Saturday, April 30, 2005


Hello from the Cameron Highlands. No, I am not back in Scotland as the name might suggest, but in central Malaysia. The region is between 1000m and 2000m and so has a continually moderate climate all year round. This was noticed by the British who decided the place was perfect for growing tea and so set up many tea plantations in the area. They also brought in a large number of Tamils to work on the plantations, the effects of which can still be seen today in the region where about half the population is of south Indian descent. As well as the tea plantations (they also grow some very European plants here that one really wouldn't expect in this part of the world, such as water cress, cabbage and even strawberries) the Highlands are also home to some wonderfully lush upland forests. All these factors make the Cameron Highlands a very popular destination for Malaysians to get away from the oppressive heat of the coasts, and also for foreigners who appreciate the ideal hiking conditions.

So I have been spending the past two days traipsing around the hills and forests (sometimes getting slightly lost in the process) surrounding the little resort town of Tanah Rata with a genial German named Andreas. I have also discovered that distances can be deceptive when trekking. On one hike to the top of a nearby mountain a sign informing me that there were less than 3km left to go elicited the mental note: "great, not more than 90 minutes to go". Two and a half hours of clambering over fallen trees; scrambling up sheer slopes with the aid of tree roots; and negotiating boggy swamps and we still weren't there. Still, the hiking has been immensely enjoyable as the moss-covered forests have a very primordial look to them (it's what I imagine Fangorn forest should look like). Plus the tea plantations that cover the steep hillsides are incredibly beautiful, the short, green bushes snaking along the contours of the slopes (hopefully Andreas will send me some pictures so that I can show you).

Well that's me pretty much done with peninsular Malaysia, which, truth be told, has been more interesting than I had thought, seeing as I have spent close to 4 weeks here already. But now it is onwards and upwards to Thailand.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Perhentian Paradise?

Just back from a few days of lounging on the Perhentians , the jewel of Malaysia's islands. They definitely deserve their reputation, as the waters surrounding the islands are limpid and full of corals (for the most part alive), fish, turtles and, the main reason why I wanted to go, sharks! Yay, I finally got to fulfill my ambition of swimming with sharks. Of course they weren't maneaters (they were blacktip reef sharks), but their sleek, streamlined forms give even the babies an extremely menacing look. It took until this morning and getting up ridiculously early ("you mean there's a 7 o'clock in the morning as well?!") but it was all worth it when I got to see 5 beautiful forms passing just a metre in front of me.

Snorkelling was my mainstay during the 3 days that I was there and I found it very difficult to tire of it, when with each new sortie I would spot a new species of fish or type of coral. I was amazed by the green turtles that would let us hover around them as they calmly grazed on the algae on the sea floor; or the little clownfish (i.e. Nemo) hiding in their anemones that would attack me if I got too close, undaunted by the fact that they couldn't possibly even harm me.

Although I enjoyed myself immensely I also experienced one of the saddest things of my journey so far. One night one of the people working at the hotel came to us (most people were lounging around by the dining area) and told us that a turtle was laying eggs on a beach on the other side of the island. Everybody was very excited by the news and decided to head over to witness it for themselves (the hotel was very small so there were only about a dozen of us). By the time we got to the beach there were already a fair number of people there and they had scared off the turtle without it being able to lay any eggs. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing. A couple of Dutch guys and I decided to stay on the beach for a bit and chill out and in the following hour 3 separate groups of locals came up to the beach in their small boats and proceeded to hunt for turtle eggs (which luckily weren't there). Even though this was a national park and there were 3 tourists poking their noses into their business and telling them they shouldn't be doing that they still persisted. Seeing the mercenary attitude of these people made me realise that the turtles have absolutely no chance at all of surviving here. It's sad to see such a disregard for such a noble creature, but worse still it's sad to see the victory of short-term materialism over long-term gain and responsibility. For if the egg hunters are too successful they will eradicate turtles from their waters, which will mean that there will be no more eggs for them to sell; but what's more, it will greatly reduce the number of tourists that will come and visit and bring their money with them. Of course it's easy for me to say sitting behind my computer, but it is something that must be addressed right now if there is to be any hope. I really don't want mine to be the last generation to see these beautiful animals in the wild.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Top That

I haven't quite made it to the sea yet as I have spent the past few days in Kota Bharu, capital of Malaysia's north-eastern Kelantan state. This area is recognised as being the most "Malay" in Malaysia; and it is true that if you only spent your time on the west coast, in KL and Melaka, then you would be excused for thinking that most Malaysians are of Chinese descent. But pop over to the east coast and it's a different story. During British colonial rule the east was neglected (it wasn't important from a trading point of view and it had no mineral resources) and so immigration was minimal, therefore the faces you find here are definitely Malay, and sharia rules. Well, when I say sharia rules it would be more correct to call it "sharia lite". Hijab is still very much the norm, but the younger generation does the bare minimum with only a token headscarf coupled with tight jeans and T-shirts; and beer is taboo for Malays, but that doesn't stop the Chinese from selling it.

Anyway, Kota Bharu is renowned as a bastion of Malay culture and so I decided to check it out. My favourite traditional Malay activity (it would be hard to call it either an art or a sport) is that of top spinning. The spinners have to launch these monster tops, each weighing in excess of 5kg, with the aid of a long cord onto a small platform, from where the successfully spinning tops are transferred to special holders. The winner of the contest is the one whose top spins the longest (which can be over 2 hours). Now this may sound easy (and I thought it was) but just attempting to lift one of these deceptively heavy tops makes you realise that a lot of skill is involved in just making the blighters spin.

Other arts include selat, the local martial art, although it is more like an intricate dance, especially as it is always performed to music; and of course music, which is usually heavily percussion based and, to my mind, rather monotonous. Traditional crafts include kite making and batik - a method of creating patterns on cloth using wax - which are both very pretty in a frilly sort of way. Still, it's important to get a bit of cultcha every now and again.

One thing that has amused me immensely over here has been the supermarkets. In them you can find all the classic Western merchandise (L'Oreal cosmetics, Kellog's cereals, Nescafe and so on) as well as products with a local flavour (durian cakes, dried cuttlefish and other delicacies). The really fun thing about them though is that they are incredibly overstaffed (something I'm sure my brother, the management consultant, would recommend the supermarket look at to maximise productivity). This morning when I went to buy a new deodorant (because after 7 months on the road even I couldn't kid myself any more) the staff outnumbered the customers by about 2 to 1, and as soon as you so much as looked at anything a lady would immediately rush up to you and try and help you in your deliberations. Personally I find it rather annoying as I like to mull over any purchases thoroughly and don't like feeling pressured, so I had to quickly grab the deodorant and make a mad dash for the checkout before the helpful ladies knew what was happening.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Welcome To The Jungle

Taman Negara national park is the pride of Malaysia. This large park contains the oldest primary rainforest in the world (estimated to be 130 million years old) and is home to such animals as the Malayan tiger, Asian elephants, tapirs and many more. All this means that Taman Negara gets about 80,000 tourists every year ... which is why I didn't bother going. Instead I visited Kenong Rimba national park. This small park borders Taman Negara, and therefore contains the same primary rainforest, however very few people have heard of it (even within Malaysia) and so it only gets about 2% of the number of tourists as Taman Negara. I only heard about the place through a chance encounter with a French couple in Mersing who told me about it and about the only company that is allowed to do tours into the park. Upon arriving at the Green Park Guesthouse (which was the name of the aforementioned company) I was told that the tour required a minimum of 2 people, which caused my heart to sink as the previous guests (upon looking in the visitors' log) had checked out a week before; actually they were the French couple I had met previously. This did not look good and I thought I would either have to wait ages for someone to come on the tour with me or I'd have to change my plans. I was in luck though as the next day an Irish couple came along and we had achieved quorum.

So the next day we set off for 3 days in the jungle, and although in that whole time we didn't see any big mammals, it was still immensely rewarding and great fun. The most interesting sights and activities centred around a huge limestone extrusion close to our base camp, which was almost 100m tall and maybe 4km around. Within it were many caves, many of them housing bats (either horseshoe or dusky fruitbats) and various other cave fauna specialised to living in dark conditions, from weird-looking spiders and centipedes to cave racer snakes and a plethora of cockroaches burrowing about in the guano. Apropos of guano, an important lesson learnt whilst exploring these caves: if you're in a cave housing bats, when you look up remember to keep your mouth shut! The limestone caves also contain the rock formations that give the park its name (from what I gather kenong rimba can be translated as "musical instrument"). There is a small cave that contains intricately fluted, hollow stalactites that produce perfect notes when tapped, almost like a natural xylophone. Seeing them alone was worth the trip.

Other activities included a "night-safari" and vine-sliding. The safari was our best chance of seeing animals both small and large, and although there were none of the latter there were plenty of the former. I had never seen so many spiders in my life. The leaf-litter was literally littered with them. Then the vine-sliding was probably one of the scariest things I've ever done: climbing over 20m to the top of a rocky outcrop, then swinging out by means of a vine to a suspended tree root, and then sliding all the way down. It's probably not that hard, but it's the fact that once you're on the root there's no way back, coupled with my absolute lack of upper-body strength that made it so hairy. Another thing I've discovered is that I sweat a lot. This doesn't really bother me from a personal hygiene point of view, but there is one significant drawback to it when in the jungle. Sweat contains salt, as I'm sure you all know, and that is one commodity that is in short supply in the jungle. Therefore when animals, and in the case large bees especially, find a ready supply of the stuff they swarm towards it. So whenever I sat down for more than a few minutes at a time I would begin to attract a large cloud of bees centred upon myself. Still, I only got stung once.

Anyway, I'm alive and I've made it back in one piece (apart from the copious amounts of blood siphoned off by the mozzies) and am heading off for the tranquil waters of the South China Sea (and the sandflies that inhabit its beaches).

Friday, April 15, 2005


One thing you'll notice when you come to Malaysia lah (and to a lesser extent in Singapore and Indonesia as well), is that the people are very friendly. Plus most of them speak English as well lah. The only problem is that they keep adding on "lah"s at the end of everything they say ... lah. OK, I'll stop there. It's really quite endearing though, and I've come to like it, plus it's less grating to the ear than err, umm and ahh. I've begun to use it myself, but it hasn't got the stage where I do it subconsciously, yet. I'm actually rather worried about the state of my own English when I finally get back home; I'm afraid it'll be some strange, bastardised mish-mash and no-one will be able to understand me. Still, I was prepared before I got here as I have some Malaysian friends, and so I wasn't completely confused.

I'm still in KL, though I will be off tomorrow. I suppose you don't feel as rushed when staying put isn't that expensive. Still, I hate to vegetate, and so I will hopefully be off exploring some rainforests. However, I have not spent my time here in KL idly lazing about (except on Wednesday when I was feeling really rough all day, perhaps due to my body's attempts to acclimatise itself with a new diet and climate). Apart from visiting a few museums (of varying quality) and pottering around markets my favourite little side-trip has been to the nearby Batu caves. Apart from being beautiful limestone caves in their own right, the caves also house important Hindu temples (polytheistic religions are much more colourful and fun when compared to the drab monotony of monotheism). But for me that wasn't the main draw. The real reason one should visit the caves is for the monkeys that inhabit them. The light-fingered cheeky little rascals are not averse to pilfering tourists' belongings from under their noses. They weren't doing much of that while I was there as they were too busy engaging in pitched battles between two rival simian factions (quite entertaining to watch as they set up defensive positions on the cliff-sides or tried to outmanoeuvre each other).

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Malaysian Hash

No, it's not what you think, I haven't been caught dealing in drugs. That would be seriously stupid as the penalty for that here is death. Hash is actually a word that has many meanings, though for the (British) expat community it has a very particular one. Those of you who have never been expats (or even worse, aren't lucky enough to be British!) will probably be oblivious to the monthly ritual that is a hash. To cut a long story short, a hash is a sort of communal race where groups of people (the harriers) run after a trail of paper laid down by a "hare" (some bloke). But basically it's usually just an excuse for a piss-up. Anyway, this expat institution, and global phenomenon (just check out their website to see how many people take part in the craziness) originated here in Kuala Lumpur in 1938, when the chaps from the local men's club thought they would be able to drink a lot more beer if they went running beforehand. The reason I mention this is because whilst living in France I was subjected to hashes (though luckily not too often) and thought them rather silly, and now that I know the history behind them I still do.

But enough of my rambling. I'm sure you want to know all about Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it is universally known throughout Malaysia. The image most people have of KL (if they have an image at all) is of the Petronas Towers, which were, for a few years, the tallest buildings in the world until they were surpassed at the start of the year by Taipei 101. Unfortunately it is only possible to ascend less than half way up, to the bridge that connects the two towers, so you can't appreciate the height properly. The towers are actually quite aesthetically pleasing, but that may be because I'm quite a fan of skyscrapers (which I find to be a much better solution to crowded cities than the horrible urban sprawl of some, especially American and Australian, cities). The towers are just one manifestation of Malaysia's inferiority complex, whereby the government funds lavish public works projects in the belief that this will make other countries take them seriously. Sometimes the effects are good (as in the towers) and sometimes bad (as in the huge land reclamation drive in Melaka that has horribly fouled up the city's waterfront).

The other draw of KL is the shopping: same variety as Singapore at half the price. So I have been seriously considering investing in a digital camera, which would at least let me see my pictures straight away instead of having to wait until I get back home. Whilst I wait until I make up my mind, I have taken the opportunity of sampling a durian. I had heard of this fruit years ago and have wanted to try one ever since. The durian (picture below) is notorious throughout SE Asia due to its pungent smell, and is often on the list of forbidden items on public transport, along with guns and knives. Durian sellers are also easy to recognise as their stalls are usually isolated from their neighbours. Personally I don't find the smell too bad, though it is rather astringent, however the taste is very different. The closest description I can muster, is off caramel mixed with toothpaste. I can do without it, but the locals consider it a delicacy. There is one really neat thing about the durian though: it is probably the only fruit whose peel can be used as an offensive weapon.

Whilst travelling through Malaysia I have also talked to several other travellers (as you do) and lots of them have raved about Indonesia. So I have been fighting with myself over whether I should do a loop through Indonesia or not (apparently it's really cheap at the moment because people don't seem to be wanting to go there for some reason). Finally, almost certainly to my Dad's satisfaction, I have decided not to because the border pass between China and Pakistan closes in November and I don't want to arrive late.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

You Say Melaka, I Say Malacca

Melaka (or Malacca as it used to be known) once used to be one of the most important and powerful cities in all of Asia as it controlled the Straights of Malacca, through which all the shipping trade from India and Arabia to China had to travel. As such it was continually fought over by the local kingdoms and, after 1500, European powers as well. So that, successively, Melaka was ruled over by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English (who were ceded control by the Dutch during the Napoleonic wars), the Dutch and the English again, until Independence after WW2.

Seeing as Melaka is such a historically significant city it has its fair share of old buildings and museums, the most interesting, by far, being the rather incongruous museum of Enduring Beauty. Here, however, enduring does not mean lasting but rather suffering. The museum is a litany of all the methods different peoples have devised to deform themselves in the name of aesthetics, from 30cm lip-plates to 10cm feet and everything in between. Very morbid!

On a more cultural note, Melaka is also the resting place of two of Malaysia's legendary heroes: Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat. These two brothers were the champions of the local sultan, and renowned for their loyalty and bravery. Then, one day, the sultan orders Tuah to be executed because he has allegedly been fooling around with one of his maids (this turns out to be a false accusation). When Jebat hears of this he goes on a rampage against the sultan for killing his brother. The sultan is a bit remorseful for killing Tuah now, not because of any feeling of guilt, but because Tuah is the only one who can stop Jebat! Luckily for him Tuah wasn't executed but was hidden by a friend of his and so he returns from hiding to fight for the sultan (even though it was the sultan that ordered his execution and Jebat is fighting for Tuah's honour). In the end Tuah kills Jebat. But the beauty is the moral of the story: no matter what happens, you shouldn't fight against the sultan even if he is entirely in the wrong. It's the above mindset that means that the present day sultans (there are 9 of them in Malaysia and they take it in turns to be "king" for 5-year terms) are practically above the law, which means that they can literally get away with murder.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Turtley Awesome Dude

I've started off my tour of Malaysia with a chilled day at Pulau (island) Tioman, a very popular local destination due to the lovely beaches; clear waters teeming with fish and coral; and the stunning beauty of the interior, where steep, jungle-covered hills teem with wildlife. I was there mainly for the snorkelling as my experience at Ningaloo has made me an addict (plus it's cheaper than diving!). The island is separated from the mainland by a one-hour speedboat trip which is rather bumpy (luckily I hadn't eaten a big breakfast). On the boat I met a couple of Americans who were also there for the day only and so we decided to stick together. I got on well with Greg and Casey (for those were their names) who were actually here on business promoting their start-up company that produces specialised vending machines for cinemas (and since they bought me lunch I'm repaying them with some free advertising, so if you're planning on buying a vending machine for your cinema look no further than CineVend). I definitely wasn't disappointed with Tioman as the coral reefs were just as beautiful as Ningaloo and the variety of fish just as diverse, plus I also managed to swim with a green turtle, which was a magical experience. Tioman has really whetted my appetite and I am looking forward to sampling some more snorkelling opportunities along the coast, but not for a while yet as I am heading off to the historic town of Melaka tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Sling And Sightseeing

My time in Singapore is up and I am now heading up through Malaysia. All in all I was pleasantly surprised with Singapore as I wasn't expecting much, just a sterile, soulless city. Yet what I found was a swirling melting pot where the inputs of the Chinese, Malay, Indian and British communities are displayed like a badge of honour, and are mixed together to form a charming whole. I can think of no other place where the same (short) street could accommodate a mosque, a church and a Buddhist temple.

Apart from wandering around and just soaking up the atmosphere I visited the Asian Civilisations Museum (probably the best museum I have visited since the Mexican national museum of anthropology), which helped introduce me to the many peoples and cultures of southeast Asia. I have also paid my respects at the Changi chapel memorial, site of the infamous Changi PoW camp where, amongst others, the novelist James Clavell was held. He later drew upon his experiences to write King Rat which was then made into an excellent film. And finally, due to popular demand from an avid reader (by the way, if you have any suggestions about what I should see or do just let me know) I had to stop by Raffles Hotel and try a Singapore Sling, their legendary signature cocktail (a bit too sweet and tastes too much of grenadine), though I won't be having one again in a hurry as it cost almost as much as 2 nights accommodation in my hostel!
For those of you who like the occasional tipple and would like to try the famous beverage and can't afford the hotel price (let alone the air fare to Singapore) here's the recipe:
  • 30ml gin
  • 7.5ml Benedictine
  • 15ml cherry brandy
  • 7.5ml Cointreau or Triple sec
  • 120ml Pineapple juice
  • 15ml fresh lime juice
  • 10ml grenadine
  • dash of Angostura bitters
  • Garnish: maraschino cherry, pineapple chunk, and orange slice


Hi there. Seeing as the hostel I'm staying at in Singapore has free internet access I took the opportunity of playing around with the website and streamlining a few aspects of it. Most of the changes are purely cosmetic (like the link buttons on the left and the change in format of the archives), however there are 2 changes that should, hopefully, make the blog more interactive for you, the readers at home.

From now on it is possible to post comments on the blog without having to be a member of blogspot, and I have also added a feature that sends out each new entry as an e-mail so that you can get my posts straight away without having to regularly consult the website. So if you are interested in receiving my posts as e-mails then please send me an e-mail to my yahoo e-dress.

Hopefully this shall make things easier all round. And remember, any feedback about the site, the trip, or anything else is more than welcome.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

City Of The Lion

So here I am in Singapore, and I must say it is a refreshing change from the indolence of the Outback where life crawls at a snail's pace compared to the bustle of this little island state. The view when flying in was enough to convince me of that: hundreds of container boats aligned neatly around the island, which itself is covered in a mat of highrise apartments. Singapore is a retail mecca that surpasses any place I have visited so far, with dodgy fallen-off-the-back-of-a-truck markets all the way to ultra-chic designer boutiques. It is also a good place to start my Asian exploits as it eases you into the region gently. First and foremost because there is no language barrier, English is de rigeur everywhere except perhaps at food stalls where all you need to do is just point anyway; and that's not the only place the British have left their mark, as slap-bang in the centre of town, amidst all the skyscrapers is the Padang, a lush oasis amongst the hubbub that happens to house the grounds of the Singapore cricket club. Ah yes, you know the English have been there when you can find cricket, double-decker buses and civilised 3-pronged electric sockets. Ah, bliss.

Another joy of Singapore is the food. Not only is it affordable (finally I have allowed myself to depart from my Australian diet of peanut butter and honey sandwiches (which, amazingly, I was still enjoying to the last when I left Darwin)) but also of very good quality. I could spend hours just wandering around the hawker stalls looking at the weird and wonderful food on display, having a nibble here and a taste there. Unfortunately one of the first things I tried here was a soup that was made from fish stock (for those of you who don't know, I happen to be allergic to fish, though luckily the condition is far from fatal). Somehow I think that such an occurrence is not going to be a one off.

I also experienced something today that I had not seen since Sydney: rain. Quite a lot of it in fact. It caught me rather unawares after 6 weeks of drought, and I had to rummage all the way to the bottom of my rucksack to get at my boots and get the mothballs out of them. Again, I think the dry days are over for quite some time too.

P.S. I haven't been adding to my photo album as regularly as I'd like (being dependant on people I meet for digital photos), but I've just added a few pictures from Oz (thanks to Doug and Pika) and even a few from Mexico (finally!). My favourite is the one with me and the spider. It's very big. The web completely covered the path. We were scared.