Monday 26th December, 2006
Sydney to Singapore
Boxing Day – clear blue skies. Angie drops us at eleven o’clock at Hamilton Station where we catch the eleven thirty train to Central. At the airport we do our usual duty free shopping then fly out on Qantas at 5pm.
We arrive at Changi Airport in Singapore at 10pm local time. A taxi into the city only takes fifteen minutes and we’re soon booked into our room at the Inn on Temple Street in Chinatown. It’s a cute hotel with a stiflingly hot foyer. Our room luckily is air-conditioned and we have our own bathroom. Outside we wander around Chinatown watching street acrobatics and looking at the food stalls. We finally find a karaoke bar upstairs in an old building and after a few drinks we’re both singing – lucky we’re the only ones here.
Tuesday 27th December, 2006
Awake at 7.30am, we stroll around Chinatown looking for somewhere to have breakfast. Most things aren’t open but we finally find a busy place with a happy friendly waitress. We have a true Asian breakfast of pork noodles, dumplings and prawn cakes delivered to us in small bamboo baskets with lids. From here we find the Sri Mariamman Temple – Hindu – where we watch men in white dhotis performing some sort of ritual and lots of worshippers. From here we walk to the Wak Hai Cheng Bio Chinese temple which is packed with worshippers and full of smoke from incense and burning oil.
Now we come across a mosque and go in for a look. A friendly man comes to show us around and to tell us about his religion. He’s so passionate about Islam and so eager to tell us that Moslems aren’t like the terrorists and that Islam is a peaceful religion. We feel sorry for him but still not totally convinced.
Not far away if the Damenlou Hotel in a nice area of more up-market cafes and restaurants. We thought we might move here tonight but we much prefer the more authentic Chinatown area and decide to stay at the Inn on Temple Street. Now we walk a long way to another Chinese temple called Thian Hock Keng which is set behind a yard full of hanging incense coils. It’s not as busy here and has a nice feel.
Back at Temple Street, we stop at the Inn to ask where we can book bus tickets. We need to walk down to the main street where decorations for Chinese New Year are being assembled everywhere. From here we catch a taxi to Lavender Street Bus Station on the other side of town. Here we book tickets to Melacca (11SD each) for tomorrow morning. From the bus station we walk to the Lavender Street Food Centre in Little India. We have a choice of weird things like ‘eminent frog porridge’ but buy watermelon and pineapple instead. Further on is the Bersah Food Centre which is a basic café with a few locals hanging around. Mark has chicken feet noodles, spicy duck noodles and a Carlsberg beer.
Not far away we visit a Hindu temple then a long walk to another Hindu temple – getting a bit templed out but still have one more on the list. This is the Kuan Im Thong Hood Cho Chinese temple in a busy mall back in the centre of town. The temple is crammed with people so we give up. Outside we check out the flower sellers then buy ice cream sandwiches from a street cart before finding a taxi to take us to Clarke Quay. This is a modern area of restaurants along the water but nothing is open. We finally eat at the very tacky Hooters then walk across the bridge to hail down a taxi to take us back to Temple Street.
We’re both tired by now so only after an afternoon nap do we head out again to catch another taxi to Raffles Hotel. It’s everything we expected and especially lovely now with elaborate Christmas decorations around the entrance. Inside is colonial grandeur and opulence itself. After a good look around we find the famous Long Bar where we eat peanuts and order Singapore Slings. The bar is definitely on the tourist trail as it’s full. We love the overhead fans which are actually little rattan hand fans all lined up in a row.
Outside again it’s started to rain so we catch a taxi back to Chinatown. We pass buildings still covered in Christmas lights and even a Christmas tree. Now the rain is bucketing down so we find a shop to buy an umbrella then make our way into the Chinatown markets. We sit on high stools under a shelter and drink beers while the rain pours down around us. It’s still hot and humid as hell. Even though we’re outside we feel like we’re in a sauna. At another stall we order fish and seafood – a feast of prawns, mussels, oysters and fish.
After dinner we find another karaoke bar called the Singalong Bar and pop in for a drink. We end up staying hours. A young bar girl called Christine befriends us and we have a ball talking, drinking and singing.
Wednesday 28th December, 2005
Singapore to Melacca
This morning we’re off to Malaysia to the coastal town of Melacca. We’re up at 7am to pack and have breakfast of tea, toast and coffee across the lane from the Inn. From here we take a taxi to the Lavender Street Bus Station where we board our big comfortable bus. We leave on time at 8.30am with a bus full of some serious weirdos. Really odd people are sitting behind us and a hyperactive nutcase across the aisle. I hate him but I can’t take my eyes off him. For the whole trip he’s getting things out of his bag, putting them back, taking photos, taking videos, trying to see out the front window……….He’s probably German.
After leaving the built-up area of the city we drive along an excellent highway through tropical areas but usually with high rise housing still in view. At the border we all get off to walk through immigration then back on the bus to cross the Causeway to the city of Johor Bahru in Malaysia on the other side of the water. Now we disembark again to walk through immigration on the Malay side. Back on the bus we’re soon speeding towards Melacca. After an hour we stop for lunch in a big eating hall with lots of different food stalls all around the walls and hundreds of tables and chairs in the middle.
It’s a three hour drive to Melacca mainly through verdant open countryside. At 1pm we arrive on the outskirts of town at a big new bus station where we grab a taxi to take us into the old town. On the way in we stop at a bank for Mark to get some money – takes ages. Finally we arrive at the Eastern Heritage Hotel that we’ve chosen from the budget section of Lonely Planet – love it, love it. It’s an old Peranakan house run by a Moslem family. There are two floors with very basic rooms on the top floor and a foyer and a kitchen on the bottom. The foyer is big and atmospheric with a faded Eastern/Arabic elegance. Behind it is a room with a deep tiled dip pool that apparently we can use but it doesn’t look too clean. It really is the last thing we expected to find in a dodgy old hotel but we think it’s probably something to do with the Islamic religion. We have to leave our shoes at the bottom of the stairs when the owner shows us to our room. This is bare except for the bed, a ripped curtain and one whole wall painted with a mural of palm tress – very odd. The ‘bathroom’ is shared and out on the verandah right next to our room which means we get to hear everyone else’s toilet noises. The showers are ‘cold only’ and the toilet is set up on a raised dais like a throne.
After settling in, which takes about two minutes, we ask the owner where we can get a massage but he says that he’ll arrange for someone to come to our room later. Now we walk into town and find the very interesting Discovery Café near the bridge. It has an outdoor area with a fountain and a Christmas tree and inside is lovely with memorabilia everywhere. A chubby teenage boy takes a liking to me but then I realize that’s he’s probably sexually repressed when he keeps smiling at me and pointing to my boobs. He can’t speak but comes to sit with us to proudly show us a boil on his neck. After food and a few beers we walk into the town centre to find Stadthuys which is Melacca’s old town hall and museum. It’s painted an attractive pinky brown colour with fountains and flower gardens outside. The whole area is busy with tourists and guys displaying huge albino pythons which we have photos of wrapped around our necks.
There’s also a group of rickshaw drivers sitting in the most elaborately decorated rickshaws we’ve ever seen. Each one seems to have tried to outdo the others and there’s no way I want to miss out on this. We barter with one of the guys to take us on a cyclo tour of Chinatown. Our rickshaw is covered in brightly coloured plastic flowers with crystals hanging from the roof.
For an hour we cycle around narrow streets stopping now and again at a mosque, a newish Buddhist temple and an ancient and very atmospheric Chinese temple. We like this the best and spend some time watching the worshippers as we always like to do. Another stop is at a shoemaker who still makes the tiny Geisha shoes. Binding feet has been banned for a long time so now he only makes them to sell as souvenirs. They’re quite beautiful but too expensive.
After our tour, we walk back to out hotel for a sleep while we wait for our massage guy to turn up. He’s an hour late and makes up some excuse that we catch him out on later. We don’t care anyway and really like him a lot. He’s friendly and talkative and he and Mark do a lot of soccer talk. The massage is great – sort of a cross between a Balinese massage and a Thai massage.
On dark we walk to Chinatown and wander around the streets looking for somewhere to eat. Most places seem to be shut but we find a great travellers’ café called the Geographer’s Cafe with trendy music, great food, cold beer and laidback surroundings. Through more dark streets we come to the canal and spend half an hour talking to a local shop owner at a café near the water. For dinner we decide to go back to the Discovery Cafe where we had lunch. Tonight the road is particularly busy especially at the intersection almost on top of the café. A couple of people have set up a stall in the courtyard of the café right on the edge of the street. Cars pull up continually while people get out for a drink of something hot and steamy. For us, we stick to our duty free grog and have another good meal.
Things have quietened down by the time we leave and now the only thing we can hear is the noise of hundreds of birds in a huge tree opposite. All the big trees in this part of town are decorated with fairy lights and the canal is lit up all along its banks – a pretty place.
A long walk back home.
Thursday 29th December, 2005
Melacca to Kuala Lumpur
Our plan today is to get to Kuala Lumpur (locally known as KL) as early as we can so we can have a good look around before taking off for Sabah tomorrow. At 8am we pack and walk out onto the road to get a taxi to the bus station. It takes a while but finally we’ve bought our tickets and having breakfast at one of the cafes at the bus station.
We leave Melacca at 9am and after a toilet stop and a petrol stop we arrive in KL at 11.30am. From where the bus drops us we catch a taxi to the Coliseum Hotel – another Lonely Planet recommended place. It’s situated in Little India and even better that we expected. Its old world ambience is still in tact including the planters café and bar. Our room is huge with little furniture and very basic. Apparently Somerset Maugham stayed here and I bet it doesn’t look much different today. At the old bar downstairs we sit on stools and order beers, prawn cocktail and a prawn samba. We talk with a local man then head back to our room for cold showers and a short sleep.
About two o’clock we walk to Little India Market which has no atmosphere whatsoever except that all the women are wearing head scarves and that’s all that seems to be for sale as well. Now we try to get into the big mosque nearby but they won’t let us in so we head for Chinatown. This is another huge disappointment. Gone are the old stalls and that marketplace feeling – all replaced with shops and huge modern roofs covering street after street. I hate it and am not feeling at all impressed with Kuala Lumpur.
But I think the next place almost makes up for it. It’s a wonderful old tea house tucked away in the backstreets of Chinatown. A pair of swing doors lead in off the street to another world. We feel like we’ve stepped back in time to a China of long ago – carved tables with marble tops, old coloured windows, glass, mirrors, Chinese vases, old photographs, hanging lights and Chinese lanterns. It’s a peaceful place with soft Chinese music playing. The food is just as good – laksa and beef sizzler.
From here we find another good place but this time back in the twenty first century. The Reggae Bar is on the other side of Chinatown and is a shrine to Bob Marley. Photographs and memorabilia cover the walls and of course Bob’s music plays non stop. Walking back to the Coliseum we do a bit of shopping as all the shops are open even though it’s quite dark by now. I buy an embroidered top and jacket to match which I’ll wear on our visits to posh bars while we’re away.
At the Coliseum we have a drink sitting in the old planters chairs in the bar then have an early night. Won’t be at all disappointed to be leaving Kuala Lumpur tomorrow.
Friday 30th December, 2005
Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
A very early start this morning – up at 4.30am to look for a taxi in the street outside the Coliseum. We ask an Indian man doing the floors downstairs where we can get a taxi and he tells us in limited English and a lot of pointing to wait across the road. There’s not a car in sight let alone a taxi and we begin to wonder if we should walk up to another street. Suddenly a car pulls up and the driver asks us if we’re going to the airport and that he’ll give us a lift. It’s not free of course and we don’t like the sound of it anyway. Luckily a taxi comes tearing up the street and stops behind the car. The driver is a jolly man who keeps us amused with stories for the one hour trip to the airport. He’s so proud of his taxi and has decorated the dashboard with foreign paper money folded into fancy shapes and stuck on.
The international airport, KLIA, is a big and very unusual space-agey shape. At 7am, we board Air Asia for the two and a half hour flight to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. We land at 9.30am at the small KK airport and quickly find a taxi to take us into town. It’s only seven kilometres and it all looks lovely. The only downfall is that it’s starting to sprinkle.
KK is the capital of Sabah in the South China Sea. It’s not a big city but still has a high-rise centre. We get dropped off at the Kinabalu Daya Hotel which fortunately has a room. At the reception desk we meet a couple of middle aged Pommie guys. They’re really friendly and we hope to see them around somewhere. After settling in we have a drink in the bar downstairs. It’s open to the street and we watch the locals shopping while we plan the rest of our day. The first job is to book accommodation for Poring Springs where we’ll be heading tomorrow and where we’ve been told it’s hard to get a room. At the nearby Nature Resorts office we book a room at the hostel within the park grounds. From here we walk to the other side of town to the bus station to buy tickets for Ranau in the morning. The bus station is just a row of parked buses and a few tiny sheds as ticket offices. We book the 7.30am bus which is the first one out.
Now we walk over to the Filipino Market next to the water. It’s set up in big, darkly lit sheds and crammed with souvenirs. We buy a wooden bowl, a straw table runner and two shell necklaces. Most of the souvenirs we already have from other trips but some are just too out-there – like purses that look like frogs and actually were frogs – legs, head and all. Near the market is a mosque which has the call to prayer playing. Since today is Friday, a lot of men are making their way inside.
The rain is still coming down so we find one of the busy, very local kedai kopis in the main street for a lunch of noodle soup. The food is cheap and excellent and the staff very helpful and patient especially since nothing is written in English. We’re the only westerners here and definitely the centre of attention. From here we look around the department stores and Mark buys a beautiful purple shirt that naturally he looks gorgeous in.
At the hotel we find an upstairs bar where we order hot chips and a few beers but feeling very tired by now. We sleep till 7.30pm then get ready for a nigh out in KK. There’s a part of town where most of the cafes and bars are congregated so we make our way down there. In a backstreet we can hear music so we follow the sound till we see an upstairs balcony with tables and chairs. It’s a lovely setting up here and a good atmosphere with groups of local teenagers. A table full of young guys are sitting next to us and they’re having a ball. They’re very drunk and giggling a lot. They want photos taken with us which is the usual thing in Asia and very sweet. After a few drinks ourselves we walk down to a busier area where we run into the Pommies sitting on the footpath of a packed bar. They ask us to sit with them and introduce themselves as Paul and Boz. They’re both really great guys and Boz is especially talkative and enthusiastic about everything. We drink with them till 10.30 then decide to have an early night.
Saturday 31st December, 2005
Kota Kinabalu to Ranau to Poring Springs
By 7am we’re up and in a taxi to the bus station. As we approach the line of buses, touts run towards our car banging on the roof and calling out different destinations. They’re desperate for us to get on ‘their’ bus and quickly lose interest when we tell them that we already have our tickets. We have half an hour before we leave so we have breakfast in one of the cafes across from the buses. Then under beautiful blue skies we pull out at 7.30am and head north towards Mount Kinabalu. We pass a huge mosque out of town and then it’s open countryside with a few small villages now and again. Since we were first on the bus, we grabbed the front seats so we have uninterrupted views of the road ahead. But from the start it looks like we may be on the karaoke bus from hell and it’s so loud I put in my earplugs. Soon out of town, though, the driver swaps to a movie, ‘Nanya’, which is a nice surprise as we haven’t seen it yet.
For an hour the road twists and climbs towards Mount Kinabalu which we see looming in the distance. It’s the highest mountain in South East Asia and to climb it is one of Sabah’s attractions. Frankly I’d rather stick pins in my eyes, give birth to a chair, eat my own arse off etc. So while others jump off at the turnoff to the mountain, Mark and I are smugly sailing past sitting on our lazy arses. The road continues to wind and twist which is making Mark sick – he’s never good on these mountainous roads.
After three hours we’re finally at Ranau which is the closest town to Poring Springs. We’re the only ones to get off and have no idea where to go. From the highway we walk into the town centre which is busy with traffic and people but no–one takes any notice of us. We ask people ‘Poring Springs?’ But everyone gives us blank looks until one young guy grabs us to take us to wait on the footpath while he rings his brother at Poring Springs to come and get us. After half an hour he arrives in an old van and we head out of town past a busy colourful market down on the riverbank.
The nineteen kilometers to Poring Springs is lovely – lush and green. In half an hour we pass through a small straggly village on the outskirts of the springs. Up over a hill thick with vegetation we turn down into a quiet street lined with cafes on one side and the national park on the other. The springs are inside the park which is also where we’ve booked accommodation for tonight. At the tourist gate we’re told that we can‘t get into our dormitory until one o’clock so we decide to look around then have lunch. The girls in the office let us store our packs then give us a map of the park.
Getting to the ponds is just gorgeous – across a bridge that spans a fast running stream then a walk through the rainforest. There are about six different ponds, some hot and sulphurous natural springs and others cold water. The setting is very pretty especially with the Rainforest Cafe set amongst the trees.
One of the must-do things in the park is the ‘canopy walk’ so we decide to do this now as we still have over an hour before we can book in. The canopy is much further than it looks in the map and it’s a long strenuous walk halfway up a bloody mountain. Lots of foreign tourists are also on the track and we’re determined to pass the dreaded Germans. It takes a tiring twenty minutes to get here but definitely worth it. There’s a long line up as only four people can be on each walkway at a time. Three long walkways are suspended from the trees way, way above the jungle floor. The whole thing sways and creaks and even though I hate heights I’m determined to do it. I’m glad to see a lot of terrified faces and even Mark looks a bit worried.
At last at the bottom, the track down is much easier on the legs and the lungs but a bit slippery. So glad to arrive at the Rainforest Cafe where we order food and drinks. The café is open on all sides with little nooks and crannies set up with tables and chairs. The forest closes in around us and we can see the springs through the greenery. After lunch we carry our packs to the hostel but hate it – don’t want to share with four other people so we try to get our money back at the office. It can’t be done but we decide to find somewhere else anyway.
Just across from the park gate is a small shack-like house with a room attached. The house belongs to Jonah and his family while the room next to it is called Ernah Lodge on a hand painted sign at the front. We ask at the café nearby and someone runs off to find Jonah. He’s a friendly little man and is excited about renting the room. He proudly shows us inside and we’re surprised to find that we have two bedrooms, a tiny bathroom lined with corrugated iron and a cement floor as well as a small sitting room with a tiny lounge, tables and chairs and a television. The furnishings are basic bits and pieces and we love it.
Also attached to the Lodge is a small massage room where Jonah’s wife works. He’s excited again when we tell him we’d both like a massage today – they obviously don’t do too much business. Mark has a massage first while I sit reading in the sun in the doorway of our room. A few chickens are scratching around in the garden in front of me and Jonah’s little daughter comes over for a chat.
Mark is happy with his massage and I organize to have mine later this afternoon. Now, though, we want to have a swim in the springs so we take our towels over to the park. Because it’s a weekend, locals from all over have come here for a picnic and it’s great people watching. As most Malaysians are Moslems, most people are very modestly dressed and some even swim in their clothes. The hot springs water is channeled into a series of tiled pits that run down the slope. Each one only holds a couple of people and all of them are full so we swim first in the pretty cold water pool – so nice to cool down from the heat and humidity which keeps us wet with sweat all day.
Back outside the park we wander along the street looking at the souvenirs for sale. Because it’s New Year’s Eve, everyone is calling out ‘happy new year’ – a big thing here apparently. We buy a green batik table runner from a stall then notice hundreds of handmade ornaments of the Rafflesia flower. This is supposedly the biggest flower in the world and only flowers for a few days a year. I ask the stall lady about it and she says ‘you want to see?”. Apparently it’s in flower now and she runs off to find someone to take us there. In minutes the tiniest lady imaginable leads us up the road to the top of the hill. She’s barefoot and looks eighty but we can barely keep up with her. Around a bend she takes us to a family sitting in a grass and bamboo shelter and hands us over to a little boy who takes us into the forest. Up and down muddy tracks, across a tiny stream we at last come to the flower deep in the forest. It’s a reddy brown colour and about eighteen inches across. This is amazing and we feel very David Attenbouroughish.
Back at the lodge I have my massage with Maria and love it as always. On dark Jonah comes in to light the mosquito coils. The mosquitos are the biggest we’ve ever seen and there’s hundreds of them but Jonah says ‘no malaria’. The television won’t work and even though we don’t really want it, Jonah spends an hour trying to fix it. He tells us about his family (he’s one of fifteen) and they all live in the next village. One of his brothers had brought us here in his van and we arrange for another brother to take us back to Ranau in the morning.
Now we get ready for our New Year’s Eve in Poring Springs. We dress up and walk over to the Rainforest Café in the park where we’ve booked a table for dinner. We shouldn’t have bothered as we’re the only ones here except for a table of European scientists who eat and run. A tiny bat does laps of the café and we can hear forest noises all around us. Dinner is great – seafood salad, Tom Yum, chicken curry, rice and five cokes for AUD $20. We’ve brought along our duty free Bacardi and have a lovely night together. It’s incredibly beautiful sitting here in this tranquil setting in the middle of a rainforest.
Afterwards we walk along the village street to another empty café for four fresh pineapple juices. The café overlooks a bubbling stream which we can’t see in the dark but can hear just below us. The owner sits with us and tells us that Intrepid stays here and that he has plans to build more rooms.
At 9.30pm we head back to the Lodge while the locals call out ‘happy New Year’ and a group of teenage boys in a ute drive up and down the street – great excitement in Poring Springs. I can’t keep awake till midnight but Mark stays up to see in the New Year – Happy New Year, my darling!
Sunday 1st January, 2006
Poring Springs to Sepilok
New Years Day. At 8am we have breakfast back at the Rainforest Café then head back to Ernah Lodge to pack. Jonah needs to go into Ranau so he borrows his brother’s van. At 9am we set off with Jonah and his wife and their two year old son. They drop us off on the highway at a petrol station which is where the bus to Sandakan will stop. We say ‘terima kasih’ to Jonah for giving us a special time at Poring Springs. Two Asian girls are waiting as well and when the 9.30am bus pulls in there are only two seats so Mark and I need to wait for the next bus which will come who knows when. It actually arrives at 9.50am and we’re soon speeding east along a much flatter and straighter road than yesterday. All the way we see plantations of palm oil stretching far into the distance – can this be right? The movie today is King Kong – pathetic but watchable while we’re stuck on a bus.
After three hours we arrive at Sepilok at 1.30pm. Again we’re dropped off on the highway and again we’re not sure where to go. A track off the road has a few cars with touts waiting so we cross over to get a lift to the hotels. A young Dutch backpacker comes with us and tells us that she’s going to stay at the Jungle Resort so we decide to have a look as well. There are only a couple of places to stay here so there shouldn’t be too many tourists around.
We soon turn off the track onto a smaller potholed track that takes us to the hotel. It’s lovely and in a beautiful setting of jungle and built around large ponds. We have a look at an expensive room but prefer to stay in a more basic one. We’re taken along wooden walkways and bridges across the ponds till we come to the Banana Café and the cheap rooms. Much nicer here anyway. Our room is very dark with the trees right up to the windows. We have a fan but the humidity is too high to make much difference.
For lunch we hang out in the Banana Café at a table next to the pond. The gardens around the pond have flowering plants and huge fan shaped palms. On a notice board I see a flyer for Guided Night Jungle Walks so we book one for tonight – not really my thing but we’ll only be here once. By now thick clouds have come over and the rain is pouring down like only tropical rain can do. It’s quite lovely really and a good excuse to have an afternoon nap. Mark has a shower but it’s cold even though we’re supposed to have hot here for a change. We report it to the desk but will wait with baited breath. Mark also does some much needed clothes washing as this is the first time we’ve stayed in the same place for more than one night.
At 7pm we’re ready for our jungle walk. The rain has stopped by now and, in pitch dark, we follow a young girl along the dirt track which, after the rain, is a mire of mud and water. The jungle walk is apparently inside the orangutan centre so it should be better than expected. At the gate the girl leaves us with our guide, a young guy who works as a ranger in the park. He asks us ‘you have torches?’ but of course we don’t because no-one told us to bring one. This means we have one torch between the three of us – brilliant.
For the next hour (thank we didn’t book the two hour walk) we very slowly walk through the forest while our poor guide tries to find anything even mildly interesting. In total we see two millipedes, one bird and a snake curled up asleep in a tree – a bit of a letdown but a nice experience anyway.
On the way back to the Jungle Resort we see the Nature Resort through the trees and wander over for a look. It’s much more upmarket but nowhere near as appealing. We decide to have a drink anyway and sit on an upstairs balcony overlooking their pond. Back in our room we find that the hot water has miraculously been fixed. After a quick dinner we have an early night.
Monday 2nd January, 2006
We wake at 8am for showers and breakfast at the Banana Café. I keep seeing an interesting looking old lady who always seems to have people come up to talk to her and decide to get to know her before we leave.
Today is going to be very special. Today we see the orangutans. After breakfast we walk over to the Orangutan Centre where we buy our 30R each tickets then line up for the gate to open. We follow a crowd up and down long wooden walkways till we reach the feeding platform about ten minutes later. The crowd builds up to about eighty people but everything is total silence. While we wait for the orangutans to appear, lots of small monkeys and a big pig-faced monkey start turning up probably to try to pinch some of the free food. The feeder eventually climbs the platform with a bucket of bananas and sugar cane. The excitement builds and everyone has their eyes fixed on the jungle.
Soon we can see some branches moving and then here they come. It’s an incredible sight. About fifteen orangutans turn up for the feeding. No-one scrambles for food – all very orderly really. They all arrive by swinging along ropes set up in the trees and attached to the platform. The humidity here in the jungle must be about one hundred and fifty percent – so bad that the inside of our camera fogs up and my hair looks like I just had a perm.
After the orangutans all return to the jungle we walk back to the entrance building while stopping to point out the snake that we saw in the tree last night to some of the other tourists – they think it ‘mazing! In a building near the gate we sit on the floor of a packed room to watch a film about the centre. Most of the orangutans are bought here as orphaned babies and spend a few years in the orphanage wearing nappies and being bottle fed. They’re gradually taught to spend some time by themselves in the jungle but it can take up to twelve years and some never become independent.
In the room we see a poor young Asian woman with the most deformed face I could ever imagine. She’s with some friends and chatting away but I feel so sad for her.
By lunchtime it’s raining again so after a nice lunch at the Banana Café, we have our usual nap. At three o’clock we’re up and off again to the Orangutan Centre for the afternoon feeding. Although the sun is shining again the humidity is so much worse. The feeding platform and jungle around is almost hidden by the steam rising from it. We’re glad that we came back this afternoon as we see two baby orangutans with their mothers – so cute.
Outside we have ice creams that melt before we can get them in our mouths and we end up with ice cream up to our elbows. Again we have a drink at the Nature Resort then more drinks at the Banana Café till six o’clock. We talk for hours then arrange to have breakfast with the old lady in the morning. Her name is Francine Neago, she’s French and says ‘you want to talk about orangutans?”
Tuesday 3rd January, 2006
Sepilok to Sandakan
At 8am we meet Francine in the café. We talk for an hour and find she’s one of the most interesting people we’ve ever met. I don’t know exactly how old she is but she looks at least eighty. She’s a scientist who is trying to set up a school here to teach people about orangutans and about their survival. She tells us about the corruption at the Orangutan Centre and how there soon won’t be enough primary jungle left for the orangutans because the government is destroying it to plant palm oil trees. Soon there will only be secondary forest left and even that might be under threat. She’s an expert on orangutans and has even taught one to ‘speak’ using a computer in the US. Once she lived in a cage with orangutans for six months so she could study them and when she lived in Sumatra she had a full grown pet alligator that lived under her kitchen table. Actually she’s definitely the most interesting person we’ve ever met!
This morning Mark and I are catching a mini bus to Sandakan and Francine wants to come with us. We rush back to our room to pack and find that our clothes that Mark washed two days ago are still completely wet – shows how humid it is here. At 10am we set off with Francine for the one hour trip into town. We say goodbye to her in the town centre where we book into the Mayfair Hotel for tonight. The Mayfair is an upstairs place with not much going for it on the outside but inside we have big bedroom and bathroom, a television, air conditioning and hot water. There’s even a big selection of DVD’s that we can play for free – an excellent place with a helpful, friendly owner.
Just across from the hotel is the big central market where we spend an enjoyable hour or so. Everyone wants their photos taken and big smiling faces everywhere. At the fruit market we buy mandarins and grapes then super rich cream cakes at a bakery across the road. After lunch at another kedai kopi we spend the afternoon in bed watching DVDs and eating cakes.
At 6pm we catch a taxi outside to the posh Sabah Hotel on the outskirts of the town. We’ve dressed up again and have drinks in a couple of bars before catching another taxi to Agnes Keith’s House up on the hill. The villa was built in the 1930’s by Agnes and her husband after they arrived from America. Now it’s been restored as a beautiful restaurant. Tonight the weather is still perfect – calm and hot so we choose to sit in a cabana by ourselves overlooking Sandakan harbour. We order expensive food and wine but the food is horrid. My fish isn‘t even cooked in parts. No mind, we enjoy ourselves heaps.
Wednesday 4th January, 2006
Sandakan to Kuala Lumpur
Today we’re heading back to the Malay Peninsula and Kuala Lumpur. Our flight is at 10.3am so we have time for a leisurely breakfast at the Hawaii Café before catching a taxi to the airport. We’re so glad we added Sabah to our trip and for a flight cost of AUD$176 each, it’s been worth every cent. The flight is three hours so we arrive at KL airport about 1.30pm. An express train called KLIA Ekspress goes straight from the airport into the city seventy five kilometres away but only takes twenty eight minutes.
At KL Sentral Station, we eat McDonalds and buy sleeper tickets for tonight’s train to Butterworth. Now we store our bags before hiring a taxi to take us out to Batu Cave. We have a lady taxi driver all covered head to toe in her Moslem robe and scarf and she’s a true taxi driver – fast and furious.
Batu Cave is half an hour out of the city and the two hundred and seventy two step stairway to the entrance can be seen for miles. At the bottom are the usual cafes and a cluster of colourful Hindu temples. The climb to the top is hot and exhausting and we have a rest every twenty steps so it takes a while. At the top at last only to find that there’s more steps once we’re inside the cave.
At a stall we buy a Hindi CD then wander around the huge interior and watch monkeys scampering everywhere. Back at the bottom we have a drink at one of the cafes then head back to the city. We get dropped at the Petronas Towers which are at this time the tallest buildings in the world and spectacular in a futuristic sort of way. A walkway halfway up joins the two towers and it’s possible to get elevators up here to see the views. Outside a man with a whistle is very importantly waving through the row of taxis coming into the circular driveway at the front.
Inside it takes a while to find the ticket booth but they’re sold out anyway. Now we sit on a patch of grass opposite the Towers to work out what we want to do next. We decide to walk to the Heritage Station Hotel but get fed up and get a taxi. The hotel is housed in a magnificent old colonial and I love it on sight. Inside has been preserved rather than restored or renovated which can destroy a true old world atmosphere. The bar is in a cavernous room with twenty foot ceilings and a tiled floor. We sit in stools at the bar for a beer and Mark orders some food.
From here we ask directions to Chinatown which means crossing the railway platform. By now it’s on dusk and starting to rain. The wet season has arrived in Malaysia and an afternoon shower is expected. This is more than a shower, though. We’ve heard about the impressive thunderstorms in KL and we now experience it full on. By the time we get to Chinatown we’re literally dripping wet and make a run for the Reggae Bar. Being drenched isn’t a problem at all as it’s still amazingly hot and nice to be back and see ‘Bob’ again. We buy Margaritas each and Mark buys a Reggae Bar t-shirt.
At seven o’clock we decide we’d better start heading for the station. Outside is dark and the rain is still bucketing down. We wait ages for a taxi but all of them are full and we begin to worry if we’ll get one at all. This is peak hour and the roads are crammed. We run up to a busy intersection and at last find an empty cab. At the station we buy McDonalds again. We’d gone into a bakery but a man told us he’d just seen a cockroach running around over the buns. We pick up our packs from luggage storage and find the platform for the Butterworth train. At 8.20pm we’re allowed to board and find our very comfy beds already made up. A couple of local men chat with us. One is from Langkawi Island and after talking to him we decide to go there after Penang. The train pulls out from Sentral Station and KL at 8.45pm.
Can’t wait to get into bed after a long day.
Thursday 5th January, 2006
Kuala Lumpur to Penang
Mark has set his alarm for 5am as we’re due to arrive in Butterworth at 5.30am. We’ve both had a good sleep – always love the overnight trains and this one has been especially comfortable. At Butterworth station we jump out and find a taxi to take us to Penang Island. It’s still dark and being so early the streets are fairly empty. Leaving Butterworth, we cross the 13.5 kilometre long Penang Bridge to Penang Island and the capital, Georgetown. We want to stay at the Cathay Hotel which I’ve read about from travellers’ diaries on the internet. The hotel seems to be in an interesting part of town and we like the look of it as well. It’s has a semi circular driveway where we pull into to be dropped off at the door. Everything is locked up but we ring the bell and soon a sleepy man peers out the door. He doesn’t mind booking us in this early and we’re soon in our room and curled up in bed.
We sleep till 10am then have a shower and unpack. We plan to stay here for two nights which is nice for a change. We love our room – very spacious and a good bathroom but mainly because of its colonial feel. The whole hotel is wonderful – a white two storey, pretty building of the colonial era with a central courtyard that all the rooms open onto. Each room has an ordinary door but also another set of half sized swing doors – cute.
Before we set out for the day we book an island tour at the desk for tomorrow. Now it’s definitely time for breakfast so we walk up to the café area. On the way we stop to look at an interesting temple and meet a lovely man who shows us around. On the very busy Chulia Street we find a nice café for breakfast then walk to Chinatown. A man in an old rickshaw drives past and we hire him to take us on a tour around Little India and Chinatown.
He takes us first to a lively Chinese temple where a friendly man shows us how to burn bundles of bright pink incense sticks then how to pray with candles. He gives us a mini tour of the temple then takes photos of us outside with our camera. Back in the rickshaw we ride around the streets to another temple but they’re washing the floors so we can’t go in. Little India is next which takes us back to our time there. It’s a vibrant place full of music, Indian restaurants and stalls. Lots of street life, cooking aromas and women in saris bring back so many memories. Our next stop is the Khoo Kongsi Temple – the oldest and best in Penang. It’s a lovely place with old hanging paper lanterns and intricately carved columns and doubles as a clan house or meeting hall. Our driver now takes us down to the waterfront past Fort Cornwallis then finally back to Chulia Street.
Here we have lunch at the Rainforest Café in an outdoor/indoor area at the back. Mark goes off to buy a Thailand Lonely Planet while I do some emailing before we go back to the Cathay Hotel for a sleep. An alleyway next door to the hotel has a sign saying ‘Cathay Hotel Health Clinic’. I ask the man at the desk what they do there thinking we might be able to have a massage. He just says ‘you don’t want to know – easy virtue girls’.
In the late afternoon we get dressed up for a visit to Georgetown’s posh old hotel, the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Before we get there though, we stop at a restaurant/bar near the Cathay. It’s called the Fun Bar probably because it has late night bands – at the moment though it’s just people drinking and eating. It’s a dark place decorated in Chinese style and we love it. There’s a couple of fluffy pet dogs running around and one keeps nipping people’s ankles.
From here we walk down to the Eastern and Oriental – starting to sprinkle but still hot. Inside we find the upmarket Farquar Bar and order beers, daiquiris and margaritas feeling very posh in our new clothes. Mark is wearing his purple Sabah shirt and I’m wearing the top and jacket I bought in KL.
For dinner we walk back to Chulia Street passing a busy mosque on the way. This is the Islamic area and most restaurants and street stalls are run by men in robes. By the time we get to Chulia Street, the rain is torrential and we make a run for Coco Island Café. This is a trendy place with open sides and very cool people. The food is Mexican and cooked in an open kitchen in the middle. I find a cute cat and try to nurse it but it hates me. After many Bacardis, we move to another café across the road. It’s very dark, local and basic – great atmosphere. The lady who serves us can’t speak English but we manage to get one warm coke.
Now it’s time for bed after another busy day.
Friday 6th January, 2006
This morning we don’t wake till 9am which means we’re too late for breakfast but we’ll get it somewhere on the road. At the desk – which seems to be run by a series of little old men who all look the same – we meet our driver for today, Albert.
He takes us to his minivan then we do a tour of Georgetown while he points out all the sights. We visit a pewter shop and watch a demonstration before heading off around the coast road. Later we stop at a batik place where they explain the process and we watch some of the work. Mark buys a green and white batik shirt which will be a nice reminder of Penang.
Along the coast we pass through some of the expensive resort type areas and thank god we don‘t stay in places like these. Now we turn inland driving up into the mountains and passing groves of bamboo, rubber, coconut and bananas. Albert points out the betel nut tree which we’ve never seen before.
At the top of the mountains we stop at a row of shacks selling fruit from the area. We try starfruit, rambutan, dragon fruit and even the foul smelling durian. They say it smells like hell but tastes like heaven – we think it tastes like shit and spit it out. Mark has a go of getting sap from the rubber tree by scraping the trunk to let the sap flow into a tin bowl attached to the tree. Meanwhile I try to befriend a little monkey locked in a cage but it hates me as well.
Once on the other side of the island, we pass through local villages seeing the true Malay architecture. Most of the houses are wooden and built in stilts for coolness. Later we visit the Snake Temple – so-called because of the poisonous vipers that are meaningful here in some way. They’re wrapped on bamboo coils and in trees planted inside – hideous but interesting. Next door we visit the Snake Farm to see glassed-in snakes of all sizes end types – even a thirty foot python and more albino pythons. A couple of men insist on wrapping a snake around Mark’s neck even though he’s over it by now.
Back in Georgetown, Albert takes us to Fort Cornwallis where we wander around looking at cannons, cannon balls and a few displays. Boring really but it’s a nice peaceful place. Since we haven’t eaten all day, except for the fruit in the mountains, I buy the three of us an ice cream each.
By one o’clock we’re glad that the tour is over and get Albert to drop us at Coco Island for lunch and a beer. Back to our room now for our usual afternoon read and a nap then on dark get a taxi to one of the seafood restaurants on the water on the other side of the island. There’s a string of them and they’re all lit up like Christmas trees as is the usual Asian way. Each one is virtually the same – huge outdoor areas with round tables and brightly coloured tablecloths – very tacky. One look at the menu and we realize it’s not what we’d expected. Instead of being able to get fresh seafood, it’s all cooked Asian style in all sorts of dishes. We order some prawns which are okay but decide to just have a drink and move on. Also as is the Asian, way we have any number of waiters and waitresses hovering around us at any one time. We’re the only westerners here and realize it’s more a place where local Malays eat.
Out on the road we seem to walk for miles before we find a taxi to hightail it back to Coco Joes for another great meal.
Saturday 7th January, 2006
Penang to Langkawi Island
Today we’re headed for Langkawi Island. We get a ride to the boat wharf for the 8.30 am ferry. The trip is supposed to be two hours but it’s nearly three. No matter because it’s not full and we lie down the whole way. Near us are a few Moslem families and the women are in the black all-covering birkas. We wonder what sort of a beach holiday they could possibly have covered from head to toe – they must be stifling under all those robes.
The weather had been dull and sprinkling in Penang but by the time we reach the busy Langkawi wharf at 11.30 am the skies have cleared to a brilliant blue. Touts are everywhere scrambling to grab the tourists as we disembark. One man drags us to a window booth to show us pictures of different places to stay but we decide to find our own and head off towards the car park. We find another man with a van and ask him the price for a ride to Chenang Beach. Soon we’re speeding off through Kuah Town, the capital, and heading around the coastline. Half an hour later we arrive at Chenang and get dropped off at AB Motel, a small bungalow type place right on the water. They have a spare room but it won’t be ready for an hour so we buy drinks and sit at a table on the sand. AB is run by a Moslem family and all the women are wearing head scarves and long dresses. This is fine until we realise that no alcohol is served and not even allowed in the café. It shouldn’t be a problem as there seems to be plenty of other cafes all along the road and along the beach.
While we wait for our room to be ready, we soak up the beautiful surroundings. The sand is white rather than yellow and as fine as talc compared to the grainy stuff at home. The beach is lined with coconut trees, cafes and bars but not at all up-market which is how we like it. The beach isn’t crowded either but just enough people to make it interesting. Some are swimming or roaring around on jet skis but at the other end of the beach thank god. A few small islands lie not far away – apparently there are over a hundred in the Langkawi group of islands – very tropical.
For some reason the room takes two hours to clean but finally we’re in and by this stage, starving. We set off along the street and find the very cool looking Breakfast Café. It’s run by a French hippy woman who walks around with bare feet – what a great life. A dear little kitten called Tum cuddles up on my lap and I’m in heaven. The breakfast is good – fresh pineapple juice and baguettes. Instead of walking back to AB along the road we head down to the beach. We like the look of a few budget cafes that I’m sure we’ll be trying out tonight. I’m also very happy to find a shack that has a ‘massage’ sign at the front so I book in for this afternoon.
Meanwhile we do a bit more walking along the sand, then back to the room for a read and a sleep. At three o’clock I walk down to the massage shack which is built right on the sand. The sun is pouring in through the window but an electric fan keeps me cool. The massage is the Swedish type with oils and rubbing rather than the painful Thai style.
On sunset we have drinks and a seafood pizza at a beach café then move to the café next door for more drinks. Stretching right along the horizon, we can see the lights from hundreds of tiny fishing boats twinkling in the dark – very pretty. It begins to sprinkle so later we move to the Red Tomato Café. It’s run by another French woman who also has a cat that sits on my lap the whole time. His name is Tiger and, after a few too many Bacardis, I want to take him back to our bungalow but Mark says ‘NO!!’.
Sunday 8th January, 2006
As expected we both wake with hangovers but we don’t have to travel today so it doesn’t matter. Mark has an early swim and we’re pleased to see golden sunshine and a clear blue sky after the rain last night. This morning we head back to the Red Tomato for breakfast and for me to look for Tiger. He’s lounging around on a day bed but before I can get my hands on him a guy turns up in a motorbike and spends the next hour patting him and cuddling him. Piss off!!
From here we find a travel agent to get some info about traveling to Thailand and Ko Samuii but it’s all too much for them and we’ll work it out ourselves. At AB we do some emailing home then spend the rest of the morning on the beach and in the water. Later we walk down to the Zon Shopping Complex, a big, ugly duty free place that looks totally out of place here. We make the most of it though – a watch for me, cigarettes, two dresses for Mum and Mark has a pair of prescription sunglasses made.
Late in the afternoon we have another swim and see a crazy Moslem woman still decked out in her robes and head scarf, hurtling around on a jet ski. She’s tearing through the water doing all sorts of hairy maneuvers and all in the ‘no jet ski area’. She flies past us to the other end of the beach where the jet ski owner is screaming at her from the sand and waving a red flag – go girl! In the mean time, Mark and I are laughing our heads off – great entertainment.
For an early dinner we can’t help but return to the Red Tomato for an excellent seafood pizza (can’t see Tiger anywhere) then later find a fabulous café on the beach. It’s a simple place where we choose fresh prawns and fish then have it cooked in front of us on the sand. By candlelight and moonlight we have a lovely night. We keep the alcohol to a minimum as we’ve got a huge traveling day ahead of us tomorrow.
Monday 9th January, 2006
Langkawi Island to Surat Thani
Today we’re leaving Malaysia and entering Thailand through the coastal town of Satun on the west coast. This means getting an early ferry from Kuah town here on Langkawi Island. We have a quick breakfast at the AB sitting in the open air café. The service is slow and the food ordinary but it’s been a good place to stay and we’ve really enjoyed our time here. While Mark pays our bill for the room, I stand out on the road with our packs to try and get a lift into Kuah.
A van soon pulls over and we’re at the ferry wharf in half an hour. In front of the ticket window for the Satun ferry is a long, long line and it doesn’t even seem to be moving. We’ve forgotten that we’ll have to go through immigration which they’re also doing at the ticket booth and which is obviously taking up all the time. It looks like most of us will miss the 9.30am ferry but we manage the ten o’clock one which we’re still happy with. As we pull out we have our last look at lovely Langkawi only to get another look half an hour later when we break down and have to crawl back to the wharf we just left.
No sooner than we pull in, we’re all rushed to another waiting ferry and in no time racing towards Thailand. An hour later, at 11.30am, we arrive in Satun. We love you, Thailand! It’s not actually a picturesque spot, though, for our first sight of Thailand after eighteen months – the wharf is filthy and feral dogs are running around in packs. More long immigration lines here as well but within thirty minutes we’re outside haggling with touts for a car ride to Had Yai.
Mark is a fierce bargainer and we get a cheap price for the two hour drive. We end up with an old, white Mercedes and spread out on the big back seat. With the windows open we can keep relatively cool but later it starts to rain. Within minutes of leaving the ferry wharf we see a monk, a temple and a songthaew. I love it – it feels like Thailand – different somehow and comforting.
At one o’clock we arrive in Had Yai – getting a bit confused with times till we realise that Thailand is an hour behind Malaysia. Had Yai is a huge commercial town and a major stopover point between Bangkok and Malaysia. Our driver drops us at the station but then we decide to follow some touts who tell us about buses. They take us to an open fronted old shop across the road and show us pictures of gleaming coach-style buses. The man at the desk tells us that the buses take four hours instead of five on the train and leave earlier as well. This would mean that we’d get to Surat Thani in time to catch the last ferry to Ko Samuii tonight at eleven o’clock. Mark is just about to pay when I ask if this is the bus we’ll be going on – actually, no. He shows us a picture of a minivan that we’ll share with eleven other people – no thanks. Been there, done that too many times. Now it’s back to the station to book tickets for the 3.30pm train to Surat Thani.
With two hours to kill we stop in at a basic Chinese café for noodles and chicken soup then for a drink in a bar open to the street. All along this street are little massage places so we spend the next hour having foot massages and manicures – so great to be back in Thailand. At the station we’re told that the train has been held up so Mark races back into town to buy chicken and chips while I mind the bags. We talk to a nice Thai man who is also waiting for the train and Mark buys sleeper train tickets from Surat Thani to Bangkok on Thursday night.
The train finally pulls in an hour and a half late at five o’clock. We make the bottom seats up into a bed and read and snooze for the next five hours lying next to each other. We’re kept amused by a friendly Thai family near us and watching another family across the aisle. The wife and little boy had cried when they waved goodbye to the grandmother on the platform when they first got on the train. The family looks very poor but I’ve never seen people dote over their little boy like they do.
Before it becomes dark we watch the scenery from the open windows – very tropical with limestone hills in the distance. Later we make the mistake of ordering food on the train. We’ve done this before and this is no different – inedible chicken curry.
Finally at ten o’clock we pull into Phun Phin Station which is the closest railway station to Surat Thani. Only a few of us get off the train and we wave goodbye to the ‘friendly family’. Outside a few drivers are hanging around their songthaews in the dark so we negotiate a price to take us to Surat. We climb in the back of a songthaew with a Moslem family. The lady and the two little daughters have only their faces showing and the little girls stare at us the whole way like we’re going to eat them. This is the first time for years that we’ve been in a songthaew and enjoy it so much. With the open sides it’s a windy ride for the half hour to Surat.
We tell the driver to take us to the Bandon Hotel which is described as the best budget place in town. It’s situated in a busy street and behind a Chinese café. The driver of our songthaew carries our bags upstairs and helps us book in. We ask him about getting to Ko Samuii in the morning and he says that he’ll pick us up here at seven o’clock to take us to the wharf. I have a ciggy on the back verandah while Mark finds our room – very clean but with a bed like a slab of cement.
Tuesday 10th January, 2006
Surat Thani to Ko Samuii
By seven o’clock we’ve packed and having a breakfast of noodle soup in the Chinese café downstairs. A few other backpackers are waiting on the footpath as well and soon a bus arrives to take us to a travel agent where we transfer to a bigger bus with a heap of other people. After a twenty minute drive we arrive at the ferry wharf where lots of other buses are unloading crowds of backpackers.
The ferry’s passenger cabin is down a steep set of stairs and we’re totally packed in like sardines – no leg room and hard straight backed seats with orange life jackets hung over the back of each seat. It’s horrible except for interesting people watching – mainly young hippy people and mainly Israelis. The ferry stops first at Ko Samuii then goes to Ko Phan Ang one hour further on. Ko Phan Ang is the trendy island and it’s obvious that most of the people on the ferry are headed there. Mark and I are getting off at Ko Samuii and after three hours of riding the high seas I couldn’t possibly go on to Ko Phan Ang even if I wanted. After a couple of ours inside the claustrophobic death trap of a cabin we crawl up the stairs and try to find an inch of space on the deck. Half the passengers have the same idea and obviously prefer to swelter in the sun than stay in the cabin. And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one feeling sick.
At last at Ko Samuii we scramble off the boat and just about kiss the wharf. It’s great to be here but know that we have to do the return trip in two days time – hopefully the seas will be calmer. It’s been a long and complicated way of getting here but I wanted to come to Ko Samuii because Lauren has been here twice and I want to see where she’s been.
Just off the wharf we find a songthaew heading for Chewang Beach and negotiate a price. Another couple and four young backpackers pile in as well and we soon set off, all squashed together in a minivan. After half an hour the couple get out and we talk to the young guys, two of them Australians. They’re staying at a cheap place right on the water but Mark and I keep on going to Chewang. Our first impression is of an over-touristy place of cafes, shops and hotels but we’ll give it a chance.
We stop at the Garden Resort Hotel where Lauren has stayed before but all the rooms are full. After a couple more tries we end up at Marine Resort right on the beach. We have a roomy, airy bungalow with our own shower and toilet and a shady verandah at the front. All the bungalows are set up amongst gardens and trees with winding paths in between – very pretty.
After drinks in the bar overlooking the water, we walk along the beach then have massages at a small place near our hotel. Two ladies have set up mattresses on the sand under shady trees and in front of the café next door. While we have our massages we talk to the ladies and watch all the action on the beach.
Later we wander down the dirt track between the hotel and the main street to do some retail therapy. We find a few cheap CD places then an interesting art gallery on the top floor of a dress shop. Lauren has asked us to buy her a couple but we end up with two for her, two for Angie and a big one for us.
In the late afternoon we have a read and sleep before heading off along the sand at 8pm. All the hotels have cafes built right up to the beach and all of them have tables and chairs or beach lounges set up on the sand. Fairy lights and candles make it quite a sight. The cafes stretch for a kilometre along the water so we have plenty of choice. At one place we stop for cocktails then move on to the Ark Bar for dinner. Each café has a table set up near the water where you pick fresh seafood and salad. Mark and I choose king prawns and fish which comes with hot potatoes and salad. All so cheap and with our duty free Bacardi we have an excellent meal for next to nothing. The Ark Bar seems to be the loudest place on the beach but it’s great people watching so we stay till midnight.
Wednesday 11th January, 2006
Today we’re staying put. After a nine o’clock sleep in we have breakfast at the Marine Café which is almost on the sand and only a few metres from the water. The sun is shining and the temperature high already so we’re swimming and sunbaking in no time. Around twelve o’clock we wander down to the main street where I buy a pair of black fisherman’s pants before having lunch in a nice Italian restaurant down a dusty side street. We see a man walking past who is literally covered in tattoos from head to toe – even his bald head – and everyone is staring at him – freak.
Back on the beach we have a massage with the ladies just outside our hotel just for a change. They’ve set themselves up on a raised bamboo platform with a thatched roof which looks very inviting even though we feel a bit guilty for not going to the same ladies as yesterday. Before going back to our room we ask if my glasses have arrived from Surat Thani – ‘not today. Come tomorrow’. Oh God, why didn’t we just tell them to leave them at the hotel and we’d pick them up tomorrow night.
Getting up at 7pm from our afternoon sleep, we find an atmospheric beach café where we order cocktails – Blue Hawaiis, Margaritas and Daiquiris. Further on we lay on wooden beach lounges covered with mattresses and pillows and have another seafood meal by candlelight and moonlight.
After Mark has a quick kabumbah in our room, we decide to check out the main street. We visit the girlie bars where young Thai women serve drinks but mainly flirt with the male customers. The girls are dressed in ultra short mini-skirts but nothing too revealing. Poles are mounted on small platforms behind the bar and the girls do a bit of basic girating around the poles every now and again but without much enthusiasm. It all seems strangely innocent in a way but maybe I’m the naïve one.
What is too strange though, is that a baby girl about twelve months old dressed in a frilly pink dress and a nappy, is playing with toys on one of the platforms. When she likes the music she bobs up and down to the beat and some of the girls show her how to pole dance. It’s incredibly cute and she appears to be very loved but this will probably be her life.
Then in the girlie bar next door, Mark and I spend an hour playing a building block game with the sweet barmaid. The whole scene seems to be a contradiction of seediness and innocence and it’s hard to judge.
Thursday 12th January, 2006
Ko Samuii to Surat Thani
Tonight we’re booked on the overnight train to Bangkok which involves getting a taxi back around to the other side of the island, a ferry to the mainland, a bus to Surat Thani and a songthaew to Phun Phin. The guy on the desk recommends catching the car ferry which leaves on the hour. The train doesn’t arrive in Phun Phin till eleven o’clock tonight so we don’t need to leave too early and decide to catch the three o’clock ferry. Meanwhile we have to book out by 11am so we shower and pack after a lazy breakfast at the Marine Café. We store our packs in a room behind the café then wander along the beach. Our massage ladies call out to us and somehow know exactly when we’ll be leaving and that we have time for one last massage – so we do.
As usual we see flabby topless women with ugly floppy tits and hail damaged thighs and arses. Age or size doesn’t seem to matter and one huge woman wearing only a skimpy bikini bottom has us transfixed. Her teenage son seems to be dying of embarrassment and the parents are even encouraging him to sunbake longer. I’m the only one in a one-piece – don’t know who’s right or wrong but I just don’t see the point. As well as being almost naked, no-one wears a hat and sunbake with their faces up to the sun – most likely Germans.
Finally get sick of staring at the fat lady so we walk down to an open air café with comfy lounges for lunch and to read our books. At 1.30pm we head back to our hotel and find that my reading glasses still haven’t turned up so we ask the same nice guy on the desk to ring the Bandon Hotel in Surat Thani and tell them to leave them there and well pick them up tonight.
Grabbing our packs, we walk down the potholed track to the main road and quickly hail down a taxi. The driver is a young woman who soon has us speeding across the middle of the island to the ferry wharf an hour away. It’s a nice drive through small towns and green countryside till we reach the car ferry which is a monster and already loading. There’s only about fifty passengers which means we have stacks of room in the big airy passenger cabin. Mark and I spread out on two long rows of seats and sleep till we get to the mainland at 5pm. This is a totally different experience to the trip over – smooth seas and plenty of room. We’ve stopped at a different wharf from where we started two days ago and it’s a one hour bus ride into Surat Thani. From the bus stop we walk around to the Bandon Hotel and surprise surprise my glasses aren’t here. They’ve probably been going back and forward on the ferry for the last two days and maybe forever more.
Leaving our bags at the hotel we walk around to the night market. This is wonderful and reminds us of the night markets we visited years ago when we first came to Thailand. It’s a true Thai local market with no westerners so we find all sorts of strange things to eat. The market covers a big area of small alleyways and people are shoulder to shoulder. After a wander around checking it all out we buy some satay skewers and sausage looking things – too spicy for me and I dump them. Across from the market is a dimly lit basic cafe so we sit down for a drink and study the Lonely Planet to see what else we can do to pass the next few hours.
We’re still hungry so we head back into the market and sit at a tiny table squashed behind a food cart to dig into chicken and vegetable kebabs and platefuls of fish curry. They give us glasses of tap water but we’re not game to drink them.
Now we decide to pass the rest of the time at the One Hundred Islands Resort which is Surat Thani’s poshest hotel. Outside the market we catch a songthaew to the outskirts of town and soon see the hotel set back off the road. It’s very striking and looks like a teak palace with deep sweeping roof lines. Our driver drops us in the curved driveway near the impressive entrance. Inside is lovely too but has an odd feel somehow. After searching unsuccessfully for a bar we ask the girls at the desk where we can get a drink. Nowhere in the hotel apparently but they point us to a rooftop bar in front of the hotel. Another dead end here as well – what the hell? Back inside the hotel we realise why – it’s a Thais only place which explains the lack of alcohol as well as the ‘different’ atmosphere. Never mind, so we settle in a corner on a couple of lounges and read till it’s time to head for Phun Phin.
Out on the road Mark has an argument with a songthaew driver who is trying to rip us off so we have to cross the busy road and walk down to the shopping centre where a group of songthaews are parked. More arguing but we have to pay what they ask or we’ll never get to the station. As usual a few hangeroners come with us and in fifteen minutes we pull up at the station. Feeling very happy to be on the move again and very, very happy to be heading for Bangkok. The train is late as usual but we finally pull out at 11pm. Our beds have already been made up so we’re asleep in no time.
Friday 13th January, 2006
Because it’s a twelve hour trip we don’t get to Bangkok till almost midday. A quick tuktuk ride gets us to the Wild Orchid in ten minutes. The room is on the fifth floor (no lifts) and too small but we’ll try to get a better room tomorrow. After baguettes and drinks downstairs we walk through the temple grounds to Khao San Road I buy two skirts before we both have massages at Mammas. Mark is happy to get Mr. Mumma who he thinks is the best masseur ever. His son, Buchai, is growing up and is four now – we’ve been coming here since he was a tiny baby so we feel very at home. Later we have drinks and a dinner of lasagna and seafood soup sitting on the verandah of Sawadee Guesthouse. How we love it here.
Saturday 14th January, 2006
Today we move to another hotel not far from the Wild Orchid but in a quieter, more traditional area. Love it, love it. Our room is tiny with a tiny bathroom but full of sunshine. It’s a corner room so we have two windows, one looking out over the temple wall and the other down the alleyway which is lined with food carts and market stalls. We spend the next three nights here and don’t move far from the surrounding streets.
One day we go to the Mahatat Amulet Market and buy buddhas and candlesticks but the rest of the time we shop in the markets and eat and drink around Khao San Road. The nights we spend in both Soi Rambutri and at the hotel across from where we’re staying usually drinking cheap cocktails.
We love you, Bangkok!
Sunday 16th January, 2006
Bangkok to Sydney
Leave in a taxi at one o’clock for the airport to catch our 5pm flight back to Australia
Monday 17th January, 2006
Train back to Hamilton Station – get picked up by Mum and Dad.