The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Endless Summer comes to an End - Chiang Mai

Place – Chiang Mai Airport. Time – 1pm Sunday. This week’s blog is coming from the airport lounge of Chiang Mai’s International Airport.

It’s an airport lounge like any other; uncomfortable blue chairs, television set on some absurd station showing bad game shows at too loud volume, lots of bright pigeon hole size shops selling stuff that you don’t really need and if you do indulge, will skyrocket the carry-on allowance. Thank goodness, it’s weighed at check-in and not as your running for the gate. We really should be sitting here in four days time in eager anticipation of winging it to Myanmar... instead we’re on our way back to good old Australia. That’s right, our endless summer of wandering has come to an end even before summer wakes up. The last time I left you, we were gaily dancing our way along Chiang Rai’s streets; now I’m dancing hot-footedly to the ‘little girls room’ thanks to a tiny uninvited stomach bug with a big appetite. “So why scamper home because of a bout of the Thai Trots?” I hear you ask. Well....

I was keen to take a more chill’n-back-devil-may-care mode of transport to our next destination, Chiang Mai. I’d heard many a grooving backpacker made the trip from Tha Ton (a mountainous village above Chiang Mai) to Chiang Rai via a long-tail boat or if they were feeling even more flexed a bamboo raft,down the Mae Nam Kok River; a trip that took at least six hours. We were thinking of doing the trip in the opposite direction. I admit I’m still wary of any type of water transport especially after the screaming bounce across open ocean to the Perhentians, but I was open to the thought of idyllically puttering up a river.
The day before we were to leave Chiang Rai, I’d left Big M to indulge in a spot of sports relief –F1 followed by the world cup - whilst I headed on foot to the Boat Ramp, getting waylaid along the way by the wet markets, endless temples and trying to get across ridiculously busy roads. My quick dash to the pier was turning into a sweltering, getting lost down side streets sweat-fest and finally I gave up on walking and decided to hire a peddle rickshaw. Why is it whenever you need or want something, it’s never around! After knocking back countless offers of vibrantly decorated rickshaws through the middle of town, I’d now found myself in streets empty of the three wheeled contraptions.

Empty except for one lone very old, very rusty, very raggedy tender; and this was the driver. Beckoning me over to his equally dilapidated buggy, he insisted I climb into the back and let him peddle me to wherever I wanted to go. I was a bit hesitant the rickshaw was capable of taking me anywhere but the chap looked in need of a fare, and so I settled my ample frame on to the bits of metal covered in shredded canvas and watched his ancient bony frame mount the bike – and there we sat. Unmoving.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Gooving at the Golden Triangle - Chiang Rai

After hours of driving through Bangkoks spaghetti junction highways, passing endless sandbags and outer streets starting to flood, we finally made it to the Airport only to find that the flight was delayed for hours due to a “broken” runway. First we were told accident on runway… this didn’t quell the pre-flight nerves at all, but was soon changed to ‘broken’ .  Thankfully the plane wasn’t broken and after a smooth flight we arrived at our destination, Chiang Rai just prior to midnight and found ourselves in the throws of a full moon party of sorts. 

A party with hundreds of monks. A monk rave! There was plenty of light strobing, groovy music and munchies on offer but forget downing poppers to alter the mind, this party was about us popping goodies into monks begging bowls  in an attempt to alter our Karma. 

The main street of Chiang Rai was filled with joyous people carrying tables, trays and bags of edible goodies. We too filled up a bag of yummy delights and joined the crowds lining the street just below the clock tower waiting for the monks.  (The clock tower of Chiang Rai is stunning, a work of art given to the city by a very generous  Thai Artist and Sculptor – Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat.)   
At the stroke of midnight, music filled the air and the glittering gold tower put on a light show, changing from gold to royal blue, purple, green, red and a beautiful blend of coral shades.  As this happen the night sky filled with hundreds of small birds and a gasp went up from the crowd.  Everyone started clapping and oohing and arhing as the birds, swallows I think, flew around the clock tower, around the buildings and then settled onto the power lines above us.  It was as if they too were waiting for the arrival of the monks.  Throughout all this, candles carried in floating lanterns drifted up into the sky – it was a beautiful sight.  One of the floating lanterns became caught in the power lines sending up sparks, disturbing the birds.  As electrical sparks showered down…and not very far from us… the birds again flew around the tower then resettled along the lines. A procession started, beautiful girls in traditional costumes followed by a large bell being pulled and pushed on a cart by men in stunning outfits. 
As soon as they passed, the crowds moved in and along came the Monks.  It became like a mosh pit, everyone trying to get close to the monks to put food into their begging bowls, when the bowls filled (and it didn’t take long at all) they were emptied into a sack, and when the sacks filled they were passed back to a ute.  Needless to say, there were loads of sacks and quite a few utes.  We had to be very careful not to touch the monks whilst putting the offerings into the bowl, which proved to be hard as the monks continued walking whilst this was being done.
Not to mention the crowd was pulsatesating;  pushing and surging forward to get closer to the Monks.  And you just didn’t put the offering into the bowl , there was a small ritual that had to be carried out. Nothing too complicated, but still trying to remember it and not touch the monk, whilst being shoved was quite disconcerting , yet it was a very enjoyable experience.   We were taken ‘under wing’ by four Chiang Rai uni students who delighted in telling us about this celebration.  It happens only once a year on the Wednesday full moon and is the End of Buddhist Lent.  I found this fascinating as I never knew Buddhists had Lent and I felt even more blessed for being able to participate in this holy festival.  The celebration went into the early hours and we noticed just after the senior monks passed the hundreds of birds sitting along the electrical lines, rose into the air and flew away – have no idea where they went.
The 1989 LP states that Chiang Rai is of “no real interest – just a stepping stone”  on the way to the Golden Triangle and I think it’s thanks to this play down twenty years ago that the town has blossomed into a beautiful tranquil oasis in the north. Today, Chiang Rai is a spotlessly clean, modern town with all the old world charms and bustle.  Peddle rickshaws trundle through the leafy streets, overhead brightly coloured lanterns swing in the breeze and the central market is the place to be wether it’s four o’clock in the morning when the hill tribe women come into town in their traditional dress to sell their wares or in late afternoon when workers line the hawkers stalls for delicacies such as big curly noodle sausages, deep fried chicken (this stall was lined 20deep) and stuffed BBQ salted fish.  For us, Chiang Rai was a mine of interesting sites and discoveries.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Kanchanaburi - Hell Fires and Peace.

The desire of traveling is sometimes fuelled by the images we see on telly or in print and of course by the stories our friends tell us.  Stories of sun-kissed beaches, idyllic wanderings,  or adventure packed experiences, like lunching at a head-hunters village after rowing up crocodile infested waters.  When we hear these stories and see the images, oh how we hanker for a bit of that life. 

How many times have we seen in the movies a woman in some far off country, on holiday, a life changing experience, wandering through a market place, a cane carry-all hanging casually from her shoulder, her ethnic print skirt swirling around bare brown legs, her white top - pristine, her hair glossy and carefree, the sun kissing her gently as she banters with the stall holders and haggles with a dazzling smile.  No, the movies would never let on to you that her shirt hasn’t been washed for a couple of days and smells of BO, that her hair isn’t greasy and frizzy because she can’t find decent conditioner or that the ‘freckles’ on her legs are really the love bites of jet-fighter mozzies with undetectable stealth bomber capabilities, that she’s hanging on for dear life to her carry-all after passing umpteenth signs declaring a vigilance against bag snatchers and  that showing even the slightest bit of interest in a trinket is an invitation for hoards of touts to descend. Or for that matter, the sun is actually burning her to a crisp and it’s so muggy she’s really a puddle of mush….and of course if she was your friend, she wouldn’t tell you any of this either, after all, she’s on holidays, having the adventure of a lifetime.  

And what about the rugged hero of ‘boy’s own’ travel adventures striding effortlessly without a care in the world, or for that matter without an aching bone in the world.  There’d be no mention of the wasp lash to the eye leaving a red welt looking strangely like eyeliner; nor the suspected slipped mickie in a drink whilst watching Bathurst at some bar… making the one beer feel like it could have been a case and resulting in some porcelain kissing before passing out (thank god he was back at the room!); nor would there be an indication that  boots made for intrepid hiking can’t handle a wet stairway and compliments of the 25kg mampacca, 10kg pack, 7kg day pack and two brollies all landing on-top, the red faced hero staggers away with a sore back and very bruised bum.   These are not the stories we tell, after all, holidays and adventures are about being footloose, fancy free and having not a care in the world.  And twelve days prior, that’s exactly how we felt. 

Monday, 10 October 2011

Sangkhlaburi - Sweeping the wild west frontier

This monsoon season has been particularly bad for the Land of Smiles with the widespread flooding affecting most of the country and is reportedly the worst in half a century.  So much so, even the officials are now calling upon the Water Goddess for her divine intervention.  I’m praying she can hear them.  This constant flow of water from both the skies and the rivers has cause Big M and I to hopscotch around the country in search of a patch of dry land.  Thank goodness we’ve no actual set plans, but places earmarked for visiting are now completely off the list of must see’s.  Tossing our ‘pebble’ into the provinces, we found our feet landing into the western corner of Thailand and the district of Kanchanaburi – touted as Thailand’s “Westernmost Paradise and Land of Plenteous.”  

 Since arriving in Kanchanaburi, the downpours have become worse and the flooding is now surging towards the capital, Bangkok.  This in turn has relegated us into becoming almost ‘Kanchanaburian Locals’ as we enter our ninth day in the township.  And as any local knows, sometimes a little break from routine is required.  We decide to hire a car and head to the hills for a week-end getaway. 
Big M was chomping at the bit to get behind the wheel again and with great gusto let everyone and everything know about his joy with his hand held fast to the horn; honking like a local every five minutes at temples lining the roadside, honking at stray dogs that line and lie on the road as if they own it and tooting at other motorist to let them know he’s passing them… or even if he’s not. 
Meanwhile, whilst Big M is have a honking good time; I in turn am having a wailing of a time.  My stress levels had already risen slightly - partly due to hopscotching the floods and partly due to the very emotional feelings that Kanchanaburi has brought to me as both a person and an Aussie (but more on that later).  Now they’ve skyrocketed into outer space as I find myself hurtling towards our destination.  We weren’t just going into the hills, but heading to the western frontier of the Thai-Burma border, to Sangkhlaburi, an area described in the 1989 LP as an “interesting wild west sort of place” and according to today’s guide book, sees few tourists and is an outpost for NGO aid workers working with the refugees who arrive in Thailand from Burma.  To heighten the senses even further, the day we’ve chosen to go comes with intermitted torrential rain, flooded roads of red mud slush and clouds of mist descending into the valleys as we drive though.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Phuket - too good to be true....

Its feeling all very exotic, if not a little luxurious, and as the train pulls away from the station, letting off a high whistle, a clunk of wheels on the track and we are thrown back by a harsh jolt, a surge of thrillness jolts through me.  We’ve lashed out and brought an overnight  first- class private- sleeper- cabin train ticket to travel the southern length of Thailand to Bangkok. It’s not quite the Eastern & Oriental Express;  granted the diesel Engine looks about 500years old and the cabins could do with a good lick of paint and padding but it certainly has the mysterious feel of the Orient Express, especially when a crazed Irishman runs up and down the first class corridor yelling “V.J…. V.J… where are you?” with much knocking on private cabin doors and opening and shutting.  We receive a knock on ours and a polite “Ahem” from the first class purser and his assistant.  “You V.J” he asked.  Before we can answer the Irishman yells to them, “He looks like me. Big and white, like me”.  We reply politely to the Purser and his worried looking assistant, “No, not V.J” but the purser is a diligent chap, motions to the Irishman to take a look for himself and verify we’re not his V.J.  (Maybe V.J is hiding on purpose from his mate)   I almost expect Inspection Poirot with his cute little moustache or Miss Marple with knitting bag in tow to suddenly appear.   We have no idea whether the wayward V.J ever appeared or what happen to him and the last we heard of the Irishman was his leaving the First Class for the Second Class and beyond, his crazed voice echoing out “V.J… where the foook are ya man ”.
Part of the fun of travelling is the actual journey to the destination and over the past month there had certainly been some memorable journeys.  Whether it was a  bouncing jeep  jaunt through lush tea highlands of Cameron or a spine re-aligning boat ride to the Perhentians or   rickety trishaw cycle dodging traffic on Penang, these will be remembered with fondness. Not so our  mini-bus hell-ride from Penang to Phuket. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Penang - The Pearl of the Orient

I was in my element, like a child in a lolly shop not knowing where to turn, what to sample first, what delight to grab with both hands. 

Surrounded by temples, mansions, antique and vintage shops,  street art and colonial architecture of the exotic kind – an eclectic mix of Dutch, English and Chinese with a bit of Indian and Arabian thrown in for good measure this is my nirvana, my heaven, my mecca. And if I knew what the ultimate paradise for a Taoist was, it would be that too.  We are in Penang, the pearl of the orient and like a pearl, her opaque luminescence swirl surrounds us. One minute we are being lulled into a fantasy of “wouldn’t it be great if we brought one of these fabulous run down colonial mansions and renovate it back to its majestic glory” or “how romantic would it be to live in a former concubines terrace, a secreted pleasure of rich Chinese merchants”.  The next, we are being slapped in the face by Penang’s hyperactive presence rushing headlong at a frenetic pace breathing in her heady spice fragrance and narrowly miss being run over by her crazy traffic. Penang packs a punch!
We left Langkawi in a striking blaze of colour, a sunset of fire washing over a silver sea giving an impression of warmth, yet our three hour ferry ride was as chilly as an Antarctica crossing, the air-conditioning set so cold that even the locals were banging the ferry masters door down demanding a less frosty passage.  Upon arrival, Penang’s steaminess thawed our bodies to almost puddle status and we scrambled into the air-conditioned taxi with sighs of relief.   The ironary of the situation leaving me less than amused and cursing the ferry master “If I get a death of a cold, I’m going to haunt the bastard,” I vow to Big M. 
Penang islands main township, Georgetown was floodlit and bustling. Beautiful pastel buildings in baby blue, cream, and princess pink stand gracefully over lit gardens, their grand arches and lacework peeking through decorative gold-flecked and black fences and gates. The streets swarmed with diners enjoying outdoor cafes and food carts, market stalls jostle for room on the footpaths and trishaws with ancient looking peddlers slowly wheel thru the endless stream of traffic.

Our lovely taxi driver pointed out the many places of interests  as he drove manically thru the traffic, at the same time trying to check out the contents of other cars boots, playing frogger with unsuspecting opponents and pretending (I’m sure) that he was colourblind to the changing traffic lights.  I suddenly developed a case of turrets as my ‘oohs and aahs’ of delight became punctuated constantly with screeches of ‘Oh god and Arghs’ and much worse.  When we arrived at our hotel I tried very casually to show my delight at being in his beautiful city by patting the ground (I really wanted to hug it!)  

Our hotel was gorgeous, a beautiful old heritage listed building with wide tessellated hallways, big rooms and French doors.  We were so looking forward to splashing out and going upmarket for night of luxurious sleep.  Our little guesthouse at Langkawi was wonderful but the previous night had been a little sleepless due to the young chap next door to us developing a romance with his toilet bowl and on the other side of our room, a rave party had raged into the wee hours at a cool hip place called Daddy’s, so we were definitely in the mood for a good nights sleep.  Unfortunately the hotel had rented the upstairs floor to a heard of wilderbeast and they galloped up and down the hallways all night. I also think they were cavorting with antelope as there was much jumping and springboarding  upon the upstairs furniture.  Needless to say the very next day we went in search for something a little less animal friendly.  Our new guesthouse, at half the cost, turned out to be an absolute gem.  (Note picture beside this is of Georgetown Town Hall, not our hotel)

Penang’s mugginess totally robbed us of our energy but we just couldn’t stay still during the day.  Like the proverbial ‘mad dogs and …. well you know the rest, we traipsed out into the midday sun and walked around Georgetown’s beautiful  chaotic streets.  Georgetown is a UNESCO world heritage city, receiving this accolade in 2008 and rightly so, every step taken in this city takes your breath away.  Colonised  some 200 years ago, but dating much older than that, the city is a blend of Chinese, Indian, Arab, Malay, Acehnese, Siamese, Burmese and European architecture.  
Most of the buildings in the higgle-piggle streets are two-story terraces with gorgeous timber shutter windows upstairs and decorative tiled patios and French doors downstairs.  I particularly love the downstairs ‘peanut shape’ lattice windows.  They are simply gorgeous.  Then there are the  Malay-Colonial mansions; elegant two story abodes with beautiful fretwork, shuttered arched windows and big wide double doors.   Both the terraces and the mansions come in a various tones of white, cream or pastel.  Throw into this mix, the chinese mansions of bright hues with richly decorated mosaic scenes splashed across their verandahs and curved frilly rooftops corners with dragons about to fly away.  
I drag poor Big M to every single mansion and notable terrace listed on the ‘must see’ pamphlet, as well as every mansion and terrace that’s not. He eventually puts up a fight and refuses to go into the bright lime green Peranakan mansion (choosing to read outside in the garden) and the psychedelic periwinkle mansion that belong to Cheong Fatt Tze… when I tour this one, he goes to the pub instead.

Seeing Big M waning from the mansions,  I throw in the temples until we are overstuffed with gold icons, joss sticks and bells.  Along with all the Chinese temples (literally on every street corner), and Hindu temples (also in just about every street) we visit the stunning the Wat Chayamangkalaram Thai temple that features an enormous reclining Buddha (one of the largest in the world) and across the road from is the Dharmikarama Burmese Temple with its enormous gold standing Buddha. 

These two temples sit directly opposite each other and it’s almost as if they are having a ‘temple off’ as they outdo each other in their glittering goldness. 

A couple of days later we head to the Kok Lok Si Temple which features a ginormous ‘floating’ Buddha; the Buddha of Supreme Bliss.  This temple also has a huge Pagoda of ten thousand Buddha’s which we climb.  Unfortunately, we don’t inhale the blissful serenity we’d like to as nearly every turn costs us 2ringett each – I suspect this temple is a bit of a tourist trap, as we have to pay each time to go into most of parts of the temple and when we’re not paying for that, we’re encouraged to buy, buy, buy from the many ‘icon shops’ throughout the temple and it’s complex.  It becomes obvious where it’s money spinner origins come from when I read that ‘Tiger Balm’ Aw Paw had a big hand in its construction and running. 
I knew my run of temples had come to an end when we went searching for the Tapak Gedembai  – the mysterious giant footprint of Hanuman, the monkey god.   At the time I didn’t know this footprint was in a temple. According to the map, the oddity we were looking for was a huge footprint on a boulder on a beach in the fishing village of Batu Maung.  Big M likes fishing boats and fishing villages so it was easy to get him to agree to go in search for this….and I assured him I was positive it would be more exciting than the ‘burnt field of rice’ we’d spent days searching for in Langkawi. 

We had hired a car for twenty four hours and late in the afternoon off we went in search of this fishing village.  And search we did, up and down the same road.  We drove in any direction that appeared to lead to a beach including into private yards (by total mistake, I assure) and yet couldn’t find this boulder.  We asked so many people about directions for the footprint I’m sure we spoke to just about everyone from that bit of coastline.  We even got a stern ‘you go’ from a guard at a jetty who really didn’t care that we were lost.  Finally in exasperation we were about to give up when I spied a tiny temple on a cliff overlooking some fishing trawlers and asked Big M if we could just ‘poke’ our heads in for a minute.  Lo and behold, there was the footprint!  Except it wasn’t a footprint and it wasn’t on a boulder, nor was it on a beach…. It was just a triangle shape impression in some cement down a hollow tunnel with a bit of muddy water in it.   No-one needs to know what Big M thought.

Penang was not all mansions and temples for us.  The highlight of our time here was taking a cooking class.  Penang is the foodie capital of Malaysia, the saying being that every great cook has been in Penang at some time.  We pig out every night at the hawker stalls and markets, our favourite being the Red Garden, and I’m sure every kilo we’ve lost over the last few weeks from our constant walking and sweating has re-joined our frames upon arrival at Penang.   Our cooking class is run by a pocket dynamo – Nazlina – a fast talking, fast chopping, former electronics engineer turned cook who is gathering worldwide recognition at a rapid pace.  On the day we were there, she was being photographed for two different magazines plus she told us that she was appearing on the Kerri-Anne Show with Masterchef winner, Adam Law in October.  The day after our class she was interviewed by a world renowned food magazine and in the week since our class she has open her first ‘shop front’, its opening splashed across the Penang newspapers.  So of course we were delighted to find ourselves being taught by her on the cusp of her forthcoming fame.
Our class took place at the elegant (and oh-so-very-grand) hotel, The E&O (Eastern & Oriental), a sister hotel to Singapore’s Raffles.  After meeting at the hotel, Nazlina galloped us down the street, stoping traffic with her tiny frame like wonderwoman,  to the extremely busy morning wet-market where Big M bonded with a fishmonger and chicken cutter-chopper and had to be prised away.  He was taking great delight in rummaging through the fishmongers frozen bits and fascinated by the halal  beheading of a poor chook. The same chook upon being placed (live) on the scales just laid there as if hypnotised.   I wanted to flap my arms and encourage it to ‘run away’ but of course didn’t dare - the chicken chopper had a very large knife.  My horror wasn’t helped any when, after the live chicken was removed from the scales, three plucked chicken carcasses were placed on the same – unwiped- scale… our three chickens carcasses we were to cook. 

Back at the E&O we chopped, diced, pestled and cooked up a storm – and produced an amazing traditional Nyonya curry using sixteen big chillies in two woks.  As one who can’t really eat chilli, I was dreading what my backside would be saying to me the next day.

Big M took delight in wearing his ‘special bear’ apron and plunged into the cooking with great gusto.   Once we’re back home, he’ll be the one to cook this amazing dish – although, I don’t think we’ll be tossing in sixteen chillies, of any size.
On our last day in Penang we decided to hire a car.  Over the week we had sampled the bus system, the taxis and on one occasion a trishaw.  This experience left us with bum-complexes, as when we tried to both hop into the seat of the trishaw, we kinda well,  got stuck.  Well and truly wedge in to the extent we almost popped out upwards with such force we could have been fireworks.  We tried to explain to the trishaw peddler that we were too big for his little colourful contraption but he either couldn’t understand us or refused to listen and scooped us up and peddled us away into the maddening traffic.  It was so uncomfortable that Big M decided to sit on top of the trishaw seat, obscuring the ‘drivers’ view and I sat in the seat.  We really must have looked a sight as we were peddled around the streets of Georgetown.  Not only were we too big, but we were also too hot.  Our beetroot faces sweating it out in the midday sun, our legs, arms and necks also turning a shade of bright red that should only be seen in Chinese temple fabrics.  Because Big M was sitting on top of the seat, the hood couldn’t be put up and the attached brolly only covered the peddler.  We had hired the trishaw for an hour but after only 30mins of slowing marinating and  BBQ-ing in our juices, begged the chap to stop and let us off so we could find the nearest air conditioner.  He was most disappointed as takers at that time of the day are pretty scarce to say the least. 
So after trying the various forms of transport the city had to offer, we  took our hire car and drove over to the mainland via the 13kilometer bridge to Butterworth, got lost, paid lots of tolls and returned to Penang to try and locate the road to Penang Hill.  The night before, after visiting the footprint, we had tried to drive up the middle of Penang but got hopelessly lost and ended up in a suburb of ugly high-rise tower blocks where every building looked the same.  It took us ages to find our way out again.  This time we decided to head for something that was visible from most parts of the island.  Trouble was Penang has lots of hills.  And lots of crazy drivers who don’t know the difference between green and red, or that traffic normally goes in one direction on one side of the road and in the opposite direction on the other side.  Big M felt he had been in Malaysia long enough to be classed as a local and so, drove as such. We are still talking although that was almost off the cards when he ran a red light and played chicken with an ambulance.  All I can say to that is, the two stands of red cord given to me by a good friend and blessed by a Buddhist monk have been rubbed to threadbare status.
Penang Hill turned out to be a blessed oasis of absolute coolness and beauty.   To get to it, you need to go up on a funicular train up 830mts – almost vertical.  The 4minute ride up was exhilarating, the return trip down, adrenalin-charged! It was a good thing I didn’t give myself too much time to think about it all before buying the ticket, the alternative being a good 2hour walk down a winding 8kilometer road.  The views over Penang were stunning, we could see out over the port and bay, the enormous tankers and ships coming in, the small timber fishing boats heading out, a luxury cruise liner docked next to the beautiful  colonial township of Georgetown and out over to Butterworth and beyond.
Penang’s bustling vibe has added spice and flavour to our trip and woken us from our gentle meanderings of the Perhentians and Langkawi , and just as well as the following day we embarked on the next leg of our journey on a wild, crazy mini-bus ride from hell with a sergeant-major for a  driver. Thankfully Penang’s punch had us ready for the journey.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Langkawi - Malaysia's beautiful gem

If the Perhentians are Malaysia’s glittering Diamonds and Penang, it’s oriential Pearl, then Langkawi must be its precious Emerald.
 We’ve spent six glorious days exploring this lush multi-facet island, delving into her dark jungles, zipping across bejewelled seas, lounging contentedly on blinding white beaches and marvelling at soft coral pink sunsets.  This island shimmers in hues of colours capturing a sense of timelessness that we’re all looking for.  An hour feels like a day, a day like a week, it’s beauty lulls you into a sensation of peace and bliss.
For the first two days of our arrival it rained torrentially and blew a gale, so much so I checked the weather to see if Langkawi was getting a hurricane. But instead of the downpours giving the impression of depressing times to come,  it brought a sense of thrillingness, sharpening the kaleidoscopic of greens of the jungle and the iridescent rice paddies, bunches of coconut fruit hung like huge golden nuggets in the palms trees and everywhere tropical flowers blazed in the most brilliant colours. 
We set up home in the most gorgeous little guesthouse with the most delightful name – The Sweet Inn.  And it is.  Hidden down a narrow lane that leads to fields of water buffalo lolling in muddy hollows surrounded by mauve lilies, this little apricot abode became our ‘home away from home’ in the tourist strip of Pantai Cenang.  Though, ‘tourist strip’ is almost too rude a name description to use for this place. Here  the pace is super slow, nothing opens before 11am and then it’s just the occasional mini-mart or thong shop. A stroll along the paved footpath leaves you totally unaccosted, not a tout in sight, no request for taxi, no enticement for tour, not even a beckoning to have massage.

Friday, 9 September 2011

I don't feel like chicken tonight!

We’ve landed in the most bizarre of townships where the melodic call to prayer and chants alternates with crackling announcements of bus arrivals over loud speakers dotting street corners.

Jam packed, these streets amass with every conceivable type of vehicle;   trucks, bikes, cars, peddling rickshaws draped in swaths of plastic and silk flowers, push barrows overloaded with green vegetables, mobile kitchens on backs of scooters selling satay sticks and soups,  all vying for room with the faithful in their skull caps and white cloaks going to prayer; the beautifully dressed women in ornate head scarves, colourful  tunics and delicate heels heading off for a day of shopping or work; and hawkers selling curry coated peanuts, palm leaf wrapped nibblies and iced drinks in iridescent colours.  

Add to the cacophony of noise and mayhem, thousands of birds, small swallows, flittering about, swooping and filling the sky above, shrieking loudly.  They fly into the building rooftops, some of which have special metal lined openings and nesting areas for them.  From there the chirping echoes and melds into constant chatter that pierces the ears and rattles the senses.  They never shut up.  

It appears this city, Kota Bharu, adores their feathered friends.  A look at the calendar of events for the year shows a number of dates for bird fancying -  there’s two Bird Singing Contests and a Serama Chicken Beauty Contest.  On the map of Kota Bharu (or KB as it locally known) there’s a whole area set aside – the bird singing arena – which sits near KB’s Chinatown. Some of the buildings and shopfronts leading to this area are hung with cages, some with birds in them, some without, and where there’s not a real bird, there’s an overabundance of fake ones. 

But it’s not for the birds that’s brought us to this intensely chaotic town located almost on the boarder of Thailand.  No we’ve come for the market which according to LP "is one of the most colourful and active" in Malaysia. 

Big M and I are lovers of markets, especially “wet” markets where the unfathomable visual, smell and texture of what is food sends the senses reeling almost into the stratosphere. It’s not always a good thing to visit these places as it can put you off ever wanting to eat once you have witnessed where the ingredients  have been sold or prepared but the intrigue is too great for us to ignore.  The book is not wrong, this market turns out to be more than just colourful and active, it really is sensory overload.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

High Tea and Steamy Sandy Delights - The Perhentians

This weeks blog is coming from the stunningly beautiful Perhentians Ialands, an absolute tropical paradise that ticks every box..
Palm treed beaches of icing-sugar white sand lapped by glittering turquoise waves. Waves so gentle and warm you’d swear you were sitting in a enormous five star swimming pool. Inches away from the shore line, fringes of coral lace gardens swarm with brightly coloured fish, so close and so clear they can be viewed from the banana lounges on the beach. We laze here, a cool breeze caressing our sun drenched bodies as we peer into this amazing natural aquarium. Above two small squirrels with bushy tails chase each other across the trees tops. Wildlife abounds here. There’s even a monkey, tiny and as cute as can be sunning itself of the rock just next to us. One of the locals picks him up and takes him to the waters edge. To our delight the monkey jumps in and begins swimming underwater, comes up, splashes and claps his hands then dives under again. Big M goes to the waters edge to take a photo and the monkey comes out, scampers to Big M’s feet and wants to play. His antics are absolutely delightful to watch. Yes, he is a pet and although I'm very much against keeping these beautiful animals as pets, this little chap seems happy. Earlier as we walked through the islands jungle to another beach, we were amazed to come across masses of Iguanas. Huge metre-plus long lizards with enormous claws. Looking very similar to goannas but larger, fatter and moving at a slower pace, when we saw our first one, we thought for a moment that it was a Komodo dragon. A glance at the 1989 LP I’m using on the trip tells me that back then sleeping on the beach at night came with a warning to “be prepared to be trampled on at night by the iguanas!”, thus I’ll be giving beach sleeping a miss.
We are staying on Pulau Perhentian Kecil, or “ little island” as it is know. Across a narrow strait is Pulau Perhentian Besar “big island” and although we haven’t been to it yet, we’re told by other travellers its just as beautiful. From where I sit it looks just as idyllic and peaceful. And peace is the order of the day on Kecil. It’s extremely hard to find alcohol on the island, thus there are no drunken backpackers whatsoever and the only transport here is either to leg it or catch a water taxi. Due to this lack of motorised transport the only sounds are the chirping birds of the forest, the lapping waves and the occasional dive boat going past. 
It’s a far cry from where we were 24hours ago….
Leaving Kuala Lumpur’s frantic pace and muggy weather, we caught the express bus (a wonderful first class vehicle with seats like armchairs and curtains that would give Buckingham palace a run for it’s money) to the Cameron Highlands. The first part of our five hour journey was of monotonous oil palm plantations lining the flag bedecked freeway. So uninteresting was the scenery that it put us to sleep a number of times, with every time we woke, there was another palm tree and flag. 
After about three hours the bus turned from the freeway and travelled along a smaller road dotted with villages. The shock of seeing these villages hit me with surprise. With Malaysia proudly proclaiming itself No.1 on every other lamp-post, I was expecting to see the regional villages to be reasonably modern – perhaps with render concrete & tiled houses , paved streets, and the standard concrete square shop fronts. Instead we past traditional kampung style villages of shabby timber or bark huts with thatched rooves, dirt roads strewn with rubbish, chickens pecking amongst the plastic bags and bottles, scabby dogs looking very much in need of a feed and market style shops -blue tarps over stick poles. It was in stark contrast to the shinny city of consumerism we had just left and a reminder that the divide of the have and have-nots was indeed great, and Malaysia still had a way to go.
The bus began climbing the steep mountain and we passed stunning waterfalls, tall bamboo forests, market stalls selling durian to eager buyers and numerous half staved dogs wandering on the road. I was extremely distressed to see all these dogs and later found the many straggly cats in the village of Cameron Highlands just as distressing. We eventually arrived at the hill station of Cameron Highlands close to evening and couldn’t believe the absolute contrast to both the golden city of KL and what we had just seen in the villages prior.  
The village of Tanah Rata was where we had decided to stay and it was stunning! A beautiful alpine-style hamlet with white tudor inspired buildings, pretty colonial shops, streets lined with gardens overflowing with flowers and a background of rolling green mountains. Strands of fairy lights dappled in the trees and it was as if Christmas was just around the corner. The coolness of this mountain hamlet saw us donning jumpers in the early morning and evening. We booked into a fabulous guesthouse for three nights and quickly fell into the “Highland routine” of trekking in the morning, visiting tea plantations at the midday and kicking back in the afternoon at the ‘Traveller’s Rest Pub” before wandering off the check out the delicious edible fare on offer in the many restaurants. 
The highlight of our time at Cameron Highlands was visiting the incredibly beautiful tea plantations the area is renowned for. Picturesque rolling hills of clipped tea hedges that appear to go forever.
Although Cameron Highlands is known for its tea, the area really should be famous for its strawberry farms, they are everywhere and so is everything and anything that can have a strawberry emblem on it. Shops, street stalls and humpy huts touted every conceivable strawberry item possible – stuffed strawberry toys (big, large and ginormous – no such thing as small here when it came to the strawberry train!), slippers, tee-shirts, magnets, balloons even fluffy strawberry earmuffs!
The lowlight of our stay here was a visit to the Butterfly Park and although interesting to see and get up close to the many insects, snakes and butterflies of Malaysia, it was unfortunately a dismal place where many of the exhibits seemed stressed or even dead! Zoo's perse are a double edge sword, to keep the animals in such a way that they are not free, yet to be able to view these amazing creatures would be next to impossible today with the deforestation and extinction that is happening, let alone be lucky enough to come across them even in the wild. It's a real moral dilemma!
By the third day we were high-tea and strawberried out and ready for some sandy shores. This resulted in a hot six hour mini-bus trip – there were eleven of us crammed into a Toyota Hiace 12seater with no room for luggage…. and we were all lugging backpacks, two had huge pull-along suitcases and one even was carry a big framed painting of about three foot squared! thus it was a pretty squishy ride. But I was to find our mini-bus ride was nothing compared to the fast-boat we had to catch to the islands. 
This fast-boat was a small fiberglass open sided vessel with a tarp overhead. Twenty people including us boarded this boat; we had to hold our packs in front of us for the forty-five minute trip. Our safety message was one sentance “up there is the life-jackets”…. upon glancing to the pointed direction it was obvious that these jackets would probably stay up there in an emergency due to the numerous knots in the webbing that would need untying, let-alone trying to untangle the jackets from the webbing. After this quick message, we were hurtling across the waves into open sea, the vessel bucking like a demented horse, crashing into every wave and dropping into the troughs with a tremendous thud. Unfortunately I was third last onto the boat and thus was sitting one seat back from the front, seat is an understatement…. It was a bench seat with little padding and with every smash into the troughs I could hear and feel cracking. I was terrified! And as we smashed along I screamed in full-suround-stero. The French couple in front of me thought it fabulous and raised their hands as if on a roller-coaster ride, their screams were for more. If the island wasn’t so deliriously beautiful, I think I would have been a jibbering mess at the thought of the return trip and no amount of rescue remedy would be of help.
As it is, Kecil is worth the terrifying trip. Gorgeous little wooden chalets and thatched sleeping huts dot the shoreline, strands of coloured lights hang from eating pavilions and pastel painted boats bob gently in the bay. The bay – Coral Bay – faces west and as we land, it is late afternoon and we are treated to a beautiful soft pink sunset. Later at night we dine on the beach under the stars, eating the fare that Kecil and Besar are famous for – their BBQ’s. For a low 18rm ($6.00aus ea) we feast on an amazing meal of chicken dripping with aromatic sauces and assorted rice, salad, fruit and banana breads, all tasting absolutely exquisite. Looking out to the bay, even under a half moon, we can clearly see into water and watch fish skip across the waves. We certainly are in paradise!