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Kuala Lumpur (continued)
The following morning I tackled the local buses again, for a visit to the Batu caves. The bus from Pudu Raya as mentioned in Lonely Planet doesn't seem to exist, and the number 11D doesn't leave from the Central Market Annexe itself but from the next street parallel, outside the Bangkok Bank. It's a large bus stop, and for once there's a sign listing the numbers of the buses that stop there, so if you can't see this sign then you're in the wrong place. But you have to keep a lookout for the bus you want - when it finally did turn up it went sailing past the stop (which was occupied by another bus at the time) and came to rest a bit further along. Quite a few people seemed to have already been waiting in the area where it stopped, so maybe the 11D always does this. Once you got to the Batu caves, there was no obvious place to wait for the bus back into town either; you had to start off back down the road you'd come along, and wait outside a garage which showed no indication that it was also a bus stop.
The Batu caves were worth the trip though - yes, the place was a tourist trap, but it was very impressive. Added amusement was provided by the large number of monkeys that populated the area, being supplied with bananas and other food by the visitors. I think the locals are amused by the fact that foreign visitors are so excited to see monkeys, in the same way that I find it amusing that Japanese visitors to my country get excited when they see sheep!
Pictures from the Batu caves: the 272 steps up to the entrance; monkeys; inside the caves.
When I got back to KL I tried to visit the former prison but it was closed, I'm not sure whether permanently or just for Hari Raya. Spent the afternoon in the local area close to my guesthouse, and in the evening I walked up to Little India where there was supposed to be a huge market on a Saturday night, but all I found was clearing up in progress on a nearby street after what looked like a not-particularly-big market. Presumably the market had been either moved or cancelled because of Hari Raya.
On December 31st I caught the 8.30am bus to Lumut and took the ferry across from there to Pulau Pangkor (Pangkor Island). While waiting for the bus I met an Argentinian couple, Veronica and Diego, and spent much of the next couple of days with them. After landing on the island we had lunch in Pangkor town then took one of the pink minibus taxis to Teluk Nipah on the west side of the island, where most of the backpacker accommodation is. The best beaches are on the west side too; the east side consists mainly of fishing villages. Most of the budget accommodation was fully booked but we managed to find rooms; I got one of the A-frame huts at the Ombak Inn (firstname.lastname@example.org), and Diego and Veronica got a nicer room with ensuite facilities at Joe's Fisherman's Village. An A-frame hut was RM20 and an ensuite room/chalet was RM40, or RM50 for three people; I think both places were the same price. Rooms had fans but no air-conditioning. My accommodation was very basic, with a shared toilet (a squat one with no light) and shower (with no shower head, so really it was an overhead tap) down the path, but it was adequate for a couple of days. The chalets were considerably nicer. Redeeming features were the attractive garden setting, the proximity to the beach (mind you, everything in Teluk Nipah was within about 100m of the beach) and the helpfulness of the owner (when he could be found). Unfortunately the staff in some of the other local establishments were considerably less cheerful and helpful, particularly those in the mini-market. There was also a place serving Western-style breakfasts and offering Internet access, which I belatedly noticed had a sign saying it was open to "non-Moslem only". They may have had a good reason for this but I can't think what it might have been.
Boarding the Pangkor ferry at Lumut.
The Ombak Inn, and my room there (the first A-frame hut in the first picture).
After getting settled in and cleaned up, we went for a walk around the local area, scrambling over rocks at the end of the beach only to discover afterwards that there was a path through the jungle running just alongside.
In the evening we joined a group from Tokushima-ken in Japan (mostly JETs), who were also staying at the Ombak Inn, for dinner at the seafood restaurant opposite. The food was expensive but good - though the crab was incredibly fiddly to eat so I wouldn't have that again! Then we gatecrashed a party at TJ's for a little while (they'd already finished their barbecue and we were buying drinks so nobody seemed to mind) and just before midnight everyone migrated to the beach. Nobody seemed to be quite sure exactly when midnight was or what they should do when it came, but we managed to organise a chorus of Auld Lang Syne, in which we were joined by a couple of the French guests from TJ's, although they had no idea what was going on! After that everyone sat on the beach and chatted, gradually drifting off to bed. It was getting on for 3am by the time I got to sleep, thanks to the antics of a very drunken neighbour who had locked himself out of his hut and tried to solve the problem by putting his fist through a pane of glass in the door.
New Year's Eve: dinner at the seafood restaurant, and gathered on the beach shortly after midnight. When you ran your hand through the sand you found lots of little bluish phosphorescent things. Someone told me later that they're a kind of phosphorescent plankton, which move into and out of a given area at
different times of the year, because they are pushed around by sea currents.
On New Year's Day, Veronica, Diego and I hired mountain bikes (RM15 for the day, plus a RM20 deposit, though the guy tried to overcharge me until I threatened to go elsewhere) and cycled round the island. It was pretty hilly so parts of it were hard work, and good brakes were essential. On one particular descent, at the north end of the island, you had to keep your brakes jammed on all the way down, and probably wouldn't have been able to stop even then. Although tiring, it was a good way to spend a day if you're the kind of person who gets bored just sitting on the beach. We cycled up the west side of the island, over the pass at the north end (had to get off and push for most of the way up), then down through the fishing villages on the east side. We saw a South Indian temple and the Portuguese fort (pretty much the island's only bit of history, and not all that impressive) but missed the Chinese temple that was there somewhere, with its miniature Great Wall. There were also a couple of jungle paths but we didn't stop to investigate them. Had a quick swim at a beach at the southern end of the east coast road, and came out covered in dirt. When we got back to Teluk Nipah we we went for a swim there too, and found ourselves just as dirty again when we emerged. Funny how you get to these picture-postcard paradise beaches and find that the sand is just as gritty and annoying, and the sea water is just as dirty and sticky, as at home! The weather's usually a lot better though...
Pictures from our bike tour of Pulau Pangkor: a bit of coast at the north end of the island; Diego and Veronica; fishing village scenes; decoration on the Indian temple; the Portuguese fort; on the beach at the south end of the island.
The next morning, in the midst of a downpour, we left Pangkor and parted company, Veronica and Diego heading for Penang (which I unfortunately didn't have enough time to fit into my itinerary) and me for the Cameron Highlands. I had to get a bus to Ipoh, another bus to Tapah, and a third one up the hill to Tanah Rata. Each leg of the trip took about two hours, and I also took a couple of hours off to look around the old town in Ipoh. While in Ipoh I succeeded in finding a phone that worked (most phone booths in Malaysia seem to be pretty useless - either they contain no telephone at all, or the phone doesn't have a receiver, or there's no dialling tone, or it's for emergency calls only) and calling ahead to the Cameronian Inn (email@example.com) to book a dorm bed. When I got to Tanah Rata I was met off the bus by a guy called Gil who gave me a lightning tour of the town and took me back to the guesthouse. Most of the local guesthouses have touts waiting when each bus gets in from Tapah, and provide free transportation from the bus station - though in most cases it's only a five-minute walk. There's a lot of competition, but it seems to be pretty amicable; if you're considering two possibilities then you'll be invited to look at both, with transport provided, before making your decision.
The Cameronian Inn was very nice, and a bed in the 4-bed dorm was a bargain at only RM6 per night. The only drawback was the internal window (there being no external one - a common situation in Malaysian guesthouses) which looked out onto the corridor and let the noise in. People did make an effort to be quiet, though - there were signs asking for silence everywhere except the TV room after 10pm, and the guests mostly adhered to this request. It would have been difficult to sleep late in the morning though. For the first two nights I was sharing the dorm with a German lady called Elke who lives in India. We ate at a local Indian restaurant which serves its food on banana leaves.
The Cameronian Inn.
Elke and a banana leaf dinner.
The Cameron Highlands, in the centre of the country, are more affected by the monsoon season than the west coast, and the weather was particularly wet for the two days I was there. This, combined with the cooler climate (around 20°C), meant that laundry took forever to dry, even though there was a roof over the drying area. I washed a few things on the evening I arrived, and 48 hours later most of them were still damp. One place in town offered a complete laundry service, including drying, and would probably have been a worthwhile investment.
The day after I arrived, I joined one of the free jungle treks led by "George of the Jungle", a retired Irishman who lives in Australia but spends a lot of time here. There were around 18 participants, from the various guesthouses in town, and he took us on a two-hour trek through the rainforest. After that there was the option to either drop out and get a taxi back or continue for more of the same. Most of us opted for the former. It was an interesting experience for a couple of hours, but there was no wildlife (it had all either been hunted by the indigenous Orang Asli tribespeople or withdrawn to less human-infested parts of the jungle) and the forest was too thick to offer much in the way of views. Besides, rain was threatening. Had a lazy afternoon and evening.
Pictures from the jungle trek. George is the guy in the middle of the third picture.
The following day I took a taxi to the Sungei Pallas Boh tea plantation with Camilla (a Swede living in Switzerland) and Maxelle (a French Canadian). I'd considered the RM15 Countryside Tour but had heard that, of the attractions it visits, the tea plantation is the only worthwhile one. Our taxi driver gave us a very informative tour, with photo stops and explanations of the processes involved in cultivating tea. Getting the bus would have been another option, but it's a 3km+ walk from the main road to the tea plantation visitor centre, the bus was late, and the weather wasn't good.
At the tea plantation: explanation from our taxi driver; in the tea processing plant; view over part of the plantation (the blue buildings are employee housing); with Maxelle and Camilla.
That afternoon I went out for a "steamboat" meal with fellow guests Cecilia & Patrick (Aussies) and Sarah-Jane (British). The experience confirmed my suspicion that steamboat is basically the same thing as a "nabe" in Japan, the only significant differences being the shape of the pot ("steamboat" has a central funnel, which is presumably the reason for its name) and the combinations of ingredients used in the soup. Afterwards Sarah-Jane and I did Trail 4, the easiest of the "standard" treks - really just a 20-minute walk alongside a brown river, with a waterfall strewn with rubbish.
Steamboat meal at the Mayflower.
Back to Singapore
The following morning (5th January) I took the bus down to Tapah to catch the express bus back to Singapore. We arrived in Tapah with - theoretically - only five minutes to spare, but in fact the 10am bus came at 11am and then took nine hours instead of the timetabled seven. If I'd known, I would have got the overnight bus instead, or gone back to KL the previous evening and got a bus back from there. (In fact I wished I'd scheduled a bit of shopping time in KL for the end of my stay, since the shopping opportunities weren't up to much in Pangkor or Tanah Rata and I had to stock up on my omiyage!) When we got to the Singapore entry point, we were put onto another bus for the remainder of the trip into the city - evidently our driver couldn't be bothered to complete the journey with so few passengers. Fortunately Nadzri, a helpful Malaysian who spoke very good English, explained to me what was going on and helped me find my way back to Orchard Road via the MRT.
The descent to Tapah (views from the left side of the bus - the tea plantations and a waterfall are best seen from the other side): a view over the rainforest, and one of the villages (an Orang Asli settlement, I think).
When I got back, my host wasn't in the best of shape, having unfortunately been bedridden with 'flu for most of the week. Although she was feeling a bit better, her energy levels were such that she couldn't face the idea of going to Sentosa Island the next day, so I went on my own. Sentosa Island is Singapore's fun park, with more attractions than I care to list here; it's worth spending a whole day there if you have the time. You can get there by ferry, bus or cable car. I went by ferry and found that you didn't buy the ticket until you got there; there were various packages covering the return ferry trip, entry to the island, and assorted attractions. On Annette's recommendation I bought the "Sentosa Splendour Plus" ticket for $28, which included Underwater World (the aquarium), Butterfly Park / Insect Kingdom, Fort Siloso (a British fort which fell to the Japanese in 1942), Images of Singapore (a mainly historical exhibition), Dolphin Lagoon (with pink dolphins) and the Merlion (a huge statue of a mythical creature which represents Singapore - "Singapura" means "lion city"). I got round everything - and visited the Southernmost Point of Continental Asia too - but was a bit pushed for time so I had to rush some of the attractions. Unfortunately I missed seeing the dolphin show so all I got to see of the pink dolphins was a brief glimpse of a mottled dorsal fin.
Sentosa pictures: a couple of Japanese guys I met, and a big ugly fish, in the aquarium; the Merlion; view of Singapore port from the top of the Merlion; me in the Merlion's mouth, and at the Southernmost Point of Asia Continent.
When I got back to Orchard Road I hit Lucky Plaza and stocked up on the omiyage before meeting up with Annette, grabbing a quick meal at a food court, doing my packing and catching the bus back to the airport for my night flight home.