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Malaysia

Remarkably the journey from Bali to Borneo was our only experience to date of any kind of travel disruption. After taking the early flight to Kuala Lumpur (KL) we had to change planes for the onward leg to Kota Kinabalu (KK). Our scheduled flight was cancelled and we were put back a couple of hours. We then boarded the next flight where we sat for an hour whilst maintenance checks were carried out only to be asked to disembark. Another hour later we finally took off for Borneo and arrived nearly six hours later than scheduled!

There's no way KK can't be described as picturesque. It was bombed twice by the Allies during the second world war. Firstly to slow the Japanese advance and secondly to hasten their retreat. As a consequence the buildings can be best described as functional.

What the town lacks in aesthetic beauty, the surrounding countryside more than makes up for. Just off the coast are the five islands that form the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and inland is Mount Kinabalu.

Unfortunately for us the weather was lousy for all but one of the days we were there. As a consequence we spent most of our time sampling the culinary delights of the city rather than the natural beauty. As it was we had to make a choice on the one day we had good weather. We went for the other great attraction in the area which was to see the orang-utans in their natural habitat.

Orang-utans share 96% of our DNA and are therefore our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. The most popular place to see them is Sepilok which is a six hour drive from KK, however we met an English couple whilst enjoying lunch and a beer who told us about an orphanage that was based in a small rainforest linked to the Rasa Ria resort an hour north of KK. They described the resort as 'proper 5 star' so we decided to spend the day there and to enjoy a bit of luxury as well as see the orang-utans.

We hired a car and headed up there early. The orang-utan viewing was at 3:00p.m. After breakfast at the hotel and a walk along the beautiful white sand beach, we settled ourselves by one of the swimming pools. The lifeguard provided us with our towels and then asked for our room number. Inspired by Frank Abignale Jr I said 'Room 108' thinking or rather hoping that we'd then be left alone until it was time to see the orang-utans. No such luck! It turned we'd sat ourselves down by the exclusive pool and within minutes the guest relations manager appeared. 'So you're staying in Room 108 and waiting for the room to be made up?' he said. We exchanged glances as if to say 'should we, could we bluff it all the way?' There was no telling what was going to happen next so we decided to confess all expecting to be frog-marched back to reception to wait it out until the afternoon. Luck must have been on our side as rather than ask us to leave, he insisted on us staying and experiencing the hotels' exclusive hospitality. Next thing we knew we were being presented with cold towels, fresh fruit juice and canapés!

At 2:30 p.m., almost reluctantly, we headed off to the nature centre for a briefing before the orang-utan viewing. Any concerns we had that the experience was going to be somewhat contrived were soon set aside. The orphaned orang-utans are rescued after having typically been discovered by local farmers. They are then taken to the orphanage where they are given a full medical, treated for any injuries or diseases and then gradually rehabilitated.

By the time they're able to roam freely in the sanctuary's rainforest they're capable of feeding themselves, therefore there's no guarantee that you'll get to see them at feeding time. The orphanage currently has four orang-utans and we were lucky enough to be visited by 'Katie', a six year old who will soon be transferred to the rehabilitation centre at Sepilok where she'll spend another five or six years before being released into the wild.

We also met Ten-Ten, a two year old orphan whose name refers to the date and month that she was found. The rangers have developed a rehabilitation programme for very young orang-utans that is based on the watch and learn principle that reflects how the animals learn in the wild.

Seeing the orang-utans made our visit to Kota Kinabalu totally worthwhile even though we never made it to the islands. Next stop is Kuching where we hope to see more of Borneo's amazing wildlife.

 

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Penang became the first British possession in Southeast Asia when it was ceded to the British East India Company by the Sultan of Kedah in the late 18th century in exchange for military protection from the Siamese and Burmese armies. It's location in the Straits of Malacca allowed the British to use the island as a natural harbour and anchorage for their trading ships.

The British declared the island a free port to encourage trade and settlers were allowed to claim whatever land they could clear, no easy task as the island was thick with jungle. As the tin and rubber trades flourished Penang became increasingly popular with people from far and wide, making the island a melting pot of diverse cultures and religions, something that is as true today as any time in the island's past.

No wonder then that the island, and particularly its UNESCO capital Georgetown, is rated as one of the world's top places for food. Somewhat ironic therefore that we suffered our first bout of food poisoning within hours of arriving. This did little to deter us however as we set about eating our way through the islands many and varied styles of cooking. Favourite amongst these was the food we had at Teksen, a local favourite for many years. We had fried prawns with tamarind sauce, steamed fish in ginger and rice wine, szechuan pork ribs and pak choi with garlic butter. It was delicious.

Street life in Georgetown is equally diverse. Various trades are carried out in and around the traditional Chinese 'five foot way' shophouses, so called because of the covered walkways within the properties which are intended for public use, providing pedestrians shade from sun and rain. In practice navigating these walkways is easier said than done as they're often built at different heights and usually blocked with shop goods, scooters, or other strategically placed obstacles!

Our visit coincided with the Georgetown Festival, an annual, month-long event which celebrates the melting pot of cultures and religions that make up Penang. We booked tickets for the Manganiyar Seduction. The 'orchestra' is made up of 43 musicians (42 muslim and one hindu) seated in 36 red-curtained cubicles arranged in four horizontal rows one on top of the other. The concert begins when a single cubicle lights up and the first musician begins to play. Soon another cubicle lights up and then another, creating a dramatic build-up of musical instruments and voices. The show has been performed all over the world (as the following clip shows) but by their own admission, getting entry visas for 42 muslims in some countries is not always straightforward!

As we travel south through Asia, its multi-faith and multi-ethnicity becomes ever more evident along with its paradoxes. Tonight we walked home along Chulia Street where prostitutes were openly flaunting themselves as the call to prayer was being chanted from the loudspeakers on the minarets of the local mosques

We had planned to stay a few extra days in Penang before making our way back to KL and onwards to Malaysia's other UNESCO site, Malacca. All that has changed however as we're now heading to Singapore to house-sit for for a family. We've got to look after a dog, a cat and some fish. Fingers crossed it all goes smoothly!

 

The Cameron Highlands are named after William Cameron who was commissioned to map them out in 1885. Forty years later the area was developed into a hill station by the British, complete with tea plantations, hotels and a golf course. Today the Highlands are a mix, or rather clash of old and new. English Tudor style 1930's properties that were once surrounded by rolling hills and large, landscaped gardens now sit alongside their modern day, multi-storey equivalents and towns that were once little more than a row of wooden buildings are now sprawling as they provide an ever increasing range of goods and services
 
Our first stop was the Sungai Palas tea plantation. After a tour of the processing plant, where they're still using machinery from the 1930s, we enjoyed a pot of BOH (Best Of Highlands) tea together with strawberry tarts, it was all so delicious we couldn't resist seconds and even thirds! To round off this most English of days, the heavens opened on the way back to the hotel completely soaking us to the skin

The next day we went to the 'Mossy Forest', a 200,000 years old eco-system with our guide George who looked like he'd been around for almost as many years but proved remarkably fit and agile. Typically, the term “mossy forest” is derived from the abundance of mosses covering the ground and vegetation. The forest is home to “pitcher” carnivorous plants as well as many others that have medicinal properties (maybe this is where George had discovered the elixir of youth!).

Again there's a stark contrast here with the 'forced' cultivation of hydroponic fruit and vegetables which seem to be taking over the region. We leave the Highlands feeling happy that we've visited but with no great desire to rush back. Whilst the scenery is spectacular in places you can't help but feel that the area is only going to get worse as more property is built and more of the land is turned over to intensive farming. A pity from a tourist's perspective but no doubt borne out of economic necessity

Next stop is Penang which is generally acknowledged as the gastronomic capital of Malaysia. Hopefully it doesn't disappoint although that means we'll be piling the pounds back on again!

 

The Perhentian Islands are renowned for the quality of the diving and snorkelling, in fact the water is so clear and the marine life so abundant that there's almost no reason to choose diving over snorkelling. We took two snorkelling trips, one with 'Tommy' and one with 'Matts'
The trip with Tommy turned out to be as much about the 'craic' as the snorkelling and we had a great time topped off with barbecued kingfish on the beach. The trip with Matts was all about the marine life and we finally got to see some sharks and turtles!
Nowhere is quite perfect however and the island was not without it's drawbacks
  • Having to change rooms four times in the space of a week because of leaking showers and flooded bathrooms
  • Paper thin walls in the chalets which mean you heard everything your neighbours were doing (!) as well as being woken up by the walkways being swept of sand every morning before 7:00 a.m.
  • An island-wide failure to cook a runny egg, although this was finally addressed on our last day with an almost perfect poached egg on toast
  • The 'best' restaurant on the beach failing to get our order right on their new 'state of the art' till system. Last night they failed to charge for a beef curry (good) but added 4 extra beers (bad)
  • Enjoying the free movie on the restaurant's big screen until the DVD crashed 5 minutes before the end as the plot was reaching its climax. Anyone know the ending to Disturbia?

None of these were major issues however and a more generous view would be to say that they add to the charm of the place. Island life has been great fun and the Perhentians have been a great place to chill-out for a while

Our next stop is the Cameron Highlands in the north-west of Malaysia, most famous, or more accurately infamous, as being the area where Jim Thompson, the Thai Silk magnate, famously went missing in 1967. Fingers crossed the same thing doesn't happen to us!

 

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!