Saturday, 30 June 2012

Taiping Impressions (1 of 3)

June 10th - June 15th, 2012

** COUCH SURFING is a large travel community who open up their hearts and homes to strangers.  People make profiles telling about themselves and offering a hand in the travel experience of others coming through their hometown.  I have been a part of this community for a number of years now and the experiences have been invaluable. Sometimes people come into your lives for a reason and Couch Surfing is very much repeated proof of this.  To spend time in the homes of local people enhances the experience of travel so greatly; to have the insight and local knowledge combined with a personal cultural exchange has enriched my life over and over again.**

A few weeks prior I have received an invitation on Couch Surfing from Peter Chaing in Taiping to come and spend time in his family home.  Initially we had no intention on visiting Taiping; it was slightly south of our intended route, however, seizing spontaneous moments like this is exactly what makes the experience.  "It's not a very glamorous or high class chic upper class place but if you like the outdoors , this will be the ideal place . We can go hiking, swimming by the river, there's a wonderful zoo nearby and fantastic seafood. I can show you the best local food, not fancy restaurants and McDonalds but street local food …."  Peter warms in his message.  Sounds ideal. 

We took a bus from Penang and Peter came to meet us at the bus terminal. Taiping was the entry point into Malaysia for the British as they expanded their empire. As a result the architecture around the town, most especially in the centre and the prime higher level real estate on the outskirts, is very much in the colonial style. The British also had a major military presence here during the second world war and the evidence of a garrison town is prevalent both with the remaining barracks and officers quarters as well as the well tended military cemetery at the foot of Maxwell Hill.  We drove through this area as Peter gave a running commentary and made our way above the level of the barracks to a newer development slightly further up the hill.

 An automatic gate drew back and Peter eased his Honda into his driveway. He lead us into one of the most beautiful home gardens I have ever seen.  Buddhist and Hindu statues sat amongst lush plants, trees and bamboo. A stone pathway weaved through the gardens leading to a fountain filled with golden koi overseen by a 4" statue of a woman then to another rectangular pond with steps which appeared to float on the surface.  A four or five foot ceramic vase spilled water over the edges into the pool which housed yet more koi.  A covered wooden walkway illuminated by red Chinese lanterns lead to a hexagonal pavilion lined with seating and a small table in the centre.  Another space at the other end of the walkway offered more seating options and atmospheric lighting over a mini bar. Fans allowed for constant air movement.  This balinese style garden; a perfect home oasis. 

Peter immediately suggested we go for a hike through his jungle to which we eagerly agreed.  The trail followed a river and we soon came across a large swimming hole filled with local people cooling down from the afternoon soon.  We were greeted by many people with smiles and waves and the occasional curious stare; Taiping is not a place tourists often venture and seeing us was an obvious anomaly.  

Peter had a different spot in mind though. He lead us further along the trail surrounded by lush jungle where eagles flew overhead and a chorus of birds and cicadas fill the air.  I looked down when a felt a sting in my ankle to find a massive black and red ant which I quickly swatted away. Feeling another bizarre sensation a few minutes later, this time between my toes, I kicked my shoes against the ground but when it persisted, removed my shoes to find something black and slimy had attached itself to my skin.  "Uhm… guys, what are these?!"  I asked, fearing that I have finally come in contact with a creature I dreaded encountering. 
"Oh, leeches!"  Peter confirmed.  "Don't worry, they're quite good for you.  Helps with circulation."
I assure him that I have amazing circulation without the help of these blood suckers and asked him the best way to remove them. 
"Salt works"  He informed us. 
Unfortunately I forgot to bring my tin of salt this time and was stuck with the alternative option of ripping it off.  We all enjoyed multiple encounters with leeches on this hike and each time we stopped we each collected two or three from our feet and legs and returned them to the jungle. 

Peter brought us to a deeper section of the river just above the dams which source the water for the village.  He suggested a swim and jumped in.  Every body of water I immersed myself in up until now have all been just as warm as the air.  I gasped at the unexpected coolness of this freshwater stream and sighed in relief, my fantasy of cooler temperatures momentarily satisfied as I felt the heat drain from my body.  It was beautiful location; the river tumbled between water worn boulders and heavy vines hung from the trees; the jungle so thick only a machete could possibly grant entry.  The canopy offered complete shade here and the cool temperature of the water allowed us to escape the mid afternoon heat in Peters jungle. 

A fabulous meal of street fair was to follow in the company of Peter and his friend Fiona; a beautiful, down to earth, humble doctor.  They picked and ordered the dishes they wanted us to try; we shared dishes of curried clams, frog leg soup and Malaysian style chicken wings amongst other things.  Surrounded by food vendors and a couple hundred people sitting on plastic patio furniture we lost ourselves in enriching conversation sharing stories and learning about each others cultures and lives, getting to know our new friends on a deeper level. 

We met Peters family that night and were received with open arms.  It was home away from home.   Having never had a daughter, Michelle, whom we called Auntie in the Chinese manner, expressed how nice it was to have another female around amongst a house of males; her husband, whom we called Uncle and her two sons, Peter and David.  She immediately took me on as a daughter which was heartwarming and humbling and we were welcomed as family. We sat together in their Balinese style gardens, getting to know each other over a couple of beers into the early morning hours. Our intention to go hiking early the next morning postponed until afternoon to ensure a quality sleep.  It was the first time in weeks that we have had the luxury of air conditioning while we slept which was a relief as Malaysia was experiencing temperatures higher than usual even for this part of the world, the monsoon delayed by a month or more and a heat wave passed through the country. 

"Maxwell Hill was named after William Edward Maxwell (UK), who was appointed Assistant Resident of Perak in 1875. At that time, the British was looking for a hill retreat away from the tropical heat for its senior officers & wives, a place similar to Simla in India. After much searching, Maxwell discovered that there’s a hill right on his doorstep.  The journey from foot to peak is 13 kilometres, making it suitable for the purpose intended. Hence Maxwell Hill was born.  
Steps were immediately taken to develop Maxwell Hill as it was then known. By the 1870′s, among the visitors included famous names like Isabella Bird and Ambrose Rathborne. In those days, the visitors have a choice of walking, taking a pony, or being carried on a “mountain chair”. It wasn’t until the mid 1940′s that the road was widened and made suitable for vehicles. That was during World War II, when Taiping was declared the administrative centre for Perak and Indonesia by the occupying Japanese forces, the Japanese official made Maxwell Hill his residency. He forced the prisoners of war to build the road up the hill. Although the road was only opened in 1948, three years after the Japanese surrender, much of it was built through the sweat, blood and lives of ragged prisoners of war."  - (source: 
Two choices of routes were on offer; a paved road gradually zig zagging its up to the summit (ideal for vehicles), or, for the more adventurous and physically fit, a more direct route.  A steep path leads directly up the slope as thick roots interweave through and over the soil.  The mighty, solid trees including mature hardwoods like teak and mahogany offered support as you cling onto their hand and foot holds, climbing your way up towards the summit.  The heat was draining but the physical activity energizing; it was a relief to find water running off loose tree roots which hung over the trail where the earth had given away.  We stuck our heads beneath the cool stream of water; our body temperature significantly more tolerable.  This trail soon ended however forcing us to follow the cemented trail for the rest of the way up.  Monkeys played in the trees; swinging from branch to branch and occasionally playing on the overheard electricity wires.  

A cool stream flowed down the slopes often offering cascading waterfalls.  Slightly ahead of the others, I climbed my way up the waterfall in hopes the upper tier offered a pool deep enough to submerge in.  My efforts went unrewarded however; determined, I peered off my trousers and saw beneath the falling freshwater stream, closed my eyes and lost myself in this moment.  We all enjoyed this spot for an extended period of time, rinsing the heat of the day momentarily from our pores. 

The rest of the climb was a bit of a slog; hiking the concrete road to the summit but interspaced with ever more spectacular views in the occasional tree clearings and local animals as we crossed paths; a troop of monkeys, a snake struggling with a meal too big to swallow, a centipede (the only animal Peter appeared cautious of) more eagles overhead and butterflies and dragonflies flitting amongst the hedgerows.  Magically, Peter pulled a frog from his pocket!  Must have hitched a ride from our recluse at the waterfall. 
The "Watermelon Club" was perched as we neared the half way point;  a group will hike up to their hut with a watermelon and offer piece to passersby.  So refreshing!

The trail lead us to the peak of Gunung Hijau at 1,449 m above sea level.  An open sided pagoda and a collection of small cottages remain at the summit, unfortunately in the process of deteriorating, along with several archaic love swings and an old children's playground, the garden party setting carved out of the jungle with typical colonial tenacity (and no doubt an awful lot of Malaysian perspiration). At once you might hear the ghosts of jazz music in the air from a crackling gramophone playing weekends years in the past and imagine the sounds of laughter as the military officers and the gentry relaxed with their families over afternoon tea. To our great dismay, the Tea Garden House was in fact no longer serving, although we were compensated for our efforts with panoramic view of Taiping, the Lake Gardens and suburbs giving way to the salty waters of the Malacca Straight and the horizon beyond. 

A telecommunications tower is the only maintained structure here although the gardens receive a modicum of care as well.  The once proud multi story pagoda is not longer safe and inviting with its rotting wood and questionable staircase. We sat and rested in the shade of a pavilion.  My eyes scanned the grounds; tulips in bloom stand amongst pieces of litter scattered amongst the grass.  I can hardly stand the constant presence of it throughout this beautiful land and proceed to collect all the rubbish in the immediate area to put in the bins provided. 

As we make our way back down to sea level, Peter cries out "Careful!  A scorpion!!"  Shocked and excited at having come across a creature I have long since been fascinated with we keep our distance and admire the fully armoured lethal killing tank.  We soon realize it had been run over by a vehicle and inch forward to take a closer look.  Julian hesitated and I encourage him to face his fear head on.  It was, after all, no longer able to cause him any harm.  

That evening the entire family joined us for more street fare, at a different location this time, Chinese influenced.  Uncle and Peter wandered around ordering various dishes for Julian and I to experience and hours were spent passing numerous plates around the table until I was beyond the point of being stuffed.  Again, the conversation was enriching and lively and we continued back in their Balinese garden well into the early morning hours. 

We had every intention on leaving the next day but our Malaysian family was insistent.  We have not yet fully experienced Taiping and we must spend another night; Uncle had another meal in mind for us.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Expressions of Penang (PT 1)

June 7th - June 10th, 2012

Julian woke with one of the most impressive burn I have ever seen.  Not quite as good as my face after a day of skiing on Blackcomb Glacier but the white of his bum contrasting with the intense burn on his back amused me immensely (humph!… ed).  Unfortunately he will not allow me to post the photo but I'm sure you can picture what it would look like!  He winced as he swung his heavy pack onto his tender back and we trudged out of the jungle to Coral Bay to catch the first ferry off the Island - a mode of transport I would rather avoid after the 'land sickness' I experienced last night. 

The driver was nuts. He threw the boat over the waves at high speeds which effected my head and stomach in undesirable ways.  The American girl across the boat from us clung on to her seat with her eyes closed for almost the entire duration.  Having not eaten yet, I arrived back on the mainland feeling almost worse than I had the night before.  We were immediately accosted by eager cab drivers enquiring about our destination in hopes of being hired.  

We were driven to the main bus terminal in Jerteh to find that we had missed the morning bus to Penang having to wait for the evening one leaving at 2030hrs, some 11 hours later.  Hungry, frustrated and irritated Julian sought a ATM.  Relieved that the branch manager at Yellowknife CIBC had sorted our issues he was able to withdraw funds and brought me back a canned coffee drink.  A young muslim girl with a gorgeous smile and dancing eyes approached us and informed us in broken english, that a bus was to depart to Penang in an hour.  We eagerly followed her to purchase our tickets and leaving our bags in her charge, we headed off to find a late breakfast from a buffet style eatery in a covered square.  Our chef spoke no english and an eager young muslim man (having nothing to do with the operations of the business) approached explaining the dishes set out before us, ordered drinks, set up our tables and received our payment.  We ate in comfort and found we were left with just enough time to photograph the gorgeous town mosque across the street.  

Our bus appeared to be late (or regular tropical time) as one pulled in heading south. Concerned, a man waiting for this bus approached us asking where were going to ensure our bus was not about to pull out of the station.  The kindness we experienced from these people in Jerteh was infectious (even Julian has taken to offering help to random strangers!) and heartwarming.  The city itself, other than the mosque, was not all that attractive but the people made it beautiful experience and after the disillusionment of the impression left from Kecil, the restoration of faith in the Malaysian people was much needed. 

The 6 hour bus ride across northern Malaysia from the east side to the west, turned into the type of journey that I had been dreading.  Our enthusiastic bus driver insisted on keeping up with the cars as he twisted and turned the winding road though a mountainous jungle road blaring Malaysian radio which consisted, I believe, mostly of advertisements.   I am sure it was beautiful but I spent the entire journey with my eyes closed and head either between my knees or fully reclined battling an awful headache and waves of nausea.  He drove for 5 straight hours with no stops to use a toilet. Up and down the twists and turns of the mountains I retreated within myself desperate for some relief.   I stopped drinking fluids due to the fullness of my bladder and found that I was beginning to feel dehydrated and increasingly more ill.  Probably the most uncomfortably bus ride I have experienced I stumbled out of the bus, finally, in Penang. 

A very crowded bus took us to Georgetown and the main backpackers hub as we hunted for accommodation down the infamous Love Lane.  It was loud and crowded as reggae music pumped from one of the first hostels we came across. I had no intention of looking into this one further but a man ushered us in. I was relieved upon finding they were offering dormitory beds only, at a ridiculous RM30 (US$10!) per bed per night we left to a budget hotel across the street and down an alleyway at his suggestion.  The proprietor brought us up the stairs and showed us a  room on the second floor with a bed, desk, dresser, fan and en-suit wet room for which he was asking RM30, half what we would have paid for the dorm across the street.  Being down the alleyway there was little noise pollution which I imagine is close to impossible to find for this area.  Ideal!

Penang is famous for its street food and a huge amount of vendors line the full length of the streets in this area from Chinatown to LIttle India with a plethora of choices.  Noodles, rice, dim sum, soup, meats on sticks, fruit smoothies and juice bars.  Intensity, flambĂ© and fabulous aromas came from the large steel woks as the vendors kept pace with the demand for dishes.  A husband and wife team worked efficiently together combining noodles, meat and bok choy.  We pointed and held up two fingers to indicate our choices, took our seats on the plastic patio furniture and were soon presented with a bowl of pork noodle soup which we attacked with relish, stimulated by the sights, sounds and smells of Penang. 

Following a somewhat uncomfortable sleep on a particularly hard bed we woke the next morning and caught a local bus to the largest Buddhist Temple in SE Asia.  Goodness was it ever hot out.  I am immediately drenched in sweat, avoiding the sun via every available awning, overhang or umbrella.  Once more confirming in my mind that -35C is far more comfortable than +35C and find myself daydreaming yet again of glacier fed streams.  I have been dealing with a persistent headache for a few days now which I just can't seem to be able to get rid of. 

We followed the busy streets, past the persistent and constant presence of street vendors calling out in attempt to interest the passing crowds in their wares up to the entrance of Kek Lok Si Temple (or "Temple of Supreme Bliss").  We ascended the stairs forced to follow hallways lines with stalls, up more stairs and down more hallways filled with a seemingly endless line of shops until we reach the first level of the temple; Liberation Pond.  An impressive collection of over 100 turtles of various sizes filled the pond waiting for passers by to toss some of the food available for purchase. A courtyard with a fountain, rocks with Chinese characters initially carved then painted in red, and a golden Buddha surrounded by red clay roofs. 

A series of more hallways and stairs led us through several large and elaborately decorated rooms for worship and prayer.  Statues of Buddha, four-armed Vishnu (Hindu)  and Chinese gods lined the walls and were engraved into the ceiling and tile work.  Intricate woodwork, often painted, complimented by series of red lanterns. Donation boxes stood at just about every statue and devoted people contributed to every one.  The constant opportunity to be parted with your money was available through every hall, every statue and every staircase.  Consumerism seemed, to me, to be the main theme of the experience which put things in a slightly disappointing perspective, however beautiful and elaborate the temple may be the price of a nations guilt can always be measured in cold hard cash. 

As we neared the upper terraces of the multi level temple built up the side of hill, we passed a 7 story white pagoda.  After passing through yet another gift shop, an inclined lift (for an additional charge) brought visitors to the upper most level of the temple where we stood before a 30 meter bronze statue of the Kuan Yin; the Goddess of Mercy. The statue lives in another recent structure, the Goddess of Mercy Pavilion; 20 stories tall, a 3 tier red and gold roof supported by 16 intricately carved granite pillars.  We rested in the shade of a Bodi Tree admiring a golden rooved water pavilion adorned with hanging red lanterns, standing above a pond with Koi of shimmering reds, yellows and golds. 

Of course, Julian HAD to photograph the Temple from the hill opposite rather than the car park where everybody else takes their shot so on our return to the bus we slogged up what appeared to be someones private terraced garden in the afternoon heat, through banana trees and pineapples until we stood some height above the lower levels of the temple. 

Sweat still streaming from my pours, my body was desperate for fluids and body salts to be replenished.  A road side stall offered the solution; bunches of fresh sugar cane were fed through a mangle and the machine squeezed the juices from its hard fibres and poured into a plastic bag to be enjoyed pure.  

Across the street two men discussed a live monitor lizard which one had brought bound to a board unable to move. Julian headed across the road to take a closer look and I was told in no uncertain terms not to photograph the scene. One man walked away down the street and the other took a few paces back. This was our first encounter with the illegal trade in exotic animals and it was in broad daylight in a busy market street below one of Penangs most popular tourist attractions.  Not entirely sure how to process this strange scene.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Perhentian Islands Snorkelling Tour

June 4th - June 7th, 2012


PLEASE NOTE, within this next entry:
All photos taken above the water are all Julians. 
All underwater shots I have included in this entry were taken off Google images in attempt to show you a world which is beyond my descriptive capabilities.  All said photos are taken from beneath the waters of the Perhentian Islands and are an exact representation of what I saw.  Initially I had no intention to include any photos in this blog that were not taken by Julian however I believe this to be an acceptable exception to my rule since we have no waterproof case for his EOS.  


The morning was slightly overcast and I wondered if it would make a difference to the visibility underwater.   I was both anticipating and slightly dreading the under sea experience as Julian and I met the other two guys who would be joining our group. 

The cost of our trip was RN5 less than the other full day excursions and when I saw the boat we would be taking I understood why.  The others had a stable, slightly larger boat with a sun protecting cover and ladder available for climbing in and out.  

Our boat however was a small 4-6 seater boat, usually used as a water taxi, which rocked and rolled over the waves as they passed.  There was no protection from the suns rays and there appeared to be no ladder for climbing in and out.  I raised my eyebrows at Julian who returned my gaze with a cheesy grin. 

First stop: Shark Point!  we were told.  They were not going to ease me into this slowly apparently.  I took advantage of the lifejackets that were on offer, slipped it on taking my time until our guide urged us all to hurry up.  Pretty sure my heart was left behind as I jumped out of that boat into the warm waters feeling adrenilyn with a hint to anxiety surge through me.  I hesitated looking down into the water until one of the other guys urged me to do so.

I immediately relaxed.  The colourful bed of coral lay about 3 meters below my feet; greens, browns, reds, whites, blues, purples and yellows, many different species offering various textures and sizes. Schools of gorgeously patterned tropical fish all colours of the rainbow swam below me thankfully keeping their distance unlike the ones I have encountered the day before. As the clouds parted to reveal the sun, its rays penetrated the waters illuminating the ocean floor below.  I raised my head up again to find the three guys looking at me expectantly and I nodded in satisfaction before allowing myself to temporarily become part of this underwater world.  This was all well and good for now… but the sharks have yet to make an appearance. 

I swam off into the waters in awe of what lay before me.  I truly am incapable of coming up with a descriptive paragraph to describe the beauty of this world and the emotion that comes along with it.  Feeling at ease and realizing that that there isn't as much to be scared of as I though I found myself actively seeking these vegetarian reef sharks.  Swimming amongst the coral and fish towards a shallower section of the reef my eyes scanned the ocean floor attempting to take it all on.  From the corner of my eye a swift dark shadow appeared amongst the reef.  Focusing on it I realize this was my first encounter with sharks in the wild.  I squealed with excitement trying to get Julians attention from below the surface of the water I pointed and attempted to swim after it.  The attempt was in vain of course for these fish are far more efficient underwater than I and I quickly lost sight of it. 

Swimming in the general direction of where the shark disappeared I swam over the reef until I came across a sight far more exciting than the shark.  A sea anemone swayed in the gentle current - a gorgeous white-ish predatory animal more so resembling a plant housed the colourful orange, white and black clown fish.  Not only had I found Nemo but it turns out he didn't loose all his brothers and sisters after all!  I really don't think it was the film that made this such a beautiful moment as there is something truly majestic about this sight.  Finally catching Julians attention I showed him my treasure;  having chosen not to use a life jacket he dove down to the bottom of the reef and peered closely.  Curiously, the clown fish inch out of the anemone in interest; peering directly into his goggles as he fought the rising current.  Overjoyed I ripped off the restrictive life jacket, no longer fearing this world and dove down to visit these gorgeous creatures.  Similarily as they had with Julian, they left the safety of the anemone to peer at me directly in the eyes.  We did this multiple times before hesitantly realizing that there was an entire world to explore here and our entire time should not be spent with Nemo. 

Amongst the clown fish and their anemone swam various other tropical fish amongst the garden of hard and soft coral.  A few more sharks graced us with their presence until it was time to move on to another location.  We visited 5 different locations that day hosting a slightly different variety of creatures, fish and sea gardens.  I ditched the life jacket and found that it made almost no difference in my buoyancy; the salt waters supporting my weight effortlessly as I floated on the surface, rocking and rolling over the waves, occasionally dropping down into the depths for a closer look.  

Our third stop was in slightly deeper waters which offered a difference sense of this reality; the open waters offering more intensity.  Our host scanned the depths for the highlight of this area until he spotted it and told us to quickly jump in.  Heart racing I jumped in; there was almost no coral here at all.  Across the sandy bottom a giant sea turtle grazed.  Overwhelmed with the emotion of the open waters and the beauty of this majestic creature in its natural environment was all consuming.  Floating on the surface we grew closer to the animal though a considerable distance of depth remained between us.  We swam on top of it as it walked on the sandy bottom.  Of course, being an air breathing reptile it had to come up for breath and within a few minutes the creature rose to the surface once; twice before returning to its sea bottom pastures.  We all swam fiercely for a chance to swim next to him but only one person managed to keep up.  Within a meter of the beast, Julian shared the dive back down to the ocean floor alongside it and it was then that I realized how large it really was.  Julians body giving perspective; it was almost as big as he.  I attempted to keep up a short distance behind him and dove into the depth until my ears experienced pain that I could no longer bare forcing me back up to the surface.  I was somewhat shocked at how deep Julian managed to go (Julian says "no pain, no gain" - ed)

After lunch at a small fisherman's village of locally caught seafood, rice and fruit smoothies we toured 2 more locations.  I felt comfortably at at ease now after a brief moment of feeling seasick from the constant movement.  The waves were larger now and I felt myself being lifted and dropped as I rolled over the surface.  Rhythmic breathing and the rolling of the waves allowed me to slip into sort of mediation, my visual senses overloaded with the beauty of the sea.  I swam amongst shallow reefs, diving down in between overhanging hard coral following schools of fish as they moved with the current.  

Looking over the surface briefly to clean my snorkel I noticed our group had gathered in one spot and were trying to get my attention.  I quickly swam towards them and was overcome by confusion and awe; at first I thought it was a shiver of sharks until I noticed that this was in fact a school of very large parrot fish.  Quite ugly in all honestly but their size overcame that fact as we swam with them though I didn't dare leave the surface to get closer to these things.  They covered quite a distance following the reef edge as we swam amongst them for a good 20 minutes until the boat came to fetch us to return us to the mainland. 

 Shortly after setting foot back on the land a strange feeling overcame me.  I drank an excessive amount of water to rehydrate myself from a long day in the sun, showered and we went to our favourite little cafe for a couple hours to eat, write and edit photos.  This odd sensation intensified and after a very satisfying bowl of curry my body was still not to rights.  It was then that Julian pointed out that I must be land sick after a day out on the sea when he noticed similar sensations overcoming him.  My world was swaying in my mind bringing forth an awful headache and and waves of nausea.  After returning from the toilet someone else shared our table.  He greeted me in recognition and it took me  a few moments before I realized we had already met this man - the free diver from Californnia we had met in Cherating days before.  I love running into people again while backpacking!  Unfortunately though the sea got the best of me as I retreated to my bed to both enjoy and loath this feeling with rocked me to sleep.

Perhentian Islands PT1

June 4th - June 7th, 2012

I can't really remember the last time I was on a boat.

I certainly don't think I have ever stood upon a dock loaded with 60lbs of luggage attempting to board a small 15 seater boat swaying violently on a choppy ocean. It felt like attempting to stand on a slack line strung up between two mountain peaks under 40 knot winds. 

Just about every traveller we encountered thus far has claimed the Perhentian Islands to be a "not to miss" experience; white sand beaches, crystal clear, warm turquoise waters and some of the best coral reefs in SE Asia.  

I must admit to a wee phobia of mine here; I have some strange feelings in regards to what lies beneath the surface of the water.  I have not spent much time by the ocean and it's a bit of an unknown entity to me I guess.  I remember being on a holiday with my family and our closest neighbours on a houseboat one summer.  We were swimming and I was following my Dad back to the boat to find myself entangled in seaweed.  What an awful feeling!!!  Give me a plate of seaweed and I will happily eat it… trying to swim entangled in it and I'm not so keen.  People are looking up into space in search of alien lifeforms but I don't see why when all they have to do is go underwater for some of the scariest beings in existence. Above all, I was not sure about everyone we met claiming that swimming with sharks was to be a necessary experience.  Vegetarian sharks indeed. 

We found out a day before leaving Cherating that our bank accounts had been blocked for no reason whatsoever leaving us without access to our funds.  Moreover, we were getting charged far more than we had been informed we would when withdrawing our own money.  In the two weeks we had been in Asia we had already racked up some $200 in bank charges.  So they take an atrocious amount of money from us then proceed to block access to our own account entirely!   Of course we found this out at the weekend so there was nobody in the office for 3 days due to the time difference between here and Canada.  We had a couple hundred ringgit in our pocket plus some emergency travellers checks and a little American hard currency on us which we were trying not to use.  Before leaving Canada we informed CIBC at two different branches that we would be leaving for an extended trip. We have had a number of issues with CIBC in the last year and this was the icing on the cake.  

I was hesitant to be leaving for an island which reputably had no ATM, internet, telephone service or the ability to pay for things with a credit card.  Julian persuaded me however and I found myself on this boat en-route to the islands.  

The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the water; I have never seen a coastline to be clearer than the water in my bathtub.  Colourful tropical fish swam in the turquoise waters as the idea of sharks re-entered my mind.

The second thing was that the beach was littered with western people in skimpy bathing suits absolutely baking themselves in the afternoon sun.  I don't understand how or why people can do this. if I were to expose myself to the sun for more than about 20 minute my skin starts to burn.  Not only that but the heat is so incredible it's not long before I feel light headed and slightly ill.  A hugely different vibe compared to east coast beaches frequented by predominantly muslims, fully dressed and complete with hijab and some in full burkas as they wade in the surf.

Thirdly and most offensively I think was the amount of rubbish that littered the area.  Before we boarded the boat we paid a fee of RN5 which goes towards the upkeep of the island.  I expected the contribution to be used accordingly but that didn't appear to be the case.  I don't understand how people can happily toss their litter all over the ground when they are surrounded by such gorgeous landscapes.  Everywhere in Malaysia so far there has been a noticeable amount of refuse piling up on beaches and street corners but here in the Pacific jewel of the Perhenthians it was more apparent then anywhere we had encountered on the mainland.  

Julian left me and all the bags on Long Beach while he hunted back and forth across the island of Kecil in search of the best priced accommodations.  I responsibly stood guard by the bags but the water was far more inviting.  Slipping off my trousers I waded up to my thighs to find myself amongst brightly coloured yellow, black and white fish.  They came curiously close until finally I felt some nipping at my toes.  Unconvinced of this being considered 'fun' I found myself walking back and forth between the beach and the sea trying to get used to the fact that I seemed to be on the opposite end of the food chain than I am used to. 

After about an hour and a half Julian returned drenched in sweat to report his finds.  We walked the length of the beach and followed a trail inland up a small hill into the jungle.  The shade was refreshing but as we gained slight altitude the humidity grew heavier and the temperature raise by about five degrees as we moved away from the cooling effect of the ocean.  By the time we reach the reception desk of Tropicana Inn  I was dripping in sweat and was grateful for the bottle of water which was immediately offered.  To our surprise this budge accommodation took payments by VISA and offered free internet access which was definitely necessary to take care of our suddenly precarious financial situation.

The room was simple - secluded in the jungle a single room with wooden planks for a floor and a large mosquito net housing a double bed with an en-suit 'wet room'.  It was quiet, far from the busy beaches and still only RM40 (about $14CND) per night.  We paid for three nights intending to spend one day exploring the island and beachheads and the following on a full snorkelling tour of the coastal waters. 

Ewans Cafe offered a great selection of local foods and nice relaxed, family orientated vibe.  Ewan was a happy soul who ran the business with his family - his 3 year old son approached me with a pad and paper, looking up at me with his dark brown eyes, expectantly.  We ordered our drinks from him and he in turn offered us a large amused smile before returning the empty pad of paper back to his father.   We ended up eating there for just about every meal - his curry was so good!

The jungle is a loud place at night full of creatures calling out and disturbing my slumbers.  I found I fell asleep quickly but woke often feeling somewhat stressed from the unusually loud ambient racket outside.  We had a gorgeous pair of medium sized geckos who frequented the wall outside our door above the light each night where their meal of moths and other insects were attracted to the light for effortless dining.  As we stood amongst them watching their tongues devour their prey we realized bats shared this space as well; flying in and out of the space hunting the same insects our lizards were after. 

It didn't take long for Julian to decide he disliked the vibe on this island.  He stated he may as well have gone to the south of Spain where all the other English vacated, swimming and baking their brains out in the sun with a case of beer close at hand. The litter on the island spoilt things considerably, you could barely walk five paces anywhere at all without stepping over a plastic bottle, crisp packet or beer can and in a couple of spots there were considerable collections of black sacks, filled with more rubbish, by the side of the pathway which ran from one side of the island to the other past and through at least two building sites. The Tropicana, whilst cheap, was poorly maintained and built by a team skimping on supplies, you know; mortar and floorboards, that sort of thing. Just get something standing, as cheap and fast as we can, get bums on beds before the whole operation gains such a bad reputation from the bleached, broken and dying reef that the Euro's and US$ head for Kapas down the coast where the whole tortuous process can begin again.  I forced him into the water for a swim that first full day but he was still not convinced and was wanting to do nothing more than sit in front of the laptop, pretending he was somewhere else and reminiscing over recent history as he buried himself in photo editing.  We almost left the island that afternoon but the hotel wouldn't refund our third night, which now I am quite thankful for considering what came about the next day.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Chereting - A Place To Stop

May 28 - June 4, 2012

Chereting is the sort of place that you show up at expecting to spend a night or two.  Then, you completely loose track of what time it is. Then the date escapes you and by the time you make the extreme effort of trying to remember how many days have passed since you first arrived you realize a week has passed and it still takes another day or two before you bother to make plans, pack up and continue your journey.  

After our long and hectic winter and a 10 day, street pounding tour of no less than four international cities thats exactly the sort of place we were hoping to find. The theory was to stop here until we had caught up with writing and photographs which were building up on the hard drive with alarming speed. Julian had over 1000 frames to sift through and edit and the writing had not been touched since leaving Canada.  

We trudged through the heat down the only road into Cherating with Roy, whom I met just an hour before and had elected to join us for a single night here before going on alone. He wasn't a complete stranger of course; he and Julian were old acquaintances having met the previous evening. We checked out the first accommodation option which was closed.  We walked across the street to Maznah Guest House and were greeted by a Malay women who spoke enough english to understand, the three of us were looking to share a room.

An Australian chap in his 50's sat at the wooden benches of the outdoor common space dressed only in a red sarong, drinking tea and reading the newspaper.  He looked far to comfortable and we immediately assumed he has been around here for a while.  Bruce struck up a conversation and gave us a quick overview of the layout of the accommodation and the area advocating this place to be the best pretty much sealing our deal in our minds before we'd even seen what was on offer.

The lovely Malay women lead us to a private,  wooden shack with a tin roof, an attached "wet room" and small covered balcony; one of about 20 similar structures nestled peacefully amongst mature coconut palms going for RN50 a night ($17CND) to be split between 3 people.  Perfect.   

We found that we were able to slip into a sort of routine here; sleeping longer than usual,  perhaps getting some writing done before heading down to the restaurant on the beach for breakfast which cost under RN15 for the two of us.  We would visit Fabian (an encouragable Frenchman) at the tourist hangout to refill out water bottles before returning back to our shack to avoid the mid afternoon sun in the shade of our porch; writing, editing photos or perhaps setting the hammock up between two coconut trees and settling in with a book for a couple hours.  

Five times a day the Muslim call to prayer would be sung into the air by the local man with a beautifully haunting voice which added to the atmosphere and we were constantly serenaded by cecaders and motorcycle engines, the latter of which were used by the locals for every time they left their own property, even just to travel 100m down the road to the shop. 

Around 6pm we would rinse the day away in the south China sea; a beautiful time of day to swim as the sun set. We would go to the same restaurant for dinner each evening, lingering for three or four hours with a great group of transient and local people, the bridge between the cultures provided by  Fabien and the information office, who perhaps made Cherating the vibe it was for us. Bruce left after a few days for England and family duties but not before introducing the two Julians. Scottish Julian a delightful Edinburgh born copy editor, who has packed up the 9-5 drivel and moved (for the time being) to Malaysia to write, has lived in Cherating for seven months composing a prospective television series. He and Julian soon struck up a friendship and would spend many hours over the following evenings cynically slating of all peoples by cliched nationality (including their own) forked tongues firmly placed between both cheeks. The two of them would talk over each other, until one gave way, each taking it in turns to berate the westernized world. There was a Canadian woman named Liala, a Californian skin diver, Morgan, a local Juan and a few others that rolled in and out of Cherating during our week there all of whom enriched our lives on a daily basis, either to a greater of lesser extent.

I have come to conclude by now that the Malays are by far the friendliest culture I have travelled through.  We receive constant smiles and greetings; I've never seen anybody cross.  I have come to question some of their habits though.  It's common for children as young as about eight or 10 years old to be driving a moped around the village complete with two of three of their younger siblings on pillion.  I have observed families of five travelling on one bike.  Despite being able to walk the entire place twice in about 15 minutes I never see the locals on foot.  In fact, Scottish mate Julian, who has lived in Cherating for 7 months writing a prospective television series, has watched his host drive across the street to pick up a family member, drop her off at the corner store then drop her off at home again before returning home herself.  The entire process certainly taking more time than the journey on foot.  

Cherating gave us exactly what we looking for.  Now, as we revise plans and speak with other travellers; new ideas come to mind, perhaps altering our travel itinerary slightly. ;) 

Teluk Cempedak

May 27 - May 28, 2012

After so much city trekking we were both in need of some tranquility.  We sought out the advice of the KL tourism centre who advised us to head towards the east coast where we would find exactly what we are looking for; to experience the way of life for Malaysian people.  
Off the main train route which runs up the west side of the country into Thalland we took the bus heading east towards Kuantan which appeared to be the first sea side location; hopefully diverted from the main tourist track, a place where we could rest, write and edit photos. 

A three hour ride later and we were taken through the outskirts, then into the main centre of Kuantan; building after apartment block after shop and to the bus terminal was all it took for us to decide that this was definitely not the experience we were looking for.  

The east coast of Malaysia is predominantly Muslim which was evident.  Despite the heat women were covered head to toe; heads draped in patterned materials, sleeves 3 quarter lengths or longer and full length skirts or trousers with closed toe shoes or alternatively some in full black burkas exposing only their eyes.  I was the only western women in sight and consciously used my pashmina to cover my otherwise bare, tattooed shoulders out of respect for their culture as I hoisted my bag onto my shoulders.  

Deciding on a new location we were informed that the only means of transport to Teluk Chempedak is by taxi which dropped us off an a sandy corner in front of couple shops selling beach paraphernalia, cold drinks and tacky souvenirs.  Smelling the salty air of the coast with its shores lined with coconut and palm trees was immediately refreshing.  The next most noticeable establishment on the parade were a McDonalds and KFC; still not quite the Malaysian culinary experience we were hoping for. 

It turned out we had arrived in the sea side retreat for the residents of Kuantan on a public holiday. All the hotels had promptly raised their room rates by 30% reflecting those fully booked accommodations and limiting our options.  Julian searched for about 45 minutes until we finally settled on the cheapest option which was still outrageously overpriced; RM70 ($23CND) got us a room with 2 beds and private bathroom, with a lovely view of a brick wall two feet away and questionable cleanliness.  My hunger got the best of me resulting in a slightly grumpy demeanour which didn't take long to satisfy with a plate of chicken and rice curry from vendor whom we ended up sitting with for a good hour.  A happy, well travelled Malaysian chef enthusiastically shared his photos of his work experiences abroad through Europe. 

The South China sea was beckoning as we cross a boardwalk towards a quieter sandy bay, away from the main beach, when we were confronted unexpectedly by a troop of monkeys lead by a fearless alpha male. He was strutting along the boardwalk and intimidating the tourists whilst the younger ones chased each other from handrails to trees and back again and the remainder made their way towards the rubbish bins which provide thier evening meal.  Having never come in contact with monkeys in the wild before, fear would not have been my first instinct. I was thrown off by the young girls in front of us who over-reacted with screams that did nothing but inflate the primates ego further; uncertain how to react, Julian and I lead the way through the group as I used my wide brim hat as a shield from waist down - just in case. 

Coming from a part of the world where we swim in glacier fed lakes (for about three minutes before we return, shivering to the banks) the warmth of this endless body of water was baffling.  The sea is a bit of an unknown entity to me and admittedly and what lies beneath makes me wary.  Julians suggestion to jump in from a rock point into water slightly fiercer than the rest of the beach was not appealing; baby steps in from the beach suited me just fine.  I soon eased into the comfort of the salty waters and was becoming more comfortable with the feel of current and waves, when Happy Pete approached; the only westerner besides us around these parts so far. The three of us chatted for about 30 mins whilst languishing in the warmth and made that connection that the travelling community relies upon so often. The extra bed in our room soon was offered and then became occupied by this 6'8" smiling giant from Manchester who turned even more heads than I.  

As evening fell the beach grew crowded. The Malaysians tend to start their day late and continue long after midnight to avoid the worst of the heat. Whilst temperatures are still quite warm enough for T-shirts and shorts after dark, the oppressive and energy draining tropical heat of the day abates and quite often young families may be found eating their evening meal after 11pm. 

Chempedak that weekend was playing host to trials for the SE Asian games and boxing matches had been going on all afternoon. These gave way to an insanely loud PA system and an area was cleared for the evenings holiday entertainment. Choreographed performances ranging from 16 children performing a playfully innocent provocative dance,  young adults danced in elaborate outfits reminding me of peacocks, five teenagers obviously near the start of their careers as breakdancers and ripped young men contested for bragging rights in a body builders competition.  I found this last one quite interesting in such a reserved community of Muslims who swim fully clothed at all times. 

We sampled some bite sized pieces of banana stuffed grilled dough; still warm and gooey which would have gone perfectly with the maple syrup we are travelling with, laughed and applauded at the appropriate places and generally joined in with the party atmosphere. The air was constantly filled with bubbles from the many kids around floating on a light sea breeze and our new room mate was another constant source of fascination for the locals.

The next morning the three of us shared a cab with the only other westerner whom we had met the previous evening. Roy is a young Dutchman who had come to Malaysia on a field trip as part of his degree. Not wishing to waste an opportunity he had finished his obligatory time and decided to stay on for a further three weeks to travel around the country. The four of us piled our luggage into a long suffering Proton and headed back to Kuatan where we could catch our next bus.

Pete was heading south but Roy and the two of us were all going north to Cherating so after some initial disagreements with ATM machines, we exchanged the usual contact details, bade our jolly giant farewell and boarded our luxurious ride for the one hour journey up the coast.