Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Island Paradise - Tioman

From Malacca we were headed to the island of Tioman, over on the East coast. It was quite a drive to get there, plus it is kind of impossible to book oneself onto a particular boat without turning up. Therefore, we set the alarm, dragged ourselves out of bed early, and set off in a hurry. The road was mostly easy, although the motorway ran out once we were around halfway there, making it necessary to negotiate the traffic of several towns. Thankfully this did not last long, and we soon found ourselves driving through a mixture of lush rainforest and palm oil plantations. Sadly, palm oil seems to be decidedly winning the land battle, making us wonder just how much natural habitat is left for any wildlife. According to the warning signs on the road the area plays host to elephants and tapirs. Whilst these creatures were evidently feeling shy, we did see a large troop of monkeys, who quickly disappeared back into the forest at the noise of the engine.

We arrived at the ferry terminal with plenty of time, as we wanted to ensure that we got on the 2 p.m. ferry, the last one that day, We needn't have bothered though, as the desk remained closed until an hour and a half before departure. Luckily it didn't matter, as although it was school holiday time, the fact that it was not a weekend apparently meant there was no danger of the boat selling out. The waiting area was chaotic, with children running around screeching, and the parents bringing so much luggage you might be forgiven for thinking they were planning a permanent relocation. We did wonder where so many people were going to disappear to on the relatively small island, and hoped it wouldn't be too hectic.

We needn't have worried. By the time the boat reached Salang (the last stop), it had emptied out considerably. We disembarked to see a stunning beach, fronted by impossibly turquoise water and backed by lush green mountains. Whilst not deserted it was far from crowded, and without a tacky sun lounger in sight. From the jetty we could see the outline of corals below, with bright flashes of colour suggesting plenty of fish. It was exactly what we were hoping to find, and we immediately realised we might have to extend our stay beyond our planned four nights.


Salang is not a big place. In fact, it is quite easy to stroll from one end to the other in ten minutes. As there is only one path, it was not exactly difficult to locate our huts. We were staying at Ella's Place, and were not quite sure what to expect. Initially we had only booked it as our first few choices were full. It also turned out that it was Lonely Planet's top choice of digs, which would usually be enough to put us off a place. Furthermore, we had read on Tripadvisor that it was not on a nice part of the beach, so it is fair to say our expectations were not too high.

Surprisingly, we have been forced to conclude that for once Lonely Planet might have got it right (even a stopped watch is correct twice a day). The huts are undeniably basic. Fan cooled, bucket flush, cold shower, they are not luxurious. Ours didn't even have a working light in the main room. However, none of these things mattered to us at all. It was clean, one of the cheapest options around, had a lovely porch area from which we could sit and watch the sea, and was right at the end of the path, meaning that we didn't have people constantly walking past. Far from being poor, our part of the beach turned out to be beautiful, just a little rocky at low tide. The sand was literally less than ten paces from our front door. Location wise, for us this was hard to beat.


We didn't do much that evening other than eat dinner. Oli tried the famous half roast chicken, which was apparently very nice but a little dry, easily rectified by the gravy provided. The next day however, was a lot more exciting. Waking up to see the brilliant blue sea sparkling just a few yards from our door was a truly thrilling. We had heard that Salang offered good snorkelling without having to take a boat somewhere, so were keen to try it out.

We started off on the furthest end of the beach from our hotel. Getting used to it took a little practice, as sticking your head in the water and taking a deep breath is not the most natural feeling. Oli had a bit of trouble with his mask, at one point asking me if the tube was supposed to get water in. I confirmed it was not, but once it was sorted we carried on with more success. Once we perfected the art of swimming in flippers, there was no stopping us.

It may be a total cliché, but it really is a different world down there. The glassy surface of the water obscures a calm and tranquil expanse of the clearest blue. Even though at first we were not near any rocks or coral, we immediately started to spot fish. They gleamed in a wonderful array of stripes, spots and jewel-like colours. Surprisingly most of them did not object to our presence, simply carrying on about their business, only streaking away if we got too close. It was addictive, and by the time we undignifiedly emerged on the beach in our cumbersome flippers, we had been in there over an hour.


We decided to take a break for lunch, and headed back to our cabin for a quick pit stop. By the time we had finished with this the tide was all the way in, covering most of the rocks on our part of the beach. A local told me that the snorkelling on this part of the beach was excellent, going on to tell me that if I was “lucky”, I might see a shark. My definition of lucky evidently differed from his, so I asked him how big they were. He paused, then stretched out his arms as far as possible. He assured me that they had never attacked a person, and that they would probably be scared of us and disappear pretty quickly. Whilst this slightly assuaged my fears, I wasn't sure if I was entirely convinced...

In the end, it turned out he was right about the snorkelling. Thankfully the shark predictions did not come to fruition, and we saw nothing more threatening than what might have been a sea snake. Whilst these are venomous apparently they are not aggressive, and we have been told that they have badly positioned teeth which make biting anything other than a small fish rather difficult. We saw plenty of colourful fish, including several species that we had not spotted at the other end of the beach. Sadly our GoPro didn't seem too keen on focusing on small objects underwater, so most of the photos are of ourselves. Apologies for that!


It had been an incredible day, but it came at a price for me. Having taken care to wear a t-shirt to protect from the sun, and dutifully having sun creamed what I thought were all relevant bits, it turned out I had underestimated the power of the rays on the water. Of course with the benefit of hindsight it seems rather obvious that the backs of my legs would be so exposed, and I ended up with proper sunburn for the first time on the trip. Oli was fine, but I was definitely feeling annoyed and a little sorry for myself. Luckily, the evening looked up, as we ended up getting chatting to two of the other guests staying at our place. We got dinner together and enjoyed a few beers back at home (well, one beer for Oli and I, several for the others).


The next day I skipped the sea, wanting to avoid further sun burn. We filled our day with a tough regime of reading on our porch, pottering down to the other end of the beach for lunch, and watching some of the island's many giant monitor lizards. We had glimpsed a few of these from a distance whilst in Malacca, but the specimens we have seen here are enormous. They mainly hang out in the small river by the beach, and they seem to be thriving. We found them fascinating, as it was almost like seeing mini dinosaurs roaming around. Keeping the wildlife varied, the island also houses plenty of monkeys. They usually make themselves scarce, but as we stood watching the monitors we saw a few cheeky ones playing on the roof of a restaurant. We were quite pleased to be able to get a monkey and a (small) monitor lizard in one frame of a photo.


After our spot of nature watching we came back to our beach to watch the sunset, joined by one of the resident cats. At first it seemed it would be nothing special, but as the sun dipped below the horizon, it completely changed. With surprising rapidity the colours shifted to become more vivid versions of their former selves. Everything was lit with the most vibrant shade of gold, which coloured the vast sweeps of cloud exquisitely. Slowly the gold faded and gave way to reds, blues and purples, eventually disappearing into the darkening sky. We have seen some incredible sunsets on this trip, but this may have been the best yet.


We finished the day off with a trip to a BBQ restaurant, the same one in fact that we had seen the monkeys at earlier. Oli had heard that the steak was awesome, and I was pleased to see that they had plenty for vegetarians. It ended up being a brilliant meal, and even though Oli had eaten an enormous hunk of beef it was not too expensive. We went for a little stroll afterwards to walk it off, and I ended up buying some funky Aztec leggings, thinking they would provide good sun protection for further snorkelling adventures.

Armed with my embarrassing leg wear, we were eager to get back in the water the next morning. The visibility wasn't quite as great as our first day, but it was still pretty awesome. We ended up spotting fish that we hadn't seen before, including a group of them that seemed to shimmer in a rainbow of pinks, purples, blues and greens. Regardless of any waves on the surface, below always seems to be tranquil, calm and quiet. Watching groups of fish happily and slowly grazing at the rocks was incredibly relaxing, but we always got excited whenever we spotted colourful individuals darting about. Despite my irrational shark fear, we can both really appreciate how people get addicted to diving, as a way to visit this underwater world.


The sunset that night was rather nice, but nothing like as spectacular as the previous evening's effort. We ended up going for food with Steve (one of the other people staying at our guest house), and ate the most delicious potato and egg curry. It may sound like an odd combination, but it really was a winner. It was so good, that we have actually ended up going there twice more to sample it further. We finished the day off with what was becoming a traditional beer back home. The takeaway beer shack is somewhat of an institution on Tioman, with the guy running it being a bit of a legend.


Today is our last in Tioman before having to head back to Malacca to pick up a forgotten bag. The last two days have been not so great weather wise, but brilliant in every other sense. We haven't done much other than sit on our porch, watch the sea, eat good food, and socialise with the other guys staying at Ella's. Chris and Steve set off this morning, so our social life here is now limited to a very sweet and friendly (although slightly demanding) cat. Oli has definitely bonded with this creature, and it always seems very happy to jump on his lap and crash out. Attempts to remove it sometimes involve claws digging into his clothes, but otherwise it is a docile little thing. We did have a slightly worrying, but comical, moment this morning, where the little cat had gone up a coconut palm in pursuit of an enormous squirrel, but not quite thought about getting down. Thankfully it made it down safely, as there is definitely no fire department out here to come and rescue it!


If Malaysia feels like a holiday from travelling, then Tioman goes one further and provides a holiday from Malaysia. Things are so relaxing and laid back here that we can totally understand how people come for a few days and end up staying for weeks. It is the perfect tropical island setting, with azure seas, green mountains and surprisingly little development. One traveller we spoke to told us that he has been coming here for twenty years, and that Salang is not much changed. We take this to be a good thing, as we love its island charm. Tioman does have some super fancy resorts on some of its other beaches, but we actually loved our basic place. Somehow our rustic hut gave us more of an authentic beach feel, and lent an unpretentious and enjoyable atmosphere. I'm not going to lie though, we are both very much looking forward to a hot shower tomorrow.


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Malacca. Presented by Mr. Potato

Our journey from KL to Malacca was punctuated by a stop at the mechanics to get our tyre fitted and an oil change done. Getting there with the tyre balanced between us was an interesting experience, but luckily we made it there in one piece and without dropping our precious cargo. Oli hates letting anyone else work on the bike, but managed to keep his nervous glances and progress checks to a respectful minimum. Once it was completed, we popped next door to the nasi kandar, scoffed down a good lunch, and hit the road.

Almost as soon as we left the city, we realised we were heading straight towards what looked like a massive rain storm. The clouds were so dark they took on an almost brown tinge. Due to the heat we have abandoned our normal motorcycle trousers (which are waterproof) in the bottom of the pannier, and have instead been wearing our Draggin jeans. Whilst these are great for beating high temperatures, they are somewhat lacking on the weather proof front. Hoping we would be lucky, we pressed on.

Miraculously we made it the majority of the way before the sky finally broke and the heavens opened. Motorway spray is no fun at the best of times, but the exciting style of Malaysian driving made it more so. The roads here are actually excellent, easily as good as what you would expect to find in Western Europe. However, the driving is pretty terrible, with many people driving thoughtlessly and selfishly – a dangerous combination when translated to high speeds. Interestingly, despite the spray rendering the visibility decidedly poor, most drivers saw no need to stick their headlights on. Thankfully we didn't have to cope for long with this, as we were soon turning off the highway and heading in to town.

The rain continued to patter down, further slowing the already busy traffic. As we approached the outskirts, we spotted a few cars stopped on the side of the road. As we passed, we noticed that they were attending to an injured man, who appeared to have come off his scooter. We stopped to see if there was anything we could do, as we are carrying a pretty hefty first aid kit. Fortunately the ambulance was already on its way, but the guy was clearly in a lot of pain. We were sure his injuries weren't life threatening, but they did look bad, and there was a lot of blood. It was a sober advert for safety equipment, as with a full-face helmet, gloves, proper shoes, knee protection and a jacket he probably wouldn't have suffered a scratch. Hopefully he will be ok. The people looking after him assured us there was nothing we could do, and as help was coming we got back on the bike and got out of the way.

After settling in to our hostel (River One Guesthouse) we decided to take advantage of the free tea and coffee on offer, as the rain had not yet abated. Eventually however our stomachs dictated that it was time to go in search of food, conveniently just as the weather dried up. The place we ate at offered incredible curries and softly delectable nan breads at a bargain cost. Oli's favourite however was the tandoori chicken, although the portion was definitely more for two people than one. Nevertheless, he bravely took one for the team and ate the lot.

Energised by our meal and needing to walk it off, we went to explore the streets. Our hostel was located in the historic old town, which made our wander very pleasant. Architecture wise Malacca is not dissimilar to Ipoh, with picturesque old Chinese style shop houses lining the narrow roads. However, Malacca is a UNESCO world heritage site, and hence has a bit more of a polished edge to it. Although it has clearly had a good lick of paint and is lovingly maintained, the place is far from sterile. Our evening walk provided a tantalising glimpse of the city, and we were very much looking forward to exploring further the next day.


Malacca is a city with a rich history. As with many places in this part of the world, it fell under the eye of greedy Europeans eager to enrich themselves through trade. Thus, its colonial era begun in 1511, when it was captured by the Portuguese. This backfired on them somewhat, as rather than allowing them to gain the upper hand in Asian trade, it actually caused widespread disruption to existing networks. Not exactly a great result. Eventually the Dutch decided to take it for themselves in 1641, but were not particularly interested in developing it as a trade point. In 1824 they swapped it with the British, in exchange for Bencoolen in Sumatra, which seems to be the kind of high-handed deal that Europeans specialised in at the time.

Today Malacca retains a distinct Malaysian feel, but with vestiges to its past obviously apparent. We loved the quiet streets, which kept a feel of discovery despite the high numbers of tourists. We spent hours pottering around, admiring the shop fronts and noticing pretty details such as elaborate tiles everywhere. We didn't have the greatest weather for our visit, but somehow the heavy cloud added to the atmosphere, moodily setting off the colourful buildings.


We took it slow on our first day, mainly just aimlessly but happily walking around. We also spent a fair bit of time at our hostel, which turned out to be a great place. It was run by an interesting guy (Ozzy), who we enjoyed chatting to. Whilst talking on the porch by the riverside, he pointed down through the cracks in the boards. Chilling out just a few centimetres below us was an enormous water monitor lizard. This was a particularly big one; on average they grow to around two metres, and usually weigh around 20kg. They are fairly common in Malaysia, but we weren't expecting to see them in an urban environment!

When we were done admiring large reptiles, we stood on the riverside chatting away. A local man rode past on a scooter, stopping to ask us where we were from. Ozzy replied that he was from Iceland, and Oli and I said we were English. The guy then laughed and looked confused, telling us we were all too short to be European, as he thought they were all massive. He jumped off the bike and compared his height to Oli's. Oli was about half an inch shorter, which amused him greatly. He got back on his scooter and trundled off again down the river, chuckling merrily to himself.  I've never thought of us as short enough to attract ridicule before, but there you are. We didn't mind though, as we're always happy to amuse people.

After going out for another short potter around the town, we came back to our hostel for a barely earned cup of tea. Some new guests had arrived, who turned out to be from Stevenage, not far from where my Grandma lives. We quickly got talking, and were excited to hear that they were on the first few days of a nine month trip. Mark and Emma were a lovely couple, and we ended up going out for dinner together that evening. Oli was keen to share the joy of the tandoori chicken, which seemed to go down very well indeed.


The next morning we decided to do some proper sightseeing. Perhaps Malacca's best known landmark is the Christ Church. We couldn't really visit the town without paying it a visit. Bizarrely the square outside of it served as the base for numerous colourful tri-shaws, sort of like pedal-powered tuk-tuks. These were garishly decked out in fake flowers, set off with boom-boxes that blasted out tunes whenever they were driving customers around. We managed to fend off the many offers of tours, and went to take a closer look at the church. We were surprised to notice on the plaque outside that the name of the bishop was rather familiar, being shared with a good friend of ours from Manchester. Whilst the interior of the church is nothing special (at least to ignoramuses such as ourselves), the outside is rather iconic, so it was definitely worth dropping by.


The weather that day was hot and humid, with the rain not quite managing to make an appearance. It was the first time for a few days that the heat had made us feel genuinely uncomfortable, and even standing still outside was enough activity to work up a pouring sweat. With this in mind we decided we had done quite enough sightseeing for one day, and instead resumed wanderings, punctuated with cendol and some excellent food.

By no means do I intend to list everything we ate (I think the only person who would find that interesting would be my dear sister, Georgina), but the banana leaf place is definitely worth a mention. Here the rice is served on an actual banana leaf, and comes with three different curries, a salad, and lots of poppadoms by way of accompaniment. The best part of this is that it is served by a team of waiters in a seamless operation. First one guy brings the empty leaf, then another serves the rice. Quickly he is joined by the man with the curries, efficiently ladling out a portion of each. Another waiter then arrives with a tub full of poppadoms, adding a generous sprinkle, before the finishing touch is provided by a final waiter, who adds a drizzle of masala sauce onto the rice. As a bonus, the food was awesome, and the cost was just under £1 each. Sadly I can't remember the name of the place, but it was just over the road from the Discovery Cafe, with a green sign. Anyone going to Malacca should go here!

It had been a lovely couple of days in Malacca, as it really is a pleasant place to spend time in. However, I feel we cannot write this post up without mentioning a major fly in the ointment. Considering that this is a UNESCO world heritage site, we were astounded to see that somebody has actually allowed Mr. Potato (a crisp company, think knock-off Pringles) to sort of sponsor it. Anyone who can allow the below (see photos) to happen to such a beautiful place surely should not be in charge of anything at all. Even the lanterns that were so atmospheric at first glance had fake tubes of crisps hanging between them. Thankfully it wasn't all over the town, but there were enough billboards, archways and posters to constitute eyesores. Our problem wasn't that they had donated money to the town, but the utterly tasteless way their name was plastered all over everything. Really, what was everyone involved thinking?


All this aside, it is actually still a great city. Slightly annoyingly, we managed to leave a bag at the hostel, which happens to contain my phone and card reader. It's not the end of the world though, as we really enjoyed our time there, and are actually quite pleased that we have a reason to go back. We are now on Tioman island, enjoying the beach life. We will write that up as a separate post though. Stay tuned!