Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 133 - 134: Ipoh

As cities go, Ipoh was pretty quiet, at least in the area we stayed. Similar to Vientiane, it seemed to be more of a business and administration stronghold, with little in the way of tourist attractions in the immediate vicinity. Luckily, there’s a fairly robust public transport system, so after checking into the Hotel Sun Golden Inn (tired decor, wonderful Chinese and Indian staff, eminently more comfortable than our last place), we had lunch at a Chinese place called “Best Restaurant” – not bad, but with a name like that, you’ll never live up to expectations – then hopped on a bus and went to the Sam Poh Tong temple. This is one of a number of “cave temples” in the area.

First impressions of Sam Poh Tong are not the best – it looks like a gaudy temple theme park buried in the side of a cliff. Bright coloured statues of deities and other religious iconography abound. Also prevalent is incense. I say prevalent, as I have never seen so many lit incense sticks in one place since we started travelling. Some of the hollowed cave ceilings and walls are black from the smoke. People burn huge bunches at a time and then select the pot under the god they want to appease, most of the time hedging their bets by splitting bunches of twenty into groups of four or five. Obviously you don’t want to miss a god out, as he or she may get annoyed at you and who knows when you may need a favour from them later? I managed about 20 seconds in one of these rooms before I had to leave; I literally couldn’t see, as the smoke was so intense that it temporarily blinded me.  The grey hue around the light in the third photo below isn’t bad exposure, it’s incense smoke in one of the rooms I was able to stay in for a little longer.







I believe it is entirely possible that this temple is single-handedly supporting the incense trade in Malaysia.

We entered the temple proper, and it was quite impressive. The place had been dug out of the rock, murals were daubed on many of the walls, and statues had been set in alcoves. There was also a huge set of stairs to climb to get a better view from the top of the cave, which gave us a great landscape.

In one end of the cave at the top, there was a rainforest-like area which had been allowed to grow naturally.





It was getting towards the end of the day, so we caught the bus back and went for some food at M. Salim restaurant. Malaysian cuisine is interesting. Since there are so many different cultures, which are generally contained within their own parts of any given town or city (Chinatown, Little India, etc), it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly “authentic” Malaysian food is. This one was an Indian, and I’m pretty sure we got the “western” treatment: not particularly spicy dishes, staff who took our order and then gave us an approximation of what we’d decided on, and then overcharged us. Bit of a shame, as it could have been pretty good.   

The next day we decided to tackle the other main temple cave, Perak Tong. On arrival, we were greeted by a toad.


Which was nice. I think (s)he was trying to channel the HypnoToad, and did a pretty good job of it.

Perak Tong was a much more spacious cave temple than Sam Poh Tong, and had a variety of wall murals and drawings scattered around the ground floor, as well as more alcoves with various statues in, one of which was a bizarre Buddha with another Buddha-like figure erupting from his stomach, Total Recall-style.






Climbing the stairs, the views were again impressive. There was also far less incense burning our eyes than the previous cave.




Having had our fill of temples, we decided to leave Ipoh that afternoon, our next destination being Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. We jumped on a bus at the station and after a journey that took us along some very winding roads, we arrived in the late afternoon. We had no accommodation booked – there was apparently an abundance of hotels and guesthouses in the town, and it only got busy during the Christmas and New Year period. On arrival we were taken to a place by a hostel tout promising cheap rooms which, after getting there, offered nothing of the sort. Thankfully, he drove us back and pointed out another guy who worked for a different place. We had more luck with him, and decided to settle into the Cameronian Inn for a few days – a guesthouse which looked more like an English bed and breakfast. 



After getting the room, we went out for a bite to eat at Kumar’s, an Indian on the main road (there’s basically only one strip of road which is crammed full of restaurants and tour operators).  It was pretty decent: for about two quid you get a tray with a naan bread, some rice, three sauces and some tandoori chicken.

That was enough excitement for us for one day, so we decided to get an early night ahead of a potential trek the following day.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Day 131 - 132: Georgetown, Malaysia

We arrived in our 5th country after a 12 hour bus ride with 2 changes. The Malaysian border was a breeze (UK residents get a free 90 day stay) and the biggest task was finding a place to stay. After changing our remaining Baht for a fairly reasonable rate at a money-changer on Lebuh Chulia, we ended up coming back to that same road and checking into the New Banana Guesthouse. They appear to be a chain – we saw 4 Banana guesthouses and boutique hotels within a 1 mile strip. We managed to get a dinky little room in the back of the hostel with a (gasp!) shared bathroom – only the third we’d had since travelling: flashpacking or what? – plus air-con for 40 Malaysian Ringgit, about eight quid. It wasn’t the nicest place to stay but it was adequate, and did the job. Walking down the street, we stopped at a place that sold roti, and bought five for a quid which filled us up nicely. You aren’t supposed to use your left hand to eat in Malaysia; similar to India, it is considered unclean. Tearing a roti one-handed is surprisingly difficult, but we muddled through. I’m sure our friend Ravi will be able to teach us uncouth Brits a few tricks when we meet up with him in Canada in a few months. That was about all we could manage for the night, so we crashed out ready for a packed day of activities on the morrow.

The first thing we’d noticed about Malaysia was how modern it was in comparison to the other places in SE Asia we’d been. We were told that Malaysia was the most developed country in SE Asia (obviously not including the island/state/city of Singapore), and it showed. They had road markings. The roads were pretty much pothole-free. The streets were a lot, lot cleaner than, for instance, Vietnam and Cambodia, and on a par if not better than Thailand. The people also appear to be the friendliest we’ve met as well. Perhaps it’s the melting pot of cultures which makes them so tolerant of outsiders, as with a population consisting of Chinese, Indian and Malay, pretty much everyone was originally an outsider.

I had this image of Georgetown being a picturesque colonial town, with echoes of Luang Prabang. Quaint little shops, winding streets, that kind of thing. It didn’t really live up to expectations. That’s not to say it wasn’t worth going, but it was certainly something that, in hindsight, was skippable. We wandered around the old town for most of the day, and visited a number of sites including:

Georgetown Museum – fairly bland permanent exhibits telling the story of how Francis Light established Georgetown and its subsequent flip-flopping ownership between various nations. There was also a games corner where they laid out a few traditional board games with the barest hint of how to play them. One of them looked suspiciously similar to draughts, so we played that using draughts rules. I’m not sure if that was how it was meant to be played but the important thing to note was that I won. Here’s Gilly approximately 150 seconds before she got thoroughly trounced. Note in particular her happy smile which was brutally wiped from her face following my devastating play.


Fort Cornwallis – Not much remains of this fort near the esplanade aside from the outer walls, but they have filled various rooms under the walls with a brief timeline of Georgetown’s history and in particular Francis Light’s life story. There are cannons aplenty manning the walls, and we bumped into a couple of Olde English Folkes wandering the grounds:




After leaving, we walked past the Queen Victoria clock tower (60 feet high, one foot for every year she had reigned until that point):


After a lunch at Sri Ananda Bahwan (very odd staff, excellent tandoori chicken) we moved on to my highlight of Georgetown – Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Recently listed as one of the top mansions in the world, this is an indigo-coloured building with excellent Chinese decoration both inside and out, but what made it great was the fantastic tour given by “Sally” who spoke flawless English and took us around the place for the best part of an hour. It was the setting of the film Indochine and has been restored by a group of dedicated conservationists to its former glory – it doubles as a guesthouse as well, should you want to stay there (starting at around £70 a night, it might be worth splashing out on – we didn’t get to see the rooms though).

It was built in the 1880s by a very wealthy Chinese man (Cheong Fatt Tze) who got rich on trade, and then invited his millionaire buddies to build mansions in the same road as him. The majority of the other buildings have since been knocked down or converted, but this one remained. Built on the dubious tenets of Feng Shui (e.g. putting a particular piece of furniture in one corner brings positive energy to a room, but turning it a few degrees to the left or sticking a vase on it means that evil spirits will enter and eat your entrails – I may be paraphrasing somewhat), it has symmetry and kookiness throughout. For instance, the entrance to the main hall has a raised threshold you need to step over. This is designed so that you lower your head to see where you’re putting your foot, and in doing so inadvertently bow to the shrine at the end of the room. Then there’s the Chinese tradition of building houses on a slope to resemble a dragon’s back. Since the building foundations were flat, Cheong Fatt Tze had to improvise, and he simply built the back half of the house one step higher than the front half, so when you look across the room you are actually watching it “slope” down. Numerology (the study of the significance of numbers) is important to the Chinese. The house was given the number 14, but 4 is an unlucky number to them. Fortunately, like most superstitions, there are “get outs”. You don’t like the number 14? Well, why not say that 14 is actually 1 and 4, and 1+4 = 5? Five is a good number. There you go, problem solved. You may come across similar “adjustments” in temples, where the faithful shake jars of numbered or labelled sticks in front of a statue of a deity until one of the sticks falls out. If they don’t like what providence has bestowed on them, they put it back in the jar and try again until they get an outcome they’re happy with. I find the psychology behind superstition (and indeed, religion) fascinating. The house was obviously built to last – Cheong Fatt Tze imported floor tiles from England and cast iron supporting pillars from Scotland. Only the best will do, and apparently the best at that time came from the UK.

We couldn’t take pictures inside unfortunately, but the outside was very pretty:





On the way back to the hostel we stopped at the Hainan Temple; with some excellent carvings and decoration, it looked like something out of a Mortal Kombat stage:




We went to the night market food court for dinner to try out some chicken satay. Unsurprisingly, the locals do it a lot better than we do at home, so we scrummed ourselves silly on the stuff.



Apparently regular readers of this blog think I am obsessed with ice cream, cakes and bakeries. This is true. I love all three. A visit to a place without trying at least one baked good or new ice cream is not a complete experience. To this end, we got some German Chocolate Cake from a place called Maxim’s on the way back from the night market. I can’t tell you what makes it German (Gilly is the baking expert); maybe it was the number of layers. Either way, it was great.

We were getting itchy feet and there wasn’t a whole lot else we wanted to do in Georgetown, so early the next morning we took a bus to Ipoh, the third largest city in Malaysia.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Day 128 - 130: Koh Lanta

The trip to Koh Lanta took us the entire day. For reasons unknown, we were shunted from the scheduled bus which would have taken us on the ferry to the island, to one an hour and a half later. On the plus side, this meant we could eat some pizza from a nearby Italian whilst fending off the local monkeys. Conversely, it meant that we didn’t get to the island until around 7pm. By this time, it was getting pretty dark.

We’d chosen to wing it instead of booking any of the expensive accommodation options online. We were met by a couple of tuk-tuk drivers who ferried us around trying to get us rooms in various guesthouses with no luck. It seemed that they weren’t trying everywhere, probably just the ones they knew they would get commission on. Gilly suggested we try Best House, a place she’d emailed a couple of days earlier and who was saving some rooms for us to look at. I’m not honestly sure why I didn’t ask the drivers to take us there first; it had completely slipped my mind. Needless to say they weren’t happy as this wasn’t one of “their” places, and tried to convince us to go elsewhere. I insisted, we arrived, and we all got rooms in what looked to be a pleasant, clean and welcoming guesthouse. The drivers then demanded double the agreed price for taking us around. There’s nothing like post-trip extortion of exhausted travellers to make you feel welcome. I packed them off with a “take it or leave it” increase, and they buggered off.

After dumping bags and having a cold shower (well, there was no alternative!), we went to Mr. Green’s restaurant for dinner and had a cheap meal before hitting the sack.

The next morning we signed in with the owner, Jow, who was lovely. It looks like she runs the place with her husband, and does so diligently. The place is spotless, and we couldn’t grumble at the rooms. We had a spot of breakfast and went down to the beach, which was only 50 metres behind the guesthouse. I’d picked Long Beach for the accommodation location, as it was apparently the nicest with soft golden sand and decent swimming, and it didn’t disappoint. There were quite a few people spread out over the beach but because it was so huge, it didn’t look crowded at all – far from it. It wasn’t your typical tourist beach with rows and rows of parasols and deckchairs, just a few bars set back from the sand. It was quite similar to Otres Beach in Sihanoukville, but even less touristy if that was possible. The sunsets were equally magnificent:


There wasn’t much to do in Koh Lanta, but that suited us. We were happy playing table tennis, cards (V and Fi came up with some interesting new games: Crap and Blontoon, and a reworking of Whist called HA!) , chucking a ball around in the sea, or sitting about reading.  On our third (and final full) day there we decided to go kayaking in the mangrove forest, on the other side of the island. After plenty of haggling, we managed to hire out some kayaks for a few hours without the need of a guided tour, private longtail, or any of the other gubbins the shop tried to foist on us. With rather dodgy lifejackets in place, we launched into the river. I’d not kayaked since Vang Vieng back in November, and had forgotten how knackering it could be. As it happens, when the river is shallow, kayaking is even worse because you can’t get any purchase with your paddle. To say the river here was shallow would be an understatement of immense proportions. If I’d stood up in some places, it would barely have covered my ankle. A picture to illustrate how deep the paddle went:


We saw monkeys on the bank as well as hundreds of crabs which had one small claw and one massive claw, and fish jumping out of the river. All this activity was done in the heat of the midday sun, so after an hour and a half’s exertion, we stopped for a well-earned break:



After plenty of paddling, we decided we didn’t want to risk getting lost at sea and/or beached somewhere, so we headed back to the “harbour” for lunch. I finally found some crab, and how:


He didn’t look particularly happy. Fortunately for him, we opted for some crab fried rice. As anyone who orders fried rice with meat in SE Asia will attest to, you get 95% rice, and 5% meat on most occasions. We barely had enough to cover the claw of one of his small friends, and it wasn’t a patch on Kep, so I think I’m going to stop looking for crab now until perhaps Australia.

In terms of food in Koh Lanta, there was one place which was recommended to me by a local dive instructor which was insanely good – Krua Kritsana. We tried it out one lunchtime, and had baked chicken and prawn fried rice. The chicken was magnificent, and the whole meal was so good, we dragged Colin, V, Oldy and Fi back there for the following two evenings. We tried their red curry, green curry, and Nam Tok, all of which were superb.


If you ever go to Koh Lanta, eat here.


We were only able to stay for 3 nights with the gang in Koh Lanta, as we were heading to Penang in Malaysia on the 18th. However, we thoroughly  enjoyed our time with everyone, and it was great to have more Miltonians out in force to join the travelling parties – thanks to Colin and V for a fantastic time, and to Oldy and Fi we’ll see you in Perth if not before!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Day 122 - 127: Koh Pha Ngan

A much calmer sea made for a nicer boat ride, although focusing on a laptop screen watching an episode of Nikita also helped. Koh Pha Ngan has a reputation of being a party island, mainly due to the Full Moon Party (as well as the spin-offs: Half Moon Party, Black Moon Party, Shiva Moon Party, and many, many other cash-ins), but we'd passed the full moon a few days back and it wasn't really our scene anyway. We scooted past the taxi touts at the pier and had a light lunch at Nira's Bakery - excellent cakes - before getting a more reasonably priced taxi to Lime N Soda.

This is basically a self-contained holiday resort in the Baan Tai area, with an on-site restaurant and bar, swimming pool, table tennis and pool tables, laundry and massage services, and a good number of bungalows/rooms. We were in a cold water bungalow, which was fine as the weather was baking hot. The bed was comfortable, the room was clean, and it was right on the beachfront (which was more of a reef - far too shallow to swim in). We enjoyed the facilities for a few hours then set out in search of Fisherman's Restaurant which was reputed to have amazing yellow curried crab, and we were both in the mood for some decent crab to see if it compared to Kep. After a 2.5km walk, we got there to find they hadn't managed to catch any crab for two days. We went for our fall-back dishes: fried fish in spicy sauce for me, mackerel with 3 dipping sauces for Gilly. Both were superb, and we managed to put the disappointment of no crab behind us.

The next day Oldy, Fi, Colin and V arrived. Due to crossed wires, we hadn't booked them rooms at Lime N Soda so we took them to Red Cube which we'd spotted the night before, which was similarly basic, but reasonably priced and only 5 minutes away.  Then it was time to catch-up at the Lime N Soda pool, drinking cocktails and enjoying the atmosphere, before heading out to get some food and watching the Liverpool - Manchester United match. That was the plan, but the restaurant (Lobster Seafood) took an age to get us our food, so by the time we got to the Irish Bar the first half was over at 0 - 0. I should have stayed away...Liverpool lost 2-1.

A day of lazing around the pool and “beach” (more like a shallow reef) followed, with table tennis, reading and blogging amongst the activities. We also find time to try some synchronised pool jumping followed by a sunset watch:






In the mood for a pizza in the evening, we headed out to a place called Cool Runnings which we’d spotted on our marathon trek to Fisherman’s Restaurant a couple of nights prior, only to find it was closed on Sundays. We weren’t having much luck on the food front. After tossing up the pros and cons of stopping in Outlaw Saloon Bar for a pizza instead, we decided against it. It certainly looked the part (absent saloon doors aside) but the place was empty, and the menu was pricey. Almost by chance we stumbled over Franck’s, a French joint run by a very enthusiastic Frenchman, who wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo. They also did pizzas, as well as a number of other decent dishes including a wonderfully creamy triple chocolate mousse.

As Colin and V were only going to be with us until the 19th Feb, we decided to head to the north of Koh Pha Ngan to see what else the island had to offer. Chaloklum came recommended by a dive instructor at Lime n Soda, and by chance we had a leaflet for Chaloklum Bay Resort, which we’d been given at the pier on arrival, and advertised heavily discounted rooms (300B) and bungalows (500B). I rang and booked 3 bungalows for the next day.

Unfortunately, that’s when things didn’t go so well. If you could describe Chaloklum Bay Resort in a word, it would be “disappointing”. The leaflet, no doubt Photoshopped to within an inch of its papery life, spoke of gorgeous bungalows, beach bars by the deep blue pool, and other magnificent facilities. When we arrived, it looked lovely; plenty of bungalows around with balconies, hammocks and no doubt wonderfully cool and well furnished inside. We paid for our rooms and were then shown to three concrete holes situated under the restaurant. These would have been the “rooms” advertised at 300B; I queried this with the hawk-faced harridan manning the reception desk, and she was dismissive, even when I produced the leaflet. Apparently that leaflet wasn’t valid (most likely because she was now in possession of our cash, and wasn’t prepared to part with it). Our hands were tied. Not only had we been fleeced for a room instead of a bungalow, the room itself was utter crap. Gilly and I got arguably the worst of the three, but there wasn’t much in it – the mattresses were foam planks, the bed sheet wasn’t big enough to cover the bed, the walls were covered in damp and the plaster was crumbling, the bathroom had been built at an odd angle so the water didn’t really drain away from the shower but tended to pool just after the doorframe…and so it went on. V and Colin had a dead cockroach in theirs, and Paul and Fi had been given a bath sheet instead of a bed sheet.

Thankfully we didn’t need to stay too long in the rooms, so we had a look around the actual grounds. Everything was in a state of “almost completion”. The pool should have been great, and nearly was: stone bar stools lined one edge and there was what looked to be a beach bar next to them, but it was just a hut (unlike the leaflet which showed the bar stocked, and full of wine glasses). Added to this, packs of feral and collared dogs roamed around the resort, one of which decided to take a dip in the pool immediately after doing the same in the sea. This might have accounted for the odd saltiness mixed with the chlorine we tasted when swimming…


The beach itself was sandy but shallow, and strewn with rocks and broken glass inland, and not deep enough to swim in for a good kilometre north of the resort. The restaurant served passable food, but the prices were comparable to the more tourist-oriented (and nicer) area we’d just left. When we asked about wi-fi we were handed a payment sheet which started out at £1.20 for 30 minutes access – incredible. I asked the make-up splattered harpy how she managed to access the internet on her phone, and she claimed that she had to pay for wi-fi the same as the guests. Really, at 120B per hour? A quick check of the wi-fi networks showed one called “CBR” which must have been for people paying for expensive bungalows, and not for us mere peasants. If they were paying upwards of £30 a night and had to fork out for internet access too, they were bigger suckers than we were.

Still, I had time to practice my pool acrobatics:


We went to the little village centre of Chaloklum for some lunch at Seaside Restaurant (disappointing), and found a bakery from which Gilly ordered me a belated birthday cake for collection the next day. There was a festival on between the 12th and 14th Feb, and we’d arrived on the 13th, so we decided to check it out after enjoying another good suunset on the beach.



The "festival" was basically a stage where a few acts including dancing children in skimpy clothes danced fairly provocatively, a school music band hammered out some tunes on various percussion instruments, a group of 4 women dancing, and more promisingly, what looked to be a rock band that tuned up with some heavy riffs, only to descend into bland Thai pop when the sound check was complete. We met an Aussie from Melbourne called Rachel, who hung around with us for the night too.






Some surreal excitement came halfway through this set when one local, no doubt heavily inebriated thanks to the over-priced beer towers on offer, decided to throw a fold-up metal chair at someone, missed, and ended up hitting the female Thai partner of a western man one table away from us. Whilst the woman, who was obviously in pain, rubbed her arm he was then chased by a number of other people including, bizarrely, a balloon seller who leaped after him whilst holding on to his selection of roughly 40 inflatable animals, and escorted out of the makeshift arena.

The festival also included a small walking street, with people peddling everything from food to clothes, but oddly very little in the way of seafood, given the name of the festival. We did have some decent pork on a stick, chicken burgers, samosas and doughnuts, though. We stopped off at Woodstock Bar on the way home, and hung around in hammocks for a couple of hours:



We headed to bed hoping that some moderate intoxication would take the edge off the hard beds. It didn’t.

A new day dawned and saw us sat by the pool in the morning, sampling the aforementioned passable breakfast a little later on, then walking through the sea which barely came up to our knees. I attempted to get some blankets for our room, which we could lie on and improve our sleep quality. The sour hag was busy on the phone and muttered at me to go upstairs to talk to someone in the restaurant. There was only one person there, and he was waiting tables and looked pretty brow-beaten and barked at me to come back later. I did so, and he then furnished me with a thin sheet. I asked him (in Thai) for a blanket instead, and he stomped off complaining before returning with a bath towel. It seems that this is what passes for bed linen at Chaloklum Bay Resort.

We went to town and picked up my birthday cake (banana sponge with vanilla and lemon buttercream), and had a lunch of samosas, crisps and cake. That’s my kind of meal. The cake was fantastic and easily enough for the 6 of us. Thanks Gilly  Interestingly, one of the staff members had the decency to provide us with a knife and plates, the only one that actually appeared to care that we were guests at the resort, and not just a walking ATM to be sneered at.


We played some poker in the afternoon and for dinner headed next door to a place I’d spotted which did Nam Tok. After our experience in Koh Tao, I definitely wanted to introduce the others to this dish, and they weren’t disappointed (although it wasn’t quite as fantastic as the one we’d had on the other island). We had decided to move to Koh Lanta the next day, as it was on the way to Malaysia for us, on the way to Phuket for V and Colin, and was reputed to have fantastic beaches and be an all-round lovely place by everyone we’d talked to on our travels that had visited. That trip involved a 6:20 taxi to the ferry pier though, so we had a quiet night and retired to our cells for another fitful night’s sleep.