Sparky Travels

September 26, 2009

Cameron Highlands

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After an unbelievably bad nights’ sleep we boarded a minibus outside our hostel, destined for the Cameron Highlands(CH), an old colonial holiday retreat for those seeking to escape the heat of lowland Malaysia. I expected to get a sleep on the way but the bumpy highways (actually perfectly smooth, straight and modern motorways with bumps strategically placed every 10 metres to piss me off) and windy roads but pay to that. This was offset by our driver’s skill in cutting a 3 hour journey down to only 2 hours. Thus at 9am we arrived at Father’s guesthouse which was recommended by a number of sources, not least Chris and Amanda. After waiting for our room to be ready we had breakfast (cheese & beans on toast),a much needed nap and explored the town. Father’s Guesthouse is situated on a hill overlooking Tanah Rata the main tourist town in the area and is the main backpacker accommodation. Among the tourist shops and corner shops there are a couple of nice, cheap restaurants. I had my first lunch and also that night’s dinner in an Indian restaurant on the main drag. Dinner was a particularly scrumptious mutton curry on banana leaf, where the banana leaf acted as the plate and rice, curry, dahl and various side dishes were served on it. We spent the rest of the evening planning our itinerary for the Cameron Highlands, safe in the knowledge that ‘the best laid plans…’etc.
We decided to visit the famous Boh tea plantation on our first full day in CH but rather than take an overpriced tour that included trips to the strawberry farm (not in season) and honey farm (wow, bees.) we ventured to the local bus station to try and make our own way.
2 hours later we were on a bus to Ipoh (90km away) with a useless map and vague instruction on where to get off the bus for the road to the tea plantation. After losing all track of where we were and knowing that the bus would keep going all the way to Ipoh I decided we should probably get off where we were. I clambered to the front and asked the driver if we were close to the tea plantation, at which point he pulled to the side of the road right beside our destination. Lucky. I say ‘right beside our destination’ but the plantation is off the main road up a 2km long track. We started walking up the single track road which wound through beautiful green fields of tea with maze like paths running through them. 6km later and with 10 minutes until the museum closed a kind woman picked us up and gave us a lift for the last 0.5km so that we would make it in time to actually see what we came to see.
The museum and factory were quite interesting especially since they are still using 1930s machinery for some jobs. I was surprised at how easy a job making tea is: wither, roll, ferment, dry, sort, sell. Unfortunately the cafe closed just as we got to it so I didn’t get to taste the tea I’d seen being made so all that was left was to start the walk back along the road. The rain started almost as soon as we started walking but a kilometre or so along the road a friendly Malaysian guy and his wife stopped their car and gave us a lift all the way to the main road. With an hour and a half till the next bus home we walked 5km to Brinchang and got a taxi back from there. A nice trek all round and a cheap day’s excursion, especially since the tea plantation was free to enter.
The next day, the 25th, we were up early for our organised excursion to see the famous Rafflesia flower. Since we’d done the tea plantation already we opted for the cheaper ‘half day’ tour which missed out most of the extra trips to the various farms and plantations. 20 of us were picked up at the hostel and taken by jeep to a view point for photos and then to the start of the trek. This involved a 30min 4WD scramble up the rapidly deteriorating mud tracks which was an adventure in itself. An hour trek through secondary and primary rainforest brought us to the site of the Rafflesia flowers. These extraordinary plants start of as fungi for 7 years and then by some unknown process transform into plants whereupon they flower for 10 days and then die. We got to see one that was in its second day of flowering and one in its third and both were almost a metre in diameter. We trekked back down the hill and a few of us hardy souls (i.e. the men) had a swim in the cool waterfall near the bottom.
Our next stop was at an Orang Asli settlement. The Orang Asli translates as ‘Original People’ and are thought to be related to Australian Aborigines. Their village was a disappointing corrugated iron affair but we got shown their traditional hunting weapon, the blowpipe. We even got to each have a go. Muggins here got a bullseye with his second shot. Just call me ‘Silent but deadly’ Sparky! After such a display of marksmanship I though I had better buy one of the tourist sized blowpipes so that I can hunt chavs back home.
Just as we were getting settled into the Cameron Highlands and getting used to the cold nights (getting to wear my jeans again was particularly enjoyable) we thought we should leave as there were two very good reasons to get to Kuala Lumpur (KL) in the next 24hours.
Just after lunch the next day, we boarded our coach heading for KL Sentral and a return to the stifling heat. Fortunately I’d brought a little memento with me, the beginnings of a cold. I just ain’t used to the weather.

September 22, 2009

GeorgeTown

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On the 18th of September we boarded the bus to Malaysia. After meeting some nice people (1 swede, 1 English and 1 Irish) on the first minibus from Krabi to Hat Yai we were split up and me and Helen were put on a minibus with some old boys from Thailand off on their holidays in Malaysia. We couldn’t understand much of their chatter but they were having a grand old time making fun of everything they saw on the way. They also helped out at the  ridiculously easy border crossing by pointing us in the right directions and telling us where to come back to to meet the bus. Pleasingly, we were given 90 day visas so we don’t feel under pressure to rush through the country for once.

A few hours later we were dropped off in the backpacker area of Georgetown and found ourselves the cheapest hostel we could, 75 Travellers Lodge.  It was a really scaffy joint but did the job and the staff were very helpful. Half the residents seemed to  be weird sex-pats but we left them to themselves and met up with the people we’d chatted to on the first minibus whenever our paths crossed.

One of the reviews of Georgetown that I read highlighted where the ferry port was because you’d want to leave the city quite soon after getting there. I dogmatically ignored this and kept my high hopes for this, the capital of the island of Penang.
As a first taste of Malaysia it was a solid choice. It has a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian populations much like the rest of the country. Due to it being a port town and once an important trade route, the ethnic diversity is even more complicated.
Though not the prettiest of cities, there is enough colonial-style architecture to leave a trace of charm and contrary to reports, there was lots to see, if not in Georgetown then in the surrounding area.
Unfortunately due to bus confusion, religious holidays and abject lazin ess, we didn’t accomplish quite as much sightseeing as we planned to.
The furnicular up Penang Hill took two attempts. One cooincided with the entire Indian population of the city trying to get up there at the same time so we headed to Lok Si Temple nearby (which was closed at the top) instead. The next time we went earlier and although we had to wait a while in the nondescript village of Air Hitam we got the views we were after.
The viewing platform at the KOMTAR building in the centre of Georgetown was a failure. Twice we tried to find it and twice we failed. That was probably a good thing since it turned out that it was a ripoff.
The botanic gardens were similarly badly excecuted. After an hour or so waiting for a non-existant bus we gave up. I was particularly disappointed with that since I miss public parks and gardens more than many things. The Penang Museum & Art Gallery on the other hand was a complete success. We went there on our first full day in the city and managed to spend 2.5 hours strolling round learning about the history of the island, ethnic groups and 19th century art. The museum closed the next day for refurbishment and the time spent in there was torrential rain so our timing, for once, was perfect.

The rest of the time in Georgetown was spent eating. After spending so much time on resort islands, the cheapness and variety of food was great. I had my first Indian meal in months on the first night which was a welcome change from the fare I’ve become used to. There was also a food market called Red Garden ( recommended by Chris and Amanda, cheers peeps) where there was a whole range of cuisine at various stalls, including satay chicken, dim sum, sushi, rice, noodles and the likes. Booze-wise it was a pretty quiet few days. It seems like this will be a recurring theme throughout Malaysia given the price of drinks. On a number of nights we spent the same amount on drinks as we did on food and accommodation and that was only 1 big beer each!

After 5 nights in Georgetown it was time to head on to the next stop, the Cameron Highlands.

September 17, 2009

Krabi

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A short and scam-free (I’m sure one’ll happen soon) ferry and free tuk-tuk ride took us direct our desired destination in Krabi. We checked into the Good Dream Guest House, booked our minibus to Malaysia for the next day and headed round the corner to the night market. I’ve been sporadically using street vendors but it’s difficult when in any sized group, especially when some people are at the end of their trip and others, like me, are starting theirs. The Krabi market reminded me why they are so good. We pigged out on stir fry food and a drink for less than £1.50 each. Yum.

An early night was in order given our 7am start for Penang in Malaysia and the full bellies helped in this regard but not before an important task was undertaken. I’d not had a shave in a while and was eager to return to baby faced innocence so I gave Helen a weeks worth of laughter, and myself some new facebook profile pictures by shaving my chin in increasingly weird and wonderful ways.

I am now ready for Malaysia and my Visa for Vietnam ends tomorrow anyway so what better time to depart.

Ko Phi Phi

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Visa sorted it was time to head to Ko Phi Phi. A short ferry ride landed us in what can only be described as a paradise island. No sooner had we arrived then we bumped into Jo for the 3rd island in a row. Our hangovers from the previous nights hostel drinking had kicked in so the evening was uneventful other than a distinctly average meal and failure to meet Jo in town. Our hostel was pretty dingy and in the process of refurbishment but very cheap and central. The mosquitoes seemed to like it too.

The next day was beach day but prior to that we traipsed up to the viewpoint to get a view of the island. See attached pic. In the evening we sampled the local drinks and somehow ended up on the dreaded buckets. The next few days were a carbon copy of that with strolls to the beach mixed with eating and drinking. Ko Phi Phi is a charming little resort/island with a younger and more chilled out crowd than Ko Samui. The lack of any roads makes it all the more relaxing other than the ding-a-ling of bicycle bells on the paths

On the 16th I finally managed to do a Thai cookery course at Pum’s Cooking School. I booked a one course course to make Phad Thai and it was just me and the chef. Phad Thzai is a really simple dish to make and my teacher didn’t speak English very well so it was all over a bit fast. Probably not vlue for money but I got a cookery book and I must say it was very tasty.

I’d been planning to do a diving trip since the Islands are reknowned for their variety of underwater life so I managed to book a taster trip for the morning of our departure. Due to it being low season there was only me and two americans doing the trip which at £70 was pretty cheap. I was mildly apprehensive of diving since I’d rather not trust my breathing on a piece of aparatus. This wasn’t helped by one of the americans having a panic attack as we were practicing the safety skills and signals. He recovered pretty quickly and we headed down into the deep blue sea. At first it was mightily disconcerting breathing through a tube but I got used to it within a few minutes. Not long after we were getting to see a world I’d only seen with the aid of David Attenborough’s voice and I’d say it was jaw droppingly beautiful if my jaw hadn’t been clenched tightly around the regulator. After an hour or so for lunch (where people went to the beach from The Beach, I didn’t: beach fatigue, never seen the film, tour groups invading the place.. etc) we did another dive, which felt much more natural. Over the two dives I saw so much sealife including a Leopard Shark, Lion Fish, corals, Nemo, puffers, groupers and many more that I couldn’t name. I enjoyed the experience but I don’t think I’m a diving convert. It seems a lot of money for the experience though I’m glad I’ve done it once. Maybe my thoughts will change and I’ll give it another go on my travels, watch this space.

A couple of hours later we jumped on the ferry to Krabi, with sand still in my ears.

September 12, 2009

Phuket

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The day before my Thai visa ran out, me and Helen, the last survivors of the Intrepid group through Laos headed from Ko Samui to Phuket. The trip, booked through our hotel was cheap as chips and rightfully so. The first half dozen hours consisted of getting shuttled about in minibuses, coaches and a ferry before being shuttled between travel agents in Surat Thani. The next 6 hours was spent on a local bus two Phuket where we were the only non-Thais. The journey should have taken 4 hours but a combination of the bus dropping every passenger off at their home and using only side roads resulted in us not getting to Phuket until 8pm. We sat patiently waiting to get ripped off or dumped miles outside Phuket but to our surprise we were set down at the bus station a short walk from our hostel.

A bit of exploring showed us that Phuket town is exactly as the guide books described it; namely NOT a tourist town. After being on Islands for 10 days it was nice to be in a city and although there was nothing to see or do it was a decent place to stop for a couple of nights. We even managed to find a lovely gallery/arthouse bar to grab dinner and some much needed post-journey beers.

The main aim for me in Phuket was to get a visa extension and the next day (11th Sept) I went and got that sorted. It was a completely painless experience with english helpers at the info desks and no queuing. The price was exhorbitant and the extension was only for seven days but it suited my purpose and I had few other choices.

The next day, after further mindless exploring of Phuket town we went back to the hostel to drum up some drinking buddies. This worked perfectly and within an hour there were 7 of us sitting necking Chang beer in the hostel garden till late in the evening.

September 10, 2009

Ko Samui

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An uneventful ferry crossing took us from Ko Phangan to Ko Samui, the costa del sol of Thailand. After looking for a cheap place to stay for an hour we found a cool place called The Loft.

After failing to make it to the beach in Ko Phangan  (other than for the Full Moon Party) I was determined to get to the one here and we managed to go a couple of times. As with all these places, the water was crystal clear and the sand was the correct golden tone. One drawback was that the water was shallow and also very stingy. I don’t know what it was but something in the water would irritate the skin. It wasn’t all over and didn’t last long but it took the fun out of swimming. I guess it was stray stings from dead jellyfish but who knows.

Other than the beach, the main activity in Ko Samui is drinking. We avoided the multitude of prostitute bars and found the best pubs and clubs the place had to offer. The Green Mango gave us a chance to dance ourselves into a sweat and we met Jo, Bex and some of their friends there for Doetie’s last night. She’s off to Hong Kong before heading home to Holland.Our plan was to head off the next day too but after a multitude of buckets, beers, whiskey and cocktails the planning fell into disarray. Belinda had kept herself relatively sober so she left the next day for Krabi, while Helen, me and Doetie were all feeling the effects and stayed for one more night.

The next day, me and Helen headed off to Phuket where I aimed to extend my Visa to allow me to see a last bit of Thailand.

On another note, I’m now onto my 4th pair of flipflops, a lovely pair of black Havanas. One pair broke, one pair went mouldy and the others were lost at the Full Moon Party. Hopefully I’ll keep these for longer but somehow I doubt it.

September 6, 2009

Ko Phangan

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In the act of getting to our accommodation in Ko Phangan we realised how far away from everything it was. The Utopia Resort is situated in the North West of the Island, 25km from the party town of Haadrin in the South East. That wasn’t too big a problem since we all needed a relaxing few days in preparation for the full moon party (FMP) and it was a charming place with a pool overlooking a secluded bay. I did manage to get pretty drunk with the hotel staff who were all very friendly and the food in the restaurant was tasty and cheap. On the first day I met the girls in the restaurant where they had made a new friend, Bex. Only 10 minutes later did we realise we’d met before. Bex was one of the girls travelling on the Intrepid trip with Lou and Claire so I’d met her in Hanoi when I met them.

Bex and her friend Jo, along with an english couple (Simon and Sam) joined us for the Full Moon Party. The FMP is pretty much just like a music festival on the beach except with no stage and LOTS of booze, mainly in the form of buckets.  There were about 25,000 people there, all in friendly spirits and I did well not to lose everyone and make it home in fine enough shape.  Myself, Doetie and Simon all got stupidly drunk surprisingly fast which made us wonder whether our drinks were spiked. We all recovered pretty quickly and the hangover the next day was a normal drinking one so I doubt it.

After a day of recovery we decided to head on to Ko Samui and sample another island. Ko Phangan is a lovely island though (ignoring tacky Haadrin) and I’d certainly return.

September 2, 2009

On the Road again

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:39 am

At 9pm on the 31st me, Helen, Belinda and Doetie boarded our VIP government bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. It turned out to be a little more VIP than we were expecting. Each seat could recline almost horizontally and had a massage system built in. We’d eaten a huge dinner to get us through the 9hr night bus journey but that wasn’t needed. The ‘air’ hosstess came round with cartons of strawberry juice, pumpkin crisps (super tasty) and then a meal of sausage dumplings and chicken with rice. I was absolutely stuffed beforehand but there was no way I was going to waste a free meal.
Arriving at 6am in Bangkok Northern Bus Station we got a taxi to the Southern Bus Station and booked a second class bus to Suritani for 9am. This was more of the standard we expected and we were the only westerners onboard. 9 hours later we were kicked off the bus just outside Suritani into the hands of a tuktuk driver who charged us a ridiculous price and dumped us at his friend’s guesthouse where they told us it was an hour to the pier and that we should stay the night and he’d drive us there tomorrow. We dodged that one and with the help of a friendly restaurant owner we got a 2km taxi ride to the pier. We had 3 hours until the night ferry left for Ko Phangan so grabbed some street food and a beer.
The night ferry was a simple affair, half gulag - half summer camp with two rows of mattresses holding 50 people. Everyone must have done a fair bit of traveling since 15minutes after we set sail the whole place was silent. My excellent sleep was probably more to do with fatigue than comfort so we woke at 5am in Ko Phangan feeling relatively refreshed.
We sat on the beach watching the last of the drunks bumble home while we waited for our resort to wake up. We’d managed to arrive a day early so had to check they had space for us before getting a taxi out there.

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