Malaysia

A Whistle Stop Tour of KL.

Back in the day, when I was out here all alone, these 5 weeks with Ashley became a difficult thing to organise over Skype. After a bit of sketchy planning in Myanmar I came up with a plan. Ashley’s birthday/Christmas present could be diving! We had 5 days ‘spare’ in which I could fit what became known to Ashley as the “Mystery Destination”. For a while, the Mystery Destination was also a mystery to me. Do we go to the Philippines? But we’ve never been so would 5 days be enough? Do we go to Indonesia? But I hated it; do I really want to go back there? Or do we go to Malaysia? The place I was originally planning to dive myself – the Semporna Archipelago – has sea turtles. Sea turtles!! I opted for Malaysia. To Ashley it was still Mystery Destination.

When it came to booking flights, it was always going to be a two flight trip from Tokyo if we were to go to Semporna, so I booked us on a night flight from Tokyo and an evening flight to Tawau, the airport for Semporna, leaving us with a day in Kuala Lumpur in between!

It took us some hot and sweaty trips back and forth from the left luggage area to the check in area before we found the security scanner and the lady with the bag stickers that meant we were allowed to leave our bags having been scanned for guns and the like. Phew. It also took us some hot and sweaty trips back and forth from ATM to ATM before they decided that yes, I do in fact have sufficient funds and yes, they can in fact serve me today. Double phew.

Finally on the bus into the city, I glanced up at the clock. 8.30? Of course! Kuala Lumpur is an hour behind Tokyo! The near hour spent shuffling from ATM to left luggage had been a freebie! Hooray! The bus journey was an hour long.

It must have been quite a tiring bus journey because Ashley fell asleep. I managed to stay awake. The prospect of navigating my way around the place again but without a map helped. We arrived at KL Sentral and I had a vague, vivid yet hazy memory of my mum back in August picking me up from KL Sentral and telling me and my sister we only needed to take one stop on the LRT train. The next stop up was Pasar Seni. Pasar means market, we wanted to head for the Central Market, I guessed and luckily it was right. It felt weird to be back there. We stopped off for a little drink in the Central Market food court, it being nearly 10 and us not having had the chance to get breakfast. I told Ashley there was a place I wanted to take him to eat so we didn’t eat there, but instead made our way down Petaling Street and found the food court where my mum and me ate on the last night in KL. It was just as I remembered!

After our curry laksa to welcome us to Malaysia, we headed back on the LRT to the Petronas Towers, wandered around the Suria mall a bit, took some Petronas Towers photos and whizzed back down to the market so that we were closer to KL Sentral to get our bus back to the airport. Still having some time to spare, we ate again (it was past 12, this could be classed as lunch) and decided to have a little look around the market. We were soon distracted by what was my first Malaysian experience last time – a fishy foot spa. It was the same place and possibly the same woman working there. This time I was a little braver and didn’t waste half of my time with my feet out of the water. I think it must have long lasting effects though – the fish nibbled me a little but not half as much as they flocked to Ashley. FRESH MEAT!

It was a quick little jaunt but pretty fun! And much more rewarding than I think 12 hours in the airport would have been. As a matter of fact there was only one hour in the airport, and off we set to Semporna.

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Observations On Malaysia

I’m gonna throw it out there, no backlash please, but Malaysia is nicer than Indonesia. It feels safer, friendlier and just generally a nicer place to be. Here’s why…

  • ANGRY BIRDS.  This isn’t why Malaysia is better than Indonesia, it’s just an observation. Malaysia loves Angry Birds. You can buy Angry Birds fans, t-shirts, balloons, cakes, lanyards, iPhone cases and even toothbrush holders. I know because my sister has one.

 

 

 

 

  • ROADS. Malaysia’s roads are a much more pleasant experience than those in Indonesia. Not only are then generally well surfaced, but drivers don’t overtake for no apparent reason. To top it all off, their CAUTION signs remind me of one of my favourite films…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • CELEBRATIONS. Maybe I just got lucky with this one but Malaysia seems to always have a reason to celebrate. I think having so many different religions helps, but since being in Malaysia, I’ve seen the National Day, Hari Raya (end of Ramadan), World Wakeboarding Championships, Sarawak Independence Day and some people standing very still to Scotland The Brave…

 

 

 

 

  • FOOD. I hate to sound like I’m comparing Malaysia and Indonesia all the time, but in Indonesia, most food is goreng. Fried. In Malaysia, however, you can get plenty of fried food if that’s your thing, but you can also get curries, laksa, Chinese and Indian more so than in Indonesia.

 

 

 

 

  • FRIENDLY. I’ve given up now, it’s impossible not to compare. In Indonesia, people see your white skin and their eyes go ker-ching. In Malaysia, people are just generally more friendly and willing to help. Or wanting to take your photo, like this lot last night who had more cameras than an Argos stockroom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I like Malaysia. It’s a welcoming country with plenty to see and do, and despite being one of the more expensive destinations in South East Asia, it’s still possible to live for a tenner a day. I don’t mind that I didn’t climb Mount Kinabalu, or dive Sipidan, or see sea turtles because I know that Malaysia is one place I’ll be visiting again.

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A not so long house.

So today I did something! I woke up early and instead of heading up to the TV room to practice some Chinese, I headed to the reception area to practice some Chinese while I waited for my minibus to a longhouse.

The longhouse is a traditional way of living for Borneo folk and it was not what I expected. I’ve heard a lot of people who have visited a longhouse say it wasn’t what they expected; and I’m not naive, I was expecting satellite dishes, mobile phones and various other mod cons. It was what I expected in that sense. However, it wasn’t what I would describe logically as a longhouse. Let’s break it up:

LONGHOUSE

If you’re imagining lots of houses connected in a loooong line, then we’re on the same wavelength (I’ll let you be the judge as to whether that’s a good thing or not). What it really is is a small village community built on stilts. Most houses are made of bamboo and wood in the traditional fashion, however, there is the odd concrete one dotted here and there, which makes for a bizarre mix of old and new.

In an attempt to save money after spending rather a lot this month already on Mulu and the Grand Prix, I opted for the half day trip, which involves just a nosy around the village rather than an overnight trip, which involves staying at the longhouse (in the purpose built concrete building) and various activites. Initially, I was in two minds as to whether or not I should splash out and go for the overnight stay (the cheapest I found was 420RM). After having seen the place, I’m glad I just visited for the day. An overnight stay would offer nothing more to me. The activities were all things I did on my tour in the Cameron Highlands and sleeping in a purpose built concrete building would have taught me nothing additional about the longhouse communities than an hours stroll did.

When it came to 8.50, my pick up time, I put my Chinese book on my bed and headed outside to wait for the minibus. I wasn’t waiting long before a Chinese man came and found me. We had to walk to the bus because lots of people who stood around while “Scotland The Brave” played were blocking the road. Apparently it’s the Governors birthday and they are doing dress rehearsals…that require the roads empty…despite them being in the park. They were there yesterday too, which is why I couldn’t find my bus to Kubah National Park and therefore spent the day learning Chinese.

Anyway, we get to the bus, pick up two more tourists and away we go. Our guide was a nice chap who laughed a lot at his own jokes.

“This is the dragon fruit tree,” he said as we drove past some weird looking short trees, “it is pink inside. It is imported here from Vietnam and China because it is good for the health. It clean the body. I eat the dragon fruit one time, and I go for shit to the toilet, and my shit is red! I call my wife, “I think I’m having a period or something!” Haha! Because it is red! But it is just because it cleanse the body. Haha!”

Awkward… I’ve just met you and you’re talking about poo. At least wait an hour.

When we arrive at the longhouse, we are given a shot glass of rice wine, which I knew we would be given. I don’t drink alcohol. I had read that it is very rude to refuse the rice wine, and the only way people get out of it is if they have heart problems. I didn’t want to offend, and so drinking small sip by small sip so as to be able to hold my wincing face at bay, I eventually managed to finish it.

We then began our walk through the first longhouse, admiring the electricity and kittens.

“This pink slip,” our host began, pointing to one of the pink slips that was outside every front door, “is from the doctor. The tribe people and people who live in the longhouse in Malaysia all get free health care. And the yellow one is for free electricity when there is enough money from the government. Sometimes they need to pay but water is always free – from the river, yeah? This is their water source.”

Free health care? The Malaysians who don’t live in the longhouses pay 1RM every time they want to see the doctor.

We soon came to the second longhouse, which wasn’t much different to the first other than the amount of people. There were a few more people in the second longhouse. One young looking 72 year old was weaving a ratan basket, one 60 year old man was making a wooden spinning top. He was brilliant and let me have a go. He wound the string around the spinning top and then wrapped the other end around my hand. When he had finished, I threw the top and pulled on the string as instructed and send the spinning top into orbit. Yaaaaay! Feeling quite confident, I tried again, this time with me doing the wrapping.

“Like this?” I said to the man, showing him my hand.

“Not like that!” he said, with real comic tones in his voice. He re-wrapped it. And I couldn’t do it. Must have been a fluke.

Before we left, we were offered some durian. Again, I didn’t want to be rude and so I took a piece of the revolting, creamy, gone off mango flavoured fruit.

In the minibus on the way back, I agreed with the Australian couple on the tour that it wasn’t what any of us were expecting. The longhouse not durian. It is a worthwhile experience to see how people live, but it is changing rapidly. A few doors down from the old woman weaving her ratan basket are a couple of 20-somethings smoking and playing on their mobile phones. Next door to the “typical” show house of ratan rugs and bamboo cooking poles is a comfortable living room set complete with sofas, cushions and Barbie flip-flops by the door. If you look up, that tin roof holds up the satelite dish.

I’m not claiming that this is a bad thing, or that these communities should not have TV, or mobile phones, or ambition. What I am saying is that in 5 or 10 years time it would not be worth visiting a place like this. The idea is that you see how people live, yes, and this is how they live, satelite dishes ‘n’ all. However, would you bother to go to a council estate in Corby or a penthouse in Plymouth to see how people live? I’m pretty sure the answer is no (if the answer is yes then we’re definitely not on the same wavelength).

“It’s not the same thing!” I hear you cry, “You go to a longhouse to see how people live because it’s different to you!”

Exactly my point, in 5 to 10 years time, I don’t think it will be that different to how me or thee live. Yes, the stilts and bamboo will still be there, but with the smart, young ones moving to the city for money, you’ve got to question who’ll still be in the longhouses?

I think the answer is the real smart ones. If the tourists are still coming and giving the odd gift here and there, and the government is still giving free health care, and the world around them is still giving free food then really they’re made up! They may be living differently to me, but I’m sure if I asked anyone today who Lady GaGa was then they would have known.

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No rest for the wicked? Then I must be a good girl.

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I must be so busy! You know what? I’m actually not. I’m the most unbusy I’ve been the whole time I’ve been away. And it’s brilliant. I’ve been in Kuching since the 12th and I’m here until the 22nd, so it’ll be a ten day stint in all, which is by far the longest I’ve been in one place. The only reason being that I don’t leave for Singapore (for the Grand Prix!) until Thursday, and I came to Kuching much earlier than initially planned in an attempt to arrange a longhouse visit from here and spend less on flights getting to Bario in the Kelabit Highlands to do it there.

I’m busy doing nothing and it’s lovely to have a restbite from packing and repacking my bag, airports and the like.

It helps that the hostel I’ve found here is amazing, especially the TV room! Air-con, a book exchange and a rather large selection of copied DVDs is how I’ve been spending my evenings. And with good company! I’ve met loads of Brits here who have all been lovely – one couple went to university in Preston, where I have family, and one of them even went to university with someone I went to school with!

As for my time out of the TV room – of which there has been some, I assure you – I’ve seen caves, lots of monkeys and some wakeboarding. It just so happens that the Wordl Wakeboarding Championships are happening right now in Kuching – meaning lots of amazing cheap food stalls and free kek lapis samples in the food expo tent. Kek lapis is like cheesecake without the base. It is delicious.

I spent my first day wandering the streets of Kuching, curiously looking at the numerous cat statues and laughing to myself at the museum and “aquarium”. My second day was another day spent enjoying the delights of Kuching but my third day…well, you know, just went and hung out with some orang-utans. Just chilling like. No, seriously, it was pretty cool. There’s not a lot at Semenggoh though, so after an hours bus ride to get there, you spend an hour watching the first feed of the day and then there’s nothing to do so you have to get the bus back again! Definitely worth it though.

Yesterday I went to Bako National Park and saw some probiscus monkeys (which make the weirdest noise), some pitcher plants (which trap bugs) and got absolutely drenched on the boat ride back. Covered in salt water. I was scrubbing the salt from my face all evening.

Today I’d planned to go to Wind and Fairy caves at Bau, about an hour from Kuching. On a bus it would have been a bit of mission – bus to Bau, then a bus to drop you off near wind cave, walk to wind cave, walk back, catch bus back to Bau, then a bus to Fairy cave, walk to Fairy cave, walk back to catch the bus back to Bau, then catch the bus back to Kuching. Phew. Thankfully, someone in my dorm was also planning to go there and can ride motorbikes! So we hired a motorbike and I sat on the back and we did both caves in one easy afternoon! In all honesty I think the Fairy cave was more impressive than Mulu! And it was free!

The plan for the rest of my time in Borneo is an easy like Sunday morning Sunday hitting the Sunday market and maybe going for a swim, Kubah National Park on Monday, a longhouse visit on Tuesday and a relaxing rest on Wednesday before hitting up Singapore for the Grand Prix. Did I mention I got an email from those lovely people at Singapore Grand Prix to tell me that I was one of the first 1000 people to buy a Saturday walkabout pass and therefore get an instant upgrade to the Shakira Fanzone?! Amazing!! This is why I need to preserve my energy here in Kuching. This time next week will be a little more lively I think…

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“Hey, you’re British?! You must love Danny Boyle?!”

The Hangover Part 2 has now been added the list, along with Marley And Me, of Films That Were Rudely Interrupted In A Hostel. This time there was no Mowglina, but a rude French woman. I love French people, generally speaking of course, and had even spent an hour or so earlier that evening with some lovely French people. We just sat reading and enjoyed each others company. However, last night I was in the TV/Common Room, when I found The Hangover Part 2 about three down in a pile of copied DVDs. Amazing! I’d almost considered going to the cinema earlier to see it as I’d noticed it was on and am yet to see it…still am.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite master the DVD player, and no matter which combination of plugs and wires I tried, it wasn’t ready to work. “Oh well!” I thought to myself, “Reading it is”.

A little later an English couple came up, who I’d seen earlier watching Harry Potter.

“Ahh! You were watching Harry Potter, you must know the answer to my question!”

After a little fiddle they managed to fix it (the adapter wasn’t working – they had their own!) and we settled down to watch the film. About an hour in, a group of 6 or 7 people came to join us. Now, it’s quite a big room, but it’s not a conference hall. 6 or 7 extra bodies make it very crowded. But that’s ok if they’re happy to sit and watch with us.

“What are you watching? Oh it’s that film where four guys get way too drunk and can’t remember anything? Yeah, I didn’t like the first one so there’s not much hope for this. There’s only so much you can show about four guys getting drunk,” said a woman with long blond hair, “Oh no, we couldn’t talk in the kitchen ’cause of that man, now we come in here and we can’t talk ’cause there’s a film! Ha!”

“That’s good,” I thought, “She’s recognised we’re watching and enjoying this film and will soon shut up.”

That didn’t happen. Instead, with the film geared up as a conversation starter, she proceeded to ask a Spanish couple who had also entered with the entourage if they like Almodovar, a famous Spanish film director. Now, as an Almodovar fan myself, I can quite honestly say that it’s something I would never ask a Spaniard. It would be like saying, “Hey, you’re British?! You must love Danny Boyle?!”.

The conversation didn’t end there. On and on she went….”He’s so creative…I love the way he takes something so perverse and puts it in a different light.” Blah blah blah, enough of the pretense.

After about 20 minutes I gave up. I’d lost the plot line of the film, had no idea what was going on and couldn’t hear or see to understand even if I wanted to. So I went to bed and will attempt part 2 of Part 2 tonight.

Despite this, the general mood here is good. It’s a very nice hostel – and one of the cheapest in Malaysia so far at 17RM! I’m planning to base myself in Kuching until I leave for Singapore. Most things can be reached in a day trip from here – orang utans, Bako National Park, a longhouse…so we’ll see how it goes. Plus, that will give me some downtime and much needed staying in one place and not having to repack every three days!

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Do Do Mulu!

Preparing to leave for Mulu, I’d prepped myself that I would be away from civilization and communication. I knew there were some caves and that that was the main reason people went there but I didn’t realize how inspiring caves can be! I realize that sentence sounds incredibly geeky, but after my time here in Mulu, I feel inspired to take on more adventurous caves, treks and the like.  I would recommend a visit here to anyone visiting Borneo/Malaysia/South East Asia. However, it is expensive in comparison with what I’ve been spending on my trip so far. It’s become like a mini holiday in Centre Parcs purely due to the sudden increase in my spending. I found pre-travel info a little weak, so here’s what I now know in case you’re up for being inspired….

Arrival by plane is the only feasible way to get to Mulu, which had helped in me thinking it would be totally isolated. Therefore, I was expecting a tiny plane with propellers and 20 seats, similar to a domestic plane I’d taken in Costa Rica a few years ago. However, this plane was much bigger! Yes, it had propellers but there were much more seats. And we got a complimentary Milo!

When you arrive at Mulu, you’re greeted by numerous signboards offering a ride to the park headquarters. It’s only about 1 km away, but for 5RM (1GBP) it’s no hassle taking one of these sign bearing folk up on their offer.

Also worth noting at this point is that before departure, from what I’d read in the Lonely Planet and online, I was led to believe that you had to book accommodation in advance, and that the options at the park were the only options. The cheapest option being 40RM per night for a dorm bed in the park hostel (as opposed to 20RM average I’ve been paying elsewhere in Malaysia). However, when you take one of these rides to the park, you will see a few “homestay” places dotted along the road to the park. Jesper, a Swedish man I met on my tours, was staying in one for 15RM a night – quite a saving on my bed in the park hostel! Info that these existed prior to arrival would have saved me a small fortune. However, you get what you pay for, and from what Jesper told me, the shower sounds rather piddley and his mosquito net a necessity.

The first things you have to do on arrival are register and pay your 10RM park entrance fee. Now is also a good time to plan your time here as trips can fill up fast, so the quicker you book the better. There’re plenty of clear leaflets and a map to help you decide what’s best for you if you have no idea. I would recommend checking the website beforehand to give you an idea of what’s on offer.  Be warned: at this point, you will spend more than you initially planned!!

If, like me, you’ve never been caving before, I would recommend the following (apart from Lagang Cave), which is also the itinerary I did;

Day 1: Deer Cave and Lang Cave at 2pm, including the “bat exodus” as they flock out between 4.30 and 6pm, just in time for you finishing the caves. Lang Cave is full or limestone formations of stalactites and stalagmites, whereas Deer Cave is full of bat poo. I was slightly worried about just how bad the smell was going to be when I saw our guide rubbing Vicks under his nostrils before entering, but in all honesty, rather unexpectedly, it smelt like Veet!!

Day 2: Cave of the Winds and Clearwater Cave at 8.45am, including a longboat trip down a very shallow river, a stop at a local village selling crafts (which you will feel pressured to buy…) and a longboat trip back. Expect to return around 12.30 – just in time for lunch before…

Canopy Walk at 2pm. After an hour or so, you reach the longest canopy walkway in the world, which is quite scary at times! The bridges wobble and shake, are attached to the trees with rope and only two people are allowed on at a time. It is good fun though!

Day 3: Moonmilk Cave is the only cave that can be explored without a guide, you just need to let the Security Office know your plans. I did this with Jesper. It was a good workout, with over 800 steps in total. However, we ended up at Cave of the Winds, and had to turn back, adding another few hundred steps to the challenge!

Lagang Cave. This is billed as a “tourist” and “adventure” cave. I was well up for that! A nice little introduction into adventure caving for me, breaking me in gently. But no. To link tourist to the word adventure they don’t get rid of the boardwalk, they just turn off the lights. To make my first experience of “adventure” caving even more adventurous, I was asked after 10 minutes in the cave by my guide what religion I was.

I shook my head, “I have no religion.” Those words I should have learnt not to utter after meeting my crazy LOGOS HOPE! friend at the bus stop in Penang.

His eyes lit up.

“Who made the earth and the universe? Who put all these things here? Do they ever stop?”

“Well, it’s just nature isn’t it? It’s infinite. Nature did it, Mother Nature.” I considered adding a “Mother Nature is my God” but my better judgment helped me bite my lip.

The rest of the journey I was lumbered with stories of how he found God, how God saved him and his granddad can perform miracles, how he went to Singapore for two months to train to be a Pastor, and how one day, I too, will find God. Yeah that’s not gonna be today. Or tomorrow. Or even the day after that, or the day after…you get the picture.

He then proceeded to tell me how he was dating a beautiful Hindu girl (she must have been a stunner – he was always emphasizing the “beautiful”), but then his cousin introduced him to his (now) wife and he had to make a choice. He had to think of his future. So he send a letter to his now wife and signed it with his blood, saying “I’m deadly serious, if you are too, write back with your blood.” All this and he’s still dating the poor Hindu.

“Then one day, I receive the letter. I can feel my heart pumping in my chest…I open the letter….and there it is, her blood. I then had to break off with the Hindu and we soon married.” No mercy when it comes to bloody love.

I took this opportunity to ask about other religions if God was the one who made everything.

“Well, we do not offend other religions.”

“But if they believe in Allah, or Buddha, or Vishnu and not God…one of you must be wrong?”

“Well, we do not speak badly of other religions but, when I pray, I pray in my heart, and God comes to me. It is personal. When the Muslims pray, they use the megaphone. The “Barrr barrrr mmmm bahhhh”. How can this be personal? How can you talk to God?”

“Yeah, but I think that’s just the call to prayer. That tells them it’s time to pray. Then they go in and pray individually in silence, right?”

“Yes they do, yes.”

He’d seen miracles apparently, performed by God, but he wasn’t aware of the miracles of other people, of their beliefs and their rituals. That’s what’s really amazing in life – diversity, and I don’t have to believe in God or Allah or whoever you wish to pray to to be able to see that.

Be prepared to open up your wallet in Mulu. The food costs between 10RM and 16RM, and at least 3RM for a drink. If I was in the city or by a beach I would stretch out my snacks and go for one meal a day but when you’re out walking and sweating like crazy all day, you need to bite the bullet and pay for two meals a day (breakfast comes in the form of a token included in the accommodation price). There are a few restaurants along the road to the airport, but unless you walk quite a way, I think the prices are pretty much the same. As for water, I was not prepared to pay the price of a meal for a bottle of water. Luckily in the hostel, there were a couple of kettles, so I just boiled tap water up and left it to cool whenever I wanted to refill. This works fine until some [insert expletive here] Germans come along and reboil and steal all your precious water. [Insert further expletive for emphasis].

Altogether, my bill at Mulu was 270RM for accommodation and activities. Food must have come to at least 70-80RM and the return flight was 306RM…which comes to a grand total of….around 650RM (120GBP). So far the most pricey venture of my trip.

Was it worth it? Yes and no. Yes the experience was definitely worth it. I had an excellent time and as a novice to this kind of thing, I loved the “tame” adventure quality that Mulu has. No because the food and accommodation was way too expensive. I wish I’d known about the homestay options, although I would probably have eaten in the park still, because the food is very good and the price variation minimal. All things considered, do Mulu!

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One journey, two countries, eight stamps.

From Penang, I flew to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah on Borneo. It’s still part of Malaysia, but because it’s semi autonomous, you get a little “entered Sabah on…” stamp. Initially, I was thinking of spending a couple of days here, one of which I would go to Mount Kinabalu National Park – not to climb the mountain, just to do some trails around the park itself and then head back. I though from there I’d then head down to Sandakan for a couple of nights as this is near one of four orang-utan sanctuaries in the world! After this, I was planning on Semporna, which is apparently home to some of the best dive spots in the world.

However! Things have changed slightly since that plan…I’m writing this from a different country. I was in two different countries today, yet I had my passport stamped eight times. I’m now in Brunei. If that means nothing to you, Brunei is a tiny country on the top of Borneo and it looks a little like this:


 

 

 

 

 

This means that when you go on a bus from Kota Kinabalu to Bandar Seri Begawan, this happens:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, let’s add something else to the perfectly to scale diagram, Malaysian Borneo is split into Sabah and Sarawak, both of which are semi autonomous:

So altogether the journey involves going in and out of two different countries, and two different states of one of those countries, a grand total of eight times! My passport now looks a little like this:

At border control number five (or four, they all became a bit of a blur), I had a brief chat with one of the drivers who told me that he has to get a new passport every two months because he racks up seven stamps each day! I checked, his work pays for the passports!

I was quite looking forward to the journey, well, as much as you can be looking forward to an eight hour bus journey. Within minutes of me sitting down and whipping out Sons and Lovers, Justin Bieber Never Say Never The Movie was on! Well, Sons and Lovers could wait. Plus reading on a moving vehicle makes me feel a bit sick, whereas watching Justin Bieber on a moving vehicle? That just makes me laugh. Unfortunately, we went over a speed bump after 15 minutes and “The Beebs” was gone. However, my personal favourite quote from what I saw was his vocal coach’s response when “JB” asked for a razor – “Really? A razor?”

The DVD player was off until we stopped at the first border and the drivers had a chance to play with the wires. Only to put on AWFUL karaoke tracks. The lyrics were rolling across the bottom of the screen in front of cheesy images edited on Windows Movie Maker. URGH. I whipped out the iPod. But the karaoke was loud, and it was about to get a whole lot louder…

On the seat opposite me was an adorably bizarre old woman, wearing a batik dress held on with a bumbag, thrown over pyjama bottoms with little wintery bears dotted on them. She had a pink quilted jacket and green thing that was on and off her head more times than I thought about Rick Astley during the bus ride. She must not like karaoke, because not long after the karaoke started, she whipped out her own entertainment device, presumably to block out the noise. She had a little portable DVD player and a carrier bag full of DVDs. Only problem was, she didn’t appear to have any headphones. I wouldn’t have minded too much if she was watching something I could sneak a peek at. However, when the films started, it soon became clear that she was watching home videos of herself. Mainly of herself singing. To a duck. Seeing as she clearly didn’t seem to care about her volume, I put mine up to block out the crooning “lay lay lays” to the duck. At times, I was literally clutching my ear to block out the sound. Especially when KL Gangster came on after the drivers got bored of the karaoke DVD. It started with a man getting a beating on the road outside the entrance arch to Petaling Street, yards from where we stayed in Kuala Lumpur! They also threw in lots of night shots of the Petronas Towers for good measure. I wouldn’t recommend they add it to the in-flight movie list, people would be landing and going straight back out.

As for Brunei now I’ve finally arrived, well! It’s a fascinating little place.

I set out to stay at the “Youth Centre” for B$10 a night (5GBP) as opposed to B$30 (15GBP), which was the next lowest price I’d managed to find. I found the Youth Centre no problem; Bandar Seri Begawan is very small. There was a man stood at the entrance to what I assumed to be the Youth Centre.

“Pusat Belia?” I asked.

“Yes, but the manager has now gone. I am also wait here and he say he come back soon. You come in, come sit. He is here soon. You can have bed.” replied the man, ushering me to sit down. I hadn’t fully understood what he was trying to tell me, mind you.

“Well, I think..so, what? Do you work here? Can you give me a bed? Or do I go in and wait for him?”

“You can wait here. I am customer also. I do not work here. I am here on business but I ring him and he say to me that he is here soon.”

“Right, err, ok.” I sit down.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“England. And you?”

“Oh England. I have been three times to London on business.”

“Right. What did you think? Did you see Big Ben? Buckingham Palace?” I was struggling to think of monuments for a few seconds after that. Isn’t that awful?!

“Yes yes. I see all these things. It is very nice. You are very nice. You travel alone?”

“Yes.”

“And where is your husband?”

I’d decided at this point it was best to go with the fact that yes, I do have a husband. I don’t.

“He is working. In England. But he will come and meet me soon.”

“And does he work or do business?

“Sorry?”

“Does he work or do business? Business is better. You can get lots of money and then not a lot of money. But with work always the same amount each month.” Surely, he’s just talked up the benefits of work as opposed to ‘business’?

“Right. Yeah. He works. And does business too. So where are you from?”

“Bangladesh. Have you been?”

“No, not yet!” And I probably never will! But I didn’t tell him that bit.

“You must come. You can stay at my house. I live 20 minutes from the airport. I will give you my address. And you can stay in my bed. In my house.”

“Right. Maybe one day!” A very polite way of saying never.

“And next time I come to England, I can stay at your house. You give me your address and I will come.”

“Hmm. I live a long way from London!” I don’t. “Way up north!”

Thankfully, someone arrived at the Youth Centre. He headed towards the swimming pool. I went to ask if he knew any more than we did. He was very nice and from Sudan. And he did know more than us. Apparently they are closed for a few days after Hari Raya (the end of Ramadhan). B$30 a night it was then. I started to head back into town.

“My friend! Wait! Where do you go? I ring him now! And he says he comes! He will be here very soon! My friend!” Mr Bangladesh did not want me to leave. Even if the Sudanese man had only meant that the swimming pool was closed after Hari Raya, I wasn’t waiting any longer with this guy to find out.

I arrived at my 15GBP a night room (the most expensive so far!), showered and headed out for food. Thankfully, I found a hawker market very close to where I’m staying as shown on the map in Lonely Planet. Only, it was very quiet. Once I finished my chicken and rice, I discovered the rest of Brunei was also very quiet. This is the capital city! And it feels deserted! It is remarkably clean though and it does feel very safe. I took myself on a little stroll around the main hub of the city, passing Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and the call to prayer on the way. One of the better “singers” for the call to prayer I’ve heard.

This morning I set off nice and early, thinking I could make the 3km walk to the Palace and another mosque before it got too hot. I think I got about half way and was sweltering! So I gave up on that idea and instead went straight to the Royal Regalia Museum, which is full of gifts given to the Sultan by presidents, prime ministers and other royal families from across the world. Personally, I couldn’t help but think it led me to understand a little further as to why we’re having a global economic crisis.

“What shall I send the dear old Sultan of Brunei for his birthday, Phillip? Ooo, I know, a big glass vase with my initials on it. That’ll come in handy for him.”

No it won’t Lizzie, it’ll end up in a museum. I’d feel slightly insulted if I spent that much money on a gift and it wasn’t even in his house. Especially when his palace is three times bigger than Buckingham Palace!!Even if he put it in one of the 257 bathrooms I’d be happy.

I’ve only been here less than 24 hours, but I’m mesmerized by the place. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been and if you come to Borneo, it’s definitely worth adding a day or two here to your itinerary. The wealth is evident but not in the sense of skyscrapers or amazing monuments, the money has been put into religion, royalty and roads. I’m also quite fond of the fact that for the first time in over a month, zebra crossings mean something.

My only negative of Brunei is that I can’t send text messages – so apologies if you’ve text me over the past couple of days and I haven’t replied! I’m still alive! I suppose this is good practice though because tomorrow I’m heading back into Sarawak to a town called Miri. This is the base for flights to Gunung Mulu National Park and the Kelabit Highlands. I’m hoping to spend a couple of nights at Mulu exploring the caves and a couple of nights in the Kelabit Highlands, perhaps doing a longhouse visit if it can be arranged! If I get to Mulu and the Kelabit Highlands, I’ll also be phone (and Internet) free, but I’ll report back as soon as I can!

Categories: Brunei, Malaysia, South East Asia | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Thoughts on Penang (and other exciting news!)

In keeping with the rest of Malaysia, Penang is very nice. In difference to the Cameron Highlands, Penang is very hot! I haven’t really sweated yet since I’ve been away, yeah, it’s been hot, but Penang? WOAH! I’m thinking it could just have been the change from shivering at night in the Cameron Highlands to stepping off the plane into a blanket of heat but wow!

After my wonderful night at Jim’s Place, (not only was there a bratty jungle kid but my fan didn’t work!!) I awoke bright and early and was ready to leave ASAP. I showered, packed my bag, checked the map for an idea of which direction to head for cheap hotels and so I was set. I headed downstairs. Complete darkness. Brilliant. The shutters were down, no-one was around…then I saw a man on the sofa. It was Jim.

“Jim? Jim?” I whispered, “Jim?”

He stirred.

“I need to leave now”

“Ok. You can go out the back, baby.” That’s the kind of guy Jim was. He had notice boards on the wall filled to the brim with quotes from “Sir Jim”, mainly about having sexual intercourse with the Thai population.

Glad to have finally left, I ended up in Banana Guest House! Doesn’t sound much better, does it? Thankfully, it was, and I had a very pleasant last night’s rest in Penang. A much needed one after my 8km trek through Taman Negara Pulau Penang earlier that day. That’s Penang National Park to you and me. It was a fun, sweaty hour and a half before reaching a beautiful white sandy beach with a turtle conservation centre – and a tank full of baby sea turtles! It was very cute!

I met a lovely man called Izman and his two cousins who were so kind, and gave me a lift to the Toy Museum that I’d seen on my way over. However, when I got to the entrance, I noticed the ticket price – as far as I could make out, it would have cost me 100RM (20quid!) just to see some toys. I was kinda hoping for 1-10RM…so I headed to the bus stop straight away to catch a bus back into town.

“Where do you want to go?” came an angry sounding voice from the shelter.

“Err, I need bus 101? Into the city, Komtar?”

“Ahh, yes, ok, it will come. But i’ve been waiting half an hour already. Huh!” She was quite a character, “So where are you from?”

“England.”

“Ooo, long way. How do you like Malaysia?”

“I love it! I was in Indonesia before, and I hated it. So Malaysia is great in comparison!”

She nodded and smiled. We sat for a few moments and then she asked, “What do you believe?”

“I’m sorry?”

“What do you believe? Like, God, religion? Are you a Christian?”

“Oh, I’m not religious. I…don’t know what to believe.” This was an easier answer than getting into a religious debate. I turned the tables, “And you?”

“I’m a Christian. I used to be a Hindu but then I changed. What is the point of a religion when I can’t do anything, you know? But being a Christian, I can ask for forgiveness, you can’t do that in Hinduism, I mean, we all make mistakes sometimes, we need to ask for forgiveness and my old religion didn’t allow for mistakes so now being Christian LOGOS HOPE!!!” The endless monologue was interrupted when two minibuses drove past with the words “Logos Hope” on the side.

“What’s Logos Hope?” I asked.

“It’s a boat, a travelling book fair, and it’s here in Penang, first time in Malaysia and first time in Penang and it’s here!”

What a lovely idea. A book boat shop that travels the world.

She was chatting all the way on the bus too. A very nice, open woman called Mala.

The following morning I left Penang and after a few hours stop in Kuala Lumpur airport, I arrived in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah on Borneo yesterday. So far, so good! I caught the bus into town for 30p as opposed to at least a tenner for a taxi and went for some lunch in a shopping centre. I found a small cafe in a supermarket where I chowed down on a plate of fried noodles for 40p, only to be filmed by the women on the next table…I wasn’t literally chowing the noodles down, I’m not a dog. I was eating sensibly despite being ravenous. So that wasn’t the reason they were filming me. I did still have my backpack on but get a life! I even turned back as I walked away and she was still filming me!!

It was a half hours walk from the bus station to Lucy’s Homestay (the cheapest in the book!) and if they were full there looked to be plenty of other options nearby. Thankfully, they had space and I’m now in a lovely hostel for the next three nights (well, two now!) with free breakfast and wi-fi AND I’ve had my laundry done! Hooray!

Even more exciting news is…

  1. I may be able to do a try dive in the Semorna Archipelago – apparently one of the best dive spots in the world!
  2. I have planned Borneo down to a T and should be able to hit the orang-utans (not literally), Semporna, Gunung Mulu National Park and Kuching within a time span allowing me to…
  3. GO TO SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX!! Yes! How amazing is that?! It falls just when I’m ready to leave Borneo, flights from Kuching are dirt cheap (I’ve already booked one!) and Shakira, Linkin Park, Shaggy AND Rick Astley are playing!! I mean come on, Rick Astley? Cherry on top of a fantastic cake or what?! It’s a night race around a track in the city centre so different to most races around the world. What a cool place to see my first Grand Prix! Of course, I’ll be rooting for Hamilton and Button….if I’m not too busy singing along to Rick Astley that is!

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Categories: Malaysia, Singapore, South East Asia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Who hasn’t slept with half the world?

Ooo, I need a rant! So this place I’m staying in Penang, really odd…

I’m walking down the street, map in hand, trying to figure out why I can’t find Blue Diamond Hostel (the cheapest in the book!) when I’m stood right by exactly where the dot is on my map, and a guy on a moped stops and asks if I’m looking for a room.I would normally ignore this, but he had an old white man on the back of his bike so he must have been a bit legit…

“Yeah, I’m looking for Blue Diamond Hostel?”

“It doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s that,” he points to where the dot on my map would indicate, “Expensive now, over a hundred Ringgit a night.”

“Oh..”

He sends me to Jim’s Place. He’s Jim.

The people are a bit weird here, like travelled for waaaay too long, dead cynical etc….then there’s this little girl. She shows me the animals at the hotel behind this place (they had lots of terrapins!) and when I get back from my walk around town, she wants to play cards. No worries. Bored of her cheating at Go Fish and having been to see the animals again, and watched her dance, I decided to go upstairs and watch a film. She follows, we end up watching a copied and skipping version of Marley And Me.

After about ten minutes, she sat on my back…then she picks my key up with her toe, no problem, then she won’t give it back to me!!

“It’s MY key, you need to give it back.”

“No, it’s Jim’s key.” She sounded rather smug.

You may think I’m overreacting, but I attach my hotel keys to my suitcase key and thus to everything I have to keep me alive for the next 4 months and a keyring with 2 out of 3 photos I have with me of me and my boyfriend. AND a keyring my sister got me from ChocoStory in Belgium. That was the deal breaker. I was rightfully, I think you’ll agree, getting angry with a little girl.

When I eventually get my key back, after feeling like I’d gone back to working in a school with the tone I was having to use, she starts tugging on my watch!! She wouldn’t let go, thinking it was a joke, I could see the evil in her eyes. The skank.

Her dad, who kept finding fault in “the system” during an earlier conversation, was downstairs (he’d smoked dope earlier in the day…great parenting, right there) and I heard him saying earlier “Do you have kids?” to some guy.
The guy responded with, “Yeah, one French, one Palestinian.” What the hell?!?!?!?!

As if it’s the most natural and normal thing in the world to have slept with half the planet, Isa..something..blah blah’s dad replies with, “I’ve got 3. One Spanish, one (something else) and Is(..blah blah or whatever her name was.) Her mother is indigenous. We were living in the rainforest for sometime.” WHAT?!?!? You were living in the rainforest so long you decided “Hey, let’s get pregnant?!”

Literally mental. Tomorrow I’m finding somewhere else!!

Just needed to vent that!

Please tell me I’m not on my own here, that’s weird, right?…

Categories: Malaysia | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

If you’re reading, Lord Sugar…

The night before I headed to the Cameron Highlands (after booking my bus) I, well my mum, decided it would be a good idea to find somewhere to stay on the internet on my shiny new yellow netbook. It didn’t fill me with much joy. There was one result, over at least 5 different hostel booking sites, for one night out of the three I had planned. And it wasn’t the first night I would be there that they had available. Brilliant. I had a bus to nowhere.

On arriving in Tanah Rata, the main town in the Cameron Highlands, I was greeted with at least 2 leaflets and offers of minibuses to take me to their bright and lovely accommodation as illustrated on said leaflets. Normally, I hate this kind of thing. I’ve done it once, there was a mouse in my bathroom, I rest my case. However, knowing the pick of accommodation was going to be slim, I opted for the leaflet that offered the dorm. The woman was useless when I arrived!

“The dormitory is full. No dorm,” she snapped before returning to talking to her other clients, the ones that meant she’d ignored me for the past 10 minutes. Needless to say I left. After about 4 hotels and plenty of “No sorry”, or “Only for one night”, or “Tonight 35 Ringgit but tomorrow 125” I was pretty pooped. And starving. And desperate for a wee. So I had a speedy refreshment break (a decent sized vegetarian Indian meal for just over a quid!) and continued the hunt.

The first place I came to beckoned me from the road. TWIN PINES in big red letters sat on the roof with a forest of green in the background. I thought I’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in Canada. In I trotted, knowing what the response would be and that I’d walk away and they’d sit and tut and think “Silly girl, doesn’t she know it’s the end of Ramadan and nearly a National Holiday?”. But I was wrong!

“Do you have room? One person. Three night.” I hate the way I talk to people when I don’t know if they can speak English.

“Yeah. You want…bathroom? Single? Doub-”

“The cheapest?”

“Ok,” she took a key from the wall and summoned me upstairs. To the attic rooms.

“And how much for one night?”

“15 Ringgit”

“Fifteen?” the emphasis on the een.

“Yes”

Must be a mistake, I thought, must be 50. The cheapest place I’d found elsewhere was 35 per night. I knew you could get beds for 10 Ringgit if you weren’t fussy but I didn’t think I would get on for 15 on the spot! My luck had changed.

We reached the top and she unlocked the door. This is what I saw.

Minus my bags obviously. They were on me, surprisingly.

“I’ll take it!” I said. And I’ve been blissfully happy ever since. All I really want is a bed, well in this case a mattress, and a little room for my stuff. Happy as Larry! If I could get a place like this for 3GBP a night everywhere I’ll be set.

So once I had a room, I could focus on the important stuff. Getting some more food. A quick tootle around the town proved that a tour would appear to be the way to go in order to make my trip here worth while.

“Hello, can I help?” said an English voice across the pavement from where I was checking a tour board.

“Yeah…”

I opted for the Rainforest Adventure 2, which was first on the leaflet, so I don’t know what happened to Rainforest Adventure 1.

“You’ll need to take lots of snacks, some peanuts or something, some water and some insect repellent,” she told me whilst filling out my receipt, “Do you have a good pair of shoes?”

“I have these?” I said hopefully, modelling the tatty Birkenstock on my left foot.

“Hmm..” The face said it all, “You might want to get some closed toe shoes. People have done it in flip-flops, a nine year old did last week! Ha! But it could be muddy and a bit tough in places so it might be best…”

My new shoes are brilliant! They cost less than 2 quid and are springy and slip on and rubbery! And now very muddy.

The tour was well worth the money. Although it took a while to realise this.

I got picked up by a guy who was smoking a suspicious smelling cigarette and had a poem on his passenger sun visor that began;

Stoners live,

Stoners die,

Fuck the world,

Let’s get high…

And on we went. As we picked up more people, it felt a little safer. Then came Michael. Michael Jackson. Very loud through the speakers of the old Land Rover. Then came Boney M, Bob Marley (that one made sense) and a whole melange of retro disco funk reggae hits. If that’s even a genre.

Our first stop was the jungle trek, where we were adorned with dashing fern hats before working our way through the forest to a Rafflesia! Now I’m not a big flower person, but I feel quite lucky to have seen one – they spend up to 2 years growing to bloom for less than a week! What are the odds! After that, we made our way across many a bamboo bridge to a waterfall, where we could swim. Although the water was rather murky and the thought of having to take off my new shoes, and socks, and roll up my trousers just for a paddle was just too much effort. But it was nice to look at.

We then made our way back down the “road” which was an adventure in itself to an aboriginal village, complete with satellite dishes. We watched a blow pipe demonstration and got to have a go and were then allowed to wander the village, which felt quite odd, photographing and looking at people’s homes as if they were in a zoo. The children were willing to talk though and seemed to find it hilarious when I asked them “nama anda?”.

By now, it was lunch time and a quick stop at a restaurant with more flies than people was followed by the tea plantation. But not before a long journey on the roof through a traffic jam.

“It’s not far from here. You want to sit on the roof?” our guide said, jokingly.

“Really? Can we? Slow road yeah? Ok.” I said, hoisting myself up. My three new crazy, incredibly young-looking Malaysian friends joined me. Then we got stuck in traffic.

The tea plantation isn’t really very exciting but it makes for a nice stop if you’re on a tour. Unfortunately with the end of Ramadan ‘n’ all, the free factory tour was off, maybe it’s a more exciting visit if you can see the tour. But I did get to walk around the empty factory, and from that I conclude, maybe not.

The next stop was a butterfly and insect farm, which was brilliant because our guide was opening all the tanks and letting us pose with big scary critters!

Last but not least on the tour was a strawberry farm, which really wasn’t exciting at all. I’ve seen strawberries before, I know how they grow, and the strawberry ice cream was the price of a meal so I survived on the spoonful I’d been offered by a Slovenian couple on the tour.

All in all, a really great day, and it wasn’t over yet. Within minutes of being in the Land Rover, the three awesome Malaysian ladies asked me to join them for dinner that evening. So at 9, after a long rest and a hot shower, I headed across to Starbucks. (Yeah, in the mountains! I was shocked too!!)

They took me to an amazing Steamboat restaurant which basically involves a camping stove and a huge pan full of spiced boiling water and plates of raw vegetables, meat, noodles and egg, all of which you dunk into the pan as you wish. Why it doesn’t exist in the UK yet I don’t know. Think I may have found a hole in the market, Lord Sugar. I’d be very interested in doing business with you…or is it normally him that has to say that bit?

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Categories: Malaysia | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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