Friday, 2 June 2017

EASTERN DELIGHTS- East Coast Malaysia

Our love for Kuala Lumpur has somewhat decreased in the last few years, but considering we had to fly back into the city from our trip to the Maluku Islands, Indonesia, we thought we'd take the opportunity to stay for long enough to organize the majority of things for our upcoming Central Asian trip. That way we could leave the city and enjoy the islands and east coast of Malaysia with no worries. This mostly went to plan, apart from Richard's visa for Uzbekistan taking nearer two weeks than two days, due to getting stuck in the middle of Noruz celebrations (New Year for much of Central Asia). After much paperwork, sorting finances, shopping and research, we were finally able to leave KL and head off to Tioman Island in Malaysia's east.

"Thieves Market", Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
Creative street art, Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur

After a night in sleepy and pleasant little Mersing, we turned up for the morning ferry and were shocked to find literally hundreds of passengers (mostly Malaysian) waiting for the Tioman boat. We hung back and watched the throng madly push their way through the tiny door onto the large boat, before we embarked and easily took our seats.Thankfully most of the crowds disembarked at earlier ports to ours. We worked out it had been 18 years since our last visit to the island, and according to our vague recollections, it hadn't really changed that much. ABC (or Air Batang) village is the first stop for most backpackers, but being quite early in the season, it was pretty empty, apart from the seemingly dozens of western dive instructors from the five or so dive schools in the area. ABC has an uncared for and neglected feel about it, with most cheap rooms along the tiny beach being variations on the adequate one we ended up with. The garden setting was fine, although the resident grumpy French man in the opposite bungalow was a bit intimidating! The owner, while not exactly friendly, kept us supplied with cheap water and clean linen. We spent our time strolling the tiny path up and down the village (a bit limiting after one has done it once or twice, and annoying having to avoid the mad three wheelers that came speeding around corners), searching for decent food (taste and price....not much luck), checking out the duty free shop a half an hour walk away (more luck here, with cheap whiskey, and great breakfast shack with roti chennai on the way), reading on the verandah (whilst chasing away pesky Macaque monkeys), and enjoying a "Happy Hour" sun downer (three beers for 15RM/AU$4.50) at our local little beach bar. Deciding Tioman wasn't quite what we were looking for, we left after a week, and headed for our old favourite, Cherating, further north on the east coast.

A pat on the head, street art, Mersing
Our room, ABC Tioman Island
Our decrepit looking guesthouse reception
ABC beach, Tioman Island
Bridge to bungalows, ABC, Tioman Island
Visitor to our garden, ABC, Tioman Island
Little beach at low tide, ABC, Tioman Island
Local house, ABC, Tioman Island
Deserted beach path, ABC, Tioman Island
The local bar, ABC, Tioman Island

For us, the advantages of Cherating over Tioman were numerous. While only a small village, Cherating had plenty of great food options, with several little traditional Malay restaurants opening at all different times of the day. The owner and staff at the wonderful Maznah's bungalows were so friendly and helpful, the place clean and well organized, and a free breakfast of toast and jam/nasi lemak/nasi dagang/roti chennai (depends on the day) was welcome and delicious. It also attracts an interesting crowd, and every time we've visited we've met some great characters and made friends with fellow guests. The beach is huge and shallow, and while not the best for swimming, it's perfect for wallowing in the shallow pools and long walks on firm long as the sand flies stay away. Best of all, the village is as cheap as chips- our room cost 34RM/AU$10 a night and our evening meals about 15RM/AU$4.50 for the two of us, including non alcoholic drinks (Cherating is a very Muslim village, and beer is for sale in one or two shops, but very expensive). One unwelcome addition to the place since our last visit was the noisy ATVs and cars that had started driving up and down the once quiet beach. At least it was only during the weekend invasion of local Malays, and we had the beach pretty much to ourselves during the week. We enjoyed about three weeks in Cherating, before getting the itch to move on.

Our bungalows, Cherating
Kitchen/eating area, bungalows, Cherating
Malay style breakfast, nasi lemak Cherating
Very fashionable design in Cherating
Nice beach, shame about the ATVs, Cherating
Surfing becoming popular in Cherating
Old style drink bottles, Cherating
Nearby beach, Cherating

With a big holiday weekend coming up, we debated about the best place for our next destination (Malaysian hotspots can become expensive and crowded during long weekends), and decided on the large town of Kota Bharu. Kelantan state, of which KB is the capital, is the most conservative Muslim area in Malaysia. As well as the obvious signs such as more women in hijabs, we were surprised at the number of signs with Arabic writing on them, not just for religious buildings, but everyday things such as menus and shops. Not quite sure what the purpose of this was.
Anyway, there were a plethora of guesthouses in KB, and after viewing many around the bus station that didn't cut it with our high standards (!!), we amazingly ended up at a place we had stayed at 18 years before on our last visit to the town. The old couple that ran it were amusing and kind, and we had to laugh at the bathroom arrangement in our room. We shared with the room next door via an adjoining door, that we all had to remember to lock and unlock each time we entered and left the bathroom. Luckily we were only locked out once, and never walked in on! Unfortunately, the heat in the room, and the town in general was so intense sleeping was difficult. Our fellow guests were lovely, and we re-met a guy who remembered us from 7.5 years ago, when we met him right at the beginning of our "Journey" on Ko Fruitopia.

So many language on the signs in Kota Bharu!
Cute sign, Kota Bharu
A lot of "man products" to choose from, Kota Bharu

Strangely, for a very Islamic state, there are a large number of important Buddhist temples around Kota Bharu, mostly in the Thai style. We found the patience to take the infrequent local buses out to a few, starting with Wat Photivihan, which houses the apparently longest reclining Buddha statue in South east Asia (40 meters). During this visit, we saw something we had never seen before- worshipers at the statue of a holy man offering cigarettes as well as incense, because "He was a chain smoker"! The huge theme continued with the (apparently) biggest sitting Buddha in Asia at Wat Machimmaram (30 meters). There seems to be a competitive streak happening in these parts! This temple had a particularly creepy and life like preserved monk in a glass case.

Longest Buddha? Tumpat, near Kota Bharu
The chain smoking holy man, Tumpat, near Kota Bharu
Rich had to make an offering to such an unusual fellow!

Cigarettes mixed in with the incense, Tumpat, near Kota Bharu
Biggest sitting Buddha? Tumpat, near Kota Bharu
All the scabby dogs in town hang out at the Buddhist temples
Dead monk on display in temple, Tumpat, near Kota Bharu

Other highlights of our stay in KB were the day market in the center of town with it's picturesque fruit and vegie sellers, the evening food market with varied stalls selling local delights for dinner, the street art area of town (although the Palestinian theme of one alley was quite depressing to say the least), and the pleasant residents. Slightly less exciting were the bird singing contest across the street from the guesthouse and the oldest mosque in Malaysia (couldn't enter inside).

Old woman at KB market
Picturesque KB central market
Unusual food choice at KB night market- blue rice to go with our chicken
Creating the street art, Kota Bharu
Hanging out with the boys, Kota Bharu
Getting arty farty in Kota Bharu
Palestinian street, Kota Bharu
Street art area complete with Persian rug, Kota Bharu
The very competitive sport of bird singing, Kota Bharu

We had never travelled Malaysia from east to west along the northern road, and we were surprised with the beautiful and wild scenery of the hilly and winding road (or Rich was....Sal was asleep, as usual!). There were even signs for tapirs crossing, but unfortunately we didn't see any. We were delayed at one stage due to a police check point, where 14 young Burmese guys, who had been on the bus, were arrested, pitifully chained and handcuffed together and led away to who knows where. 

With still some weeks until our departure for Central Asia, we decided to keep our "fitness regime" going and travel to Penang to temporarily join the gym at a posh hotel a friend had told us about. The plush surrounds with fancy changing rooms, large pool to relax around, sauna and steam room as well as a full gym were a bargain at AU$1.35 a day. It made us feel a bit less guilty about all the fantastic food we always eat in Penang!! Feeling somewhat eager, fit and enthusiastic, we were now ready for the summer's adventure!!

Penang workshop, Georgetown, Penang
Classic Penang, Georgetown
Our absolute favourite, tandoori chicken at Yasmeen's in Penang

Monday, 13 March 2017

SLOW BOAT TO THE SPICE ISLANDS PART 2- Maluku Islands, Indonesia


A few days back in the small capital of the Banda Islands, Bandaneira, after two weeks on Pulau Hatta felt like being in the big city, with motorbikes, electricity and shops! We headed out to another island in the Banda group, Pulau Ay, through an amazing storm, with rough seas and water pouring in the sides of the boat- a sickening experience for Sal.

Storm approaching, journey from Bandaneira to Pulau Ay

Dramatic stormy sky, Pulau Ay

Wet boat ride from Bandaneira to Pulau Ay

We didn't have any expectations for Ay, as we did for Pulau Hatta, and we immediately liked the laid back and beautiful island. We strolled up the pier and into the adjoining guesthouse, scoring a high up room with a balcony overlooking the comings and goings of the two ferries a day, and the local boys fishing and playing in the water. For the first night we were alone, then some welcome lovely fellow travellers arrived to share the place.

Pulau Ay pier

View from our room of Pulau Ay pier

Ferry boats from Bandaneira

View from our balcony of Pulau Gunung Api and full moon

During our numerous and long walks around the scenic island, we discovered two highlights. The first was the unusual beaches with curved rocks jutting out onto the sand, with vines and roots climbing over them. Looking up from the sand into the jungle was like looking into a dense fairytale. We spent many a happy hour beach combing the long sandy beaches during the low tide, and admiring the endless array of photogenic colourful wooden fishing boats.

So many boats! Pulau Ay

Beautiful vines on beach, Pulau Ay

Rich and volcano, Pulau Ay

A small remote beach, Pulau Ay

Sal getting creative, Pulau Ay

We especially loved the island for the light and airy forests full of giant kenari trees with their huge buttressed roots and high spreading canopies- another prized spice, this one similar to an almond. We explored extensively, occasionally coming across the coast, but generally getting lost and enjoying the walk.

Sal dwarfed by giant kenari trees, Pulau Ay

Beautiful walks through kenari forests, Pulau Ay

The quiet and clean village was delightful too, with some amiable people, beautiful big mango trees over the paths, no traffic, chilled out cats (so nice to be on a Muslim island with no dogs!), many little basic shops, old Dutch ruins and graveyards, and many produce gardens- apparently Pulau Ay is the garden of the Bandas. For us, it was much more diverse and interesting than Pulau Hatta.

Old Dutch fort, Pulau Ay

Muslim cat! Pulau Ay

Shutters on little village house, Pulau Ay

Cute village girl, Pulau Ay

Muslim boy with his chicken, Pulau Ay

Unfortunately, our last two days on the island left a bit of a bad taste in our mouths. The first incidence was us waking up to see the dark figure of a man attempting to enter our room in the night, looking around with a light. Sal's banshee screaming saw him running away, but it meant the next couple of nights sleeping with the doors closed- very hot when there was no electricity or fan. The following evening, we were visited in the guesthouse by an arrogant man and his friends rudely demanding all guests pay a “Conservation Fee” to him, or leave the following day, even though we'd already been on the island for a week. We chose the latter, thereby cutting our visit to the island short by a few days. Way to make people feel welcome!


We then found ourselves a bit earlier than expected back in Bandaneira waiting for a suitable boat to take us back to Ambon. While were there, we visited the biggest island in the Banda group- Pulau Banda Besar. It was a welcome break from the more touristy islands- Bandar Besar has only one tiny guesthouse, lack of restaurants, and no picturesque beaches for snorkelling, so is less popular with tourists. There was a shady and tidy path leading most of way along the north side of the island, and it was most pleasant to stroll along, answering the many cheerful greetings, and call for photos to be taken. Much boat building was taking place, and the overhanging mango and avocado trees laden with fruit, as well as the lack of motorized vehicles made for a charming day. A visit to the obligatory fort was a prerequisite, but we were pleasantly surprised to find much atmosphere still retained, as well as a stunning view.

Counting her avos, Pulau Banda Besar

A stroll along the pier, Pulau Banda Besar

Colourful mosque, Pulau Banda Besar

Outside mosque, Pulau Banda Besar

Lovely old pot, Pulau Banda Besar

Main street, Pulau Banda Besar

Gorgeous view over looking Pulau Gunung Api, Pulau Banda Besar

Local kids posing for us, Pulau Banda Besar

Typical house, Pulau Banda Besar

We kept on enjoying the local foods on the Banda islands, pigging out on as many avocados as was possible (30-50 cents for a huge one- can't go wrong!), coconut cake, cinnamon tea, papaya flower salad, eggplant with kenari sauce.......and fish, fish and more fish!!! (We were actually starting to become sick of fish after nearly two months of eating it every single day).

After the cargo boat we were hoping would take us on the adventurous route back to Ambon from Bandaneira didn't show, we resorted to the good old Pelni. The boat we chose this time, however, was small, half empty and took six hours less than the one we took from Ambon to Banda. We sprawled out on the deck for several hours until a storm came, when we escaped inside to the somewhat hot and stuffy, but dry interior section.

Route back to Ambon

Bandaneira market on the day the Pelni ferry arrived

Our Pelni ferry seen from our guesthouse, Bandaneira

Leaving the Banda Islands by Pelni ferry


Our few days in Ambon on arrival back from the Banda islands were better than our first visit, partly thanks to a tip from a fellow traveller about a great hotel that was central, cheap, clean and friendly.
The food highlight of our stay was the discovery of a padang joint that served the best rich beef rendang we've ever good we had to go back for several more days to check it was really that good! Padang restaurants (presumably originating in the Sumatra city of Padang), although a bit more basic here in Maluku, generally have the best food in Indonesia, and we always seek them out wherever we are there. All the food is set out on plates on shelves, sometimes with a little white lacy curtain to keep the flies away, and we just point and choose what we fancy.

Our room, Ambon

THE best beef rendang, Ambon

Waiting ojek drivers, Ambon


We shunned the usual speedboat to Pulau Saparua in favour of a lovely old wooden “slow” boat. The leisurely pace suited us- the two and a half hours passed pleasantly and without Sal being sick for once.

Wooden boat from Tulehu, Pulau Ambon to Pulau Saparua

We immediately noticed two big differences on this island, part of the Lease island group near Pulau Ambon. The first was the fact that the population was overwhelmingly Christian- the people dressed in a more “Western” style, acted more confidently (particularly apparent in the young women),and liked to wear huge silver crosses around their necks. Dogs and pigs made an appearance, and the place was jam packed with churches (we counted 10 in the main village alone). Sunday we spent wandering from church to church listening to the various styles of singing and services, from serious Presbyterian to the boisterous Evangelists.

Walking home from school, Pulau Saparua

One of MANY churches on Pulau Saparua

Pulau Saparua was full of kitsch Christian staues

Been a while since we saw pigs! Pulau Saparua

Many houses are painted with religious themes, Pulau Saparua

The other big difference was there were next to no tourists (or related facilities) and the people were open, curious, smiling, genuine and welcoming. Fascinated people everywhere were asking us questions in Indonesian, kids were laughing, screaming and running away from us, and people were madly waving from motorbikes, gardens and windows. We really felt like we were back in “proper” Indonesia!! We were even invited to a new friend's house for drinks followed by lunch out and a motorbike ride, with an enthusiastic lady who spoke enough English for a decent conversation. The people seemed very honest all over the island, and we never felt we were overcharged for anything. We paid the same as the locals for food and transport, and there was never that pause before we were told the price of something (a sure sign an added “tourist tax” was being added on!)

Mad, but friendly family we befriended, Pulau Saparua

Coming home from school on the bemo, Pulau Saparua

Adorable boys, Pulau Saparua

Actually had to coax this lot for a photo, Pulau Saparua

We stayed in the main town, Kota Saparua, which was full of quirky styled houses- some with thatched roofs, other looked like they could have been in a country town in Oz. People here were very proud of their lovely neat gardens- one lady was cutting her small piece of lawn with scissors! The daily traditional market was surprisingly large and varied, with sago in it's various forms being one of the main products.

Cute little house, Pulau Saparua

Thatched house and garden, Pulau Saparua

Smiley man on traditional verandah, Pulau Saparua

A from of sago sold in market, Pulau Saparua

Raw sago sold in market, Pulau Saparua

We walked or caught a bemo everyday to a different part of the island, and were entranced by the extremely neat and tidy streets, houses and gardens, always with the sea and a breeze in the background, usually with one or more churches and baileus (traditional meeting place) as the central points. The scenery and aspect of Pulau Saparua was somewhat contrasting to where we'd been- less spice growing and fishing than the Banda Islands, and provided us with a welcome change after one and a half months of quite similar sights.

Another beauty of a beach, Pulau Saparua

Somewhat gruesome warnings about smoking, Pulau Saparua

Inside of a traditional baileu or meeting place, Pulau Saparua

Little sweetie, Pulau Saparua

View from the old fort, Pulau Saparua

It seemed to us an affluent island- people were well dressed, some houses quite grand, and people seemed to have a purpose- not so much lazing around in the shade! The Chinese portion of the population added to this feeling of prosperity with their constantly active businesses. We noticed the exception to this wealth when we walked through the Muslim village (one of two on Saparua), with the houses being more scruffy, although the huge mosque was in perfect condition. There was a lot of inter-communal fighting here in the late 1990's between Christians and Muslims, and unfortunately, the result seemed to be further segregation.

View of mosque in Muslim village, Pulau Saparua

Really, the only bad thing about our visit to Pulau Saparua was the large population of dogs. Mostly they were timid, scabby things, but occasionally they were ferocious enough for us to have to carry a stick wherever we went. The downside of Christian Indonesia.

Costs on the Maluku islands we visited were slightly higher then other parts of Indonesia we've been. In the bigger places prices of 150,000 rp- 250,000 rp (AU$15-$25) for a room with breakfast were common. Most accommodation in the Banda Islands was all inclusive, and for the two of us we paid between 300,000 rp- 350,000 rp (AU$ 30-$35) for a basic room including three meals, coffee, tea and water per day. Rooms were generally the typical “rough around the edges” Indonesian variety, while the homecooked food was generally excellent. Food in resturants, while being slightly pricier than other parts of Indonesian, was still cheap, with a basic meal of rice, fish and various vegetables and a drink costing between 20,000 rp- 40,000 rp (AU$1.50-$4) per person. As previously stated, we enjoyed Maluku varieties of food, but will be glad to have a change of rice and fish when we leave Indonesia! Transport was very reasonably priced, with bemo (minibus) trips between 3,000-10,000rp (AU$30 cents -AU$1), ojeks and becaks (motorbike taxis and bicycle rickshaws) only slightly more, and the deck class of Pelni being the biggest bargain- around 100,000 rp (AU$10) for a 8-12 hour trip! Mind you, you get what you pay for with Pelni!! Small public boats between the Banda Islands were about 40,000rp (AU$4) a trip.

Overall we felt this trip was somewhat of a disappointment, in a way. For so many years we'd heard and read about the Banda Islands, and built them up in our minds to be an exotic far away paradise, way off the beaten track. In fact, with more flights and fast boats these days, it is easy and quite accessible to travel to this once remote part of Indonesia, and we found the tourist numbers to be much more than we expected. There are limited destinations in the Banda Islands, and we felt as though we were following all the other tourists around from island to island. Added to that was the obsession with snorkelling and diving most other travellers seemed to have- we felt a bit out of place. We enjoy snorkelling, but our primary reason to travel is to experience new places, culture, history, food, scenery and meet interesting people along the way. Our criteria for how much we enjoy a place is not how great the underwater life is- unlike many other tourists we met in Maluku. Being at the mercy of erratic public transport was slightly frustrating, especially when we were caught waiting for some time in Bandaneira for a Pelni boat. Overall though, it was quite an intriguing experience, but not the richly adventurous and rewarding time we've come to expect from travelling in Indonesia.

Anyway, we were glad to arrive back in Malaysia, and hope the next three months here will be a mixture of travel, beaches, relaxing, and some organizing for our exciting upcoming summer trip.............