good to still be travelling and whilst the initial excitement may have been sanded down a little, it still feels exhilarating to be exploring this beautiful part of the world. And to continue the metaphor, where the edges have been sanded down I think we have become more savvy in the way we deal with each adventure and each challenge. We have had some wonderful times. And of course there have been times when we’ve found ourselves humming “Grounds for Divorce” a little too loudly. “Is your wife sick of the sight of you yet?” read one email from a photography friend Danny. And a few days later “Has your wife strangulated you yet?” in an online conversation with another friend. To be fair travelling twenty four seven together, living in a room the size of a size three shoe box and breathing the same air 23.3 hours of the day can be trying at times. But it is all part of the adventure, and at the end of the day when the stamping of feet and vociferous discussions are done, we look out for each other and support each other. In the time since the last upload we have left Bangkok behind and continued our trip through to Koh Tao via the overnight train to Chumpon. Swerving the usual travel agencies we booked our tickets directly from Hua Lampong Station in Bangkok where Nipun managed to find a deal by booking the second class sleeper train with fan as opposed to AC. For anyone doing a similar trip the ticket counter in the station offers the ferry tickets as well which we were unaware of and happily they sell them at the correct price.

The sleeper train was much as I remember it from ten years ago. In summary, at around ten o’clock, after a couple of over priced, cold Changs, you fold yourself into your bed and hope to high heaven that someone wakes you up at 4.30 the next morning when you pull into your station. The Thai staff are great, and sure enough at the allotted hour they come through the carriages with a spreadsheet and bang on your bunk to get you off the train. Of course the travellers, red eyed and slightly crazed with anxiety have hardly slept, all of us thinking we are going to end up in Surat Thani at the far end of the line. The station at Chumpon is different from what I remember, though at time of the day memory is certainly an unreliable companion. Having said that Chumpon station seemed cleaner, bigger and more modern. And this time around there was a coffee shop open to help restore some semblance of vitality to the day.

The next stage of the journey isthe ferry from Chumpon Harbour, which is still emerging sleepily from the clutches of night. This goes across to the island which takes about four hours, and both occasions this has been a fabulous trip, the new morning sun being warm and ocean rolling around us frantically. Not so good if you get seasick, but touch wood, we don‘t. Finally, after a fifteen hour journey, you arrive in Koh Tao. My initial thoughts on arriving there was how much it had changed in the last ten years. Winding back the clock to 2002 the beaches were less developed, the bungalows and bars were constructed from poles and straw and far less prolific. Having said that though, Koh Tao is still magnificently beautiful. We initially stayed on the West Beach near the harbour and the sunsets over the ocean lack none of the grandeur of ten years back. During the day we snorkeled and looked at the coral and shoals of clown fish, and then two days later we moved to South Beach. The reason that the vast majority of people visit Koh Tao is to dive and to PADI training. We decided to do a taster dive and then, after pontificating and prevaricating for hours we tossed coin and the outcome dictated that we would do an Open Water Diving Course. The next three days were spent by and large submerged. On the first day we met a psycho Thai (a minority as far as I can tell) who wanted to beat up our dive instructor for (unknowingly) landing on a private beach for the shallow water training. I suggested later that we all should have wrestled him to the ground and tickled him into submission. At the time it was not so funny though and it took the intervention of a Japanese regular to the island to defuse the situation. Days two and three were spent removing regulators under water and learning to clear flooded masks before the final exam which was easy - it was a testament to team work with all of us copying each others answers. We left Koh Tao on the night boat to Surat Thani which is infinitely more comfortable than it was in the past. These days you have a dormitory style cabin with mattresses, sheets and pillows. When I did the trip last the boat looked like it might sink and when I did manage to sleep it was with an oxygen tank as a pillow and a bottle of Absolut vodka as a sleeping pill. Still, some of the charm has been lost, I will remember the first trip a lot longer than the latter.

As we cross the halfway line of our journey I feel increasingly despondent about it ending. It is almost like the end of our trip will represent a departure from our everyday life, that returning to our lives in England will be an almost alien experience. Each day here holds an adventure, looking up from the computer now (in Bali, ten days after I started writing this) the sea below is shades of turquoise and blue and the wind that blows shoreward cools the thirty something degree heat. I find myself gazing up and trying to imprint every minute and every landscape into my memory. And then being immensely happy and grateful that I am here in the first place.