Friday, February 22, 2013

Melaka/Malacca
































Click the pix for larger picture.

After a restful night at the Embassy Hotel in Mersing, we caught an early afternoon bus to Melaka/Malacca.   This is an historic World Heritage city that was the original trading port for the Malaysian peninsula.
This was also to be the most trouble free bus trip of our entire journey.  The scenery was basically palm oil plantations, and palm oil plantations that had been cleared for replanting.  Its novelty wears off rather quickly, so I used this mundane scenery to do some reading and writing.
Malaysian buses are very nice, especially the seats.  They are roomy, deeply cushioned and have the ability to recline in a manner I’ve only experienced with a La-Z-Boy easy chair, never mind the person behind you.  They all have decorative curtains with a distinct oriental flair.  Except for the smattering of ill washed fellow travelers one feels like a real pasha. 
The Melaka bus terminal is decent enough, and we took a taxi to our hotel.  The hotel we booked is a modern three star place on the edge to the historic district.  The street was Chinese and had a number of food carts along the edges.  Since it is the Chinese New Year holiday season, there were also stalls selling the same crappy Chinese candy and cheap decorations we thought we had escaped from.  Fireworks were also readily available.
Melaka is a little disappointing.  It has a very nice area with well preserved buildings, but the effect was spoiled by all the cheesy New Year decorations and the constant stream of cars through its narrow streets.  Food and drink prices were extortionate.
However, we had several pleasant visits with shop owners, who were invariably friendly after finding out we lived in China.  The Chinese antique shops had a much greater selection of antiquities than anything we ever encounter in China.  The Chinese in China have little appreciation for this sort of thing.  It’s a little sad that you have to leave China to get a good look at artifacts from its past.
There is a maritime museum located in a replica of a Portuguese trading ship.  It gave a pretty good account of the history of the port, with a healthy lambasting of the Portuguese and a generous accounting of the merits of Islam on the Malay people.  Across the street from there is a wonderful shopping bazaar and food court.  Food courts are the way to eat in Malaysia.  Malay and Indian food abound, and you can point out what you want if you don’t know the names.  If you like spicy foods you are in heaven.  Since many Malays eat with their fingers, there is no problem for you to grab a chicken leg slathered in chili paste or curry and woof it down.  Hand washing sinks are everywhere to accommodate just such dining methods.  If you don’t like spicy food, then you will be sad.  Bland food is rare, and if that's what you want, then you should visit England.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Tioman Island



Ferry to Tioman


Mersing Ferry Terminal

Embassy Hotel, Mersing

The next morning dawned bright and sunny and we caught the ferry to Tioman Island.  The boat was a smallish passenger vessel good for a hundred or so people, with an air conditioned, comfy seating area and seats with enough room underneath to accommodate our bags.  The boat was fast, the sea was choppy and nobody puked.  There was a movie being shown, and although the engine noise was drowned out the sound, it was close captioned for the hearing impaired, which we were.  It was a “Death Race” movie, which had lots of mayhem, explosions and gratuitous violence, a perfect companion for a bouncy ride to a tropical island.  It was also about 90 minutes long, which is about the length of our voyage.
We landed at Tekek, which is the main village.  There are some cars and motorbikes and it’s kind of bustling.  It seemed pretty nice, but our final destination, Juara, was a little further, on the other side of the island.  The journey to Juara requires either a death march, or a 4 wheel drive ride over the mountain.  We opted for hiring a vehicle which took us up a very steep and winding concrete road like path.  We saw lots of jungle, some monkeys and a damn large lizard.  The journey is about 7 km and takes about 30 minutes.  We arrived at a lovely place located in a cove with the nicest beach I’ve ever seen that wasn’t cold.  It’s the off season, and it’s really off.  We went first to a place that is run by an Australian surfer dude that gets way more credit in the guide books than it deserves.  It was jam packed with seedy types and dreadlocked unfriendly folks.  They had that look of people with enough means to not have to work, but still be able to travel in a kind of cushy hippie lifestyle that I doubt the grandparents who set up their trust funds would approve of.
That was at the north end of the village.  We had our driver take us to the other end where we found a lovely lodge with bungalows set in a nicely landscaped grounds just steps from the deserted beach.  We got the winter rates, and had the whole place to ourselves. After spending the last 5 months in noisy, crowded China, the paradise aspect of our vacation spot was enhanced even more.  It took four days of travel in buses, jets, taxis, boats, 4 wheel drives and foot to get here, and it was completely worth it.
It’s quiet this time of year, very quiet.  The only vehicles are the very occasional motorbike, and the even more seldom seen 4 wheel drive vehicle.  The beach is deserted, and the only sound is that of waves lapping on the shore.  The water is a perfect temperature, and at least for the first 3 days of our stay, very calm.  The cove is surrounded by jungle, and it truly is a paradise.







Juara Beach Resort

We spent the first two days laying about and swimming, trying not to get sunburned.  Since it is near the Equator, the sun can be pretty intense.  Most restaurants are closed for the off season, and we found the ones that were open mostly staffed with indifferent people serving slowly prepared food of varying quality.  After some trial and error we fell into a pattern of going to a certain place for breakfast, and a couple of other places for dinner.  The tiny market offered mostly junk snacks.  They did have Sour Cream and Onion Pringles which is a chip flavor totally alien to the Chinese, who prefer flavors like shrimp and blueberry. (I am not making this up). 
We could find no beer except in one bad restaurant.  Tioman is a duty free place, but I didn’t think to get anything in Tekek, and Juara during the monsoons seems to be under some kind of Islamic Sharia anti alcohol cloud.  However, the owner of our bungalows had a bottle of duty free Guervo Gold that he sold to me at cost, somewhere in the neighborhood of less than 20 dollars, American.  It goes really good with mango/orange juice which Allah in his infinite wisdom allows.
Laundry Day

Main Street


We managed a few excursions and saw some interesting critters.  There are some little crabs that are very fast sprinters, and we discovered some mud skippers near the mouth of a small river.  We saw monkeys in the trees and squirrels.
Muddy Mudskipper






The third day was the beginning of the Tioman surf competition, held in sleepy Juara.  We didn’t know what to expect.  It was at the northern part of the place, about a 20 minute walk from us.  We headed there to check out the action.  There is surf during the monsoons on the north beach, and there were some pretty good surfers from around the region there.  Just like surfers and snowboarders in the USA, these dudes are shaggy, relaxed and appear to have no means of support other than whatever menial work they may deign to do when friends and relatives get sick of them and throw them out.  They have all the manners and charm of their American counterparts, too.  I felt right at home, or at least the home I left four years ago.  There’s nobody like that in China.
Cheeseburger in Paradise


 
Our friends left the fourth day, on their way to Singapore, then Indonesia.  We decided to spend 3 more nights.  We went again to watch the surfers, and the event had gotten much larger and louder.  The Beastie Boys were hollering through the sound system, so we spent 5 or 6 minutes there then returned to our end of the village.  It began to slowly get busier and louder as locals and  surfers began to filter toward our end.  An open air bistro had a band playing, and it was almost like tourist season, except there were still no fat, white people, and our lodgings acquired no new guests.  That night it began to rain.  It rained a bit more.  We were to leave on Tuesday, when the owner came to us on Sunday and told us we should try to get off the island before the weather got really bad.  He himself was on his way to the mainland to celebrate Chinese New Year with relatives in Johar Bahru and would share a ride with us to the ferry.
He refunded our money for Tuesday night, and we spent the day mostly laying about reading.  Then my Kindle broke.  It just made a funny image on the screen and died, leaving behind an image resembling a mostly shaken Etch a Sketch, not unlike Mitt Romney after the Republican primary.  No remedy from the Kindle website was effective in reviving it,  so I am no longer the Kindle fan I once was.
On Tuesday morning we headed back over the mountain in the rain to Tekek.  We arrived there to learn that there would be no ferry to Mersing due to rough seas.  We headed across the street for some breakfast at a big food court.  All the surfer dudes were there since they couldn’t get off the island either.  They were noisily lounging about smoking and laughing trying to purchase as little as possible and still be able to keep a table.  Nobody seemed to mind.
We had fired rice with a fried egg on top, and some coffee.  This was Malay style with plenty of good spices, including this chili paste with dried fish.   This might be a good time to mention Malaysian coffee.  It’s very good, in fact it’s excellent.  A common way to serve it is with the grounds in a bag, like a teabag, only bigger.  If you ask for it with milk, it comes with a sweetened condensed milk added.  It’s better than anything I’ve had outside the US, with the exception of Guatemala. I normally drink tea, which is also excellent here, but I find myself drinking coffee in the mornings.
After finding out the exorbitant rates for the lodging in Tekek, we returned to Juara to stay another night at our private resort.  The owner upgraded us to a premium room for the same price.  It had TV with one HBO channel, a big bathroom and two queen sized beds.  Since it was mostly rainy the TV was an added bonus we were happy to have.
Later the day became only cloudy, and we enjoyed the quiet and solitude of Juara.  The surfer dudes were all over on the other side of the island since they lacked the means to get back to our side.
That night it started raining in earnest with little let up.  It was the kind of rain we get in South China, the kind that leaves you amazed that the sky can hold that much water in the form of vapor, then suddenly release it in such prodigious amounts.  


I doubted the ferry’s ability to run under such conditions, but the next morning found us going over the mountain again.  There were places in the road where the water cascaded along its length, and the streams we crossed were swollen enough that even the locals were expressing some amazement. 

When we arrived in Tekek, we were surprised to learn that the boats were going to be running.  The scheduled departure time was 11:30, which gave us over an hour to have some more yummy breakfast.  After breakfast, we wandered over to the ferry building to learn that the boats would be delayed until sometime between 3 and 4 o’clock.  That left us with some time to kill, and nowhere to kill it, since it was still raining hard enough to float an ark.
We hung out in the food court, doing what I have well become accustomed to doing, while living in China, waiting patiently.  Fortunately, there were plenty of empty picnic style tables in areas where the businesses were not open, so we lounged about commenting on the rain and how good the drainage systems there seemed to be.
Fine Dining Establishment

That Was Good!!!

Waitingwaitinewaitingwaiting

Somewhere along the way we were informed that 4 o’clock would be the departure time.  At around 3, it began to rain as hard as it seemed to any time during the day, and I figured we would make a dash across when it let up.  We did have umbrellas, and the ferry port is just across the street, but we also had to cross a bridge that is covered with a metal roof and  the effect is sort of painful on the ears.
We went over when the rain let up enough so that hearing damage on the bridge was no longer and issue, and we got in line to get our boarding assignments.  We went into the waiting room, a clean, modern and comfortable place, which is good since we didn’t begin boarding until almost 5 o’clock.
It actually stopped raining and the sea was calm.  The skies had a high overcast that looked kind of exhausted from producing so much precipitation.
The previous week our voyage to the island was pleasant, since the cabin was air conditioned and we had “Death Race” on the TV.  The voyage back was less so.  It was not hot and sunny, so they didn’t have the air conditioning on.  The cabin was stuffy and sultry.  We were surrounded by slightly unwashed guys who all were adorned with essence of heavy smoker.
We set sail, but in the wrong direction.  We voyaged about 7 minutes the wrong way to drop one guy off at the next village.  We then began to go the right direction, but then docked right back where we started, and stayed there for a few stifling minutes more, until we finally set sail for the mainland.  The trip then proceeded without any more delays, a hundred plus souls on their way to mainland Malaysia after a two day wait.  The atmosphere  remained unventilated but some of our fellow passengers provide us with some entertaining variations of  flatulence.
When we docked some two hours later, I was truly amazed at how refreshing and cool a steamy tropical evening could be.
We had chosen to go to Tioman in spite of warnings of monsoon because I was in dire need of some serious rest and relaxation.  I got all that I needed and more.  In retrospect, 3 or 4 nights would have been adequate, giving me enough recuperation to tackle the demands of Malaysian bus travel.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

In and Out of Singapore


Before leaving for Singapore and Malaysia, our Aussie friend said, “Awright!  Heading to civilized Asia!”  (Only it sounded like “Heddn tuh civileyezed Eyezha!”)  Our first encounter with “civilized Asia” was a customs area with somewhere around a one to one agent to guest ratio.  The person was friendly, and spoke excellent English.  Hmmm.  We then went to the Metro, which is extensive and easily took our train to our hotel’s neighborhood.
We walked out of the Metro station into the balmy evening and the first thing we encountered was a big, open grassy field with trees around it and birds flitting about.  Where we come from, any open area that is not a park is filled with weeds and debris and birds are hard to come by since the Chinese old folks like to catch and eat them.  Also no horns were honking. 
We commenced to walk down the street in the direction of our hotel.  It was a pleasant place with two and three story buildings.  When we came to a side street that needed crossing, cars yielded to us.  This was looking awfully civilized and I was finding myself a little discomfited by the unfamiliar behaviors.
Our hotel is one that I found online and was the best rated cheapish place I could find.  Cheap, like 60 American dollars a night.  It’s a three story, pink thing with nightly and hourly rates.  The rooms are big and clean and the AC works well.  We had a room overlooking the street.


Tiger Beer is a Manly Beer

There are a number of open air dining establishments next door, and we headed down to drink and eat.  Since this seems to be a more Chinese part of the city, the food was Chinese, but with a Malay flair.  We had beer and some yummy stuff, and chatted with the waitress, who was Chinese Malay.  She was amazed to see a couple of white foreigners there since I guess they don’t get down there much.  She was even more amazed that we weren’t with some kind of tour group. 
The places were a bustle with lots of people of Chinese descent celebrating the upcoming New Year.  They were loud and boisterous, and mostly male with a few “sportin’ gals” for company.
The next morning found us mostly rested in spite of some pre dawn noise from some revelers who apparently felt their need to chatter like  meth crazed drunks far surpassed the need that the hotel patrons with streetside rooms had for a full night’s sleep.
Our plans for the day involved finding a bus to take us to Mersing, Malaysia, which is the launching point for the boat to Tioman Island.  We were relying on a couple of guide books to aid us in attaining this goal.  One of them stated that the most economical way to get there was to cross the narrow straight between Singapore and Johor Bahru, Malaysia, via bus, then to catch another bus to Mersing.  According to the book, it’s much more expensive to take a direct bus from Singapore.
My plan was exquisitely thought out.  Using Google maps to guide me, we would catch the Metro, and go two stops to Lavender station, then walk the four blocks to the bus station and book two tickets to Johor Bahru,  then book two tickets to Mersing from Larkin bus station.
With a spring in our steps we stepped out into the sunny, near equatorial morning, packs on our backs, ready for our grand adventure.  While we strolled down the street I had an interesting theme song going through my head—The Missing Persons’ “Destination Unknown”.  


We got on the  Metro, got off at the Lavender station, took a wrong turn, backtracked and marched in the morning heat up Lavender Street to the location of the storied Lavender bus terminal.  When we arrived at the cross street where the bus terminal was said to be we did not see the colorful, quaint station that was in the guidebook photo.  Instead we were confronted with a fenced construction sight a block in size and a sign apologizing for our inconvenience.  We circled the block searching for a temporary station of some sort, and found nothing but a large lot full of buses.
We backtracked and crossed the street to inquire at a hostel.  The proprietor informed us that the station had been demolished nine months before, but that we could catch a bus at the Beach Drive station, back the way we had come and another few blocks further, only 15 minutes.  I knew that was a stretch, since the walk there took at least 13 minutes, and his map on the wall showed quite a few blocks to Beach Drive.  Maybe the map did not represent accurate scale.  However, I was full of zeal and decided a walk was in order.  The day was getting hotter, and we were getting hungry, so we stopped for a quick bite, then onward through this wonderfully clean, civilized, Asian city.

After a half hour walk in the blazing sun we reached Beach Drive, and walked down to a city bus stop to check a map.  A couple of old guys offered to help, and after a bit of faulty advice they pointed across the street at some buildings that were partially obscured by a tall hedge in the median.  It was the Beach Drive bus terminal!  Joy!  

Many deities are represented in Singapore.

 We crossed a pedestrian bridge and inquired at the various travel agencies that occupied the ground floor.  Each one informed us that there were no buses to Mersing during the monsoon season, and they did not have buses to Johor Bahru.  Finally one agent allowed that there was a bus that went to Johor Bahru and that we could get there from the Queen Street bus terminal, a mere 25 minute walk in a vaguely western direction.  When I informed him that we had had enough adventurous wandering, he suggested a taxi, a number of which were queued up below. 
A Singapore taxi is a wonderful thing.  They are modern, well air conditioned, and operated by drivers fluent in English.  It was a ten minute drive to the Queen Street bus terminal, which probably would have translated into about a five hour hike through unfamiliar streets, guided by bad directions.  A note to any Singapore travelers: take a taxi.
The Queen Street terminal is really just a couple of 12X12 buildings and an asphalt parking lot.  The tickets to Johor Bahru were being sold by a toothless old guy of Indian descent under an open air lean to.  We got on the well air conditioned bus, and off we went, on our way to Malaysia.
One of the interesting features of guidebooks is that many of the sections appear to be written by people who have not actually been to the places they write about.  It may be possible that they were under the influence of some mind altering substance, or that they suffer from some memory affliction, but the result is a lack of proper direction in how to negotiate some places, such as confusing southeast Asian cities, or even something as straightforward as a port of entry into a country.
The Malaysian port of entry in Johor Bahru is not particularly confusing, but it can be if the guidebook you use tells you that the bus terminal you need to be in is in that place.  It wasn’t and it isn’t.  Inquiries as to how to get to this bus terminal from different police officers and clerks around the place got us down to a taxi station, where we got a taxi to take us to the Larkin Bus Terminal, about a 15 minute ride away.  Note to travelers:  when you go through customs, go downstairs and take a taxi to the Larkin Bus Terminal.
The driver was an amiable guy with 5 daughters and a son and we had a great chat on the way.
Larkin Bus Station is fairly large complex with lots of cool places upstairs to buy clothing and other things.  We had a 90 minute wait for our bus to Mersing, so we had time to browse.  It was somewhere between warm and hot, and when we boarded our bus, we noticed that the air conditioning was not really working, just kind of blowing warm to hot air out the vents.  The seats were awesome, though.  Roomy and cushy.  They reclined well, so I figured that comfy seats trumped AC.  When the bus started moving,  the air cooled slightly, so I figured that a two and a half hour ride wouldn’t be the end of the world.
However, the driver, being a conscientious professional, stopped at the vehicle shop to have the problem dealt with.  We sat in the idling bus, enjoying the steamy hot air being blown on us from the vents above while professional third world mechanics tinkered with the cooling system.  After about 20 minutes of effort, the result was a waterfall of water coming through the big vent in center of the bus.  This drenched a handful of passengers, and though entertaining to us, was kind of depressing for the victims.  After another 25 minutes we were finally transferred to a properly functioning bus and were on our way.
         
     Dude, I'm busy with this bus.          
     
Dude, you're getting wet.
                                             
Dude, that's water on the floor.

The trip to Mersing was pretty uneventful after that, other that being boarded by police at one point.  They checked ID’s of several guys who were seated ahead of us, and one came back to visit with us.  We were the only foreigners on the bus and he was very friendly, unlike his partners who were making the dudes in front pretty nervous.   I think they were some of the same people that got a shower from the bad air conditioner.  They were not having a pleasant bus traveling experience.  They did not get hauled away, so that accounted for something, I guess.
The bus stopped a couple of times on the highway to pick up passengers including one old guy who had us wait about while he walked back to his house to pack.
We saw some monkeys by the road too, but didn’t pick them up.
Eventually we got to Mersing, and met up with our American friends who had been delayed by a bus adventure of their own, and got a room at the best cheapo hotel in town.
Mersing is a quiet little coastal town, not unlike most towns on the Oregon coast, except its a lot warmer,  the greenery is tropical, and there are no overweight, badly dressed white people.  It does have logging trucks, though since the palm oil plantations need clearing occasionally.
We had gotten in country finally!  We celebrated by eating at a nearby Chineseish restaurant and enjoyed some great curried wild boar and Tiger beers.  We could not help noticing how much the beer costs here.  When you can find it, it has been taxed by the Islamic killjoys to the point where you are paying American prices for your recreational beverages!  (I already knew that this would be the case, but seeing this practice in action is disturbing to those of us who value our freedoms.)
Another factoid gleaned from one of our guide books tells us that Malaysia is a country of mixed religions and ethnicities, with Muslims making up about 50% of the population.  They don’t say what gender, though and if I were to judge the percentages based on the covered heads of women here, I would say that the percentage was closer to that of Saudi Arabia.  Virtually all the women have their heads and necks covered with colorful headgear in keeping with the teachings of the Koran.  No beekeeper or ninja suits, though.  We’ve only been in one small region of the country, though, so I’ll wait to see how the other gals here are get up before jumping to any conclusions.