alaysia Blog


July, 2006

We send out lots of email while we travel. In fact, of course, we send email much more often than we update the web. We can never quite remember who we told what to, so this page is meant as a sort of bulletin board for our most recent whereabouts, impressions, and comments while we work more slowly and deliberately on the permanent web pages.

1999-2002 Index

2004 Blog | Index

2005 Blog | Index

2006 Blog | Index

Wednesday, September 21 —
Panuba, Tioman Island

We are coming to the end of a lovely week in paradise. Our first two days were spent at the Paya Beach resort, which we had booked in Mersing. We changed room after just one day to move from a room without a view, to one right on the beach. The view was lovely. The beach was lovely. But we just didn't feel comfortable.

We are coming to the end of a lovely week in paradise. We were just about to get on the bus to Singapore and then realized we would be fighting with lots of people for hotel rooms because of the World Bank and IMF meetings, so instead we took a bus to Mersing and then a boat to Tioman Island. In Mersing, a travel agent sold us 2 nights in each of two "resorts" as we couldn't make up our minds without seeing the places with our own eyes. We ended up liking the second, cheaper place and so stayed on there an extra five days. We have a detached cabin up the hill from the beach but with a nice view of the ocean and rooftops of the buildings on the waterfront). It's fairly spartan but is air-con and with a private en-suite hot shower for about 12 pounds per night including a small breakfast. There are maybe 30 rooms altogether, a big open-air restaurant right on the beach, and best of all our very own aquarium just off the beach. We've been snorkeling twice a day since we got here and are still not bored with what we find. Today, we both got to swim through schools of fish that were so dense, you couldn't see the bottom even though it was just a few feet below them (and us). Most people come here to go diving, which is cheap and popular and from what we've heard spectacular but we are happy with the patches of coral and sponges and fish that we have seen. We've also been walking in the jungle and have seen monkeys and big monitor lizards for our pains. It really is neat to hear a rustle, look up and see a monkey staring down at you! So it was definitely the right thing to do.

At the end of two days we moved from Paya Beach to Panuma Inn, where we ended up staying for an extra five days. We had a detached cabin up the hill from the beach but with a nice view of the ocean (and rooftops of the buildings on the waterfront). It was fairly spartan but was air-con and with a private en-suite hot shower for about 12 pounds (US$25) per night including a small breakfast. There were maybe 30 rooms altogether, a big open-air restaurant right on the beach, and best of all our very own aquarium just off the beach. We went snorkeling twice a day from the very first day and never got bored with what we found. One day we both got to swim through schools of fish that were so dense, you couldn't see the bottom even though it was just a few feet below them (and us). Most people came here to go diving, which is cheap and popular and from what we've heard spectacular but we were happy with the patches of coral and sponges and fish that we saw. We also went walking in the jungle and saw monkeys and big monitor lizards for our pains. It really is neat to hear a rustle, look up and see a monkey staring down at you! Panuba did not have the class of Somkiet Buri in Thailand, but it had this wonderful beach access and such great snorkeling. A place to remember.

Wednesday, September 13 —
KL to Tioman

It was at last time to leave Kuala Lampur. After telling the hotel three times that we were leaving we had finally kept our word and given them back the room they had apparently booked to three other groups. The night before departure we settled our bill and then in the room packed all that we could. At 6:30 we were up (very unusual for us) and packed the last bits. Then we went down to the dining room to get a quick breakfast.

As planned we rolled our bags the 500 meters to the bus station. The first half of the way we had to decline many offers of taxis. The last half of the way we had many shouts from bus conductors and touts — "Where are you going?" They wanted our trade. But we already had tickets to Singapore.

But would we use them? We'd decided that if we could get reasonable tickets to Tioman Island we would go there and avoid Singapore until the IMF/World Bank/Protesters International meeting was over. We found that we couldn't get a refund on our tickets but that there was a convenient departure to Mersing, the site of the ferry to Tioman. We hated to throw another set of tickets down the drain but decided on it.

At 9:00 a.m. we left the station in a modern, air-con bus and started south, then south east, through the center and then suburbs of Kuala Lampur. We were really impressed by how modern this part of Malaysia was — Superhighway filled with cars; plenty of modern, multi-story buildings. Malaysia has a goal of reaching "developed" status in 2020; it seems that for this stretch they had already reached their goal.

We really knew very little about the topography of Malaysia and still know very little. But as we went we learned some. The west and east coasts of peninsular Malaysia are separated by a ridge that gets higher and higher as you go north; in the farther north, where the Cameron Highlands and the Tamran Nasional (National Park) are located it gets above 2000m. We were not in the far north; in fact we went south, as noted, of KL. Still we and the bus had to climb and climb through a series of switch backs to get over the ridge at the center of the country. At the top we saw giant roadworks. Obviously, in a year or so there will be a new highway that simply cuts through the ridge and cuts down the travel time greatly.

On the east side we quickly descended and then entered an area that was relatively little populated with humans and much with palm and rubber tree plantations. There were towns, but they were small (much smaller than KL) and widely separated.

Around 12:30, after three hours of travel, we stopped for lunch. The place was a bit upmarket but still similar to places our buses had stopped at in Sumatra. The "restaurant" consisted of a single large room, wall-less on the side toward the highway and had maybe thirty tables that could seat 4-6 people each. Dishes were all pre-cooked, consisting of a choice of several meats, vegetabls, and rice or noodles. As soon as we sat down a plate was brought and, as we wanted, a hump/lump of rice put on it. Then we each chose three dishes from the 8-10 that were offered us. We liked it and like it: it is easy to know what you are eating, the food pleases us, and it is quick and clean.

In another two hours we were in Mersing. As we entered the center of town we were careful to watch for hotels as we thought we might not catch a ferry that day. Oh how wrong we were.

The bus stopped in a gasoline station and it was indicated that we should all get out. Before we two were out the first people were being approached by a young lady from a nearby travel agency cum ferry ticket office. She wanted to sell all of us packages to Tioman. By the time we were off and had collected all of our bags and gotten into the office she, and two others, were occupied with a half dozen couples.

When our turn came we didn't like what she first showed us: too basic. So we asked for what we'd get in Thailand (and which we could easily afford): places with pools. She said there were three, but two were far too expensive. And the third, as far as we could tell from the photo, had a postage-stamp size pool. In the end we compromised: we booked for two nights at the Paya, with its tiny pool and another two nights at the cheapers Panuba Inn, sans pool.

While Gerry paid Jan went in search of food. We'd seen a KFC and Jan went over; we thought we'd get a heap to tide (punny?) us over the two hour ferry to Tioman. Then it was off in the agents van to the ferry terminal where we found that we had a 30 minute wait. As boarding time approached we got hungry and that's when we discovered that our KFC rations were missing. While we'd been very careful to count that we had every bag that we brought with us from KL we hadn't been so careful about KFC.

Quite sad about our food we got onto the ferry. The ride was uneventful. We were inside and hadn't noticed there was a roof deck that we could have enjoyed. But in two hours we'd made it to the Paya Resort and were settling in.

September 21,2006

Tuesday, September 12 —
Kuala Lumpur

Gerry and I are sitting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia right now trying to decide what to do next. We had planned to pick up a 60-day visa for Indonesia while here and then travel somewhat leisurely through Java and Bali (and maybe Flores) for the duration of the visa and then find some flight or other to Australia. But it was not to be. The 60-day visa required presentation of a valid travel document out of Indonesia but then no guarantee that they would grant it even with proof of the ticket in hand. So we will probably opt for the shorter, but easier 30-day visa on arrival, try and cram things into one month and still continue on to Australia.

Why then the hesitation? The question is should we use some of the month we thought we would spend in Indonesia here in Malaysia. It's very tempting. Malaysia is a much more developed country with good hygiene and the same kind of tropical attractions that you find in Indonesia. But maybe it would be better to arrive down under a month earlier and enjoy their spring and maybe spend the summer in New Zealand. Well, only time will tell.

September 13,2006

Thursday, August 31 —
Malacca Sights

In Malacca we saw the Sadthuys Museum, the Chinese cemetery, several old mosques and chinese temples, and a 19th century house still lived in.

On Wednesday, we plan to head up to Kuala Lumpur, the capital, to get 2-month visas for Indonesia. It's a pity the Indonesians aren't as smart as the Malaysians, who gave each of us 3 month visas on entry for free. Indonesia charges you 25 dollars a month for a visa and the maximum you can stay at any one time is two months.

September 13,2006

Saturday, August 26 —
Malacca Arrival

We crossed over to Malaysia from Sumatra on Friday and had a surprisingly pleasant trip. We took a boat from Pekanbaru, which must be close to the armpit of the world (see our Indonesia entry), down the Pekanbaru river for six hours followed by a two hour crossing of the Malacca Straits. We had comfortable seats in an air-conditioned cabin and good views of the riverside villages and intervening jungle as the river got bigger and bigger until at its delta it was hard to tell where river stopped and straits began. We also had access to a small back deck, so Gerry could go out and get photos every so often. He limited his excursions because the deck had no shade at all.

Getting on and off the boat weren't so pleasant: getting on we had to fight with the hundred or so Indonesians who seemed convinced that if they didn't push past everyone in front of them, the sky would fall! Getting off was more a surprise than anything as we had to transship to smaller boats at the mouth of the Malacca river because the tide was out and the big boat couldn't get upstream far enough. That could have posed a big problem for us and our bags but fortunately a group also had luggage and so we sneaked ours in with theirs and let the crew handle it all!

After we got off the boat we wanted to take a taxi to the Chinatown area where we had located by map a couple of good candidates for our hotel. We found the taxis but somehow couldn't get the attention of the drivers of the 3-4 that were there; they didn't seem interested in working! We were uncertain exactly where we were but we thought we might be within walking distance of Chinatown so we left the immediate area of the terminal and went out to the frontage highway hoping there to orient ourselves. Having done this we confirmed that we were only about 1 km away but we had the fortune of getting a passing taxi.

The driver took us what seemed a long trip, doubled in length by a curious system of one-way streets. He delived us to the door of the Baba Inn and we quickly confirmed that it had rooms. So that problem was solved. But there was a more immediate one: how to pay the taxi driver. We didn't have any Malaysian ringits! We'd already told the driver that and had him stop at an ATM but it wouldn't accept our card: we have Cirrus and it only took Plus. In the end the driver accepted Indonesian rupiahs, but at a very bad rate for us.

As soon as we saw the Baba we were delighted with it. It gives you the feel of living in an old, but comfortable authentic Chinese inn. In fact, as we learned that night, it wasn't a hotel until just about 30 years ago. Our waiter at the hotel restaurant told us that he used to swim out the back door of what is now landfill behind the hotel. The hotel itself consists of about four or even five small "railroad" apartments (small frontage, deep away from the street) combined.

Our first day in Malacca gave us some very positive impressions of it. There is still some haze over here in Malacca but thankfully nowhere near as bad as in Pekanbaru. We walked through a good part of old Chinatown. It has all been prettied up for the tourists but still retains a lot of charm (or it has been very artfully created).

August 31,2006

Thursday, July 27 —

We've now have been in Georgetown four days. Before we came we made an internet reservation at the Tanjun Banja Resort Hotel, 10 km from central Georgetown. Our idea was to spend one night at the Oriental and then go off to a resort atmosphere. But, as it is often said, the best laid plan of mice and men (and women) oft go astray. We need not concern ourselves whether we are mice or man/woman; our plans did go astray. After a night at the Oriental we went to the internet cafe and found, for the second time this trip, that our reservation had been rejected. While surprised at the rejection we are easily able to guess the reason: Every year at this time there is a big Roman Catholic festival called St Annes, which attracts about half a million people to this area. Hotels are booked up long in advance. The Oriental told us right off the bat that we couldn't stay past Friday night, telling us about St Annes.

In looking for a cash machine Gerry had passed the Continental Hotel and found it from the outside to be much nicer than the Oriental. Being afordable we took a room, again being told we could only stay through Friday night. After we'd chosen the Continental we learned that it had a bonus for us, a swimming pool. When we went to inspect it we learned that there are no worries about tsunamis there. You have to remember to turn around before the second stroke. (We joke. One can make 12 strokes before coliding with the end of the pool.) Our room is very comfortable and, being on the 14th floor, it gives us a good view of much of the city, including the pool (much below us). About five times a day we can hear the muslim call to prayers, although it doesn't quite sound like the Arab we are used to.

After lunch we went to visit the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, which is next door to the hotel and visible from our room, far below us. It was built by a once-penniless Chinese after he made his fortune in tin trading and land investments. It was used in filming the 1992 movie "Indochine" (about Vietnam) which we may have seen but we certainly didn't pay any particular attention to the mansion, The mansion itself is large, with about 20 rooms, organized around five courtyards. A dozen of the rooms are used as a guest house, i.e. a B&B, that costs RM 250 ($65) without air-con. While quaint, and perhaps tempting for those who haven't done it before, we like our air-con comfort, large room, and tiny swimmng pool. Unfortunately photographs were not allowed, something we always complain about.

Our first full day we saw the Penang Museum and some of old Georgetown, including the historic center. The museum was well done. It covered the background of the three main populations in Penang — Malay, Chinese, and Indians. And that fourth, very minority group, Europeans. And it traced the development of the island. Much of this could be obtained from a book, but there were somethings that can't. In particular it had furnishings from a rich Chinese home much better than what is seen in the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion and a very good collection of Malay wedding clothing. After the museum we ate lunch at an open air food court near the water front. It was cheap and good. If we hadn't left our notebooks computers in the Continenal's safe deposit box we could have had free wi-fi access; these day it isn't only the four- and five-star hotels which have hot spots.

We haven't decided what we will do when we are forced to leave the Continental. Our general plan is to go to Sumatra as a first step in seeing Indonesia. Our guide says there is a direct ferry, crossing in about five hours, between Georgetown and Balawagan, Sumatra. However a hotel clerk said it had been discontinued. So after lunch we went over to the ferry office and found that it was still going, although now costing $40, 50% more expensive than expected. We'll wait until the last moment and see if we can stay an extra day or two in the Continental; if not we'll most likely go to Sumatra. But we might go off to the Cameron Highlands or elsewhere in Malaysia so that we can see more of it. If, by some miracle, we can move into the Tanjun Bungah Resort we will probably do that and put off our departure.

We celebrated Jan's birthday in an even lower-key way than usual. There isn't a TGIF to eat at so we had to look around for someplace else. We found a nice revolving restaurant with pretty good views of Georgetown but could only get reservations for after her birthday. (The restaurant can be seen from our room — not by looking up but by looking down.) Instead we ate at a nice Japanese-style restaurant in a local shopping shopping center. While there we managed to buy Lonely Planet Indonesia, ending any fears we had about being guideless as we often were in Turkey. The Popular book shop reflects Malaysia as a whole: 1/3 is Chinese books, 1/3 Malay, and 1/3 English. Quite a cultural pop-pouri. That evening we celebrated with a bottle of Australian white wine and some potato chips; both are rare luxuries for us now. On top of that we had some "exotic" fruit that our hotels don't provide in their breakfast buffets — mango and rambutan.

In the hotel, book shop, and nearly everywhere we are having an unusual psychological experience. We have to remember here, where nearly everybody we contact really speaks English, that we should use words and not just hand gestures or grunts. There are exceptions, for example the person who served us at the Japanese restaurant. But much more common are people like a tour guide that we met in the Tourist information office. Of Chinese background, he explained, in very fluent English, how his sister is married to an Australian and his brother to an Irish woman and told us much about the island.

Just when we entered Malaysia, at the station where we went through Malaysian immigration control and while we were waiting to reboard our train, Gerry finished Robert Moss' "Russian Rules". It is a story that grips the farther one gets into it. This was an unusual book for us in that Gerry read it before Jan. She, seeing how much interest he took in it, dropped the long book that she was reading, "Brazil" and whipped through it. The story is about one man's plan to overthrow the communists in the old USSR. (Of course interwoven in it is a love story.) One of the most interesting things is that it was written in 1985, a full four years before the colapse of the Soviet system. It is interesting to compare Moss' speculations with what actually happened.

Sumatra, July 31,2006 | Malacca Arrival, August 26,2006

Monday, July 24 —
Malyasian Beginnings

Our train carriage in Hat Yai, Thailand was awaiting us when we got to the station after a refreshing hour in the cool internet cafe. The engine wasn't, with the consequence that Gerry was about knocked to the floor by the coupling of the engine as he was placing our bags on the rack above our seats. During the twenty minutes before departure we had a converstaion with a Chinese-Malaysian couple from Kuala Lumpor. They were the embodiment of the people we'd heard about. They'd come, as they do once or twice a year, to Hat Yai for a weekend break, justified for them by the cheap prices of clothing and food, compared to Malaysia.

We left right on time, at 14:50 and travelled very slowly generally south toward the Thai-Malaysia border. The country side was more uncultivated than cultivated, with large swaths of what we'll call jungle, though that term is not correct in that we were never far removed from civilization. In about an hour we reached the border and our exit from Thailand. The train stopped at a station dedicated to emigration/immigration formalities: a long, fairly modern one story building is shared by Thai and Malaysian authorities. The signage is not too good but after some hesitation we figured out what door to enter. There we went by a small booth, where a Thai official retrieved out Thai exit form from our passports and stamped them. Down a short corridor we found a similar booth and the Malaysia official stamped us in. Jan's passport shows that she got a three month stay. Gerry's shows that he got a one month stay, that it was crossed out, and then he was given a three month stay. Since he was first we speculate that the offical had initially forgotten some change of rules and that by the time he processed Jan he remembered to do the right thing. (We only wish that in Indonesia we'd get an automatic three months; that would make our travels so much easier.)

We'd marked our form "Nothing to declare" and we were let in with no inspection. This is nice, but makes one wonder: didn't our baggage, twice or three times the typical, make the officials suspicious? Of course we really didn't have anything to declare; even our two notebooks were allowed free, as we only had one each. On the otherhand, just a few hours earlier we had had an inspection in Hat Yai. We'd bought our tickets three hours before departure. As we were leaving the station an offical there insisted on checking the bags. Because the man only said "check" Gerry at first thought he was offering to check our bags while we went into town and Gerry refused. That annoyed the official but things got clarified and the bags were checked. The most likely explanation is that the official was controlling for arms coming from the moslem-majority Yala provence, just south of Hat Yai. In the last month there have been many bombings by terrorist separationist moslems. Why check obvious Europeans? Who knows who is in cahoots with whom.

One hour down and four to go. The Malaysian countryside seemed more ordered and prosperous than the Thai. But was that reality? Could it be that the long views we got came with cultivation and that they, the long views, were what gave the appearance of propserity? In anycase, we passed lots of rice fields, some green, and some brown after an apparent recent harvest. Later we learned that these two northern provences, Perlis and Kerlan? are considered the rice bowl of Malaysia.

When we'd departed Thailand we had had only a vague idea of when we'd arrive in Butterworth. On the train we learned that it would be 21:00 and 21:00 it was. When we heard the announcement for Butterworth, 1.5 hours after nightfall, we were ready, having gotten our mound of bags off the racks and near the door. We weren't prepared for our carriage, the last in the train, being four-carriage lengths from the platform where we supposed we were to alight. We didn't like the idea struggling to carry the bags along narrow aisles through four cars. Seeing that we could climb down from our car we elected to do that, all the while cursing the railroad officials. A trainman came along and helped us lower our bags. When they were mostly on the ground he told us that shortly our carriage would be shunted to very convenient Platform 1 where we could directly alight. He helped us put the bags on. As we waited we wondered who organizes this stuff? Why don't they make an announcement about shuttling as well as arrival?

Twenty minutes later we were at Platform 1 and got off — to find that we were at the extreme end of the platform. But it wasn't so hard to take our bags on our carts down to the other end. After some inquiries we found the way to the ferry. Only in the most loose sense is it, as "Le Guide du Routard" puts it, conjoint with the train station. In fact, it requires crossing several pedestrian bridges and going about half a kilometer. The ferry itself reminded us of our old days with the Star Ferry in Hong Kong. Not as large, not as frantic, but rows of seats and steamy tropical air, even at 21:30. And why not? Both had been British colonies and both had probably been set up by the same people. When we arrived in the waiting area we saw two foreign tourists who had been in the same carriage as us. They, having only a backpack each, had easily made their way through the four cars and alighted where we did not. Apparently from that place, where ever it is/was they had hardly gotten to the ferry much earlier than us.

Our last step was from Georgetown Ferry terminal to hotel. Which hotel? We'd picked one, the Oriental, from "Le Guide du Routard" and took a taxi there. Gerry proposed to the driver that if later he (Gerry) learned he'd been overcharged that the driver refund him the double of the excess. The driver was agreeable to this, provided that if there was no excess than he get 50% more. We agreed to a fixed amount, 10 RM (about $2.40). At the Oriental we were happy to learn the price was less than the listed. Much later than our usual we checked in and were soon ready for bed.

July 27,2006

July 27, 2005