A recap of last night's stellar Meet, Plan, Go! event is coming later this week, but in the meantime I thought we'd keep the travel inspiration going with this guest post from Daniel Quilter of Ecoteer.
The Perhentian Islands are renowned for being the most beautiful Islands in Malaysia and this title is warranted. The coral sand beaches are lined by palm trees on one side and fringing coral reefs on the other. If Robinson Crusoe was to be filmed they could easily use the Perhentian Islands as the set.
However below the turquoise blue waters not all is good. The coral reefs are dying fast, mainly due to the hordes of tourists which search out this tropical paradise on a daily basis. Corals grow at fastest just 15cm per year and with hundreds of tourists snorkelling and diving the coral reefs daily the breakage of coral is a big issue.
The same goes for the sea turtles of Perhentian. The beaches of the Perhentians are nesting grounds for two species of turtle, green and hawksbill. The number has been slowly declining since 2000. Tourists often seek out nesting turtles and if they get too close they will scare the shy creatures who will then go back into the sea without laying any eggs. If a mother gets to lay her eggs, they then have to evade being collected by poachers who consume or sell the eggs as a local delicacy.
It's not all bad news though! Reef Check Malaysia and Ecoteer both run projects in the islands and several of the resorts are protecting their own piece of paradise. Ecoteer run the community house which is open to the village children in the afternoon as a youth centre. Ecoteer international volunteers also go into the local primary school twice a week to improve the children’s English and to teach them about the environment.
The Ecoteer House is the base for Ecoteer and provides international volunteers with an opportunity to experience the village island life and to give back to the islands' environment. Reef Check runs extensive surveys to establish the health of the coral reefs in Perhentian.
One of the resorts who are doing a lot of good is Bubbles, pictured above. They run a turtle and coral conservation project aimed at protecting the nesting sea turtles and replenishing their fringing coral reef. The seas surrounding Perhentian are very easy for first time scuba divers and during the Bubbles volunteer program you can not only take your first course but the advanced and then become a qualified Reef Check surveyor.
The Perhentian Islands need you, otherwise Paradise will be lost!
Daniel Quilter has always been inspired by the words and footage of David Attenborough which has created a love and passion for helping this world. After he finished his studies in 2005 in Environmental Science Daniel went on an adventure to Borneo that changed his life. He lived and volunteered in Malaysian Borneo for eight months which culminated in him starting Ecoteer.com. Six years on and Daniel is still helping the nature and people of Malaysia.
Today's secret word, boys and girls, is "Kinabatangan!" Use it three times in a sentence. Roll it around on your tongue a bit. Trust me, it's fun.
If I seem even punchier than usual, it's because this beastly heat & humidity may have fried my brain just a tad. It's been pretty junglicious around Our Nation's Capital this week. Accordingly, today's Photo Friday is an homage to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, where we stayed at a small lodge alongside the mighty Kinabatangan River in November 2008.
We spent a few days at Kinabatangan Nature Lodge viewing the jungle's moist bounty via night hikes, early morning boat rides, and midday treks through the muck and slurm with our guide Jungle Jay. (Yes, really.) In addition to monkeys-aplenty, we got to check out bizarre jungle creatures like tarsiers, monitor lizards, toucans, tiny chirping frogs, and all manner of giant bugs. Oh, and the leeches! Plenty of leeches too.
I'll let you write your own leeches-in-Washington joke (too easy), and leave you with a few lovely parting shots of the scenic Kinabatangan.
addiction to high-fructose corn syrup, a family affair
During our 2008 trip to Southeast Asia, we spent a short time in Kuala Lumpur and visited Batu Caves. The cave complex, filled with monkeys and tourists alike, has a bit of a tacky tourist trap feel to them, but there's still plenty to explore.
god and moneychanging, a classic pairing
The first thing to confront visitors is a giant gold statue of the Hindu deity Murugan. And then it's up the steep numbered stairs to the cave entrance. During festivals like Thaipusam, devoted pilgrims supposedly crawl up all 272 stairs on their hands and knees. We opted to walk.
hi-ho, hi-ho, it's up the stairs we go
oktapodi is proud to make it to the top
Inside the cave complex are ornate Hindu shrines where worship still takes place. There were a few ceremonies going on while we were there. Mostly, though, the caves are brimming with tourists snapping pictures of and feeding snacks to the abundant monkeys, who know a good gig when they see it.
Batu Caves complex
second set of stairs to the upper chamber
Our visit to KL was one of those "best of times, worst of times" experiences, as you can see if you check out the original blog post (link below). But in retrospect I'm glad we took the time to check out this extraordinary site. It was a bizarre combination of natural wonder and wonderfully cheesy.
For more great travel photos, be sure to visit Delicious Baby's Photo Friday.
Inspired by Gary Arndt's recent Operation Street Food, this week's WanderFood Wednesday post is a flashback to our 2008 food court adventures in Penang, Malaysia. Penang is known as a foodie paradise, especially if you're an adventurous eater (and, really, what other kind is there?). The whole town is a treasure trove of street vendors. But Gurney Drive is the mack daddy of food courts, with an abundance of stalls dishing out all manner of Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese delicacies. You just wander through the chaos and point at whatever looks interesting. It's all cheap and delicious, so you might as well experiment!
As many people are heading off to their summer vacations, I find myself in serious need of some beach therapy. Or perhaps scuba therapy. Or both! So in honor of my inaugural participation in Delicious Baby's excellent Photo Friday, I decided to replay a few snaps from our blissful three days of wall-to-wall diving off Malaysian Borneo last November.
Semporna is an odd little town; most people come there to access Sipadan, known as Jacques Cousteau's favorite dive site and the holy grail of scuba diving. So this tiny town is crawling with sunburnt dive junkies and a dozen dive shops. But smack up against the dive culture is a conservative Muslim community. Oil and water! There's a big mosque in the center of town, and most dive shops have posted signs exhorting patrons to COVER UP when they're out and about. It's worth the awkwardness, though, as Sipadan and the other surrounding islands afford some of the best diving we've ever experienced. It's like jumping into an aquarium. Nine dives in 3 days may sound like a lot, but to us it was scuba heaven!
::: sigh :::
If you can't go to the beach, let the beach come to you!
We opted to spend our time in Kuching (on the Sarawak side of Malaysian Borneo) visiting slightly touristy spots: Sarawak cultural village, two caves, and orangutans. After a few stressful travel days getting here from Sabah, we were kinda worn out and needed a few days of mellowness. Fortunately our CouchSurfing host, Barry, provided a comfy place for us to crash. And we enjoyed meeting Bruno, a fellow CSer from Paris who happened to be surfing with Barry at the same time we were there. Barry, another chef, took us to some awesome off-the-beaten path Chinese restaurants in Kuching that were definitely not listed in Lonely Planet. So despite the organized tours, we felt vindicated that our Kuching stay was sufficiently authentic.
Day One was spent at Sarawak Cultural Village, which reminded me of Colonial Willamsburg. Composed of several different tribal longhouses clustered at the foothills of Mount Santubong, SCV is a great way to get a sampling of Sarawak's ethnic diversity. There's a cultural performance in the welcome center -- yes, it ranks pretty high on the cheese-o-meter, but it's also a handy way to check out the beautiful fabrics and distinct dances of each of the tribes represented in the village. And then you can wander through half a dozen different longhouses to see how each tribe lives. My favorites were the Penan longhouse, where Mark practiced shooting a blowpipe, and the Orang-ulu longhouse, which featured a little dude playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in a fornlorn minor key on both a sape and a saron.
Day Two took us to the nearby Wind and Fairy Caves, which may not be as extraordinary as World Heritage-ranking Gunung Mulu, but have the benefit of being easily-reachable via daytrip from Kuching. Wind Cave, the smaller of the two, hosts lots of bats and swiftlets. Swiftlet nests, made from bird spit and random detritus, are used to make the infamous Chinese soup (and other dubious delicacies). Fairy cave features an enormous cavern, views across the border into Indonesian Borneo, and some mildly strenuous climbs into some limestone nooks and crannies.
We also spent some time exploring Kuching, the Cat City. (Ten points if you can read the name Kuching and not automatically shout out "Ka-CHING!" which is what most people have done when we've told them about this part of the trip.) Nobody seems entirely sure why Kuching is called the Cat City, but the result is that there are myriad kitschy cat statues all over town. Fantastic Chinese restaurants as well, whether of the sit-down or street stall variety.
We couldn't leave Borneo without seeing some orangutans, aka the "Wild Man of Borneo." There are two major orangutan rehab centers in Borneo... and no, neither of them remotely resemble the Betty Ford Clinic. We missed seeing Sepilok, which is near Sandakan in Sabah. So we wanted to make sure we visited Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, just outside Kuching. There are two main viewing platforms where orangutans gather to be fed by the Malaysian equivalent of Ranger Smith. Personally I found the ranger's splendid mullet almost as fascinating as the antics of the orangutans he was feeding. Even though it was a sanitized environment, it was still pretty cool to see these fascinating creatures at close range.
We spent our Thanksgiving in the Bornean jungle on the banks of the river Kinabatangan. After two days of mucking around in mud up to our knees, with ants in our pants, amidst many monkeys, we're pretty happy to return to (relative) civilization here in Kota Kinabalu. Yesterday we spent the day on a 10-hour bus ride from Sandakan to KK. The scenery was amazing, but as you can imagine it was a long journey. Today we're catching a flight to Sarawak state, the other half of Malaysian Borneo, to couchsurf in Kuching for the last few days of our trip.
At the moment, we're pretty glad to *not* be in Bangkok or Mumbai! Things are pretty mellow in Malaysia (fingers crossed) and we wish safe passage to our fellow travelers in these troubled areas.
We got up early -- really, REALLY early -- for a morning river cruise. While it was moderately pleasant to be skimming along the river in the misty morning, we didn't really see a whole lot. In exchange for getting up at 5am? Sorry, not thick enough.
After brekkie, the day's main event: a 3-hour hike to Oxbow Lake. We donned the abominable boots, slathered on the sunscreen and skeeter cream, and filled up the water bottle. We were mostly in the shade of the forest, but it was still beastly hot and ridiculously humid. Our fearless leader, Jungle Jay, spent a lot of time explaining which plants were poisonous and which were medicinal. We even tasted a few. Yvonne, who turned out to be quite the diva, gave him a hard time at every turn, grumbling about having to taste random plants and complaining about the heat. Mark and I marveled that she would have signed up for two solid days of this... shouldn't she be off in some spa somewhere getting a mud wrap, as opposed to slogging through mud up to her ankles?
Well, as it turned out, she got a bit more mud than she'd bargained for. In one hilarious moment of jungle schadenfreude -- I'm so totally going to hell in a handbasket -- we were crossing a particularly moist meadow. Somehow Jay and the Swedes managed to lithely skirt the huge puddle in the middle, but Yvonne got herself completely stuck. Knee-deep in the muck, she stood mewling and making faces and calling out for *someone* to help rescue her. I was the closest person, but I couldn't resist snapping as many pics as possible. Meanwhile Jay doubled back and pulled her out, but not before she nearly lost a boot to the mire. She was pretty annoyed at me. It was totally worth it.
We made it to Oxbow Lake and back in time for another tastier-than-expected lunch, and then a free afternoon to rinse off the mud and chillax a bit. And then -bam!- another river cruise at 4pm. No rest for the wicked. For the first ten minutes or so, we saw nothing. Despair! Would this be a completely critterless day? But then we were rewarded. First a huge cluster of proboscis monkeys, and then a group of long-tail macaques. Up close and personal! Kickass. It was great fun to watch them do their monkey thang: swinging, chattering, grooming each other. Good stuff. And a nice alternative to a day when our compatriots back home were swarming the malls for Black Friday bargains.
We spent our Thanksgiving in a slightly non-traditional way. After rising early to catch the only bus out of Semporna, and enjoying an uneventful 4.5-hour bus ride through eastern Borneo, we got dumped off at the side of the road next to the Medan Selera Coffeehouse in Bukit Garam. This was the appointed rendezvous spot where the good folks at Nature Lodge Kinabatangan had promised to pick us up. One problem: this might have been the former location of said coffee shop, but it was clearly closed due to construction. And none of the locals hanging around the disheveled strip mall had any idea what we were talking about. So we hung out at the one open restaurant across the street and hoped for the best. Along the way, we picked up a trio of confused-looking Swedes, who'd just gotten off the bus from Kota Kinabalu and had received the same enigmatic instructions from the lodge. Happily, misery (aka confusion plus stultifying heat) loves company. It's always better to be lost with someone else!
Fortunately, the Nature Lodge folks did eventually happen along, and whisked us away for an hourlong journey to the lodge that included off-roading over a bumpy dirt path and then a quick boat ride across the mighty Kinabatangan river. And, finally, we'd arrived!
Nature Lodge Kinabatangan is a pleasant, rustic cluster of buildings along the banks of the river. There's a main lodge that houses the kitchen and open-air dining room, a dorm cabin, shared toilets, and several smaller cabins sprinkled throughout the property. The staff are friendly (like almost all Malays, if you don't count cabbies) and energetic. We'd signed up for the two-day package, which turned out to be a highly-structured series of morning boat rides, midday hikes, and a night walk or two. Normally such precise agendas are not the way we prefer to experience a place, but trekking with professional guides seemed like the best option for wildlife-spotting. So, after a quick moment to freshen up and dump our bags, we trooped back to the boat dock for our first guided boat ride. Our crew consisted of "Jungle Jay," our sprightly and knowledgeable guide; Carolina, Josefin, and Emma, the three jovial 20something Swedes; a sardonic German woman named Yvonne; and a pungent Czech dude called something like Hamze or Janze. (I never did quite catch his name. He'd been traveling for the better part of two years and clearly relished hanging out with wildlife much more than conversation with other people.) We piled into the boat and set off down the mighty, muddy Sungai Kinabatangan.
At first we didn't see anything besides a few other resorts, tastefully set back from the shoreline. But eventually long-tailed macaques and proboscis monkeys availed themselves. Many brown-blob-in-a-tree photos were snapped. Jay proved adept at spotting hornbills and other birds, as well as monkeys and the occasional lizard along the river banks. I have to admit, after three days of diving in the world's most stunning aquarium, and seeing all manner of sea creatures at arm's length, it was a bit anticlimactic to have to pull out a pair of binoculars to see the jungle wildlife. We'd clearly been spoiled.
After another quick break and a surprisingly tasty dinner of fresh fish, it was time for the night hike. We donned some nasty rubber boots -- the jungle equivalent of bowling shoes, bleccch -- and our best long pants/long sleeves garb to discourage leeches. Bug spray, check. Flashlights, check. OK, let's go see some nightlife! Mostly we saw some bigass bugs -- scorpions, enormous grasshoppers, a shaggy caterpillar -- but we also lucked into a tarsier spotting. Feet like a frog, 180-degree turning head like an owl, giant creepy eyes like a space alien, tarsiers are funky little nocturnal primates. They jump between trees to catch bugs and sometimes even birds. We were fortunate enough to surprise one with a high-powered flashlight and it stayed in one place long enough for everyone to snap some great photos. And then, in a flash, it bounced away without touching the ground once. Freaky-deaky.
No leeches spotted on this trip, despite everyone's paranoia. Really, the most disturbing part of the night hike was the hideous slurping sucking sound our boots made in the ever-present jungle slurm. Lovely. The fact that we couldn't see much made it even worse. Plus it was hot and mercilessly humid. By the end of the hourlong hike, we were well ready for bed. 'Twas an interesting alternative to overeating turkey and carbs with some inane football game in the background, I tell ya what. Happy Thanksgiving!
Apa khabar from Semporna, Sabah, on Malaysian Borneo! We're here for a few days to bask in total scubaliciousness and dive at some of the world's top sites. We also decided to go ahead and get our Advanced certifications while we're here (what better place to do it?) which is a fairly simple thing since we've already got our basic Open Water certifications. So far we've done one day of diving (three dives) and it's been absolute heaven. Stay tuned, more to come...
Our time in Kuala Lumpur, or "K-L" as it's known locally, was a series of great travel lessons. We got to meet lots of fellow travelers, had an amazing local dinner, and saw some spectacular sites. But overall, our time in the Malaysian capital left a bad taste in my mouth.
We arrived early on Friday, Nov 21, via the shiny happy Aeroline bus from Penang. As before, it dropped us off a few blocks from KL's main attraction, the Petronas Towers. We stashed our bags at a nearby hotel concierge desk, and trudged over in the blazing midday heat to see about some free tickets to the top of the Towers. Oops, turns out that in order to get one of the allotted free tickets, you have to show up at the crack of dawn. Not the crack of 1:30pm. Oh well. What about Menara KL, the other big tower in town? It didn't seem to be within walking distance, plus we also wanted to check out Batu Caves. So we decided to visit the tourism bureau, located nearby and recommended by the folks at Petronas. Once we finally found the place, we were doubly pleased to find both AC and free internet. The headscarved woman behind the desk cheerfully told us there was a bus heading to the caves in about 20 minutes. Perfect! Just enough time to check some email and cool down a bit.
Hey friends and neighbors, what's that I hear? It must be time for another Travel Lesson Learned the Hard Way! This one can be spun in two versions...
1) Don't bother with tourism bureaus! Indie travelers should find their own way around.
2) Always ask lots of stupid questions, like "exactly where does this bus go, and how many obnoxious tourist stops will there be along the way before we reached our desired destination?"
We should have just taken a bus, or even a cab, straight to the caves. Instead we got loaded into a stifling mini bus with five other people, and schlepped to not one but two shopping stops! First the stupid pewter factor (and wouldn't you love to buy a big heavy useless somethingorother from the lovely gift shop?) and then the only slightly more interesting batik shop (and how 'bout a lovely silk scarf or ten?). ::: sigh ::: By the time we reached Batu Caves, we only had about 45 minutes to explore. Right. Got it. Lessons. Learned.
The caves *were* very cool, and just about worth the headaches to get there. Guarded by an enormous gold statue, 272 steps take pilgrims to the caverns at the top. Two Hindu shrines, tons of monkeys, it's quite a spectacle. Once you reach the top you cross an enormous chamber to get to another opening with sunlight streaming in. There were some Hindu ceremonies taking place, but it was hard to take them seriously with people crawling over each other to snap pics and monkeys running through the proceedings. Monkeys drinking leftover soda from Coke cans. Ah, Western culture rears its ugly head yet again!
We got dropped off back at the tourist bureau, after sitting through about an hour of KL's gnarliest rush hour traffic. It turns out the KL Tower (Menara KL) was within walking distance after all. Armed with several maps and somewhat-explicit instructions from the van driver, we walked about 20 minutes to the base of the tower. Fortunately there's a shuttle to take weary visitors to the tower entrance. It was a pretty well-organized place, with audio headsets and numbered viewing stations to explain the vistas in each direction. Through a murky sunset, we watched the lights come on at the nearby Petronas Towers and across town.
Touristy items crossed off the list, it was time to rendezvous with Ken, our CouchSurfing host for the next two nights. We tried the public phones, but couldn't find one that actually worked. No wireless around. Hmm... we decided to ask if we could use the phone at one of the nicer restaurants at the base of the tower. Scoping out an Indian place that looked decent, we asked if we could make a local call, and fortunately the cheery manager agreed. We called Ken and got his address, which turned out to be a mind-boggling page of complex catenations of words and numbers and more words. Oh boy. He recommended taking the train out to a nearby MRT stop and grabbing a cab from there.
In retrospect, this is really what we should have done. But we were pretty pooped from a day of humid siteseeing, and thought it would be easier to grab a cab out there.
Uh-oh, do you hear that? It's the sound of another Travel Lesson Learned, boys and girls! Strap in for this ride!
We started at the first taxi stand, a respectable-looking kiosk that turned out to be run by the Malaysian version of The Three Stooges. Not only did they have no idea where Ken's place was (despite the reference point of a nearby MRT stop... that only seemed to confuse them more...) but they also wanted to charge us a small fortune to get there! No way, man. The second taxi stand quoted us about a third of the price, and the dispatcher seemed to think it would be no trouble for the driver to find the place. So we paid the dispatcher, got a receipt, and hopped into the next available cab. The driver first took us to the hotel where our bags had been stashed for the day, and while Mark was inside collecting our stuff, I asked if he knew how to get where we needed to go. He waved the receipt in the air and muttered "airport, airport." No, I insisted, we weren't going to the airport, we needed to be taken to a specific address, as agreed upon! I showed him the address, and he snarled something about not knowing where that was. Great. Well *I* sure as hell don't know how to get there! I offered him Ken's phone number to get the directions, and he insisted we'd need to use a pay phone to make the call. Lovely. So we got to see firsthand the legendary surliness of KL cabbies, how delightful.
When Mark got back in the cab, we took off. With no idea of where we were going, or how we'd get to Ken's place from the airport, it was a somewhat tense ride. At some point the cabbie's cell phone rang, so he was totally busted about not having a phone to call for directions. Ha! As we started to get a little closer (maybe?) to Ken's neighborhood, the cabbie pulled over and went into a gas station to get some smokes. Great, now what? When he came back we gave him Ken's number and he got more explicit directions. OK, now we're getting somewhere we want to be! But when we got to the apartment complex, the security guard said we were at the wrong end. Too late, the cantankerous f'er dumped us out on the curb and sped off. We had to walk about another half mile to get to Ken's place. *&#^! I haven't been so furious at a random stranger since... well, maybe never.
We did finally make it to Ken's apartment, about a half hour later, bedraggled and fairly surly ourselves. Ever the gracious host, Ken got us situated in our room and we were able to shower and calm down. He cooked us a fantastic homemade Cantonese dinner, and we got to chat with him a bit. A sociology professor who once worked for an airline and used to live in Europe, Ken also happens to be a great cook and an active participant in the KL couchsurfing scene. We enjoyed a lively conversation and were able to bring this frustrating day to a pleasant close.
The next day, after sleeping late and getting some laundry done, we helped Ken prepare for a couchsurfing dinner party. We were expecting a potluck-style meal where everyone brought a dish of some sort. Instead, it turned into a showcase of Baba-Nyonya cuisine, all cooked by our host! Whew. The party itself was an international melange of about 20 locals and surfers from all over the globe. As usual, we were the only Americans. We got to meet a French-Canadian divemaster living in Vietnam, a funky little British dude who sells lap pools in Thailand, a twitchy German who seemed to hate everything, and many vivacious and friendly Malays.
All in all, our time in KL was pretty challenging. We saw some cool stuff and met some cool people, but I was pretty happy to wrap up our visit to Peninsular Malaysia and cross KL off the list. Next stop: Malaysian Borneo!
A few days later, curiosity got the best of us and we decided to check out the views from Komtar Tower. Looming over Georgetown, the 65-story concrete monstrosity is part of a complex that includes government offices and retail space, as well as an observation deck at the very top. It appeared to be a moderate walk from our hotel, so we decided to maximize the tourist experience and hop into a trishaw.
Ah, trishaws. Myriad versions of these ingenious vehicles can be found all over Southeast Asia; in Malaysia they’re typically powered by a small wiry man on a rear-mounted bicycle, with a padded seat attached in front. Trishaws are often elaborately tricked out with lights, flowers, and sometimes even a sound system. Riding in one is akin to being in a bizarre video game where you’re cruising along slowly and almost at ground level, helplessly flung into hair-raising traffic rushing past you at approximately Mach Two. I imagine this is what it might feel like to roller-skate around the DC Beltway at rush hour.
We managed to flag down a driver and squeezed our big American butts into the seat. “Oh, heavy!” the hapless driver exclaimed, and proceeded to huff and puff his way towards the tower. Fortunately, this part of Penang is pretty flat, and it turned out we only had to travel a few blocks to reach our destination. I was worried that the guy might have a heart attack along the way, but he was truly a pro, and managed to get us there without collision or medical incident. We gave him a big tip in a vain attempt to assuage our Western guilt.
Upon arriving at Komtar Tower, which has an enormous, Byzantine open-air mall at its base, we wandered around for a while, trying to find the way to the observation deck. No signs, no information desk, not even an elevator bank shed any light on what was apparently a very well-kept secret. Instead, a dizzying array of stalls selling the usual cheap clothing and electronics stretched for what seemed like blocks in all directions. Suddenly a man appeared in our path.
“I know you!” Mark said, and by this time we were both grinning. “We recognize you, even though you look different with clothes on!”
Incredibly, it was our old buddy William, fully clothed this time. He grinned back at us. “USA!” he exclaimed. “You came to tower! Good to see you again!” And then, with a bit of humility as he recollected our previous meeting, he added, “I show you my body!”
You did indeed, my odd little Malaysian friend. Now how ‘bout you show us how to get to the top of this joint? And so he did. It turns out we’d blazed right past the ground-floor info desk and elevators. William not only showed us the way, he rode up in the elevators with us and took us straight to the ticket desk at the top floor. Clearly proud to be bringing his own personal tour group up to the observation deck, he showed us some of the town’s salient features, pointed out a few sights, and insisted we have the ticket lady take a picture of the three of us.
Busy man that he was, William bid us adieu, and presumably went back to his activities at the tower’s ground level. We stood by the windows bemused at what a small world it was. Granted, Penang is a pretty small island, but what were the chances of meeting the same random guy a few days later? Just then, he appeared again! This time he was brandishing a small scrap of paper with his name and address, and asked if we would please send him a copy of the photo. He didn’t have email, so we’d need to snail-mail him an actual print. Yes, certainly, no problem, we promised to send a copy when we returned to DC, with a mental note to include the one of him proudly posing shirtless from our first meeting, for full before and after effect.
We continued our Penang sightseeing and moved on to visit other parts of Malaysia, half expecting to see William pop up around any random corner like an Asian leprechaun guiding us to hidden pots of touristy gold. It became a running joke… would William appear on the street in Kuala Lumpur, to take us up the Petronas Towers? Might we see him 50 feet underwater while scuba diving at Sipadan? Perhaps he’d pop out of a longhouse in Sarawak, to show off his prowess with a blowpipe? Shirtless or otherwise, the guy definitely made our Penang excursion a memorable one, thanks to the unexpected, unscripted kindness of strangers.
We've managed to pack a lot into our second week! Here's a quick recap of what we've been up to during week two: the major themes include friends, food, and massage in Thailand, and Chinese temples and lots more food in Penang. We are gonna be like 400lbs each by the time this trip is over!
checking out the sites with Bruce & Anne: Nong Nooch, ladyboy show, in Pattaya, on Soi Cowboy
Chatuchak market, Ancient Siam, floating market
a seriously endless parade of food: exotic fruit plate, buffet lunch at Ma Tuk's, Vietnamese lunch
massages! these two fabulous ladies gave us several two-hour massages, right in our bedroom (life does *not* suck!)
and on to Penang: Khoo Kongsi, biggest incense sticks ever, Kek Lok Si Temple
(for the record we did climb all 7 levels of stairs to the top of that pagoda!)
at the top of Kek Lok Si; street food at Gurney Drive; Sonia slurps up some asam laksa
Travel is all about being open to new experiences and finding adventures in unexpected places. But this is easier said than done, especially when you arrive in a new place all hot and dusty and tired, with your plans slightly off-kilter and your attitude completely askew.
And this was exactly the state we were in as we found ourselves wandering the streets of Georgetown, Penang. We’d just arrived in Malaysia that morning, after spending a pampered week in Bangkok, only to discover that our CouchSurfing host had ditched us. No matter, we quickly found other accommodations, despite the relentless tropical humidity that threatened to melt our brains. After seeing some of the more obvious nearby attractions in Georgetown – Chinese clan houses, mosques, Hindu temples – we took a purposeful “wrong” turn off the main road and strolled into the heart of Penang’s Chinatown district. We passed rows of cramped, no-frills shops, piled high with boxes and stacks of merch on tables, bastions of capitalism that practically screamed out “We got stuff! You want stuff?” No glossy marketing tactics in this neighborhood. This was definitely a no-nonsense part of town.
Halfway through a nondescript block, on a street of no particular distinction, a shirtless man wandered out of his narrow row house, alternately rubbing his eyes and his bare chest as though he’d just awoken from a nap. And in this ponderous heat, who could blame him for copping a mid-afternoon snooze? He looked about as surprised to see us as we were to see him, especially in such a revealing outfit. His eyes flew open, and he rushed into the street to greet us. Not knowing what might happen next, we cautiously stood our ground for his approach.
“Hello!” shouted the little man excitedly. “Where you from?”
“USA.” I replied, allowing the standard beat to pass to see what his response might be. I was prepared to follow up with a thumbs-up, big smile, and “Obama, yay!” (As a side note, it will be so nice to no longer have to do the raspberry/thumbs-down/Bush-yuck routine upon meeting new people in other countries.)
“Oh! USA! Very good! Why you here?” our new friend inquired, scratching his head. Apparently he didn’t encounter too many Americans in these blocks off the tourist circuit.
We proceeded to tell him about our travel plans in Southeast Asia, and he in turn shared a dirty joke about Thailand. It was sufficiently eye-roll-inducing that I’ll not repeat it here, although we did chuckle politely. Now on an enthusiastic roll with how he’d entertained us, he pointed towards what we later learned was Menara Komtar, Penang’s tallest building. He chirped a vaguely suspicious sales pitch about the 360° view of the island, and encouraged us to get there first thing in the morning for a breakfast snack. As a peculiar counterpoint to the entire conversation, the man, who said his name was William, continued rubbing his pancakey pectorals. He seemed to have an endless wellspring of information to impart to us, so it was a bit of a relief when it began to rain and we were afforded a graceful way to bow out of the conversation.
With his permission, we snapped a picture of him posing proudly like a Greek statue gone wrong, said our goodbyes, and promised to consider a trip to the top of Komtar.
We figured that was the end of our encounters with William.
We managed to grab a ridiculously early-morning flight out of BKK -- the upside was that there was absolutely no sign of the hideous soul-numbing Bangkok traffic! -- and we're now in Penang, Malaysia. Since internet access is pretty cheap and abundant around here, we may have a bit more time to post and catch up on previous posts. Pics, too, as there are SOOOOOOO many good ones from our time in Thailand.
In the meantime, we already miss our comfy Bangkok oasis at Ma Tuk's. Upon arriving in Penang, we stopped at the guesthouse that had been arranged for us by a local couchsurfer. (We'd originally planned to surf with him, but I guess he doesn't have space this week.) The place, shall we say, was a little rough around the edges. Particularly after our week in the lap of luxury! So we picked another place around the corner. The Hotel Hong Ping is still sorta in the budget range at roughly $20 a night, but feels much safer and comfier. We're in the main hub of Georgetown, the primary city on Pulau Pinang (Penang Island) and there are tons of restaurants, pubs, and of course internet cafes! We'll probably do a bit of siteseeing this afternoon and will try to book a scuba daytrip to nearby Pulau Payar in the next day or two.
Bangkok, in a nutshell, was awesome. The legendary Thai hospitality was in full swing, as Zoe's family showed us an amazing time. We saw temples, gardens, wildlife... to say nothing of all the food. Traditional Thai meals, Japanese Sukiyaki, Vietnamese, fresh seafood, amazing fruits and satay and other snacks... Mark and I suspect they were trying to fatten us up like two Christmas geese! We joked that we won't need to eat anything the entire rest of the trip. And our "suite" by the pool was absolutely divine. Totally spoiled. We also got to meet up with Bruce & Anne, and check out some of the sites with them. It was wonderful to catch up with what they've been up to in Perth, and give them the lowdown on all the usual suspects at home.
Onward and upward! We'll be in Penang for a few days, then it's on to Kuala Lumpur for some more couchsurfing and a gourmet dinner. What was I saying about not eating anything the rest of this trip...?
Today was a travel day of exhaustion, unlike any I've lived through since my Red Umbrella travel day in Costa Rica. We started off with a spot of brekkie, confident in our revised booking on a long-haul bus to Kuala Lumpur. Sam, the Fern Loft manager whom you may recall from such misadventures as yesterday's Oopsie, That Wasn't a Real Reservation After All -- had assured us several times yesterday that we were to catch the bus "right out front!" By the third or fourth time, we asked, "Really? Just right out there on the sidewalk?" I started to feel like an idiot. I tromped out to street level about an hour before the bus was scheduled to arrive, to wait for... something... to show up. Meanwhile, scores of old people disembarked from city buses and made their way painstakingly up the sidewalk to the temple next door, staring suspiciously at the strange farang sitting there looking completely outta place.
The longer I sat, the more nervous I got. Of course Sam wasn't due in till 11am, a good two hours after we were scheduled to depart, so there was nobody around to query as to the status of our transport. Meanwhile, more than an hour had passed, and nothing resembling a long-haul bus had come anywhere nearby. Thanks for nothing, Sam! Before I continue on with our tale, allow me to pause and demarcate two important Travel Lessons Learned:
1) Never trust the Gen Y staff at a hostel to book your travel for you. The owner, perhaps. But only if you've got his cell phone number as a backup.
2) Always get a confirmation number, in writing, as well as a phone number for the transport company. This is not failsafe, as many of them don't bother to answer the phone, but at least you can call them later and demand your reservation fee back.
Right. Seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but not necessarily when you're in the thick of it.
Despairing of ever leaving Singapore, we decided to take matters into our own hands and go down to the bus station and get our own damn tickets our own damn selves. Which is what we should've done in the first place. ::: sigh ::: We got in a cab and headed down to the Harbourfront Centre, where we were to find the Aeroline bus office. Aeroline had been recommended by Ken, our couchsurfing host in KL who was already planning for our visit in two weeks, so we figured it was a solid pick. Finding the office, however, took some doing. The "bus station" was also an enormous cruise ship port. Busload after busload of Asian tourists streamed endlessly through the parking lot, but there was no obvious bus office. After a few wrong turns, Mark found the counter inside a huge warehouse, and meanwhile the 11am to KL pulled up outside, where I was standing guard over our stuff. I did a few quick calculations in my head and determined that this bus was probably our last chance to make our flight to BKK. Typically, Mark was nowhere to be found. He finally reappeared, but sans tickets since the money was with me. I dashed up to the second-floor ticket counter, only to have the nice headscarved lady pleasantly tell me there were no seats left on the bus. What?!?!? You've got to be kidding me. Apparently she was, because when she looked again, two seats had magically appeared. OK, 94 Singapore dollars please. Cash only. Ehm. I only had 70 (which was the price of the nonexistent bus booked by that no-good Sam)... how 'bout some greenbacks? I keep a fistful of USD around for just such purposes. No dice, Singapore dollars only. Somehow I managed to dash downstairs to the exchange desk, back up to the ticket counter, and out to the bus with a handful of seconds to spare before it departed.
Sweaty, frustrated, and exhausted, we flopped into a pair of seats at the back of the bus. And we hadn't even left Singapore yet. Oh, it was definitely gonna be One of Those Days.
After all that, our bus ride to KL was actually quite pleasant. We met several friendly denizens of the bus, including a Filipino restaurant owner who said he wept tears of joy when he heard of Obama's victory, and a Malaysian guy who warned us of the pitfalls of the area's budget airlines. The bus itself was a nice cushy double-decker with meal service, reclining seats, and movies on the big screen. Although I probably could've lived without seeing "Alvin and the Chipmunks," and their version of "Bad Day" will be haunting me for the forseeable future. Even the border crossing between Singapore and Malaysia wasn't all that bad, even though we had to go through twice (once on the Singaporean side and once on the Malaysian side). The one stop, at a Malay rest stop about halfway, was an interesting forshadowing of things to come after our Bangkok sojourn. The place was swarming with flies, peopled with many women in headscarves, and as the only farangs we got lots of stares. I did take the opportunity to pick up some random Malay snacks, though. You just never can get enough fish-flavored chips, is what I always say.
We arrived in KL with plenty of time to catch our Air Asia flight, which was handy because getting to the gate was a whole other adventure. We got detailed directions to the airport from the bus attendant, strapped on our bags, and made our way through the rain to the LRT, Singapore's light rail. We just missed the train to KL Sentral, and by the time the next one appeared, a huge crowd had amassed on the platform. Well, this should be interesting! I guess it is rush hour, after all. We crammed onto the already-full train, as usual the only whiteys aboard, while the locals had a good stare. Fortunately it was only a few stops. After asking a few different places, we found the counter for the KLIA Ekspress, a swanky nonstop train that would take us right to the airport. It was lovely, air-conditioned, with padded seats, and unfortunately it took us to the wrong place! Which leads me to...
Another Important Travel Lesson Learned:
3) Always double-check to see if the low-cost carrier flies from the same terminal as the regular flights. Often it does not! And sometimes the other terminal is nowhere near the main one!
Ah. Right. Thought that whole KLIA Ekspress thing was too easy. So we grabbed a cab for the 30-minute journey to the LCC (as in "Low-Cost Carrier," ah yes! I get it now!) Terminal. To get there by public transport, I think we would've had to catch a bus at KL Sentral. Anyway, we had some time to spare, and it was only a $10 cab ride, so no harm no foul. We checked into our flight to BKK and even had time to grab our first taste of cheap Malay fast food: chicken and mee hoon. A bit greasy, but not bad. We even found a WiFi hotspot, one that actually worked! Things were looking up.
Air Asia has no assigned seating, so people tend to line up at the gate like sheep a good while before the flight is called. Which is a bit silly, because typically you have to walk outside and around the block to get to the plane anyway (or sometimes they send a shuttle bus for you). It didn't matter in this case because the flight wasn't nearly full. What a refreshing change! Air Asia gets top marks in my book. The web site is user-friendly and it's easy as pie to book online. I don't know how they keep the fares so low -- and no fuel surcharges either -- but the experience was consistently pleasant and the flights were on time throughout our entire SE Asia junket. Oh, and they didn't lose our bags once. Remarkable! (And, no, they're not paying me to say this. I'm just so shocked to be so pleased with an airline that I had to share the love.)
We arrived at BKK about two hours later. Finally! Got through immigrations and customs, hit an ATM for some Baht, and found our way to the appointed Starbucks on the third floor to wait for Zoe to show up. Actually, her family got there first: mom Tuk, brother Ja, and son Ben. We chatted with her mom for a bit while Ja went to find Zoe. Ms Thing showed up a short while later, looking all put-together and fabulous, while the two of us were totally bedraggled and scuzzy. Figures! That's OK, we're not here to impress anyone with our fashion sense. (And thank god for that.) We all piled into the minivan -- complete with *driver* -- and headed for home. As expected, the place is absolutely gorgeous, even in the dark. We have a beautiful 5-star suite in a separate building by the pool. Everything is decked out to the max with all manner of antiques. It's a bit insane. Fluffy towels, a stash of bottled water and sodas in the fridge, really nicely-appointed bathroom, great bed with tons of pillows. We didn't have a whole lot of time to take it all in before crashing, but it was a happy ending to a very stressful day.
Ya gotta love it when a totally-unplanned-for plan comes together.
It all started when our expat friends Bruce & Anne, DC transplants living in Perth, mentioned they were going to be in Bangkok in mid-November. We'd been considering taking a short trip to SE Asia... not short by typical American vacation standards, but considerably shorter than the extended travel we'd been hoping to undertake. One month total, focusing primarily on Malaysia and possibly also Indonesia. Why those two countries? A number of reasons, but I have to admit that ever since I started researching the scuba diving off Malaysian Borneo, I've been hooked. Jacques Cousteau called Sipadan, a tiny island off the East Coast of Borneo, some of the best diving in the world. You can dive there pretty much year-round, and supposedly it's an amazing place to see large animals. There are also a plethora of dive sites on nearby islands Mabul and Kapalai. And, bottom line, how cool is it to casually say, "Oh, yeah, we'll be doing some diving in Malaysian Borneo next month"?
We'd been seriously considering a one-month trip to this area, substituting Bangkok for Indonesia, when I found out one of my co-workers was going back to Thailand to visit family in November. The exceptionally-fabulous Zoe has been living in the US for some time now, but her mom still lives in Bangkok. She's goes back to visit occasionally, and I've seen pictures of the house. Suffice it to say, I'm planning to try to get adopted by Zoe's mom when we visit. Zoe offered that we could stay with her, as it turned out she would be there at the same time as Bruce & Anne. Sweeeeet.
Add to all this the fact that Loy Krathong, one of the biggest Thai holidays of the year, is also happening within this same window, and you have the makings of an insanely good time.
So, the general plan is to fly in and out of Singapore, since that's by far the cheapest hub in the region. (In case anyone's interested, I found the best fare on Vayama. I think the airlines are running scared because ticket prices seem to have dropped across the board.) We'll leave DC on November 5, the morning after the presidential election. And I fervently hope we leave on a note of celebratory elation due to an overwhelming Obama win, as opposed to a bitter hangover from drowning our sorrows after a McCain win. But I digress... We'll spend the week of Nov 9 in Bangkok, celebrating Loy Krathong and hopefully discovering some hidden gems only locals know about. Somewhere around Nov 18 we'll head south down the peninsula, stopping to visit whatever strikes our fancy. The last week of November and first week of December we'll spend time on Borneo, diving and hanging with orangutans and dodging headhunters and the like. We return to DC on December 4. And then, unfortunately, it's back to work the following week.
Stay tuned for more details as the plans evolve. This trip will be a little weird for me, as it's somewhere between a free-wheeling backpacker jaunt and a totally scripted type-A vacation. I hope to strike a balance somewhere in there! If anyone has any suggestions for must-see stuff in southern Thailand or Malaysia, do let me know.
Some of you may have noticed the little ChipIn widget in the sidebar. Taking a page from the Book of Joan, I've decided to ask for what I want for my birthday. (Just be glad I'm not declaring it a national holiday and announcing how many shopping days are left until November 6!) I've been wanting a better camera for some time now, so I thought I'd give an opportunity for folks to contribute towards this item. Many thanks to Beth at Wanderlust and Lipstick and Crystalicious for getting the ball rolling! The sidebar widget's a bit small and some of the text gets cut off. But anyone who chips in will get a postcard from Thailand or Malaysia. I'm planning to get a Nikon d40, which is a digital SLR that is a few generations behind the latest & greatest but has gotten consistently good reviews. If I get more than I need to buy the camera, the remainder will be donated to The Women's Center, a local DC charity that has been providing services to women, families, and the community for over 30 years.