Sunday, 4 December 2011

Back in Time Melaka

Melaka is a very attractive destination for tourists from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The reason is simple, the place is very pretty and the food options are immense!

Let's start with a bit of History. Melaka has been a very active settlement over the age. Before the 15th century the Chineese used it as a trading stopover on their way to Africa. The Portuguese seized the town in the 16th century and stayed there for a couple hundred years, then the Dutch took control before the British sometime in the 19th century until the Independence of the country in 1957. The architecture is very much influenced by the different waves of settlers and the place is protected under the UNESCO world heritage.

The food is great and we had a taste of Chinese sweet delicacies, local chicken curries, the unmissable chicken tandoori with naan set is my all time favourite! We found a place with triple cheese naan, double cheese and garlic or potato naan! Usually a meal for 2 costs us around the 6 GBP mark - it could go wrong but in 3 months we havn't had food poisoning yet ;-)

As the place is very chilled out and we are approaching the end of the trip, we are finding it a bit difficult to make our way to museums. However we followed the local tourists' steps and went on a trishaw ride (a bike with a sidecar decorated with fake flowers and pumping music!) and on a local boat trip. We've also discovered a card game suited for 2 people and spent a few hours playing gin rummy, Nic was pretty good at the start but I think I've found a good technique now and I'm much better - ha ha!

Before we arrived we read in the Lonely Planet about a Kungfu master breaking coconuts with his finger. Last night, on our way to have dinner we saw him preparing his show and decided to watch for a short while. The show started and Master Ho was on about how great and strong he was. He then asked tourists in the public where they were from and how they had heard about him - Lonely Planet of course! He kept on going for a while and eventually asked me the same question. He must have liked my beard and asked me to be his assistant for his act. We were hungry but could wait a few minutes. What we had not realised is that he was trying to sell a pain relieving lotion and that was the main focus of the time we spent there. After selling a first set of lotions at a discounted rate, he finally pierced a coconut with his powerful index finger - I admit it was quite impressive. Western tourists left and local tourists for some reason were still captivated by his speech and he went on to sell a second batch of spray lotion this time. I was still unfortunately involved as his assistant at this point and could see Nic and Tora getting very agitated (hungry!!). Eventually, 1h30min after we arrived, he broke a second coconut with his elbow and we made our swift getaway while we had a chance! The only good thing about it is that I left with a free lotion.. we still have to see whether it actually works though.

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Kuala Lumpur

We were up quite early the next day to catch a bus to Kuala Lumpur (KL), arriving around lunchtime. We spent the day getting used to our busier surroundings and then met up with the others in the evening. We liked the vibe of the place straight away, a contrast from the highlands - busy and modern with lots of sky scrapers and technology. I wasn't feeling very well the next day, so we took it fairly easy with a walk around Chinatown (where we were staying) and Little India in the morning before meeting the others at the large, smart shopping mall below the Petronas Towers. We spent the day at the cinema and mall before heading back for a quiet evening. The next day involved a trip up the radio tower at 421 metres for an evening sunset view. It was a bit cloudy at first but at dusk when the city lights illuminated it was a great sight to see.

The next day involved a lot of walking around to see city sights, including KL Bird Park which was really good. We saw lots of species of bird such as parrot, hornbill, peacock, eagle etc. Next stop was the planetarium cinema for a 20 min showing then onto the National Museum which was quite impressive and very informative, especially about the history of our next stop, Melaka.

In the end we decided to stay on an extra day in KL to go up the Petronas twin towers which were temporarily closed, luckily for us opening on 1st December. We arrived ridiculously early to ensure a first-come, first-served ticket to the top where we secured a 9am visit. The towers had been refurbished which was evident as everything was very polished and modern. It was definitely worth staying around for, we enjoyed the experience and views from the 86th floor!


Cameron Highlands

We caught an early bus from Penang to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands, arriving around midday. The temperature was much cooler here as it's higher ground and by the evening time we were freezing and it was pouring with rain! At this point we were an established group of 7 for the time being so in the evening we met up with Steph, Tora, Jon, Mark and Laura for dinner and to plan the next day. Bastien, Steph, Tora, Jon and I decided on a half day trip involving a forest walk and visit to a tea plantation, the done thing in the region, as it is famous for mass producing tea. The landscape is green and hilly and reminded us slightly of Sapa in Vietnam. First we took a walk (more like a hike) in 'Mossy Forest' and it certainly was that - and very damp too! We then headed to the 'Boh' tea plantation main factory for a look at the tea making process and of course to sample the wares, which were very tasty. Best cup of tea for a long time! Evening time we all met up for dinner and drinks...!

The next day, Bastien, Mark and I were the only ones up for another walk so we followed one of the 'easy' trails in our guidebook. We walked for about 2 and a half hours, mostly through forest, some of which was a bit overgrown and steep. Once we reached the road we decided to head to another tea plantation which was another 5k away. We reached the entrance then managed to hitch a ride in the back of a truck to the top of the hill which was handy! Obviously there was more delicious tea and scone sampling involved at this point and then the start of the possibly long walk back as there is no bus service from there to Tanah Rata, where we were staying. Thankfully we only had to walk about 2k before a very kind Malaysian couple picked us up and drove us back. Funnily enough they were even staying at our guesthouse - in the room next door! Evening was fairly relaxed as we were pretty tired from the walk.


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

First steps in Malaysia

I must start this post by mentioning how the people we have met in Malaysia so far are genuinely nice, friendly and helpful. It doesn't matter what we are after, we're having no hassle at all. The second thing I cannot insist enough about is the food. There are loads of options depending on the style you prefer. The country has been built over the years with influence from China, Malaysia, India and Britain. The result is phenomenal on your plate!

Langkawi, the most northern island along the west coast of Malaysia's mainland was our first stop. Tax free heaven for the locals it was our chocolate heaven. We managed to find a large selection of chocolate (including Cadbury's!) which we had not had much previously on our trip. The island is quite large and we decided to hire a car with Steph and Tora, the girls we had met in Laos 6 weeks ago, and go and explore. We stopped at some waterfalls, went to a viewpoint and overlooked the island from the top of a tower sitting at 900m above sea level and then headed to a secluded beach for the sunset. We drove over 120km that day and did most of it with the water light on the dashboard on... We were lucky not to break down.. We spent the next day relaxing on the beach with the girls and a bunch of people they had met before.

We arrived in Penang yesterday after a painful 3 hours journey by catamaran. The sea was rough and we/I were/was suffering from a late night the night before. After checking into our hotel and enjoying a revival shower we recovered from the hard day by eating one of the best meals I've had so far!: mutton roti, fresh cheese naan bred and a plate full of rice, curry chicken, tandoori chicken, egg in curry sauce and cabbage curry. 24h later I'm still not hungry!

As we discovered today whilst walking around Georgetown, Penang is a very interesting place. In the same area we found an anglican church, a catholic church, 3 Chinese temples, 1 Hindu temple, 2 mosques. The mix of culture is everywhere and everyone lives in peace with one another, a great model of humanity! Penang is also known as the South East Asian Silicon Valley and there are loads of cheap gadgets. All in all, it is a great place where tradition meets modernity!

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Koh Tao

We arrived in Koh Tao early the next day after an overnight boat. Koh Tao is a popular place to do scuba diving, something which Bastien was keen to do so we spent the first day looking around for a good diving company to do the course with. We found a place called Big Blue Diving which looked lively and right on the beach, had a chat with an instructor about the 3 day open water diving course and at this point I was somehow persuaded to do the course as well, even though I didn't intend to do so as I wasn't a big fan of water, let alone being metres underneath it! So that afternoon we started the theory for the course which continued the following morning. After lunch we headed for the (very cold) pool to learn some skills and get used to the equipment. After an unsuccessful and chilly start I felt like giving up but thankfully our instructor was very patient and helped me until I managed to complete all the necessary skills.

The next morning was some final theory work and a multiple choice test which our group of 6 passed with no problems. After lunch we headed out to sea for the first two proper dives. I was particularly nervous but managed to push myself to get over it and did the first dive to about 8 metres. It was a great experience - so many different types of fish and coral - it's like entering a completely new world! After a short break we headed back down to 12 metres. We all really enjoyed it and couldn't wait for the deeper dives the next day.

We were up for 6:30am on the final day and got straight onto the boat and headed out to the dive site for two 18 metre dives. It was brilliant, even better than the day before. At the end of the final dive we even saw a huge green turtle, apparently the biggest our instructor had ever seen, which was a great way to end. For me anyway - I was very happy with my achievement considering I wasn't a fan of water! Evening time our group met up to celebrate becoming certified divers with a few drinks and a viewing of the dvd of our dive which was a perfect way to end. However, Bastien loved the diving so much that he signed up for the 2 day advanced diving course starting the next day!

The advanced course consisted of another 5 dives, the deepest of which being 30 metres! You also have to master certain skills such as buoyancy control and navigation. Also included was a night dive - apparently you couldn't see much though (unsurprisingly)! The highlight for Bastien was visiting a ship wreck at 25 metres where you could swim through the captain's cabin.

Overall we both really enjoyed the diving experience, it was one of the highlights of the trip. That evening we met up with some of the people from our course again for a final send off as we were heading for Langkawi in Malaysia the following day.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Back in Thailand

We spent the morning wandering round Phuket town feeling pleased to be back in Thailand. In the afternoon we took the couple of hours boat journey to Koh Phi Phi where we would spend the next couple of days. Ko Phi Phi is a small island with no roads so the only way to get round is by foot or bicycle (there was the occasional motorbike also). The high season was only just starting yet the island was very busy - popular with both backpackers and holiday makers. That evening we met up with my friend from Bristol, Chris and we went out for dinner and to watch some Thai kickboxing with him and some others staying at his hostel. The bar invited people to try out the boxing so two of the guys we were with gave this a go which was quite amusing! We then admired the neon party lights from afar on a quieter area of the beach into the early hours - Ko Phi Phi is quite the party place!

A late start the next day and we headed up to the viewpoint in the middle of the island - worth the sweaty hike to the top as the view was brilliant. Ko Phi Phi really is a pretty paradise. We then spent the rest of the day at Long beach, a few km's from the town centre, which is a quiet beach with the softest sand and clearest water I've ever seen. A Thai massage in the evening after a busy day...!

Up early the next morning for a snorkelling trip where a small boat took us to a few good snorkelling areas around the island and also to 'The Beach' at Maya Bay, on a small island next to Phi Phi. This was my first snorkelling experience and I really enjoyed it - lots of different fish, incredible to view the underwater world. On the way back we stopped at 'Monkey Island' where we saw loads of monkeys all hoping to get fed bananas by the tourists! Afternoon was again spent on Long beach as it was so nice there.

The next day we took a boat to Koh Lanta where everything was noticeably quieter as soon as we arrived. Some areas even looked deserted as the island is bigger and much more spread out. We took to a very relaxed pace on this island, especially as the weather wasn't so good. We spent the next day resting and watching films! However, the day after we decided to hire a motorbike to explore. We covered a large amount of the island, stopping at some viewpoints and for drinks along the way. We visited Chris again in the afternoon as he had also moved onto Lanta. In the evening were the loudest thunderstorms I've ever experienced, with the heavy rain to go with it - it was quite scary actually! Luckily we'd decided to stay in our bungalow for the evening!

Continuing with the relaxed theme, we headed to Railay the next day. Railay is a peninsula close to mainland Krabi, which is only reachable by boat. It has a similar feel to Ko Phi Phi but on a smaller and much quieter scale. We spent two days here with a couple of lovely beaches surrounded by imposing cliffs, popular with rock climbers. We are currently in Krabi Town awaiting an overnight boat journey where we will arrive in Ko Tao tomorrow.


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Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon

We arrived in Saigon, as it is named by the locals, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it is called for official purposes, after a 6 hour journey on a sleeper bus. Reaching the outskirts of the city was pretty quick but making our way to the centre appeared to be a more complicated task across very heavy traffic of mainly motorbikes. We had booked a triple room in the backpackers area as Baptiste would arrive the next day. In the 10 seconds after we stepped into the room we had already heard 3 horns and the continuous background noise from the bars, restaurants and people walking around. We stepped out and asked for a room on the back of the building, it was not going to be a problem.

The next morning B arrived as planned, he avoided the taxi scams from the airport (not using the meter and offering a price up to 4x the normal fair, charging the airport access fee twice) and joined us for breakfast. He was jetlagged but we still went for a wander. By 13h he was gone and made his way back to the hotel for an afternoon nap. Nic and I walked a bit longer past Notre Dame Cathedral, the old post office with colonial style. We were even interviewed about tourism by a group of local students. In the evening, like most evenings in HCMC, we started by 'taking the apero' at the street bar beside the hotel on some child-sized plastic chairs. That way we were very close to the road, there were neon lights coming from all the shops, the temperature was heavy and we were all feeling very far away from home!

Saigon is a mix of old and new, colonial buildings versus brand new skyscrapers, very rich and very poor: the only place we saw Porsche and real Gucci in one street and people walking bare foot with a couple of baskets hanging from a wooden stick selling cheap food in the next. It was disturbing. We headed to the war museum and saw the atrocities of the war, visited the presidential palace, which was partially blown up during the war. We also went on a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels that were used by the Viet Minhs to hide from the French and later by the Viet Congs to resist against the Americans.

On our last day we went to the Sheraton hotel for a cocktail happy hour session on the roof top terrace. We had a pleasant sunset and a couple of Mojitos :-)

On Monday we took our flights from HCMC to Phuket via Singapore and landed on time. We had heard of reliability issues about Jet Star, Easyjet's Asian cousin, but everything ran surprisingly smoothly. We booked our boat tickets to Ko Phi Phi from the airport and arrived to our GH despite the taxi driver being slightly lost. It was all so easy, for once!

latest pics: click here

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Made in Vietnam

1- For locals, buses don't stop at the bus stop, they only slow down,

2- Anything can go on a motorbike: TV, washing machines, eggs, pigs, chickens, family of 5...,

3- Many Vietnamese women wear matching pyjama-like outfits to do their day to day tasks,

4-Motorbike driver: 'Motorbike?', Us: 'No thank you!' Motorbike driver - quieter: 'Marijuana?', Us: 'No thank you!',

5- The larger the vehicle the faster it can legally go,

6- The horn or flashing lights don't mean 'Please go' but 'I'm coming, get out of my way!!',

7- Portions of chips are ridiculously small,

8- Karaoke is unfortunately an institution and Karaoke-like videos are shown in most buses,
9- A rain shower can last up to 7 hours and can cause some serious damage,

10- The concept of quality of service goes out of the window once money has changed hands (not always, hopefully!),

11- On the beach, 'Sun glasses?', 'No thank you!', On the street '3D religious pictures? wild animals 3D pictures?', 'No thank you!'

12- Finding an official copy of a film/book can be tricky as fakes are almost everywhere,

13- Fake Gucci shoes, fake Ralf Lauren or Lacoste Polo shirt, fake Levi's trousers, fake The North Face bags... Fake is beautiful!

14- Local maths skills are up to scratch here and food bills are never wrong (unlike neighbouring Laos),

15- Night buses are built with local people in mind, Westerners might feel somewhat cramped!