Thursday, July 31, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia / Singapore Singapore

Singapore slingshot

Aeroline bus from KL [Enlarge]

When we checked into our hotel in Kuala Lumpur we noticed a flyer at reception advertising Aeroline, a bus company offering a luxury coach from KL to Singapore. When we looked at the service they promised, and the prices, we didn't bother shopping around for alternatives. We booked online and turned up at the pick up point, the Corus Hotel near KLCC LRT station, at 07:15 for our 08:00 departure.

The service was excellent—exactly as advertised with a baguette for brunch, drinks on demand, a power point at the seat, the most smiley, helpful staff we've ever met, and a very professional driver. We had booked at the last minute and the only seats available were on the back row. Our fellow passengers were from all walks of life. The man in front of us in a shiny grey suit could easily have been Korean; up front were a middle aged, white American couple; an extended family of Indians occupied the middle of the bus, and took their time disembarking and rejoining us at each border post.

Border formalities at either end of the 'Second Link' causeway separating Malaysia and Singapore were straightforward. As ever it took a bit of time to get everyone through the passport checks and back on the bus, but we arrived ahead of schedule at the Harbour Front in Singapore.

To get to our hostel we had to find the nearest subway station. To get to the subway we had to walk through a mall. We soon found that to get anywhere in Singapore you have to walk through a mall. This is because Singapore is basically a series of malls linked together by little pieces of city.

If you've heard anything about Singapore you've probably heard that it's clean and safe. This is true. Maintaining this infeasible level of cleanliness and safety isn't easy though, and it is accomplished by having rules. Lots of rules, strictly enforced. Rule breakers are fined, heavily. Persistent rule breakers are presumably executed. On top of the national rules, each building implements its own local rules. Our hostel, home for the next four days, had rules posted everywhere. Here are the ones we can remember, along with associated fines:

  • Breakfast is between 6 and 10am. Outside this time you pay S$1. People caught stealing breakfast without paying will be fined S$50.
  • No eating on the sofa. Fine S$100.
  • No food or drink in your room. Fine S$100.
  • Guests must leave by 9pm. Trespassers will be handed to the police.
  • No shitting on the floor. Fine S$500.

Assuming the last one isn't a joke, it means someone probably did that once. In which case we don't begrudge them that rule! Western backpackers can be a vile lot, and we wouldn't relish trying to maintain a Singaporean standard of cleanliness in a backpacker hostel. Actually, we wouldn't try. Unfortunately the task is so herculean that the hostel owner seemed really pissed off most of the time.

In the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, of course. Horrific price but it had to be done. [IMG_4641]
Singapore slings [Enlarge]

We did quite a lot during our short stay in Singapore. We walked the nearly-finished track of the upcoming Singapore Grand Prix. When it's on TV in September watch out for the bit which goes over the Anderson Bridge—it looked scarily narrow to us. We went to the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel for a Singapore Sling in surprisingly laid back and non-touristy surrounding. We shopped and we ate. Actually shopping and eating are Singaporeans' two favourite pastimes. Food courts offer cheap meals from every corner of Asia, and much of the rest of the world. We even saw a British chip shop selling deep fried Mars bars. If food is the national hobby, shopping is the state religion. Malls tower, cathedral like, over the city; their gleaming domes and marbled atria filled with the devoted making their weary pilgrimage from shrine to retail shrine. Shopping is not, never has been, and never will be a pleasure to us. We find it incomprehensible. Does spending too much money make people happier? Does owning this season's ridiculous 'designer' objects fill a need? It made us sick after a few days.

In Singapore we did actually need to shop for a few things. Glenn's shoes never had much grip on the soles, but we've walked so much he's worn them totally flat. We've also both worn out a pair of socks. So we fixed both of those problems.

Also, there is some sad news. Since we started back out on the road from Seoul we have struggled to fit everything into our tiny bags and they have become too heavy. The addition of another laptop, to add to the one we bought fairly early on our trip, a pair of flip-flops and set of swimwear and beach towels each and a couple of extra t-shirts for Glenn had the old bags bursting at the seams. So, we've bitten the bullet and bought proper backpacks. They're not the huge ones that we've been so scathing of throughout our trip. Isla's is 38 litres and is sold as a day pack, and Glenn's is a little bigger at 50 litres and quoted as an overnight bag (he's bigger, so it's fair). We now have plenty of extra space for whatever we need for a particular country. This means we can keep the beach towels we bought in the Perhentian islands until after we leave beachy places and when we move from the tropics back to cooler climes we'll be able to buy a jumper or coat without having to wear it all the time. Our little day bag can go back to travelling inside one of our main bags so we're much more streamlined when we transit. We know it makes sense, but it's still a disappointment that we couldn't keep to our original plan of using truly tiny bags.

Roaming the tree tops at Singapore zoo. [IMG_4676]
Orang utan [Enlarge]

On day three we went to the zoo. Singapore zoo is cleverly engineered so that a lot of the time you're hardly aware of being physically separated from the animals. Orang utans roam freely in the trees above your head and can travel a long way outside their moat, but it's designed so that they can't climb down until they go back to their own area. We had a recommendation from a friend to visit the zoo for their Jungle Breakfast. We followed this up and phoned ahead the day before to book our table. Before breakfast we watched two elephants take their morning bath and snack on bananas. Then we went to satisfy our own hungry tummies. Half way through the meal, we were joined by Miri the Orang utan and her three month old baby, Ah Tseng. Miri was persuaded to sit patiently by a seemingly endless supply of fruit, while tourists oohed and aahed at her, and queued for a closer look and a photograph.

By lunchtime we were flagging in the equatorial heat. The eco-conscious zoo doesn't seem to have any air-conditioned places to provide respite—maybe it knows that if it did they're be swamped by sweaty westerners. We'd seen almost everything we wanted to see, so we trudged back to the bus stop and the delicious coolness of Singaporean public transport (London Underground take note).

We had one final purchase to make before leaving Singapore and her malls. Tomorrow we hop back into a malaria-risk area with a flight from Johor Bharu (just across the Malaysian border) to Kuching in Sarawak, the western state of Malaysian Borneo. So as of tonight we're back on the Malarone. We still have a few of our original UK batch left, and all the ones we bought in Hong Kong, but we felt it made sense to top up while we could.

You can buy Malarone in Singapore without a prescription, if you go into a large pharmacy and present your (non-Singaporean) passport and an air ticket to a malarial area. You have to wait until the day before you fly out. You also have to present a large wad of cash. The price is S$7 per tablet, S$92.40 per box of twelve (GBP 34.21 / USD 67.47). When you can eat a sumptuous dinner for less than S$6 that stings! We don't know what the limit is—the pharmacist didn't blink when we asked for three boxes in Isla's name, so we could have bought twice that if we wanted to, and probably more. We don't know whether you can do this at all pharmacies but as of July 2008 you can definitely buy Malarone in Singapore, over the counter at Watsons. We used the large branch in the basement of Ngee Ann City mall on Orchard Road.

So what did we think of Singapore? It's similar to our favourite city Hong Kong, and very easy to get around in, especially since everything is written in English first. But to be honest the obsessive rules got to us. We were continually worried, for example: we've just bought a sandwich from the Seven-Eleven. Can we eat it in that park over there? Are we even allowed to walk on the grass? Or will we be dragged away and flogged? We think that the reason Singapore doesn't have much crime is because everyone's head is so full of rules, they don't have any mental capacity left over for doing bad things. A crime-free society comes at a hefty price.

Map of Day 612

Day 612
Kuala Lumpur to Singapore

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Monday, July 28, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

A rather bland place

Petronas towers [Enlarge]

Say the name Kuala Lumpur. What does it conjure up? The Petronas Towers... the Malaysian Grand Prix... anything else?

Us neither. We came here not really knowing what to expect, but expecting a modern, industrialised Asian city. And that's what we got. It's hot, it's clean and it's quite relaxed. But that's it.

So what does Kuala Lumpur have to offer? It's a melting pot of cultures (to use a travel guidebook phrase). On any street or subway train you'll see faces from all over Asia. Fashions are varied. Women walk through the airconditioned malls in full black muslim burkas, accessorised with designer label handbags and the spoils of a day's hard shopping, while their teenage daughters in skin tight jeans pay lipservice to their culture with sequined head scarves; Indian women in garish saris dawdle through the streets of Brickfields.

Because we failed to eat Taiwanese food in Taiwan we decided to try it in Kuala Lumpur. [IMG_4599]
Taiwanese food [Enlarge]

The multiculturalism extends, gloriously, to the food. Having made such a mess of Taiwan that we didn't even manage to sample any Taiwanese food, we finally rectified this when by chance we stumbled upon the 'Little Taiwan' restaurant after emerging from the subway into an almost deserted mall. We ordered delicious noodles and a side order of dumplings. Glenn's noodles came with chicken and Isla's with honey coated pork. They were worth waiting for!

We spent three nights in Kuala Lumpur, but we arrived late on the first night and left early on the final morning, so we only actually had two days to explore. But despite the short time, we didn't feel we missed anything. As well as the ubiquitous visit to the Petronas towers we filled our time with a fun afternoon at Petrosains, the Petronas-sponsored interactive science museum inside the Suria shopping complex adjoining the towers.

Maybe the friendly Malaysian temperament and culture just doesn't lend itself well to bustling metropolises; or else Kuala Lumpur just doesn't have enough history and attractions to distinguish itself from any other big city. We still love Malaysia, but in our opinion the smaller towns have so much more to offer.

Saturday, July 26, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

The Jungle Line

Wakaf Baharu station [Enlarge]

Debating where to go from Pulau Perhentian Besar we decided that Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur should be our next destination. There are lots of ways to get there—luxury coach, regular bus, minibus, plane, and the train. Buses take about six hours, quickly crossing to the west coast and zooming down the characterless multi-lane highway.

The Perhentians are close to the start of the 'Jungle Line', which finds itself on a few of the lists of great railway journeys of the world. This long, winding, single-track line snakes from the north-east corner of peninsular Malaysia down to Gemas in the south-west, where it intersects with the main line between Bangkok and Singapore. On the twelve-hour route, it twists and turns as it rises gradually into the Malaysian highlands, passing through hundreds of kilometres of... jungle! No surprises there. Reports and opinions vary. Some people are enchanted by the wonderful views of jungly jungleness, some people are disappointed at the lack of real jungle (saying it's just straight rows of non-native palm plantations). Others are bored rigid by the coccyx-numbing slog.

This time there was no contest, it had to be the train. We knew we'd regret it if we didn't. Time to stock up on some more of our traditional railway fare, Doritos (or local equivalent).

On Perhentian we had come up with a new plan following our stupid journey there from Thailand. It's a very simple plan. We're going to slow down and not try to make multi-stage journeys in one day. So, putting our new plan into action we did the journey to Kuala Lumpur in two steps. Day one: speedboat from Pulau Perhentian Besar to Kuala Besut ferry terminal, then a leisurely taxi to Kota Bharu, the capital of Keralan state. Day two: another taxi to nearby Wakaf Baharu station, then catch the train through the jungle to Kuala Lumpur.

Kota Bharu. [IMG_4581]
Ideal Travellers' House [Enlarge]

Our plan meant staying the night in Kota Bharu, giving us the chance to see this allegedly ultra-conservative Muslim city. We booked a super-cheap hostel, Ideal Travellers' House. At 22.50 ringgit (GBP 3.50 / USD 6.89) per night for a double room, it was the cheapest place we've ever stayed. It was very basic—for the money we got a bed, a washing line and a cockroach—but there was free wi-fi, the place was clean and the owners friendly.

Kota Bharu had a bit of a frontier town feel to it. It is indeed quite conservative, but it's nothing compared to, say Syria. We couldn't get a beer from the convenience store, and there were more headscarves than in other Malaysian towns, but that was all we noticed.

At 08:00 next morning we left for the station. The drive took much less time than planned, only fifteen minutes. So we found ourselves sitting on the platform early, waiting for the ticket office to open so that we could collect our internet-booked tickets. At 09:00 Glenn went to pick up the tickets. The man in the ticket office took our confirmation number and pecked at his keyboard. He then entered a catatonic state for about ten minutes, during which time he hardly moved except for his fingers, which occasionally bashed out a few more keystrokes. It seemed there was a problem with our reservation.

As the queue behind Glenn grew embarrassingly long (there was only one guy at the desk, so everyone was waiting for us), a train came into the station. The ticket man shouted through the glass "After train!" and then he promptly disappeared out back! It seemed he was not only the station's ticket clerk, but also the flag waver.

Glenn noted that the long queue behind him was now stretching out of the ticket office, and almost out of the station itself, but that nobody seemed remotely concerned about having to wait, even though our train (the only one for most of the remainder of the day) was now due in about five minutes. Malaysians are laid back, but surely this was too much to bear even for them? In our local station at home, the situation would have caused a lot of tutting, gazing at watches, and much shuffling, arms folded, from one leg to the other. Strangers would probably even start talking to each other. But here, you got the feeling this wasn't unusual.

The ticket man eventually came back, only to do some more keyboarding and then disappear again, this time to make a phone call to head office. Eventually the problem was identified: the web site had given us a confirmation number containing a hyphen. Due to a system incompatibility the ticket man should have converted that hyphen to a zero before entering it into his computer. Only he obviously didn't know that, and instead he very publicly blamed Glenn for writing the code down wrongly. (Yes, we've checked and we didn't.)

No doubt you've already guessed why the locals weren't worried about missing their train. Yes, of course they all knew it was late. In fact, the train that had arrived and left while Glenn was trying to get the tickets, was our train still going the other way up the line on its previous journey! Once we'd worked this out, we chatted with a Swiss-Dutch family of five who were travelling to Kuala Lipis, about six hours down the line.

The train made up some time on the turnaround and arrived only 45 minutes late. So, finally, we were underway.

Seen from the Jungle Line train. [IMG_4590]
Limestone cliffs and jungle [Enlarge]

The journey was long, but not boring. The scenery was always interesting, and in case we tired of it the train staff were showing back-to-back pirate DVDs on the flat screen TVs at either end of the carriage. The AC was so icy cold that we had to put our warmest clothes on. The toilets were shockingly clean with toilet paper, soap, running water and hand towels. True, a lot of the jungle had been replaced by palm plantations, but we get to see quite a lot of primary rainforest, including monkeys swinging in the trees (yes, honest). The glimpses of line-side Malaysian life were fascinating. In places the scenery was stunning. The sun set as we reached Gemas, where the train was turned around to head back northwards on the main line to Kuala Lumpur. We finally arrived at KL Sentral station at 22:30 and checked into our hotel, which we had carefully chosen for its walkability from the station.

It's worth noting for people who arrive at this post by googling for the Jungle Line, that we were on some sort of special Friday-Saturday-Sunday service which runs all the way from Wakaf Baharu to KL, so you don't need to change trains at Gemas. We've heard very bad things about the toilets on the regular weekday services, so don't blame us if you travel in the week and find it not as we describe!

It was late, we were tired and stiff. If we'd gone by bus we'd have been there mid-afternoon, but we would have missed out. Would we make the same journey again? Probably not. But are we glad we did it? Definitely! As ever, the long, interesting way is well worth doing, but only once!

Map of Day 608-609

Day 608-609
Pulau Perhentian Besar to Kuala Lumpur

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Snapping turtles

Isla at 15m [Enlarge]

It turns out we're quite good at scuba diving. We keep diving with people who have done far more dives than us, but they're flailing around, kicking up the sand and generally not getting the hang of it whereas we seem to have been able to just do it from the outset. Go slow, breathe slowly and deeply and enjoy the scenery; be aware of everything around you and of what you're doing; and don't let anything stress you. That seems to be the key to being a good scuba diver. We just need to get the same attitude when taking public transport.

We decided to do the PADI Advanced Open Water course because it would give us lots of different dive experiences, a qualification to go deeper (to forty metres), and demonstrates to other dive operators that we're not complete noobs. We started with a navigation dive, using a compass to navigate a square, learning how to judge distance, and so on. Then we had a dive in which we focused on perfecting our buoyancy... well, trying to. We learned how to turn upside down, and stay like that, for looking under overhangs, and we learned how to swim backwards (in theory at least). Doing it for further than about a metre will need a lot more practice.

Nemos never stay still. [IMG_2207]
Clownfish [Enlarge]

On our second day we began with a deep dive, going down to thirty metres to visit the Secret Reef, a beautiful place at a depth where colour begins to disappear—red things appear black. After lunch we did a wreck dive. The Sugar Wreck is a 50-metre long freighter that, having delivered its cargo of sugar in December 2000, sank in a monsoon close to the islands. It's at an easy depth. Lying on its side, the highest point is five metres down. The huge cargo holds beneath the deck are like wide caves. In the eight years since it sank, flat disks of coral the size of dinner plates have grown on the hull. The ropes, nets, rails and masts are coated in invertibrate life and thousands of fish now live there. It was a good test of our buoyancy control with plenty of swim throughs, and quite a strong current coming over the stern. We were even able to surface in an air pocket in one of the cargo holds.

We finished the day with a night dive. Night diving is very different to day diving. Of course you only see what your torch illuminates, but because the light isn't filtered through 12 metres of water, colours are brighter and more vivid. And if you turn off your torch and stir up the water with your hand, you get to see phosphorescence: tiny plankton in the water lighting up and dancing around like fireflies. It was great. We were at the back of the group and did a lot of hanging around waiting for the sand to settle because the four divers in front of us were constantly stirring it up. But we were happy just playing with the magic water sparkles.

Leopard Shark [Enlarge]

After we got our advanced qualification, we decided to rent an underwater camera for a day and we crammed in three dives to make the most of it. We chose easy locations where we wouldn't have to worry about depth or current, and where we could just hang out and try to take photos. We learned that taking photos underwater is an incredibly hard thing to do. You're trying to hang in mid water and not crash into anything in case you damage it (coral) or it damages you (sea urchins and scorpionfish), push buttons on a camera whose labels you can't read and whose screen you can't see properly because it's in a watertight box, get extremely close to your fast-moving subject without scaring it off because if you're too far away the flash won't work properly and you'll get lots of backscatter from the plankton, and (in the case of the second dive site) fend off the evil territorial soapfish (damsel) who are swimming into you at full speed trying to bite chunks out of you for encroaching on their territory. Oh, and trying to take a well-composed photo. Glenn enjoyed it: he loves photography and thinks he'd like to buy an underwater housing one day, but not until he's really got the hang of floating perfectly still exactly where he wants to be. Isla took a couple of photos but hated it, preferring to help with finding things to photograph. All in all though we're pretty pleased with the results (see here) given that it was our first attempt and we weren't familiar with the camera.

The highlight of our third dive was when we ran across a hawksbill turtle and stayed with it for several minutes. From twelve metres down we watched it swim to the surface, have a bit of a breathe and a look around, then dive straight back down next to us to do some more munching on the bottom. Typically the camera decided to run out of battery just after we first saw it, so that was the end of the photography.

So now we're qualified advanced divers and we've done sixteen dives in total. We haven't decided what we want to do next. There are higher levels of qualification that we could go for, or we could just do the odd fun dive in places like Bali and Australia, and maybe the Caribbean. We'll have plenty of time to decide as we pass by more of the world's top dive sites in the coming weeks... We'll keep you posted.

Monday, July 14, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Pulau Perhentian

The main way to get around on Perhentian. [IMG_4552]
Taxi! [Enlarge]

Unfortunately because of our stupid journey yesterday and our stupid decision to pre-book onward transport this morning we left ourselves with no time to see Georgetown.

We complicated our route to the Perhentian Islands a bit by taking the most westerly border crossing from Thailand to Malaysia, when we could have crossed the border on the east side and missed Georgetown altogether. We did this for two reasons: firstly, we wanted to see Georgetown (failed—see above), and secondly, because the border crossings in the east are a bit dangerous due to some Muslim separatists in the south-eastern provinces of Thailand. Some people swear by the eastern crossing, saying that westerners are not targeted and that they've never seen any problems, but just three weeks ago there was a shootout on a train and four people on board were killed.

From Georgetown, we had two main options for crossing Malaysia: a long bus journey, or a short flight. The buses take either all day or all night to make the journey. The flight takes just 45 minutes and costs about GBP 35 each (USD 69.90). Again we were constrained by our stupid decision to try to do the whole journey in two days. In our defence, we did have trouble booking accommodation on the Perhentian Islands because they're very busy right now (this is peak season). Having secured a booking after a couple of days of phone calls and emails we then had to work a plan backwards to get to the islands on time, so our current predicament is not all down to stupidity. Anyway, we digress... We reluctantly chose the short flight.

Our hour spent in a Fokker turboprop care of cool little low-budget carrier FireFly was hassle free. We took off from Penang fifteen minutes early and landed in Kota Bharu still fifteen minutes early. Almost everyone on board was European and was heading for the Perhentians. Bracing ourselves for a huge army of touts in the airport arrivals hall, shouting "Hello yes! My frien'! Where you wanna go?!", we were stunned to emerge from baggage reclaim and find the airport practically deserted, apart from a sleepy little taxi counter. There were no tuk-tuks. No share minibuses. No pickups. No motorbike taxis. Weird... We're gradually realising that ultra-laid back Malaysia is nothing at all like its northern neighbour Thailand. We teamed up with an Irish couple to share a taxi direct to the ferry terminal at Kuala Besut for 78 ringgits in total, so 19.50 each (GBP 3.05 / USD 6.09).

The taxi driver dropped us off right outside our guest house's ferry ticket desk in Kuala Besut. The set up here is weird. The guide books say that there are 'ferries' and 'speedboats' to the islands which run several times per day, which suggests that there is some sort of public boat service. But instead the truth seems to be that there are a thousand different private operators with their own boats, who run back and forwards all day long. We didn't work it out because we weren't there long enough—within five minutes of arriving we were hurried onto a speedboat and handed lifejackets.

Ah, yes, the speedboat. Our boat didn't look like a speedboat. A speedboat is small and pointy. Our boat looked like a standard pleasure boat with a little canvas roof, and bench seats for maybe 14 people along the sides. The only thing giving away that the thing might soon be travelling quite fast were the two 200 horsepower motors hanging off the back. The women passengers all put their lifejackets on when given them, whereas most of the men awkwardly put them to one side, not wanting to be the first bloke to look like a girl... That is until we started moving! Everyone was wearing their lifejacket by the time we left the port, because by then our little pleasure boat was already bouncing over the waves at a face-deforming speed. We covered the 20 km to the islands in twenty minutes. After a few stops at other guest houses, we were ferried to shore by a water taxi.

Perhentian Island beach [Enlarge]

Imagine two pristine jungle-clad islands in a warm, calm, turquoise ocean. Imagine white sandy beaches fringed with coconut palms. Imagine huge lizards roaming in the forest. Imagine a place with no cars, in fact no roads, the only way to get between beaches being to walk, stepping over gnarled tree roots on a twisting jungle track. Now imagine that the whole thing is made into a protected marine park to restrict development and ban fishing. That's the Perhentian Islands. OK, OK, so they're a bit resorty in places, but the hotels and restaurants lining the beaches are small and reasonably sympathetic to their environment. And the food and drink is a bit pricey because everything has to be hauled from the mainland, but in spite of that, things are looking very good for our stay here. Judging by the number of fish we could see below our water taxi, and the fact that we could easily see the bottom when the depth was around 15 metres, the diving is going to be excellent.

After getting out of the water taxi we checked in at Mama's Place, a collection of little wooden chalets practically on the beach. Aziz, the owner, is a character and seems to speak lots of languages. Our room is basic but very clean and it's literally right next door to the dive shop that was recommended to us by the folks in Koh Lanta. We've already spoken to the owner of the shop, Yaakub, and booked two fun dives tomorrow. We're planning to stay here for a while, try a few fun dives with them and then probably go on to do our advanced open water qualification.

Map of Day 598

Day 598
George Town to Pulau Perhentian Besar

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Sunday, July 13, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia / Thailand Thailand

How not to travel to Malaysia

LaLaanta Hideaway Resort, Koh Lanta. [IMG_4546]
Our bungalow [Enlarge]

As we said in our crap Taiwan post, our plan for the next phase of our trip is to cross into Malaysia and then head down the peninsula towards Singapore. When we took our open water diving course, we asked the dive shop for recommendations for a good cheap place to do lots of dives and increase our experience. They suggested the Perhentian Islands, which just happen to be more or less on our way to Singapore. So fully rested after two weeks in paradise that's where we decided to go next. The islands are about 20 km off the east coast of Malaysia, in the north of the peninsula, just across the border from Thailand. Not far from Koh Lanta, really.

But this is South East Asia, where 'not far' always seems to translate to a marathon of hot dusty travelling.

The border between Thailand and Malaysia has six crossings: four by road and two by rail. Pretty much all the routes converge on the southern city of Hat Yai, so we set an initial course for there. Through our resort in Koh Lanta we were able to book a minibus to get us to Trang, a large-ish town to the south-east of Lanta. On the way we got caught up in a tropical rainstorm but it passed before we got turfed out at Trang.

We arrived in the centre of Trang at about 10:15 and were deposited straight into the hands of a load of touts, as usual. We spent a few moments trying to find someone selling minibuses to Hat Yai. There was nothing immediately obvious so we asked a westerner who'd just pulled up on a motorbike, and who from the look of him clearly lived in Hat Yai. He couldn't help us, but while we were talking to him, we were approached by a local man in his seventies. In excellent English he asked if we needed help. When we said we were looking for a bus to Hat Yai, he volunteered to take us in his car to the right place. Our scam-o-meter twitched a little but we felt like letting this one play out and see where we ended up. As we walked together to his car he explained that when he had been a student in the US and Australia, locals had often given him a ride when he was stuck, so now he repays those favours in his home town. It also gives him time to practice his English.

It took a couple of stops to find the right bus. During the journey we found out that our new friend had been on Koh Lak during the 2004 Tsunami. Since he retired he's been a tour guide, leading eco-trips to the national park there. Almost every day he would go down to the beach to try to drum up business with the tourists, but on the morning of December 26th, he had an appointment with a resort owner, so he had a lie in. As a result he didn't go down to the beach as usual—a decision which could well have saved his life. In the aftermath of the disaster he volunteered as a Thai-English interpreter, communicating between medical staff and patients in the hospital in Phuket. He is still in contact with some of the people he helped in the weeks afterwards.

It took a while with several false starts, but eventually he found us a public bus to Hat Yai, leaving at 11:15 from the main bus station in Trang. The scam-o-meter had been wrong, and this had in fact been a case of a kind local simply helping us out. It's such a shame that the scumbags in Thailand do so much to spoil the country's reputation for kindness and hospitality. We boarded the bus and waved our new friend off. We were the only farangs (foreigners) on the bus today, but only the small children were unselfconscious enough to stare at us. At 11:30-ish the bus began to move. It trundled around town picking up people until every seat was full.

As time ticked away and the GPS told us we were making glacial progress towards Hat Yai, we found ourselves wishing that we'd just gone with the touts when we first arrived into Trang. We would have paid more for a tourist minibus but it would have got us to Hat Yai in plenty of time to catch the train we ideally wanted: the 14:40 to Butterworth in Malaysia. The only train to Butterworth until the next day. But on our distinctly non-express bus it took more than three hours to get to Hat Yai. We told the steward we wanted the train station, and he got the driver to drop us at a big traffic circle with only ten minutes to go until the train was due to leave. As we consulted the GPS to find the direction to the station, we were not impressed to discover that we had been dropped over a kilometre away from it!

We started walking quickly but when a passing sawngthaew (a kind of big tuk-tuk) offered its services at a non-scamtasic price we gratefully jumped in and told the driver to make a beeline for the station toute suite. Glenn put the GPS away so that we would be ready to jump out at the station and make a dash for the ticket office. But after about four minutes and a few turns we seemed to be heading in completely the wrong direction. So out came the GPS again and it confirmed that we were indeed doing just that. Glenn knocked on the window but the driver was too focused on his windscreen to notice. So then Glenn hung out the side of the sawgthaew and put his head in through the side window of the cab, which caused the driver to look a little surprised. After a brief exchange which comprised lots of choo-choo miming, the driver suddenly seemed to understand and did a virtual handbrake turn.

We arrived at the station about two minutes before the train was due to leave. Of course Thai trains rarely run on time but we just knew that this one would be sure to set a new record for punctuality. Glenn ran ahead to the ticket window and Isla watched as he paused for a moment and then turned and walked away. The train was on time... And full! Every single seat was taken. From first class sleeper to third class benches, there was no availability and so after the frantic panic to get to the station it turned out that we had made it, but we still were not going to be taking the train to Butterworth that day.

Plan B... We crossed the street to a sprinkling of minibus offices. "We'd like to go to Penang please." (Penang is the island next to Butterworth, which was where we were actually headed. Georgetown is the main city on the island and is the old British colonial capital of Malaya—and that's where we were staying the night).

The minibus agent looked glum. He had just sold the last two tickets to Penang not ten minutes previously. What a coincidence. But being a very helpful agent he could arrange a private taxi for us! We went door-to-door, but always got the same response. Either they had sensed that we would be good for a taxi and closed ranks, or there really were no spaces on the minibuses.

This journey was starting to look like a mess. In our efforts to avoid the touts all we seemed to be doing was digging a hole for ourselves. Yet again we cursed ourselves for being too optimistic with our travel plans. Because we like to plan a whole journey in advance so that we have the security of knowing that we're not going to be stranded anywhere, we had booked a hotel in Penang, onward travel to the Perhentian Islands tomorrow, and our accommodation for the first few days in Perhentian. But as we discovered, we still managed to get stranded, because we didn't conceive of the possibility that the train across the border would be completely full. We either need to chill out and take these multi-stage journeys one step at a time, or just pay the goddamn tourist touts to take us on the whole journey we want to do.

Now we had a simple choice: spend the night in Hat Yai and write off the hotel, the onward tickets and the first night's accommodation in Perhentian; or punish our wallet some more and stump up for the taxi. After doing some sums the taxi came out as the logical choice.

Our 'taxi' driver was Malaysian, had obviously come to Hat Yai with a delivery of some sort, and had been waiting for some farang to come along and pay him to drive home. The joy of being those idiots. The border crossing, 50 km south of Hat Yai, was very busy, and the driver told us to get out of the car and walk through the border. As we stood in the huge queue for Thai passport control the driver drove straight past us, through the gate and off around the corner out of sight. We then confounded our annoying day with a minute of utter panic as we remembered that (in the briefest moment of lost concentration) we had left all our stuff in the car! As we stood there wondering how we could have been so absolutely stupid for the umpteenth time today, and realising that we didn't even have the driver's licence plate number, we caught a glimpse of him through the crowds: he had parked up and was standing waiting for us on the other side.

Back in the car the driver told us that the reason all the transport was fully booked and the border was so busy is that it was Sunday afternoon and so many Thais work in Kuala Lumpur during the week. We passed through the other stages in the border crossing without incident and at last we were fully checked, controlled, stamped and immigrated, and speeding south on a wide highway admiring our new ninety-day Malaysian visas which had been thoughtfully squeezed into a space on an already crowded page of our passports.

It was dark when we arrived on the car ferry into Georgetown on Pulau Penang (Penang Island). Georgetown is a funny mix of British colonial and Chinese architecture. It's a bit shabby and grubby, but it seems OK, even in the dark. Our bed for the night is in Hutton Lodge, just off Georgetown's main street: Penang Road. The staff are friendly and very helpful, and the shower is probably the best one we've had in Asia—gallons of hot water at a decent pressure. Having spent a little while walking around town to get something to eat and find an ATM, we notice that Malaysia doesn't seem to have the same problem with touts as Thailand. It seems at first glance to be a lot more laid back. Things are looking up.

Map of Day 597

Day 597
Koh Lanta Yai to George Town

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008 Thailand Thailand

Scuba diving

Diving [Enlarge]

After a few days of early nights and long sleeps, and lying in hammocks doing nothing from dawn until dusk, we felt more relaxed and rested than we had for well over a year. So it was time to begin looking around for things to do on our paradise island. LaLaanta resort offered plenty: a beautiful bay with clean sand and clear ocean, sea kayaks to borrow, two swimming pools, a small library of paperback books to read and DVDs to watch, free wifi internet throughout the resort—including in the hammocks! Still, we thought we should just check that we weren't missing anything.

Jun, our wonderful Vietnamese hostess, was happy to provide information on what was available on the island. Among the many options we could try elephant trekking, rent a motorbike, go snorkelling or scuba diving. We have always half intended to try scuba diving but never quite got round to it. So when we read that the diving in this part of Thailand is world class, it just seemed rude not to have a go. After chatting with one of the owners of Scubafish we both signed up for a four day open water scuba diving course, which would get us a basic PADI qualification that lasts a lifetime.

We had a day of training in a pool where we got to try out the equipment and learned some skills, then early the next morning we were picked up and taken to the pier on the other side of the island, where the company keeps its boat in the low season. We boarded the MV Moskito and set sail for Koh Haa, a group of tiny uninhabited islands about 15 kilometres west of Koh Lanta.

The two hour trip to the dive site was very pleasant. We ate breakfast, chatted with the other divers and enjoyed the view. Our instructor, Julie, briefed us about the first of our two dives and told us what species of fish we could hope to see. It was a long list. Then it was time to kit up and hit the water.

MV Moskito [Enlarge]

Even before we stepped off the boat we could see that we were surrounded by tropical fish. Coming from Britain, we think of the sea as a grey, cold place. For us it was like looking down into a giant aquarium. Our fifty-minute first dive felt more like five minutes as we swam round the coral reef marvelling at the colours, the variety and the sheer enjoyment of being able to breathe underwater. And got the hang of the whole don't-float-don't-sink thing. There were so many best bits: when Julie pointed out the real-life Nemos (clown fish) hiding in the anemone coral, or when a hawksbill turtle swam playfully past us, or when a banded sea snake uncurled itself from the reef and headed straight up towards the surface to breathe.

After a lazy lunch back on the boat we dived again. This time we had to demonstrate our underwater skills (this is a course after all), but there was still plenty of time for fish spotting. When we were finally dropped back at LaLaanta at about 18:00 we were exhausted, but very happy.

We had another day of study and practice in the pool on Monday. We also had to take a written exam—well, fifty multiple choice questions, no cheating! We did fine and managed to get done early.

Tuesday saw us up and ready to go for our second day of open water diving at 07:00, and back on the Moskito to Koh Haa. This time we went down to 18 metres. The visibility was over 20 metres, the water was warm (30°C / 86°F) and were able to start learning how to relax under water. When we got back to the surface we realised that the weather had changed while we'd been beneath the surface. The sea was now really choppy and it made doing the final skill (take off all your gear and put it back on again) quite hard. And getting back on the boat was a bit of a challenge, but the boat crew were there to lend a hand. After another yummy lunch we did our final dive, this time to 16 metres.

And then we were certified divers! We are now allowed to dive anywhere in the world to a depth of 18 metres. We're hooked. Being weightless under the water is amazing. On the boat back we got loads of recommendations for other places to dive in the places we're heading towards (many of them cheaper than here). This is definitely something we'll do again.