Monkeying around in Borneo

On our last night in KL we got caught in a torrential down pour which supposedly got rid of the mosquitoes. Wrong. After an uncomfortable night’s sleep due to the heat, I woke up with about 50 mosquito bites on each leg so I wasn’t feeling very peachy. Still we were on our way to Borneo so things weren’t all that bad.

Kuching sunset
Kuching sunset

We got a nice surprise in Kuching when we checked into our hostel. It was basically a three bedroom apartment with a lounge and kitchen. We had booked a private room (the other two being dorm rooms) and found that we were the only ones staying there, so for three nights we had a sofa to lounge around on, a small kitchen to chill out in and for the first time in six months it felt a little like home. All for just £9 per night.

Kuching is a small city in the Sarawak province of Borneo and we were surprised at how modern it was. We had a walk around the centre and along the river front where we witnessed some really weird storm clouds. We were about to go on a boat trip down the river before it absolutely chucked it down. Instead we sheltered in a nearby café and enjoyed some iced coffees whilst deciding what to do with our two days. We decided on Bako National Park and the Semenggoh Orang-utan sanctuary.

Proboscis monkey
Proboscis monkey

So the next day we made our way to Bako National Park. After a later than planned start we found the bus we needed and were eventually on our way at 10am. The bus took about an hour followed by a twenty minute hair raising boat trip to the entrance of the park. We registered at the main office (in case you get lost) and then saw a Proboscis monkey hanging around in a tree. For those who don’t know, the Proboscis monkey has a big nose and I think they’re pretty cool, although Sam thinks I look like one; RUDE!

We then started on the Lintang Trail which was 6km and would apparently take 3.5 hours to complete. We were immediately taken aback by the beauty of the rain forest with the trail mainly being roots and climbs over fallen trees. It was nice to feel like you were actually trekking through the jungle rather than walking on manmade trails. After a steep climb and scorching midday heat, we were pleased to find some flatter terrain and cool breezes near the top. I think I even jokingly said ‘I wish it would rain’. Not a joking matter it turns out.

A bit wet
A bit wet

The heavens opened and we got absolutely soaked, the trails turned into rivers and we still had about 4km to go. At first I didn’t find it very funny until suddenly out of nowhere a man wearing only his white see-through Y- fronts came passed and mumbled something about it being very wet. I wish we had had the camera ready as it would have made a brilliant photo but none the less it cheered me up. Once I had got over being wet I enjoyed the rest of the walk.

We made it back in time for a quick drink and a walk down the beach before catching the boat back to the bus. And whilst we sat on the air conditioned bus absolutely soaked and freezing cold, the semi naked man had got into his nice dry clothes and looked very smug about it. Who had the last laugh there then? We ended the day with pot noodles laid out on the sofa whilst we watched a film.

The next day we were up and ready to go by 7am as we needed to catch an early bus to the Orang-utans so as not to miss their feeding time. We’d been told to get there early before all the big tour buses and to stay on after the tour buses had gone for a chance to see Richie, the big alpha male.

Richie, the alpha male
Richie, the alpha-male
Just hanging around
Just hanging around

When we arrived, Richie was already out eating a ton of bananas but we were told he wasn’t in a very good mood, so we had to hang back until it was safe to go closer. We probably saw about twenty orang-utans that morning swinging from the trees, playing and eating their breakfast. It was an amazing experience to see them up close and I think we took about 300 pictures in the end.

We were back into town in time for lunch where we enjoyed some delicious Kolo mee (BBQ pork and noodles) and dumplings from the local Chinese food stalls. As it was our four year anniversary we treated ourselves to a local speciality, layer cake and enjoyed a large slice of blueberry and chocolate cake with a mug of coffee. I would have preferred a bottle of red wine but Sam said we couldn’t afford it L

The next day we left Kuching and took a flight to Kota Kinabalu in the Sabah province of Borneo. We hadn’t originally planned to spend any time here but this is where my friend Lucy and family are staying so we squeezed in a couple of days to see them. We’d always planned to go into Brunei and found cheap flights from KK, so after one night there we met Lucy for a quick cup of tea before heading off to Brunei.

 Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

I didn’t know what to expect from Brunei. We’d heard mixed reviews about the place and a lot of people had said there wasn’t much to see, so we were a bit apprehensive and worried if two nights was going to be too long. The first thing we had to do was find a hostel, as we’d looked online but they all seemed so expensive so we decided to chance it and just turn up. Unfortunately Brunei is not the sort of place where you should just turn up as there are very few hotels to choose from (especially in our budget). We managed to find a travel agent at the airport who was able to help us with a couple of options and call through for availability. After a 1km trek down the highway we found the bus stop and we were on our way into Bandar Seri.

We eventually booked into KH Soon rest house which was a bit of a dump but the cheapest we could find (£22 per night). The first thing that struck us about Brunei is how clean and quiet it was. We had a walk around, watched the sun set over the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and enjoyed a take away pizza whilst watching a film on the laptop. There is a serious lack of entertainment mainly due to the fact that it’s a dry country so the usual bars and cafes don’t exist.

Ulu Temburong National Park
Ulu Temburong National Park

The next day we went to Brunei’s Ulu Temburong National Park and the only way to get there was by boat which was a trip in itself. The boat (locally known as a flying coffin) took us along winding rivers and rapids with amazing rainforest views. We finally ended up at the National Park’s entrance, registered and began the steep climb of roughly 2000 steps up to the canopy walkway.The walk itself wasn’t actually too bad (a sign I am getting fitter maybe) and the canopy wasn’t quite what we expected. I think we both thought of a rope type bridge through the forest but instead we were faced with purpose built scaffolding structure which consisted of ten towers with bridges linking them. Not quite in keeping with the beautiful rainforest but the views from the top made it all seem worthwhile. Although I am not sure they were meant to lean as much they did in the wind, and the spirit levels on the top were a bit of a worry. After we had finished our walk along the tree tops we were taken to see a waterfall with the promise of a swim but when we got there it was barely deep enough to paddle.

Kota Kinabalu seafood court
Kota Kinabalu seafood court

We flew back to Kota Kinabalu the next day and had arranged to meet Lucy and co in the local seafood food court for dinner. The kids (and Tom) were fascinated by all the fish in the tanks including eels, prawns and crabs and then we had the difficult decision of what to eat.  In the end we had a kilo of prawns in soy and garlic sauce (delicious), chilli seawater crab, soft-shell crab, steamed red snapper, Singapore noodles and fried rice. Far too much food for all of us but we just about managed.

The next day we had arranged to meet them all on an island nearby for a day of sunbathing and snorkelling. They were going from their hotel in the marina and we took the budget route on a public boat. It was a great day even though Sam got a little burnt (he’ll never learn) and the kids had a great time swimming and snorkelling in the sea.

Mamutik Island
Mamutik Island

We waved them all off on their boat around 4pm and waited for our lift back to the mainland when the heavens opened. At first it wasn’t too bad but about five minutes into the trip we couldn’t see further than about 1m so we had no idea of where land was and the rain was so heavy and sharp that I started to get a little bit worried. To make matters worse, we had a crazy boat driver driving really fast into the storm whilst shouting random things and his friend practicing what looked like Tai Chi on the back. I couldn’t even see at this point as there was just too much rain and I had visions of the boat getting lost at sea. All Sam could do was just laugh uncontrollably.  We finally saw land and I began to breathe again…disaster averted.

After saying goodbye to Lucy and everyone this morning we had a brief flight to Clark Airport in the Philippines. We now have a five hour wait in probably one of the worst airports we’ve been to before we fly to Cebu. Borneo is definitely somewhere that we would like to come back to, and we feel that we didn’t have enough time here. It’s somewhere we would highly recommend, especially the West coast.

Until the next time…

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Bands, cars and sweaty bars

After leaving Melaka we headed back to Kuala Lumpur for the weekend for the Future Music Festival. The site for the festival was the Sepang F1 circuit which is about 40 minutes outside of KL. The festival gates opened at 13:00, so we decided to get there on time to take a look around whilst having a few beers. On arriving we were told that the gates wouldn’t open until about 14:30 as they were running late.

Grandmaster Flash
Grandmaster Flash

So instead of being able to get in a festive mood, we were left waiting with no shade from the 40 degree heat, nothing to drink (water or beer), and getting more frustrated by the minute. While we were waiting we bumped into a couple we had met the previous night; Laurence and Rosa. When we eventually got into the site and heading straight to the bar, we were told that they didn’t open until 16:00, including for soft drinks. At this point we were feeling slightly weary after standing in the mid-day sun for two and a half hours.

But the bar eventually opened (£3 for a small can of Heineken…ouch), and it was great to be back watching live music after such a long time. There were three stages spread across the site, with mainly dance acts playing. I was subjected to some utter dross (namely Flo Rida), but it was good to see some acts we’ve never heard of. The highlight of the day was Grandmaster Flash, who played some old classics and got everyone going. Chase and Status, Pendulum and The Chemical Brothers followed, and all-in-all it was a great day.

Chase and Status
Chase and Status

We had to leave slightly early due to a combination of too many extortionate drinks, too much sun and a slightly dodgy tummy for Katy. Not ideal in pitch black porter-loos. Thankfully as we made our way to the taxis, a group of Australians offered us a lift back into town. It saved us a huge taxi bill, and got us back much quicker than we would have (much to Katy’s delight).

The following day we took a walk around Bukit Bintang, which is the shopping district of the city. As much as I hate shopping, this is definitely the place to do it. Cheaper than almost everywhere we have been, and the choice of shopping malls to look in is endless. The air-conditioning is also a welcome relief.

Port Dickson was a place a few people had mentioned, so the next day we took a bus there via Seremban. When we arrived we were a bit disappointed. It’s made up of dilapidated buildings and fairly average beaches. During the week there is almost nothing open, so we ended up spending the evening watching films on the laptop eating pot noodles. One night was enough, so after spending a day there doing very little, we headed back to KL.

Katy, birds and poo
Katy, birds and poo

There is a lot to do in KL, but it is an expensive place to be. Food can be cheap if you stay to the local street food restaurants, but drinks and accommodation are expensive. We took a visit to a bird park, which has the biggest free-flying aviary in the world. Normally I wouldn’t be excited about going to look at birds (no pun intended), but it was actually quite a nice place to walk around. Katy had her picture taken with a hornbill and a parrot sat on her, and she was enjoying it until one of them pooed on her. She did have the option to have an owl or an eagle, but for some reason chose not to.

After a few hours walking around the huge park in the centre of town, visiting the national monument and an orchid garden, we headed to China Town for some dumplings. We also took a walk around Little India, but compared to Penang there wasn’t really too much to see.

Batu caves
Batu caves

One of the things to see in KL is the Batu Caves. The cave is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, dedicated to Lord Murugan. To reach it you have to climb a steep flight of 272 steps, and inside a huge cave 100m high there are various Hindu shrines. While we were there we also had a tour around some bat caves, which had over 250,000 bats in there. It didn’t smell particularly nice, and most of it was pitch black, but it was quite an interesting thing to do.

Petronas twin towers
Petronas twin towers

Since then we have spent some time in the city centre to see the twin towers. We visited on the Friday before the Grand Prix, and there were various things going on there. The headline act was a Korean pop band called Girls’ Generation. It was absolutely packed and a really good atmosphere, despite the music. As we headed to Jalan Alor to get some of the famous street food, Katy decided that she knew a short cut. Instead of walking back ten minutes the way we had walked earlier, we ended up on a two-hour trek, mainly down dual carriageways, back to our hostel. On the way back we bought some pot-noodles from a 7Eleven. Not exactly what I had envisaged for my dinner.

The next day we went for breakfast in a Nasi Kandar restaurant just around the corner from our hostel. After finishing our chicken curry with vegetables (which was lovely), we got chatting to a crazy man called M S Tamby. I say we got chatting, but it actually involved him speaking at us non-stop for about 30 minutes. After telling us various stories, including one about when he met Winston Churchill in Canada, he then drew us a picture on a napkin. Some of his abstract art apparently, which is very bizarre. Apparently we should insure it for £5M. He then started telling us what kind of people we are, and what we should do with our lives. It took us a while, but we finally managed to say our goodbyes and get away from him. Nice guy, but very scary.

After a heavy night watching Arsenal and Bolton win in the expensive bar district of KL, yesterday we headed back to Sepang for the Malaysian Grand Prix. When we got there it was so hot, that the thought of sitting there for three hours or so wasn’t good. The atmosphere on the hill was great, and with two Brits at the front of the grid we were looking forward to the race.

Safety car restarting the race
Safety car restarting the race

About five minutes before the race started, the rain came. Thankfully it also brought a huge drop in temperature to a more acceptable 26 degrees. We were prepared for the rain as it had been forecast for the weekend, so we sat there in our attractive ponchos looking like idiots, but dry. The race started without any huge incident, but it was clear that the rain may cause problems as it was really coming down now. Eight laps into the race it was stopped as it was deemed dangerous for the drivers. There was a break of about 50 minutes while waiting for the rain to ease, and then the race was back underway.

Looking good
Looking good

At first it was fairly easy to follow who was leading and the general race order, but as the race went on it got more difficult. As people were lapped and the cars got more spread out, we didn’t really have a clue what was going on. Every now and then we saw the race standings on the big screen which brought us up to date. It is definitely better when watching on TV. Yes you don’t get the atmosphere of the crowd, or the deafening sound of the cars, but at least you know what’s going on. Alonso ended up winning the race, with Lewis Hamilton in third and Jensen Button back in 14th.

Tomorrow we’re heading to Kuching in Borneo, and after almost a week in KL we’re looking forward to it. The one thing that has really stood out here is how hot and humid it is. Most of the time temperatures have been in the late 30s with humidity at about 90%. It makes walking down the street hard work. But this is a great city, and one that we would definitely come back to.

Until the next time…

Food glorious food

Just before we left Thailand, we witnessed one of the best North London derby games I have ever seen. Even Gareth Bale’s customary theatrics (article on why Gareth Bale dives) didn’t manage to do them much good. A great way to end our time in Thailand.

The journey into Malaysia was a collection of trips on various different vehicles, all of them as uncomfortable as the last. The usual promise of a VIP express trip of four hours turned out to be much longer. We left Koh Lanta at 8am and finally arrived in Langkawi around 6pm. As soon as we walked through customs at the port, we were greeted with shops selling Cadbury’s chocolate and cheap booze. It almost felt like home.

Langkawi is a duty-free island and with Malaysia being a predominantly Muslim country, this was the place to buy (or drink) cheaply. After checking into our hostel, we ventured out to find somewhere cheap to eat. We were surrounded by big resorts with lots of European tourists, so it was very different to where we had been so far.

The next day we took a walk into town to take a look around. Almost all the shops, bars and cafes were closed during the day, so after getting caught in the rain we headed back to our room. Being in the tropics we knew that the odd rain shower was likely, but even the locals were surprised by how much it was raining. But in between the showers the 35 degree sun-dried things out pretty quickly.

Pantai Cenang beach, Langkawi
Pantai Cenang beach, Langkawi

That night we went for a few drinks in the hostel and got chatting to an American couple. They told us about a bar that was open until midnight (which is very rare), so we decided to tag along. It was quite a cool place right on the beach, with fire jugglers and chilled music. The night came to an abrupt end when the bar suddenly shut because they heard that the police were on their way. In Langkawi you need a license to sell spirits, which the bar didn’t have.  So we ended the night back in our hostel playing drinking games.

Overall Langkawi wasn’t one of our favourite places. Although drinks were slightly cheaper (£2 for a large bottle), food and accommodation were quite expensive. It was also very touristy, and full of tacky souvenir shops selling ‘Tre Bon’ sunglasses.

The next day we got a short flight to Penang. It was actually cheaper to fly than it was to get the ferry, so we thought we would treat ourselves to a flight which we’ve tried to avoid so far. When we were about the depart Katy wasn’t best pleased to find out that it was a twin propeller plane, but the flight went without incident and we arrived 30 minutes later.

On the bus into Georgetown (Penang’s UNESCO World Heritage City), we met an older English couple (Lee and Sally) who were also travelling around Malaysia. After hearing where we were heading to next, they very kindly offered us a lift to Ipoh, not far from our next stop. So we exchanged contact details and arranged to meet on Sunday.

We didn’t have a room booked when we arrived, so after some time walking through some more torrential rain, we found a cheap room above a mini-market. This room wasn’t the best, and most evenings we had to clear the room of cockroaches before going to bed.

Mmmmmm
Mmmmmm

The best thing about Penang and what it is famous for is the food. We were staying in Little India, and there were Nasi Kandar restaurants everywhere. We were in food heaven, and we tried most things from the menus. Chicken tikka, roti canai, butter chicken, tandoori biryani and murtabak to name a few. With most meals we were having freshly pressed apple juice, which was amazing. A big meal for the both of us was coming to about £5, and was some of the best Indian food we’ve ever had.

The next few days the weather was much better, and we spent our time walking around the city. Unfortunately for me, Katy found a big shopping mall and decided to buy more clothes. Penang is a really interesting place, with a mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay mosques, temples and churches. We are pretty templed out now, so we didn’t really venture into any though.

While walking around the city we found out that there was a music festival coming up in KL. We checked online and there were still tickets left, and it happened to be on a weekend that we were due to be there. We got quite excited as it will be our first gig of 2012, apart from having to listen to SE Asian karaoke. For those interested the line-up includes Chemical Brothers, The Wombats, Hercules and Love Affair, Chase and Status, Pendulum plus loads more.

Chinese temple in Penang
Chinese temple in Penang

To add to our good news, we found out that our friends Lucy and Tom and their two girls Ella and Georgia are going to be in Borneo when we are there. We’ve changed our travel plans to make sure that we have a few days with them, and it will be great to catch up with some friends from back home.

Just before we left Penang we also witnessed a Bolton win, which lifted them out of the relegation zone, so Katy was happy. Although we didn’t do a huge amount there, we really enjoyed Penang. The food was amazing and it was a nice place to chill out for a few days.

The next morning we met up with Lee and Sally for our trip to the Cameron highlands. Although they were supposed to drop us off in Ipoh, after a missed turning due to Katy’s navigational skills, we were treated to a lift all the way to Tanah Rata, where we were staying. Cameron Highlands is 2000 metres above sea level, and produces 90% of the fruit and vegetables for the entire of Malaysia and Singapore. It is also famous for producing tea, after William Cameron suggested the idea whilst surveying the area in 1885.

The journey to the Highlands took us along a stunning mountain road cutting through thick jungle. As we got closer to where we were staying, there were huge areas covered by market gardens producing virtually every fruit and vegetable you can think of. It was also accompanied by various very tacky stalls full of Chinese tourists buying strawberry earmuffs and other hideous souvenirs.

Slim School - 1962 (Third from the left)
Slim School – 1962 (Third from the left)

After saying goodbye to Lee and Sally, we checked into our hostel and had a look around the town. I was particularly interested in this area as my mum and auntie went to school here in the 1960s; SLIM School. I had been in contact with an old pupil who now runs a website for the school with various old pictures. The first little café we went into for a drink also had some pictures on the wall, with newspaper articles of when the school was opened.

The town itself was very small and quiet, with just a few places along the main street to eat and drink. It’s much cooler than the rest of Malaysia, and it was quite nice to get a break from the heat. As we were only there for two nights, we decided to book ourselves onto a tour the next day.

Tea plantations
Tea plantations

We started (don’t laugh) at a butterfly farm, where we saw…butterflies.  Then we headed to the hills to see the huge tea plantations. These went on as far as the eye could see, with some great views over the valleys. After that we headed even higher to a viewing platform at 6666ft above sea level for some even better views of the mountains. In this area we were also taken into the ‘Mossy Forest’ which is apparently what the backdrop to Avatar was based on. Although that could have been our tour-guide embellishing to divert for the fact that we were stood in a boggy forest with mud all over our clothes.

The Mossy Forest
The Mossy Forest

After making it back to the 4×4, thankfully without losing any footwear, we were then taken to a bee farm. At this point we had slightly lost interest in being herded around with 200 other tourists, so we decided to just watch from the balcony whilst having a drink.

The tour ended with a customary trip to a strawberry farm. Maybe it’s just because I’m English and was brought up in the country (ooh-aagh), but the thought of visiting a strawberry farm didn’t really excite me. You can’t even pick your own strawberries there, so I didn’t really see the point. We did enjoy a very nice fresh strawberry milkshake though, while others looked on in amazement at the strawberries growing.

We ended the tour by being dropped off at a Buddhist temple about 9km from our town. We had decided that we wanted to do some trekking through the jungle, and one of the trails started at the back of the temple. The night before our hostel owner had warned us that this trail was a bit ‘adventurous’, but as our new year’s resolution was to be more adventurous, we ignored his advice. We were joined by a couple from Cambridge that we had met on the tour, Justin and Heather.

Jungle trekking
Jungle trekking

The first path was only 2km, but it was through some of the thickest jungle you could imagine. It was also raining quite heavily by this point, and some of the climbs were steep to say the least. But after a couple of hours we came out of the other side, happy to be out of the jungle.

On the walk back down to the road, we saw the school that my mum and auntie attended when they lived in Malaya. It is now a Malaysian Special Forces army camp. They weren’t too impressed when we walked up to the camp and started taking pictures, but I’m glad we got to see it.

We rewarded ourselves for our trekking with cream teas at a local farm shop. I don’t think tea and scones have ever tasted so good. This revived us enough for the walk back to our town, and a much-needed shower.

Melaka river view
Melaka river view

The next day we got a bus to Melaka via KL, where we are now. It took us about eight hours to get here, but it was a comfortable journey with some nice sights along the way. Since we’ve been in Melaka we’ve not done a huge amount. It’s another UNESCO World Heritage City, and is a pretty place, with buildings inherited from the Portuguese, Dutch and British rule. Most things close very early at night, so we were a bit caught out last night and barely managed to get any dinner.

Today Katy has dragged me around the shops for most of the day. We did manage to find a great place to eat again today though. We had some really nice Chinese noodle soup for lunch and another great Indian meal for dinner.

Until the next time…