Swimming with sharks

Trip Start Feb 18, 2004
Trip End Dec 05, 2005

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Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Malaysia is located at the southern peninsula of SE Asia, just south of Thailand. It also includes island areas to the east, but I didn't go there so they don't count. Though there are orangutans there so maybe I should've gone. A mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians live in Malaysia. Some areas are predominantly one race while the cities tend to have about an equal mix. Anywhere that's mostly Muslim is a dry area (no alcohol). That's good on the finances but bad for a social life. Generally the thing to do in backpackerworld during the evening is chat over a couple drinks.

I flew from Bangkok to Hat Yai in the far south of Thailand. From there I caught a bus to Satun on the coast. The south of Thailand has been having some problems with violence so I was wondering what I might encounter but all was fine. A ferry took me from Satun to the island of Langkawi in Malaysia. My brother and his wife used to go to Langkawi for vacations when they lived in Taiwan and China. He has some great sunset pictures from there so I thought I'd go see it for myself. Langkawi is an island of legends - supposedly an innocent woman was sentenced to death and put a curse on the island for seven generations. Only recently has the curse passed and the island has begun to prosper. There are various other legends regarding caves and islands and such.
Anyway, I arrived and got a taxi out to Pantai Cenang and checked in at the hostel. The hostel had a couple monkeys tied up which isn't so nice. I should've set them free. The hostel was a short walk from the beach where I arrived in time to see the sunset. Pretty good...not spectacular. The Cenang beach area seemed a bit touristy. I rented a moto (scooter) the next day to get around the area and see stuff. The guy renting the scooter seemed worried at my lack of skill with a moto. I was worried too since this was the first time I'd riden one since the famous "Samui suicide scooter" incident of 2000. After going slow for a while, I got a bit more comfortable and eventually got it up to 3rd gear and around 60km/hr. My first stop was Seven Wells which looked quite nice on the map. The waterfall hardly had any water though so wasn't too impressive. Stopped at another waterfall, Temurun Falls, which also had little water. Relaxed at Pantai Pasir Tengkorak (beach) for a bit. At Black Sand Beach I got myself an ice cream and rode a swing in the playground. Durian Perangin Waterfall was flowing more than the others and had a nice pool below it. Then out to Tanjung Rhu - there's a resort here where my brother used to stay. I could see why staying in this fancy all-inclusive resort would be nice. I sat and pondered waiting here for sunset but as it was cloudy and I was worried about riding the moto back in the dark, I went back to Pantai Cenang. The sunset there turned out to be brilliant.

That night I stopped in at an Irish bar (they're everywhere) with really friendly staff. They were asking me all about my trip and pulling out maps for me then introduced me to the other travellers at the bar. We all got a table together and hung out the rest of the night. One of the guys told me I looked "Mediterranean". Maybe almost a year of sunshine is making me dark.

My original intention was to get from Langkawi to Kota Bharu on the east coast, but that was not to be. I took the ferry from Langkawi to Kuala Perlis where I got a bus to Kangar then a bus to Alor Setar. Lonely Planet says there are "regular coaches" from Alor Setar to Kota Bharu. In reality, there's only one at night. I headed south to Butterworth in hopes that it would have more frequent buses to the east coast. It didn't. So I decided to just go to the Cameron Highlands sooner than planned. I arrived there around 8pm and found a hostel. Since it's in the highlands it was much cooler at night (very nice after being in the hot & humid for so long). I switched hostels the next morning and took a walk out to Cameron Bharat tea plantation. Some nice scenery there. In the afternoon I went on a tour of the area. The tour jeep was filled with French! The first stop was a rose garden which I was debating whether to even spend the $1 to get in. It turned out to be a photographer's paradise - there were cheesey statues all over! Forget the flowers, check out the statues! There were fake Disney characters, strange looking Chinese characters, a shoe house and various others. I was very excited.

I chatted with a couple of the French girls, Melanie and Sabeena, that were staying at my hostel and the only other non-French, Katerina from Germany. Of course while talking to the girls, the two attractive ones both mention the dreaded "B" word - boyfriend. (sigh) The next stop was a strawberry farm where Katerina and I had fresh strawberry shakes. Yum! On to the Boh Tea Estate (more tea plantation pics), a honey bee farm with more cheesey statues, a butterfly farm and a Chinese temple. I went to dinner at an Indian restaurant that evening with the girls then for a drink with Katerina...she smokes too much. Blecgh!
The girls and I (plus a Danish couple) went for a hike through the forest with a guide in the morning. The guide was 62 and kicked butt hiking up the slippery hills and all over. Hiked through the tea plantations and forest.

We eventually made it to a waterfall where we swam in the freezing water and had lunch. After some tough climbing, we came out at a village where the guide gives out candy. All the kids came running for some treats. They didn't seem to thankful though...they'd just get their candy then turn around and leave without a word. We made it back to town and went out to the same Indian restaurant for dinner again. Oh, there are a lot of Indians in this area because the region needs cheap labor for the tea plantations so they contract people from India and Nepal to come over and work a few years.

After the bus troubles I went through from Langkawi, I was pleased to see there were direct minibuses from Cameron to the Perhentian Islands (east coast). The bus stopped at a spot for lunch then we switched buses for the islands and had a crazy driver for the remainder. Got a fast boat from the mainland to Perhentian Kecil (small island). The Perhentians are Malaysia's island paradise - white sand beaches, turquoise blue water.

Looks great on a postcard but tourism is spoiling it. I had tried calling various guesthouses the previous couple days, but either didn't get an answer or the prices were too high. I ended up staying in the dorm at D'Lagoon, a guesthouse a bit too isolated from the main area. Essentially, if you wanted to do something in the evening you were stuck with whatever D'Lagoon had to offer. And since there were a few Scandinavian families there, the night's entertainment was cartoon movies. That first evening I met a couple cute Dutch girls and a Belgian guy. The Belgian guy was a mr. know-it-all and always seemed to think his opinion was the right one. He bugged me. The Dutch girls were nice to talk to though.
I rented a snorkel set in the morning and ventured to the other side of the island to the better swimming beaches and swam around. Near shore the coral was all gray and dead. Out a ways it looked alright but still not so healthy. Just saw regular fish in that area. The walk from D'Lagoon to Long Beach, the main area, took me about an hour through the forest. Along the way I saw a couple monitor lizards. Ya, the lizards can get freakin' big (like 6ft)! Luckily, they're scared of people and run off and soon as you get near. I checked out the Long Beach area, the pretty girls sunbathing and had a bland lunch. The food all over the islands was quite bad. Actually, I found Malaysian food everywhere I went to be poor. Tastes more processed and like they use canned veges and meat or something. Their "western" food was even worse. Caught a boat taxi back to D'Lagoon. Went for a snorkel in the lagoon and saw a small shark. Had dinner with the Dutch girls...and the Belgian guy. Played some cards with them that evening.
I speedwalked on over to Long Beach the next morning and went for a snorkeling trip around the islands. We went several places, most of which had coral in poor condition. The locals seem to be the ones not protecting the reefs. They throw garbage in the water, run their speedboats over the coral, stand on the coral, etc... The guide we had dived down, grabbed a turtle and hauled it to the surface to show us. He also caught a small fish and threw it into the boat to flop around. We would tell him that's bad and he shouldn't do it and he'd just laugh. Anyway, we did get to see lots of fish, I swam along with turtles and we saw kinda big sharks. I saw three following one another then break off. One was going along, spun around then darted and ate a fish. It swam really freakin' fast! Back at Long Beach I had a happy hour beer with one of the people that was on the van ride to the islands. Beer was way overpriced on the island (and they only had crappy beer at my guesthouse) so the happy hour beer was my only one. Went back to D'Lagoon and had dinner with the Dutch. The Belgian guy was gone and we were all glad to be rid of him. Laura was off studying her dive book so Sana and I chatted and played silly games. She told me I had to stay around to keep the French guy from hitting on her (she also has a boyfriend back home). The workers at the guesthouse played music and sang for everyone later in the night. They liked the echo effect on the microphone. I had to be off the following morning so said my goodbyes to the Dutch girls.

From the islands I caught the ferry back to the mainland then a minibus to Taman Negara. The rainforest in Taman Negara is 130 million years old, supposedly the oldest on earth. I figured that made it worth making a trip to see. The first night there I was stuck in a crappy, sloping dorm room. The restaurants there consisted of a bunch floating on the river. All had the typical blecgh food. And it's a "dry" area so no booze. I think my liver was rejoicing.
I changed guesthouses to a much nicer one a bit out of town. Though the girl who told me about it got a room for RM50 and I had to pay RM80. Ya, discrimination. They have a scooter for each room so I got to ride into town. From town you catch a ferry for a very short ride across the river to the actual park. I went on the canopy walk (suspension bridges in the trees) - it was alright, didn't see any animals.

Hiked out along the river and through the rainforest to a "hide" (fort on stilts to watch for animals). Along the way I think I heard a wild boar in the brush. On the way back I heard a strange growl sound...could've been the wild boar again. That's the thing with this forest, you hear lots of animals and birds but you don't see nothin'. That was disappointing. Back at the guesthouse, they set a table for everyone staying there to have dinner together. I thought that was a neat idea. There were bugs of all kinds attacted to the lights - big moths, mosquitoes, beatles, the ones that look like leaves and twigs, praying mantis, etc... The inside of the house would have them too. An English family was there with two boys so they won on movie choices and put on a cartoon.
Out to the park again and checked out a cave. There were lots of bats inside.

At one point there's a sloped rock to go down to the path and you slide down through guano. Very gross! I checked around for boat rides upriver to see the scenery, but there weren't any going. :( I hiked around some more and got pictures of Spanky with monkey signs. Back at the guesthouse had dinner with the group and there was another cartoon movie.

I took a boat from Taman Negara to Kuala Tembeling where I caught a bus to Kuala Lumpur. I had been running into a couple Irish girls around the park and it turns out they were going to the same guesthouse as me in KL so we shared a cab from where the bus dumped us. We went out that evening to the Menara Tower (kinda like Space Needle) and for dinner. Went to TGI Friday's for some much needed decent food. :)

I wandered all over the next day to the Petronas Towers (famous tall, twin towers), the British architecture area (Merdeka Sq), the National Mosque and Chinatown. Spanky had been missing out on photos with famous/familiar landmarks around SE Asia so he was happy to have his picture with the towers. Looked around at electronics shops at the nifty gadgets but prices weren't any better than home (not that I have money to be buying anything). Chatted with Jen and Grainne at the guesthouse. They liked Spanky. Anytime a girl asks "can I see your monkey?", it brings a smirk to my face. Went out to dinner with them again and for a very expensive drink at an Irish pub. Actually, that drink was more expensive that anywhere else I've been. Yap, even more expensive than England or Norway. And SE Asia is supposed to be cheap!

I separated from the Irish lasses and went to Melaka, a historic old town on the coast. The Portuguese settled here in the early 1500s and the Dutch later took it over. So there's a mix of those cultures/architecture in with the Malay and Chinese. There's an area with quite a few old buildings to check out. The Chinatown area had some cool looking shops. Again, too expensive for going out so just chilled at the guesthouse.

Got a bus to Singapore in the morning and checked in at my hostel in the Little India area. The district really did smell a bit like India with all the restaurants and spicey smells. I only had a half-day to see the city so went out explorin'. The country was celebrating it's 40th year of independence so there were banners and stuff set up all over the city. I wandered to City Hall, St Andrew's Cathedral, Merlion Park, along the quays and into Chinatown. Singapore really is a clean city. Maybe a bit too sterile and every place is air-conditioned so it's a bit unnatural. Lots of rules too...like no jaywalking. That one sucked as many sidewalks seemed to end at streets with no crosswalk so you'd have to go a block in another direction to cross. I had to break that rule a few times. ;) My dogs (feet) were killin' me by the time I got back to the hostel. In the evening I went out to Marina Bay to check out some of their festivities for the 40th anniversary. There was a main stage with people singing really, really cheesey songs (think sappy love songs with a Disney touch to the 10th degree), a "chillout by the bay" area with a band that no one was listening to and a far off stage with a rockin' band. Nothing really tempted me to stay. Left for the airport the next morning to catch my flight to Hong Kong.

Malaysia had a great range of places to see - beaches, outdoors, cities. My complaint would be that everything was expensive, even by Western standards but especially compared with the rest of SE Asia. I think all the areas I went to were touristy so they knew they could jack up the prices to outrageous levels.

Big thanks to Mr Peterson for the loan to pay off my medical bills so that I can continue on this trip. Hopefully my travel insurance will eventually reimburse me.
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