A Travellerspoint blog


The Perhentian Islands

Finally, kids to play with!

semi-overcast 35 °C
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Well, after many weeks of complaining about the sewers, bathrooms, bus rides and bad hotels, I’ve got nothing but glowing (and therefore probably boring!) reviews about our week here in the Perhentian islands.

The Perhentians are two tiny islands off the northeast coast of Malaysia. Their names are Kecil and Besar, but they’re better known locally as Small Island and Big Island, respectively. Small Island has a reputation for being a busier, somewhat scruffier backpacker haven with more lively night life and cheaper beach huts, so we’ve ensconced ourselves on Big Island. According to our guide book, “the older generation” heads here. At first we were not really sure what generation we should consider ourselves to belong to, or what the guidebook meant by “older,” but as it turns out there are a number of families with kids of all ages here, so it seems to have been a good choice.

We left our hotel booking a bit late, so had no choice but to stay in a higher end place (so sad!) somewhat out of our budget for the first two nights. That coincided with Mark’s 40th birthday, though, so it worked out well. But we started scouting around immediately for somewhere else to move to, since we intended to settle ourselves here for a good 8-9 days. From the afternoon of our arrival, it was clear that the place to be was a spot named Abdul’s, about four places down from our place, Cozy Chalets. Abdul’s has the best beachfront, cute little huts right on the sand for as little as $20, coconut trees perfect for stringing up hammocks, and a family-run restaurant that serves the best fresh lime juice I’ve ever tasted and which turns a TV on early every morning for the kids. On top of all that, there were already two families staying there with boys Ciaran’s age. Unfortunately….we tried everything to get ourselves a spot there, but it was (and still is) fully booked for the rest of the week.

Regardless, Ciaran lost no time whatsoever making friends with the boys who were staying there. We hadn’t even been on the island two hours when he spotted Sam, a 7-year-old from Australia who was kicking a soccer ball around. Sam had already met Finn, another Australian boy who was 9 and staying in the next hut. It seemed to take no time at all for the three of them to turn into a little roving posse of the sort Ciaran loves to be a part of at home. An hour after the first soccer game began, Ciaran was asking if he could run back to our room to get his Pokemon cards for trading. Chloe accompanied him while I waited on the beach, and the next thing I knew, both kids were sitting in Finn’s parents room engaged in a giant Pokemon trading session (which, sure enough, devolved into a wrestling session and ended with the boys jumping all over both beds and getting sand all over everyone’s sheets).

Of course the next morning the first thing Ciaran wanted to do was go back to Abdul’s to see what his new pals were up to, so once again we spent the day hanging out there. By the end of the afternoon, Ciaran had invited both Sam and Finn’s families out for dinner with us.

Yesterday we went back for yet one more full day in front of Abdul’s, but we had also found a new place to stay quite a bit further down the island at a place called The Reef Resort, only accessible by water taxi or a 15-minute scramble through the jungle, so I think we’ll be seeing a bit less of our new friends. Sam and his family are leaving this morning anyway; maybe we’ll make one more trek over to Abdul’s this afternoon before Finn and company leave on Saturday.

The new place, while not convenient to the scene in front of Abdul’s, is actually quite spectacular in its own way. We lucked into a two-bedroom bungalow with spacious rooms, A/C, hot water, a ceiling fan, a large tiled deck out front and a really pretty sea view. We’re about 20 feet from the water’s edge, and through the front window my view is of bamboo curtains, palm fronds and ocean. The water directly in front of us is a bit shallow for swimming, but five minutes away there is a huge sweep of white sand with waves rolling in, perfect for body surfing and playing.

Really the only eventful thing here so far has been the weather. We seem to get an impressive thunderstorm every afternoon. I’m not sure if that’s the norm for here, or if it’s because monsoon season is approaching; apparently these islands close down completely for the monsoon season between late October and March. Yesterday’s storm was the most dramatic we’ve seen so far, and we wondered if we were getting the side effects of Typhoon Ketsana. A massive tree at our resort actually broke in half about 25 feet up, and the chunk that broke off crashed through a nearby bungalow, coming right down into the bathroom. Two cabins were similarly wrecked by fallen trees two resorts down from us, and many places all over the island have been busy repairing roof tiles and sweeping up debris. These crashing trees are a bit worrying given that the forecast is for thunderstorms every afternoon for the next week, but I’m guessing the odds are in our favour—what are the chances of a second tree coming down in the very same resort? I guess we’ll see…So far, we’ve been lucky, dodging an earthquake in Bali, a tsunami warning for Malaysia and then the worst of this typhoon.

I had a funny experience with coffee the other morning. There’s no restaurant at our bunch of bungalows, so I walked to the next guesthouse down and asked for two coffees “to take away.” I waited patiently, imagining myself sipping my hot, strong Malaysian coffee from the deck of my bungalow while the waves lapped the beach. Then the waitress waved me over and and handed me….a plastic bag containing two other plastic bags of coffees, tied up with elastics, and two straws. Hot coffee in a plastic sip-sac with straws! What a just plain BAD idea. I couldn’t believe it. I guess I’ll be taking my coffee at the restaurant in person from now on.

Posted by The Rymans 21:39 Archived in Malaysia Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

In the Cameron Highlands

Another insane road and other adventures

semi-overcast 25 °C
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Our first impression of the Cameron Highlands was that it was, literally, going to be a breath of fresh air after Melaka. At an altitude of 1,500 metres, it’s much, much cooler here; for the first time since we left Canada, we’ve needed sweatshirts in the evenings.

The Cameron Highlands area was originally developed by the British as a tea-growing area, but has since developed a much broader agricultural base (famous for strawberries and other fruits and vegetables) and is also a magnet for tourists. Happily for us, there are several excellent Indian restaurants here, and even more exciting for the kids, tea and scones are a big feature, sold nearly everywhere.

Some of the main things to do here are hiking/trekking in the many varieties of jungle and forest nearby, visiting tea plantations and strawberry farms, and dropping in at a nearby Orang-Asli village. “Orang” is Malay for “man” while “Asli” means original; the Orang-Asli are the aboriginal people of Malaysia. While many are gravitating towards towns and cities to earn a modern living, some still live traditional village lives and it’s possible to visit them while in the highlands.

Yesterday we set out with a number of other tourists on an all-day “4 X 4 jungle trekking” adventure. The idea was to spend the morning on a three-hour hike that would take us to a waterfall for swimming and to a spot known for rare rafflesia flowers. These flowers, named for their discoverer, Sir Stamford Raffles, are known to grow up to a diameter of 43 inches and are quite a sight to behold.

Right after breakfast yesterday, we piled into a Land Rover and set off. There are Land Rovers all over the place here, some dating from decades ago and sitting in rusting, yet apparently still mechanically functional, heaps by the roadside. I wondered how necessary the Land Rover was going to be, thinking maybe it was all just part of the show to get tourists interested in booking the tour—but the need for a 4 x 4 became abundantly clear as we left the main road and started heading up a track into the forest.

The dirt was red, thick, deeply rutted and often wet and slippery, and it wound up the mountain in frightening switchbacks entirely free of guard rails or other such niceties, often with sudden, sharp turns. We could hear the truck’s suspension squeaking and squealing in protests as the driver negotiated the road, sometimes roaring ahead suddenly and other times gearing down and powering up a slippery hill. We rocked so violently from side to side that it was essential to grasp the loops hanging over the windows to prevent having our heads bashed into the windows. Several times it felt like we might overturn entirely. The kids were having a fabulous time, riding along with giant grins on their faces. The ride was scary enough to be interesting, but not scary enough to be truly terrifying, especially since we did feel like we were in good hands with our expert driver, who had told us he does this sort of thing not just every day for tourists, but in his spare time for fun.

These roads made the ones up to our Quebec hunt camp look like child’s play. It often seemed completely incredible that we were even making any headway. Mark took dozens of photos, and as usual I’m having some trouble getting them uploaded in a timely way, but I hope to accomplish that either this afternoon or next week, so stay tuned.

After about half an hour on this crazy road, we arrived at the trailhead and piled out to follow a different guide who would lead us to some rafflesia specimens. After all the work involved in getting to this place, you had to wonder: All this to see a flower??? It was a hot, sweaty walk up and down a sometimes challenging trail, across streams and a river and at least one dodgy bamboo bridge. But when we eventually found the flower, it really was pretty spectacular. There are lots of interesting facts about this flower, for example the fact that there are male and female specimens, and that it can take up to 8 months for a bud to open, after which the flower lasts just 5 days. To get a better sense of the size of it, we photographed the kids next to one. As always, check the photo gallery later!

The whirlwind tour continued on with a swim at a waterfall on the way down, a reverse trip back down the crazy dirt road (all the more frightening for being downhill; we nearly slid ride off the road on at least one occasion--at one point Ciaran said, "I wonder how this story will end. Will I die after we slide off one of those cliffs? Or will we all survive and it will make a great stories to tell my friends?"), and then a visit to an Orang-Asli village. After being given some background information about the Orang-Asli and how they live, we were treated to a demonstration of how they hunt using a blow pipe. The pipe is a long, narrow affair with poison darts plugged into its end, and the hunter’s job is to blow hard enough to send one of the darts into the prey. After the demonstration, we were asked if anyone wanted to give it a try (there was a target for the purpose), and of course, Chloe was keen. After a few attempts, she managed to get the dart just a few inches to the left of the target. Ciaran didn’t want to try, but he did desperately want to buy one of the $7 smaller blow pipes for sale. Mark, who has been hating that we seem to carry around so much stuff everywhere, was an unusually each touch on this, and let Ciaran choose one to keep. It came with a batch of darts and everything needed to work properly, and the kids have been trying it out in the hotel room.

There was a lunch stop after that, but the food was completely unappealing, so we ate lightly; among the choices there was a stew of chicken’s feet and a stir-fry of mysterious organ meats and chicken hearts and skin. We chose iced tea, soft drinks, plain rice and a thing that looked somewhat like an omelette, supplementing that with snacks we’d brought along.

This is getting rather long so I’ll try to sum up the rest of the day: We also visited a tea plantation, which was a highlight for our family tea fiend, Ciaran, and enjoyed a tour of the tea factory and grounds. The kids were excited to see scones for sale again here, but chose a doughnut to snack on instead. The plantation itself was spectacularly scenic, and we took some great photos of the kids hiding and peeking among the tea bushes.

We finished the day by heading up to the top of Gunung Brinchang, a 2,031-metre mountain at the top of which is a cloud forest that is known here as a “mossy forest.” We had a chance to walk through the forest as dark approached, and it was certainly an enchanting, spooky experience; the guide showed us insect-eating plants and a variety of medicinal shrubs and trees.

There is really so much more I could write about this action-packed day, but I’ve been typing for some time now and you probably don’t want to know every detail, so I’ll end it here. Tomorrow we’re off to Pulau Perhentian, a quite remote tropical island where we are unlikely to come across internet access, so this will be my last update for at least another week or so.

Posted by The Rymans 22:09 Archived in Malaysia Tagged family_travel Comments (6)

Getting there is half the fun, right?

Never a dull moment when you board the local bus...

semi-overcast 25 °C
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To tell you about the time we’ve spent in the Cameron Highlands (a Malaysian hill town known for its tea plantations and strawberry farms), I have to begin with the journey.

Originally, we’d read that we could get a bus from Melaka to a town called Tapah, then transfer to a local bus to bring us to Tanah Rata, the main tourist town here in the Cameron Highlands. That turned out to be old information; the bus had been cancelled. Instead we would have to take a bus to Kuala Lumpur (which we’d hoped to bypass altogether), and change buses at the station for one that would go directly to Tanah Rata. Altogether this was going to take about seven hours.

I should mention here that virtually every bus we’d ever seen in Malaysia so far has been large, clean—even shiny—and mechanically sound, even the local buses, so we had no reason to suspect that we needed to be particularly choosy about the company we bought our tickets from. There are dozens of bus companies here, incidentally.

We arrived at the Melaka bus station just before 10 a.m. after a warm send-off from Teng, the owner of Discovery Café, who gave us a free bottle of water and surprise gifts for both kids. That wasn’t enough time to grab the 10 a.m. bus, so we bought tickets for 10:30 instead. The plan was to arrive in KL by 12:30 in order to get seats on the 1:30 “Super VIP” bus to Tanah Rata. The trip from Melaka to KL is two hours. That would be cutting it a little bit close, but as always, I assumed it would all run pretty smoothly. right?

Of course, our 10:30 a.m. bus didn’t actually leave until 11 a.m., and as we approached KL, we ran into heavy traffic. We didn’t arrive until 1:15, and the bus dropped us off not at the bus station, which would have been logical, but right smack in the middle of a busy street several blocks away from the bus station. We were the last people off since Chloe’s backpack got snagged in the overhead rack, and by the time we were ready to go, there was nobody left to follow, the bus driver had disappeared, and we had no idea where the bus station was. So off we headed in a big rush, hoping to find our way there in time to board the 1:30 bus while wondering how we were going to fit lunch in (since the trip to Tanah Rata from KL is 4.5 hours).

Running and sewer-dodging down the hot busy street with our packs and asking passersby for information, we did manage to find the station after some initial confusion. We settled all the bags on a bench and then I went running to look for the counter to book our next batch of tickets. There were, get this, no fewer than something like 89 different counters. Each counter sells tickets on behalf of different bus companies, and only to particular destinations. The system was completely unintelligible to me, so I was depending on touts at every corner wanting to direct me to the window they were associated with. There were 3 counters selling tickets to Tanah Rata, and at two of them I was told there were no more seats available today, and certainly none for the 1:30 VIP bus.

At the third counter, I got lucky—there were still tickets for the 3:30 bus. That would get us there after dark, on a local bus, but at least it would get us there that day, sparing us the need to go looking for accommodation in KL. So I bought them.

That accomplished, it was time to find some lunch and bathrooms. Finding them gave us the opportunity to have a good look around the grimy KL bus station. Outside the filthy women’s bathroom, there was a frail little man crouched in a corner gagging. The food court was a repellent display of whole barbecued ducks hanging by their necks (and other delicacies), and Chloe would have no part of it (not that I really wanted any either). The toilets were the usual mess of watery floors, disagreeable odors, squat toilets, stained, soapless sinks and people clearing their throats and spitting. There were also people wandering around wearing face masks, which made me wonder if there was something I should know; maybe it was just ordinary H1N1 fear.

The kids and I decided to look out on the street for better food choices while Mark waited with the bags. At the end of the ramp from the bus station we narrowly avoided stepping in a puddle of vomit. The whole experience left me desperately wanting a shower, but I settled for some Purell, coated everyone in it liberally, and found a KFC across the street. I’m all for sticking with the local cuisine and avoiding American chains, but no matter how hard I try, I just plain don’t like authentic Cantonese food, especially the kind that is sitting out in display cases in the tropical heat for hours before you eat it, especially when the choices are dominated by stewed chicken feet and other unappealing parts. Just not a big fan of lukewarm organ meats, I suppose.

Getting back on the bus was just as eventful as getting off. Despite the profusion of bus platforms in and near the station, we were told to cross the street, head right, and wait at a DiGicellular phone shop for our bus to Tanah Rata. Wondering if we’d been tricked into buying tickets for a ghost bus, we dutifully crossed the street and waited—and sure enough, the bus did come; in fact, it left on time.

That was the good part. We boarded what has got to be the only nasty, dirty, squeaky rattletrap bus in all Malaysia. The entire inside was coated in a layer of soot. There was a hatch in the roof near our seats that leaked when it rained. It made ominous noises every time it rounded a corner sharply or went over a bump. Actually, to be honest, it was still a much, much nicer bus than many we’ve been on in other countries—for example, India. It wasn’t overcrowded. It just wasn’t up to what we expected of a typical Malaysian bus.

Nonetheless, the ride was uneventful until about an hour or two in, when all of a sudden, as we were tearing down the highway, there was a sharp, loud, sudden cracking noise like a gunshot and I felt a strange vibrating impact on my left elbow. I turned and saw a smash mark on the window I was sitting at, with long cracks reaching out from its centre in several directions. Half of the passengers stood up to see what had happened, murmuring and chatting, while the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road. There was some shattered glass along the edge of the window by my arm, but I didn’t seem to be hurt. I got out of the seat, along with Mark, and we moved one seat behind. The driver got out of the bus to see what had happened while all the passengers continued standing and speculating.

It turns out the hole in the window was made by a rock flung by a slingshot—and apparently this has happened before, because there were similar marks elsewhere on the side of the bus (although this was the first to hit a window). We drove on, and an hour later, at Tapah, the driver pulled into a repair depot, where mechanics inspected the damage and temporarily taped the window up with a sheet of black sticky paper to cover the cracked spot. Mark took photos of the window, which I'm in the midst of uploading; check the gallery later for that one and a batch of others, including one of the giant swimming lizard of Melaka.

The rest of the trip went relatively smoothly; we did arrive in the dark, but were able to pay a tout 5 ringgits to bring us to the hotel of our choice, where there was a family room available. More news about our stay here in the Cameron Highlands in a subsequent post!

Posted by The Rymans 21:38 Archived in Malaysia Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Getting to know Melaka

Back in the land of open sewers

sunny 36 °C
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We arrived in Melaka around 6 pm on Sunday, right smack in the middle of the biggest national holiday this nation enjoys: Hari Raya Puasa, the end of Ramadan. We were hungry and tired of sitting down after a five-hour bus ride from Singapore, so we headed straight out for dinner, equipped with a trusty hand-drawn map provided to us by the manager of our guest house. We followed the map religiously, but somehow managed to get completely, utterly lost as the sun went down. It was a particularly bad time to be lost, since due to the holiday, the majority of shops, restaurants and even hotels were shut down. After it had become completely dark and we were all starving and had no idea where we were, we ducked into a gas station to ask for help. The attendant, an elderly Chinese man, saw us coming, grinned at us, waved both hands while shaking his head, and said, "No English," even before we could speak. Optimistically, we blundered ahead anyway, trying every way we could think of to ask for directions to the night market (the one thing that was open in town and which we thought he might recognize). He just laughed and repeated, "No English!" So we left.

After another half hour spent retracing our footsteps, fruitlessly consulting several maps and wondering if we would ever find our way back, we stumbled onto Jonker Walk, a well-known street in Chinatown and the main route for the night market. That wasn't where our hotel was, but at least it was on the map. I would like to say we wandered the market for a while, but wandering wasn't really possible; there were so many people doing the same thing that it was more a case of pushing, shoving, and very slowly making your way forward, leaping into any open space as soon as it opened up. There were hawkers and food stalls everywhere so that the aromas of mysterious foods cooking hung thickly in the air and garbage from discarded foods and drinks littered the ground. There were bright lights and blasting music and more open sewers to dodge. Ciaran was getting jostled at every turn and couldn't see anything at all in front of him, but didn't seem to mind. It took nearly another half-hour for us to turn the corner into another street where we found cafes and bars with little plastic stools at tables out in the streets. We chose one and finally sat down, feeling we really deserved the beer we ordered.

The first thing we had noticed after checking in at our very rundown guest house (just one notch up from the hockey bag rooms at the Topi Inn, we all agreeed) was the smell of open sewers. We'd conveniently forgotten about them during our sojourn in Singapore. It had only taken us a day or two to get used to being back in the land of cleanliness and conveniences, and now it was going take us several more to get used to the real Asia again.

As a result, our first impression of Melaka was not favourable, but now that we've had a few days to check it out by the light of day, we're much happier. It was apparently designated a World Heritage city some years ago, and after a look around, it's not hard to see why. Apparently Melaka was a significant port and trading centre back when Singapore was just a fishing village (hard to believe when you compare them now!), so its history goes back to the early 1500s. It was first colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. There are remnants of its history in the buildings and architecture, particularly in the oldest part of the city where we're staying. We've been wondering which of the three colonizers was responsible for the bizarre circular streets leading in all directions that caused us to get so lost when we first arrived.

Another word about the open sewers: there are creatures living in them. Yesterday as we were walking along (single file, as we always do to avoid being run over on streets without sidewalks), I heard a giant splashing sound and turned sharply around, expecting to see that Ciaran had fallen into the gutter during one of his numerous gutter-jumping attempts (which we can't seem to subdue). He was still on the road, but was looking startled and wide-eyed. Since he wasn't in the sewer himself, we assumed he had dropped something heavy into it by accident -- but no, he had not. He said the splashing sound was caused by a giant lizard leaping out and then plunging back in. He's seen this twice. I missed it that time, and I would have wondered whether or not he was making it up, except that this morning I saw the creature myself, swimming capably along in the muddy Sungai River that divides the city: a giant lizard, at least four feet in length, slowly but surely swimming its way down the river. It gave us all a bit of a shiver, but we felt better to imagine all the rats it probably gobbles up.

We stayed at the Eastern Heritage Guest House for our first two nights in Melaka, but were not impressed with its windowless rooms, lack of mosquito nets, feeble bedside fans or single filthy shared bathroom, so this morning we'ved into better digs here at the Discovery Cafe. For the same price, we have air-con and a clean attached bathroom, so we think we'll stay an additional night. There is actually a public pool here in Melaka, but it's been closed all this time for the holiday and opens again tomorrow. Our plan is to see what else remains to be seen this afternoon, and spend tomorrow swimming and catching up on some school work before we head to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands the next day.

We found a McDonald's in the new part of the city yesterday and are only partly embarrassed to confess to having eaten there. We could find little else appealing that was open during the holiday (the pig's organ porridge at the food court didn't entice any of us) and were in desperate need of some A/C and a place to sit. Ciaran got a Happy Meal that came with one of those lame little plastic toys that would normally keep him busy for about three minutes. In this case, he spent well over an hour playing with it and at one point declared that it was "the best toy ever" and that he would likely still be playing with it in India several months from now. I thought how low his standards have sunk to think of a dollar-store pinball-type gadget as the best thing he has to play with. Yikes. Wait until he returns to Ottawa and rediscovers Lego...

Posted by The Rymans 22:30 Archived in Malaysia Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

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