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Forest Cacophony

Borneo Part Two


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After a 20 minute flight we made it to Gunung Mulu National Park, named for the imposing mountain at its centre. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage site near to the Sarawak/Brunei border and is most famous for its enormous caves. We were staying in a traditional longhouse and were warned about geckos the size of your arm being not infrequent visitors. Josh maintains there was one living in the bathroom, but I'm not convinced... We had a free afternoon so went on a walk to the river, spotting lizards, butterflies and various brightly coloured bugs. On the way back the heavens opened and we learnt just why they call it rainforest.
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The next morning we embarked on an all-day guided trek. Thankfully some other guests had warned us that it may involve wading in waist-high water and so on the advice of a guide I invested in a pair of fetching rubber shoes, thus invalidating the title of this blog. Sorry. They turned out to be a wise choice as we scrambled over boulders, climbed through caves and navigated a section of river that was too deep for me to stand in, meaning I swam whilst the others held our bags over their heads. All this proved worthwhile when we got to our lunch spot; picturesque waterfalls with crystal clear water.
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On the way back we came under attack by leaches; I avoided the worst of it but the poor Aussie med student (they're everywhere) found one in her pants. Truly the stuff of nightmares. Our return route was timed to ensure we got a good view of the daily spectacle provided by 3 000 000 bats streaming out of Deer Cave in seemingly choreographed ribbons.
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Walking back to our longhouse in the dark allowed us to immerse ourselves in the truly extraordinary noises emanating from the forest- cicadas impersonating a wide range of power tools, frogs that sound like dogs and geckos saying 'gecko'. The morning of our second full day we walked along the longest (and possibly creakiest) tree-canopy walkway in the world, giving incredible views of the tree tops and the plants growing up the vertical limestone cliffs.
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In the afternoon we had a guided tour of the Langang caves and spotted a giant spider that didn't cause me to hyperventilate/run/vomit, thus proving the effects of the London Zoo Friendly Spider Programme are still going strong 5 years on (no photos, I haven't completely lost my mind. Here's a photo of the river instead).
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The day of our departure we visited the Clearwater Cave system where a river roars underground in passages hundreds of kilometres long. We spotted a racer snake shedding its skin along one of the rope handrails and were subsequently very careful about where we held on... (Mum, don't look at the second photo. You have been warned)
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Then it was time to take three flights, each plane getting progressively larger, as we made our way to Singapore.
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Posted by arianemeena 01:19 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Communing with orangutans

Borneo Part One


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Kuching is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo island. The city itself doesn't have much to offer, but it is located in the middle of some incredible natural attractions. After our flight from KL, Josh and I headed to Semmongah Nature Reserve, home to an successful orang utan rehabilitation and breeding programme. There are 27 semi-wild orang utans, the eldest of which were rehabilitated in the 1990s after their homes were destroyed by logging, whilst the youngest is the grandchild of one of the original residents. In the main they are left to their own devices and the rescue centre is now at another site, but twice a day fruit is left at feeding platforms and we were lucky enough to see four orang utans who fancied an easy snack.
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The next day we took the bus to the jetty for Bako National Park, situated on an island in the South China Sea. We hiked on some pretty hard-going trails and were rewarded with great views and a beautiful beach.
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In the evening we headed to Top Spot, a busy food court on top of a multi-storey car park, famous for its seafood. For a tenner we had curried squid, garlicky fried jungle fern and an incredible barbecued red snapper with sambal. I dread to think what you'd get for a tenner on top of a British multi-storey car park.

Another early start, this time to take a boat trip through the Kuching Wetland National Park where we caught a glimpse of a river crocodile, saw bright blue kingfishers and the ubiquitous macaque (and didn't manage to photograph any of them).
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In the afternoon we walked a little along the other side of the river, taking in the impressive Sarawak Assembly building.
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Next stop was Sibu, a mildly perilous 5 hour boat journey up the coast and down a river and a stepping stone to the north east of the country. We visited the informative Sibu Heritage Centre and a Chinese temple where we saw the only other white people, two young Mormon missionaries complete with shirts, ties and name badges.
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The next leg was via Miri to the remote Gunung Mulu National Park, only accessible by twin prop plane.

Posted by arianemeena 07:51 Archived in Malaysia Comments (3)

Expats in KL

Kuala Lumpur


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I flew in to KL and was immediately struck by how easy the city is- the airport shuttle train and light railway were highly efficient, all the signs are in English, the traffic doesn't feel like a death-trap and the plugs have three pins.

The next day I was due to meet Naomi, who I've known since I was 12 and also trained at BSMS. She and her husband are in KL for his work but unfortunately got a flat tyre on their way back from a weekend away so we postponed our reunion. In the meantime my old housemate Josh arrived for his two weeks of annual leave, which he had decided to spend with me in Malaysia. Not only was I gaining a travel companion but his itinerary had been planned to the nth degree, meaning for the first time in months I would have to do absolutely no thinking about where to go or what to do.

Very kindly Josh's friend Rhian (who teaches at an international school) had invited us to stay in her flat and we went for banana leaf dinner with her housemate. This involves rice, dhal, fried veg, pickles, cabbage and various sauces being ladled out on to a banana leaf along with a curry of your choice, all for about £3. We drank 100Plus, a Malay rehydration drink that has been accurately described as salty Lilt, yet is strangely delicious.

We spent the next morning walking around the virtually deserted Lake Gardens, an oasis of calm in the middle of the city that reminded me of Central Park.
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We met Naomi for lunch at a local market and later that evening met her and Tristan at Trader's Hotel Skybar, which has arguably the best view of the Petronas Towers as well as a half decent mojito. They took us for dinner at a local restaurant where a 70p masala dosa made me very happy indeed. It was lovely to be their first guests in KL.
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The next day we took the train out to FRIM, a forest reserve with a dizzying canopy walk and scenic hike following the route of several waterfalls.
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In the evening we opted for a different view of the Petronas Towers, this time whilst sipping cocktails on top of a working helipad that becomes a bar at night. There was nothing but an eagled-eyed security guard between you and a 35 storey plummet...
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Early the next morning it was time to leave KL and the luxury of staying in a real home for the wilds of Borneo.

Posted by arianemeena 00:01 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Regaining the Colonies

BKK to Malaysia


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Arriving back in Bangkok from Laos was like landing on a different planet. I'd booked a hostel in the Siam Square mall area for a change of scene and was overwhelmed by these gleaming altars to capitalism. To further immerse myself, I went to see Gravity at the IMAX in 3D. Rural homestays were not the ideal preparation for this. If you get a chance to see it on a giant screen (preferably preceded by a montage of the Thai royal family, set to stirring patriotic music, for which you have to stand) then go, it was the best hour and a half of cinema I've seen in a long time. In the evening David and Elaine took me for great street seafood and cocktails from converted combivans.

The next day it was time to take a proper train- 24 hours over the border to Butterworth in Malaysia. Having found my berth I was presented with a menu and asked to choose a set menu and a time for it to be delivered. Sure enough, at half 6, soup, cashew chicken, rice, red duck curry and pineapple appeared, all for £3.20.

After a decent sleep and a pain-free border crossing, we jumped forward an hour and arrived in Butterworth by lunch time. My new German friend Christiane and I acquired some Ringgit and spent 1.20 (24p) of it getting the ferry to Georgetown on the island of Penang. This relic of British colonialism is now a multicultural town with a reputation for great food.
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After exceptionally good tandoori chicken we headed to a bar and met a couple of other solo girls, Daphne from Holland and Claire from Worcestershire and agreed to meet the next day to explore. We hired bikes (mine was of course pink and the swishest yet) and went looking for the wrought iron 'markers' that litter the town, each illustrating a particular aspect of its history or culture, and other street art.
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We also visited the lovingly renovated Blue Mansion for a tour led by an eccentric older lady who shouted at anyone who dared to ask a question she'd already answered.
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In the evening we went to the Red Garden food hawker's court where you choose what street food gets brought to your table. Then we drank garish cocktails and danced til the early hours to terrible music.

Penang Hill is at the centre of the island and a flash funicular railway takes you to the top for impressive views. Christiane and I planned to walk back down but were advised it would take 4 hours and with the clouds darkening we decided against it. Instead we visited the Khoo clan house, a beautifully preserved Chinese hall, before street noodles for dinner.
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Next morning I took the ferry north to the tropical island of Langkawi for some beach-induced relaxation. After a lot of sitting I managed to get to the cable car to take in the views and got a lift with an Aussie to see some spectacled langurs.
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Three tranquil days later I boarded a plane for Kuala Lumpur, where an avid follower of the blog was coming to meet me...
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Posted by arianemeena 04:44 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Cruising the Mekong

Laos


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The Thai-Laos border was the most relaxed so far; after stamping out of Thailand you pay 20p to get a wooden boat across the Mekong river where you part with $36 for a Laos visa. After stocking up on provisions we took a tuk-tuk to the traditional longboat that would slowly make its way to our first stop, Pak Beng. By now a big fan of leisurely transport, 6 hours on the boat was ideal, with the scenery becoming ever more lush and wild.
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Pak Beng is a village where everyone spends their first night on the Mekong. Our local guide used to be a barman and created a pink dragon fruit and lao lao (the local ubiquitous rice whiskey) cocktail to celebrate his last trip with the company. There are a couple of 'clubs' (buildings with dance floors and blaring sound systems) a short truck ride in to the countryside where most foreigners, us included, find themselves when the bars close.
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The next day we got back on the boat to continue our journey, this time stopping at a village for a home stay. After a tour, including the new health centre that's being built, and a swim in a freezing stream we were formally welcomed to the village with a Baci ceremony. The village people are mainly Buddhist but maintain many of their traditional animist practices. This ceremony involved prayers, offerings and music followed by the elders of the village tying white strings around our wrists. It was quite moving and was followed by a performance of traditional dance by the village children and copious lao lao. Getting to see how the locals live was a real highlight of my time in Laos.
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Our next destination was Luang Prabang, formally Laos capital and a UNESCO world heritage site. We visited the waterfalls outside the city for more freezing swimming but unfortunately I must have eaten something dodgy as the next 24 hours passed by without me knowing much about it. I was feeling better by the time we got to Vang Vieng, once a backpackers hub where people floated down the river in giant inner tubes stopping off at the 30 bars along the way. However, due to several (hardly surprising) deaths most of them have been shut down and the town has a much more relaxed feel to it. We went for yet more wild swimming, this time in the cave underneath a karst hill.
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Vientiane is the quietest capital I've ever visited, but after rural Laos it felt like a metropolis. On our way in to the city we visited the COPE centre, which provides free prosthetics and aftercare to the victims of Laos' 78 million unexplored ordinances left from the Secret War. They also have the country's only occupational therapist and are starting to provide disabled children with much needed support and equipment. Vientiane has obvious French colonial influence and even its own Arc de Triomphe, constructed with money and cement donated by the Americans that was intended for building a new airport. The stupa opposite the Arc is Laos' national symbol and featured on the currency.
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Laos only has one railway station so of course I had to use it. The train from Thanaleng takes you 10 minutes along the track and over the Friendship Bridge in to Thailand, from where you stamp in and board the night train to Bangkok.
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Posted by arianemeena 02:04 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

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