South-East Asia part 2: Malaysia

This is the second part of the report about our travels in South-East Asia.

We left Singapore on a Saturday by bus with destination of Kuala Lumpur. We queued at the border to exit Singapore and queued again to enter Malaysia. I had never quite realized how utterly nice this Schengen thing is. In KL we met Anne and Jan (friends of our’s) in the hotel they had booked. Unfortunately our room was already taken by some creepy little bugs who also slept in our bed. But we didn’t realize this first because we went out for a drink with a former colleague of Tanja’s. Finding a taxi to ride back to the hotel was interesting. You wave a taxi down but the taxi-driver will refuse to use the meter because he recognizes you as a European and therefore as a to-be-ripped-of-tourist. He might ask you for 20 or 30 Ringits although the ride will probably cost about 5 or 8. So you tell him, no, that’s too much and maybe he will start bargaining. May be he will just laugh and drive away. So you try the next cab. When you’re tired and want to go home this can be quite enfuriating. And sometimes they don’t really know the way. But after half an hour of waving down taxis and bargaining and 10 minutes of driving we made it safely back to the bugs.

The next morning we left KL early with a full-package tour towards Taman-Negara national park. A van took us to a point south of the national park from where we took a boat for the rest of the distance. The boat ride was quite nice. Unfortunately the rainy season was about to begin and so we got quite wet shortly before arriving. The national park is on the left river bank, the hotels mostly on the right bank, so the river marks the national park’s border. We stayed in a quite costly resort in a nice and large room with balcony and a toilet flush that was not working. Which I found out after using the toilet. (Of course). The janitor fixed it later and showed me it that it worked. It worked that one time he showed to me. After that it was broken again and the procedure was repeated. After the second attempt we gave up and I would fill the provided kettle with water and use that to flush.

In the evening we did a night jungle walk to have a look at the insects. There is an abundance of little six-legged fellers in the jungle. Termites, giant timber-ants, stick-insects and the like. This was quite interesting. Tanja was bitten by a warrior-termite and almost bitten by a leach. Our guide found the fucking little bugger when it was climbing Tanja’s shoe. But otherwise we returned home unscathed.

The next day we made a jungle hike. (The paths are quite trampled down and wide and most animals have fled the hordes of trampling tourists – fortunately – unfortunately). We climbed up a little hill, a bit steep but not too bad. Due to the humid heat, however, we were quite exhausted and drenched in sweat when we finally had made it to the viewpoint. (Though I must admit that we both dressed in long trousers and longsleeved shirts to avoid too many mosquito bites). We climbed down again and walked the famous, world’s-longest rope bridge canopy walkway. After lunch-break we were all quite exhausted. The equatorial wheather conditions are not exactly what makes physical activity pleasant. Anne and Jan were so exhausted that they even cancelled our afternoon activity, a cave exploration. So Tanja and I set out with the guide and an another elderly couple. After a half hour jungle walk we reached the cave. As the guide was small, light and used to the climate and the other couple were aethletic, skinny people in brilliant shape, they all were faster than Tanja and I and so the two of us stumbled behind them, panting and sweating hectoliters, having to stop for a gulp of water every five meters or so. Then we entered the cave. It was very, very narrow and we often had to crawl with hands and feet (I really missed a third arm to hold the torch light) and full of bats. (Consequently, the floor of the cave was full of bat-droppings and my hands…well). After the first “room” of the cave Tanja was too scared to go on so she returned. I went on and became soon quite scared as well. The guide (estimated: 1,65m and 58kg) had claimed that the cave was quite narrow at places. For me (1,83 and e-hem, 90kg) it was quite very-really narrow indeed. But I was able to take a couple of nice bat-pictures and make it safely out of the cave again. On the way back we stopped in a village where aboriginal people still live a stone-age life. They showed us how to make fire and how to craft a blow-dart using only jungle-grown ingredients. We had thought this village to be a tourist spoof but those people still actually live that way. We also witnessed a fight for life between a flying gecko and a snake. And after our sweat was dried a bit the monsoon rain got us soaked-soaked wet in seconds. (Even the bank notes in my wallet had become wet!).

The following day we left Taman Negara towards the Cameron highlands. They are situated in the middle of the Malaysian peninsula at approx. 1500m above sea level and therefore quite cool in comparison to the rest of Malaysia. The wheather, however, is according to our guide, “reassuringly british (…) and unpredictable”. It rains a lot. But the landscape is nice and so we stayed put there for two days. The Cameron highlands are very fertile and therefore used for growing vegetables and tea. We made a guided tour of several farms which grow roses and strawberries and we also visited the BOH tea factory. The other main activity in the Cameron highlands is hiking. We tried ourselves at it but we didn’t go too far as we were scared to become lost in the dense forests. The damp climate prevented clothes from drying really. Therefore the clothes that had become wet in Taman Negara on Monday were still wet on Thursday morning. We arrived Thursday afternoon back in KL and met Tanja’s colleague again. We went to the bar of the Hilton hotel because there was a DJ from London that night. And we spent half of a day’s budget on two drinks. But it was worth it to get a glimpse at a posh and bored crowd.

Friday we spent exploring KL. In the morining we visited the Petronas towers and the surrounding park where we also had lunch. We also climbed the tower in which Tanja’s colleague is working and had a nice view of the city (without having to queue for the sky-bridge of the Petronas towers). In the afternoon we explored the south of the city. KL was kinda cool but unfortunately public transport and pedestrians didn’t have any priority in the development of traffic. For example, we were unable to get by foot to the old train-station just on the other side of the river because the only bridge nearby was a highway bridge. We had to return to the metro, go one more station and then change to the commuter train. Therefore it took us half an hour just to get to the train station on the opposite river bank. Taking a cab was out of question because cab-drivers as a default charge tourists much more than necessary. When you tell them that they’re rip-offs and want to bargain they might just leave you standing there and you’d have to wave down the next taxi…(but I already mentioned that above).

So there were some things about KL I didn’t like, the smell, the pollution (combustion engine rules in KL). The humid heat, the exhaust from the cars, smell from cooking which takes place everywhere and rotting debris from the same combined to become a horrid and oppressing stink at times. There are also quite different parts of the city: it is very modern and clean around the Petronas towers and some other parts of the city. They also have huge shopping malls there. But there are also the parts of KL in which it is extremely dirty and poor.

On Saturday we left with AirAsia towards Bangkok. And that’s stuff for the next post.

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South-East Asia part 1: Singapore

We have just returned from an amazing trip to the far east. Still a bit jet-lagged, I have to put some thoughts down…

As we visited Singapore Malaysia and Thailand I think it will be too much to put into one post. Therefore I’m going to split things up a bit. This post consequently is about Singapore.

We started in Singapore where we stayed with Ranjan who is Singaporean and who I met in Belfast when we both studied Electrical Engineering at Queen’s University. He gave us really good introduction into this city. Singapore is amazing. It gives an impression, I think, how many South-East Asian countries could look like once they are fully developed and industrialized. An interesting realization for me was the “cold-warm-inversion”. In Europe, in winter, it is cold outside and heated in houses. Shopping for Xmas presents means therefore freezing outside and sweating inside the shops. In Singapore it was the other way round: The humid heat outside made me sweat and the chilly air-conditioned ambience of shopping malls made me feel cold.

Singapore is a fine city. You can be fined incredible sums for doing wrong. Strangely enough, it works. I never saw cleaner streets and more orderly behaviour before. Although this way of dealing with things seems strange to westerners, for people in Singapore it works fine. They accept some by-products of Singaporean authoritarianism because they enjoy a crime free, nice and clean life.

Also the two-year draft for military service for every male person appears a bit harsh to a European point-of-view. On the other hand it means that Singapore citizens are treated fairer than German citizens: in Germany not every male is drafted and thus not every male suffers the same loss of lifetime to the military.

All in all I must say that I liked Singapore a lot. There are certainly some drawbacks but as the systems seems to be working fine for Singaporeans I don’t want to judge the system. After all, it might boil down to different cultural perceptions and what is more, the fact that Chinese, Malay and Indian parts of the population live together largely peacefully and without discriminating against each other is very impressive.

From a tourist’s point-of-view, Singapore is a very good starting point for travellers of South-East-Asia. One can get used to the hot and humid climate without having to forgo western hygiene and lifestyle. Sights are quite numerous and easy to find with the very good public transport system MRT (=Mass Rapid Transit). But the most special thing of Singapore is the feel that this city can offer. A very very small and crowded place, high-rise buildings everywhere and a fully developed and industrialized society in Asia. Some people claim that it is merely “Asia light” and not really worth visiting but I say that exactly this fact makes Singapore completely unique and therefore worth visiting.