Malaysia - the multicultural fusion
So here’s what we were doing over the past month. We arrived from Hat Yai at our favourite KLCC airport with a tiny delay but well in time to catch our flight to Kuching in Malaysian Borneo. We passed the usual easy immigration and got our “visa” entry stamps (“permitted to stay in Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak for 90 days”!) On landing in Kuching we got a new immigration stamp stating that we entered Sarawak (they have immigration checks all throughout Borneo which by the end of our stay contributed at least 10 more stamps in our passports).
Kuching - cats and Chinese
Something funny happened as we were leaving the airport: we were walking towards the main road to try to catch a bus when another tourist rushed towards us but then apologized for mistaking us for someone else. As we were walking further, a car stopped next to us and the driver asked “Jordi?” To our surprise in the car we saw the guy who had mistaken us for someone else before. After a short conversation however we found out the mystery behind the whole thing. The Malaysian guy was our host in the Seahair hostel which we booked for our stay in Kuching, the other tourist booked the same hostel and arrived by the same plane but had to first find his friends who he claimed looked exactly like us (we saw them later and I think the “exact likeness” was based exclusively on Jordi’s hair/beard style) and those guys should have arrived by another plane. The funny coincidence about the whole thing is that these friends were still missing and in the meantime our hostel host and the guy with his missing friends found us :). The free lift to the hostel was a very welcome consequence of this serendipitous meeting.
We spent our first day in Malaysia wondering how Chinese it was :). Everywhere we went (and somehow in Kuching it would always lead to a Chinatown) we would read road signs and title boards in Malay and Chinese, the food stalls were Chinese, the shops were Chinese and we heard mostly Mandarin in the streets. Later as we finally read LP sections on history and culture, we understood that for Malaysia it was perfectly normal, that in fact Chinese used to be the biggest ethnic group in this country as they used to settle here to trade with Indians, until the British reversed the natural state of things by introducing policies that enabled the Malay population to grow. Anyway, since Kuching was mostly about its two Chinatowns, the first day we dedicated almost entirely to checking the multiple souvenir shops and markets, touching and smelling all the weird things they produce and consume in this part of the world.
We also finally bought something that Jordi wanted to get for quite a while – the perfect jungle trekking shoe, at the price of around 1 euro! The name of this miracle is “adidas kampung” (the adidas in the name is not the brand but rather a tribute to the original designers of a simple shoe with spikes on its sole, and the local version of this shoe is made entirely of rubber so it’s indeed quite practical for the jungle).
The quest for the perfect trekking shoe for a rtw trip:
Btw, the subject of the perfect trekking shoe for a rtw trip has been bothering us for a long time now (basically ever since we started trekking mountains and jungles) and we are still not sure whether it exists. Here is the problem: we do have these "proper" shoes from one of those renowned producers (mine are Salomon and Jordi has Merrell) but what we learnt on the Annapurna circuit and in the Chitwan jungle is that none of these shoes are meant for trekking in very wet conditions. On Annapurna for instance we continuously had to cross waterfalls and the path would sometimes go through mountain rivers, in Chitwan when it started raining the path that looked normal all of a sudden turned into one big muddy river, so by the end of our trekking days we would sometimes have our shoes completely drenched in water. And that’s not a big deal if you have only one-day trek, but on multi-day treks like Annapurna you wake up, put on your dry sock and a still very wet shoe to face another 10-hour walking day… So ever since those treks we were wondering whether there is something better that our 100-something euro shoes. The answer came from this 1-euro Malaysian shoe. By now Jordi has tried it for a trek to the summit of mountain Kinabalu and for trekking the jungle of Bako and Taman Negara national parks and as a result he swears by this shoe. Not only it’s comfortable but it also gives you a very good grip (the spikes are perfect for muddy paths over here), and at the end of the day you can wash it much faster and dry it with a towel! For the same treks I was using my usual shoe and while it was fine for the mountain, in the jungle is where we really saw the difference – my shoes didn’t dry overnight and Jordi was the only one who started the next day with dry feet. So here is the conclusion of this shoe battle: 1-euro adidas kampung definitely wins in the jungle and is just as fine for the mountain treks, but there are only a couple of drawbacks that separate this shoe from being the perfect trekking shoe for a rtw trip: it’s probably not really suitable for snow and being so cheap it’s not very durable. As to the former, we haven’t tried it yet in cold conditions and will only be able to check whether it’s possible to trek in these shoes with a bit of snow when we move on to South America. As to the lack of durability, it’s not such a big deal as it would definitely last for a year. After a lot of hesitation as to whether to ship our 100-euro trekking shoes back to where they belong (in dry Europe) and continue our trip only with adidas kampung, with heavy hearts (caused by heavier bags) we settled on carrying both pairs. When we finally do some colder treks, we will announce the final winner… But just as a note to all this shoe battle, doesn’t it surprise you that all the trekking shoe companies keep investing more and more in making their shoe fit better, and breathe better etc. etc. totally ignoring the fact that as their customers go to more diverse locations so should the shoe be prepared to do? And another thing: why can’t they make them look like a normal shoe? Why do they need to be bulky and have that characteristic tough look? On a trip like ours we don’t want to carry two pairs of shoes: one for the cities, clubs and airports and one for the treks: ideally we would like one perfect shoe! Now here is the complete list of requirements to the perfect rwt shoe in the order of decreasing priority: fits good, has good grip, dries fast, is little weight for the backpack, is ok for a bit of snow, looks like a normal shoe, and if possible breathes. We are thinking of sending this list to various trekking companies to see if we can have a better trekking future :). And we have a couple of our own ideas of the perfect shoe design that are worth a patent, hence we are not disclosing them here :).
Well, back to Kuching, the name of which means “cat” in Malay… Since this is the only city (we know) where they have a cat museum and we both love cats, we went to see their eclectic exhibition of statues, paintings, posters, photos and stories of cats. It was a fun place and the only thing they were lacking among all those exhibits (which includes a complete “hello Kitty” collection :)) were the Chat Noir posters of cats (you know, the ones which they sell in every souvenir shop in Paris) and photos of our Baloo (the most adorable cat in the whole world).
Our next ambitious destination after Kuching was the 4095m summit of the highest mountain in Borneo - Kinabalu. Something which was an important consideration for us for this trek was that Malaysian Borneo is extremely expensive: to start with there are few roads, even fewer bus companies and in many cases it makes more sense to fly than to take a bus (you get there much faster for the same price); next problem – accommodation in the trekking locations is all monopolized and hence the prices range between high to insane, and to make full profit of your short stay the monopoly makes you book as many nights as they can squeeze into your trek. So for instance for Mountain Kinabalu you are obliged to reserve accommodation in the only lodge that’s available close to the summit and sleep there at the end of your first day, paying them something like 120 euro for a dorm bed and another 20 for food!!! On top of that, to trek this mountain you are obliged to take a guide and pay the permits. In the end, if you follow all these requirements, by the time you come back from Kinabalu you will have contributed around 200 euro to the monopoly’s annual revenue. Luckily for us, this Mountain also hosts international climbathons so for aspiring climbathon runners like us :) they had an arrangement which enabled us to trek this mountain skipping the accommodation fee, on one condition: we had to do the whole trek to the summit and back between 7:30 am and 5 pm the same day.
So after our flight from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu (and sleeping in the airport till we could catch the first bus to the city) we took another bus to the headquarters of the mountain and went to arrange our trek for the next day. The procedure was quite straightforward: we told the reception guys that we wanted to do it in one day, they called the park ranger, got his ok (we didn’t even need to talk to him), brought us a lot of papers all of which were saying something in the style "I understand that I need to complete it by this time…", "I fully accept the risk of…", "I will have no claims if…", they explained to us that if by 10 am we don’t reach Labang Rata (the place where everybody else stops to sleep) and by 12 – the summit, we will need to turn back, and that all the fees are non-refundable, and that if it starts raining hard we will also have to abort the trek. We were a bit worried about this latter condition as that part was totally out of our scope (in the Cat Museum we learnt that if you want rain, you should soak a cat in a bowl of water but they didn’t teach any tricks as to how to avoid rain :(). Yet we took our chances and signed all the “I agree…” papers. We had so much trust in our legs and weather, that not only we signed all the papers but we also booked our bus to our next destination, Semporna (the divers would recognize it as Sipadan which is an island close to Semporna town), for 9 pm next day. There was another strong reason to do it though – the fact that by that time we had arranged by phone the permits to dive in Sipadan island in just 2 days from then so anyway we had to make it there in time for our “now or never” dives in this underwater wonder of the world.
On waking up the next day we were relieved to see a cheerful blue sky and set up on our first 2 km of that day’s trek – from the Mountain View lodge where we were staying to the HQ of the mountain. On arriving there, we paid our entry to the park, the permits and the guide, waited a bit for our guide and when he finally showed up, took a shuttle bus to the beginning of the trek. Now, it’s an 8.7 km trek (first all the way up and then the same kilometres down): 6 km to Labang Rata through stair-like path and then 2.7 more on the granite rock face of the mountain till the summit. We did great till Labang Rata (starting at 8 am, we arrived there around 9:30 overtaking everybody on the way and amazing people who were moving in the opposite direction). Since we were doing fine time-wise, we had a relaxed snack with our own food at the super-expensive lodge (we even managed to get coffee for free from their machine as we didn’t get a sensible answer where and when to pay and were not so visible in the crowd of people having their breakfast before their trek down). Then came the last part of the hike: we found ourselves on a very spectacular granite plateau, with a rope along the steep path. As we were going up and up, the wind increased a lot bringing with it a very thick cloud and we felt cold even in our sweaters. We were only 1 km away from the summit, when Jordi got the worst crams ever!.. We were not sure if we would be able to continue, but our guide gave him some bandage to keep the muscle warm, and we went very slow and eventually reached the summit around 12:30. Actually, looking back on it, despite how cold it was this last stretch was what made every step of that trek worthwhile: it was really spectacular, and the best part of it was that we were absolutely alone. At times when the sun was emerging out of the clouds, the rock face would light up against the gorgeous blue sky… a really unforgettable experience.
By the time we reached the summit, Jordi felt much better and we had a quite unadventurous hike down. We stopped again at Labang Rata, had our lunch and reached the HQ by about 16:30. Nobody checked our permits over the whole trek, and the only “tracking” of our progress was that they wrote down our time when we started and when we finished. To sum up, for anyone considering trekking this mountain in one day we would say it’s a relatively easy trek if you are in good shape (we were happy to find out that ours still is :)) but it can get treacherously cold on the last stretch so you are better off with long pants. We also saw why it would make sense to abort the hike in heavy rain: the granite gets very slippery, and it might be difficult to keep the balance even with the rope. What we were definitely happy about was that we didn’t have to hike the rock face with dozens other hikers (the way it happens when they all wake up at 2 am on the second day of their trek to get to the summit in time for the sunrise) and we didn’t have to fight for space on the very tiny summit spot.
Overall conclusion: it was a great trek, and definitely doable in one day (the extra day would have cost us over 200 euro). And just for reference, Italian Marco de Gasperi went up and down this mountain in incredible 2h 33 min during the last climbathon in October 2010. (As to our personal very modest achievement, we took 6.5 hours, with the breakdown of time as follows: 2h to Labang Rata, 0.5h snack break, 1.5h more to the summit and 3h in total down to HQ with 1h lunch break in between).
After the hike we still had quite some agenda for the evening: we went to the lodge, had a shower, packed our bags and went back to HQ to catch our bus to Semporna (so another 4 km walk :)). At 9 pm we were on board of an absolutely empty bus and were able to finally rest our legs after this very active and very long day.
Semporna - amazing underwater creatures of Sipadan and locals who eat them
We switched to another bus at midnight and arrived to Semporna at around 4 am, greeted by taxi drivers and dogs. The taxi drivers told us the Billabong Scuba dive shop we needed to go to was very far, and so were the hotels; LP didn’t have a map of this place and we couldn’t ask the dogs whether we can believe the taxi drivers, so at first we were just sitting there at the bus station waiting for sunrise which usually brings more information. But as we were very tired after a sleepless night on a freezing air-con bus, at some stage we found a guy who offered to take us to a cheap hotel for less than the rest, so we surrendered. To our huge disappointment, the street with guesthouses and dive shops was just around the corner! Probably to justify the payment, the taxi driver took us to the farthest hotel in town (which was still only a 5-minute drive). Anyway, now that we knew our way around this city of two streets, we walked back, saw the local market (at 4:30 am these people – probably straight after the morning prayer - were already actively engaging in sales transactions!) found a hotel and fell asleep in the next second.
A few hours later, full of fresh strength we went to check the dive shops. By that time we had already reserved the dives at Billabong Scuba which had permits on the day we wanted to dive (we felt quite lucky since LP advises to book dives in Sipadan long in advance as there are only 120 permits a day distributed over dive shops to dive in the island). But before going to that dive shop we decided to have a quick check what else was available (because of the 300 euro we were committing for one day activity it didn’t feel too much of a crime to try to save some of that money by asking around). We did manage to find a cheaper way to dive (saving about 100 euro): Sipadan Scuba had a couple of permits and unlike other shops, they didn’t make us dive in Mabul Island before Sipadan. The only problem was that we had to wait another day.
No big deal, we thought, as it gave us a great opportunity to finally catch up on sleep and explore this small town with its colourful local market and quay. It was a sad revelation to see that in this scuba paradise locals consider food what we come to see underwater: rays, bubble fish, barracudas etc. etc. We also met a lot of kids (one small girl got a small fish from someone in the market and had hard time trying to protect it from all the boys who were trying to snatch it away).
Bubble fishes and stingrays:
Kids at the market:
The girl with the fish and other kids:
The next day we were once again (after our Kinabalu adventure) blessed with sunshine which made this day in "diving paradise" even more enjoyable. It started also kind of funny: when we arrived at the shop Jordi got introduced to one of their instructors who turned out to be a Catalan guy. They were chatting and Jaume mentioned that there is another Catalan instructor in the shop (it did look like the shop’s Austrian owner has preference for Cataluniya-bred instructors) but it was a real surprise when Jordi discovered that this instructor was the same guy who works in the centre back in Costa Brava where Jordi used to dive every summer! (Pere from Calypso diving!). Once again – it’s a small world.
"Welcome to paradise - but visit is restricted to the few metres along the beach":
We took our gear to the boat (they had provided us with the whole set of very well-kept equipment) and for the next hour enjoyed a beautiful drive to the gorgeous island of Sipadan (“Welcome to paradise!” which we heard from our guide as we stepped on the shore felt like a well-befitting greeting). It was a really special diving day: immediately on hitting the water during our first dive we already saw a white-tip reef shark! And it continued to be just as amazing during all our dives: on the first one in the White Tip Avenue we saw an incredible amount of turtles, on the second dive at the Hanging Gardens we saw a lot of sharks and turtles, on the third at Barracuda Point we saw a huge school of barracudas and swam underneath them while watching them hunt. Between the dives we had a short surface interval on the island either chatting with fellow divers or enjoying the zen feeling of simply sitting on that white sand and looking at that turquoise water.
The colour was unbelievable:
Conclusion: diving here – definitely recommended! Does it compare to Egypt (a crucial question for many divers from Europe)? – definitely, in the sense both are really amazing diving locations, except in Sipadan you can very easily see a lot of big animals (we only had three dives and saw a lot) and in Egypt you need to be a bit more lucky and more dives to see sharks for instance. But, that said, according to Jordi, Maldives is the best...
There was this very huge lizard that looked like a small dinosaur:
Kota Kinabalu - Brunei visa and "water village"
Anyway, on arriving back from paradise to Semporna, we had a shower at the dive shop and went to catch our bus back to Kota Kinabalu (the only road to the east of Borneo). We arrived early, checked into the Global Backpacker hostel and went to arrange my visa for Brunei. Of course, when the whole world can get visas on arrival, I need to get one in advance, and of course they always want a flight ticket (like the only way to go between the countries is air), but luckily there was a very friendly and helpful woman receiving applications: not only was she ok with my flight out of Malaysia as proof of onward travel for my Brunei visit, but she also told us that we can collect the visa in two hours instead of three working days.
We spent the waiting time wandering through a very picturesque “slum-like” water village in the area close to the consulate which was really picturesque in its own slum way. In half an hour we spent there we saw a kid trying to reach a huge rat out of the water with the help of a fishing rod, a chicken falling into the same water and two kids rescuing it, we ran into a thirsty kitten (what a tragedy with all that water around!) and took it to local kids to get him something to drink, a short while later the kids "delivered" the kitten to us (not sure whether they thought it belongs to us or the fact that we left the kitten with them for permanent care simply got lost in translation :-) ), and apart from all that we saw a lot of kids playing, riding bikes and saying hi to us. It was a really nice and unexpected detour from our sightseeing route of that day.
The whole neighbourhood consisted of these kind of houses, with kids and cats running along the wooden pathways:
As we were walking along the street, kids were greeting us:
Some were just peeping through the windows:
One thing they warned us about in the consulate is that my visa was only ok for traveling to Brunei by boat, as by road I would cross the border between Malaysia and Brunei several times and my visa was only valid for one entry (under no circumstances could they issue a multi-entry visa to a citizen of Belarus and the way it sounded was like they would have to ask the Sultan himself if I insisted on applying for one). This meant that the only transport option out of Kota Kinabalu was ferry, which was perfectly fine as it was cheapest way to go.
After collecting the visa we enjoyed a people-watching afternoon at a very curious market in Kota Kinabalu while waiting for a very strong rain to subside.
After this water village we went to check the Times Square which turned out to be a freshly finished project of a business district with many offices yet to let. We also had time to rest a bit at a local café where a lot of families were enjoying a weekend day out and tried one of the local specialties (which they call ABC): ice with various sweet things made either of rice or marinated fruits, all topped with condensed milk and sugar syrup. By the time we were finished with our second ABC it was time to collect the visa.
Christmas in Brunei
Next day we caught a boat to Pulau Labuan (still in Malaysia) and then the next one to Brunei. In Brunei an immigration officer asked me several times where I am from as it wasn’t clear to her that Belarus is a country (well, I cannot blame her: probably a Belarusian immigration officer would have similar trouble with a citizen of Brunei). In any case, she was quite relieved I had a visa, so they stamped us in. The customs guys were really curious to know how much alcohol we brought (since it’s impossible to buy any in this country) and there was a vaguely distinguishable smile of approval in their eyes when we said “none”.
We took a bus to the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan (wow, I can finally write the name of this capital without looking up) stopping on the way to change a bit of money to pay the bus fare. On arrival, we quite easily found our hostel which turned out to be a dormitory attached to a big sports complex and probably originally meant for local sports(wo)men on a trip to the capital. It was completely empty during all the days we stayed in Brunei (in fact, the whole country seemed to be empty as well as we hardly saw any people in the streets).
Nevertheless, we enjoyed having it all to ourselves (the hostel and the country) and had nice time exploring this quiet capital of Brunei. We visited the local market, wandered through the centre, went by boat to see the Proboscis monkeys, wandered through the wooden pathways of a huge water village (the biggest water village in the World according to LP), watched locals going to Friday prayer dressed in their best clothes, stopped at a mosque which was undergoing reparation and spent our Christmas Eve walking through the very quiet streets of the capital of this very Muslim country. You would have hard time imagining something farther from Christmas atmosphere than this :)!
People wearing their best clothes to go to Friday prayer:
Next day was Christmas and our agenda for the day was to visit the main mosque of the city (how ironic is that! :)) and catch a bus to Miri – our next destination in Malaysia. We did all that and just before catching our bus to Miri stopped at the market to get some food. That's where we encountered the most memorable thing about this Christmas – our one and only Christmas gift that we received from a lady at one of the stalls. We had only 75 cent left in Brunei currency and Jordi wanted a coconut but we also wanted some bananas for the bus. We asked if we could pay in Malaysian ringgit but it wasn’t possible, so after a short discussion we settled on a coconut. To our surprise, as we were leaving this Muslim lady gave us a whole bunch of bananas, saying “Merry Christmas!” That was our Christmas in Brunei…
Miri - Niah Caves and fellow travellers
Originally Miri wasn’t really on our itinerary for Borneo but serendipitously appeared there after we tried to book flights to Gunung Mulu National Park with Maswings (Malaysian airline) and their website gave us a “payment declined” error twice in the same evening while in reality our bank had approved the transaction. In the end, because we already had our doubts as to how worthwhile it was to go to Gunung Mulu (expenses-wise - same story as Kinabalu, plus the only way to get there was the flight that we tried to book and for some reason it failed). In any case, even though it was possible to fix the booking by phone, we considered this coincidental booking problem confirmation enough that we didn’t need to go, and changed our original plan. Instead of super famous, super spectacular and super overcharged caves in Mulu we decided to see the less famous, less spectacular and very reasonably charged Niah Caves in Miri (it’s impossible to establish the exact proportions in these super/less measurements since we didn’t go ourselves to Mulu but we talked to people who had gone and we are quite sure we made the right decision).
There must have been a touch of destiny in our decision about Niah caves vs Gunung Mulu, as the day we went to Niah Caves we met the record number of like-minded travelers who joined us for the trip. The Dutch couple Clair and Maarten have been traveling the world for exactly as long as us (they also started in May 2010) except in the opposite direction – they started in South America and have now arrived in Asia. In between all the cave exploration we chatted a lot about our trips and were able to exchange some tips (they still need to trek Nepal and we still need to trek South America :)). Another traveler we met - Elias – is a Mexican guy who quit his office job some time ago with a firm determination to become a travel photographer. Since then he has been traveling the world taking some amazing photos (looking at which made us regret for the first time during the trip that we left our Canon 40D behind).
We had a great time in these amazing caves, with one of the most memorable experiences being the fact that at some stage while walking through one of the caves we suddenly saw a beam of bright light coming through the cave opening and in this light we saw a gentle dance of dust particles, and then the light disappeared and reappeared a few more times until it finally melted away completely a few minutes later…
Back to Kuching - orang-utans at Semenggoh
The same day we left by night bus for Kuching. Elias had the same plan so for the next couple of days we traveled together around Kuching. Immediately on arrival in the “cat” city we dropped our bags at the hostel and went to visit the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation centre where they take care of orang-utans. It was really amazing to watch these graceful creatures as they were swaying in the trees, coming to the feeding platforms to get some bananas, coconuts and bottles of milk – at some moments it felt almost like they were showing off their balance and stretching skills! We saw a lot of mums with their babies tightly cuddled into their backs as they were coming to grab some food, and later went to see the feeding of the local star – big male orang-utan Richie.
The baby orang-utans were holding fast to their mums while those were grabbing some food:
Bako - the ultimate jungle and penis-nose monkey
Our next destination was Bako National Park where we wanted to finally get an idea of the famous Borneo jungle and see some wildlife. We caught a local bus to the reception centre, then took a boat through some very rough waves to the park and an hour later set off on our first jungle trek: a long loop trek around the park. It was finally the jungle we had been looking for: with huge plants, various weird insects, trees with branches and roots interwoven into weird patterns, full of sounds of all the numerous creatures who call it home. The trek passed through various vegetation zones and at times it looked totally different from the typical jungle look. We made a lunch stop at a very lonely beach, then struggled through some very muddy terrain in the last couple of hours of our 6-hour trek and finally reached the headquarters of the park by around 6 pm, making it a very close escape from the torrential rain that started one minute later. We slept in a simple park dormitory and the next day did our last bit of jungle exploration.
The beach around the HQ of the Bako National Park:
Jordi listening to the sound of the Proboscis monkey in the trees and the changing landscape of the route:
I wish we knew the names of all these plants:
Reaching for leaves and branches we find along the way is part of experiencing the jungle:
The colours inside the water were "photoshop-like":
First thing in the morning we went to see the proboscis monkey – in case you think it’s just a monkey, check out the images: this creature has this amazing penis-like nose and while it looks so ugly at the first sight is really sweet! We spent the whole morning watching them peacefully eat their favourite mangrove leaves and fruits, and afterwards did a short trek to another beach also spotting a lot of these monkeys along the way. Just before leaving the park we saw another common creature of this park – the silver leaf monkey (unfortunately, all three of our batteries were dead due to a small recharging miscalculation so we couldn’t take any pictures of them). Conclusion: it was a really great place to visit, a truly authentic jungle to trek (later we found out that even the local guides hadn’t been on the loop that we did for 8 years!) and watching proboscis monkey eat mangroves is an unforgettable experience.
Whether because of or despite the nose, their faces are pretty expressive:
They were watching us watch them eat:
The wild boar wandering along the beach in search of food:
The lonely beach we walked to on our second day in Bako:
New Year in Kuala Lumpur
Same day we caught a boat and a bus back to Kuching and had a quiet evening watching one of the one thousand movies that the owner keeps in the hostel (we picked one from his curious collection of movies in the style "Western world meets Asia") before catching our very late flight to Kuala Lumpur. That day following our tradition of sleeping in the airports to save the high taxi fare, we spent quite a comfortable night in KLCC, sleeping in the covered area outside the airport building on the only carpet in the airport which they put around the exhibit of a Formula 1 racing car (we tried sleeping inside the airport but they had some major NY eve cleaning campaign that day so they woke everybody up and gently kicked all of us out).
Sleeping in Malaysian "Air Asia" airports is very comfortable - it's always clean, quiet and the bags are safe:
In KL we had a reservation for two dorm beds in the Backpackers Travel Inn but when we saw the room full of sleeping backpackers breathing out what they drank the previous night we realized that it was a mistake and we shouldn’t have grudged a bit more money to be able to breathe purer air. Luckily after talking to the manager we managed to change our dorm reservation for a room. While waiting for the room to get free we went to arrange some of our next visas. First, we made sure that Cambodia was one of the few countries where they would let me get a visa on arrival: check! Second, we went to apply for a Singapore visa in one of the agencies (no one is allowed to apply in person): they took my application form, gave me back my passport (it’s only an e-visa!) and told me to check the progress online and print the visa once ready: check!. Since they didn’t take the passport, we immediately went to apply for the next visa – for Thailand and were told to collect it after the NY holidays: check! After all these visa applications we had only a little bit of energy left to check the lively Chinatown where we were staying before collapsing on our tiny beds in our cell-like room.
Chinatown - red, red, very red!
Next day was the last day of the year 2010. We spent it wandering through Chinatown, checking numerous shops with Chinese books and souvenirs, soaking in the joyful environment of the market and trying various foods. Then we walked to the National Mosque and were lucky enough to almost coincide with the allowed visiting hours.
We were given these lilac robes and a lot of brochures explaining "who Jesus really is":
After the mosque we went to see the preparations for the NY celebrations in Merdeka Square and afterwards walked through colourful Little India. At some stage we stopped at a small local shop to buy some drinks to be able to toast to NY and after checking the miserable choice of liquors (only Chinese rice vodkas, whiskies and some very expensive and doubtful red wine) we settled on the bucket formula a-la Phangan – bought some Thai rum (Sang Som), cola and red bull. In the meantime while talking to the old owner of the shop we confirmed the idea that here in Malaysia NY is not a really important holiday – what they really are looking forward to is the Chinese NY, celebrated in the beginning of February, and that 31st of December is just an extra excuse for young people to go to a disco.
Merdeka Square during NY preparations - still very quiet and empty:
A Malaysian family strolling through the very green lawn of Merdeka Square on NY eve afternoon:
Preparations for the NY concert:
Kids in a trolley:
The Little India:
Well, we were planning to join all those young people but by the time we were finished with the NY calls (around 2 am) all the discos in KL were closing!!! Anyway, apart from that we had quite a different NY celebration – with a bucket of cocktail Thai style and a meal of Chinese noodles and various rice cakes. We went to see the fireworks in Merdeka Square which by 12 am was full of people, but the show lasted for about 20 minutes (it’s not Holland where you are going deaf till almost sunrise) and afterwards everybody started to leave. In disbelief we asked where everybody was going and they told us “home”. That’s when we went "home" to the hotel, did some calls, drank a bit more and by the time we would have definitely gone out the Malaysians were closing all their clubs, so we went to bed only to wake up very late on the first day of the year 2011.
The fireworks greeting the 2011:
Light show on the buildings in Merdeka Square:
Taman Negara - the jungle and Orang Asli people
The 1st of January we didn’t do anything much – just hang around the Chinatown enjoying its vibe. Next day we were ready for action so we caught an early bus to Jerantut and from there – to Kuala Tahan, the base village for trekking the Taman Negara National Park. On arriving there, we found out that due to the wet season the trek we were planning to do was only possible with a guide (which was too expensive for us), so we asked them which parts of the park were ok to trek on our own. It turned out we could do half the trek we planned: we could go through the jungle, sleep in a hide (a wooden hut on stilts with 12 dorm beds inside) and next day we could get a boat to go back to HQ. This sounded like a great alternative to our original plan so the next day we packed some food, our ultra-thin sleeping bags, two bottles of water, headlamps, repellent (for mosquitoes and leeches) and set off. We stopped half an hour later to do the famous canopy walk (they have them in various Malaysian parks – basically a system of hanging bridges by which you can cover a certain area of the park so you can see the jungle from a different angle: it was indeed a great view, and some of the bridges were very picturesque).
The view over the jungle from the canopy (these red flowers grow only on the very top of the tree):
It was a 12 km trek to the hide so we were planning around 5-6 hours. We finished the canopy at around 12 so we had plenty of time to reach our sleeping place before dark. At the beginning it was quite nice with the jungle quite similar to the one we had already seen in Bako but unlike in Bako where the landscape kept changing all throughout the trek, this path remained the same (basically because it was passing more or less along the river) so after a while it was starting to be a bit monotonous. The only curious thing we found by then was a deserted village where someone left behind not only a tent but even a small TV!
All sorts of weird mushrooms:
Some of these mushrooms look like flowers:
Thirsty or hungry? There is plenty of stuff in the jungle (disclaimer: never repeat what Jordi is doing):
Making our way through the jungle:
This is the oldest jungle in Malaysia - you can see it by the size of the trees:
Marvelling at ant "highways" and huge spikes of the palm trunks:
This is what the path looked like:
We were already quite bored with this walking up and down the roots of the trees, when all of a sudden we heard one of those u-lu-lu-lu sounds that tribal people use to pass a message to each other (for instance, that of approaching intruders). When we looked the direction of where the sound was coming from, we saw small kids from the Orang Asli village we had stumbled upon warning the elders in the village of our presence. It all looked and felt so authentic, for a moment we were scared that they would start shooting arrows in our direction, but it all went very peaceful and as we passed through their village it felt like a peaceful scene from a documentary about tribal life: they live in huts made of what they find in the jungle, wear one piece of clothing around the hips, women cut wood with babies strapped around their waist getting so close to the knives they are using, they hunt for their food… they still live the life that we see only in National Geographic documentaries.
Orang Asli man with a kid:
Orang Asli woman with a baby:
Orang Asli woman and kids:
It was such a weird encounter that our pace naturally slowed down as we were passing through the village. The inhabitants of it weren’t hostile but neither did we feel very welcome. In fact we felt exactly what we were – intruders. So we asked how far it was to our destination (to our huge surprise they understood some English) and left the village. At the end of the day, this unexpected encounter justified the long walk of that day. (It was indeed a stroke of luck to just stumble upon this Orang Asli village as people pay for guided tours to see them which due to their pre-arranged programs probably doesn’t feel half as authentic as what we saw).
After another couple of hours of walking through the path that became much more muddy and slippery as we got deeper into the jungle, we finally saw the hide (a "house-like" watch tower in the middle of the jungle from which you should be able to spot wildlife and stay safe from it) and heard a welcome greeting from the people who were already there (a guided group coming from the longer trek we initially were planning to do). We spent a couple of hours, first washing off the dirt and taking off the remaining leeches (no, really, who designed this hateful creature?) and later chatting with the people in the hide. By that time it started raining very hard. After a while of watching the rain, we had an unexpected overdose of adrenaline when we suddenly heard a girl screaming “Look! That tree is falling!” and saw a huge tree collapsing to the ground with very loud noise just a few metres away from the hide. It was really scary as that tree did create a bit of a domino effect in the jungle around the hide but luckily the hide remained untouched.
This is what our hide looked like and the simple wooden beds inside the hide (we don't carry mats and had only very thin "sheet-like" sleeping bags so falling asleep was a bit of a challenge):
During that night in the hide we were hoping to hear a lot of amazing jungle sounds but all we heard was the loud snoring of the guide of the group. We woke up (or rather opened our eyes as we hardly slept a wink) very early to get to the river were we had to catch a boat back to HQ. The boat had to pick us up at 8 am and it was about 1 hour hike so we left the hide at 7 am when it was still pretty dark. Looking for the path with the help of our headlamps, we were steadily making progress for about half an hour when all of sudden we discovered ourselves next to the river but not the one we needed to be at! Totally at a loss as to what happened and how we lost the path (it should have been pretty straightforward) we started walking back very fast. We were almost back at the hide when we realized what had happened: in the dark we overlooked one of the signs and mistook a real splitting of the path for a fake one (the day before we passed a lot of these "fake" splittings with the path just going around the same fallen tree from both sides). Now with day light we could see the small notice on the tree that we hadn’t seen with our head lamps. Mystery solved, we had to run all the way to the river to make it there in time to catch the boat. So in the end after all the wasted time we did the whole 1-hour walking route in 15 minutes of jungle running. In the meantime the leeches, left unattended, had a real feast on us (I still have the itchy sensation in the bites of that day).
Singapore - expectations exceeded
But we did catch the boat, and then had a super quick shower at our hotel and had time to catch the bus to KL, and in KL we ran to the Thai embassy to get our passports, and afterwards hurried to the bus station to catch a bus to Singapore, and after that we drove all the way to the border with Singapore and around midnight went through the immigration and as it was very late we had to run again to catch some bus to the city. When we finally arrived at Little India in Singapore that day it was around 2 am, and we realized that in one day we made it all the way from a hide deep in the jungle of Taman Negara, via the Thai embassy in KL, to Singapore. We fell asleep on the “hello kitty” sheets of our cozy 3D Harmony hostel in Little India with a feeling of deep satisfaction…
You can only see Indian faces on the construction sites of Singapore (this mega project is the new metro line in Little India):
Singapore was not at all what we expected, in the sense it was so much more… We expected to find an urban jungle of cement-steel constructions reaching into the sky, billboards, neon and telecommunication towers. Instead we found a charming city where the old cute houses in the quays are leaning on the tall stylish buildings of the business district behind, where from the top floor of a shopping mall in the Orchard street you can see the neat tile roofs of the old Chinese houses, where you can visit Taoist and Hindu temples, Catholic cathedrals and Muslim mosques, where an overwhelming variety of cuisines (Indian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese etc. etc.) offer the very best of their dishes and in the very best of their quality.
Chinese temple next to a Hindu temple (the visitors of the former stop by at the latter and vice versa, making sure all the gods are covered):
The first day we walked through Little India, went to see the Taoist Kuan Im Thong Hood temple side by side with its Hindu Sri Krishnan neighbour, then walked all along the Orchard road with all its shopping malls, made a detour to the quiet Emerald Hill road which with its old terraced houses felt centuries away from all the shopping and glamour of the Orchard road, then past a park on to the colonial district, saw the Armenian church (one of the architectural landmarks) and St Andrew’s cathedral, and finally reached the Boat quay. The sight of that colourful quay against the CBD (Central Business District) was so pretty that we hang around there for a while and had our dinner at a huge eatery with Chinese, Malay and Thai food caterers, then we went on to see the Clarke quay (with all its lights and malls) and finally headed for Chinatown – our last area for the day. After some time of wandering through the market and cozy streets with ancient buildings we were tired and saturated with experiences to the sufficient degree to call it a day.
You can still see a rickshaw and people in sarong in the streets of Singapore:
Happy carps in the yard of the St Andrew's cathedral and poor lobster at the seafood restaurant:
View over the Emerald Hill from a shopping mall:
The "air-conditioning" side of Singapore:
Clarke Quay and CBD in the evening:
Next day we went to have a closer look at the business district around the so-called Raffles Place and felt a bit out of place in our backpacker clothes among all the gents in tailor-made suits and high-hilled ladies in their Chanel-like dresses. We continued to Chinatown where we went to see the Buddha Tooth Relic temple and afterwards had lunch in one of the places that looked especially popular with locals. They had a lot of amazing dishes (many of them we didn’t even see in China!). Afterwards we went to see the Raffles Hotel (another architectural landmark), walked a bit to Marina Bay and went back to Little India to pick up our bags and head for Malaysia. I only wish we had more time to relish this great city!
Melaka - night market in the Chinatown and amazing coconut kungfu
Our next destination was Melaka – a very important trading point of ancient times and at present a very scenic little town. Our arrival there was marked by quite a nice surprise: we were trying to find out if there was any bus to the city from the bus station and as we were asking around we met a local businessman who was waiting for a bus from Johor Bahru to pick up some documents. Jamel volunteered to give us a lift to the city so while we were waiting for his bus to arrive we had a chance to chat about many different things. He was born in Melaka and it was apparent how passionate he felt about this city. He had tried living in other places (including Singapore) but came back and settled in Melaka. He was working in hotels but at some stage of his life decided to go into construction business. He earned his two percent in some major construction project, invested it into buying his own construction company, then made more money, bought more companies. By now he has built many different things in Melaka, one of them – the ship-shaped museum. He has 4 kids, works from very early in the morning till late at night, plays golf for business, sleeps very little, eats every two hours, and talks like he still has a long way to go before he can consider himself successful. Aside from all these facts, he was simply a really nice guy. He gave us a short tour through the city and eventually brought us to Chinatown where we started to look for a hotel. They were all full so we went to Little India and got a room in an old Chinese building at the Eastern Heritage hotel.
Stadhuys and Chinatown at night:
Next day we spent a wonderful day in Melaka, wandering through its very cozy Chinatown, went to see the Cheng Hoon Teng temple which was full of young girls and guys scrubbing its walls and statues (probably in preparation for the Chinese NY), then went past Masjid Kampung Hulu, then had a nice view over the city from the St Paul’s sanctuary where we checked whether we can still read Dutch by trying to decipher the tombstones of the Dutch nobility, then passed by Stadhuys on our way back to Chinatown which by that time was ready for its biggest event of the week – the night market (we were lucky to be there on a Friday).
In the Chinese temple:
Jordi in the St Paul’s sanctuary and a rickshaw driver near the stadhuys:
Chinatown - preparing for the night market:
At the night market in Chinatown you can eat an overwhelming variety of foods - these fish balls and cendol with palm sugar were really nice:
It was a really colourful market, and a great place for us to buy some souvenirs for our next shipment and try various local food specialties (we particularly liked the Baba Nonya dumplings and cendol – weird names but just give it a try when you are passing through Melaka). At 8:30 it was time to catch once-in-lifetime performance of “coconut kung-fu” as it was labeled by a travel writer from LP. What happens during this weekly performance by a Taoist doctor is that he opens a coconut… with a finger. Ever tried to open a coconut, even with the help of stones and knives (it took Jordi about half an hour on the beach without a knife and with the help of stones)? Well, the guy does it in a few seconds with nothing but energy concentrated in his index finger! Very impressive … In the meantime he keeps selling – very successfully – some tiger-balm-like medicine but that’s just details. By the time he finished his awe-inspiring performance he dismissed all of us with a generous “Go home and sleep” which came right in time for us as we needed to catch a taxi to go to the bus station to take a night bus to Penang – our last city of this trip.
Penang - a colonial city and base for visa runners from Thailand
Penang was a bit of a disappointment: having imagined it to be of the same “breed” as Melaka, we didn’t find there half the charm of Melaka. The Chinatown was just a collection of old houses, many of them turned into hotels, and same for the colonial part of the city. Somehow all of it lacked the vibe. We checked all the obligatory sights (Victoria Clock Tower, the Fortress and the park in the colonial district, put incense sticks in the Chinese temple, went to see the curious interior design of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion and visited a few more Chinese temples. The highlight of this city trip was the mansion as we had a really nice guide (for free and all to ourselves!) and she told us a lot of interesting stories about the house and the rich Chinese family it belonged to.
Incense sticks at a Chinese temple:
Interior design in Pinang Peranakan mansion:
Back to KL
Next day we left for KL where we spent our last days spending money on Chinese books, CDs and lanterns, the reason being that we found more of China in the Chinatowns of Malaysia than in China and were finally able to find some nice Chinese things for our future home, as well as purchase some books and courses to continue with our self-study of Chinese. Among all this shopping we were also planning to visit the Skybridge in the Petronas Towers (you’ll know this one if you had watched “Entrapment”) but unfortunately it was closed for maintenance (this definitely means that we will come back to Malaysia).
At a market in KL:
Next morning we shipped a really huge parcel to Spain at the cost of only 15 euro and went to the airport to catch our flight to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
How did all this fit in our bags and why with all of it out the bags still seem to weigh the same?
Closing notes on Malaysia
Our main feeling about Malaysia - this country has a really misleading name: you would think it’s Malay but in fact what it is in essence is a beautiful union of various cultures, the biggest ones being Chinese, Malay and Indian, and with the corresponding eclectic mixture of religions, languages and cuisines, coexisting very peacefully temple to temple, person to person, stall to stall. This union is so peaceful and harmonious, it’s truly amazing! And something to illustrate this multi-cultured phenomenon: at a jeans store in Kuching we saw a vacancy - they were looking for candidates fluent in Chinese, Malay and English (someone with these languages would probably have little trouble finding more challenging jobs in Europe than just a jeans store assistant :))
The main conclusion about backpacking Malaysia – it was great, but expensive compared to the other Asian countries we’ve travelled (even China was cheaper). Malaysian Borneo in particular was too expensive for our budget due to transport and trekking expenses. But overall we are very happy we visited all the places on our route and at some stage we might come back for more of this multicultural fusion.