Monthly Archives: August 2012

Week 18: Cameron Highlands & Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

This post is titled Cameron Highlands and Kuala Lumpur, which I will definitely get to, but the real story here is how we got to the former of those two places. The journey to Malaysia from Koh Phangan was the longest and most frustrating (though I’ll admit, hilarious) bit of travelling I’ve done here in Asia. Totaling in at two days, 24 hours of actual travelling, and 10 modes of transportation, it was a doozy.

The trip started well enough when Court and I caught a taxi from our beloved Rainbow Bungalows to Thong Sala Pier to catch a ferry back to the mainland. A 5:30 wakeup call meant that we slept on the ferry, and we got off two hours later feeling somewhat refreshed and ready for our day of travel. But alas, we immediately ran into the first of many hitches. It seems that the bus company we were scheduled to get a lift with into Suratthani had overbooked their services and there was much confusion in which bags were repeatedly loaded on and off various buses until finally being placed on a bus with two lone seats left. Court got a seat near the front and had a great view from which to enjoy our drivers terrifying style of speeding by, weaving through, and dodging both directions of traffic. I ended up stuffed in the last row, crammed behind a washroom (which, unsurprisingly was out of order) with my knees pressed into the wall in front of me. Given this seating position and the way the bus was being driven, I was extremely happy when we reached our destination and realized that wasn’t going to be my last bus ride. Once we arrived in Suratthani we were quickly transferred via school bus to the travel office where we would get our tickets for the next portion of our trip. Grabbed our tickets, some street food, snacks and water, and even a quick bathroom break before we were once again shuttled into a vehicle. This time it was a minibus, my preferred mode of transportation in Asia because of the better temperature, comfortable seats, and seemingly more competent drivers. A major contributing factor to my increased feeling of safety is that when these guys take corners, the whole bus doesn’t feel like it’s in danger of tipping on its side. Our itinerary stated that this bus would take us to Hadyai, where we would transfer yet again to another minibus to take us across the border to Butterworth (a jumping off point for much of Malaysia, and yes, that’s really what it’s called.) We had then planned to stay the night (if we were on schedule, we were supposed to arrive around 7:30, 13 hours after we had started travelling), and then take off in the morning to Ipoh before catching our final bus to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands.

Oh, if things had gone to plan. The last thing that went according to schedule was that we made it to Hadyai, and transferred to a minibus that we thought would take us into Malaysia. After around three hours of driving Court and I were the only ones left in the van, everyone else having gotten dropped off at various stops in the town we thought we were passing through. It was at the point when the driver asked us ‘which hotel?’ that we knew something had gone awry. We were in Satun, Thailand, hours away from where we wanted to be, with the sun going down and two now useless tickets to Butterworth. Now before you start thinking that we were dummies for getting on the bus in Hadyai without even questioning its destination, I would like to assure you we did ask. Three different people. Multiple times. Each. We thought that since we had a sticker saying Butterworth on our shirts, had showed them our Butterworth tickets, and had asked our previous driver, the current driver, and someone else at the bus station to confirm that this minibus was indeed going to Butterworth, that we would end up in Butterworth. Call me crazy! But here we were, stuck in Satun with a driver who barely spoke English (but was oh so friendly.) He quickly picked up his friend, another bus driver (who also barely spoke English) and called our travel company to see what happened. He then put me on the phone just in time to get screamed at by a women at the travel agency in Suratthani, asking me why I got on the wrong bus. After trying to explain that we did ask and were told to get on this bus she yelled some more before abruptly hanging up. Confused, angry, and not sure of what the hell we we’re supposed to do, we looked to our driver for help. He then called his own bus company and handed the phone back. This conversation was much more civilized, but frustrating all the same because of the information that we got out of it. There was no way to get from Satun to Butterworth, our only option was to go back to Hadyai and try and figure out transportation in the morning. Which is how we ended up in our seventh vehicle of the day. Our drivers friend drove us back, but not before stopping so we could get food and have a bathroom break. He even bought us water! Seriously, he was the best driver ever, taking us right to a cheap guesthouse in Hadyai by the train station. We felt a little bad when he stopped on the way to say goodnight to his family, which besides being beyond adorable, made it clear that he wasn’t supposed to be driving tonight, and would be staying in Hadyai instead of spending the night with them.

We awoke the next morning just before 6am so we could run over to the train station just as it opened to check out the schedule. Ended up grabbing two bus tickets to Ipoh instead, which is one stop closer to the highlands than Butterworth. After another couple hours of sleep we wandered to 7-eleven to stock up on snacks and grab breakfast before jumping on the bus. I’ll also make a note here that this glorious day of travelling fell on my 23rd birthday! How else was I supposed to celebrate, but with a Sev toastie for breakfast? Fueled up and filled with renewed hope that we would actually make it to Malaysia today, we caught the first VIP bus to the border and crossed without a hitch. This story is getting a bit drawn out, so I’m going to hurry up the last couple bits. Made it to Ipoh, but with the hour time difference and hour travel delay we were in danger of missing any further transport to Tanah Rata. A lovely women at the travel agency called us a cab to get to the bus station and we headed off with wishful thinking that something would finally happen in our favour. As we walked into the bus station a man asked us where we were going and when we said Cameron Highlands he beckoned us over to the bus and said it was leaving right away. After hastily paying the driver we asked the only other passenger where she was going to confirm the destination. We didn’t want a repeat of Satun. I’m pretty sure the travel agent had called the station and did something, the fact that we made the last bus was ridiculously lucky. And with that, we finally arrived in the Highlands, a mere 34.5 hours after we had left Koh Phangan.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Derek and his friend Christof were waiting at our hostel to surprise me for my birthday, and has been waiting in the room for three hours when they finally decided to venture out and grab some food. Naturally, just as they were heading back to the hostel to resume their camp out, Court and I drive by in the car shuttle we had grabbed. Seeing Derek and not knowing all he had put in to surprise me, I yelled out to window to him. The surprise of him being there was busted, but don’t fret, they had much more up their sleeves for me. Bringing us around to the room, I was greeted with a banana loaf birthday cake, a bottle of my favourite beer, a favourite snack, and some cookies. So overwhelmed with relief that we were finally there, and happiness in how awesome my friends were (and still are, obvs), I didn’t immediately notice that Derek had emptied the Pringles container and places a Malaysian-style Ice inside. My getting ‘iced’ completed the birthday package, and with that done we headed out for a delicious Indian dinner before crashing around the campfire and talking into the wee hours of the morning. One of the best birthdays I’ve had, it certainly topped the last couple of years. Huge shout out and thanks to Derek and Court for putting the whole thing together!

Now that we had finally gotten to the Cameron Highlands, I was time to see the sights. With a higher elevation than the rest of Malaysia, the highlands are distinctly cooler and I found that I was often cold despite wearing long sleeves and pants. Perhaps a taste of what I’ll feel when I come home? Recovering from my late birthday night with a good sleep in, we then decided to explore trail 1- a 1.8k hike that would take us through the jungle. Not feeling great before we started made the hike somewhat challenging, but as expected it was gorgeous and totally worth it at the end. Once we reached the top we found that there was a road to follow down the other side and we decided to follow it home. We walked something like 14k in total including the hike and were very relieved to finally make it home and into a hot shower. A casual day followed before heading to KL as Court and I weren’t super keen to start travelling only one day after our previous bus debacle.

Made it to KL the next day around noon and grabbed the metro to Fernloft KL, a dope little hostel right beside Chinatown. Despite being in a 24 bed dorm, I loved the place. Cheap, clean, quiet, good wifi, free breakfast, and a sick rooftop patio for chilling out. Once we had checked in we decided to walk around Chinatown and try and find some cheap eats. Stumbled across a food court with all kinds of stalls and settled in with an amazing meal of fried rice, stir fried chicken, and some green vegetables similar to boy choy… All for under $3! Stuffed to the brim, we decided that a matinee show at the Petronas Towers would be the perfect way to spend our first afternoon and we immediately grabbed the metro there. Hearing all the hype, we had to check out The Dark Knight Rises, and hoo man, it did not disappoint. Also, that mall is epic. Every store I would ever want to spend money in and the best snacks ever- Auntie Annes Pretzels was my personal fave. Had a quick stop after the show to check out the towers at night, something Court and I didn’t get to see during our brief layover here in July. They were all the more breathtaking lit up against the dark sky, I’m really glad I had the chance to see them in all their glory. Back at the hostel we met up with our German friends from Koh Tao for a night of debauchery and happily ended the evening with a trip to McDonalds. Spent the next day recovering from our fun night by heading to another impressive mall, Pavillion, and catching Ice Age 4. Animated movies are the perfect hangover cure, especially when watching them with greasy snacks in an air conditioned theatre. Took the scenic route home and chilled out for the rest of the evening. All set to fly out the next night, we decided to make a quick trip out to the Batu Caves, a place of Hindu worship. They were pretty impressive, if not very touristy. The monkeys, and especially the tourists interacting with the monkeys were particularly enjoyable. Another excellent meal at our favourite Chinese food court stall and it was time to say goodbye to Malaysia.

Next stop, Indonesia!

Ps. Again with the slow wifi, please check out Facebook here for pictures!

Pps. My apologies for the never ending travel story/rant at the beginning. I’m starting to think its not as entertaining as I thought and that maybe you had to be there to understand the ridiculousness of it.

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Weeks 12, 13, 15, 16 & 17: The Thai Islands

The five weeks I spent flitting between Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui (with a break to Borneo in the middle) were among my best on this whole trip. Each island has its own unique vibe and signature, though they all embody the quintessential beach lifestyle prominent in Thailand. Due to some good timing and a new travel buddy’s arrival (hey Court!), I was lucky enough to begin and end my time on the islands on Koh Phangan, attending not one, but two full moon parties. These wild nights were broken up by a relaxing stint on Samui and two glorious weeks on Koh Tao, which has definitely claimed the title of my favourite island. Check out all the deets below!

For the majority of my trip, the tried and true method for finding accommodation was to get to the new city and start asking around for a good place, often walking for a bit and getting rates from a few places before picking one to settle on (tip: ALWAYS ask to see the room beforehand!). Having said that, the week of full moon requires that you book something in advance; the increased stream of travellers heading to the island makes affordable accommodation few and far between. Derek and I lucked out big time the first time we went and booked into Phangan Rainbow Bungalows on a recommendation from friends. I since booked back there for full moon round II in August, and would highly, highly recommend the place to anyone else coming to Koh Phangan. Set in Baan Kai, these bungalows are far enough away from the main beach that you can get a good nights sleep and not worry about potential theft (which is pretty common on the night of full moon), but are only a quick taxi ride away from the heart of the party, Haad Rin. Run by an Aussie named Martin and his wife Noy, Rainbow is a great place to meet people, relax on the beach, and consume massive amounts of food. Seriously, the food. From western to Thai, everything I tried was beyond amazing. Particular favorites were the bruschetta, no name vegetable, and any of the curries. Come to the island just for the food at this place.

Now that I got that gush-fest off my chest, here’s what I actually got up to on Phangan. Known primarily as the party island, Koh Phangan never disappoints in this regard. In addition to the world famous full moon party (more on that in a sec), theres also a monthly half moon party, almost nightly pool parties, and there’s always something going on on Haad Rin beach. It’s pretty easy to fall into a pattern including copious amounts of beach, sun, buckets and dancing, though in different levels depending how much fun you had the night before. The Coral Bungalows pool party is not to be missed, but be extra careful while you’re there- it’s pretty easy to get hurt when a hundred drunk people are pushing each other into a pool all night. As another note, don’t go out too aggressively the night before full moon, it may leave you unable to fully (pun!) enjoy the epicness that is this party. I was dumb enough not to follow this cardinal rule, and though I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the pool party, I’ve never in my life been so hungover than I was for the July full moon (which also happened to be Derek’s birthday!). Still got painted up, still wore fluorescent clothing, still went to the beach, but most unfortunately, was not able to consume any alcohol (and I really did try). As I mentioned before, I was able to redeem myself in August when I attended to party with full gusto, but all the same it was pretty interesting to watch the happenings with sober eyes. First, I cannot believe how crowded that beach was! Everywhere you looked you were assaulted with neon clothing, paint, and glow stick bracelets. With the music pumping at full blast, the way these masses of people were dancing was contagious, if not a little comical. As an attempt to keep the beach clean through the night, garbage cans can be found every 10 or so feet, and even funnier, a sectioned off ‘sleeping area’ exists to contain partiers in need of a quick pick-me-up nap. At 4:30 am I decided to admit defeat and headed back to Rainbow for an early bedtime (by full moon standards at least), but found myself unable to sleep due to the energy drinks I had consumed in lieu of alcohol. Unsurprisingly, much of the next day was spent napping and recovering- Derek had made it to sunrise and was in desperate need of a good rest as well.

After six days in party paradise, it was time to move on. The week following full moon is the busiest time to head to Koh Tao, so I decided to take to less travelled route and grabbed a boat to Koh Samui for some serious relaxing. Koh Samui is known as the resort island, and true to form that’s what covers most of its coastline. I stayed at the charming Weekender Villa Guesthouse, which is not to be confused for Weekender Villa Resort, the former being almost budget friendly and the latter costing more than triple my daily budget per night. Run by another Aussie (this one named Tony), Weekender was the closest I got to luxury on this trip. In this case, luxury meant a private air-conditioned room steps away from an ocean-side pool- it was simple, but certainly a nice change from the fan rooms with shared bathrooms that I experienced most of my trip. As for what I did while staying there, there’s not a lot to say beyond suntanning, reading, watching movies, and recovering from the madness of Koh Phangan. It was a lovely place to chill out, but because of the resort-centered draw, I didn’t meet any backpackers (let alone someone my age) and was actually happy to be moving on at the end of the four days.

After a quick trip to Borneo (see the last post for that story) Court and I headed to Koh Tao for two weeks of diving, sun, hiking, and various other antics. We decided to complete our SSI open water certification with Big Blue Dive Resort on Sairee beach and jumped into it right away, attending our first class the day we arrived. A nice bonus of doing any diving on the island (esp any certification) is that most resorts include free accommodation in the deal and we were lucky enough to score a sick room of our own for five days. Now for the good part: diving!

Learning to dive was like nothing I’ve ever done before and I was surprised by how intimidated I was at first. I mean, it sounded amazing and I was really excited for it, but the first time we submerged in the pool for 20 minutes I really had to focus on staying calm and breathing. Maybe it’s because it’s been such a long time since I’ve had to learn a new skill in an unfamiliar environment? Or because as a perpetual nose-breather I had a hard time adjusting to using the respirator under water? Oh, and then there’s my completely irrational (but never ending) fear of sharks. Either way, it was an exhilarating, if not slightly daunting feeling knowing that by heading out into the open water I would definitely be pushing my comfort zone. As it turned out, the scariest part of the day was when we had to swim around the dive boat to prove that we were capable of swimming 200m, and it was my only ridiculous phobia that caused that moment of panic. Probably didn’t help that I had watched a bunch of shark week vids the day before… But! Despite wearing neon (I heard once that sharks may be more curious and attack if they see neon… most likely false) I did not get attacked, and we quickly suited up to begin our first dive! Once submerged, it became so peaceful and beautiful that there wasn’t really room to be nervous anymore. The rhythm of each inhale combined with the breath taking coral acted as the perfect relaxant, and after equalizing my ears and achieving neutral buoyancy, we were off. One of the coolest things we got to see was a giant green sea turtle, but it would be a very long (probably boring) list if I were to tell you everything that we saw on our four dives. Needless to say, it was epic. And as a side note, I’d highly recommend diving with Big Blue, especially if you get lucky enough to get Luke as your instructor. He scowled when Court and I were acting dumb, but we know he really loved us.

Another great thing about doing our diving right off the bat was it gave us the perfect opportunity to meet some dope people (Anton, Matty, Sam, Jim, Kelsey and Laura), which unsurprisingly made for some ridiculously fun nights. Koh Tao is home to a long running pub crawl out of Choppers Bar, and I’d be lying if I said Court and I only went once. It’s that fun. Plus you get a discount on your second time, what can’t say? Great times were had by all and even better times were had at breakfast the next morning, reminiscing/remembering the previous nights shenanigans. Other than a few nights of pub crawls/related fun, we spent most of our time lounging on the epic beach, hiking around the island (though Court did much more of this than I did), finding some amazing restaurants, and relaxing in a big way. We also did an all day snorkeling trip around the island, where, get this, I swam with sharks!! Take that shark phobia! To be fair, they were black tipped reef sharks, I only saw them for a second, and I’m still terrified of shark attacks, but it was pretty badass nonetheless. To top it off, our guide for the day, Mark, was such a ridiculous person that we were laughing most of the day. Case in point: before heading to shark bay he asked everyone on board if anyone way afraid of sharks. A couple people put up their hands and he immediately replied with ‘Good! You should be!’ and a throw-your-head-back laugh that I normally associate with crazy people in movies. Guy was hysterical.

After the utter joy that was Koh Tao, Court and headed back to Koh Phangan (and Rainbow Bungalows!) for full moon round II. Not wanting to make the same mistake as last time, I planned my nights out carefully and thankfully only ending up going out once before the full moon. Made some excellent friends at Rainbow (Sammy and Elan from Montreal) and reunited with some from Koh Tao to make a solid crew for out big night out. Started off by trekking to the girls bungalows- they weren’t that far away, but as anyone who’s taken a cab ride from Baan Kai to Haad Rin will tell you, those roads are steep. Arrived armed with fluorescent paint and a giant bucket, we set about creating a ‘sangsom punch bowl’ and various masterpieces on each other. I think Sammy won with his version of a skeleton on Court’s hand… Though she wasn’t impressed. Decked to the nines and with most (if not all) of our revolting punch gone it was time for cabs and the ridiculousness that is full moon. Unsurprisingly, an epic night followed. Surprisingly, we all survived said epic night and made it to sunrise together! After some serious hydration and possibly the worst drunk food I’ve ever had, Court, Sammy, √Član, and I headed back to Rainbow. But it wasn’t bedtime yet! Still buzzing from the buckets and on an endorphin high we decided the logical thing to do would be to grab some Changs, head out to the sandbar, and create hilarious perspective pictures and videos. Can’t decide what I enjoyed more: that morning or the full moon party itself, both were seriously so fun. But like all good things, this too came to an end and we all crashed sometime around 11 that morning. A fitful day of half-sleep, sweating, greasy food, and copious amounts of water followed.

And with that, I bid adieu to Koh Phangan and the Thai islands for the last time (on this trip, at least!) and headed off to Malaysia. Quite the story coming up there!

Ps. The wifi is not quite up to picture loading where I am right now, so you can check out my Facebook album here for some visuals!

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Week 14: Kuching, Malaysia (Borneo)

My trip to Borneo was definitely the most spontaneous thing I’ve done during these months of travel, and proved to be one of the most entertaining, if not the most ridiculous experience so far. It all began when Courtney posted a link for the Rainforest World Music Festival on a friends Facebook page where I happened across it shortly afterward. After doing some extensive research (five minutes on the website) I was convinced that we should try and make it to Borneo for some jungle beats. Luckily, the festival started a mere four days from that point, so with some quick skyping and some frantic flight booking we were all set.

Seeing as we booked with Air Asia, we chose to travel with small carry-on baggage to avoid the ridiculous checked baggage fee. While Court was able to leave her big pack in Koh Tao with Derek (we were heading there after Borneo) I was coming from Koh Samui and had to figure something out in Suratthani (where we were flying out of). Lucky for me, I decided to stay the night at Serene Guesthouse, home of the nicest staff ever. In addition to getting me a cab to the airport, they also arranged for the cabbie to hold my backpack at his office at the airport and have it there waiting for me when I arrived back five days later. Perhaps a little sketchy sounding, but I had all of my important stuff with me, and as I said, the people who arranged it all were so nice. Worked out splendidly in the end, too.

Another bonus (?) of travelling Air Asia is that to get to many destinations you actually have to book two connecting flights, in this case Suratthani to Kuala Lumpur and then KL to Kuching. We purposely scheduled our connections eight hours apart so we would have time to head into town and check out KL’s famous Petronas Towers. Took around two hours once we figured out the bus and metro system, but totally worth it! I was actually a bit surprised at how impressive the towers were, pretty awe inspiring. Some quick pics and a tour of the mall at the bottom and it was time to go back to the ‘port and onto Borneo and the RWMF!

For the Kuching portion of this post I’m going to rewrite bullet notes that I made on the flight home after this wonderful adventure. I feel like they sum up Court and my time in the area perfectly. The official motto for these five days quickly became ‘Oh, Malaysia’, said in the same exasperated yet admiring tone you’d use if a toddler made a massive mess but looked adorable while doing so. Ridiculous, yet somehow endearing. So without further ado, here are my observations of Kuching, Malaysia. (And if you’d like me to expand on anything, don’t keep quiet! There’s a story for every point here, I’m just feeling a little laz right now. And it’s my birthday, so I’mma do what I want.)

  • Garrett’s popcorn in KL is the greatest thing ever- Oprah and Halle Berry are fans! Crispy caramel and macadamia nut… Mmm
  • Prayer rooms do not equal bathrooms
  • Petronas towers are seriously impressive
  • B&B Inn a little sketch, especially the giant padlock on the outer door/gate
  • “Princess Michela”
  • Everyone is so nice, everyone says hi and asks how you are-so genuine!
  • Skimboarding at sunset
  • Crazy bongos/xylophones/guitars/sitars/saxophones, etc
  • Kanda Bongo Man!!
  • Traditional Malay dance lessons- tried the ‘bamboo dance’
  • Tuak equals rice wine, does not equal good
  • Everything, especially booze is really expensive
  • Getting ripped off- they put limes into our tiny tequila shots
  • Leftover popcorn and cashew nuts for dinner… We’re cheap
  • Epic peanut butter/banana/croissant sandwiches for 3 meals… We’re cheap
  • Bakery shopping spree that cost us $5
  • Cat statues!
  • Weird museums… Textile, ethnology, art, natural history- spent my last 4RM to see a fossilized wood exhibit. Sweet.
  • Saw Brave in theatres for $3 (that we paid for with american $ cause we hardly had any ringgit left)
  • Best donuts EVER at Big Apple Donuts
  • Slept at the airport to save $… We’re cheap
  • Oh, Malaysia.

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