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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Our route to the Malaysian coast was via the 'Jungle Railway' which is renowned for its sights, sounds and smells as you travel the ten hours from Gemas to Wakhaf Baru. The first thing we saw and smelt after boarding the train was the Durian fruit someone had brought along to sustain them on their journey. The smell of Durian is so pungent that it is banned from many public places but seemingly not trains. The smell has been variously described as rotting flesh, garbage, even 'road kill wrapped in sweaty socks'. Not quite the sensory experience we were expecting or hoping for!

The railway is remarkable in that it runs through dense jungle for almost its entire length although much of the rainforest has now been replaced with rubber and oil palm plantations. The train trundles steadily along the track with the journey taking the best part of ten hours. Interestingly (to us at least!) there is a link back to the 'Death Railway' in that the Japanese removed 240km of track to use in constructing the railway line from Thailand to Burma
Our stop was Kota Bharu, a fairly non-descript town that is the jumping off point for the Perhentian Islands, our next destination. We took a taxi from the train station to the hotel, it was difficult to tell who was older, the driver or the taxi, both must have been approaching 75 years old! One constant amongst taxi drivers is their seeming inability to take you where you want to go and so it was in Kota Bharu. It's a toss-up whether this is down to ignorance or laziness but given the 'experience' of our driver and the size of the town I'm inclined towards the latter

Being a Muslim country, alcohol is not readily available and for once 7-Eleven couldn't deliver. Fortunately we discovered 'Golden Kingdom', a Chinese restaurant/bar run by Lee and Joanne, a Malaysian couple both of whom studied engineering at Bath University. Wine was also on the menu although this wasn't as appealing as it sounds as the maximum alcohol content is 5% and the price per glass is £4.50!

Travel to the islands is via bus and water taxi (aka speedboat). After a bumpy ride on both we arrived at Perhentian Kecil. Perhentian means 'stopping point' in Malay and the islands were given their name as they became a staging point used by traders travelling from Malaysia to Thailand.

Perhentian Kecil is the smaller, more laid-back of the two islands however the topography of each is more or less the same with white sandy beaches flanked by rolling jungle covered hills. We're staying at the Senja resort. So far we've been here three nights and we're already on our third room! The first two had problems with the plumbing (yet more examples of poor maintenance!) but fingers crossed it'll be third time lucky

To date this is the closest we've come to paradise. Days start with a leisurely breakfast on the hotel verandah looking out over Coral Bay. After an hour or so of lying on the beach it's time to go for a swim or snorkel in the bay. Afternoons are taken up with more of the same with the occasional 15 minute walk across the island to Long Beach for a change of scenery, or a jungle trek for the more adventurous (something we've yet to try). Watching the typically tropical sunsets is the perfect way to unwind even further after doing very little all day!
Dinner takes the form of a fresh fish BBQ at Mama's cafe, washed down with a couple of beers which are slightly easier to get hold of than they were on the mainland. That said the customs officers were on the island last night so none of the restaurants were selling alcohol!
Snorkelling day trips are a popular activity on the island and we're planning to go on one in the next couple of days. Some provide you with an underwater camera so hopefully we'll soon be posting some photos of marine life!

 

Like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur is a city of contrasts, perhaps more so as religion gets thrown into the mix alongside the have's and have-nots. What also strikes you is the multi-ethnicity of the city. As travellers this adds to the appeal of the city as this is reflected in the architecture, fashion and food of the city

Embracing our new found confidence we decided not to book our first nights accommodation and headed to Chinatown, described In the guide-books as 'vibrant and lively'. What we found was an almost impenetrable maze of market stalls with hotels and hostels tucked down alleyways. Not a problem to these seasoned travellers we thought until we began to discover that everywhere was fully booked! After a couple of hours of wandering the streets we stopped for a 'refreshment' break and met up with a local guy called Angus.

A couple of beers later we headed off on our search again and finally found a room just before midnight. By way of celebration we headed back to the bar we were in earlier where Angus was still in residence. After a couple more beers we crossed the road for a game of pool in the local snooker/pool hall which advertised itself on the outside with huge photos of various UK snooker players including Ronnie O'Sullivan playing both right-handed and left-handed which goes to show how closely they follow the game.

I'm pleased to report that we both beat Angus! Even more exciting was the prospect of playing golf with him on a course just outside KL, sadly this didn't happen, I guess he was still smarting from his defeat on the pool table!

KL is home to the Petronas Towers and the KL Tower which dominate the skyline. We had thought about taking a trip up to the viewing platform between the two Petronas towers but when we discovered it was expensive and only spanned the towers half way up we decided not to bother.

After 3 months of travelling we've yet to see the sea! Next stop will be the East Coast of Malaysia, its islands are renowned for their beautiful white sandy beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters. We can't wait!

 

Whilst Bangkok has changed little in the time that we've been away our view of it has changed significantly. Culture shock has been replaced with curiosity as our experiences over the last three months have given much more confidence in our ability to deal with lots of different scenarios

Whilst we're yet to fall in love with Bangkok it's growing on us. Navigating our way around the city and deciding on the best mode of transport has become second nature and we've become much more adept at haggling as we now have some idea of what things cost

Bangkok remains something of an enigma with multiple residential and commercial building projects dotted throughout the affluent areas of the city. Much of the labour is provided by migrant workers brought in from outside the city and is made up of men and women in more or less equal numbers with the women working every bit as hard if not harder than the men. Other areas are dirty, smelly and squalid with no sign of any attempts to improve them

A trip on the Skytrain and a visit to Siam Paragon is a further reminder that Bangkok is very much a city of contrasts. It's almost certain that you'll pass beggars on the walkways leading to the king of malls where every luxury brand is represented including Lamborghinis and Bentleys on the second floor

We're due to visit Bangkok at least once more before we head home. It'll be interesting to see if our impressions change yet again

 

Today we took a scooter up to Hellfire Pass. For once the scooter was new, fast and a joy to ride. Going faster is a mixed blessing. Yes, you get to your destination faster but anything flying above the road poses a hazard. Hitting a butterfly at 60 mph was painful but I guess it came off worse

An Australian museum at Hellfire Pass pays fitting tribute to the POWs of all nations that worked on the Death Railway that ran from Thailand to Burma

Having successfully invaded Burma, Malay, Thailand and Indochina, the Japanese were keen to secure a more effective supply route to Burma than the sea route through the Malacca Straits which was heavily protected by the Allied Forces. Their answer was to resurrect a route for a railway line initially proposed and subsequently rejected by the British several years earlier

Work began in June 1942. Labour was provided by 60,000 Allied POWs transported from occupied territories in Malaysia and Singapore supplemented by 180,000 indigenous workers from across Asia. The conditions under which the work was carried out were some of the most arduous ever suffered and became worse still as the deadline for completion was brought forward. During the period of construction around 16,000 Allied Servicemen died alongside 90,000 workers from Asia

The tools available for construction were virtually non-existent and almost all of the work had to be carried out by hand. Hellfire Pass became notorious as the most difficult stretch of railway to be built as it involved carving a cutting 73m long and 25m deep through the most inhospitable jungle

The Japanese were unforgiving taskmasters, providing the workers little if anything by way of shelter and food and insisted on labour quotas being met even though many of the workers were suffering from dysentery, cholera and malaria (In many cases leave of absence was only granted if one's stool contained 80% blood; 50% was deemed healthy enough to work)

As the railway neared completion, work took place around the clock. The fires that were lit and the shadows they cast of the workers and their brutal Japanese masters gave the cutting its infamous title

Further south at Kanchanaburi lies the River Kwai Bridge, immortalised in the David Lean film (although the bridge used in the film was actually in Kitulgala in Sri Lanka!)

 

The railway was operational for two years before three successive allied bombing raids put it out of commission. In his book 'The Railway Man' Eric Lomax gives a harrowing but excellent account of his experiences during the construction of the railway. The book is being made into a film and filming in Kanchanaburi has already started with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. Sadly they'd packed their bags and left before we had chance to volunteer our services as extras!

 

On our way to Kanchanaburi and the Bridge Over The River Kwai we stopped off at a place called Nathon Chai Si where we stayed at a place called the Hidden Holiday House. Sure enough the place was aptly named as we had our usual challenge finding it. The big appeal was not so much sightseeing as staying on the banks of the river and experiencing life in a Thai village

Each morning around 5:30 a.m. loudspeakers dotted around the countryside broadcast the market prices and local news. Fortunately the one nearest the guesthouse mysteriously stopped working some time ago and has yet to be repaired. That said an early rise is rewarded with a fabulous sunrise

The market is a hive of activity with all sorts of fresh produce for sale. For once we were the only tourists in sight!


Each day follows a similar weather pattern with clear blue skies gradually clouding over in the middle of the afternoon followed by a heavy downpour around 5:00 p.m. Rather than being an inconvenience, the rain cools the temperature nicely making the evenings much more bearable as well as providing the opportunity for the locals to practice their 'Singing in the Rain' skills!

 

On the recommendation of some friends we sought out Uncle John's in Sathorn District in Bangkok. We'd heard that you could eat top quality food at a very cheap price

Armed with an address and map we set out from the hotel. After an hour and a half of searching we finally found it, tucked away down a side-street not far from the local market. It was a sight for sore eyes, not only because we'd finally found it but also for the promise it held

Uncle John's is run by a chef who learnt his trade at the Sukhothai Hotel, one of the top 5 star hotels in Bangkok. He quit his job at the hotel and opened up a restaurant with the ultimate open kitchen in that it's outside on the street!

The menu reads like any top restaurant with a range of choices from French, Italian and Indian to Local Thai dishes. We ordered Pork Fillet Mignon and Beef Tenderloin followed by Mango Crepe Suzette, all washed down with a bottle of Malbec. It was delicious!

Uncle John's has got to be one of the best kept secrets in Bangkok. Whilst we wish him every success in building his business there's a little part of me that hopes it stays just as it is!