Friday, October 15, 2010

Penang - That's All Folks

Penang was the last stop on the backpacking leg of our trip, so it was with mixed feelings that we arrived at the Penang bus station. On one hand, we were looking forward to getting back to the Western world, where we wouldn't have to worry about language, plumbing and food poisoning but on the other hand we were sad that our Asian Odyssy was coming to an end. It occurred to me that we would soon have to start worrying about different things... like washing the dishes, paying the bills and looking for a job!! After following this alarming train of thought for a while, I decided that the best thing to do was just to make the best of our last adventure.

What better place than Penang, I thought, to say farewell to our carefree lifestyle. In my mind I was picturing an island beach-resort with heaps of cocktails and swimming pools, like Bali. In this respect I was sadly disappointed, as Penang seemed just like any other Malaysian city... crumbling old buildings, cheap spicy curries and badly-made tourist t-shirts. However, like the other cities there is always more than meets the eye and Penang turned out to have a few cards up it's sleeve.

One of these was the beautiful colonial architecture, as well as plenty of other historical sites such as the old fort. Michael and I decided that we would definitely do a historical walking tour and savour the sites... right after visiting the local shopping mall. It even had a cinema, which was showing The Last Airbender, an adaptation of one of my most favourite cartoons. Well, it seemed silly to pass up on seeing it now, since we didn't know how much longer it would be in cinemas, given that the reviews had been pretty woeful. Before seeing the movie I had convinced myself that the people writing the reviews just didn't understand the complex world and characters that make up Avatar, but after the credits began to roll I admitted that they were pretty much spot on, it was "an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented".

Oh well, at least I only paid $2 to see it!

After feeling our brains turn to mush for the last two hours, we decided that we needed a good dose of culture and history, so we set out on a walking tour of the old town.

We started at Fort Cornwallis, which houses a chapel that is the oldest surviving roofed structure in Penang. It was quite eery inside as it is unused and completely bare inside, with very little light. The rest of the fort was very informative, since most of the buildings contained displays detailing the colonial history of the island.

After the fort we took a route through the city that took in some of the most impressive buildings, all the way back to the hotel. For dinner we headed out to the main drag, which I read was where all the nice restaurants were. It was a bit of a let down, being a very short strip of about six average, over-priced restaurants. However, on the plus side they all had wide-screen TV's showing the football, so it was all good.

The next day, we enjoyed a quiet morning, before taking a bus out to see a couple of the sites on the other side of the island. This is where I discovered that there actually is a beach restort district, however it is quite separate from Georgetown, which is where we were staying. I am glad that we were not staying in this area, as there did not seem to be much within walking distance apart from other hotels.

Our first stop was the Tropical Spice Garden, which is an amazing 8 acres of jungle with over 500 species of tropical flora and fauna. All along the walkway were little signs, pointing out various herbs and spices and telling you what they are used for. The place smelled absolutely amazing and definitely helped me to work up an appetite for the Tropical Fruit Farm.

I think that the Tropical Fruit Farm was the best place that we visited in Penang, since it was so unexpected and delicious. We were a bit dubious when we rocked up to find an uninviting shack with plastic tables and chairs with basically a glorified fruit and veg shop inside. The only redeeming feature was the view which was amazing. Fortunately, Michael heard a family at the counter ask about the 'tour'. We also signed up for the tour, since there didn't seem to be much else to do and I am so glad that we did! Michael and I and another family were driven right up to the top of the fruit farm (which is perched on the side of a hill), where we were introduced to one of the owners and/or managers. He gave us a stack of lychee-type fruits where you can actually eat the seed (it tasted like an almond) before we were introduced to our guide. He was very knowledgeable and lively, taking us around the farm and pointing out different fruit trees, usually pulling a few off the trees for us to sample.

One fruit that we found especially interesting was the Goji Berry, also known as the Miracle Fruit. This is a very sort-after fruit, selling for incredible prices in Tokyo. Apart from apparently being ridiculously good for you, they also have the unusual effect of making bitter and sour foods taste sweet. This is supposed to be something to do with a carbohydrate that distorts the taste bud's receptor making it responsive to acids, or something along those lines. After we were given a handful of these berries all of the fruit tasted amazing, but then maybe that was just because the fruit would have tasted really good anyway...

After our little tour we were taken to another little shack, which was much nicer than the one at the bottom of the hill. There was a fruit buffet, where we were given a plate and told to help ourselves to as much as we wanted! There was coconut, bananas, two different types of dragon fruit, star fruit, mango, watermelon, lychees, rambutans and the list goes on! We were also given a freshly squeezed juice. By the end of it we were so full that we did not want to move but we knew that we couldn't affort to miss the last bus, so we trudged back down to the road.

Unfortunately we were unlucky and ended up waiting over an hour for the bus, which showed up just as we had turned around to go back up to the fruit farm to order a taxi. Relieved, we managed to jump on and make our way back to town.

That night we decided to try the suspiciously named 'Slippery Senioritas', which is supposedly a tapas bar opposite the main row of restaurants. I don't think that they actually know what tapas are, since there weren't any on the menu. The place was dead, so we settled for one of the restaurants opposite, which actually turned out to be pretty good.

The next day was the last on the backpacking leg of our trip. By this time we were looking to see things which we hadn't already seen on the trip. So we ruled out the temples, mosques, zoos and other historic buildings. We were left with the Chocolate Boutique and the Museum. We don't really count museums as a recurring activity, since the content is always unique to the area, whereas temples and zoos etc are all usually pretty much the same.

The Chocolate Boutique was fantastic, we even had a tour guide! She took us all over the shop, pointing out the various different types of chocolates and giving us samples (mmmmm.... samples...). I was wary of buying too much, since it was quite expensive and I read that you can buy most of the same stuff in the supermarket for half the price. Plus I didn't think we could get it through customs! So I settled for a small mixed bag, with mint, tira misu, strawberry and green tea flavours.

After Michael dragged me out of the Chocolate Boutique, we headed to the museum. It was a fantastic museum, set in an historic building and chock full of dioramas and interactive displays. We got to have a go at the traditional games, but unfortunately we couldn't understand the instructions, so we settled for checkers, which Michael definitely did not win, no matter what he seems to think.

The next day we enjoyed lunch at a British-style pub before catching a taxi to the airport. We flew back to Kuala Lumpur where we waited for a connecting flight to take us back home, where we had a big surprise in store for our family and friends.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cameron Highlands - What Is This Unusual Shivering Sensation?

After a night stop over in KL, Jenni and I headed north toward the Cameron Highlands. This area is home to a series of small mountain towns which make for an excellent get away for people in Malaysia that wish to escape the humidity and heat of the lowland cities. The road to the town we were staying in, Tanah Rata, was long and windy. Jenni tells me that some person wrote to the Lonely Planet claiming that they counted over 600 turns in the road on the bus ride up there. I believe that this person needs to purchase themselves an mp3 player for their long bus journeys.

Upon arriving at the town, it was the first time in over 3 months that we actually felt a bit nippy. During the cold nights we had to just suck it up as we had sent most of our cold weather gear back home aside from a pair of thin quick-dry trousers and a thin fold-up gortex jacket each. Even though it was quite chilly, it was still a nice and refreshing change to the hot and humid days we had been experiencing for the past few months. Tanah Rata is close to many tea plantations and strawberry farms, so it was easy to get warm at the local cafes, offering tea made from locally grown tea leaves and warm scones with cream and jam. Another speciality of Tanah Rata is steamboat. On one cold night, we welcomed the warm soupy dish and hot stove on which it was being cooked on atop our table. For about $5 USD each, we enjoyed the dish at one of the original steamboat restaurants in the area. We didn't manage to finish off the huge mound of seafood, meat, vegetables and noodles presented to us for our steamboat dinner, it was just too much for the two of us. 

Tanah Rata and the neighbouring towns are full of big fancy pants hotels, so most of the accommodation up in the mountain areas was pretty expensive. We elected to stay at a low cost backpackers a few minutes walk from the main street in town. The guesthouse was great fun as we met heaps of people in the open air common area under the front porch. Each night we would enjoy a beer (well I enjoyed a beer, while Jenni turned her nose up at it as that was all on offer) while roasting marshmallows in the company of a large group of travelling girls from the UK, USA, Canada and Germany at the nightly bon-fire held at the next door open air bar.

On our first full day, we went on a tour that would bring us on a trek and visit some of the highlights of the Cameron Highlands area. The day did not start well. Our group of 8 people in our 4x4 were petrified as our driver felt the need to drive around the windy mountain roads at excessive speeds, cutting through corners like a rally car driver by driving on the opposite side of the road, blind around many of the corners. After about 10 minutes of this I felt that I had to say something as the Dutch girl next to me was green, on the verge of throwing up, Jenni's face was white with her eyes wide-eyed and me, along with the rest of the passengers, white knuckled from clinging on so tight. The American guy in our car found my inquiry to our driver rather amusing as I asked him "Is there any need to drive like a lunatic? Could you not drive a bit... safer?" He was quick to apologize and drove a little bit safer to our destination. Jenni tells me that when we finally arrived at our destination, he apologized again claiming that he was only driving because we were running late. Running late for what!?! Was the large flower that we were planning on trekking to planning on lifting up its skirt and running off somewhere!?!

Our group trekked through the jungle for about an hour, crossing over a rickety bamboo bridge and using stones to cross a couple of deep streams. The pace of our group was rather quick for some reason as if the flower we were trekking toward was indeed going to up and go somewhere. Jenni and I walked at our own pace, lagging behind with our guide and an avid photographer. We finally arrived to see one of the largest species of flowers in the world. It was over 2 feet in diameter, but we were told that the larger ones can grow up to a meter wide. Jenni was rather unimpressed with the flower when we arrived, but I am just putting that down to her being a bit grumpy due to being tired from the trek! The flower had a really pungent smell when you got close enough to it to get a whiff. Our guide joked saying that some people liken the smell to the Malaysian public toilets. He wasn't far off!

On the way back to the cars, our group stopped off at one of the small waterfalls where we were invited to jump in and have a shower. I was the only one game enough to jump in. The water was really clear and nice and refreshing, although this was spoilt somewhat by copping a stack of gritty sand down the back of my bathers which the water brought down from the rock pool above. Having to dry myself and changing into a dry pair of shorts put us a couple of minutes behind the group. In our haste to catch up, I kicked a tree stump really hard, partly pulling the nail of my toe and causing it to bleed. Fortunately we had a couple of ibuprofen tablets for the pain in our backpacks. When we finally got a chance, we patched me up using a disinfectant wipe and bandage, so not too much harm done.

After a short trip back down the 4x4 track to the main road, we visited a Malaysian Aborigine village. There we were given a blowpipe demonstration. The local aborigines use these to hunt for meat, using poison darts to immobilize their prey. The whole time our guide was talking, a drunk villager kept yelling at him. Our guide, turned around and told him to shut up, but this just egged him on. By the end of the demonstration, the drunk guy was just outright abusing our guide at the top of his voice. Eventually a couple of the villagers carted him away. Our guide explained that this behaviour was quite common as the villagers don't have much to do to keep themselves occupied and spend a lot of time drinking. 

After lunch at a dodgy Indian cafe we visited a tea plantation. We were very eager to get in among the plantation to go for a walk around the maze of tea bushes as we had seen these on the way up to Tanah Rata while on the bus and they looked spectacular. The tea plantation we visited was about 80 years old and was owned by a single family which passed it down from generation to generation. The plantation was huge, spanning over the hills as far as the eye could see. You can play a game of "Where's Michael" in the adjacent photo. From here we visited the factory where the tea is processed and packaged. The process was much more advanced than the plantation we visited on the Bolivian Plateau, outside Pakse in Laos as it used all machinery to do the work, opposed to doing everything by hand. Attached to the factory was an outlet and a cafe. Jenni and I enjoyed a cup of the plantation's tea along with a scone and jam while enjoying the spectacular view from the cafe's decking. 

After here, the group split up, some electing to visit the nearby butterfly farm and strawberry farm, with us along with some others electing to go visit the highest peak in the Cameron Highlands. We were very glad we made our choice as the view was spectacular. Atop the lookout tower, the air was very cold and we could see the mist rolling by. We were lucky we managed to get such a good view as a few minutes after we came down from the lookout tower, the clouds came in and covered the valley. 

From here we took a very short drive down the mountain and got out to visit the Mossy Forest. This was the highlight of the day. The place looked like something out of a Jim Henson movie. The place was dark and eerie, with mist flowing through the trees covered in thick green moss. Muddy moss covered the ground, giving it a funny springy feel under our feet. In this maze of trees that looked like it was plucked right out of a horror movie, we even saw carnivorous plants. Our guide insisted on exiting the forest from a different point to where we entered to give the group a short taste of what the hardest trekking trails in the area were like. The exit point that he brought us to was a steep drop, about 3 meters high. There was only two ways down, sliding down on your backside on the steep muddy slope, or attempting to abseil down the drop using a thick vine to hang on to. Jenni did very well, managing to lower herself down using the vine without falling and sliding down in the muck unlike a couple of other unfortunate people in our group. 

Even though we were glad we made our choice to visit the highest peak and mossy forest, we were both a bit disappointed that we missed out on visiting the strawberry farm. Therefore on the following day, we took a taxi to visit a strawberry farm that we had heard allowed us to pick our own strawberries. Unfortunately when we arrived our fears that strawberry season was already finished were confirmed and we were informed that we were not allowed to pick our own. We had to settle for a short walk around the small strawberry farm and each of us had a strawberry milkshake from the cafe which was actually really good. Not satisfied with this farm, we walked down to the main road in search of another that might allow us to pick strawberries. Along the main road were heaps of signs pointing to various strawberry farms in the local area, so it didn't take us too long to walk to the Healthy Strawberry Farm. This farm was much bigger than the first one we visited, but we were still not allowed to pick our own strawberries. We waved our little white flag on our strawberry picking and decided to just settle for a walk around this large strawberry farm and enjoy a punnet of strawberries from its cafe. I am not entirely sure why it is called the Healthy Strawberry Farm because we indulged ourselves in a large punnet of huge strawberries that were covered in a layer of sugar topped with a thick layer of whipped cream. They were the best strawberries that we have ever tasted!

The next day we jumped on a bus to Penang, our final destination on our Asia Odyssey. Unlike our 4x4 driver, the bus driver was not a maniac on the roads, so we had a nice and relaxing trip. Although he was a safe enough driver, he must have somehow been related to Jenni as he certainly had her woeful sense of direction and knack of getting lost. When we reached Butterworth, the mainland town lying opposite to the island of Penang, the bus driver got lost twice. We had to spend an extra while in the bus before he managed to figure out that he had to drive our bus over the massive bridge that sticks out like a sore thumb to get us over to the island of Penang...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Melaka - I think They Need To Build Another Museum, 24 Is Simply Not Enough

The two hour bus trip down to Melaka (also known as Malacca) was very pleasant as our bus was extremely roomy, with seats that were like reclining leather armchairs. I reckon that because the competition between long-distance bus companies is so fierce, they all try to out-do each other in order to attract customers. There had to have been at least twenty companies at the KL bus station, and even the worst bus there was nicer than any bus in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The long-distance bus station in Melaka has been combined with the local bus station and a shopping mall to create one huge modern monstrosity which is called Melaka Sentral. We had some trouble finding the local bus station since it is called the 'domestic terminal' but eventually we found our bus and made our way to the centre of town.

After a few wrong turns we arrived at Tony's Guesthouse and immediately wished that we hadn't. Tired, hot, irritable and desperately needing the bathroom, imagine our frustration when we found everything locked up and a sign saying "Back at 3:30"! The front porch was pretty grimy but we tried to make ourselves as comfortable as possible and waited for about half an hour before Tony arrived. He turned out to be a really nice guy, very friendly and helpful. I wish that I could say that his guesthouse was just as nice, but unfortunately it turned out to be one of the worst places that we have stayed at. We stayed for four nights and did not see any evidence of cleaning in that whole time. The thick coat of grime on the floor was so bad that it turned the soles of your feet black within ten minutes of walking around on it. There was only one shower and one toilet for everyone, but we didn't find this too much of an issue, because we usually got up so late that no-one else was around when we had our showers. This was because we found it very difficult to sleep, given the lack of air-conditioning and the noise made by the rain on the tin roof. Still, at least it was pretty cheap, at less than ten dollars per night!

The next day we went to the tourist office to find a map of the sights, however it was closed until about 2:30pm, so we amused ourselves by wandering around the area, coming across a reconstructed seventeenth century Dutch fort called the Middleburgh Bastion and a replica of Malay Sultanate water wheel which didn't seem to work. We found an indoor market where we checked out the souvenir t-shirts and got some lunch at the upstairs food court.

We went back to the tourist information centre, where they had re-opened after finishing their siesta. I confidently strode up to the lady at the counter, pointed at the map that she was using to give directions and asked politely if I could please have one. I was amazed when she said that the tourist information centre did not sell them and that she had bought it from a different place for her own use. I refrained from telling her what I thought of a tourist information centre that didn't have any maps, and instead asked where I could obtain one. She gave me some names of shops that sold the map and we went on our way, down the main drag to find a map and generally get our bearings.

I got a map from a souvenir shop and we continued down the main drag, which turned out to be Jonker Street (also called the Jonker Walk or Jalan Hang Jebat), a tourist attraction in its own right. Jonker Street features some of the areas oldest houses and temples, as well as a plethora of 'antique' and souvenir shops. It didn't take us long to buy enough to fill up any remaining free space in our backpacks

Back at the start of Jonker Street was a cafe which was always busy every time we walked past. We decided to see what all the fuss was about, and found that it sold a popular local dessert called durian cendol. I ordered it and discovered that it is similar to ice-kachang, being shaved ice flavoured with durian and coconut, with jelly and red beans underneath. If it wasn't for the durian I probably would have enjoyed it, but I think that all that talk about durian smelling like hell and tasting like heaven is a load of rubbish, because I reckon it tastes just as bad as it smells.

For dinner we decided to try out a small satay joint that was only a couple of houses down from our guesthouse. The previous night there was a line to get in, so we figured that it must be good. We got lucky and didn't have to wait long for a table, just long enough for us to check out what everyone else was doing so that we didn't look too clueless when we got our turn. How it works is that you get a pot of satay sauce in the middle of the table which is heated from the bottom. Then you go to the self-service area where there are all kinds of skewers and other goodies which you pile up onto a tray and take to your table where you dunk everything into the satay sauce to cook. I'm sure that it is not particularly hygienic, but it tasted amazing. We got skewers with chicken, sausage, egg, bok choi, some kind of kidney or liver and some dumplings which all got completely drenched with satay. We also had a couple of coconuts. It was awesome.

The next day we started off with the Maritime Museum, which we were very keen on visiting, since we had seen it the previous day and thought it looked pretty cool. Part of the museum is actually inside a replica of an actual Portuguese ship called the 'Flora de la Mar', which sank off the coast of Melaka in 1512. I was very impressed with the interior of the ship, I didn't realise that Portuguese galleons of the sixteenth century came with such good air-conditioning! It was one of the best museums that we have seen on the trip, with heaps of information detailing the history of Melaka through the Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, as well as a good overview of ocean travel in general around that era.

The second part of the Maritime Museum was concerned with flora and fauna of the sea, as well as different kinds of boats used through the ages. It wasn't as interesting as the first part, plus it wasn't housed in a ship, so we didn't spend too much time here. The ticket included a visit to the Royal Malaysian Navy Museum, which had rubbish air-conditioning, so we skipped most of it. However, when we got to the outside exhibits we were surprised to see actual Navy weapons and even an actual Navy ship, where you could go into the control room and play with all of the buttons and levers. It was hilarious when Michael pressed the big red button and blew up neighbouring China... (actually that didn't really happen).

After that we had a look at the Menara Taming Sari, which is a tower where you go onto a revolving platform which lifts you up to the top of the tower for a look over the city. Kind of like a Royal Show ride but in slow motion. However, it was really expensive at about 35 ringgit (over $10) so we decided to give it a miss. This was not because we didn't have the money, it was more the principle of the thing, since it seemed like a real rip-off for only 7 minutes of entertainment.

We bypassed the tower and spotted a nearby shopping mall where we went for some lunch and air-conditioning. I was also pleased to discover a Roti Boy outlet, which is a bakery which sells this delicious sweet bun with a creamy filling that tastes like golden syrup.

After cooling off in the shopping mall, we headed back to the old town where we saw the Porta de Santiago. This is the only surviving part of the A Famosa fortress, constructed by the Portuguese in 1511. Off to the side of Porta de Santiago is the Cultural Museum. The main attraction of this museum is that it is housed inside a replica of the Istana (Sultanate Palace) of a famous sultan who ruled Melaka between 1456 and 1477. Out the front of the museum we saw an excavation team uncovering what looked like foundations of the old fort.

The Porta de Santiago and the Cultural Museum are located at the bottom of St Paul's hill, so named because of St Paul's Church which stands at the top. It was built in 1521 by the Portuguese. It was very unusual since it is filled with gravestones and has a massive lighthouse in front of it. This reflects the different uses that it was put to; a Catholic Chapel by the Portuguese, then a Protestant Church and graveyard by the Dutch and finally the British used it to store gunpowder! It was a tough walk to the top because of the heat, but it was very pleasant at the top, with a nice breeze and a local man serenading us on the guitar with Elvis songs.

That was the end of our very productive day of sightseeing, we managed to fit most of the major sights in, although we hardly got through any of the museums. Can you believe that this little town has 24 museums!? There is a Governor's Museum, Portuguese Museum, Islamic Museum, Architecture Museum, Kite Museum, Enduring Beauty Museum, Literature Museum and even a Stamps Museum! I think they should also have a museum just dedicated to detailing all of the museums!

Anyway, after our very busy day we decided to take it easy for our last day in Melaka. We walked through Little India, where we had some awesome Chicken Rice and laughed at the terrible Bollywood music and movie posters.

Then we took a different route around Chinatown (which is where Jonker Street is located), stopping to look at Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (the oldest traditional Chinese temple in Malaysia). Then we reached the top of Jonker Street, where we sampled some pineapple tarts (one of the local specialties) and bought some for our bus trip back to Kuala Lumpur. We only found out afterwards that the version that we bought is the 'tourist' version. Ours were like mini sausage rolls with pineapple inside and we thought that they tasted much nicer than the original version. We walked back down Jonker Street and stopped at the place where I had tried the durian cendol a couple of days before. Out the front they have a shop which sells fish-shaped waffles that are filled with pandan-flavoured cream. They were very similar to the tai-yaki which we had sampled in Japan.

We found ourselves back on Jonker Street later that evening for the night market. On the weekends, they block off the traffic and turn Jonker Street into a night market. We thought that the stalls would just be selling the same things as the shops lining the street, however we found many different things, such as bubble tea, icy poles, knock-off handbags, Portuguese egg tarts and beef jerky. One of the more unusual things that we saw were fried potatoes on skewers. The potato was placed on the skewer and then twirled through a machine which turned it into a spiral, which they then dipped into the deep-fryer and sprinkled with chilli flavouring. Michael got one and said that it was "really yummy".

At the end of Jonker Street we found a group of dancers, except I don't think that they were really dancers, more likely it was a community group that were putting on a display for the crowds. It was pretty funny, because a couple of the older people got up onto the stage and started dancing too. Some of them were dancing to the song, however a couple of them seemed to be dancing to some other tune that only they could hear. One guy just stood there, jumping up and down and waving his arms like he was trying to take off. But they were having fun and I guess that's all that matters.

At the end of Jonker Street we turned around to go back, but chickened out when we saw the crowd (there were a lot of people) and ended up walking back via a quiet back-street.

That was the end of our stay in Melaka, the next day we caught a bus back to Kuala Lumpur. I thought that Melaka was a very unusual town, full of contrasts like modern shopping malls, old European architecture and delicious Chinese food. I think we probably could have seen everything in two days, however it was nice to have an extra day up our sleeve so that we didn't have to rush. I don't think that I would go back to Melaka, since I have already seen most of the sights. I would definitely recommend it however, as it is one of the most unique towns that I have seen on this trip.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Kuala Lumpur - We're Back.... To Modern Civilization

Jenni and I arrived in Kuala Lumpur (KL) in the early evening. As mentioned in Jenni's previous post, we flew with Air Asia, a budget airline. Thus, our plane didn't arrive at the normal KL airport terminal, instead arriving at the Low Cost Terminal, about a 45 minute drive from the centre of the city. We managed to get a bus from the terminal to KL Sentral, the main train station in KL. From here we caught a train to China Town where we took a short walk, accompanied by a fellow backpacker to our guesthouse, or more to the point, we followed the directions listed on the Hostelworld website to get to our guesthouse. Upon arrival we were informed that we were at the wrong guesthouse. We had made a booking at Reggae Guesthouse 2, the directions listed on the internet had taken us to Reggae Guesthouse 1. Fortunately, Reggae 2 was only a 5 minute walk down the road, so no harm done.

Upon arrival at Reggae 2, the trouble started. When we told the girl at the desk that we had a booking, she claimed she could not find it. We whipped out the laptop and showed her our booking confirmation as well as series of emails that we exchanged with the guy who manages the bookings for the guesthouse. This didn't seem to help her finding our booking, but fortunately they had 2 spare beds in separate dorms that night so we managed to get a bed each to sleep in. 

The following morning the guy managing the bookings was available for us to speak to. He apologized for the missing booking, but then informed us that we would have to stay in a dorm room for one more night before being able to have a private room for the duration of our stay. We weren't happy about this, but as this was our only option, we went along with it. After another night with us having to swap to different beds within the dorm room for some unknown reason, the guy informed me that we would have to move to the other guesthouse that evening to stay in our private room and then back again the following day for the last night of our stay. At hearing this, I lost my temper and gave him an earful. I sternly told him that we didn't appreciate being screwed around, having to move from bed to bed for no reason each night, not to mention having to move to a completely different guesthouse and then back again. Again he apologized and revealed to me that the reason why they had the mix up was because the booking was originally made for the 30th of August instead of the 30th of July a month too late. Realizing that this was probably a mistake made by me while making the booking via the internet, I was quick to apologize, but even quicker to point out that the mix up had been handled very poorly over the past few days and was still being handled very poorly. I also pointed out to him that over the past few days, I had noticed that ALL of the other guests staying at the guesthouse were only staying for one night only and then moving on. Jenni and I were the only people staying for more than 1 night. I asked him why they had screwed us around by making us change beds, forcing us to sleep in different bunk beds, when at the end of the day it didn't matter because they could have very easily moved one of the many new comers to a different bed, without them even knowing. I also went on to ask him why we had to move from our guesthouse to the other to stay in the private room, when they were so quick to send us to another guesthouse when we arrived. Why couldn't they just let us stay in the private room at the guesthouse we were currently in and just tell the people arriving that night that they need to go down the road to the other to stay that night. After copping an earful, he finally gave in and rearranged some of the other guests that were staying a single night and allowed us to stay in a private room at the same guesthouse for the last few nights. We still had to move from a double room on one night to a twin room on the next, but we figured I shouldn't push my chances any further.

Aside from the guesthouse debacle, our stay in KL was actually very enjoyable. It was a nice change from the cities that we have been visiting throughout Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. KL is very modern with an excellent transportation system and more shopping malls than you can poke a stick at. The area were we stayed, China Town, was all hustle and bustle every night with the busy markets selling all manner of knock off clothes, shoes and DVDs. There was a real mix of people living in KL with many Chinese and Indians. Malaysia is predominantly a Muslim country, so while out and about we saw many women wearing a burqa with their faces all covered except for their eyes. Because it is a Muslim country, not as many people drink alcohol, so the price of a beer is much more comparable to the price of beer in Western countries opposed to the cheap price of beer in the neighbouring Asian countries.

Our first order of business upon reaching KL was to book our bus tickets to some of the other cities we were planning to visit in a few days time. We took a local bus to the long distance bus station to buy the tickets. The long distance bus station is like something plucked straight out of China. As the local bus pulls up to the terminal, there is already a huge crowd of people standing on the outside, banging on the windows and yelling at you to come with them to buy a bus ticket. When we stepped off the bus, us and everybody else had to fight through the mass of people yelling at you and trying to grab you to drag you to their ticket counter to buy a ticket. Unknown to us, there is not a single bus company with a single ticket office that provides long distance buses to other cities in Malaysia. There are many different companies, all with separate ticket counters, clustered together in a large tent, all fighting for your business.

After buying our bus tickets, we spent the rest of the day enjoying one of the niceties that come with modern cities... visiting shopping malls. The last decent sized shopping mall we had visited was in Hong Kong, about 3 months ago, so we were eager to go and see some of the huge shopping meccas in KL. We visited a small dingy mall near the long distance bus station to experience one of the icons of modern civilization, McDonalds, but didn't stay for long as we were eager to make our way to Times Square, the biggest shopping mall in KL. After a bus ride back to China Town and a quick ride on the monorail, we reached Time Square. This place is HUGE! Fourteen storeys... thats right, fourteen; count em'... of retail therapy goodness! Sticking to the theme of indulging in capitalism for the day, we started with a coffee and doughnut from Krispy Creme. We spent the next 4 hours slowly making our way up each floor to look at all of the shops. By the time we got to the top floor, we were about keel over from exhaustion. The last few floors were a bit scarce with many shops either closed or vacant, but this still didn't diminish the sheer size of the place. Included among over 700 retail stores is an indoor theme-park with a roller coaster, cinemas, a fitness centre, a bowling alley and even a hospitality university on the very top floor.

On our third day we visited the lake gardens. This is an area in the centre of the city, similar to Kings Park in Perth with a whole series of lakes and gardens. We couldn't find any straight forward way to get there using public transport, so we ended up just walking as the crow flies in its direction from China town. Along the way we passed through the colonial district which is home to many unique Islamic style buildings like the National Mosque. After wandering around for a bit, we finally managed to make our way up into the gardens where we visited the largest walk-through aviary in the world. Here we saw all manners of birds and were fortunate enough to catch the eagles being fed. As soon as the guy with the food walked into the large cage, the eagles started dive bombing him, narrowly missing him. We soon learned that the reason for this behaviour was because the guy would stand down one end of the cage and throw fish into the air, allowing the dive bombing eagles to catch them in the air as they swooped down. After lunch we made our way up to the top of the hill to visit the flower gardens. There are signs erected at the entrances indicating that there was a cover charge to enter the gardens, but because none of the ticket booths were manned, Jenni and I just waltzed right in. That evening at dinner, we experienced one of the hottest curries that we have ever tasted. The guy at the kitchen said that the dish was 'sweet chicken'. True, it had a nice tasty sweet sauce, but it should have really been named 'bloody hot sweet chicken' as a single taste of the sauce was enough to cause Jenni to go through two whole cartons of milk.

On our last full day in KL, none of the sights listed in our travel guides really jumped out at us, so we instead elected to go and see a movie at one of the local shopping malls. Unfortunately when we arrived at the cinemas in the KLCC shopping mall, we were disappointed to find out that the movie we had our heart set on seeing, 'The Last Airbender', was not out in Malaysia for another couple of weeks. We instead spent the rest of the day just wandering around the mall. It wasn't as big as Times Square, but it was still pretty big with 6 storeys, 2 food courts, cinemas, a fitness centre and even a science centre on the top floor. Jealous of all of the nice and crisp photos that Jenni's new fancy pants camera produces, I picked up a shiny new digital camera to replace my 4 year old Canon camera.

The following day we had to get up early to take a local bus to get to the long distance bus station where we would jump on a bus bound for Melaka.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Vientiane - City of Sandalwood. Should be renamed to city of bakeries, bowling alleys and rip-off tuk-tuk drivers

We only had two nights in Vientiane (actually pronounced wiang-jun but thanks to the terrible French adaptation nobody gets it right), since we heard that there is not that much to see. We also had most of the first day, since our bus was arriving in the early afternoon from Vang Vieng, or so we thought! We did not account for the Lao Please Don't Rush mentality, which added a couple of extra hours onto the trip.

We had to do 'the rock-up' again, since we weren't able to book anything decent on-line. Luckily, our first choice from the Lonely Planet paid off and we were given a nice, though quite small, room at the Mali Namphu Guesthouse. It was fairly expensive, however that is typical for Vientiane and after all it did include a lovely breakfast (waffles with fruit salad on the first day and banana crepe on the second day)

Thanks to our bus being late, we lost most of the day and decided to save the sightseeing for the next day. We hit the Scandinavian Bakery for a delicious late lunch (best croissants ever!) before relaxing in the beautiful courtyard at Mali Namphu. 

That evening we tried to find the local bowling alley, just for something different. It took a while (the sign can only be seen if you approach it from a certain direction), but we got there in the end. It was exactly the same as any other bowling alley; daggy clown shoes, computer screens from the 1800s to enter in your names and bowling lanes which definitely slope to the left. It was great fun, although Michael beat my score by about 100 points, thanks to a handful of strikes which he totally fluked. Unfortunately I couldn't find a good ball since all the light ones had tiny finger holes so I couldn't hold onto them properly (that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!).

Dinner was a late affair at an outside pub-restaurant on the main street. We got the Lao specialty of grilled meat with sticky rice. Michael and I have become a huge fan of sticky rice (keeps you full for longer and you can eat it with your hands, what's not to love?!) so we wanted to make the most of it on our second last night in Laos, since we weren't sure whether or not they did sticky rice in Malaysia.

The next morning we were determined to make the most of our one day in Vientiane, so we started fairly early. We kicked off with Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in Vientiane. It is actually not that old, only built in 1818, however the city was razed to the ground by the Siamese (Thailand) in 1827 and Wat Si Saket was the only temple left standing. The fascinating thing about this temple is the fact that the inside of the temple and the cloister wall are covered with little niches, each filled with a little Buddha statue (over 2,000 statues in total!). We also made a little friend, a cute little cat that came up to us for a pat and then proceeded to follow us all around the cloister wall, crying when we left.

From there we visited the Talat Sao market. It's called a morning market but is actually open until late afternoon. We were expecting to see a typical SE Asian market full stalls selling souvenirs and handicrafts. Instead we found a shopping centre! It was pretty dingy inside but it was nice to be in the air-conditioning. Luckily I happened to peak outside and caught a glimpse of dodgy-looking stalls. Apparently they are trying to replace the old markets with the shopping centre but it doesn't appear to have worked, since people still flock to the old markets, which are much more atmospheric and probably cheaper too!

Then it was over to Lao National Museum. It was housed in a colonial house which is in a terrible state, which is a stark contrast to the spectacular Cultural Hall across the street. The bottom floor had good displays with descriptions, most with English translations. We even got to see some dinosaur fossils from the dinosaur sites down south, as well as information on the plain of jars, with one jar on display. However, upstairs was full of propaganda relating to the Pathet Lao's struggle for independence from the horrible French 'Imperialists'. Most of the descriptions here did not have any English translations, plus it was very hot with no air conditioning so we came back down pretty quickly.

They had a comments book and one guy said that the only way that the museum could be any worse would be if there was a dead baby on the floor. I thought that this was a bit harsh, there were heaps of interesting displays, although I do admit that it certainly didn't stand up to the museums in Siem Reap, Shanghai, Tokyo, Macau, Hanoi, Saigon, Malacca, Perth, Rottnest Island... actually I guess it wasn't that great but it was interesting enough to keep us occupied for an hour or so and it was right across the road from the ice-cream parlour!

Swenson's was our next stop. After an hour in a very hot museum, Michael couldn't possibly have expected me to just walk past all that ice-cream in its air-conditioned goodness, could he?! When we placed our order (one banana sundae for me and a chocolate sundae for Michael, the guy gave us a funny look and said "so you want two sundaes?". We soon found out why, when our ENORMOUS sundaes came out, mine substantially larger than Michael's! I made a valiant effort but was finally defeated by the Hot Fudge Bonanza Split.

The next day we chilled at the Scandinavian Bakery before heading off to the airport. We tried to get a tuk-tuk, but the driver handed us a laminated list of vastly inflated tourist prices. He started to discount the fare but we turned away in disgust and got the hotel to call us a taxi. It cost a bit more but that wasn't the point, it's the principle of the thing. Anyway, if I'm going to have to pay more than I expected at least I can be comfortable in an air-conditioned car rather than cramped up in a dirty tuk-tuk.

It was a good thing we had the car too, because I had forgotten some paintings which I bought back in Luang Prabang as a souvenir. The guy in the hotel rang the driver to let us know. The driver said no problem and took us back. But when we got to airport he sprung and extra charge for the detour, something he failed to mention when we were deciding whether or not to go back! Fuming, Michael reluctantly offered him half of what he asked. The guy started to argue so Michael put it to him that he either take what he offered or walked away with nothing, so he took the money. Cheeky bastard. Even though Laos was our favourite South-East Asian country, it is experiences and people like this that give you a bad taste in your mouth and a deep distrust for the locals, as nine times out of ten they are only after your money. That aside, Vientiane was very pleasant although one day is plenty to see everything there is to see. 

We were flying Air Asia which was definitely a new experience for me. The check-in counter was extremely slow and it took us about 40 minutes to get to the counter! However, when we were at the counter it only took 30 seconds, whereas everyone else seemed to take about 10 minutes each. We have found this problem all throughout Asia on our trip. At airports and train stations, everyone seems to take forever to get their tickets, but when we get to the front of the line it only takes a few seconds... what is the problem with these people?!? We saw lots of people complaining and moving stuff between bags. This could be because it is a cheapie airline, so you have to pay extra to take on checked baggage and they are very strict with weights and carry-on baggage. You also have to pre-book seats and meals. Michael and I think that lots of people just book the tickets and either don't look into the extras and fine-print, or think that maybe it won't apply to them.

Anyway, we finally got our tickets. Fortunately we were lucky and got assigned emergency exit seats for no extra charge (usually you have to pay extra if you request seats with extra room, they are called "hot seats"). These are the low-cost airline's version of business class. You get to board first and get heaps more room. The inside of the plane was very swish, much nicer than QANTAS, although that's not very difficult. The meal, Michael and I agreed, was the best in-flight meal that we've ever had. When we went online and checked QANTAS ticket prices, we both actually laughed out loud, because the difference between the two is completely ludicrous, even taking into account the extras that you have to pay on top of the Air Asia ticket price (extras such as pillows, food, check-in baggage and the highly suspicious 'Convenience Charge'). At least when you go with an expensive airline such as British Airways you get great service and awesome in-flight entertainment. With QANTAS you pay extra for rudeness and a crappy rom-com with Jennifer Aniston that you can't watch anyway because it's on a rubbish screen at the front of the cabin and you've got the tallest people in the plane sitting in front of you. I don't think I'll ever use my 70,000 frequent flyer points because I don't want to have to go on another QANTAS flight! 

Anyway, the next stop was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I am currently writing this post. Mainland South-East Asia was definitely an amazing experience, but I found that the third-world aspect got progressively harder to deal with, rather than becoming accustomed to it, and I found myself longing for something familiar, like driving on the left side of the road and being able to brush my teeth with tap water. On the plane all that I could think about was being able to go straight to a huge, air-conditioned shopping centre and ordering a cheeseburger, since unfortunately we have come to associate McDonalds with civilisation and we had not seen the golden arches since Hong Kong nearly three months ago. Stay tuned for McDonalds... oops I mean Malaysia!