Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Highlands and Islands - Back to Penang

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Due to the tides, the first boat leaving Tioman wasn't listed until 1 p.m., meaning there was no need to rush. We enjoyed the luxury of a very slow start, sitting on our porch with the cat until it was time to wander down to the jetty. Knowing that the Tioman ferry times can vary from the schedule, we had double checked at the info counter the day before. The lady there had confirmed that the ferry was indeed at one, but we had seen on a board at a restaurant that it was listed at 12:30. We decided to play it safe and get there early.

It was a good thing we did. When we arrived at the jetty it was already busy, and the boat was already waiting. After hanging around for a short while everyone was invited to pile on. Oli and I settled into our seats, wondering whether it was indeed going to set off at the earlier time. Surprisingly it did actually leave at 12:30, leaving us feeling very smug that we had spotted that sign!

It was an easy crossing, and the time passed quickly. As we approached the Mersing jetty, the majority of the people on board leapt out of their seats and started twitchily trying to barge their way towards the door. Usually Oli and I would have stayed well out of this scrum and waited until the end, but unfortunately Oli's bladder was in urgent need of an emptying. With this in mind, Oli was perturbed to find that all those people that had been in such a desperate hurry to get off the boat  were in no rush once they had actually disembarked. They proceeded to wander along at a dithering snail pace, frequently pausing and blocking the narrow walkway entirely. Thankfully though we managed to negotiate the crowds, and disaster was averted. Phew.

The car park attendant was not in the least bothered about collecting the fee for the additional two nights we had stayed, which was nice of him. After a quick pit stop and a nasi kandar lunch we were ready to get back on the road. It was a four hour drive to Malacca, and we were keen to get there before dark. Biking in the dark is never a good thing, and the golden rule of never driving at night is one that we try our best to rigorously stick to.

Luckily the traffic was okay for most of the journey, but the lack of highway for half of it created its own interesting dramas. Whilst overtaking a lorry, we were shocked to see it suddenly swing out into the road (obviously without a glance in the wing mirror) without warning, almost taking us out. It was the scariest thing to happen to us on the road for a long time, and Oli was furious with the driver. They did offer a wave of apology, but we still decided to pull over to the side of the road for a breather and to calm down. Considering how developed Malaysia is as a country, the driving here is shocking. We're not talking Laos or Cambodia bad, but there is a lot more traffic on the road and it moves a lot faster, making people's mistakes or carelessness a lot scarier. Still, we suppose it is good practice for when we arrive in Indonesia in a few days.

After negotiating more drivers with wing mirror phobias as we entered Malacca, we eventually arrived back at our hostel. It was nice to see the owners again, and it felt a bit like going home, albeit only for one night. Arriving back at somewhere familiar is quite a rare feeling for us these days. Usually we love arriving somewhere new, but for once it was great to just know the way around and where was good to eat with no effort required. We went back to one of our haunts from the first trip, and had a tasty dinner of curry and nan. Despite the Mr. Potato branding Malacca really is quite a special place, and we were actually delighted that the forgotten bag gave us a chance to return there.

From Malacca we were headed up to the Cameron Highlands for a couple of days. Once we got off the highway the route became much more interesting. The road wound its way up through the hills, becoming rather narrow as it climbed. The sharp bends seemed to provide an interesting challenge to the local drivers, and I would guess the average speed at which they negotiated the curves to be under 20 mph. To be fair though most of the roads in Malaysia are excellent, straight highway, so most people wouldn't need to negotiate mountain roads often. Luckily being on a motorcycle means it is relatively easy for us to overtake, so we made good time regardless, enjoying the beautiful views over the hills. Just outside of Tanah Rata, the road took us past one of the many beautiful tea plantations dotted through the area. Needing a break we stopped to admire it, looking forward to exploring further the next day.

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After settling in to our hostel and enjoying a far too large (but awesome) nasi kandar dinner, we checked our emails to find a message from a fellow overlander. Ben is doing the same trip as us, and is also riding an Africa Twin in the same colours as ours. We quickly messaged him back, and keenly agreed to meet at the bike in ten minutes. He turned out to be a lovely guy, and we had a great evening chatting about our experiences on our trips so far. Unlike us, Ben had got his Pakistani visa with no problems. Aside from not being allowed to leave his Quetta hotel for four days (due to security problems), Pakistan sounded absolutely amazing. This has made Oli and I even more determined to return to that area in a few years, as it would also be a handy excuse to visit Iran again.

The next morning we were up and eager to explore the Cameron Highlands. The area is famous for its (relatively) cool weather, tea plantations, and strawberry farms. Already appreciating the first item on that list, we decided to go and check out some examples of the other two. Sadly the traffic did not provide the greatest introduction. To get to our destination it was necessary to negotiate the small town of Brinchang, just a short distance from where we were staying. To say the traffic was ridiculous is a huge understatement. The tailbacks started a few kilometres outside of it, barely easing once we had passed through. Even with the bike allowing easier overtakes it still took forever to crawl along the road, and was definitely an exercise in patience.

Once we turned off the main road, we could finally appreciate the real beauty of this area. As everything we planned to see that day was on this minor route, we decided to start by heading all the way to the top of the mountain. The road was narrow, twisty and of varying quality, so we were glad we didn't meet much traffic coming the other way. It was light work for our wonderful bike, and we easily pulled up the steep slope. Also, nothing makes you appreciate the Africa Twin like watching two ladies struggle up a near perpendicular hill on a 125cc scooter. Impressively however, they did make it. We gave them a cheer when they finally arrived at the top.

At the peak of the hill lies a wooden walkway, providing an easy way to get a look at the dense forest. Admittedly it takes away from the wilderness aspect, but it was still an enjoyable little stroll. We wandered through the forest, on the look out for the Rafflesia Arnoldii flower. This is the largest flower in the world, so should be easy to spot. Sadly however we couldn't see any examples of it, as it is apparently rather rare and not easy to locate for the uninitiated. Although giant flowers were lacking, the mossy trees and quiet forest provided a peaceful atmosphere. We even managed to catch a nice view before the fog rolled in across the mountains.

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Following our decidedly untaxing walk, we headed back down the hill. About half way down we spotted a strawberry farm. This place offered pick-your-own fruit, which seemed a temptingly British activity. We eagerly took our baskets, and were led over to the rows of strawberries. Unfortunately it didn't turn out to be as relaxing and enjoyable as we anticipated. Rather than being left to our own devices, the attendant insisted on taking a load of horrendously cheesy photos, all of which played on the apparently hilarious concept of making the berries appear to be giant. In true English style we awkwardly went along with it to keep him happy. However, he then started telling us that  they get a lot of rich tourists from Singapore and Europe that give him money for this service. We were a bit taken aback, and told him it would have been polite to say he wanted money first. He was after the equivalent of £5, which seemed pretty steep. We appreciate that we relatively are richer, but nobody likes being treated like a walking cash machine, especially when the well-off looking Malay visitors were not getting the same treatment. We felt a bit mean but the way it was done really annoyed us, so we just bought a few strawberries and got out of there. Here is a sample photo:

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Leaving the strawberry farm behind, we continued on our way back down the mountain. The road wound its way through part of the BOH tea plantation, which seems to stretch for miles. I have said it before in a previous post but tea really is one of the most visually pleasing crops in existence. The vivid green rows highlighted the contours of the landscape beautifully. The vistas stretched out before us were stunning, calling for several photo stops although we only covered a relatively short distance.

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Once we arrived at the plantation itself, we decided we had earned a brew. It doesn't get much more local than this, as their tea is both picked and processed on-site. To be honest it tasted like pretty much any other normal cup of tea, but the beautiful setting made it totally worthwhile. We were too late for the factory tour, but weren't too bothered by this. Somehow it was  nicer to ignorantly imagine that the process was non-industrial, far more in keeping with the grand setting!

Leaving the plantation took us a while, as we kept stopping to photograph the jewel green hills. Even though it was incredibly busy with tourists it still just about managed to hang on to a tranquil air. Apologies for all the pictures, we just loved the way the rows of tea enhanced the already spectacular landscape.

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The drive back was still horrendously traffic clogged, although fortunately it was better than the morning. The Cameron Highlands area is a strange place. The jury is still out as to whether we liked them. On the plus side, the natural setting is wonderful and the climate provides a very welcome respite from the intense Malaysia heat. However, the place has been partially ruined by terrible traffic, cheesy 'attractions' and stall after stall selling tacky crap (think neon, giant strawberry pillows). Admittedly we did not have much time in the area, and undoubtedly a more peaceful experience can be had if one deviates from the popular parts. However, it was definitely not the tranquil retreat we had imagined it to be.

Back in Tanah Rata we met up with Ben for dinner. We took him along to our favourite nasi kandar, as we were keen to try some of the delicious looking nan breads that had been appearing from the tandoor the night before. The elderly owner of the place was extremely tickled that we had brought a friend along, and spent a while chuckling to himself, popping over frequently to see how we were doing. The food was excellent and cheap. If we had happened to be staying a third night, we would undoubtedly have ended up there again!

The next day we were headed back to Penang. Once we successfully negotiated the horrific Brinchang weekend traffic, we eventually found ourselves on a wonderful stretch of road. Thankfully most people don't seem to venture much further than the village past there, so it was relatively quiet and the traffic could flow freely. Sadly the hills and valleys were cloaked in a heavy mist, so what may well have been stunning views were totally obscured. However, as we worked our way downwards it did clear slightly, and we could see dense, untouched jungle, punctuated by rising columns of mist. The more remote parts of the highlands seem to be the best ones, so perhaps it is worth a return visit after all.

Once we hit the highway, the weather was starting to look threatening. Ominous grey clouds blanketed the horizon. Our hopes that we would somehow avoid it were futile, and what started as a light rain quickly morphed into a downpour. We were wearing our Draggin' jeans, and despite Oli's waterproof over-trousers we were soaked in no time at all. Whilst our boots were initially holding up well, passing lorries in the flood-water was an experience not dissimilar to having a bucket of water chucked at us, so the rain quickly ran and soaked our feet. We also had to negotiate some rather deep sections of surface water, not brilliant at highway speeds. Eventually the rain did ease, but not before we had the appearance of badly drowned rats. Arriving back at Kean's felt like coming home. We enjoyed a lazy Saturday evening and a very relaxed Sunday, readying ourselves for the busy week ahead.

Monday was planned as a day of bureaucracy; applying for Indonesia visas and sorting out the paperwork for the bike shipment. Finding the Indonesian consulate was not as easy as we anticipated, and we spent a considerable amount of time negotiating one way systems before parking the bike and walking the remainder of the way in the steaming heat. For some reason our GPS is convinced that Malaysians drive on the right (not true), which is not exactly helpful in such situations.

The reward for our efforts was finding the embassy closed due to an Indonesian public holiday, and a sign on the door announced that they would remain shut until the next morning. Brilliant. Thankfully the bike paperwork consisted of merely photocopying the carnet and Oli's passport, so at least that part was easy. The day was finished off with some awesome veggie food, and a beautiful sunset from the roof of the Queensbay mall.

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We woke early on Tuesday, wanting to get our Indonesia visa applications in as early as possible. We were unsure as to how long the process took, and our passports were essential for the planned port visit on Wednesday, so had no time to waste. Sod's law, the weather was against us, with a huge storm breaking twenty minutes before we had planned to leave the house. The rain is always rather heavy in this part of the world, but even by those standards this was torrential. Add thunder and lightning into the mix, and we were not exactly keen to venture out on the bike. After almost an hour it showed little sign of abating, so we realised we would just have to put all our waterproofs on and suck it up.

Fortunately it did start to ease a little shortly after we got on the road, so we didn't receive as bad a drenching as the highlands to Penang drive. Our applications were turned in with minimal fuss, and we were relieved and delighted to be told that we could collect them the following morning. The woman on the reception desk at the embassy definitely deserves a mention. She was unfailingly friendly and polite, even when faced with a horde of customers that seemed unable to queue but very able to ask endless questions. We left the place with fingers crossed, hoping that our applications would run smoothly, as we didn't really have enough days for anything to go wrong.

With not much else to do that day we busied ourselves with a couple of coffee stops, and Oli got his hair cut. We did a lap of the island on some gloriously twisty roads, and sorted out what luggage would be going on the boat with the bike, and what would be coming on the plane with us. The best part of the day however came at the end. Kean took us an amazing seafood restaurant right on the beach. Obviously the seafood aspect was a little wasted on me, but the boys loved it and the veggie selection was also excellent. The place was called Khun Thai, and got a big thumbs up from Oli and I. We would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Penang.

Today we headed to the Indonesian Embassy to pick up our visas. The time pressure was reduced slightly, as due to an engine problem we are now loading the bike tomorrow instead. Our passports were returned to us with 60 day visas all present and correct, so as long as there are no hitches with the boat and the flight we are good to go to Indonesia on Sunday. Now, we just have to get the bike on the boat without panicking about the fact that it will be dangling from a rope during the loading process!

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