Size: 329,750 sqkm
Capital: Kuala Lumpur
Time Zone: GMT +8
Part of 2006 World Trip, arriving from Cambodia
and going on to Singapore
Sun-soaked beaches and diving in emerald waters, not to mention walking in rainforests.
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Flying over the Malaysian jungle was an amazing sight, with twisting waterways passing through the greenery like enormous fingerprints.
Malaysia is a nice place to travel, it has a good transport system and English is commonly spoken, allowing me to mainly just have fun. I got a bus to from the airport to Kuala Lumpur central station and then took a train over to the China Town area where there were some cheap hostels. Even the cheapest of these had air-conditioning and after nearly a week in the heat of the Cambodian planes where it was always hot and sticky I got mild burns from sleeping at a normal temperature. The hostel also had a free pool table to provide evening entertainment and a nice variety of people to mingle with.
Two buildings dominate the Kuala Lumpur skyline, the KL Tower and the Petronas Towers, and at night these buildings hang in the sky in an almost spooky way. I explored the main city centre on my first day and went up to the Sky Bridge of the Petronas Towers; this is free but there is usually a 2 or more hour wait so I went along mid afternoon hoping to get a ticket for around sunset. In some ways I was lucky, there had been a cancellation and I was able to go straight up. Unfortunately, being in the Tropics and in the heart of a rainforest, Kuala Lumpur is hit by tropical rain each afternoon.
This rain hit just as I got to the bridge, making visibility close to zero. There is not so much to do in Kuala Lumpur and after visiting a park and looking around a rather fake China Town and Little India I was getting a little bored.
I had one more day before the bus I had booked left and so I want out to the Batu cave. While this was also not very exciting I got some nice photos and the monkeys at the entrance kept me amused - while trying to take a photo of one that was snarling at me I looked around to see the one in the picture clearly posing for the camera.
The next day I caught a bus up to the Cameron Highlands. While not at any great altitude this area is cool and renowned for it rain and tea, so is, of course, an old colonial area. I stayed in a nice, although slightly military style, dorm at a guesthouse where there was a large social area that showed films in the evenings and had a pool table. Here I met Rob, Delphine and Maya who had met up in Penang. The next morning we all went for a little hike into the forest. Since it rains for at least a few hours a day (from about 3pm onwards as a general rule, make activities a morning affair) the ground was very wet and muddy and the whole forest was cloaked in mist. We scrambled up a steep mud covered track for an hour or so until finally arriving at the top of the hill. Here there was a look out tower so we could get a better view of the dense cloud. However, within another hour the sun had burned off most of the cloud and we could see into the valleys as we walked onwards. The Cameron Highlands are known for their production of tea and there are a number of plantations. Usually it's possible to take tours and sample the tea, but today was a holiday and the place we tried was closed. We could still, however, see the plantations, which are a marvellous sight. Having walked far enough we caught a taxi back to the hostel.
This was driven by a crazy Malay guy who insisted on stopping to pickup fallen fruit from the road side for us while explaining about the many wives he had had and how he drove better after a few beers - he clearly had not been drinking since he flew around the blind corners in a nonchalant fashion saying it was easier at night when you could see headlights.
The evenings here I spent playing poker with group of English guys and on our last, and slightly drunken, evening we decided we should burn our poker chips - about 2000 matches - to save disposing of them. After about half an hour carefully aligning every match so that the live part was on the outside of a ring we excitedly set the structure ablaze - the results where somewhat disappointing although we did get the whole thing to burn quite well in the end.
I had a final day to myself in the highlands and did some more walking and took tea at a plantation, then got a bus back to Kuala Lumpur and caught a night train over to the Rainforest area of Taman Negara.
Even though Taman Negara is one of Malaysia's top tourist destinations there is only one train from Kuala Lumpur and this, for some reason, leaves in the early evening and pulls in to Jerantut about 3am. There is the option to doze in the station or find a bed for the second half of the night. I opted to get a dorm, which turned out to be one room with a bunk bed. Further to this, Chris, the other guy in the room, had locked the door so the poor receptionist had to bang on the door until he woke up to let me in. Chris, a Dutch guy who's real name I cant remember, had been travelling for close to a year and after a couple of months in New Zealand had pickup the nickname Chris, which was easier to say that his real name.
There are two ways to get to the Taman Negara resort, the tourist boat ride, which is expensive but a nice trip, or the less publicised local bus that cost next to nothing but is fairly mundane.
I opted to get the boat in and bus out, so the next morning Chris and myself went along to the jetty and caught the boat up river. It is a little odd travelling up river for a few hours into what seems like the depths for the forest only to find a town with roads and a school when you arrive. But this is Malaysia, which is somewhat more developed than most of the rest of Asia.
Taman Negara, however, marks the deepest into the jungle 'civilisation' goes; from here it is possible to do a week long trek to a volcano and, apparently, it is likely you will see native people who may never have seen a person from outside their village before. I chose just to wander the paths closer to the resort for a couple of days. Due to the scale of the tourism it is hard to see wildlife close to the town. There is a nice tree top walkway high in the canopy although you have to queue for half an hour and the place is full of screaming kids so the chances of seeing any animals is slim. However, I headed further a field and went in the afternoons when it rained and everyone else stayed in the village.
This didn't improve things much but I did get to see a few more birds, and some of the large lizards. I also got to see many leaches, which are common slightly away from the most walked trails; these can move surprisingly fast and it took a good few minutes to get the one in the picture to stay still long enough to get the shot - I almost let it suck my blood to speed things up.
I had taken the Lonely Planets advice and worn my hiking shoes and covered my socks in Deet, but even then I found a few leaches had made their way into my shoes (but didn't get to my skin). Other people clearly hadn't taken the advice so, whilst sitting quietly in a hid, from time to time there would be screams and people wearing sandals would run in. I would give them Deet and they would run off again, but after a while it was clear that I would see no animals. One evening I decided to go on a night hike. I was going to sign up for an organised trip but over dinner we (I would meet up with Chris for dinner each day) met a couple to scientists studying the flora and fauna of
the area, they said it was better to head off on your own as it was quieter and there are so many species the guides usually don't know what stuff really is. So armed with my head torch I disappeared into the dark.
After waking past all the groups and deeper into the forest I switched off my light and waited in the dark for a while. I would then switch it back on to see if anything had appeared. I saw a few little wood scorpions on the trees and some fluorescent mushrooms but the best thing was the lightning. The storm must have been a way off as there was no thunder or rain but the forks were really impressive in the total darkness. I spent a while trying to photograph it to no avail - I had been trying to get a lightning shot since Laos but its quite hard and it took another few weeks before I would finally get one, albeit of poor quality, in Singapore.
Melaka is another old colonial port; originally owned by the Dutch it was traded with the British for a similar town in Indonesia in a time when Europe 'owned' the East. One thing really sticks out in my memories of Melaka, and that is my guesthouse. I had been recommended a place to stay with a cheap dorm and so booked in for a couple of nights. The owners of this place were away and had left someone else in charge, and to be honest it had tuned into a bit of a shambles. Two of the guests in the dorm, who were friends with the manager, would go out each afternoon and get really drunk. They would then come back at 3 am and making lots of noise for several hour and could not be shut up. In many ways I was luckily, someone else I met stayed in the same place a week later and one of these guys was sick all over his stuff. These two I could put up with and I could also cope with the fact that the one time I opted not to hand wash my cloths and get them done properly they came back damp, and smelling worse than before (and this was after a day of
intense sunshine and heat and the manager boasted about how good he was at washing!). The one thing that really put me off, however, was the bed bugs. Having just come from the rainforest where the dorm didn't have mosquito nets or netting on the windows I had picked up a few bites; this I was used to, in Laos you get bitten all the time. Also, not having had bed bug before it took me a few days to realise what was happening. While mosquito bites are small and disappear within a day with minimal pain these bed bug bites swelled up to about a centimetre square, lasted for nearly 2 weeks and were really itchy all the time to the point where I couldn't sleep. I also got a bad case of them - well over 200 all over my back, legs, feet, shoulders, arms and stomach. I have had one or two cases since but these were only a few bites and never as painful or long lasting as these. In some ways this place is memorable because out of the 50 something places I stayed on my trip, often the cheapest dorms, this was the only bad one. Not the happiest bunny in the world I quickly left Melaka and headed over to Tioman Island for some much needed recuperation.
Alan, the Malaysian I had travelled with for a while in Laos, had recommended Tioman Island to me. He had said it was where the Malaysians went on holiday and was the most beautiful and least spoilt of the east coast tropical island. I'm not much of a sunbather - I think I managed to sit still on the beach for 5 minutes out of the 8 days I was there - but this sounded good, and he was right. I opted to stay in the cove called Kampung Air Batang. This is quieter than the main area, Salang, whilst still having some cafes and a beach bar, and the chalets where almost on the beach itself. Still being outside of peak season I almost had the whole beach to myself and within 10 metres of the shoreline was a coral reef full of fish.
The first day I was there I went for a swim to sooth my itching body and foolishly tied my chalet key to my shorts. Of course I lost the key within minutes and had to go to grovel to the owner. It transpired that there was a master key but no spare and I was told to go back on the beach and look for it. After a few hours of fruitless beach combing I came back empty handed to find that luckily the key had washed up further down and been handed in. My relationship with the girl in charge got worse the next day when I locked the same key in my room and had to get them to open the door again; after this I was really careful.
One of the main reasons for me going to Tioman was to learn to scuba dive. Many people I had met previously had said how great the diving was in Asia, and I had kept a week free to allow for a course. There are a number of dive schools on the island and I chose to go with Dive Asia, which seemed most professional. This meant that I had to commute to Salang each day on the dive boat, which was good fun and added value for money. In some of the busier tourist resort there can be about 20 people per instructor in a class, thing were a little different for me - I had 2 instructs to myself.
Dave was an English guy who had been diving for many years and Tim was an American who was doing the last part of his Divemaster qualification. Both of them loved diving and were mainly having fun rather than just teaching me, which lead to a great atmosphere. The course was 4 days, and for the first 3 I studied and watched videos in the mornings and did short dives in the afternoons. The teaching area was just off shore in shallow waters within the coral reef itself, and the water temperature was a warm 30 degrees.
This meant that straight away I was treated to seeing amazing fish and other reef dwelling animals. Most of the diving lessons weren't too hard but getting the buoyancy right took a while to master and I struggled quite a bit with taking my mask off underwater. I was very glad I mastered this though as on my first deep dive after doing a routine mask removal exercise, and during an underwater navigation practice, my mask started filling with water uncontrollable leading to a little bit of a panic. After a while, and some help, I found the strap had come loose and was able to get back to normal, but I was glad I could cope; at +10m down you can't just pop up to the surface. On the first days of the course the tail end of a typhoon was passing over so it was cloudy with the odd shower - very rare for this part of the world, but watching the rain hit the seas surface from underneath is fantastic. The weather cleared up after this, leading to beautiful blue skies on the last day.
With the diving course fundamentals complete and the exam passed the final day was on the dive boat doing two deep dives. We were originally going to look for sharks but in the end we went to two spots just off a place called Coral Island. This, apparently, is rated in the top 10 of world dive locations so things can't really get much better. By now I had mastered my buoyancy and my bed bug bites had stopped hurting so the day was one of the best of the whole trip. We saw lots of big and small fish (I can't remember names) as well as brightly coloured worms and clams and a plethora of other things. Tim and Dave were experts in different species and were almost continuously excitedly pointing stuff out for the whole two or so hours of the dives.
On the third day on the island, part way through the course, who should turn up in the chalet next to me but Chris who I had met in Taman Negara. Each evening we would make use of happy hour at one of the bars while waiting of a good sunset (which never happened), and then head over for food - the fresh barracuda was rather good. The day after I finished the course we both hired snorkels and flippers and went into the bay. The chalet owner said that the best snorkelling was just in front of where we were staying but we weren't sure so went further a field. While it was ok we saw nothing amazing and I mainly just practised my newly leaned skin diving technique. In the afternoon we found that the owner had been right; literally meters from where we were staying we got to see barracuda, shoals of reef fish and even a ray. The highlight, however, was finding a turtle. This was leisurely swimming along a few metres below the surface. We didn't want to scare it so we swam a few meters back, staying on the bottom as long as possible, and must have watched it for a good half hour before it headed back out to sea.
The final day I went for a hike in jungle interior of the island, over the ridge and down to a village on the other side. Since the villages are perched right on the shoreline the island interior is almost untouched by man and there are monkeys along with many of the usual large lizards. Following this, Chris and myself headed back to the mainland and on to my final Asian destination: Singapore