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!

 

May 3rd: Biting Fish and Propellors (Philippines part 1)

Coron TownThe explanation for why Bronwen now has three fish bite marks on her legs is a good one: “The tourists here feed bread to the fish,” explains our tour guide, “and because your wife is so white, the fish mistook her for white bread”. Little consolation for Bron, peacefully snorkeling her way through the many coral reefs off Busuanga island in the Philippines.

Our trip began in the capital, Manila: in the district of Makita featuring a distinctly Southern American feel, with Cuban bars, Mexican restaurants and plenty of street tacos available.  But when it’s so hot outside (we managed to time our visit with the hottest day of the year so far: 38 degrees) the inclination to go wandering  is not so great.  We declined the horse-drawn carriages and offer to explore the old town by “chariot” (Segway), instead opting for darting from shaded cover to shaded cover as we explored the Fort Santiago and cobbled streets of Intramuros on foot.

No jet engines for us

No jet engines for us

I had a sneaking suspicion that the plane to take us from Manila to the island of Busuanga wasn’t going to be huge, but I still expected it to have jet engines. Unfortunately, propellers were the only mode of propulsion on offer.

We landed in the smallest airport I’ve ever encountered*, with luggage being handed out directly rather than put on any kind of conveyor belt.  No security gates or checkpoints on the way out of airport, unless we’re including cattle grids.

Our shuttle bus took us directly to our hotel in Coron, the main town on Busuanga island (although confusingly Coron Town faces rather than resides on Coron island).

Bron on our island-hopping boat

Bron on our island-hopping boat

The last time I went snorkeling was somewhere off the south coast of the UK, where the sea hides its treasure in the murk, and the icy cold water limits time spent in the sea to a minimum.  If there is an opposite, the Philippines provides it.  Pristine, almost translucent waters, mile after mile of coral and a sea temperature of around 25 degrees. Our ‘island hopping’ day trip from Coron took us to saltwater lakes, white sand beaches and coral abundant with fish (with some fish more dangerous than others).

After a few days in Coron town, we joined ‘Tao Philippines’ for a five day tour, fully deserving of its own blog entry.

SunsetFollowing the exertion of 4 nights sleeping in the semi-rough (outside, but at least we had mattresses of sorts), we headed for the luxury of an island resort for the next few days.  El Nido resort on Lagen island, here are a few tips for you:

  • Firstly, do not ask tired, impatient, slightly grumpy guests ‘Do you have anything metallic in your bags?’ immediately upon arrival.  Yes.  Plenty, thanks.  The security guard, a little perturbed by my hands-off, ‘Please help yourself to my bags since I’m not going to start unpacking them for you’ stance eventually let us pass.
  • Secondly, dusk heralds the arrival of mosquitos and other flying creatures, especially those drawn towards the light(s).  Covering up your food may help to prevent your dishes from featuring insect surprise as a bonus.  I suspect the arrival of the swarm of bees on our last night wasn’t your fault, but maintaining a ‘Nothing to see here’ approach doesn’t work when they bounce off hands and faces and greet diners head-on in the meat dishes as they attempt to avail of your buffet.
  • Lastly, promising to arrange our transport off the island but failing to do so, and not even telling me you’d failed to do so, wasn’t a great experience. But thanks ultimately for the free shuttle bus service to Puerto Princessa.  I won’t hold you responsible for our driver’s obsession with Modern Talking’s 80’s classic- “Brother Louie”‘.  After the 6th remix, I could keep quiet no longer. He swapped the CD for his other one  -‘Air Supply’ (seek them out, kids).

Our last night in the Phillipines was back in Manila, this time in a hotel with bedrooms cleverly disguised as bathrooms. Saloon-style swing doors into the toilet area with a uniform tiled floor throughout: an open, very cosy layout.  Not somewhere you could share a room with a co-worker.

Public transport in Manila

Public transport in Manila

We’ve had an amazing, unique, couple of weeks away. Even for a non-beach person such as me, the Philippines offers an incredible array of sights and activities to keep its guests fully occupied. And to think we visited less than 1% of the 7000 or so available islands.  My body hasn’t been exposed to this much sun since Butlins, Minehead, circa 1982.  I am no longer pasty white (although I’ll give it two more weeks until normal service is resumed).

We were only 3.5 hours flying time from from Shanghai and yet the natural beauty of the landscape, the cleanliness of the sea and the lack of any air pollution made us feel like we were on a different planet.

*This before our temporary passage through El Nido airport, so small as to necessitate a holding pattern for ground transport, lest they cross the road out of the airport at the same time a plane attempts to land on it.

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.