Why Langkawi is so much better by scooter (and boat)

Langkawi, a popular holiday island in the north-west of Malaysia, is made for scootering around. A great network of local roads can take you all around the island; and with so many beaches to see, mountains to ride up, and shortcuts to take, two wheels is the only way to go.

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Visiting an orangutan sanctuary

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There’s a place in Borneo to see Orangutans, and it’s not a zoo. It’s Semenggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, just outside of Kuching, where the animals are gradually re-introduced to the wild. The apes are rescued, orphaned, or injured, and despite needing human assistance for feeding, they have free reign over the jungle that the centre is located in.dav

I took the bus from Kuching, a green-and-gold antique that rattled and shambled down the well-worn Bornean road. Next to me, a smiling Malaysian lady of about fifty sat down and immediately launched into a chat about Kuching, about Borneo, and about who I was. I explained where I was from and where I was going. She was friendly (as many Malaysians are) and offered me some sort of tiny apple from her grocery bag. When she got off at her stop, a couple from behind me tapped me on the shoulder.

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An artist’s guide to Batu Caves

The first week of a round-the-world trip. I knew something big and exciting lay ahead of me. I was free from work and responsibility and my savings were at their maximum. But that first week, I had a funny feeling of directionlessness. Am I spending too much? Not enough? Am I making the most of this? Am I being too lazy or cramming too much in? It all felt very much like an ordinary holiday, and the road didn’t feel like home yet. On day 2 I visited Batu Caves, about an hour by bus from Chinatown (Bus 11D, in front of the Bangkok bank). A man was seated in front of me, holding a small bag of rubbish. I noticed a cockroach rolling around in the bottom of the bag. It climbed out, but he quickly caught it again, and dropped it back into the bag. Weird.dav

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The best (and worst) things about Malaysia and Vietnam

I’ve left South East Asia, and I’m pretty sad to say goodbye. Part adventure, part relaxation, but mostly just sheer madness, here are some of the best and worst of Malaysia and Vietnam (more countries to follow).

Malaysia

Monkeys

I was waiting for my boat driver on the rickety wharf at Bako national park, Borneo. The sun was hot, the bornean sky an impossible blue, and the receding tide had revealed long stretches of muddy mangrove, home to a million scurrying crabs, pulling mud from their flooded homes and rolling it into balls.dav

There was no shortage of monkeys here in the Malaysian jungle. Silver leaf monkeys played and jumped in the sky on a magic carpet of crawling jungle canopy. Proboscis monkeys barreled from tree to tree with clumsy urgency, their huge bulbous noses and swollen bellies making them look like living muppets. In nearby Semenggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation centre, the great orange apes showed us that their arms were longer than Tim’s, climbing down trees with the stealth of a dancing clown, taking four handfuls of bananas from the feeding area, and loping up their tree with the fruit grasped by each hand and foot.dav

While I waited for the boat, I held a plastic bag containing 3 days of jungle-ripe laundry. The scent attracted the attention of a rowdy troupe of macaques, who leapt upon the bag with fury, tearing at my laundry until I yelled and shooed them away. But thats just one bad egg. I still love monkeys!

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Long-tailed macaque

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Hiking in stunning Mulu National Park

Kuching means ‘cat’ in Malay, and you don’t have to look very far to find evidence of it’s association. Stone statues of cat families and sculptures of proud bronze felines overlook many of the city’s roundabouts, and adorn it’s manhole covers. Kuching has a cool charm, an easy magnetism centered around it’s riverside boardwalk and surrounding markets and restaurants. At night the boardwalk melts into two halves, an elongated, shimmering twin of coloured night lights floating carelessly in the reflection of the river. Kuching reminds me of Sydney’s Darling Harbour on a quiet weeknight. I had ten days to spend there but thought it a bit long. So I changed my plans.

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The plane’s propellors whirled to a stop one by one as the pilot parked at Mulu National Park terminal. The landing had been bumpy, swerving nervously in response to imperfections on the tarmac of the jungle airstrip. ‘Jungle airstrip’, I smiled to myself. It was my childhood of Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Talespin and Tintin. Mulu National Park, in Sarawak’s far north, was an entirely different beast to Bako N.P. I liked Bako for it’s wildlife and ‘do it yourself’ trekking. Amazing natural formations were Mulu’s claim to fame, boasting some of the world’s biggest caves, tour guides a nessecity.

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Travel tips for Bako National Park

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“Enjoy it, man”, Tom said as I walked past, a backpacker from Liverpool who was travelling with his New Zealander girlfriend, Sarah. “Will do”, I replied, as I set off into the jungle. I had met them days earlier in Kuching, capital city of Sarawak, on the West Coast of Borneo. They were sitting on the dock, waiting to take the boat back to Bako Bazaar and back to Kuching. For me, however, it was my first full day in Bako National Park, and I had chosen a 3.5km hike through the jungle to find a waterfall buried high in the mountain. I had been chatting with them the previous night, they had done the hike the previous day, and warned me of the hard work, and litres of water, required to complete it.

Bako national park is only accessible by charter boat from Bako Bazaar. The visitor’s centre and cafeteria, flanked by timber hostel rooms were all that remained of civilization. It was idyllically located, on a stretch of muddy beach, facing pristine waters of turquoise, guarded on each side by giants, sea stacks of rocks, thousands of years of erosion poking holes through the sandstone. The jungle was tall and green, palms and vines already swallowing the lodgings. From the visitor’s centre, labyrinthine trails snaked into the park, some less than kilometer, others taking over a day to finish and a speedboat to return.

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The first 30 minutes on my trail were hard. The path was unmistakably easy to identify, but that’s where the comforts stopped. Clambering uphill over boulders and ancient tree roots wrestling uncomfortably over the ground, this hike required all four limbs to finish. At the plateau, I took a long drink of water. The terrain had changed to a rocky escarpment, the trees had thinned, and the sun beat down mercilessly. The humidity was 100%, temperature easily in the mid thirties, and I was bathed in sweat. I wiped my face, and droplets just as soon appeared. “Only 3 more kilometers of this. Plus the way back”, I thought.dav

As the hours wore on, the landscape changed from steaming jungles of palms and roots, to decrepit boardwalks passing over dry scrubland, to white-hot sandy gullies, and enchanted forests of moss-covered logs, butterflies and beams of light shooting through the canopy. I reached the waterfall after about 2 1/2 hours. It trickled down a cascade of rocks, collecting in a big brown pool. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was all about the journey there. Two Czech guys arrived, in an identical state of fatigue, disappointed with what they say. “I’ve seen better”, one of them explained.dav

Back at my lodge after the return journey, after a cold shower, at long last out of my singlet which had doubled in size from the weight of the perspiration, I sat on the porch and opened my book. The sky changed. An ugliness of grey filled the air and the trees in an instant. Strong winds lashed the treetops, testing the bend of the palms to their limit. At the click of a finger, the rain began to fall in buckets. Lightning and avalanches of thunder accompanied the smashing of branches, breaking of trees, and the scatter of long-tailed macaques and bearded pigs to their shelter. I watched in awe with my dorm mates, at the fury of the Borneo wet, feeling lucky to be undercover.

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That was day 2. I’m back in Kuching now, in civilization, after my 3 nights in Bako, eager for a hot shower and a cold ice coffee.

Borneo

The door swings open and Matt stands in the doorway of the humid jungle bar, khaki clad, dabbing beads of sweat off his neck with a hankerchief. The jungle mist rolls past his feet, and the sound of insects invades the room, drowning out the beat of the fan. Derrick sits at a corner table, eyeing a shot of vodka. Wearing a beard and headband, he has been missing for months. “what took you so long”, he challenges Matt. Without lifting his gaze, he downs the shot. Rising, he meets Matt, staring each other down. Breaking the tension, they shake hands, a fierce monkey-grip. Breaking into a smile, Matt speaks. “Derrick, you son of a bitch, you’re alive!”

Im flying to Borneo tomorrow! Feeling a bit stir crazy in the madness of kuala lumpur. If it’s even half as exciting as that mental picture in my head, it should be awesome!

Travelling too far in one day is a waste of time

I woke up yesterday in Melaka, 2-3 hours south of KL. ‘Historic Melaka’ is a mix of the various colonial rules that have fought for control over the town over hundreds of years. The end result was a charming, colourful town, dotted with Portugese forts, Dutch churches with British renovations, Chinese temples and Indian cuisine. A cool place to wander around and sample local foods by the quiet river, but Melaka was not very lively, and most bars were inexplicably closed during night time.

I left at lunchtime. 2 taxis, 2 buses and a train later, and I had arrived in Georgetown, a bustling city on the island of Penang in the country’s far north, at 10:30 at night. Unshowered, tired, hungry and thirsty, I checked into the first hostel I found, a dive called the Banana Hostel (chosen for it’s cool name), with strange demountable cell-like cubicles for rooms. I didn’t like it, but settled for it. My crankiness gets exponentially higher with my hunger, so I quickly slurped a noodle soup on the side of the road and went to bed.

The next day I woke up and the streets were sunny, filled with markets and people. I felt much better. I found a new hotel and as i’m writing, am eyeing off a motorbike rental to take me to the beach. I should have taken my time, Melaka to Penang in 2 days, not 1. Lesson learned. There’s no rush, too many buses and trains should be avoided!