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