June 2014: The Malaysian Way to Travel

We just about found a secluded beach

We just about found a secluded beach

“Malaysia: Truly Asia” claims the worldwide advertising campaign for Malaysia. It is. It’s probably a lazy description, but imagine a mix of China, Thailand and India and you have Malaysia. A predominantly Muslim country where ladies in bikinis swim alongside ladies in full body (and head) covering (“burqinis”, as they’re probably not called); where the tranquillity of a Buddhist temple is regularly interrupted by the call to prayer from a nearby mosque; where billboards for make-up sit alongside billboards extolling the teachings of Mohammed. Multicultural, certainly, but how readily the cultures were willing to mix wasn’t that apparent to us.

Having managed to endure nearly two weeks in the Seychelles with me and Bron in October of last year, our oldest Shanghai friend – Rachel* – once more met up with us for a few days in the sun; this time with her boyfriend – Ben (also known as “The French Gentleman”).

So why Malaysia?  It gave us a chance to head back to Shanghai for a few days and then visit a relatively nearby country with enough to keep us occupied for a couple of weeks.  Beach holiday resorts for long periods of time are fine if you have the sustained mental capacity of Jedward: “Woohoo – let’s go in the sea today then sit on a sun lounger for 8 hours! Woohoo let’s do the same thing for the next 14 days“. I plainly can’t do this, so coerced the other three into a somewhat extended island hopping Malaysian trip. We travelled from Kuala Lumpur up to Langkawi, headed back South to the colonial town of Georgetown on the island of Penang before being chauffeured over to Malaysia’s east coast for a night in Kota Bharu and an extended stay on the Perhentian Island of Kecil.

The Petronas Towers - at the bottom

The Petronas Towers – from the bottom

Before meeting up with Rachel and Ben, Bron and I had a night in Kuala Lumpur followed by a night on an overnight train.  One was more luxurious than the other.  We knew the train would be a little basic, and for £8 we can’t complain too much, but I don’t think Bron was expecting to have to share her the bed with two suitcases (a lesser known advantage of being 5’2”).

Bron, Rachel and Ben celebrate Rachel's birthday

Bron, Rachel and Ben celebrate Rachel’s birthday

Other than the cockroach lurking in the bottom of the poppadum bowl (obviously waiting for us to clear enough room for it to climb out), Langkawi gave us a great introduction to the islands of Malaysia.  It’s a duty-free island too, enabling a fully liquid picnic next to an inland freshwater lake and the opportunity for Rachel to celebrate her birthday in a swimming pool with some cheaper (but definitely not cheap) Champagne.  Ben took the ladies on a trip up a cable car for a few scenic views, but I refrained, preferring not to be hung by a cable several thousand feet up.

Ben, Rachel, Bron and me in the Campbell House reception

Ben, Rachel, Bron and me in the Campbell House reception

A tip for anybody heading to the former British colonial town of Georgetown on Penang: avoid the turgid, soporific chains of Marriotts, Holiday Inns, etc, and instead stay in the Campbell House Hotel.  Genuinely the best breakfast I’ve ever experienced in a hotel with the equivalent of a 6 course tasting menu– no “help yourself” style buffets here.  Also featuring the friendliest staff in the whole of Malaysia, huge rooms with unique character in each and an ideal position at the heart of Georgetown’s mixture of architecture, culture and, of course, restaurants.  I’ve never tasted “Nyonya” cuisine before – a truly unique flavour for local, Malaysian food from ancient Chinese settlers.  The food in the “Nyonya Baba Cuisine” restaurant alone is worth a return trip to Malaysia just to try out a few more dishes.

If they don't know how to make a Long Island Ice Tea, make it yourself

If they don’t know how to make a Long Island Ice Tea, make it yourself

Penang also features an aging funicular journey up to Penang Hill, with the promise of “High Tea” at its summit; something you probably can experience if the restaurant isn’t closed for a private function when you get there.  We had a close approximation nearby – scones and a cup of tea – in a restaurant temporarily missing their bar manager.  This only relevant since I asked for a Long Island Ice Tea (tea themed, obviously) and ended up making it myself.


In the water at Long Beach

In the water at Long Beach

Never has the disparity between East and West been so narrowly apparent than by crossing from the west to east coasts of Malaysia. From the welcoming, multicultural islands of Langkawi and Penang to the deeply Muslim areas around Kota Bahru in the east. I have a degree of ethical dissonance when it comes to local customs, particularly when I find those customs so alien in respect to the treatment of women.  Since Malaysia is not my home country, I think it reasonable to respect local traditions but feel somewhat perturbed by the head to toe covering of the large majority of Muslim ladies we encounter.  But this isn’t a blog about the rights and wrongs of religion and its effect on society (as much as I’d like it to be!)

I’d be useless under torture. I discovered this at the cleverly disguised “Grape Tree Spa” during our stay in the Perhentian island of Kecil. Over two days, my torturer, an innocent-looking middle aged lady, took the art of torture massage to new heights. Boy was she good – complaints from me that the backs of my knees didn’t stretch in that direction were met sternly with “But your knees are not good!”. Bad knees.  Her thumbs and elbows pressed so far into my lower back that she have easily performed kidney keyhole surgery. Without the keyhole. And my eyebrows, raised and contorted under pain were swiftly attended to and flattened. Even cries of “That still hurts!” as her thumb reached down between the gap between your neck and shoulders you didn’t know was there was met with the unconvincing “Sorry, I forgot”. This plus the added bonus of several new mosquito bites and you have the perfect torture mass(ochist)age. Had it not been for Bron lying beside me, quietly coping with the same treatment I think I’d have made my excuses and left.

Our resort on Long Beach, Kecil, Perhentian Islands

Our resort on Long Beach, Kecil, Perhentian Islands

Speaking of mosquitos – there’s an old joke about three men in a jungle being faced with a lion. One puts his trainers on and starts running. The other two shout “You can’t outrun a lion!”. The first responds “No, but I can outrun you two!”. Replace lions with mosquitos and trainers with anti-mosquito spray and you have a good parallel.  It’s impossible to avoid the little buggers – the best you can hope for is that your particular brand of anti-mosquito spray is far more pungent than those worn by everyone else. The mosquitos are hungry and are going to eat someone.  If a “CSI Malaysia” were to exist, I’m convinced they could use mosquito bites to track the travels of an unlucky victim, with Georgetown mosquitos producing a far more agitated skin response to those from the more remote locations of Langkawi and the gentle nibbles of those on the Perhentian islands.

For our last location, we stayed at the Bubu Resort on the Perhentian Island of Kecil; a resort with the genius of idea of ensuring all guests return in time for an evening meal by providing two free cocktails per guest between the hours of 5 and 6pm.  Three days of lounging around on Kecil’s Long Beach, snorkelling nearby and watching people play with fire was a perfect end to our Malaysian adventure.  Malaysia is beautiful, features food unlike anywhere else I’ve travelled and is, for the most part, very welcoming.

The meeting of the inflatables

The meeting of the inflatables

Ben and Rachel (plus the bonus of spending a few days with Lauren** – Ben’s sister – and her friend Celine) – we’re getting used to this idea of travelling around Southeast Asia accompanied by ABCs and FBCs, as well as the introduction of Inflatable Batman to accompany Inflatable Starfish.  Here’s to the next one…


* Not oldest in age, I hasten to add.  Although she did celebrate a birthday out in Malaysia.

**Lauren – I have a feeling I’ve spelled your name wrong, probably because it’s French and I’m not!


October 7th ’13: (Inflatable) Starfish in the Seychelles

SAM_2165Kazakhstan,  geographically and politically positioned halfway between China and the UK, seemed an unlikely location to meet up with Rachel, our friend from Shanghai with whom we’d experienced many a Chinese adventure.  So we settled on the Seychelles. Not halfway, but an equal pain in the arse for all of us to reach.

The guidebooks (well, TripAdvisor.com) refer to the Seychelles as perfect for those seeking the best beaches in the world.  ‘Best’, is of course subjective, with some visitors preferring near-shore coral, some seeking white sands to reflect the sun’s glare for that complete tan, or some demanding beautiful scenery for the perfect photography backdrop.  Our perfect beach was just outside our hotel in Mahe.  Three grown
adults, floating in the sea anchored to an inflatable starfish, drinking flavoured rum purchased from the nearby Regatta festival.

Probably the closest I’ve ever come to a ‘beach holiday’; we spent most of our time in the water. I doubt there are many places in the world where you can rent a car, go for a random drive and find so many completely deserted beaches.  In one location, we had a local takeaway meal on the beach before once more deploying the starfish.  A picturesque scene entirely for us until the old couple turned up and proceeded to get changed out on the beach.  White bottoms reflecting the sun beautifully.

View from Burj Khalifa - it's real, honest.

View from Burj Khalifa – it’s real, honest.

Before reaching the Seychelles,  Bron and I had the bright idea of spending a day in Dubai, since that’s where our connecting flight originated.  A bright idea until the 8am arrival time (6 hour flight from the UK = no real sleep) and the 2am next day departure started to take its toll.  Dubai is as I think we expected; sandy yet curiously clean; hot outdoors but freezing indoors; ostentatious yet reserved.  A curious mix of cultures and styles,  where the world’s tallest man-made structure allows visitors to clearly observe the Sim City approach to building all that lies beneath it.  We landed on a Friday, the Islamic day of prayer. I assume the locals choose their mosque early in life, as a churchgoer in the UK does likewise.  Otherwise the multitude of simultaneous calls to prayer from the minarets’ loudspeakers would cause a degree of cognitive (religious?) dissonance given the sheer number of mosques to choose from.

We met up with one of Bronwen’s old university friends in the evening, as you do whilst in Dubai, and explored one of Dubai’s few but densely populated drinking districts.

Waiting for us in the Seychelles was Rachel, having arrived a day earlier.  Very fortunate for us as for the first time in 2 days we had a bed to sleep on, sneaking into Rachel’s hotel room before checkout. I say sneak; Rachel’s ploy of giving us the wrong room number didn’t work as we had the foresight to check.

Apparently one of the most photographed beaches in the world (La Digue)

Apparently one of the most photographed beaches in the world (La Digue)

We spent our 8 nights in the Seychelles on three different islands; Mahe, La Digue and Praslin.  Mahe is like paradise,  if paradise were run by the most grumpy staff on the planet. A place where asking for a menu is met with silence and a 180 degree turn away from the customer.  A place where cocktails with missing ingredients are served without apology (“You want me to go all the way to the kitchen to find chocolate syrup for your chocolate cocktail”), and where requests for additional contents are met with “You want this?  You want this?  YOU WANT SOME OF THIS” (I’ve never before been so threatened by a bottle of Angostura Bitters).  A place where the local language is supposed to be Creole but turns out to be a series of sighs.  Our hotel had a casino but an attempt to gamble at 7.30pm was met with shouts of ‘We closed! We closed!”.  Another more helpful member of staff explained: “Sorry, he’s Korean”. Bizarrely, a local law (not hotel policy) decrees that men looking to gamble after 6pm must wear long trousers.  Our helpful member of staff explained: “It’s OK, 3/4 length trousers would be fine”.

As well as vampires, we discovered the Chinese only come out night.  With perhaps only a few exceptions, dusk on the beaches heralded the arrival of Chinese tourists, safe to enter the sea without exposing skin to the sun (since a tan on a Chinese person is considered a very bad thing in China).

After three nights in Mahe, we took a two-part ferry journey to La Digue, the smallest island of the three we were to visit.  An island so small that cars are rare and cycling around the whole island in a single day is possible (as we did).  A beautiful island, made all the better once our upgraded room had been awarded (long, protracted story, better explained by Rachel’s blog.

Our final three nights took us to the island of Praslin, home to some of  the world’s most photographed beaches.  With the current too strong to deploy the starfish, we headed out on a “private” day trip with 6 other people we think were also expecting a little more privacy.  From giant tortoises roaming free to fighting crabs that walk forwards, not sideways, Praslin and its smaller neighbouring islands gave us the opportunity to experience a little more of what the Seychelles really has to offer.  And with wonderfully warm and welcoming staff, Praslin definitely wins as the place to visit in the Seychelles.

On our last night we eschewed the bars and restaurants, instead settling for a few hours sat on the edge of our semi-private pool, finishing what was left of our snack food (Monster Munch gets everywhere) and our remaining rum.

The snorkeling wasn’t a patch on what Bron and I had experienced in the Philippines,  but we think the Seychelles wins for beaches, calm waters and local rum (and in Praslin – the people).  A fantastic 10 days away, and of course great to spend some time with Rachel, despite a few funny looks from the honeymooning couples.  Ben – that’s what happens when you have to work during Golden Week…

August 2nd: Olney

Poor, neglected blog…
Bron and Tim waiting for the rafts to appear

Bron and Tim waiting for the rafts to appear

We’ve been back in the UK for just over 2 months now.  We no longer have to worry about melting in the Shanghai summer, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius  (although this particular British summer has somehow managed 30 degrees on a few occasions), crossing the road (pedestrians having right of way here) or cockroaches in the bed.  I do, however, have to worry about over-eating (a British calorific diet contributing to my commensurately expanding waistline in just a few weeks), expensive petrol and access to online shopping.  Despite the plethora of colourful, offer-rich, information-explosive shopping websites in China, being unable to read (and hence, transact) the Chinese sites is a pretty good deterrent to buying things you don’t actually need.

With Isaac and Chong on the beach at Bray

With Isaac and Chong on the beach at Bray

But we miss constantly being challenged with language barriers, we miss the never-ending flow of bizarre but unforgettable random encounters (from hot springs on mountaintops to karaoke swimming pools) and we miss the strange bunch of people that became our short-lived Shanghai family.  With regards to the latter, we’ve realised the world isn’t that small.  Marcel’s 6 week stint in the UK as part of his MBA gave us a great night out in Olney a few weeks ago (always good to introduce UK market town life to a South African), and we’ve been over to Ireland for the second part of Chong and Isaac’s wedding.  A meet-up with Rachel beckons later this year.

It hasn’t take us long to settle back into life here; from weddings and a plethora of beer festivals to the eccentricities of British life demonstrated by the annual Olney raft race (build a raft out of floating stuff, paddle it a few hundred metres down a slow moving river; dodging the over-enthusiastic crowd, some of whom have made it into the river) after the annual Olney rubber duck race.
Our visas expire in March 2014 – maybe there’s one more trip on the cards (got to use the airmiles somehow) before we finally put an end to our Chinese experience.


May 19th: Barbecue Pits and a Singing Farewell

The chefs at work

The chefs at work

Back home in the UK, a barbecue is normally a back-garden affair, featuring burnt sausages, potato salads and wasps.  In Shanghai, gardens are hard to come by (apart from those living in Pudong), and instead a number of parks have “barbecue pits” allowing friends and family to gather and cook together in the late-spring heat.

So, to end our last weekend in China, on Sunday afternoon we met up with a few of our local friends (ex-colleagues, ex-pats, ex-language teachers) and their families in Gucun Forest Park, out in the northern suburbs of Shanghai.  Hiring a “VIP” barbecue pit seemed the sensible idea given the close proximity of those attempting to cook in the other areas of the park.  An on-site supermarket allows visitors to stock-up on everything required for an elaborate barbecue (from chopsticks and plastic cups through to chicken and liver on a stick).

Our last ever performance

Our last ever performance

Many “last” moments at the moment: playing a short acoustic set with Felix after the barbecue (of our 13 songs, we played the 8 that we could remember most of) for – probably – the last time ever was another of my many highlights of our Chinese experience.  Our audience grew slightly from our group of 30 or so as the staff waited for us to finish the noise and allow them to get in to clear up.  Thanks to all our guests for allowing Felix and I to perform; hopefully some of you enjoyed it!

A fantastic way to end our last weekend – China continues to provide new experiences right until the end.

Tasty tapas, expensive water

Tasty tapas, expensive water

Our barbecue followed a Saturday night meal out in El Patio, a Spanish-themed bar featuring expensive but tasty tapas alongside ridiculously expensive water (nearly £5 per bottle – something we discovered at the end of the meal after drinking 7 bottles).  The night ended in the Shanghai Brewery – time for one last pint of on-premise brewed stout.


April 28th: The Tao Tour (Philippines part 2)

The crew and guests on the Tao Phillipines tour

The crew and guests on the Tao Phillipines tour

On the Tao Philippines website, the booking procedure includes an extra step which  asks: ‘Are you sure you want to do this? It’s not for everyone’. Looking back, the last four nights of our holiday at the all-inclusive luxury resort on Lagen island, with its air-conditioned rooms, cocktail bars and large pool, couldn’t have been much more different to the previous four with Romy and crew aboard the Tao Philippines boat.

We met up in Coron: Romy and his six crew members along with 10 guests (2 Brits, 3 Aussies, 2 Dutch, a Swede, a Slovakian and an American; there’s always an American), to board our floating temporary home for the next 5 days.  The plan was a simple one – to travel from Coron on Busuanga Island to El Nido on Palawan, stopping at different locations along the way and sleeping in a different place on each of our 4 nights.  Most of the crew slept onboard whilst the guests stayed in huts on beaches; in mangroves; in small villages, all safely covered by mosquito nets.

On the Tao website it states alcohol can be purchased prior to the trip, and helpfully offers the advice ‘Guests should not drink too much in the sun’.  What it failed to mention was that Romy would, without fail, start each evening with a round or two of his signature cocktail: ‘Sundowner’.  A simple but effective cocktail consisting of rum and pineapple juice, mixed at the simple but effective ratio of 50/50. This is rum (‘rhum’) purchased locally for 90 pesos – around £1.50 for a bottle of rum that would be at least 10 times as much in the UK.

Late night with Bron, Michael, Michelle and Guy

Late night with Bron, Michael, Michelle and Guy

Michelle (American) and the Aussie blokes (Guy and Michael) were never shy of joining Bron and I for a few drinks.  A couple of glorious hours sat in the sea, beer or cocktail in hand, taking in the scenery and contemplating our options for retiring early and moving to where it never gets cold and hunger can be solved with a fishing rod. Or an ability to climb coconut trees.

We snorkeled for hours, both with and against the sea’s current (the latter a little disconcerting for those – me and Bron – without fins, when swimming furiously does little other than to hold position in the sea).  I would try to describe what we saw but my knowledge of coral and its inhabitants is so poor it would be like a dolphin attempting to describe a jungle.  What I will say is that I had no idea life underwater was so colourful – blue starfish, Nemo-type fish and purple coral were amongst the many highlights. Also colourful were the backs of my legs – a little suncream insufficient to cope with the sun when magnified by water onto the most exposed part of my body for an extended period of time. The ladies suffered a different problem: ‘sunburned bottom’ I think being the most polite way of phrasing it.

Tao PhiippinesCoral can be dangerous, especially if stepped on whilst attempting to help push our stranded boat back into this sea.  ‘Make sure you clean out that cut,’ offers Guy helpfully, ‘Coral is a living organism and can grow inside you’.  My coral cut added to the injuries already encountered through many mosquito and other insect bites, cuts from crashing into the boat’s ladder and eventually, copying Bronwen by being attacked by a somewhat territorial fish.  Fortunately, we both managed to avoid the jellyfish.

Bron and I had visions of going hungry whilst out at sea; we needn’t have worried – the boat’s cooks did a fantastic job of keeping us fully fed with huge, fresh meals three times a day interspersed with all manner of snacks.  From freshly caught fish, breakfasts of mango, banana and porridge eaten from a fresh coconut to local fruit and vegetables we’d never previously encountered.   And of courses the banana ketchup, a sauce to accompany any Filipino dish.  On our last night, Romy had arranged a spit roast pig, cooked to perfection by some of the local villagers in our final sleepover location.  Eating crackling straight from the pig wasn’t something I’d tried before…

Romy’s filleting skills were also called into action on a few occasions. Fish is caught whilst the boat is out at sea; fish is killed and prepared by Romy; fish arrives as sashimi 5 minutes later.

Ice FactoryFood and drinks onboard are kept cool by huge chunks of ice, purchased from dedicated ice factories -the sign outside our chosen ice source stated simply: ‘Mall of Ice’.  They had a job vacancy for an ‘Ice man’, but without a decent job description I didn’t bother applying.  Especially after seeing the huge blocks of ice, carried single-handed by Romy.

Sleep was hard to come by – the temperature at night retained most of the heat from the day, and the mosquito nets absorbed most of what little breeze was on offer. The full moon seemed to keep most of the wildlife awake, from cicadas chorusing in union at irregular intervals to geckos chanting their name throughout the night (they do – ‘GEH-ko’ repeated over and over, stopping only when you’ve nearly, but not quite, discovered their hiding spot, thus avoiding strangulation). And the bloody cockerels. Everywhere. And not just at dawn.

For a foreign tourist, life out in the open leads to a ritual of lotions: sun lotion first thing and repeated throughout the day;  insect repellent at dusk in an attempt to keep biting creatures at bay; after-bite cream when it doesn’t work; shower gel at night to wash the whole lot off again.

Our luxurious bed

Our luxurious bed

The evenings were mainly spent eating (with a little drinking) although our penultimate evening ended in the world’s smallest karaoke bar (a little further down the beach from our huts) with the world’s largest selection of songs.  Accompanied by Romy and John (the owner/security guard – a man with 14 children and over 70 grandchildren), Bron, Michael, Michelle and I tried a few classics whilst Guy impressed us all with his Filipino rap song.

Our last meal was preceded by another first for me – a massage on the beach.  Organised by Romy, a few of us partook in the sensational experience of a massage near the sea under cover of palm trees.  Maybe a little too relaxing since it nearly sent us all to sleep.

A fantastic 5 day experience; many thanks to Romy and the crew, and to our fellow guests: Kris, Joanne, Julia, Michelle, Guy, Michael, Jonas and Katarina (who introduced me to starfish-phobia) for keeping us entertained.

March 31st: The First (Treetop) Barbecue of the Summer

P1040749Back home in the UK, one particular event always indicates the start of summer, and never mind fiddling with the clocks or the wearing of shorts.  Whether early in a March heatwave or late in May’s eventual surrender to warmth, our goodbye to winter is always indicated by the first barbecue of the year.  So this year, as the UK currently clings to winter in an inversely proportional way to how Bron and I are clinging on to life out in China, our first barbecue carried an inevitable Chinese feel.

Our ‘Tree-top Villa’ in the mountainous Moganshan region was just that – one of about 30 villas bordering a narrow valley, positioned high up overlooking the trees. Each with its own barbecue, hot tub and personal (ish) host. Lillian, our host, performed an admirable job, succumbing to the many demands of Isaac, Chong, Bron and I without complaint as we attempted to relax amongst the trees.

SAM_0584‘Naked Retreats’ (please note: not ‘nudist’ retreats) offers its guests the opportunity to spend a few days away from Shanghai’s relentless pressure to ‘Do Something’ by choosing instead to do absolutely nothing, which is pretty much what we did. Shunning the available activities such as bike riding, hiking, archery and incongruously, Land Rover driving, we chose to spend our time popping in and out of the hot tub, ambling around and of course, having our first barbecue of the year.

Three hours from Shanghai, the Naked Retreat resort is a staggeringly effective use of a landscape, making use of nature to provide its guests with a unique, eco-friendly experience.  March has given us a few fantastic weekends, and this one no different (despite losing at majiang to a very sleepy Isaac).

I am curious, though, as to how such a relaxing, effortless weekend can leave us all feeling so tired…