Saturday, 22 November 2008

Asia Update #5 - Malaysia, Singapore

Been a few weeks since the last update, since then we've actually moved on from Indonesia - but even after two months we didn't see everything there that we wanted to.

Our last week in Sumatra was spent riding around giant crater lakes, firstly Lake Maninjau which takes almost 3 hours to get around; where Ben stacked his bike good and proper but remains alive; where we got drenched coming home and sheltered in a friendly barber shop. To get down to the lake you need to negotiate the famous 44 hairpin bends, which one local didn't negotiate so well - came off, lost a brake handle, then jumped back up with a grin and rode off. We saw him go off the next hairpin too since he couldn't stop any more.

The second was Lake Toba, where we stayed for a few days on the island on it (the one bigger than Singapore). It was one of the most relaxing places we've been so far, and both want to go back. The accomodation was great and super-cheap ($6 a night?), and we made some good friends: Laurence and Kasia, an English/Polish couple. On a day ride with them and some Spanish girls we suffered dodgy brakes, a flat tire, riding dirt roads downhill in torrential rain, a soak in hot springs (ok not so bad), another flat tire, then a very slow ride home in the rain at night.

We arrived early for our flight to Malaysia, which was then delayed for hours without notice, so after 10 hours at the airport we arrived at our place in KL at 4:30am. I take back everything nice I said about Air Asia. The lady we stayed with had been into couchsurfing only a year, but had already had about 250 people crash at her house. One of the nights we stayed, there was 6 of us sleeping on the floor. One of them was a hardcore Polish guy who had been travelling for almost two years, and had hitchhiked all the way from Poland, including rafting down the Ganges in a tiny canoe.

Malaysia is a bit more civilised than Indonesia (for better or worse) but prices are correspondingly higher. Kuala Lumpur is clean, with good roads and public transportation. We spent most of our time there in museums, mosques, parks, and a whole day in the Petronas twin towers. It's not as pretty a name when you realise it's the headquarters of a multi-national oil giant.

We also visited the Batu Caves just outside of town, which sport a massive gold statue at the base of the stairs leading up to the main cave. Inside the cave is a Hindu temple, and there are various other statues and temples around the complex.

After KL we went two hours south to Melaka, an old trading port which has been colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch, and the English. It's now world heritage listed, and is a great city to walk around, checking out Chinatown, the old forts and ruins, and the refreshing public pool.

From there we continued south to Singapore, where Ben was taken aside for a friendly chat with Customs. An hour later, turns out they'd found the knife he'd been given as a gift by the family in Jakarta. Somehow he escaped without a fine and even managed to get the knife back a few days later.

Anyway we spent a day walking around the city and Chinatown, and a day at the Singapore Zoo, which I'd half-seen before but had been rained out. Well this time we got rained out too but at least I was prepared, and we saw pretty much everything there. Except the white tigers - that exhibit was closed because apparently a few days ago a zoo employee tried to commit suicide by jumping into their enclosure, and succeeded.

From Singapore we took a sleeper train to Ipoh, a few hours north of KL (using "sleeper" in the loosest sense). The train broke down for two and a half hours, and we got to our new place in the Cameron Highlands after almost 24 hours on the move.

So that's where we are now, staying with another great couchsurfer, Nash. It's beautiful and cool up here, with rain every afternoon. We've been to a butterfly farm, tea plantation and a trek in the jungle this afternoon.

Tomorrow we'll head to Penang and Langkawi off the west coast of Malaysia, and then to Thailand at the end of the month. Can't believe we've been here for ten weeks already, it's disappearing too easily.

Until next time...

PS. Happy birthday Matt!

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Asia Update #4 - Java

Sorry, this is going to be a long one, I really should update more often. For those who just want the précis: we finally left Bali, got through Java, and are now in Sumatra. We've passed the 50 day mark, and only have one week left in Indonesia. It's gone really fast, yet somehow it feels like years ago since we were in Bali. Probably quicker to just look at the photos and map.

So just after the last update (from Ubud), we went for another all-day scooter ride around central Bali and all the way up to the north coast. We saw a famous lakeside temple which appears on the 50,000 rupiah note, and monkeys right on the road. About halfway to the coast we had to cross a ridge with crater lakes on it (around Danau Bratan) when it suddenly started to rain. As in, we literally saw the wall of rain hit the road 20 feet in front of us, and a second later we were soaked. Riding along in a wet t-shirt - I never knew it got so cold in Bali! All up we did about 450km in two days, and with averaging about 30km/h, that's a lot of time on a scooter and it sure felt it.

From Ubud we headed back down to Kuta where we stayed for a few nights - figured we had to at least check it out. It was good doing the tourist spot last instead of first though; we didn't look quite so fresh off the plane, and already had an idea what things were worth, could speak some bahasa, etc. Turns out it's actually pretty good, who knew. Bizarrely, the prices for some things (eg food and beer) are the cheapest we'd seen anywhere!

I also decided I'd check out the Bali health care system by coming down with a fever, which they had to test wasn't malaria. Three days of tests and $900 later, turns out I didn't have malaria, dengue or appendicitis, but I did discover that the tourist hospital is actually quite good. Anyway they weren't sure what it was, but I felt better by then, so we hopped on an overnight coach to Java.

We crossed on the ferry at about midnight, and after a surreal 2am meal stop, we were dumped in Probolinggo at 3am to head up to Mount Bromo. It's a smallish volcano which is constantly venting sulphuric gas which as it turns out, is not the best smell ever. From there we took a mini bus halfway across Java to Yogyakarta (aka Jogja). After 20 hours on buses with no sleep, even washing with a bucket looked appealing.

In Jogja we stayed with a couchsurfer girl called Ciluk, saw a huge Hindu temple at Prabanan, met a bunch of funny uni students who took us to the beach, and we ended up hanging out with them for the next few days. It's easier to just look at the photos :)

On the way out of Jogja we visited Borobodur, one of the biggest Buddhist temples around, that was pretty impressive too, but hot. Also we had at least a dozen groups of people come up wanting photos with us, I guess foreigners are still a novelty.

From there we went to Semarang for one night, to stay with our mate Habibi (who we'd met in Bali and again in Lombok), in his university dorms. The next day it was another overnight coach trip to Jakarta where we stayed a few days with one of the girls we'd met in Jogja, at her family's house about an hour from the centre. Jakarta is basically a huge stinky city with open sewers and terrible traffic, and I don't think you could pay me enough to live there.

From JK we flew to Padang, which is halfway up Sumatra - saving ourselves a 30 hour coach ride. The Air Asia flight was surprisingly painless, dare I say pleasant. The check-in and security was faster than home, and the plane was a clean new A320. It was just like flying Jetstar - basic, but nice enough.

On the bus from the airport we met a girl who was an English teacher (and oil baroness in the making), who was really helpful, getting us a hotel and showing us around Padang. She left for her village the next morning and we spent the day exploring the city. They have these amazing public buses and vans driving around that are really done up with artwork, stickers, body work, lighting and sound systems. Most of them are basically crazy mobile discos.

So this morning we took a car to Bukittinggi, 100km north of Padang. There were 9 of us crammed in there and the stupid guy insisted on having his huge subwoofer (which took up most of the boot) cranked to ear-bleeding volume the whole time.

Anyway, there's a huge volcano lake about an hour from here (yes another one), so we'll get some scooters and ride out around it tomorrow. After that we're heading to Lake Toba, which is a crater lake so big, it has an island the size of Singapore inside it! Then to Medan, hang out with orang-utans for a while, until we have to fly to KL on the 8th.

That's all for now folks.