Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Malaysia – The first Harry Potter costume

Hello everyone!

Jason left Sunday morning, so I spent my hungover (you would be after that Around the World drink) day in the beautiful Lake Gardens. It’s reminiscent of Central Park in New York, but you are always aware that it is man-made.

On the way I walked past some wonderful old buildings in the Islamic district. The architecture has been very different in each Malaysian city I have visited, which makes it a very interesting place. The centrepiece of this part of KL is the national mosque. At this point it was closed to visitors, so I went through the big park.

The main attraction here is the world’s largest bird park. That may be, but I prefer to eat birds than to stare at them, and I’m certainly not doing the latter for £4. Instead, I popped across the road to an orchid park, which housed some very pretty flowers. I’m beginning to develop a strange interest in looking at flowers and feeling happy inside. That was free – no one was at the desk for me to pay my 1 ringgit (20p). Bargain!

I returned to the mosque after seeing the national monument, which is your bog-standard men-doing-work-lifting-the-flag-yay-we-are-free monument which many countries seem to possess. I’m wondering if new countries just outsource to one company who make all of these and they change the faces and the language at the bottom. I returned to the mosque as non-Muslim tourists were allowed inside for an hour from 3pm.

I’ve been in a mosque before – one of my better travel stories that – but this one required you put on a special gown before entry. As you can see below, that turned me into a cross between Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. As you would expect from an important religious building, the inside was lavishly decorated and rather pretty. Apparently a non-Muslim must convert if they marry a Malay who is Muslim, which may help to explain the lack of mixed couples walking the streets. Certainly relative to Korea, at least.

I spent the night hanging out with two very pretty Swedish girls from my hostel, and am now typing this in KL’s airport. So what do I think of Malaysia? As usual, I don’t feel as if I’ve seen enough of the country. Jason was a great person to do this trip with – from his fluency in the native languages to his passion to try as much local food as possible, the trip was infinitely more fun with him onboard.

In short, I like Malaysia. It may not have captivated me in the way that a few countries have, but it was a very nice transition between living in Korea and returning home. The people are friendly, our destinations had a lot to offer and the cuisine was very good. It has similarities with Thailand, but that wouldn’t do it justice – all I can say is that it’s a very unique country, and that you should go and explore it for yourself. So yes, definitely go – just not during rainy season...

Love you all


Malaysia – The first monkeys

Hello everyone!

We woke up fresh on Saturday and headed over to a famous religious spot for Hindus. It’s called the Batu Caves, and the story behind it is...umm...well I don’t remember, but it is a site of pilgrimage for Hindus across the globe. And a cultural way to kick off our Saturday.

The cave itself wasn’t as big as I anticipated, but the formations and stalactites were remarkable. This, however, did not even come close to the highlight of this little expedition. The highlights have four legs, big mouths, and were running and jumping across the 272 steps you take up to the top.


There were scores of them as well. All running around, chasing after each other and fighting. It was amazing to be so close to so many of them. They were clearly used to the attention. A husband kept trying to take a picture of his wife feeding one, but the monkey kept on grabbing the food and running off before he had a chance to click his camera. Hilarious.

Due to the diminutive nature of the cave complex, we had a bit of time on our hands. We filled this the way a lot of tourists fill their time in KL –retail therapy. This city is world-renowned as a bit of a shopping mecca, and Jason knew a place to go. It’s called F.O.S. It’s a discount clothing store. The F stands for FULL, the O is for OF, and the S...well, it’s a naughty word. You know it. Go on, say it out loud. Right now. Dare you.

After getting my apam balik fill (not as good as the Borneo version), we did more bartering in Chinatown before it was time for food. We took a couple of British lads from the hostel along with us, and once again had bat kut teh. It’s alright, but not the best thing I’ve eaten out here. We then tried our bar again. The previous night may have been a high school/student night, as it was a lot more serene. I had a drink called Around the World. Listen to this. A long glass of...vodka. Whisky. Pernod. Brandy. Rum. Gin. All of these, topped off with...Carlsberg. For 15 ringgit. That’s 3 quid. 6,000 won.

Randomly, there were a few Welsh guys about, so I spent my night chatting to them. Until I ran out of money. Bad night for budgeting due to the relatively expensive cost of alcohol, but it’s nice to have a few drinks once in a while. Time for bed, and time to dream of monkeys.

Love you all


Malaysia – The first view of the Petronas Towers

Hello everyone!

Time to move on from Melaka, and onto the big city in Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur. Our hostel was in the Chinatown district, so after a 90 minute bus north we hopped on a busy local bus to get there. We then discovered one of the things that KL is famous for – traffic. And lots of it. We were stuck for quite a while on the same road. On a crowded bus with minimal air-con. Which is not fun with a 22kg backpack strapped to your back.

Chinatown itself is a bustling area, full of shops selling real goods for cheap prices. Laugh laugh. Fakes galore! It’s a great place if, like me, you really don’t care about the name attached to your clothes. Bartering is always good fun as well. One shirt, one pair of shoes, one pair of shades, one scarf, one belt, and a lot of people telling me to go away for demanding unreasonable prices.

As it had been almost two hours, Jason was hungry, so we dived into a local shop for Chinese food. And a coconut to drink, naturally. The weather, contrary to everywhere previous on this trip, was stunning. Hot, sunny, and pretty clear. This forced our hand a bit, so we decided to knock out the major tourist attractions that afternoon and evening.

After negotiating the metro system (not the easiest task), we proceeded up the KL tower. Apparently it’s the fifth tallest building in the world. It does seem rather large, but doesn’t significantly stick out of the skyline the way superscrapers do in other cities, such as the CN Tower in Toronto. This is because KL is home to numerous rather tall buildings. The reason we went up the KL tower was to get a good view of the famous ones – the Petronas Towers.

These are the tallest twin towers in the world. I don’t know if that is post-2001, but I don’t remember the World Trade Centre towers ever having a bridge connecting them. The bridge is at the 42nd floor, which we thought makes it rather pointless as an attraction. Instead, we stayed up the KL tower for sunset (which didn’t really happen, damn clouds ruining our fun again), and then walked over to see the illuminated towers from the base. It is a pretty impressive sight.

We then ate something called bat kut teh. No, I couldn’t pronounce it properly either. Jason had been raving about this, so was particularly excited. To people in Korea reading this – think kam ja tang, but it’s belly meat on the bone, not meat from the spine. To other people – meat on the bone in a soup. Good stuff. Ate too many chillies though.

Our hostel had a bar at ground level, so we explored that. For about 10 minutes. It was eerily similar to a bar/club we went to a fair bit in uni called Queen of Hearts (or Tarts, whatever you prefer). Partly this was because everybody seemed very young. In that most of them looked a fair bit younger than 18. Feeling like old men, we called it quits. We had another busy day lined up for the Saturday.

Love you all


Malaysia - The first rice ball

Hello everyone!

Even a foot massage didn’t cure our pains from the mountain. What wasn’t going to aid our recovery was a morning flight to peninsular Malaysia. We were flying to Kuala Lumpur (KL), but that city is our final stop on tour. Next stop was a 90 minute bus journey south – Melaka.

Melaka has a lot of history behind it. It used to be a key trading port during the colonial era, and has been owned by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British before Malaysian independence. This history is visible in the layout of the city, and the architecture within it. It certainly has a European vibe to it. From the canal flowing through the centre to the curvature and colour of the church and hall in St. Paul’s Square, you get the sense that this was a place to be hundreds of years ago.

Though not a big port now (thanks to Singapore’s close proximity), Melaka still has a lot to attract a visitor. Museums abound, though we opted not to go in any. Not even the Museum of Enduring Beauty. We did check out the last large remnant of the Portuguese era, Porta Santiago, and the St. Francis Xavier Church. A little bit on the morbid and spooky side, especially in the dank weather that we were currently experiencing.

Another reason was the food. One of the region’s – and indeed Malaysia’s – famous dishes is called chicken rice ball. Picture it, and you probably have it right. Chicken with...balls of rice. Those are a little strange – they seem to have a slight skin, and the whole thing seems to have the texture of a slightly soft potato. Still, the dish was less than a quid. I would eat that a lot if I lived here.

We also had Peranakan food, cendol, and even stepped away from the Malay onslaught to have Indian food. You eat the rice with your hands – something I will have to get used to next year. On the final morning we ate laksa, which is a spicy noodle soup.

But its often the little things and the random experiences that make your memories in a place, and this was certainly the case for me in Melaka. Jason had gone to a museum, the content of which was similar to the one I saw in Singapore. So in addition to buying souvenirs and trying to repack, I went to get a haircut. I was considering this anyway, but the deal was sealed when the hostel owner said I ‘look like shit’ in the morning.

I was directed to a very local place on the other side of the river. I walked in and was greeted by a look of shock from the haircutter. Luckily, there was another worker there who wasn’t struck by my presence, and he set to work chopping my curly mop. And giving me a shave. And giving me what I can only describe as a neck crack. ‘Softly...softly...softly...CRACK’, as he crunches my head to the side. He claimed to be a pro at it, and I guess he is as I’m still alive. He was a lot of fun to talk to, and even claimed that he has a poster somewhere in London. I’ll have a look, but I’m not optimistic of finding his face.

Love you all


Malaysia - The first 4,000m peak

Hello everyone!

The main reason we had come to this part of Malaysia stands 4,095m above sea level. We were going to climb one of (in spite of my claims on the video) the tallest mountains in Southeast Asia – Mount Kinabalu.

The 8km trek up to the top is a two-day job, so we set off early in the morning in a taxi, the driver of which played incessant house music for the two hour journey. We were greeted with...rain. I think it has rained every day so far. Our guide, who I mistakenly called Sajid for the duration of the expedition even though his name was more like Asheed, met us and we were soon heading up. And up.

The reason it is a two-day trek is because Mount Kinabalu is supposed to be at its most spectacular when the sun rises. Consequently, you sleep after 6km of the hike and wake up early to scale the remainder in time for the sun to break out from under the horizon. The first 3.5km were a doddle. After we had our lunch – much of which we spent trying to feed a squirrel – things began to become tricky.

The reasons are twofold. In addition to the lactic acid steadily building in our legs from ascending, the air was becoming thinner with every step. This does affect your climb – we were becoming breathless at an alarming speed. Even so, the vegetation and flora was still beautiful.

This stopped as we passed the 3,000m mark, to be replaced with something out of the Lion King. Everything changed to black and white. The tree trunks were a light grey, the rocks a threatening black. We got up to our resting point, had a freezing shower due to the lack of hot water, ate and then went to bed. At 8.30pm. The rest of our room was filled with eager Japanese tourists who went to bed at this time, and we were obliged to follow suit. Especially as we were waking up at 2am...

Or so I thought. No. The Japanese were even more eager than I thought. 1.37am was when our light was switched on. Knackered. Coffee to go with another big, high-carb meal. Head torch on, and at 2.45am we’re off.

Bit harder this time. To be expected – the higher you go, the tougher the level of difficulty. Ropes were required to pull ourselves up various faces of the mountain. Fun, but challenging in the pitch black. Soon enough, we were scrambling up the final craggy rocks. 4,095m. Conquered.

So now to shiver in the cold whilst waiting for the sun to rise. Except...it kinda didn’t. There was a lot of cloud cover. So what happened was the other tips of the mountain suddenly became clearer in our vision. This was still a spectacular sight. We may not have seen the perfect view, but we still saw the top of the mountain in its magnificent splendour.

Of course, what comes up must come down. So we had an 8km descent ahead of us. Using that rope. My knees aren’t great anyway, so this quickly became a test of wills. We tried rolling down but it didn’t really work. Our guide would have stopped such tomfoolery, but he had disappeared. He was there for the most difficult part – sidestepping along an edge holding only a rope – but that was the last we saw of him.

It could be argued that the latter part of the hike was the hardest. In addition to the pains in our knees and calf muscles, it began to rain. Hard. I fell over twice, Jason once. Trees had fallen into our path between our ascent and descent. We made it down the final 6k in three hours. On the way, a different tour guide stopped us and asked if we were twins (maybe I do look Asian after all), and we chanted Dae-han-min-guk at a group of Koreans. They loved that.

And it’s fair to say that we loved the hike. The people we met were fun, the mountain was beautiful, and it was very nice to get in some physical exertion amongst all of the food we have been eating. It’s the highest place I have ever stood on our planet’s surface, and is one of the prettiest.

Love you all


Thursday, 9 December 2010

Malaysia - the first apam balik

Hello everyone!

So after another attempt of trying durian - and again failing to like it one little bit - it was time to say 'sayonara' to Singapore. Onto a new country, and one I know very little about. Many people who travel in this part of the world travel to four countries - Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Many people, like me, will also have been to Singapore. But many people miss out the country in the middle - Malaysia. So I thought I would be different and check it out.

My initial research about the place brought a bit of a shock to me. Malaysia is TWO islands. There is peninsular Malaysia, and also Malaysian Borneo to the east. The latter was our first destination for five days, before flying over to the mainland for another five. Jason was joining me a day later - he is lazy and the flight I was on sold out - so I flew solo to the big city, Kota Kinabalu (KK), on Saturday night.

Another thing I didn't realise was that Malaysia - well Borneo from my experience thus far - has been significantly influenced by Islam. Lots of headscarves, not much skin exposed, and no need to put a halal sign in a restaurant.

KK is a lot more developed than I anticipated it to be. Worryingly, Borneo as whole seems a lot more developed than I would have ever imagined. Lots of construction site, lots of modern roads, and copious numbers of diggers. It's to do with the palm oil business, apparently.

I witnessed this whilst travelling inland to witness a bamboo river race. Transport is different here. Not the actual method - you still use a bus - but the schedule. In that there is none. You wait until the bus is full before you leave. If there is one seat free, the bus will not budge. Thus I waited over an hour in a bus chatting to a Malaysian guy before we got moving, and then discovered upon arriving at my destination that the races were a further 20km bus ride away. I wasn't waiting.

Though I did spend my afternoon waiting - waiting for lazy Jason to arrive. I had checked out the port area - complete with nearby Korean restaurant (I can't escape!) - and luckily returned just before the rain started to lash down. The rain is predictable, yet also very unpredictable. The predictable part is to get out of harm's way as soon as you feel a single droplet. Often it has dispersed within 20 minutes. But what a 20 minutes. People who complain about rain in Manchester - come to Southeast Asia in monsoon season.

We hit up the main night market after dusk. We walked through the mass of fruit and vegetables to get to the meaty section. Smoke billows out of the numerous barbecues, all cooking food that delights your senses. You grab a seat and then go to each stall to tell them what you desire. Our meal was pure gluttony. Snapper. Crayfish. King prawns. Satay. Chicken wings. We were glad they had forgotten the rice.

Jason then suggested we get dessert (!), as he had a few ideas. Unlike many Asian countries, the assortment of Malay desserts seems to be very good – mainly because they don’t commonly use rice, and they commonly use sugar. Jason’s favourite is called goreng pisang, which is a banana in batter. We also had cendol, which contains random foodstuffs such as crushed ice, coconut cream, red beans and green stuff which is the actual cendol. I, however, hit gold with a different dessert. The name of it is apam balik. It is two thick pancakes with a sweet, nutty paste smothered inbetween. You can buy three – THREE – for one ringgit. That’s 20p. It tastes delicious.

Everything thus far has been delicious. The volume of food allowed us to fall asleep very early, which was a good thing – we had a big trek to undertake the next day.

Love you all