Thursday, 27 September 2007

Pahang and Terengganu, Malaysia (15 - 17th August 2007)

Wednesday, 15th August 2007: Mum, Dad and I went on driving trip to Pahang. Pahang is the largest state in Peninsular Malaysia and 3rd largest in Malaysia after Sarawak and Sabah in the east coast. Nearly two-thirds of the state is enveloped in verdant rainforest, making it a magnificent enclave of lush greenery, exotic wildlife and an abundance of natural attractions.

We left home at 8.45am and arrived in Mersing around 11.15am. Mersing is a town located in the northeast corner in the state of Johor. It is a lively tourist town visited by Malaysians and foreign tourists who come to enjoy the quiet life, great seafood, unspoilt beaches and exotic flora and fauna of the East Coast of mainland West Malaysia. We stopped by pier to snap some pictures but found the seaside was rather dirty.

What is that smell??? CEMPEDAK!! One of my favourite local fruits, this jackfruit-like fruit could be smelt from afar. Obviously someone is selling them nearby....We sniffed our way towards a roadside stall selling 'goreng cempedak', which is fried battered cempedak and I just had to get some! Also bought some 'keropok leko', a combination of fish and sago that tastes best when fried. I used to buy 'keropok leko' every day after school during my highschool years. Hehe, you must think I'm all about food - well, there are just some local delicacies that are unique in Malaysia and not something I get to eat everyday in New Zealand :)

We hit the road again and stopped briefly at Air Papan, 12km north of the Mersing-Endau road - a beach of greyish white sand. By noon, we arrived at Rompin, a small fishing village and township on the southern end of Pahang for lunch. Oh my god! The amount of food Dad had ordered - crab noodles, butter prawns, stir-fry veges and fishball soup, for a total of RM70! We left the restaurant feeling stuffed! Don't think we need to eat for days, Dad...

Along our drive to our resort in Cherating, there were lots of goats and cows roaming near the streets. I drove for about an hour towards Kuantan (the state capital of Pahang) but somehow missed the exit - I didn't see a sign! Not my fault since there wasn't proper and clear indications. Lucky for us, Dad had been to Pahang before and have a rough idea where we were so took over the wheel to get us back on track. It started to pour heavily as we headed towards Kuantan - could hardly see!

Got to Legend Resort Cherating by 5.30pm. The resort is a 4-star hotel with a white sandy beach located at one of Malaysia’s premier holiday spots, Cherating Beach. Cherating is a seaside destination long popular with budget travellers. It is the site of Asia’s first Club Med. Mum and I had a look around the resort while Dad had a rest (he has been here before). Rather quiet with little activity perhaps because it wasn't peak season. The beach looked quite nice though you won't be able to snorkel here due to the waves and very low tide.

Dad took us to Chukai, Kemaman in the state of Terengganu for dinner. Dinner?? I still haven't digested lunch yet...It was about a ½-hour drive away from Cherating. The name Chukai came from the Malay word 'cukai' which means taxes. The town was named so due to its position near the estuary of the Kemaman River, whereby taxes and levies were imposed on riverine traffic, especially during the British colonial period. Terengganu is situated in north-eastern Peninsular Malaysia, and is bordered in the northwest by Kelantan and the southwest by Pahang.

After a light dinner of steamed fish and stuffed crabs at Restoran Tong Juan, we went to check out the local night fruit stalls. By the way, you must try the stuffed crabs - it was really, really good! Not cheap though (RM6-7 per stuffed crab). The stuffed crab was made of chunks of crab meat, onions and parsley which are packed into large crab shell, battered and fried, a served with chilli sauce on the side. Yum!

Stopped to buy more 'keropok leko' for supper with the bottle of red wine we brought from home. No more food, please! I'm absolutely stuffed!!

Guess what? We got locked out of the room! Apparently you weren't supposed to press the lock button and close the door when you're not inside the room. Who would have known? Oh well, just had to get help from the reception.

I was so happy to find that there was free wireless internet available at the lobby so headed over with my laptop after shower. Returned for supper with mum and dad (my tummy was 'begging' me not to eat anymore) and the wine literally knocked us all out after a long day on the road. Photos taken today:

Thursday, 16th August 2007: We headed back to Kemaman for breakfast this morning. On our way, we stopped by another beach called Pantai Chendoh. Again, didn't see any one around which was quite a strange sight to me. In Wellington, if the sun is out and the weather is warm, you need to 'fight' for a spot on the beach.

You know, I never used to go to the beach when I lived in Malaysia. The norm seemed to be that Chinese girls try to keep themselves as fair as possible because being fair-skinned was seen as beautiful. I think this idea still stands today because I've been asked by many family members and friends why I'm so tanned despite living in a cold country. Years of living in NZ has turned me into a sun worshipper and I got quite tanned during my trip in Fiji in May. I like being tanned - makes me look healthier and somewhat exotic :P

You'll find many 'keropok leko' stalls all along your drive to Kemaman. Must be their famous local produce...

Dad took us to Kedai Kopi Hai Peng (Hai Peng Coffee Shop) for breakfast. Anyone that stops in Kemaman would normally drop in to this famous shop for a cup of freshly brewed coffee in a re-furnished old-style kopi-tiam (Chinese coffee shop). The breakfast spread was very nice - you had a choice of Malay food like 'nasi lemak', 'nasi dagang' and a variety of 'kuih-muih' (sweet and savoury cakes) to choose from but they are more well-knowned for the Old-fashioned Charcoal Toast served with Kaya. I like it better in thick toast (you can have it in thin toast too).

One of the waiters asked Dad if he had a chance to marry me!!! Photos taken this morning:

After breakfast, we took a walk down Jalan Sulaimani. For small-town Kemaman, there were many shops with posters advertising their job vacancies. We walked past Pasar Chukai (Chukai Market) and the morning market - an interesting and colourful sight of sellers and buyers, and a pungent smell of fish and chicken. Photos from our walk:

We took a drive to Dungun, a coastal district of Terengganu. On our way back, I asked Dad to stop the car so I could buy a 'lemang' (a traditional Malay food of glutinous rice and coconut milk, with salt added for taste, cooked in a hollowed bamboo stick). Costs RM2 for a medium stick. The lady selling the 'lemang' had to split open the bamboo stick in order to pack the rice in a box for me. It would be nicer to have the 'lemang' with some curry than on its own.

Stopped by Turtle Sanctuary, Cherating, on the way back to our resort to find out more about their free turtle watching sessions at night. The sanctuary carries out research into turtle hatching, and also educates the public about these majestic creatures of the sea. Its primary objective is turtle conservation and increasing public awareness of turtles and their plight. We went in to have a look at their museum and a box of baby turtles (so small!) which will be released into the sea later tonight around 10pm. Turtle watching is not guaranteed - we might see one if lucky.

A short rest at resort and around 5.30pm, we headed to Kuantan. It started to pour very heavily (blinding rain). Had dinner at a food court - food was not good, except for the 'ikan bakar' (a Malaysian dish of fish grilled using charcoal).

At 9.30pm, we went back to the turtle sanctuary to watch a video about the plight of the turtles and free the baby turtles. One of the rangers found it fun to tease me profusely (I'm so used to this happening during my travels). We followed the rangers to the beach in the dark (no lights or camera flash allowed) and everyone was given a baby turtle to hold and release. Dad was given a baby turtle (Mum and I didn’t want any - they looked so fragile) and said that the little thing was pretty strong, trying to wriggle away. I hope the little fellow survives out in the open sea - it's hard to imagine how a small creature has to 'fight' for its survival immediately after it hatches. According to the rangers, they can assist by protecting the eggs on shore but must release the baby turtles into the sea to its natural habitat. We didn't get to see any female turtles come ashore to lay eggs - we could stay on through the night and wait but didn't do so.

Went back to resort to the bar for a few drinks and listened to a Filipino band playing. Photos taken of the remaining of our day:

Friday, 17th August 2007: We checked out of the resort about 10am and headed to Kuantan for breakfast. We are heading home today!

Stopped at Sin Kee Hung Sdn Bhd., a must visit shop when you visit Kuantan since the town is reputable for its fresh seafood, dried seafood and salted fish. The whole shop smelt of dried and salted seafood - the smell lingers in your nostrils even after you leave the premises. Phew! Photos taken this morning:

Another large seafood meal for lunch, this time in Chaah (the southernmost town in the district of Segamat, Johor). I'm not able to eat anymore seafood for the rest of my stay in Malaysia...The name Chaah is derived from its geographical location, situated between three rivers. The mandarin pronunciation of Chaah is "San He Gang" ("San" means three, "He" means river, and "Gang" means port).

Got home around 4pm. What a trip! It was very interesting to visit Pahang and Terengganu - I've never been to the places Dad took us to before. There is so much to see and do in the 2 states but we couldn't do it all. Some of the other attractions you might be keen to explore during your visit to Pahang include Cameron Highlands, Genting Highlands, Endau-Rompin National Park, and Taman Negara National Park (this national park has the world's longest canopy walk, over 400 metres). A visit to any of these places would take you a few days. Definitely something I would like to do my next visit to Pahang.

In Terengganu, one of the famous places of visit is Rantau Abang, a very small village most noted for its Leatherback Sea Turtle nesting and attracts tourists both foreign and local. However, in recent years, the number of turtles that come ashore to lay eggs have decreased (I believe this is happening throughout Malaysia, not just in Rantau Abang). Other key tourist spots would have to be the nearby islands like Perhentian Island and Redang Island with their beautiful white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. Lots of places to visit, but so little time!

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Resting at home, Batu Pahat (13 - 14th August 2007)

Monday, 13th August 2007: I've started on a new project - helping mum sort out old photos. Found some from when I was a baby, in primary school, my teenage years etc. Have to scan a few for a blog post when I have some time :)

Dad and I went to Hutan Lipur Soga Perdana for a walk around 4.30pm. This is a popular place for the local residents to exercise, walking up and down the steep stairs. Dad, in his fifties, is definitely fitter than me - I had a hard time keeping up! We walked all the way to the end to the Look Out Hut where you could see the whole of Batu Pahat. A nice forested place with a proper path built to walk on.

It took us 45 minutes to go up and down the hill. I felt hot and it was hard on the lungs as I climbed uphill - shows my lack of exercise ever since I quit the gym. Not a good sign; need to go back to the gym. Photos taken:

Oh yeah, today is start of the Por Tor Festival or the Hungry Ghost Festival. In the Chinese tradition, the 7th month is regarded as Ghost Month, in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower world to visit earth. Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning of hell money and bags containing clothes, gold and other fine goods made out of paper, for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Ghost Festival in Malaysia is modernized by the 'concert-like' live performings on a temporary stage that is setup within the residential district. You'll see lots of these as you drive around the town at night. Very lively and brightly lit.

Lots of Chinese businesses were closed today and they all have a burning rim of joss stick and candles around the building - I have no idea why (I'm Malaysia-Chinese but I have no clues about Chinese traditions). Sorry!

Tuesday, 14th August 2007: I dropped by Kolej Aman to see my former college classmate, Kishan, who's currently a lecturer in the college. It was nice of Kishan to show me around. The college looks much the same, only the reception desk removed and now replaced with round tables and chairs for informal meetings. Dr See, our principal during our college years has left the college and so have many of the lecturers during our time. Well, that was 5-6 years back and people move on.

How did I end up in Kolej Aman, you ask? Well, I first entered Kolej Aman in 1999 and I have to admit, it was the last place I ever want to be found studying in. I can still recall telling my highschool girlfriends that I would never ever go to Kolej Aman just because it was located near home and not prestigious enough in my eyes then. Hah, see where I landed up immediately after Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, or better known as SPM (SPM is the national exam taken during the 5th year in highschool - we have to sit this to graduate from highschool)! At 17+, I didn't know what I wanted to study (ok, perhaps I had a few courses in mind but mum and dad didn't agree that it would earn me a living in the future). Long story short, all I wanted was to be able to go overseas to study, at least for a year and the only available option then was to study in Batu Pahat where I would save on living costs so I began my Information Systems diploma in January 1999.

My first few weeks there were somewhat uncomfortable - a majority of the students came from Chinese schools and the English-speakers were a small minority. I felt like a black sheep among the lot (well, you know how 'well' I speak Mandarin). But given time, I got to know the other students better and some of my closest friends today were those I met in Kolej Aman. I guess I also left quite an impression on the students and staff at the college - I held committee positions in most of the associations and clubs, was giving free tutorials after lectures, and was also one of the regular scholarship receivers (one of the others was Kishan). I wasn't surprised if some of my classmates thought I sugared up to the lecturers and Dr See, and disliked me - I didn't need to do that. My hard work and results were the reasons why they remembered me. Some probably thought I was stuck up because I spoke mostly in English. Truth was, I wasn't that great in speaking Mandarin so spoke in English. Their perceptions changed when they got to know me better, and we laughed at my funny Mandarin accent whenever I try to speak it!

I ended up with Accounting and Finance as a second major partway through my studies because the number of students for the Information Systems class were small and the papers were not offered as often. Rather than sitting at home in between terms, my folks and I decided not to waste time and I took on the 2nd major. At some point, I remember I was taking 5 or more papers - days of sleepless nights just studying for exams and completing assignments.

In 2001, a few of us applied for a twinning scholarship to Victoria University and the short-listed ones went to the main campus in Rawang for the final interview. By the way, Kolej Aman used to have branches in Peninsula Malaysia - today, only the Batu Pahat branch remains. I was the lucky candidate to receive the partial scholarship which covered part of my tuition fees for my final year study at VUW.

Dr See often joked with me that he would offer me a lecturer position if I ever consider returning to small town Batu Pahat upon graduation. I don't think the offer stands open now that I'm looking for a job after my holidays and the college being run by new management :)

Looking back, I did enjoy my 2 years plus in Kolej Aman. I made lots of good friends, saved mum and dad a sum of money to finance my education, and still manage to have some fun (including learning to play badminton and mahjong...hehe) while putting in a lot of effort to do well in my studies.

It was great to catch up with Kishan though only for a short while. I always have the memory of Kishan as a shy, quiet person but the Kishan I met was not one. It was a pity I didn't have my camera with me to take a photo of us together - we'll have to do it the next time I go back! Drop me a line sometime, Kishan! Always lovely to hear from you :)

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Langkawi, Malaysia (9 - 12th August 2007)

Thursday, 9th August 2007: Woke up at 5.30am this morning to pack up, check out and have breakfast downstairs at the hotel. The buffet breakfast was not bad - way better than last night's dinner. Today, mum and I took the ferry from Penang to Langkawi. At 7.30am, we got picked up by another representative from Pan Island Holidays Sdn. Bhd. to the ferry terminal.

Boarded our ferry at 7.45am and the ferry was full. The journey was somewhat rough, making both mum and I feeling a nauseous. Having been on other ferry services before, I would tell you not to expect too much from this one. The seating was very cramped and the ferry looked quite old. And you wouldn't know what to do in event of an emergency - there were no safety guidelines or video played on board the ferry. Oh dear...

Kedah is the state characterised by vast paddy plains and offers a captivating variety of natural attractions such as the famous island getaway of Langkawi, Pulau Payar Marine Park and Lake Pedu. The Langkawi Geopark, comprising of the 99 islands in the Langkawi archipelago is Malaysia’s first geopark. The total land area of Langkawi Geopark is about 478 square kilometres. According to local legend, Langkawi derives its name from 'helang' meaning eagle and 'kawi' meaning reddish brown. Those of you who love shopping would be pleased to know that Langkawi is a tax-free zone :)

We arrived at Langkawi around 11am and our guides, Tom and Jingo, were at the terminal to meet us. Unfortunately we were stuck at terminal as they were waiting for another group to arrive who was on the same day tour as we were. I didn't mind the wait but was not happy to find out that they (the guides) had swapped my activity plans - we were supposed to have a free day tomorrow so we could go to Pulau Payar Marine Park but they brought forward the tour from our last morning in Langkawi to tomorrow morning. It wasn't their fault as they were only following instructions from their office but I was disappointed that I couldn't go to Pulau Payar - it would have been a nice snorkelling/diving trip to the marine reserve. And to go to Pulau Payar, you would need a full day and we couldn't do so as we were leaving on Saturday afternoon. Sigh... :(

Finally, we can go now! At 12.30pm, the 3 others we were all waiting for turned up. Apparently they missed their ferry or something so were late. I have had enough of being hassled by people at the terminal trying to sell me trips and rental car deals. Was even more irritated when my mug of iced tea 'exploded' at me - don't know why or how but before I picked up the mug for my first sip, the mug just shattered and I had tea spilled on my jeans and shoes. Great...just great...

Our first stop was at Dataran Lang (Eagle Square) and Taman Lagenda (Legends Park), where there is a sprawling 19-acre landmark located to the front left of the new Jetty Mall Complex in Kuah. Built on reclaimed land, the imposing 12-metre tall statue of the Brahminy Kite brown eagle can be clearly seen from the air or from the sea. The park is a popular place to stroll and picnic and to look at cravings related to local folklore. Photos taken in the morning and at Dataran Lang:

We found out that our 2 guides are Ibans, a branch of the Dayak people of Borneo. Their language sounded like Malay, yet I couldn't understand the context (sounded like a mix of Thai and Malay language though soothing to the ear). Both were very warm and friendly, and if you didn't ask, you would just assumed they were Malays because they spoke the language fluently.

We drove through Kuah, a town that has numerous duty-free outlets, handicraft centres as well as restaurants offering a variety of local and international cuisine. This was also the town we will be staying during our time in Langkawi. The name Kuah, which means gravy in Malay, comes from a legend of two battling giants who overturned a gigantic pot of curry.

All along our journey to the other side of Langkawi (we were heading toward the Underwater World), the scenery was just paddy fields, Malay villages and you get to see some buffaloes here and there. Still under-developed but I think I would prefer it to remain this way.

The Underwater World Langkawi is a 30-minute drive from Kuah town and is loacted on Pantai Cenang. Costs us RM28 per person to get in. This was the first place of visit during my travels in Malaysia where tourists and Malaysians pay a different rate for admission (it was about RM10 difference). The Underwater World Langkawi is the largest aquaria in the country and houses 4000 varieties of animals from 3 different ecosystems. Quite interesting though I felt sorry for the fishes being put in small tanks.

Mum and I had some spare time so we took a stroll down Pantai Cenang. Pantai Cenang is a beach that caters for sun-worshippers and adrenaline junkies as they can choose from several watersports available. The beach didn't look very pretty to me due to the haze (and I guess I've been to Fiji Islands so no other beaches are comparable to the ones there). Photos taken at Underwater World and Pantai Cenang:

The weather was hot and humid - I could smell the rain coming...

We got to know the other people on our tour as our journey continued on for the day. Found out those 3 we were waiting for earlier were from Singapore, and the older couple at the back were Arabs.

We next went to Atma Alam Art Village located at Padang Matsirat, the birthplace of Langkawi’s art of hand-made batik (the art of decorating cloth using wax and dye). Saw some people designing and painting batik on site. We were told that the artist usually paint their own designs. The designs are drawn with heated candle wax, and then colour is added inside the designs, using dyes from light to dark colours. Once the painting is complete, the batik is washed before it can be used.

Next stop, Makam Mahsuri (Mahsuri's Mausoleum). Costs us RM5 per person to enter the premises. The mausoleum is a shrine built in memory of Mahsuri, the legendary 19th century Langkawi princess, who was innocently stabbed to death for committing adultery. With her dying breath, Mahsuri cursed Langkawi to have 7 generations of bad luck, which many locals of Langkawi believed to be true, citing Siamese invasion and decades of failed crops following her death. It is only at the end of the 20th century, after the 7 generations have supposedly come to pass, that Langkawi began to prosper as a tourist destination.

We began our tour of the place watching a movie clip depicting the Mahsuri story, followed by a traditional Malay instrumental remix of the Mahsuri song. The grave itself has nothing inside - the actual grave location is still unknown on the island. We walked around the premises, taking photos and mum buying some local crisps (very oily, mum!).

Our last stop for the day was at the Gamat Factory. I had thought gamat was some food or stone but turns out to be sea cucumber processed into medicine. It enhances the body's resistance towards various diseases and contains a cell growth factor which has the ability to accelerate the regeneration of biological cells, bone, collagen and rejuvenates skin. A popular produce of Langkawi.

Tom showed us how the locals make gamat oil - a hot boiling mix of sea cucumber and coconut oil. And he actually put his finger into the hot boiling pot of cooking gamat!!! Is this part of your job description, Tom?? He said it burned at first but if you leave the oil there for awhile then wash it off, your skin will be perfectly fine. True, because his finger looked fine when he showed it to me.

Hotel drop-offs from 5.30pm and by 6.30pm, we arrived and checked in at the Hotel Grand Continental Langkawi. The hotel is centrally located in Kuah amongst rows of departmental stores, banks and duty free shops. It stands 7 levels high, featuring traditional Malaysian architectural design. The room condition was similar to the one we stayed in Penang. The hotel we were staying in had no internet facility and neither quality tourist information nor access to the beach! Not what I had in mind for an island trip.

We walked through the Kuah shopping strip to Orchid Restaurant for dinner as recommended by the guides. Very nice. After dinner, went in search for an internet café – only 1 in area with no air-conditioning and was very stuffy and humid inside. Photos for the remaining of our day out:

Friday, 10th August 2007: Another early morning for mum and I as we headed downstairs for breakfast and await our 9am pickup for the other half-day tour. You would not believe this but we (mum, me, Tom and Jingo) had to wait over half and hour for those same 3 people we waited for yesterday to finish their breakfast before we could move on. Sheesh! They really had no sense of time and our guides were ready to leave them behind just as they casually walk towards the van from their hotel lobby. What the?!

Our first stop of the morning was at Telaga Harbour Park, a Mediterranean-themed harbour town located at Pantai Kok. The area was originally a fishing village that has rapidly transformed itself into a prime tourist attraction and major sailing destination. A popular place with foreigners.

We passed by Pantai Kok but saw no one at the beach. According to Jingo, no one comes to this beach because of the many buffaloes in the area. Danger, danger!

After that, we went to Oriental Village, a themed shopping centre, where the Langkawi Cable Car is located and goes all the way up Gunung Mat Chincang. There were so many people there queuing up for the cable car! Costs us RM15 per person for a return trip and only mum and I went ahead; the others remained at the village area.

The legendary Gunung Mat Cincang, Langkawi's second highest peak was believed to have been once a being named Mat Cincang who turned himself into a mountain. The exhilarating 20-minute journey you take in a four-seater cable car silently ascends the height over a distance of 2.2 kilometres - all the way hovering over the verdant forest canopy. I have to say, it felt rather scary being lifted so high up and those 20 minutes felt like a very, very long time. It's one of the world's steepest and is the longest free-span mono-cable car in the Malaysia Book of Records.

The top stop was about 700m above sea level. It was rather foggy and windy with haze at the top and the temperature was probably about 24-25 degrees Celsius (very humid). Mum and I took a walk to the viewing points and also to the Curved Suspension Bridge. The wind must have picked up while we were on the bridge because I could feel the bridge 'move' as the wind blew. Don't feel very safe up here....On a clear day, you would be able to enjoy the magnificent view of the island all the way to southern Thailand. Photos from our morning:

Found out that the Singaporeans didn't want to pay for the cable car because they thought it was similar to the one in Sentosa (oh no, this one is WAY different!).

Our next stop was at Galeria Perdana, a unique gallery that was built to display and share with everyone the various awards, souvenirs and gifts the former Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, and his wife received from world leaders, statesmen as well as Malaysians during his tenure. No one was keen to go in so we took off to our last stop, the Langkawi Wildlife Park. Here, you can experience close interaction with animals and birds including feeding and handling them. The park is the first in Asia to have a fully covered walkway. Photos at the park:

I wanted to do a mangrove trip but we had to charter a whole boat, which would cost us the price for 4 people (RM360), rather than for 2. Not much luck in persuading the Singaporeans to join us so mum and I went ahead with the trip. I managed to negotiate for RM50 less. Sure hope the trip is worth the cost...

This eco-trip we took was called the Sungai Kilim (Kilim River) Mangrove Tour. Kilim is home to the region's best mangrove ecosystem uniquely thriving on a limestone foundation. We had a boat to ourselves and Jingo as a guide during the tour - a private tour. The boatman took us to Gua Kelawar (Bat Cave) located in the mangroves of Sungai Kilim and this cave visit is usually bundled with the mangrove tour packages. Jingo guided us with a torchlight along the wooden platform that runs through the cave interior. Don't touch the railing - it's covered with guano. Mum and I didn't realise there were bats inside until Jingo showed them to us with his torchlight - there are 4 species of bats (we saw only 2) and they feed on fruit and insects. The bats were only found hanging from the ceiling in the main chamber of the cave.

There are 2 parts of the cave. We hopped on the boat to get to the smaller western cave, where the ceiling was only 1-3 metres high (yep, we had to duck to get in). You would only be able to visit this cave when the tide is low - during high tide, the cave gets flooded and if you happen to be there at the time, the only thing you could do is to climb a wooden stairs to the waiting chamber and stay there till the water goes down. Jingo brought me up to see the waiting area - wow, imagine being stuck here with no supplies, no light or food and you by yourself. Won't want to be stuck up here...

Jingo was a very good guide and told us many interesting facts about the mangrove forests and fascinating vegetation and wildlife that the mangrove support. Mangroves protect the coast from erosion, surge storms, especially during hurricanes, and tsunamis. The mangrove seed is unique - when it is mature and ready to root, it falls vertically into the soil to lodge itself into the mud and root.

We stopped at one of the floating fish farms and I got the opportunity to feed a stingray. Eeks! The skin of the ray was silky/slimy soft and it 'flaps' itself near my hand and 'sucks' the fish bait I was holding like a vacuum cleaner! There were a variety of fish at the farm and if you have the time, consider staying for a meal of fresh barbequed seafood - hmm, must be really delicious...making me hungry!

We next went through Gua Buaya (Crocodile Cave). The name of this cave may either entice or scare off visitors, depending on their attitude to the crocodiles that still exist in the area, although not in so large a number as in the old days. This cave is unique because the Kilim River actually flows right through it, and is navigable by a small boat at low tide. Mum thought she saw a baby croc - nah, it was just an iguana, mum!

The sky has finally cleared up for us and the view of Kilim River and its surroundings was just beautiful. Our boat trip continued on towards the Thai border. I really, really enjoyed the trip - the scenery was just amazing! Though it was an expensive trip, it was worth the money and definitely recommended to those who plan to visit Langkawi in the near future. In fact, I suggest you do the eco-trips e.g. Pulau Payar, Tasik Dayang Bunting (Lake of the Pregnant Maid), Telaga Tujuh (Seven Wells) and Gunung Raya during your visit to Langkawi. More worth the money than the inland touristy places of visit that we went. Photos from our mangrove tour:

Our tour ended about 5.30pm (the actual tour was about 90 minutes) and we got dropped off at Orchid Restaurant again for dinner. We had 'kong pow' frogs for dinner - it's really nice dish, trust me! The frogs were fried then cooked in a dark sauce and dried chillies. One of the dishes on my list of things to eat every trip back to Malaysia.

Saturday, 11th August 2007: Got up early (again) for breakfast and went back to sleep till 10.30am. At 1.20pm, mum and I got picked up to the Kuah jetty and at 2.30pm, we ferried to Kuala Perlis on Labuan Express 7 (normal ticket fare RM12 per person). The ride felt smoother compared to the other ferry we took but the seating was more cramped.

Eew, the guy sitting next to me was digging his ear with his little finger - I don't get why some men grow the little finger fingernail long. This could be the reason?? Still - eew!

An hour later, we arrived in Kuala Perlis jetty in the state of Perlis (the northern-most state in Peninsula Malaysia). We had to locate the bus station, which was a 10-minute walk away from the ferry terminal. The bus terminal was rather isolated - it was very hot and humid in the open-air premise. I tried to see if we could reschedule our bus for an earlier time but was told that the buses were fully booked. Wish we could go back now but we couldn't so had to sit around for the next 3 hours till our bus arrived. Finally at 6.30pm, we boarded the Mayang Sari Express bus home.

Sunday, 12th August 2007: Mum and I arrived in BP at 7am. Rosie from Chiu Travel had organised a transfer from the bus station for us. You would not believe this but she and her husband came to pick us up in limo. Yes, a limo! At 7am in the morning!! I was too tired to comment - all I could think about was getting home. Was feeling so tired after the longest bus ride of my life (12 hours!!!). I don't know if giving us 'royal treatment' and some 'pulasan' (rambutan-like fruit) was meant to make us feel any better from the messed up travel itinerary.

Note to self for future travels: do not let the travel agent plan my itinerary because he/she may not have been to the place and do not know what I like to see and do. I had higher expectations of this trip given that both Penang and Langkawi are famous tourist destinations and would have better planned my itinerary of the things I wanted to see and do given more time to research about the places. Well, at least now I know where I will be going my next trip back :)

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Penang, Malaysia (7 - 8th August 2007)

Tuesday, 7th August 2007: Dad had booked Mum and I on a 4-day-3-night trip to Penang-Langkawi with Chiu Travel Sdn. Bhd. which costs RM1468, inclusive of accommodation with complimentary breakfast, bus fare, transfers and local tours.

At 9.30pm, we headed to the BP bus station to board the KKKL Express night bus to Penang, leaving at 10pm. The bus was quite spacious with seats as large as first class airplane seats though the bus felt a bit wobbly (was about to throw up halfway through the journey north). Here's Mum and me at the bus station, with a photo of a similar bus next to ours, of us in the bus and one of the large potholes after the neighbouring bus took off:

The bus stopped several times along the way to pick up and drop off passengers. There wasn't a toilet on the bus so we had to stop at Slim River, a small town in the state of Perak for a break. Frankly speaking, I don't like the public toilets in Malaysia - I wouldn't mind paying for it if it was kept clean but chances are it wouldn't be (and there was a man mopping the female toilet floor while several of us were inside!!). Photo taken at the rest area in Slim River:

Wednesday, 8th August 2007: 9 hours later (bum sore!), we arrived at Penang Bridge and got stuck in the 7am traffic jam. Penang Bridge is a dual-carriageway toll bridge that connects Gelugor on the island of Penang and Seberang Prai on the mainland of Malaysia on the peninsula - the total length of the bridge is 13.5 km, making it among the longest bridges in the world as well as a national landmark.

Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, is a fascinating fusion of the East and West. The state embraces modernity while retaining its traditions and old world charm, which are reflected in its harmonious multiracial populace and well-preserved heritage buildings. Long regarded as the food capital of Malaysia, it also entices visitors with its beautiful coasts and scrumptious cuisines.

I had thought it was misty outside as everything looked blurry; turns out to be haze. Couldn't see very far up front.

The bus dropped us off at Sungai Nibong bus terminal and we got picked up by our guide for the day, Harry, from Pan Island Holidays Sdn. Bhd. More sitting in a vehicle for us as we continued getting stuck in the Penang morning traffic. It was horrendous! The roads were narrow and there were lots of vehicles everywhere!! I've to salute the 'super' drivers here - it's all about who's daring to cut into lanes or you could be stuck forever.

Harry dropped us off at our hotel, the Hotel Grand Continental Penang, for a rest before returning to pick us up for our day tour of Penang at 9.30am. The hotel is rated 3-star but I was somewhat disappointed because it looked more run down than a Kiwi backpacker. Oh well, it was only for 1 sleep (but just didn't feel it was worth the money we paid). The hotel is located on Jalan Gurdwara (Brick Kiln Road) towering 23 storeys. It accommodates the highest swimming pool in Penang at level 23. Photos taken early this morning:

Mum, me and another 7 others went with Harry on a 4-hour day trip to some of the key places in Penang. Harry is a Chinese Malaysian who speaks Manglish (the colloquial version of the English language as spoken in Malaysia, or better known as 'rojak language'). Malaysians would have no problems understanding Manglish since they speak several different languages and Manglish is like a mix of Malay, English and Mandarin though to foreigners, it would sound quite strange.

Our first stop was to Fort Cornwallis, built by Captain Sir Francis Light after taking possession of the Penang island from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786 and named after the late Governor-General of Bengal, India, Charles Cornwallis. Originally a wooden stockade, it is now a concrete structure and currently houses cannons, a history gallery, café, handicraft and souvenir centre as well as an open-air amphitheatre. Costs us RM3 to enter the fort.

There's a chapel located at the south-west angle of the fort and this was the first chapel built in Penang. The first recorded service which took place was the marriage of Francis Light’s widow, Martina Rozells, to John Timmers in 1799.

We explored the fort grounds on our own (lots of horse droppings everywhere!) and managed to find our way up the Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse, which had an entrance outside the fort. Mum and I attempted to climb the narrow and steep stairway up the lighthouse - I ended up at the very top; mum stopped 3/4 way up. None of the others in our group followed us (guess they weren't keen). The funny part was that we couldn't get back into the fort where everyone was - we got locked out! Lucky Harry came to the rescue to let us back in :) Photos at Fort Cornwallis:

Next stop, U-Cap Jempol Tropiks for local product shopping. I wasn't interested and ran to the other end of the road to snap photos of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion:

I believe the blue mansion should be quite a nice place to visit to see the restored 18th and 19th century Chinese architecture but it was not in our day tour itinerary.

The weather was really hot. We headed on towards Wat Chaiya Mangalaram Buddhist temple or Wat Chaiya for short. Wat Chaiya's main attraction is the reclining Buddha statue (Luang Phor Chiya Mangol), with length of 108ft and 32ft in height making it the largest in Malaysia and 3rd largest in the world. Today, it is one of the most famous tourist spots in Penang.

We were supposed to go to the Dhammikarama Burmese Temple across the street but Harry said it was not part of tour (not what Rosie from Chiu Travel stated on our itinerary...). I went there on my own while the others in the group were still in Wat Chaiya. I could see Harry watching over me from afar with a concerned look on his face - I was just taking photos, not going in!

Stopped at Crown Pewter to see flash demo on how you make a cup handle and then at Well Known Souvenir & Batik Centre to see flash (I say 'flash' because it only lasted less then 5 minutes) batik printing demo and coffee tasting next door.

Our last stop for the day tour was at the Penang Botanic Gardens. Mum and I are probably the only people in the group who took a walk around the place. I would prefer if the trip to the gardens be our first stop of the day because walking around the gardens at midday was just uncomfortably hot and sweaty. We still had an hour to spare so I asked Harry what could we do. Oh, I think he was boiling inside and probably wanted to strangle me when the others followed suit and asked him the same. So instead of dropping everyone off, he bought some peanuts from the stalls outside the gardens and we got to feed the monkeys at the park on the way out. Photos from the temples to the Botanical Gardens:

At 12.30pm, we headed back to city and hotel. Oh my god! The traffic jam! It was crazy!!

Met up with Ah Cheng Yi (mum's cousin sister) and her daughter Ada at our hotel lobby at 1pm. Ah Cheng Yi took us to Kek Lok Si Temple, a Buddhist temple situated in Air Itam in Penang and is one of the best known temples on the island. Kek Lok Si Temple is reputed to be the biggest Buddhist temple complex in Southeast Asia and stands majestically on a hill in Air Itam.

I had the opportunity to try out the famous Penang laksa stall at Air Itam. Very nice and different from normal laksa - it's assam laksa ('assam' meaning tamarind which gives the soup a sour taste) and is made with mackerel (or 'ikan kembung', which is poached and then flaked). It was a roadside stall so some of you would probably be inclined to try. But your trip to Penang wouldn't be complete if you hadn't tried it!
After lunch, we went to visit the temple. Took the inclined lift to see bronze Kuan Yin statue - somewhat like the Wellington cable car except this one was air-conditioned. Costs us RM4 return trip per person. Photos at the Kek Lok Si Temple:

I had my reservations about driving the Perodua Kancil (Malaysian car) because I had once witnessed a bus making a slow left turn and 'touched' the side of the Kancil next to it, practically ripping the top and part of the side off the car (and the lady in the car was shaking in shock). However, in Penang, I think you will need a Kancil, a vehicle small enough for you to zip places and Ah Cheng Yi (also a Penang super driver) happens to be a proud owner of one.

We 'zipped' to Bukit Bendera i.e. Penang Hill next, located six kilometers from the city centre of George Town (capital city of Penang). Malaysia’s first hill station, Penang Hill is 830m above sea level. We ascended to the top by travelling in the funicular train which has been operational since 1922, enjoying the cool climate as well as the view at the summit (you could hike up if you wish too but you would want to do this early morning and with some friends). Costs us RM4 return per person. It was probably the longest cable car I've ever ridden to date! Takes about 12 minutes to reach the 1st stop and I could feel my ears popping. Cabled another 12 minutes to 2nd stop and was 701.1m above sea level. The view from Penang Hill would have been better if it wasn't for the haze in Penang.

Ah Cheng Yi and Ada were fantastic guides and wouldn't let mum and I leave Penang without making a trip to the Snake Temple, located in the industrial area of Sungai Kluang in Bayan Lepas. The temple is filled with the smoke of burning incense and a variety of pit vipers. The vipers are believed to be rendered harmless by the sacred smoke, and though the snakes have also been de-venomed with their fangs still intact, I wouldn't advice you to pick up the reptiles for a photo. Local devotees believe that the temple's snake population has come there of its own accord. There used to be many more snakes roaming the place but only few left today. There were some hamsters in cages too...are they for sale or for feeding the snakes??? Photos at Penang Hill and the Snake Temple:

Thanks Ah Cheng Yi and Ada for being such great hosts in such short notice! We really enjoyed spending a ladies' afternoon together :) I've not seen Ah Cheng Yi for many years and it was the first time I've met Ada - do keep in touch!

A brief rest and coffee before getting picked up by Harry again for our night tour. We drove through Gurney Drive, a favourite haunt for food enthusiasts. This coastal road is famous for hawker foodstalls and restaurants offering a mouth-watering selection of Penang specialities such as asam laksa, hokkien mee and various other delicious local delicacies.

We continued our journey to Batu Ferringhi pasar malam (night market). The night market was a long stretch and here's the place for you to put your barganing skills to the test. Most of the stalls sell the same stuff but prices vary. We had dinner at Global Bay foodcourt and the food was not authentic but mainly geared towards foreigners' tastes. Frankly speaking, we could have done without the night tour. Wasn't worth it. We decided to head back early but Harry (obviously knew I would keep tabs on time) drove us around town instead to see Penang bridge at night. Got back to hotel at 11pm - so tired...Photos from our night out:

Sunday, 16 September 2007

In my hometown, Batu Pahat (30th July - 6th August 2007)

Monday, 30th July 2007: I took a taxi back to Batu Pahat today (this may sound strange to some of you but it’s rather common to taxi interstates here, and Singapore<->Johor). Costs RM50 and took about 2 hours to get home. You’ll notice that you’ve crossed the country border – high rise buildings and factories with a mix of oil palm, coconut and rubber tree plantations along the journey.

I’m so used to driving in NZ and I must say, I was somewhat fearful being a passenger in the taxi I rode home. The driver and front passengers (yes, it’s ‘passengers’ because there was a man and his 3-year-old son on the seat) were not wearing their safety belts – they just draw it near the clasp when passing areas where the driver knows are popular police checkpoints. How dangerous! To add to my ‘heart attack’, the driver was driving at speeds of 140kmph when the speed limit is 110kmph on the highways. Yikes!! The many cars (and ‘super’ drivers), motorbikes and people makes it rather stressful to drive in Malaysia (and I’m not even the driver!).

My hometown, Batu Pahat (translated from Malay which means ‘chiselled rock’, also commonly known as BP), is a town/district located on the west coast of the state of Johor, Malaysia. The population is about 330,000 and has Johor's second largest manufacturing industry. I haven’t been back since 2005 – every time I come back, the town seems busier with more vehicles, people and shops!

The family home looked much the same, just older and surprisingly, with only mum and dad at home, it felt cluttered. About time for me to go through my old stuff and rid or pass them on to others.

I went to visit 3-yipo (my babysitter, who’s also my maternal grandma’s 3rd sister). This woman never fails to impress me - at the age of 76, she has got a mobile phone and knows how to use it! She’s real funny and it’s interesting listening to her stories about her new findings. Her house brings back lots of memories from when I was there (she used to take care of me when I was younger while my parents were at work) – days that I would cycle around her kitchen on my tricycle while she was cooking, and waiting at the front door for her son to return home to take me out for a ride on his bike. It was really nice of her to make her yummy fishcakes and crackers for my trip home :)

Next was a visit to see Mama (my maternal grandma). My grandma looked much older than I remembered and it makes me feel sad seeing her, walking with her now ox-bowed legs and has swollen joints on her hands (gout). Despite that, she still finds activities to keep herself busy. Her current interest, other than karaoke singing, includes Korean soap operas. Seems to be the ‘it’ thing to do for the local Chinese women at the moment :)

Tuesday, 31st July 2007: Went out for dim sum with mum and dad this morning. Hmm, not bad but not as good as the ones I’ve had in Perth and Wellington. I got to drive the Kembara (mum’s 4x4) and it felt strange sitting so high up. Something about the vehicle makes me wary when turning corners – felt unbalanced, as if it might just tip over.

Dad and I briefly stopped by his office located in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. I used to hang out at the offices here in the afternoons (mum used to work in another office just 5 doors away) and we knew pretty much everyone in the building. Today, mum's old office is unoccupied and most of the staff in the other offices I knew from before had left the premises. Photos taken:

I’ve developed a cough and headache from lack of sleep… :(

Went to Muar for dinner with paternal grandparents, Ah-Kong (that's what I call my grandfather) and Ah-Po (my grandma). Muar is dad’s hometown, situated in northwestern Johor. It’s about 53kms away from Batu Pahat. Dad offered me to drive his car to Muar but I decided not to – so many cars, motorbikes, cyclists, and pedestrians everywhere! Some motorists didn’t even wear their helmets. Photos taken on car journey to Muar:

Wednesday, 1st August 2007
: Started clearing my old stuff in the study room – man, I sure have a lot of junk collected over the years! Found lots of old stuff e.g. photos, cheesy romantic notes from past pursuers, school trophies etc. Lots of memories, both happy and sad, flood through my mind.

Didn't do anything very interesting today. I did go out to finalize the tour arrangements to Penang-Langkawi (mum and I are going next week) and stopped by Mama's house for afternoon tea of 'goreng pisang dan keledek', which is battered fried bananas and sweet potatoes with 1st-ku (mum's eldest younger brother - just to clear things a bit, he's the 3rd child in mum's family but the first son) who was around for the week. Quite a lot of fritters for RM3.

At times in BP, the water supply gets cut off without prior warning. This is the colour of the water when we got the water supply back (it's not Nescafe coffee, ok? And next to it is a bottle of filtered water):

I sure hope the water has some skin healing properties because I desperately need to shower before meeting my friends from college, Keong Leng and Poh Chuin, for supper!

Thursday, 2nd August 2007: Went out with mum to run some errands in town today. A photo here of Jalan Omar, one of the few streets in Batu Pahat that traffic flows differently (and the confusion is obvious) and the latter picture of the main street, Jalan Rahmat:

Mum and I went to pick up Mama and 1st-ku out for lunch at this new noodle shop called Ajisen Ramen. Advice for those who haven't been there - you might want to share a bowl as the serving is massive! And it wasn't cheap either. Costs around RM15 for a bowl of ramen. Not something you would want to do often (for this price, you could probably get yummier hawker food elsewhere in town and enough to feed a family of 4). We stopped by Old Town White Coffee shop, which is owned by the same owner of Ajisen, to try out their famous white coffee. There are many of these coffee shops in town - a upper class coffee shop serving old-style coffee and meals. Photos of our day:

After all our travels, mum and I deserve a bit of pampering. We headed to The Summit (local shopping centre) to Thai Oasis for a 1.5 hour Thai massage. Yep, those twist-n-crack kind of massage but oh, it felt good. I nearly fell asleep! Costs us RM83 each for the massage. It would have been better if there was someway to reduce the voices coming from the reception area to make it even more relaxing.

Friday, 3rd August 2007: Weather today was rather humid and sticky. Was out with mum as usual and found the 'pulut man' at Jalan Mohd Akil so stopped to buy some 'pulut' (rice pudding - it's a sweet dessert) from him. You don't see these sort of stalls nowadays where the seller cycles around town and sounding his cowbell as he cycles along the streets. Bought one white and one black rice pudding from him. Oh, the other interesting thing about food stalls here is that they still pack the food into plastic bags and tie it with raffia string. Here are the photos taken of our 'pulut man':

We continued our journey to Jalan Rahmat. Below are photos taken there of the main post office (you have to risk your life crossing the street to the post office because the traffic lights no longer function, and the drivers do not slow down for pedestrians) and one of Chinese Chamber of Commerce:

Oh yeah, for those of you who haven't been in BP for sometime, have a look at this road, Jalan Tan Swee Hoe:

I used to go to the Convent girls school located on this street and back then, the road was nothing like it is now. The once forested land has been cleared up for new shop lots and housing schemes. The road is probably 2-3 times bigger and very busy!

Saturday, 4th August 2007: Met up with some of my highschool girlfriends today for 'yum char' breakfast. I haven't seen them since my last visit back in 2005 but it didn't felt as if we had been apart for that long. Ley In is due to give birth anytime in the next week or so - still jolly and happy as ever. Meng Li just got back from Australia and Belinda is still working in Johor Bahru. It was lovely to catch up with them and laugh about our days in highschool. Photo of us at breakfast:
I don't think I've ever showed you my college (college is NOT highschool in Malaysia; it's a tertiary institution). This is Kolej Aman Batu Pahat, just about 10 minutes walking distance from home, a place where I spent my first 2 years of uni in:

Sunday, 5th August 2007 - Monday, 6th August 2007: Have been spending my days throwing old stuff away and finally clearing some space to unpack my bag (I've been living from my 20kg bag for nearly a week now!).

Clothes shopping is really cheap! Unfortunately I couldn't buy much since I would still be moving around for the next 2 months but man, I could get a nice top for RM3 (can't even get coffee for that price in NZ!). Make sure when you come visit, save some money and you can splurge here :)

Met up with my college friends on Sunday evening. Keong Leng and Poh Chuin had asked Lay Fan and Shin Yann to join us. All of them seem to be really busy with work - felt like only yesterday, we were all hanging out in college having group study, playing pool etc., and look at us now, all grown up and each of us leading different lives. There are a few others from our batch but most are scattered elsewhere so couldn't meet up. Time really flies - we've known each other for over 6 years.

Hah - I knew it would happen! Every trip I come home, there would be 1 day that I would experience a power cut. And there no exceptions this time. We had 'candlelight' dinner (could hardly see the fishbones!!!) and had to take a drive out because there were lots of mosquitoes around. Part of the town was in darkness. Do we get informed beforehand, you ask? Nope - it just happens and you have to put up with it until the power comes back, which could be several hours later. Photos from the past 2 days: