It was still dark when I dragged myself into Malaysia minibus numero tres in 2 days... I had 3 fellow travelers that happened to be all Malaysians living near George Town and leaving the country for the first time. They were pretty excited to get a Thailand stamp. Unfortunately for them, the Thai border crossing was very simple and they didn't even get a stamp on their pristine passports. I was pretty stoked, so I treated to snacks instead :) It was a long day on the road, and from Hat Yai I jumped on bus #4 to Krabi Town. My final destination was Railay Bay to meet a friend. After a few more hours, I found myself in lovely Krabi Town. There was an open air bus/taxi to Ao Nang, so I jumped on. The driver brought me to a longtail boat stop, which I needed to hire to take me out to Railay. Quite a journey! But overall, uneventful and straightforward... although I was thankful for my direct flight booking back from Phuket later that week! I boarded the longtail and we waited about 20 minutes while they jump started the motor... When it kicks into gear there is a collective sigh of relief. Off I go to meet Czech #1 and her family! What a gorgeous place! We pull up to Railay Bay and it is stunning with the limestone cliffs and turquoise water. My friend and her family are staying at Railay Bay Resort, which is amazing and a wonderful place to call home for a night. It's a beautiful reunion with Czech #1, and we enjoy the view, the pool, and familiar company.
Our luxury was short lived, but enjoyed and extremely appreciated. The next day Czech #1's parents were off, and we headed to Tonsai to begin our adventure. Just a longtail boatride away and we were in the climbers haven of Tonsai. A much different vibe than neighboring Railay – here there were many backpackers, a more laid back vibe, and the slight smell of sewage around the guest houses. There was a restaurant with beach seating, so we ate there and called it an early night. The next day I planned a dive to check out the underwater scene, and Czech #1 was going to scale the limestone cliffs. The grand plan changed for me around 1am when Montezuma came upon me for some revenge... I spent the next 24 hours in what we some of us might like to call hell... Most of my night was spent hailing the porcelain king.... During the day there was no electricity in our room, so it was like having a fever under a wool blanket in a concrete tomb. I will spare you greater detail... and while I was grateful for the help of Czech #1, I was also relieved when she headed out to go climbing! By the next morning I was weakened but ready to get out of there – long bus ride and longtail boat look out! We were headed to Phrang Nga and I was excited to get out and enjoy some of Phuket's natural beauty. Moving on :)
I hopped on the minibus to Penang, and it was only me for the 3 hour journey to the coast. Lucky gal. Easy ride, despite the hairpin turns and focused driver attention. He even brought along on a few personal errands and 'let' me use the toilets at his sister's house, where he had to stop to drop off some strawberries... not your typical minibus ride that's for sure! (or is it?) We arrived after dark but the city was bustling. Georgetown was much bigger than I had imagined, and I had the driver drop me on Love Lane. After about 20 minutes of touring around checking out my options, I settled on a single room at Guest Inn Muntri, right off of Love Lane. Clean, cheap, quiet, and close to the main drag. I had dinner with new traveler friend from Italy – we shared two of the mystery street dishes from the nearby night market.
I was up early for breakfast and hit the street art tour around town. It was a scorcher, but what a great city! While I was hunting street art I saw Fort Cornwallis, met a female artist teaching traditional batik, and toured the clan jetties. Fort Cornwallis was built by the British East India Company in the late 1700s. It is a star shaped fort and is the largest standing in Malaysia - likely because it never engaged in any battle!
There are six clan communities in a row along Weld Quay and together they are known as the Clan Jetties. The Chew Clan is by far the largest among the Weld Quay family of clans. The jetties were initially rows of plank supported by stilts constructed as platform for passengers embarking and disembarking from the boats to the shores and vice versa. Later on, these platforms were joined together to become a jetty. These clusters of wooden houses were built by the Chinese poor immigrants who work near the port during the nineteen century. These immigrants migrated from the south-eastern coast of China, known as the Fujian Province over here due to the hardship they face in their homeland during that era. Later they brought their families over and made this waterfront their home. The Chew Jetty is still home to hundreds of people living in this area today but many have changed their social and economic lifestyle. It was quiet when I was there, and there is a great panoramic view of the city from the end.
There are fun murals around town, in addition to wire sculptures that tell a bit about the history and neighborhood in which they are found. These sculptures started out as a project to celebrate Georgetown as a UNESCO heritage site. These welded iron wall caricatures featuring the work of Penang cartoonists such as Baba Chuah are erected around the alleyways of the area. The designs are all drawn by artists who grew up in Penang, so they encompass some local flavor which adds an intimate connection between the art and the location. I found the local people very welcoming and friendly. Many people spoke English and it was easy to find my way around (they had a good map!). Georgetown had a hip, young vibe to it as well that was a welcome change. A map of the art can be found here.
I headed back to the guest house to beat the heat, but I was in for a surprise... American #2 was on his way to Georgetown. Serendipitous encounter, that's for sure. He happened to be staying 1 block away and we hadn't seen each other since December in South Africa. What are the odds? We swapped stories over drinks, found some dinner, and enjoyed more street art. But alas, once again we went our separate ways, and I prepared for my 5am bus to Hat Yai – I was headed to Thailand!
After all of the Bali excitement it was time to head back to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After the short flight I took the train to Chinatown where I received a warm welcome at the Bird's Nest. Air Malaysia flight MH370 was still missing and there were many families in KL waiting on word of the plane. It was a hot topic at the Guest House, filled with speculations, theories, and sentiments for those aboard and their families. It was nice to be back on familiar ground, and this visit I found Taps Beer Bar, a great place to enjoy a couple craft beers with the German who happened to still be in KL. It was my first IPA in a while and was quite strong compared to the Bintang! While in Chinatown I also made sure to grab some curry laksa and coffee!
Two days later I was on a minibus to the Cameron Highlands. It was a winding road through the palm plantations that stretched as far as the eye could see. Malaysia is the worlds second largest producer of palm oil and its economy relies on the industry, but cultivation has been criticized for environmental impacts including deforestation, loss of natural habitats of endangered species, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the hills in the Highlands are also covered with prefabricated greenhouses, which really detracted from an otherwise beautiful natural area.
The minibus dropped me in town and I found a room at Eight Mentigi Guest House. It was my first dorm bed in a while, but I met 2 new Dutch friends that invited me to dinner - one bonus of communal sleeping I guess! Rafflesia hunting was the order of the day, and I got up early to start the 5 hour adventure. The Rafflesia is a rare flower with the world's largest single bloom. The flower begins blooming at night and start to decompose only two to three days later. The time from bud emergence to flowering is six to nine months. Male and female flowers must be open simultaneously for pollination to occur, so successful pollination and fruit production are quite rare. In addition to habitat loss, these reproductive limitations are contributing factors to why many species are endangered.
It was a trek through the jungle to find the cartoon-like flower, and there was no guarantee that we would find one in bloom. After 2 hours, one injury, and words of doom and gloom from the crabby English lady, we came to our first flower - it was 5 days old and on its way out. About 3 feet across, it was a fading dark red and emitted a strong smell. We were happy, but hoped to find a new bloom and decided to hike a bit further into the jungle. Our reward was a day old Rafflesia, not even full open. The red was robust and it was gorgeous. It was a successful hunt and great hike, and a highlight of my time in Malaysia. The guide dropped me off just in time to catch my 2pm minibus - off to Georgetown in Penang!
After a swim and a pancake breakfast at Three Brothers in Amed, I got back on the road to Ubud. It was a long day on the motorbike, but the scenery was gorgeous. I only got caught in 1 rain storm and 'misdirected' twice! Each time I was reminding how many nice people are out there in our world. After a few hours I pulled into Ubud and wanted to leave immediately. It was very different than the tranquil rice fields I had imagined! It was crowded, touristy, commercial and expensive. It was also raining, so I had no desire to get back on the highway. I went off to find a bed for the night and was fortunate to find Duana's Homestay. It was a beautiful compound and the next morning I discovered they had the best breakfast yet! That evening I took a walk around town, window shopped, and enjoyed a nice dinner. There was a big yoga festival happening over the next few days, which could explain my experience, but I did not feel the zen yogic vibe for which Ubud has become known. People just weren't friendly, and large tour buses were continually driving the main road. Maybe I'll have to try again!
The next morning after the awesome breakfast of jaffle, banana pancake & fun fruit, the rains subsided a bit and I jumped back on the motorbike to head to Denpasar for rabies injection #3! It was a messy day, but I arrived at Bali Royal Hospital – soaked to the bone but in one piece. I was nervous but the shot was easy and fast. The most inconvenient thing about the rabies vaccine is that you MUST get the injections on specific days - no questions asked. Prohibitive if you are leading the traveling lifestyle, but I felt lucky to find a nice hospital with inexpensive vaccines. Outside the hospital I found myself yet again figuring out where to head next. I had one more full day in Bali, and decided to head back to Padangbai. It's a nice, mellow place where I could relax and see some new friends. Two hours later, I pulled into the Aloha Cottages. They weren't as nice as Kerti, but the pool was lovely. It was 150,000 IDR for a double with breakfast, and there was a great vibe. Plus, I wasn't awoken by the 100 Gili travelers every morning! It was also close to the white sand beach – great for sitting, snorkeling, and having lunch at a warung with your toes in the sand. Low stress :) My last night in Bali I enjoyed live music at the Sunshine Bar, caught up with Esta, and said goodbye to new friends – promising to return. Next stop? Back to Malaysia!
The next day I rented a motorbike from the manager of Yulia in Sanur for 50,000IDR a day (you can do better!). I didn't have a map but wanted to head north, so I set my sights on Padangbai, strapped on the pretty new red helmet, and off I went! I got a bit lost and very quickly realized I had no petrol, so I pulled off at the closest mechanic. He had Absolut bottles full of yellow liquid displayed on a shelf outside his shop. Petrol. It cost me 8k for 2 bottles. The price of convenience! For the first hour it was very hectic driving, but as I got further from Sanur traffic subsided. The main road was pretty good, so I was able to pay more attention to drivers than potholes. I was told to avoid the cops, as they are known to fine tourists for non-offenses. To do so I wore long sleeves and pants, and at red lights I stayed back a bit from the intersection and just tried to blend in when other motorbikes would pull to the front of the line. Easy enough, and I enjoyed anonymity. After a couple of hours I made it to Padangbai and was ready for a break. I immediately liked the laid back vibe. I chose Kerti Beach Inn on the coast road at 150,000 IDR for a double room with a fan, cold water, and breakfast. It was just steps from the beach and the boats leaving for the nearby Gili Islands.
It was a little odd being back on my own, and it was slower season here in Bali, but I still managed to find some good people. My first night I found a band at Babylon Bar. As the only patron, I met the band and they had me up there playing percussion. People started filing in, and it turned into a fun night. The lead singer, Esta, was a great guy who invited me to his house in a nearby village the next day for a cookout/jam session. I agreed, and we exchanged numbers. The next day after a visit to the gorgeous White Sand Beach, I drove out to Klungkung on my motorbike with an English lass on the back. It was a fantastic party and we stayed until after dark. Esta's band played for hours – he has a great voice and when I first heard him I really thought he was lip synching to Johnny Cash! Nope – he's just an amazing singer! Live music jams, barracuda and tuna on the grill, family, friends, fish satay, Bintang – it was a beautiful and special Sunday for sure.
Padangbai was wonderful, but I wanted to see more of the coast. The next day I headed towards Amed via the coastal road. I visited both water palaces on the way and enjoyed great views, but it was a pretty intense ride. The coastal road turns an hour drive into about 4 hours, and takes you up, down, and around the mountains. Luckily I found more petrol on the side of the road, and the woman threw in some hard candy as well to keep me going! Amed was a bigger town than I imagined, but the development is low density (no higher than 2 stories) so it still has a great feel to it. I drove the entire stretch of town and there were many options. I chose Three Brothers at 150,000IDR for a double with hot water and breakfast. Great location on the beach, with many restaurants nearby, and there are rooms steps from the ocean.
I was there to dive, so I set out the next day with Adventure Dive to check out the USS Liberty shipwreck. It was my first shipwreck, and I am still getting the hang of scuba, so I was very nervous. I am a bit claustrophobic, but up for a challenge! It was my first beach dive, and I really enjoyed it. We approached the boat and it was behemoth! 120 meters long... talk about intimidating! We spent the first dive making our way around the boat, which took about an hour. The sea life was incredible and the visibility was at least 20 meters. The garden eels at the end of the dive were amazing, and we also saw some nudibranches, a flounder, and barracuda my size (water enlarges things ;). After our break, the 2nd dive took us through the boat. It was scary at first, but my buoyancy had improved considerably and I was soon lost in the magic of the wreck. We saw the captains seat, the wheel, different rooms, and tons of fish. Absolutely amazing and the dive master was so peaceful it really helped :) I was exhausted afterwards, but went out for a snorkel just off the beach and was reward with a turtle sighting. I had dinner at a local warung – it was an amazing meal complimented by a beautiful moon over the ocean. The next morning I went out early for a snorkel off the beach in front of my guest house. The sea life there is incredible, and you don't have to swim far or fast to see it. I couldn't find the pygmy sea horses, so I guess I will have to go back! I would highly recommend Amed, although I have no idea what it'd be like in high season. Next stop? Off to Ubud!
Our flight from Medan was early in the morning, so we hired a minibus from Bukit Lawang to make it in time. This time we had a race car driver, and arrived to the airport 2 hours earlier than expected. We were very relieved to arrive alive and very quickly hopped out of the van. It was a 3 hour flight and we arrived in Denpasar under the cover of darkness. We cabbed it straight to Sanur to find a place to stay. I was immediately surprised at how busy Bali was – loads of traffic and even more retail. We hopped out of the taxi on the main road and chose Yulia 1 Homestay – two single beds for 250,000 rupiah. The first day I was sick in bed while my friend, American #4, worked at the nearby Starbucks. We managed to make it out that evening to see the beach and grab some pizza while being serenaded by a cover band. Sanur was a bit too commercial for us, so we jumped a slow boat across to Nusa Lembongan for a night. 100,000 IDR and 45 minutes later we were on a beautiful little laid back island. We walked along the coast until we found our home for the night - Ketut's Bungalows. We were sold by the gorgeous sea view from our room, infinity pool, and price tag of 250,000 IDR. After a dip we wandered the beaches and ended up at one of the many surfing spots. There wasn't much nightlife in Nusa, but we managed to find a great little warung for a 15 IRD dinner of nasi goreng.
The next day we rented a motorbike to explore a bit further. We headed to Mangrove Point – it was gorgeous so we thought we'd go for a snorkel. I hopped off the bike and noticed a couple of small monkeys chained up to poles. I walked over and a man was feeding one a rice ball. I was abhorred and felt very sorry for this monkey, and lost my head. I bent down and the monkey climbed onto my lap to eat the rice ball. I left it there for a moment, which was long enough for the monkey to latch onto my palm and attempt to suck my blood. I ripped that sucker off and managed to get away with a painful monkey hickey and a scratch from its tooth. I was very shaken and appalled by the lack of reaction from the monkey's owner to my bite and the fact that they were chained in such a way. We hightailed it out of there to Bobo's restaurant next door to figure out our next steps.
We decided to take a nice, relaxing snorkel and were told to just swim out to “where those boats are”.... Well, our friend Bobo didn't let us know about the very shallow water, the seaweed farms, the poisonous snakes, and the long swim without fins... It was a terrifying 30 minutes after I saw that first snake. We finally made it past all of this, and were rewarded with one of the most beautiful coral reefs I've ever seen. We were exhausted and a bit shaken, however, so we swam to a nearby boat to take a rest. I wasn't sure we would be able to make it back, and I had no desire to retrace my steps so I waved down a small fishing boat, swam over, and asked the guy for a ride back. My friend was visibly relieved when Jerry drove over to pick her up and take us back to Bobo's. Quite a morning... it was time to motorbike it back to town and catch the ferry to Bali. On the way we caught some stunning views from the top of the mountain and Mushroom Beach. The roads were full of potholes, but there were very few trucks or cars which made for a nice ride. We made it to the boat in time for the very choppy ride back to Bali. Quite a day so far!
Back in Sanur and a bit seasick, we decided to visit the local hospital and to check out my monkey bite. We made it to Bali Royal Hospital, which was spotless and efficient. Within 1 hour I had 2 rabies injections for $45 and was back out the door, with the promise of 2 more injections over the coming month. Something to look forward to along my way... My friend was leaving the next day, so we had a delicious farewell dinner at Warung Little Bird and found some live music at Mango on the beach. My friend and I said our goodbyes and I decided to stay one more day in Sanur to figure out my next steps. That night I headed back to Warung Little Bird for acoustic night and their delicious ginger honey iced tea! Back to Yulia 1 to get some sleep – the next day my roadtrip up the coast begins!
Next stop, Medan, Indonesia. I flew Firefly out of a small airport outside of the city. I was a bit nervous, but it was a real airport. I didn't even have to remove my shoes :) I was headed to meet a friend from Baltimore, who was working in Indonesia for a few weeks. It was tough leaving Malaysia so soon, but I was excited to see a familiar face. Malaysia, I will be back. It was an easy flight, and there is a train that runs from the airport to the city center. Medan is a busy, dirty city and the third largest in Indonesia. My friend was staying at the Grand Aston, which I found via becak. It was a nice hotel, and the room had bath robes, slippers, a spa, and lovely clean sheets. Not too shabby. I found my friend in the lobby, and it was a beautiful reunion. There wasn't much to to in Medan, so most dinners were spent at Merdeka Walk across the street where we were often photographed, stared at, and barraged by questions from teens. Not many tourists stick around Medan, using it mainly as a jumping off point for the rest of Sumatra. But the friendliness and curiosity of the people made me smile nonetheless. I spent my days working in the room and exploring Medan on foot, which turns out to be a rarity in this city. The holes in the sidewalk and the barbed wire along the street gave that away, on top of the constant buzz of traffic. We had a few nights out with my friend's Australian coworker, who was happy to have some visitors with whom to enjoy a few San Miguels, Bintang, and of course a little gado gado.
One such night was before our long minibus ride to Bukit Lawang, but we had to get out of Medan so we sucked it up and endured. We were the first ones on, and we only left the city once it was as full as possible. It stopped, and went, and stopped again. Let's just say it was a long day, and I was happy to have my friend by my side. Luckily there were no live (or dead) animals on board. Small favors. Five hours and 70 km later we were in the beautiful town of Bukit Lawang. Our plan was to do a jungle trek and go see the orangutans in the Gunung Leuser National Park. We were staying at the Riverside Guest House, and they sent someone to meet us at the bus stop. I enjoyed a motorcycle ride while the becak carried our bags. We stayed along the river on a quaint street full of guest houses, restaurants, shops, and homes, only accessed by pedestrians and motorbikes. It was a nice place, and we had a double room overlooking the river.
That night we explored the town and found a place with live music and people singing along. We joined in after our meal, and luckily I had brought along my egg shaker :) We sang familiar songs, learned some Indonesian favorites, and heard songs with lines about banana pancake, orangutans, hotel bukit lawang, nasi goreng, and gado gado. It was lovely, welcoming and free. We fell asleep to the sound of the river and awoke to the shrieks of the macaque monkeys. It was time for our jungle trek! We had a short time in Bukit Lawang so we decided to pay for guides to have a higher chance of finding the orangutans. Off we went! Our first encounter after hiking straight up a tiny path was with a beautiful Thomas Leaf monkey that was a bit curious, so we got a good look. We hiked a bit further and then we came upon the first orangutans... a mother and baby. I was blown away – it was incredible and they were gorgeous. I could have sat there for hours and watched them interact and play in the trees. We kept moving, and that day we saw 9 orangutans (5 babies! ), gibbon, more Thomas Leaf monkeys, and gorgeous forest. Our guides (Pepan & John) provided a fruit break by the river and nasi goreng lunch on the top of the hill. We trekked our buns off, but it was well worth it. At the end we crossed the river to catch the “jungle taxi” back to town... this was a series of connected inner tubes that would periodically get stuck on the rocks. Funny ride down the river, and I ended up overboard more than a few times. It was a wonderful day, worth the effort, and I'd love to explore more of the Park. Having guides allowed us to really enjoy our surroundings, but I would recommend they lower the price a bit. Stay welcoming Bukit Lawang... we'll be back! Bali here we come...
After nearly two months in an island paradise it's back to the city life. I'm experiencing a little something called culture shock. I disembark a bit foggy from my red eye and attempt to navigate my way into Kuala Lumpur. I make it to customs, and am given a 90 day Visa on arrival from a smiling agent, no questions asked. I like this country already! And, lucky for me, Kuala Lumpur (KL), is very well planned and I find the Express Train downtown without too much trouble. It takes about 40 minutes and drops me at KL Sentral Station. I switch to the local train and take it one stop to Chinatown to find my room at Bird Nest 2. I only have to wander a short time with my pack until I stumble across the small sign above the door. It has a nice vibe, and I receive a warm welcome from Willie. It's just very hot and humid in KL. I settle into my single room at 25 Malaysian Ringit per night (3.2 on the dollar) and wander into the 100% Polish occupied common area – unexpected! Despite my jetlagged fog, I manage to communicate and promise to see them after my cat nap. I emerge 3 hours later to a cup of Turkish coffee from my smiling new friends. I am now ready to face the madness of Chinatown.
First stop is Central Market for a look around – knick knack central and tourists abound. You can buy anything you want there, just be prepared to haggle quite a bit. Upstairs is a food court, where I sampled some fresh juice. Tired of haggling, I head towards the nearby mosque and find myself inside being handed a free purple robe. I pop it on and start looking around. After just a few minutes I am roasting under the robe and decide to make my way out. At that point I run into a lost Korean woman, who for some odd reason thinks I might know where she wants to go – so I offer to join her in her quest to find a certain famous Square. We walk for a few hours together, and find the botanical gardens, the bird sanctuary, the I Love KL statue and art museum, and a bike race, but we never did find that square! We part ways to head back to our guest houses.
My new Polish friends are hanging out, with the addition of Willie the owner and a German. I join them, and we end up having a lovely evening of religious, political, cultural, and all kinds of controversial conversation best avoided when meeting people for the first time – and vodka... let's jump right in! :) The next morning the German and I found a vegetarian buffet and some excellent iced coffee. That day I joined one of the Polish women on a trip to the Batu Caves. It's an easy, air conditioned train ride away and we have a lovely afternoon climbing the stairs and watching the crazy monkeys. That night the German took me to see the Twin Towers, which were gorgeous at night. We walked through the 'food street', which is only open at night and popular with tourists. I enjoyed some fresh satay and we share some Tiger beer. Our goal was the Helicopter Bar, but we arrived only to find it closed. The next day I spent more time eating my way through Chinatown and turning down a new tattoo, the salesman asking you like they are offering a cigarette or a new pair of sunglasses. Amusing. That day I discovered the most delicious vegetarian curry laksa and coffee on a tiny street behind the main Chinatown drag. The stuff of dreams.
The next day I tackle the laundromat. The exciting life of a backpacker. That night the German and I reattempted the Helicopter Bar. I wore a dress and we found him some new threads on the way. Our efforts were rewarded – we go right up and enjoy a bucket of Tigers at the top for 75 ringgit. Just as we're getting comfortable, fireworks start going off in the distance – a great night and end to my time in KL! What luck, and highly recommended if you want to see the Towers. I really enjoyed KL – multicultural, a mini food heaven, English is widely spoken, people are nice, there is nightlife, and the coffee is delicious. The only downside so far is the poor air quality and the humidity, but the public transport is easy and it makes a great hub to explore the region. I look forward to my next visit!
Combining a passion for travel, the desire to make a difference & a love of maps, MaggieMaps was born.
Unless otherwise noted, all prose, poetry, maps and photography posted on this blog are Copyright 2013 Maggie Maps
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