A Travellerspoint blog

Living the high life in Hong Kong

sunny 20 °C

You know when the stars are all aligned, the Moon's in Uranus and Saturn's rising... or some such twaddle... when everything just turns out brilliantly and goes in your favour? Well, for us this was Hong Kong. We had a really great time here.

Firstly, it was down to our accommodation. I know it's probably not terribly interesting to read about where we stay... but I have to tell you about this place.

Now, Hong Kong isn't cheap - the city drips wealth. High end shops, malls, hotels and super cars are in abundance. We did start to question if we'd made the right choice coming here as backpackers. Needless to say, you don't get much for your money... £40-50 a night basically gets you a box, so we had to up the budget as we couldn't face a 6ft sq room as our base.

For £70 a night we booked a guest room in a 2 bed apartment located on the 50th floor. The block was pretty smart with suited door attendants and fancy fittings. The apartment had floor to ceiling windows to take advantage of the mind boggling views from the lounge and our bedroom. It was awesome. Had it have been a hotel with that view you could have easily tripled the price.

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The lift had a chandelier!

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The incredible view from our room

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And again on our first morning

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Zooming in on the nearest block having spotted residents on a morning stroll on their roof

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The block from the outside

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How the locals live, the only way is up...

Our hosts were an extremely nice thirty-something couple from Denver, Andrew - an actuary & Maureen - an economist, who have temporarily moved to HK with Andrew's work. They made us feel right at home and chatted about things to do in the city.

The second reason it was great - it was cooler here. Well, for the locals it's winter so we saw woolly hats, thick tights and scarves... quite funny for us as at 16-21 degrees it certainly wasn't cold. We walked around in t-shirts and shorts! But it made wandering around the city really comfortable compared to every other city we've been to so far.

Lastly, it's a magical time of year to be here. The Christmas lights and decorations were very impressive, no expense spared. Entire skyscrapers and huge hotels are lit up with various festive images. A highlight was the 1881 Heritage shopping mall... it was like a fairytale.

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The first morning was spent looking skyward at all the ultra modern skyscrapers. We were struck by how orderly everything was (the MRT is a dream to use), and how all of a sudden people were happy to form lines and didn't push or barge like we'd experienced in other parts of Asia.

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The lines of Hong Kong...
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One street you can be surrounded by luxury malls, the next in a hawker area or wet market. It's a fascinating place to wander.

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Food was, at times, interesting. We found ourselves in a small all locals chinese restaurant with a confusing menu. We opted to share a beef tendon & rice dish, not least because it had the description 'delicious' in front of it. Ha ha. What arrived on our plate was a raw jelly like substance which wasn't terribly 'beefy'. I couldn't bring myself to eat it, Ant had one attempt and left the rest. We just ate the rice around it and they looked at us a bit bemused when we left!

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Jellied beef anyone?

Of the many sights, we saw several markets including ladies, flower and goldfish (!), the space museum and 'the peak' - where you get great vistas of the city and harbour. It was a tad hazy for our visit, but some sweeping views all the same.

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We had a great Saturday evening, having found a cosy (Aussie) bar for a couple of beers. We saw a young western guy drinking on his own so Ant invited him to join us. He'd just left the navy and was making his way to Oz to work. Turned out he was from Weymouth! We all ate there and as the place filled up, an older guy walked in and asked to join us. Interesting character... an Aussie who was over for a big horse-racing event. He wore a hat and tipped his head down when he spoke so we only ever caught every third word. He also had extremely red lower eye lids, as if he was wearing pillar-box red eyeliner. We guessed he wasn't well but it was hard not be be distracted by his appearance when talking to him.

A blues band came on, a bunch of middle-aged guys playing various brass and wind instruments. They were superb and we kept ordering more beers so we could enjoy for longer. A random night with racing red-eye man and Weymouth boy!

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Having now been to the four main en-route to Australia cities in Asia... Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, Hong Kong is by far my favourite. Such a liveable city.

Fabulous place, so glad we came.

Posted by Galavantie 05:06 Archived in China Comments (0)

Exploring KL

overcast 29 °C

KL was a sort of middle of the road place for us. It neither blew us away nor did we have a bad time here. We arrived lugging our bags in the rain and it was mostly grey and cloudy the rest of the time, so maybe that added to the slight 'meh' feeling we had about the city.

Our small apartment was great, very modern and clean with a fantastic view of the Petronas Towers and KL Tower, particularly impressive at night. Fantastic value at £28 a night!

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View from our room

We walked virtually everywhere and on our first day we definitely bit off more than we could chew in the heat. We headed towards the park area, which took us through Chinatown and the fringes of Little India, where we saw the most impressive Hindu temple so far on the trip.

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We passed the KL station building which must have been very grand in its day. It's in a moorish style but sadly looking a bit tired today.

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More impressive was this station...
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The attractive Sultan Abdul Building

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They really should inject more personality into it...

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The not so pretty part of KL...

Once we reached the park we were going to look around the Bird Park which claims to be the largest walk-in aviary in the world, but decided it wasn't worth the exorbitant admittance fee. Instead we wandered around the (free on weekdays) Orchid & Hibiscus Gardens and paid a small fee for the Butterfly Garden. We really enjoyed the latter, the butterflies themselves were beautiful but before the exit there was all manner of bug-stuff from across the world - alive and dead - to view as displays. Fascinating critters, but also grateful for the glass between us...

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A Christmassy looking plant we thought

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Nature's Chinese lanterns

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Check out this fella!

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Count Sticky(s) the stick insects...

After dinner on food street, we wandered over to the Petronas Towers which really were quite special. They sparkle diamond white at night and beneath them is a great recreational area for sitting back and enjoying the view.

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Our second day was spent mooching around the malls - shopping in KL is a way of life. There are tonnes of vast malls, some just specialising in one thing - there's a mall entirely dedicated to electronics. We researched ipads as we're thinking of getting one to enjoy for the rest of the trip and they're cheaper here than at home.

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I'd read about this new place called i-City outside KL, in Shah Alam, (which we renamed Shah City... cue another song...). It has loads of family attractions but the one which caught my eye was 'City of Digital Lights'... loads of man-made trees lit by over a million LED lights using technology from Korea. It was a bit of a commitment to go as it meant two train trips and a taxi ride each end, roughly 90 mins each way...

Sooo... the trees were pretty, and it was quite magical... but, once you'd seen them that was it. It probably only took us half an hour tops to walk around, plus the journey door-to-door ended up being 5 hours. So in the end it was a bit of a trudge for a relatively small reward. Also, we were the only westerners on the train out of KL and at i-City, and if we're honest it did make us a little uneasy about being that far out of the city late at night. Think we both felt a sigh of relief when we were safely on the train back to KL!

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In summary, KL has one truly stunning building (one of the world's most beautiful I think), some glitzy looking hotels and some great shopping, but it's not packed with sights and 2-3 nights max is all you need to experience the best it has to offer.

Next stop Hong Kong!

Posted by Galavantie 22:56 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Boom boom Malacca lacca boom!

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Ever since we decided to go to Malacca (more commonly spelt Melaka) we've had this song in our heads, we thought we'd mention so you can have it resonate in yours. Consider it our gift. (If you haven't got a scooby what I'm on about, youtube Was Not Was - Walk the Dinosaur).

The title is actually (conveniently) entirely appropriate...

One thing which appears to be unique to Melaka is their trishaw. Illuminated, bright, brash, ludicrously over the top with booming music, theirs are the mother of all pimped up touristic transportation. The trishaws that taste forgot. We must be getting old because their pumping music was enough to bear from the street, never mind having it blasted inches from your lugholes on a tour of the city. Needless to say we didn't partake, I felt enough shame just taking pictures of them - but for the cause of the blog!

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Shame they exist really, as Melaka has plenty of charm and history without the need to resort to these. Anyway, what do we know - Asian tourists go mad for them, running to the pink-ist, flowery-ist and most overly themed ones they can find.

Melaka was a bit like a mini George Town. The architecture very similar with perhaps even more ornate and well preserved shophouses, and it's home to the oldest mosque in Malaysia. In fact it has one road affectionately named Harmonious Street on account of there being a Chinese temple, mosque and Hindu temple sharing the same stretch.

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Street art

It has an interesting history under Dutch, Portugese and British rule. The former's influence in particular is evident in 'Dutch Square' where they built Christ Church, Stadhuys and a clocktower - all dating back to the 18th century. However, Melaka's glory days as a trading port were two to three centuries earlier. It has a strategic location between India and China which resulted in obligatory stop-offs for merchant ships at the time. Malaysia as a whole is very much a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures.

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Maritime museum and monument

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Dutch Square

When the British ruled from 1824, they weren't as interested in Melaka, their focus instead being on Penang and Singapore - both of which prospered as a result.

Today, Melaka draws in the weekend crowds, many from Singapore, KL and surrounding areas. Of course there's plenty of international tourists as well (a nod to our presence adding to the throngs), although we were surprised just how few westerners there were compared to George Town. We were slightly unfortunate to have timed our 3 nights here with a weekend and because the Old Town is quite small, it did feel very overpopulated which detracted a little from its appeal. It gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status the same time as George Town and of course since then, tourism has exploded.

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Mud skipper

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Spot the boardwalk lurker...

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Strolling along the river...

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Cute shops and old fashioned barbers!

A highlight of our stay was our accommodation and host, Bernard, a local in his mid 30's. I'm practically evangelical about airbnb.com - where you can book spare rooms or entire apartments/homes from the owners, often getting much more bang for your buck (or Ringgit) than hotels and guesthouses. From the description, we thought we'd just booked a private room in a house, but it turned out we had the whole place to ourselves! It was great to have a lounge complete with DVD library, kitchen and free use of bikes - a bit of home from home and all for £36 a night.

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Bernard was out of town the day we arrived but had arranged for his Mum to pick us up from the bus station. When he arrived later that evening, he offered to take us for dinner. He drove us to a local hawker centre, selected and paid for a number of dishes - most of which were new to us. What a welcome!

After dinner he gave us an orientation tour on foot around the city pointing out some lesser known places of interest to visit the next day. It was a real treat to have a local give us our own guided tour. We walked back to his house and he swapped cars to give us a lift in his immaculately conditioned 1968 bright red mini, complete with Union Jack roof - made Ant's day!

Talking of cars, you see a lot of old models over here which last a lot longer in this climate, including my first car - a Datsun Sunny. Couldn't resist a pic, fond memories of my 'Dad's car' as a friend once put it.

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We met Bernard again on our last night where we returned the favour for dinner and on our last morning he picked us up for breakfast, helped us to find a Pai Tee mould from an Aladdin's Cave of a hardware store (explanation further down), took us to a beautiful colonial hotel for a nosey and a visit to a traditional Malay village. It felt like we had a friend here and was a really enjoyable experience. Over breakfast he even went through a load of pointers for KL. Y'see... you get a much richer experience through airbnb!

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Posh and Becks eat your heart out

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Pai Tee (a Nyonya specialty) - a Malaysian hors d'ouvre if you will... light crispy case with shredded vegetables fried, egg and chilli sauce. Delicious. So much so we bought the specific mould to make them... hoping to make for dinner club when we return!

Nyonya = a woman descending from the Straits Chinese who settled in the area and inter-married with the locals. The men are known as Babas. Nyonya cooking is renowned and they have a number of dishes very specific to their cooking techniques.

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Great shop where we found the mould

Final story is really one for the girls. I had no idea the experience of a haircut could differ so much from the UK...

I booked a chop at a local smart looking salon close to the house we stayed in. The guy did a dry cut first. Then washed it whilst I was still upright in the chair (!) using a small amount of water and a lot of lather. This involved a head, neck and shoulder massage which lasted almost as long as the cut. Then for the rinse and another head massage for 10 minutes (UK hairdressers take note - this is the future!!). A dry, another light trim followed by straighteners to add some oomph. 1 hour and 40 minutes later I emerged feeling straight-from-the-salon-tastic, and all for a tenner!

Posted by Galavantie 22:58 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

It's oh so quiet... sssshhhh, sssshhhh

sunny 34 °C

G'day!

Just a real quickie... sorry we haven't blogged for a bit... still a few entries to add for Asia yet and we've already been in Oz for nearly a week. The main issue being time and availability of internet cafes to upload pics. There were two a penny in Asia, but since getting to Oz we've not had much time to seek them out as we're having to eat up the miles on our road trip!

Chances are it'll be back to a glut of entries and then nothing for a while.

Hope everyone is well back home and gearing up for Christmas, it's still super weird for us to be sweltering with Christmas just around the corner. Oz is great though, a real contrast to Asia. Financially challenging mind, and keeping to the budget is going to be nigh on impossible.

Lots of love to all our friends & family. M, if you're reading this, I miss you loads. Think of you often and will email you soon, feeling bad that I haven't already. Also, happy birthday J-Ho, we raise a stubbie to you!

Travelling Cookies xx

PS I've been on the Aussie red wine tonight, hence soppier blog :)

Too easy mate!

Posted by Galavantie 04:15 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

What's it really like, this travelling melarky?

Thought I might do more of a 'how are we finding it' entry than a review of a place for a change.

So, we're a quarter of the way through our 9 month adventure. Blimey! Our UK life seems like a world away, yet the weeks in Asia have flown and our time here is almost done.

Travelling
This has been so much easier than either of us had imagined. That said, we acknowledge just how beaten the path is, particularly in Thailand. With the exception of the one bad travel day to Ao Nang it's been ridiculously easy getting from A to B.

It's great to see all ages travelling, some destinations attract a predominantly younger crowd and we've not been the core demographic, but other times you see a wide range of backpackers... clearly some have been travelling for a loooong time! On one occasion we were sat next to a woman in her 80's (probably 70's - she'd just had a few decades in the sun) in an internet cafe as she attempted to log into her Facebook account! She also looked like she'd just stepped out of an 1980's workout video... Fame! I'm gonna live forever...

It can be tiring moving about so much considering almost every day we're sightseeing or arriving somewhere new. But when we're feeling like we've been too busy, we just slow the pace down and have a quiet evening in or a free afternoon to chill out. We try to stay somewhere for a minimum of 3 nights so we're not chopping and changing too much.

You very quickly adapt to life 'on the road'.

The heat (is on)!
Apart from the respite the Cameron Highlands gave us it's been a constant 30-35 degree heat everywhere we've been. Anthony finds it harder to cope with and if he's honest, prefers a cold climate. It does make you feel sticky and sweaty but I love being warm all the time... no cold feet - bliss!!

Food
The one thing we feel we didn't get to experience on the tour was street food, so since we've been travelling on our own we've eaten at loads of hawker places and can honestly say it's the best food we've had. Shouldn't tempt fate, but really surprised that neither of us have fallen foul of dodgy bellies in the 10 weeks we've been away...

We've learnt our lesson to try to keep some emergency food with us as trying to seek out the first meal of the day or finding lunch running on low sugar levels isn't great.

Definitely the thing we miss the most is the chance to cook a meal, have a bottle of wine and settle down on the couch to watch a film. We have done takeout pizza, beers and a dvd but it's not quite the same.

The pack!
Constantly packing and unpacking can be tiresome, but I'm so thankful I bought a travel bag which unzips fully so I'm not ferreting about for stuff at the bottom of my pack. You quickly get used to where things live in your pack so it's not always necessary to completely unpack anyway.

Clothes
Starting to get a bit bored of the same clothes! As I write this we're in Kuala Lumpur and I guess our usual experience of a city break is to glam up for cocktails and enjoy some fancy bars and restaurants. Currently nearly all my clothes are in the laundry so last night I 'hit the town' in my travellers trousers to go to the fancier part of town to see the Petronas Towers. Scruffbag!

Complacency... taking things for granted
This is hard. This is how our life is right now. It's easy to become blase about the places we're going to and you definitely lose the perspective you have at home. As an example, it's Wednesday today. Tomorrow we fly to Hong Kong and on Sunday we fly to Australia. We've barely given the latter any thought yet if we were at home and were off to Australia at the weekend, we would be so excited and planning it for weeks! We're not in any way ungrateful, far from it... it's just that we're visiting so many new places you only tend to look ahead in the very short term.

I do often remind myself just how amazing what we're doing is. Quitting our jobs to do this (and we've met several others who've done the same) sure feels liberating.

Cultures
There's no getting away from the cultural differences between east and west. Many we have embraced... others are hard to. There's the ever present snorts, loud clearing of throats and spitting... bleugh! Oh and in certain countries (especially Vietnam) it seems perfectly acceptable to put your finger up your nose for a good root around in full view of anyone who cares to see! Watching out for scams... Thailand has probably been the worst country to constantly make sure we don't get hoodwinked into some tourist Baht extraction scheme.

Queuing
A national pastime for the Brits. Many Asians don't appear to share our desire to form an orderly line and we've seen countless examples of people barging and pushing in front of us. It can be pretty frustrating and has made us appreciate just how patient and polite the Brits are on the whole.

Toilets
Lordy. Sometimes these are super challenging... and I've been to the Isle of Wight festival so I'm not prissy. Some public loos have such a strong urine smell it's made me instantly gag. Not pleasant! I also always checks toliets for any 'friends' as I shared one toilet in Laos with a cricket about 10 inches long. Thankfully no huge spiders as yet...!

But in summary, it's by far the most amazing thing we've ever done. The freedom to stay or move on or change our itinerary is such a luxury. The sights we have already seen are incredible, and despite the above observations, overall people have been friendly, helpful and welcoming. Service is usually with a smile... something you definitely can't say about the UK!

Posted by Galavantie 16:44 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

High tea in the Cameron Highlands

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It took about 4.5 hours on a minibus to reach the Cameron Highlands from George Town. Travel is extremely cheap here, the journey only cost £8 each.

As we climbed we had fantastic views of the vast forested hills. It was a bit of a shock though the nearer we approached the Cameron Highlands, to see acres and acres (and acres) of farmers' poly tunnels. So much has been given over to agriculture... they grow strawberries, cut flowers, vegetables and herbs on, what looked like, a global scale. More on this later...

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This was only a tiny fraction of what we saw, multiply this by mile upon mile

Most tourists facilties are in Tanah Rata, our accommodation (Father's Guesthouse) was good with exceptionally helpful staff, but we weren't keen on the town itself. It's overdeveloped, busy with traffic and is dotted with half-built structures, some deserted where funds ran out and others in the process of being completed. It wasn't quite what we pictured as the genteel tea-drinking mountain retreat the British colonised 100 years ago... 'progress' eh!

But it's certainly not all bad and we did a couple of really good excursions to get closer to nature, the remaining forests and tea plantations.

One option was a Rafflesia tour to see the world's largest flower, named after Sir Stamford Raffles (of Singapore fame). I'd seen one of these as a kid in the Guinness Book of Records and remember being fascinated by it, hoping to see one one day. Here was my chance!

We then learnt that during the wet season (we're now back in a monsoon season here) the blooms are few and far between. There are 54 sites around the Cameron Highlands and the guides go out spotting for new flowers which could appear anywhere in these sites. Secondly, the blooms only last a week before rotting and of course it's better to see them as early as possible when they're at their best. As we only had 2 days here I started to accept it was unlikely we'd get to see one, but we got word that the guides had found one which was 3 days old, so we booked a tour!

We had an hour's drive and 1hr 45 minute round trek to get to its location. Pretty good considering we were told some sites take 3 hours trekking just to get to!

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Trekking to see gert big flower

Best quote of the day.... we were 5 minutes away from the flower and I turned to Ant and said "I feel like a kid at Christmas"... "I feel like an adult in a sauna", his reply...

It was so good to see one. Now, the specimen we saw certainly wouldn't win best in show - it was already 4 days old and they don't grow as big in the wet season - but it was still worth it. They're amazing... they're actually a parasite, living off one specific vine, so their condition relies heavily on the health of their host. They also take 5 years from germination to bud and the flower takes another 6-9 months to open... but there's only a 60% chance it opens at all due to fungus/disease. Man, these things are like gold dust!!

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Found it!

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The cabbagey looking thing to the right is a new bud which may flower in a few months time

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On the way back our guide pointed out lots of interesting plants including a yellow flower that we tasted which is a natural anaesthetic. We saw a large nephila female spider (common names - giant wood spider or golden orb web spider) with two tiny males in the web. They're so much smaller than her because she eats them after mating. Another bizarre nature fact is that as their web is the strongest of spider webs, their silk has even been used in the process of making bulletproof vests! I bloody love nature me.

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Shock shock horror horror... the female of the species...

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Ants on a route march

Our guide was locally born and made his feelings clear about what has happened, and is still happening, to the Cameron Highlands. The British based in Malaya started coming to this area for a holiday to escape the heat (it's around 20 degrees during the day) at the end of the 19th century.

They started to colonise and develop the area for agriculture (tea and strawberries... God love 'em) from the 1920's. Over the following decades development was tightly controlled by the British with farmers being allocated a limited sized plot. When Malaysia gained independence in 1957, the British began to move away from the region. With the last of them gone the locals had free reign and farming has since expanded beyond any control - with the most being in the last 15 years. When I asked about who/what body has any authority to govern now, he simply said "they are there, but they are sleeping".

He indicated that 75% of the forest has now been cleared and given over to agriculture, and that the farmers don't care about the future, they're just in it for the now to make as much money as they can. Such is the greed of man. Very sad.

Our second tour was to the BOH tea plantation (BOH stands for Best of Highland and is a superbrand in Malaysia) and the 'Mossy Forest'. The tea plantation was stunning and after seeing the processing methods, we supped a cuppa of their finest blend whilst enjoying an incredible view.

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Our guide was hilarious and had us in fits with his quips and anecdotes, but he also had genuine passion for nature and talked of his own travels to some of the world's less explored rainforests. He reassured us that the oldest parts of the forest here are protected now.

Some of the mosses can hold 16-20 times their weight in water, and at certain points you could bounce on the forest floor like a natural trampoline. Botanists have also catalogued that 75% of the plants here have medicinal purposes!

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Views from Cameron Highlands' second highest peak, Gunung Brichang, at just over 2,000m.

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Pitcher plants which trap insects

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Where are the hobbitses precious?

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Orchid

Both tours were half day morning excursions so we welcomed two free afternoons to book onward travel and recharge ready for our final busy leg of Asia... 3 days each in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

We changed our minds about squeezing Borneo & Brunei in as they would've been quite rushed, plus east Malaysia is more affected by the monsoon right now.

Posted by Galavantie 16:12 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

And a new entry straight in at no 1... George Town, Penang

sunny

When I say number 1, I suppose I'm talking about towns/cities. It's really difficult to have favourites overall as nothing compares to the majesty of Angkor Wat or the natural beauty of Halong Bay's formations. But when it comes to towns, George Town has definitely gone straight in as our favourite so far.

Where to start!

Ok, in a nutshell... the buildings are stunning, the food is incredible, there's tonnes of street art, interesting heritage places to visit and the people are genuinely helpful and friendly.

We didn't know anything about George Town other than it achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008, so we didn't know what to expect. It's really exciting when a place you know little about blows you away and you love it from the off. We ended up staying for 5 nights as there was plenty to do...

Street art
Our first day was spent looking for street art. There are two types of art around George Town... wrought iron comic style works set away from the walls, providing information about the area or street it is placed and wall paintings which sometimes have 3D objects incorporated. The latter have only been in the town since last year.

It was good fun hunting them down using a city map which marks out their locations. Here's a selection...

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Places of interest
There's a lot to tick off, including churches, mosques, temples, shophouses, historic mansions, art galleries and colonial buildings.

Highlights were the Khoo Kongsi chinese temple which was so ornate and painstakingly detailed within, the Penang Peranakan Mansion and the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion - the latter being listed 2 years ago by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 mansion houses in the world to see.

It was built in the 1880s for Cheong Fatt Tze, a local merchant trader who left China as a penniless teenager and ended up as 'the Rockefeller of the East'. The house sits on the 'dragon's throne', meaning that there is a mountain (Penang Hill) behind and water (the channel) in front – the site was chosen for its excellent feng shui. It's only since 1990 that it's been restored to its former glory.

I'll let the pictures do the talking (there's a lot of them...).

Khoo Kongsi Temple
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Peranakan Mansion
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Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (aka La Maison Bleu)
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Old meets new

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Best of the rest... shophouses...
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Mosque and churches...
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Little India
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Colonial...
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Misc..
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Pom-pom-tastic

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Nessie found!

Food
Penang is rightfully known as the food capital of Malaysia. Not much more I can say other than it was generally superb (and so cheap!). I had the best Indian food I've ever had at a fab food night market hall... and on our best day spends wise, breakfast, lunch and dinner for both of us came to a whopping £6.80!!

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Bustling food court complete with Phoenix Nights singer

Outside of George Town
Penang is a reasonably large island joined to the mainland by two very long bridges (it took us around 3 hours by ferry from Langkawi to get here). As we had a few days, we were able to explore beyond George Town. Unlike Langkawi, the public transport is excellent with a one hour bus journey costing all of 80p.

We headed out to the Tropical Spice Garden which offered three different trails through indigenous tropical plants, flowers and spices. We saw several skinks and a beautiful bright green lizard which hot-footed it over some ferns and up a tree quicker than we could even take the lens cap off the camera...

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Another day, another bus ride took us to Penang Hill and Kek Lok Si temple - the largest Buddhist temple in SE Asia. An impressively long funicular train takes you to the top of the former, where you're afforded far stretching views of George Town, other parts of Penang and the mainland beyond. It was a pity though that (other than the views on offer) the top was spoilt by naff tourist 'attractions', but good for kids I suppose. However, the ride up was fast and fun.

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Kek Lok Si temple was closed by the time we got there but as we weren't appropriately dressed anyway (knees and shoulders need to be covered) it was more to look at it from the outside. It's pretty large but rather higgledy-piggledy and close up wasn't that attractive - the best views are further away when you can appreciate the grandeur of all of it. The scale was impressive though, particularly of the Buddha statue at the top, something which our photos don't convey.

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Can thoroughly recommend putting George Town on any SE Asia itinerary. It's a real gem.

Posted by Galavantie 02:38 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Langkawi - the good, the bad and the ugly

rain

Lang means "eagle" and kawi means "reddish brown", more succintly Langkawi means "red eagle". Although it's actually named after the Brahminy Kite, not an eagle at all. So now you know.

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First views of Langkawi from the transfer from Koh Lipe

We had 3 nights/2 full days here and struggled to find decent accommodation within our budget. We therefore ended up in a fairly faceless large corporate looking hotel close to the airport, it felt a bit like a stay through work by Manchester's airport! The room was fine but we were very out of the action. Turns out our stay coincided with school holidays when hotel prices can double, plus the added bonus of loads of kids about. Ah well.

Now, I'm sure the experience of many western tourists to Langkawi is to check themselves into a luxury top end hotel (of which there are many), returning home satisfied they've been suitably pampered and had a wonderful holiday. And there's nothing wrong with that. But scratch beyond the expensive-hotel-bubble surface and we found Langkawi surprisingly disappointing. (It probably didn't help that it rained for half the time we were here.)

It's a fairly sizable island with no public transport, so it was a choice of taxis, scooter or rental car. We opted for the latter for our first day and got a small runaround to explore in.

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Our diddy transport

So, onto the good, the bad and the ugly...

The Good
We were struck with how courteous and friendly everyone was from the start, from immigration staff to taxi drivers and the welcoming hotel receptionist.

The beaches were nice enough but busy with watersports, and to be fair we had been spoilt on Koh Lipe.

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Cenang beach

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Pasir Tengkorak

One of the most popular attractions is Langkawi's Cable Car which runs for 950m up the mountain. With a 42-degree incline it boasts the steepest cable car ride in the world. Unfortunately there was a lot of fork lightning and storms the day before, and the attraction was closed due to technical problems as a result. We wandered around the somewhat jaded tourist trap 'village' at the base of the mountain, but did have fun trying out segways for the first time on a special track.

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Couldn't get more posed if we tried

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We also took the car up the long twisty climb up to the top of Gunung Raya, Langkawi's highest point at 881m. It was very atmospheric as the mountain mist rolled across the road and the only company for most of the journey were macaques sat scratching on the roadside.

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Sign at the summit. Now you put it like that...

You're not meant to make eye contact with the macaques or bare your teeth else they consider it a challenge. I did make eye contact as we stopped the car and this one started to make a definite beeline for us... "go, go, go!" I shouted to Ant after snapping a quick shot!

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You looking at me?

On the way down Ant spotted some particularly cute monkeys munching fruit high up in a tree which was level with the mountain road. They were a different species to the macaques and much more attractive. We stopped for a while trying to get a good view of them. We found out the next day they were Dusky Leaf Monkeys... aka Spectacled Lemurs.... aka Drunken Monkeys (they sit for hours eating fruit which then ferments in their stomach turning to alcohol, so come mid-afternoon they're basically pissed).

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Taken around 4pm - their mouths looking suspiciously like Father Jack's...

We'd read nothing but rave reviews about an eco-tour company, Dev's Adventure Tours (an impressive 5 star rating on Trip Advisor), so we booked 2 trips with them for our 2nd day... a morning's cycle ride through the villages and countryside, and an evening jungle trek. Both were excellent and really enjoyable. The bike ride was just the two of us plus our guide 'Shoot'.

Local kids in the villages we passed through were super cute, saying hello and behaving as if we were celebrities (weird for us)... getting very excited whenever we waved or said hello back to them. Our guide said it's because of the way we look... paler skin, bigger eyes and fairer hair colour. Malays (and most Asian cultures) love the western look and consider it very beautiful. Incidentally, as an aside, I was really surprised to see in Thailand the wealth of skin whitening products for sale and so many Thais leaving visible cream on their face in an attempt to lighten their skin tone.

Anyway I digress...

We saw loads of native birds including herons, egrets, two types of kingfishers and probably the most impressive - several oriental-pied hornbills. We visited a rubber tree plantation and saw the latex being collected and a small village where the residents had planted various trees all bearing different fruits... papaya, coconut, mango, tamarind, guava, custard apple and so on... which the locals all share and benefit from. Makes perfect sense and such great community spirit. We also got to try a local (Indian) dish, roti canai, which was delicious.

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Oriental-pied hornbill (google image as they were too high in the tree to get a photo of)

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Collecting the latex

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Rubber tree plantation

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The rubber trees in Asia are all thanks to a British dude who stole a seed because the Brazilians (where the trees originate) wouldn't sell him any

The evening jungle trek through the rainforest was really interesting, if a little scary and put us on high alert throughout due to all the bitey/poisonous/life-threatening creatures that our guide casually mentioned in passing... y'know scorpions, snakes... that type of thing.

Our guide was impressively knowledgable about the wildlife and fauna. Langkawi is home to cobras, vipers and pythons, all of which live up in the trees and come out to feed at night. Great! Just the right time for an evening stroll through the jungle then. As they're secretive we didn't see any but God knows how many were up in the canopy above our heads...

We did see some amazing colugos, or 'flying langurs' although they neither fly as such, they glide, nor are they langurs! They actually look more like flying squirrels but are more closely related to primates. One swooped down just inches over Ant's head, I thought it was going to face-plant him!

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So cute!

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Beautifully marked gecko

We also had to walk through tonnes of black termites and check our shoes carefully once through. The soldier termites are equipped with very powerful mandibles which are considered to be amongst the strongest jaws in the animal world, relative to their size anyway. Ant felt the pincers of a dead one and said they were like steel. No wonder they can chomp their way through wooden homes, thankfully they didn't chomp through our feet.

The Bad
Many of the buildings in Langkawi (fancy hotels excluded) are either scruffy and run down or they've been given the Disney treatment and rise up as hideous gaudy monstrosities in candy pinks and peaches.

The main tourist area is Pentai Cenang which we really didn't like. We had good food overall, but the main strip was pretty souless comprising of endless naff clothing shops, ugly duty free stores/malls and importantly virtually no bars!!

We drove around the northwest of the island, checking out Temuran waterfalls and some of the coastline. The former was impressive but we were really dismayed to see how much litter the resident monkeys had been able to get their hands on. Temuran means "heritage" which was pretty ironic seeing as there seemed no evidence of the islanders looking after theirs. I don't think the UK has any falls as high as Temuran, but if we did, you can bet your life the National Trust et al. would be all over it like a rash to protect and preserve its beauty. Granted we don't have pesky macaques rooting through bins, but you counter that somehow, right? We've got the bigger brain afterall...

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Lots of rubbish

The Ugly
Within our first few hours of being on the island, we took a taxi to Pentai Cenang. As we drove along the main strip, a car overtook on the right but as there clearly wasn't enough room for him to pass, he hit us as if we were bumper cars. He didn't stop and contined revving his engine like a prize idiot behind the next car, before deciding to stop his car in the middle of the road, get out, leave his car door wide open and walk off to one of the buildings on the street.

It was therefore difficult for cars on both sides to pass his abandoned vehicle and gave our taxi driver no opportunity to speak to him. No harm was done to any of us but the poor taxi driver had damage to his car. Very odd.

Our hotel was just so-so, pretty average but did the job. We obviously always lock away all valuable items, but it was a shame when I discovered the cleaner had pinched my mascara. It got us wondering what else might have gone walkies and made us more paranoid about locking everything away. To give the hotel credit, after reporting it, my mascara was duly returned a day later... but surely it's got to be rule number one for any hotel staff - don't nick from your guests?

All in all a bit of a mixed bag. The tours and wildlife spotting were excellent but other than that we were quite happy to move on to the next place.

Posted by Galavantie 05:44 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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