Days 194-198: Shaken, But Not Stirred

S: Readers, note the day, Thursday the 12th of April; the time, around 5:15pm; and the place, our guesthouse in Penang, Malaysia. It was then and there that we experienced our first ever earthquake. Our accommodation in Penang comprised of an authentic colonial building (a creaky old wooden house). So when the earthquake hit we felt the whole house sway from side to side, and the wooden panels creak and crack in fear.

At first we weren’t sure what was happening, and our immediate instinct was to get out of the house. We consulted our guesthouse owner who was staring up at the building from outside. It appeared there may have been an earthquake. Our emotions were all over the place at that moment as we were not sure what to do or think. Luckily the quake did not last more than a minute and did not leave any immediate visual damage. Shaken, reluctantly we made our way back into the guesthouse. We logged onto the BBC website and our fears were confirmed. A earthquake measuring 8.7 had hit the Achen sea off the coast of Indonesia.

Warnings were issued of a potential tsunami being generated by the quake across the Indian Ocean. Videos of panicked Indonesians fleeing to higher ground were dominating the BBC headlines. Around an hour later we felt our second quake. Again, we immediately made our way out of the guesthouse. The evening was drawing in and with it darkness. We were both frightened at the thought of spending the night in our rickety guesthouse, fearing the next creak could be our last.

However, what was worrying us most was that we were due to travel by boat to Thailand in the next two days. Images and thoughts were making their way through our heads of numerous possibilities. What would we have done/felt had we been in Thailand when the earthquake hit and a tsunami was on its way? Also, it was only around a month ago that we had left Indonesia.

Thankfully, we got through the night with no more quakes or shakes. In the morning word had spread that the tsunami warnings had been called off. Lucky escape.

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Penang’s clock tower built as a tribute to Queen Victoria. The clock tower sits at a slight angle, due to a previous earthquake.

The morning after the earthquake we made our way to Langkawi by boat. Rather than a sightseeing stop, this was more of an administrative pause before we crossed the border into Thailand. Langkawi is a small island, just under 500 sq km, at the north west edge of Malaysia.

But before we went to Thailand we first had a serious matter to address in Penang. It is of course that glorious subject which has been following us around Malaysia – the Malay cuisine!

Our bus journey from the Cameron Highlands was long and painful, no surprise there then. However, it got rather interesting when we arrived at our drop off point at Georgetown in Penang. (Penang is a small island off the north west cost of Malaysia.) Our bus driver picked out us and three other ‘Jonny Foreigners’ and offered to drop us off at our various hostels in the centre of town. He claimed the taxi drivers would charge us a considerably higher amount than what he was offering. The five of us agreed it made financial sense and hopped back on the bus.

While driving us to our hostel, the driver who never uttered a word to us during our six hour bus ride, all of a sudden became very chatty. He told us about his darling wife and then gave us a lesson in life. He also advised of the places in which to sample the best of Penang’s food. He strongly advised against eating from the hawker stalls. Something which our Lonely Planet Guide advised we do.

The following day we ventured down the back streets of Georgetown in search of Malay’s mouth watering cuisine. One of the first things to strike us was that either we were walking down the streets with our eyes closed or that there was a stark lack of eateries around. We completed a loop of the main streets where all the eateries claimed to be and only came across pizza, pasta, fish and chips. On our second outing we lucked out on a brilliant little Indian restaurant. It served us up two deliciously spicy curries; each served on a banana leaf, they were accompanied by a selection of sambals filled with an array of dips and sauces.

One of the few trend we have come across in restaurants while in Malaysia is how the waiters quiet literally like to wait. Upon entering a restaurant and taking your seat, a waiter will issue you with a menu and then stand right beside the table and wait for your selections. Now bearing in mind we are in a foreign county, coming across foreign ingredients and foreign language, it takes us a bit of time to make up our minds. In the UK, you may ask for ‘a few minutes, please’. But in Malaysia they almost take that quite literally, writing down ‘a few minutes’ on their writing pad. We didn’t let it go far enough but we do wonder what a few minutes would look like on a plate.

Also, the Malays don’t cope very well with bringing out dishes together. We have often sat at a restaurant, where I have been given my main course, eaten it and then my starter and Richard’s main course is brought out. They also love clearing up as you eat, taking away plates one by one as you eat off them. And when it comes to asking for the bill… Where have they gone?! They are either nowhere to be seen or to busy waiting on other guests. Small but noteworthy observations.

As for Malay cuisine in general, it would be accurate to say that it doesn’t really have a distinctive identity of its own, unlike, say, Italian, Indian or Mexican. Rather it is a fusion of Indonesian, Indian and Chinese dishes. And of these three, Indian was our clear favourite during our time in Malaysia.

As we briefly mentioned above, we are now off to Thailand. We had planned to visit Thailand near the end of the trip, but since we were so close to Malaysia it made sense to cross the border now. We plan to do some island-hopping and little much else. You can expect blog updates to be brief and a little less frequent. Hooray!

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Days 191-193: Cameron Highlands

S: It was in Fiji where we first learnt about the Cameron Highlands (CH). A Malay couple we met had recommended it to us as a stop-off point. They talked about a cool fresh breeze high up in the hills, long walks in the jungle and DIY-plucked delicious fresh fruits. Intrigued, we made our way there via a long bus journey from Melaka.

Cameron Highlands derived its name from William Cameron, a British surveyor who was commissioned by the then colonial government to map out the area in 1885.

CH is the smallest district in the state of Pahang which is located in the north-western corner of the state (200 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur). One of the wonders of Malaysia, it is the largest and most famous hill resort in the country. Being a primarily agricultural domain, there is an abundance of vegetable and fruit farms there. CH is also the leading producer of tea in Malaysia. Located at about 1500 metres above sea-level, the temperature invariably sits between a comfortable 16-21˚C. Perfect after we have been sweating it out at 32˚C for… as long as we can remember!

One of the many unexpected delights of an unplanned itinerary, is the freedom to visit on a whim places which have been recommended to us by people along the way. Before we left the UK we had expected to spend one week at most in Malaysia – and most likely in Kuala Lumpur. Instead, it looks as if we will be spending all most a month in Malaysia and Singapore. We have already visited four different parts of Malaysia – Borneo, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Cameron Highlands – and we still have a couple of other possibilities tucked up our sleeve.

We mentioned CH has the largest tea plantation in Malaysia. For that reason, we thought we would go and take a look. Making our way to the plantation we passed rows and rows of great rolling hills, covered in lush tea leaves.

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‘BOH has Ummph!’ That is the current slogan for BOH Plantation, the largest black tea plantation in Malaysia. There was definitely ummph in our cups of BOH Cameronian Gold. Packed with flavour and a very individual taste, we will be looking out for BOH when ordering our next cuppa.

There is nothing more satisfying than indulging in your own freshly-picked strawberries. At least that is what we thought as we stopped at a local strawberry farm to devour the surprisingly sweet fruits.

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While we were huffing and puffing our way through the hills to the strawberry farm, we ended up meeting Robin and Liv. A friendly and energetic couple from England, Robin and Liv have been making their way across Asia on their bicycles. They have rode all the way from Bali in Indonesia and plan to continue all the way to Beijing! We had the pleasure of exchanging travel stories with them over a couple of bottles of wine and dinner during our two nights in CH. Good luck Robin and Liv!

So what’s left? Jungle walk! On our second day in CH we ventured into the jungle with ambitious plans of a five hour walk. We cut that short after two aimless hours covered in sweat, battling mosquitoes and straddling countless fallen trees crawling with industrious ants.

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Our trip to Cameron Highlands has been memorable and educational. It has also shown us, yet again, how diverse Malaysia really is. High up in the hills with a unique climate CH has been a wonderful discovery.

Next stop, the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and a place that is supposed to serve up the best of Malaysia’s cuisine…Penang.

Days 187-190: Sedaka in Melaka*

S: We truly enjoyed our four nights in Melaka, in fact it almost reminded us of what a holiday feels like. As great as Kuala Lumpur was, we couldn’t help but feel slightly relieved at leaving behind an initially overwhelming but always challenging city. Who would have thought an oasis of calm existed only 90 minutes south of Kuala Lumpur? Not us, that is for sure.

Our newly opened and immaculate hotel was situated only a few quiet streets away from the main hub of Melaka’s finest eateries and museums. Melaka felt to us like a delightfully small and manageable town.This time, instead of feeling the pressure of innumerable sights to visit and countless boxes to tick, we were able to wander at leisure through a handful of streets, taking in the sights at a much slower pace.

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Melaka’s gorgeous town centre

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Melaka river

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A boat, no longer afloat

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Richard flexes his dwindling muscles

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Melaka’s night display

Eating out in Melaka also solidified our thoughts about Malaysian food. The Malay cuisine is something which has baffled us throughout our time in Malaysia. We can’t quite manage to get a taste for it or indeed a taste out of it. The staple ingredient for Malays seems to be rice, and nearly every mealtime it makes its appearance – whether it is breakfast, lunch or dinner.

From our experience, the rice is generally served with meat or vegetables and with a flavourless sauce. Our hotel owner made it his business that we visit his favourite local restaurant and sample some traditional Malay treats. I opted for otak-otak, which is a fish marinaded in spices and then steamed. And yes, it was served with rice. Richard went for roasted chicken and rice balls (they literally are what they say they are, balls of rice).

As healthy and nutritious as the dishes may have been, they didn’t quite hit the spot. We made a quick exit and headed for the nearest place which served coffee and chocolate brownies. We did, however, come across a cheap and cheerful Indian restaurant. It made from an outside clay oven deliciously fresh nan bread and tandoori chicken. We both enjoyed fabulous fresh food and drinks for under £7 together.

We are determined to persevere with Malay cuisine and it will face its ultimate test when we head to Penang in a few days – a small island off the north east coast of the country. We are constantly being told by both locals and tourist alike that this is were Malaysia’s best cuisine lies. Here’s hoping. But first we head to Cameron Highlands, where we hope to discover the origins of this rather tartan-eqsque place name.

*Apologies, Neil wasn’t actually in Melaka when we visited, but it’s the only thing we could think of which rhymed (the truth should never stand in the way of a good title.)

Days 182-186: Kuala Lumpur – Lost In Transit

S: Fresh from our mountain climb (with VERY sore legs), Richard and I touched down in KL after a short flight from Borneo. After sampling Singapore’s sleek and sophisticated MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) subway system, we foolishly expected the same system from KL. But how wrong were we.

A 30 minute train ride from the airport brought us into the centre of KL. From here we expected a hop, skip and a jump to our hostel but instead we spent the best part of 45 minutes, quite literally walking around in a circle. The route map we had to take us to our hostel turned out, not be magnified enough and hence did not display the countless bendy roads we were coming across. (And boy are those roads difficult to cross, there just seems to be car after car after car with no pedestrian crossings.)

A local man took pity on us and attempted to help us find our hostel. However, even he couldn’t point us in the correct direction, unaware of the road we were after. Things were not looking good, we passed countless shops with Asian music blaring from their windows and offers of ‘massage?!’ In the end, we somehow made our way to the hostel and what a hostel it was. A windowless room with nothing but a bed and bin to welcome us. This was not a great start to KL.

Determined to make the most of it we made our way to one of KL’s in numerous high-rises – KL Tower, Menara Kuala Lumpur. At a sky high height of 421 meters, panoramic views of KL are visible, as well as the Petronas Towers which were formerly the world’s tallest skyscraper in 2004. Having taken in New Zealand’s Skytower, which comes in at 328 meters we feel we have had our fill of telecoms towers for a while. Although there is no disputing that it is a fantastic way in which to view a city and watch the transformation from day to night.

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KL Tower

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Petronas Towers

In total we spent five days in KL, we think this was enough time in which to get to know the city. We were provided with a city map by our hostel with the main landmarks dotted out. As helpful as this map was to highlight the main points of interest we can’t help but blame it for wasting a large amount of our time going around in circles. In the end we would, more times that not, have to ask locals for directions. (And lets be honest, there are a lot of locals around to ask.) On many occasions we saw fellow tourists with the same map, with a look of confusion and frustration, lost and in no hope of finding their point of interest.

Did we mention how excellent Singapore’s transport system was?! KL receives a thundering thumbs down when it comes to public transport. KL has a large network of trains, MRT’s, LRT’s, KL Kommuter and a monorail system. However, unlike Singapore’s all singing, all dancing system KL’s is not linked up.

On our last evening in KL we donned our smarter threads and set off for fine food and drink. Rather than sweating it out on the train network we thought we would take a taxi. This idea was pushed to one side when we looked at the grid locked roads. We were left with no choice but the train. On we got and as usual confusion and disorder took over. Again, a local took pity on us and at attempted to rectify our blundered journey. A local, even he was perplexed that a ticket we had bought would not allow us a linked journey with the train and monorail. He told us there are plans in place to integrate the various train networks…Yeah, right.

Despite our transport issues we managed to get around and see quite a bit of KL…

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Richard was very impatient at the textile museum when his garment wasn’t ready on time

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Some of KL’s glorious architecture

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The Petronas Towers, close up

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Some gorgeous birds at the worlds largest free-flight aviary

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KL’s sightseeing bus, stuck in traffic. A very rapid service – one bus every three hours

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Sampling some of the local treats

We are off now to Melaka, a city south of Kuala Lumpur and one that has been invaded or settled (depending upon your point of view) by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the Japanese. Let’s hope it’s calmed down a bit, as we could do with some tranquility after the marvellous madness of Malaysia’s capital.

Days 176-182: Mt Kinabalu

S: A daredevil couple we met in Fiji, Darren & Gemma, told us about a mountain climb they were attempting in Borneo before chilling out in Thailand and then returning home. How hard can it be thought Richard and I? So we signed ourselves up for the mountain climb. After all, this trip isn’t all about watching tennis matches and wine tours.

Mount Kinabalu is Southeast Asia’s highest mountain at a literally breathtaking 4095 meters above sea level. It is located in Sabah, Borneo near the town of Kota Kinabalu (KK). From Singapore we flew into KK and spent two days getting our kit together and psyching ourselves up for the climb. Our third day was spent at the base of the mountain, allowing us to soak up the atmosphere of Kinabalu Park and rest before our early start the next day.

The following morning we were introduced to our guide Robbi, who would be our very own Sherpa Tenzing for the next two days. Six kilometres were covered on our climb on Day One. Now this may sound like a short distance – less than four miles in fact. But imagine 6km at a steep incline and in 30C heat. A different proposition altogether.

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A glorious view of Mt Kinabalu from the base of the mountain

It took us a gruelling five hours to ascend to our target of 3273m. Robbi allowed us the occasionally rest, but only for 2-3 minutes so our legs wouldn’t become stiff. Very kind. At this height we were to spend the night in dormitory accommodation before an early start and our final ascent to the top of the mountain.

It was here that worry, panic and danger began to set in for me. Robbi gave us a briefing on what we were to expect the next day. He warned of potential altitude sickness – headaches, sickness, upset stomachs and shortness of breath. Unfortunately I was already experiencing all these symptoms, accompanied by a feeling of panic brought on by the realisation that there was no way down to civilisation or safety other than by the route we had come up.

We were due to start our ascent at 3am. However, just before then we were introduced to the dark side of Mt Kinabalu. Rain came lashing down and temperatures dropped below 0C. Still not feeling well and not wanting to risk my health I was advised by Robbi to stay in bed and rest. It was game over for me. However for Richard It was an entirely different story…

R: at 2.30am the situation looked gloomy. Not only was Sophia out of the running but the night’s rain looked as if it had put pay to any attack on the summit. Word spread around our dorm that people were being advised to delay ascent until the morning when conditions might have improved. But then the rain suddenly stopped, a guide returned from a reconnaissance mission and the red light flickered to green.

As I waited for Tenzing -sorry, Robbi – to arrive a group of twenty or so Chinese people gathered in the porch. Dressed in the latest hats, gloves, head torches and a vast array of brightly covered plastic ponchos, it was quite a bewildering sight to behold. They were briefed by a guide partly in Mandarin, partly in English and then all clumped and clattered their way out the side door. Eventually Robbi appeared, confirmed that Sophia should remain in bed, gave me a firm and reassuring handshake, and at 3:10am we were on our way.

I’m not sure if Robbi was set on testing my lung capacity or mental strength, or he simply didn’t like crowds, but as we hit the slopes he was like a man on a mission. Like two mountain goats we gambolled, danced and occasionally pushed our way up the line and ahead of the hordes of chattering cyclopses that cluttered our path. Within the space of twenty minutes we had gone from being one of the last groups to one of the first.

The terrain was pretty treacherous. I couldn’t decide if it was a good or a bad thing that my head torch illuminated only a small patch at the feet. As we climbed higher and higher this pool of light before me cast its ghostly glow over sodden wooden planks then hand hewn stone steps and then large gleaming granite slabs, which had been formed millions of years ago. Some sections were relatively straightforward, some so tricky that a thick rope hugged the hillside to offer support to ailing limbs and reeling minds.

After some forty minutes Robbi and I reached a large granite plain. Amidst the gloom several crooked spires could be discerned in the near distance. Typically, we were headed for the furthest and highest point, comically coined Low’s Peak – a tribute not to the Malaysian sense of humour but to Hugh Low, the British colonial pen pusher who was the first recorded conqueror of Mount Kinabalu.

From there the incline levelled out and it was an easy march to the base of the final climb. By this stage we were pushing nearly 4,000m and the steep climb up Low’s Peak was an admitted struggle but a mercifully short one. We reached the summit a little after 5am and in a very respectable second place. The freezing temperatures and the biting wins permitted only a few minutes to take the mandatory photographs and then it was back down on to the granite plain to catch the marmalade rays of the rising sun. We took our time on the way back to base camp and returned to dorm to check on Sophia just after 7am.

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S: I was surprised to hear a knock at the dorm door so soon and to be greeted by Richard with a tired a sweaty smile.

My head was still thumping and all I could think of was getting down to a lower altitude. After a brisk breakfast we commenced on our downward descent. Although the way down is not so exhausting as the way up, we soon lost control of our legs and a jelly sensation tookover. Some bright spark thought it would be helpful to build a path of large steps, as helpful as it is on the incline the descent is a whole different ball game. If you have low bone density you can say goodbye to your knees.

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After four hours of hobbling down the mountain the pressure in my head began to ease. Normal service was shortly resumed as we tucked into our continental lunch at the bottom and soon arrived back at our hotel to make use of the joyous hot water and soap.

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Our guiding light – Robbi

After undertaking such a mammoth mountain we feel we have earned ourselves some backpacker bling…Today we fly to Kuala Lumpur.