Monday, 23 February 2009


The waitress stared at me in a mixture of shock and surprise, mingled with a little fear. This is common in Asia when people don't understand a question, or don't expect it. There's an obvious moment of panic, a widening of the eyes, a parting of the lips and the escape of an indistinct "Whaaa?" sort of sound, usually followed by the policeman (or whoever) explaining that, actually, the train station is behind you (and you're a damn, time-wasting fool for missing it). She recovered herself quickly.

"Could you repeat that, sir?"

"Sure thing. A hamburger please."

"Ah, sir, I am so sorry, we do not have a ham burger."

"Oh, never mind, I thought it was on the menu."

"No sir, I'm afraid not. Would you care for a beef burger instead?"

That's the great thing about Borneo. Places may aim to have a Western style, tours may try and match up to what they think Westerners want, but everything's just so charmingly unpolished (not to mention cheap). Of course, one thing you shouldn't do in a place like this is wear white trousers, as Alex found to his cost. For the past ten days he's been extolling the virtues of white linen - cool, bug resistant and they make you look like a Russian tourist. We were on our way to go white water rafting, and took a local train that goes into a rainforest and up a mountain. Seats were scarce, with plenty of places already taken up by enormous egg containers and a fortnights worth of food, carried up from the town into the recesses of the jungle. Still we fought our way on and found somewhere to sit down. After a few minutes, we suddenly realised there was a small girl, no more than five or six, sitting next to us, staring us with thunderous broody eyes. Suddenly, without warning, she struck out a leg and started kicking Alex, smearing mud all over his legs.

If Alex was having a bad time with his clothes, I was beginning to feel a bit unsettled. It's not so long since I read Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and as we began our ascent into the rainforest the sky started to become heavy and brooding. As the child lashed out again a crack of thunder sounded, and an almighty downpour began, rain coming in through the open windows and beating heavily off the leaves and the tin roof of the train. The girl collapsed into a crying ball beside her mother, who gave us a kind look, and I looked away, catching the eye of another child, a young boy who had spilled his juice all over the floor. I gave him a sympathetic smile and he too burst into tears. More than a bit bewildered, I turned to look out of the window, just as we passed a wooden sign that read "Death Risk" in large red letters, and the train carried us deeper into the heart of darkness.

Fortunately there wasn't too much time to brood on these odd portents, because soon enough we were on the river, heading back down the mountain and about to meet our first rapid. Our guide, who called himself Mr. Tapioca (which would have thrown me if I wasn't already more than a bit thrown), was telling us about the rapids.

"There are several grades, and we'll deal with them in turn. Our first rapid is called 'Mickey Mouse' rapid. It's very easy, that is grade 1. It is just a warm up. Grade 2 is harder, we'll do one called the 'Scooby Doo' rapid, but it's not too much of a bother. We'll then hit a grade 4, where the waves are very high, around six foot, 'The Headhunter' it's called. Then a grade 3, but a dangerous one with lots of rocks, called the 'Washing Machine,' because it likes to spin you round and round under the water."

Naturally, before we were even in sight of a rapid, mickey mouse or otherwise, I'd already fallen off the boat, thrown off balance by a minor upsurge of water. Mr. Tapioca pulled me out of the water laughing. "This rapid, it does not have a grade or a name, but perhaps we will call it for you". This little misadenture did have an upside, it made the other beginners feel a lot better about falling in because, as one of the others put it, "Now I won't feel like a twat."

The rafting itself was terrifying on the approach, terrifying and messy in the middle and exhilarating in the periods of calm afterwards. You're bustled and thrown by the waves, splashed in the eyes so you can't see and on all sides large rocks jut out of the water threatening to catch you if you fall out. The threat, though, is more perceived than real, and even if you fell in a rapid you'd be unlucky to come to much harm. Our guides proved it to us by - without warning - engineering a flip that sent the boat over with us. Scary it may sound, but you come up quickly on your life jacket, and being carried gently down a river - without needing to swim or work to stay afloat - is a peculiarly calming experience.

Our next stop was Selingan, one of the Turtle Islands, a tiny (8 hectare) outcrop where Malaysia and the Phillipines are running a conservation project. Infancy is extremely hazardous for turtles, and even with conservation the mortality rate is about 99%, but worldwide turtle populations are dwindling to an alarming level - largely because of human-created problems. On the island we waited till night fell to watch a mother lay nearly a hundred eggs in a pit she'd dug on the beach, before the eggs were transported to a safer location by the rangers. Later on we saw a newly hatched brood released into the wild, flailing around on the shore till they were washed away - most of them to certain death - by the tide.

Finally we visited an Orangutan sanctuary, where another conservation project is taking place, and saw a feeding. Alex took off with the tour into the jungle, and I came back to Singapore to wait patiently for a new passport and catch up on my sleep.

Other things I've learnt recently:


Borneo is the world's third largest island, divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.


Turtles are sea based, and have flippers; Tortoises are land based and have feet.


Means 'Man of the Forest' in Malay. Orangutans are 96 point something percent human and a fully grown, dominant male can rip a grown man in two, but his face looks like a rubber satellite dish.


Is a scientific term. It rains in the rainforest. A lot.


I have no idea what the word jungle means.


Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Kuala Lumpur and Melaka, Malaysia

Kamal is a man of peace, and a man of god. A graphic-designer turned advertising executive, he packed it all in for a calm, happy life. He bought a taxi, printed a few business cards and started ferrying people to and from the airport. "I like to tell foreign people about my country, Malaysia," he tells us. "It is a country I love."

This is my second time in Malaysia in as many weeks, and it is a sentiment I'm beginning to share. There is a calmness and a friendliness that seems to wash off the people here, an attitude which has bred a multi-cultural, multi-faith society where a Hindu temple, a Mosque and a Chinese temple can stand side by side on Harmony Street. When we found Kamal, he was a little down, worn out by a few dispiriting trips back and forth from KL International. When we found out he'd take us to Melaka and back for the same price as two return bus tickets, and throw in a personal tour of his country and some of his insights to boot, we got him to perk right up. "I'll take you all over," he half cackled as he turned round to smile at us at 120kph on a motorway. "I'll show you the real Malaysia".

Malaysia is a rare feat in this world. Dare I say it, it's a country which has been left better off by colonialism. The British have left behind a strong legal system, a thriving middle class and an exceptionally cheerful populace. Whilst the capital shows off the overt signs of wealth - the ubiquitous Asian skyscrapers and malls, topped off by the Petronas Twin Towers, until recently the tallest building in the world - the prices are shockingly low, and certainly the cheapest I've come across.

The real history is to be found in Melaka, a city whose bloody colonial past is belied by the bright clashing colours of it's diverse population. It has changed hands from Portuguese to Dutch to British and housed Malays, Indians and Chinese. Now repackaged as a tourist attraction you can wander around the museum complex, which covers politics, literature, history and the customs of the various inhabitants, or sit in gaudy yellow carriages biked around by tour guides dressed in matching yellow (sponsored by Digi, the Malaysian mobile phone carrier, naturally) past the dark maroon dutch quarter, the bright reds of chinatown, pausing by the mosque so your guide can pop in for his afternoon prayers.

Leaving Melaka, Kamal took a detour to introduce us to a different side of Malaysia. Slipping a few layers from the pristine main road to more rough-and-ready tarmac, he took us to meet Noor, his sister-in-law, who collects rubber from small producers and sells it on to factories. Along with Palm oil production, rubber is a driving force in the prosperity of Malaysia's rural population, ensuring a stable income from exports to all over the world. Noor and her husband have been able to take advantage of this to build up a decent business and build a large house in a rural village. Even out here, far from the city, they speak decent English, and we were given a distinguished welcome, letting Alex have his first taste of pomelo and me my first chew of sugar cane.

And that's what's so great about Malaysia. It's just nice. It doesn't seem to have the tourist traps that abound in Thailand and Bali, the people are friendly and welcoming through good-heartedness, rather than greed, and everything feels pretty easy. Add to that the cheap prices and the lush beauty of the country and it becomes one of the nicest places to visit I've come across.


Bali and Lembongan Island

Bad things out of the way first: we visited Bali off-season. That meant no people (we visited the supposedly 'it' club and found noone except a bartender reading a book in the corner), rubbish (apparently it's kept much tidier when there are more tourists about) and dodgy weather (it rained so much most of the roads flooded). Bali is also priced for tourists, and seems to have suffered an amazing amount of inflation in the last year. A tour that cost $25 in January 2008 now costs $39. The aggression with which locals harried tourists for cash was a bit discomfiting too. This wasn't helped by my general ineptitude. At one stage I tried to bargain and ended up handing over $5 MORE than the initial price quoted.

Still, you can't complain too much about island paradises, and there were some amazing things to see. Top of the list was the snorkeling around Lembongan Island, which offered the most beautiful assortment of brightly coloured fish and coral I've come across. After a failed attempt at riding a scooter - I hit a wall and a fence, then narrowly missed a small child - we moved on to a natural wonder, a Mangrove forest. Mangroves are trees that grow in the sea, and are instrumental in protecting sea shores from the impact of a Tsunami. We hopped aboard a boat punted by a shirtless Indonesian, who wound us round the eerie maze of waterways that cut through the densely intertwined trees. It all started to feel a bit 'Vietnam war movie' when we nearly hit a black lump floating next to us, a dead dog which had been thrown into the water. Before we left there was also the underground house to see, a hunched living space cut out of rock underground, complete with kitchen, living space and bedrooms. There seemed no obvious need for it on a small, peaceful island where everyone knows everyone else, but it was impressive to see.

Back on the mainland, we found ourselves in the rain in a monkey temple near Buda. The flat light, the torrential downpour and the shade of the trees made the place feel self contained, giving the monkeys sitting on thick stone representations of themselves a mystical feel. It all felt a bit like a Lara Croft game.

On the last day we gave ourselves up to surfing. I will try to recreate my surfing experience here. I carried a heavy plank of wood into the sea. This took quite a long time, and after one attempt I was pretty much ready to go back to bed. As a wave came I lay down on the board, let it get washed in to shore and realised that I had no idea how to stand up. In trying, I fell off. I then stood up, picked up the board and trudged back out to try again. Every so often an instructor would give me contradictory advice. The lesson was 90 minutes, and I progressed no further than this. Alex stood up on his fourth go.



Poor Alex. We planned this trip for a month, he gets on the plane after 6 tough months in London looking forward to our mad cap adventure and what does he get when he lands? Me, worn out from a jubilant spell of island hopping, worn down by a nasty little head cold and worn through with worry over the state of my passport. Was I in a happy mood? Sadly, not.

Luckily he had enthusiasm for the both of us, and made sure we saw most of Singapore. I find the place slightly oppressive, with reminders popping up here and there of the repressive laws that people live by. In the immigration and visa centre, 3 impounded cars stand next to placards informing of the crimes the drivers committed and the punishment they received (10 years and 4 lashings, usually). I was a bit concerned in case a stick of chewing gum was floating at the bottom of my bag, punishable by a cash fine if caught.

Singapore has the feel of a slightly more spread out, but less exciting, Hong Kong. If there wasn't much to do in HK except work and go out at night, Singapore felt even more limited. We visited the number one tourist attraction - the zoo - and wandered the streets, stopping in the early evening for high tea at Raffles. There are some fantastic buildings, especially the Esplanade. It costs the same as Hong Kong, it can match it for high rises and bankers, but without a job I think it would be hard to spend any extended period of time there.


Sunday, 15 February 2009

What to do if your passport goes through the washing machine

These things happen. I turned up in Singapore after an 11 hour bus journey, too air-conditioned and far too bumpy. Off came my clothes, in they went to a wash, and out came my thoroughly soaked and machine dried passport. Precisely at the point that Alex was sitting on a plane, coming to meet me in Singapore, planning to fly to Bali two days later. From the benefit of my experience, conversations with friends and much panicked internet searching, here's what to do if you ever find yourself in this situation.

1. Don't panic, don't beat yourself up. Not only do things like this happen, they happen a lot. All the time in fact. Assess the damage first of all. Things to look out for are the leather cover coming away from the paper, entry and exit stamps running through the pages and the laminated section separating from the face page. In my experience the first two are not necessarily killers, and from hearsay neither is the last one. From a common sense point of view, if the laminated section is coming away, you're far more likely to have trouble. It makes it look like someone's been tampering with it. My passport's front cover was completely separated from the paper, but the back cover was ok. The stamps were a mess, several running several pages either side. Luckily my Singaporean entry stamp was legible.

2. Apply for a new passport - if you can. In the UK you can get express passports in less than 48 hours. This is the obvious step, but it's not always convenient. If you're flying soon, you may not have time - in Singapore it takes 10 working days. You need the signature of a British subject with a respectable job (think qualifications, office building or the like), who has known you for some time - i think over three years. It's worth bearing in mind that you can apply for a replacement passport and hold on to your old one until two working days before you collect it, which is what I did.

3. Apply for an emergency passport. If you're in a foreign city and need to get home, you can get an emergency one-way passport which will get you home without any problems.

4. Risk it! If there's one thing I've found out this week, it's that people travel on damaged passports the whole time. The passport office and consulate won't advise this - they can't - and there's a degree of risk. The first is that at check-in someone will be concerned and stop you flying, the second is that immigration officials will be unable to read the stamps in your passport, or suspect you of tampering with it, and detain you at immigration - hardly ideal. How high this risk is, it's hard to say. At check-in the girl behind the desk joked that my passport looked like it had gone through a river, then laughed and loaded up my bags. At immigration in Bali, the official asked what happened to my passport and stamped me through. No trouble at all!

So far I've heard of people travelling without issue on passports soaked through with vodka, sent through a washing machine twice, and cut up and stuck back together again. Some people have problems, but they seem to be the exception. I even read about a pilot who travelled for five years on a machine washed passport!

I'm definitely glad I took the risk. I could have been stuck in Singapore, a tiny country where the number one tourist attraction is the zoo and number two is a cookery class, but instead I spent the day in Bali snorkelling and visiting a monkey temple!


Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Georgetown, Penang

Wandering around a new city always feels like stepping into a puzzle, you see the individual elements first and then start to fit everything into a larger picture. The more I see of Georgetown, the more it intrigues me. The city itself feels very tired. Everywhere brickwork crumbles, iron is rusted over, sewers run alongside the road. Construction in the centre seems to have stopped around the 1940s, and successive generations of buildings from the 18th Century to the first half of the 20th stand side by side. Most of them look like they're into their third or fourth use at best, and plenty are shuttered up and left that way. One shop has a painted sign offering second hand books. I try to enter, only to find someone's living room. "Book shop?" I ask. A woman nursing a baby looks up at me blankly, then gives a nod of recognition. "Oh," she says, "I think he dead some time".

The streets are not designed with cars in mind, with cluttered five-foot covered walkways on either side of the road, falling apart or unpassable because of motorbikes, incense burners, shopwares, chairs and other obstructions, forcing pedestrians into the narrow roads. They wander peacefully along. I do not, keeping an eye out constantly for a motorbike overtaking too fast or a car riding too close to the side of the street.

Meanwhile dotted around the place are those expected signals of Westernisation I've come to expect in Asian cities, nods to the 20th Century's godhead of the American dollar: skyscrapers; shopping malls; Starbucks and McDonalds. These sit, uncomfortably pristine, next to crumbling locksmiths and pawnshops.

All over Asia you see this cultural disconnect, local culture against globalised commerce. Mostly you see how foreign companies make minor concessions to local taste in a bid to win the overall war - the Seaweed flavoured Lays crisps, the cheery Chinese songs sung in Shanghai's Cold Stone Creamery, the Spicy Chicken sandwich in McDonalds (competing with the more popular KFC). Here though the trend appears to be reversed.

Malaysia is famous for it's multiculturalism, and this is a city defined by it. Colonialism may have left it's mark, but so does the presence of immigrants from all over, especially China and India. The city may be named after a British king, and cars still drive on the left hand side, but this hardly feels a colonial city. Whilst Westernised commerce has touched the place, it doesn't dominate the way it does in Shanghai's mega-shopping malls, or England's uniform highstreets. The shopping malls here have almost as many market stalls as shops, and the chain stores seem to be accomodated into the local culture, rather than the other way round.


Monday, 9 February 2009

Rather than retype everything, here is an email I sent out today whilst still 'in the moment':

This literally just happened, and I'm still mid-panic attack, but I have to tell people about it. Okay...

So yesterday I met my friend Sak from Shanghai in incredibly random circumstances - his boat was arriving at an island as mine was leaving it, we had no idea we were in the same place and no mobiles. Luckily we caught up on facebook and met up for a drink last night, which was great.

In the course of the conversation Sak, who has travelled in Malaysia more than me, gives me a warning:

"You have to be careful in Malaysia, you know? Like, they have the death penalty for even a small amount of drugs, and they use tourists to try and smuggle them. They hide them in your bag, see if you get through and then pick them up on the other side. If you get caught, you're screwed - of course you're going to say 'It's not mine' but even if you're lucky you'll still go to jail."

My mind went immediately to the sweet German couple (the non-smoking, moderate drinking types) I'm sharing a room with and I joke that they might be drug smugglers. We both laugh.

As I'm walking through the ferry terminal in Langkawi, out of the blue, Sak's words come back to me. I figure I might as well check my bags, knowing there's nothing there. I open a front pocket and can't see anything. I reach inside, and it's then that my hand makes contact with what is very clearly a plastic bag filled with white powder.

I'm not sure I need to describe how much panic I felt at that moment, but it's fair to say I was nearly crying, struggling to breath, feeling faint - about as scared as I've ever been. Not sure what to do, I make a rash decision to get rid of it as quickly as possible. I can't see a toilet anywhere nearby so I take a deep breath, walk as calmly as I can - given that every muscle in my body has just turned to icy jelly - over to the nearest dustbin. Looking around in what can only be described as a guilty, panicked way, I grab the bag and drop it into the bin, and start to walk away.

Now, as I'm doing this, I catch sight of something printed on the bag, the word "Trisara". It takes me five paces for the penny to drop, and for me to remember that I took a plastic bag of bath salts from the nice hotel I stayed at with my mum, the Trisara. It's another moment before I realise where I left it - in my bag's front pocket.

I'm not sure there's a lesson here - perhaps just 'don't be a twat' - but as terrifying moments go, this has to be up there...

Apart from that I'm now in Georgetown, Penang. It's completely unlike anywhere I've been before, with architecture in the colonial style which I've seen in movies but never in real life and strong influences of its Chinese and Indian communities. It achieves the rare feat of incorporating recognisable western features (malls, starbucks, mcdonalds) without seeming to lose any of its soul. Which makes it a pretty groovy place in my book.


Sunday, 8 February 2009

Langkawi, Malaysia

I'm not sure why, but even before the boat docked I knew I liked this place. There's something in the air here, a peace that was just missing in Thailand. Perhaps it comes from having fewer tourists, and the absence of the tarted-up Thai beauty that so easily attracts foreigners. Perhaps it's the money that flows to the island through its VAT free status, relieving the pressure on hotels, bars and restaurants to stimulate the local economy. Whatever the reason, the breezy atmosphere flowing off the crew on the speedboat into port showed a marked difference from the stressed out Thais who had ferried us to the end of their country all day. Thailand is a very friendly place, but there's something more here, the easy friendliness is natural, without the half-eye on your wallet that seems common in tourist areas of Thailand. Sitting down inside a bar with my new friends, a German couple who made the mammoth journey from Phi Phi with me and who ended up sharing a large hotel room (with a working shower, thank god!) with me to cut costs, a man approaches us. "Hello, my name is Carlton. I work in this bar during the day, although I am not working now. Welcome to our bar. Whilst you are very welcome to sit on your own, we would love it if you came and joined in the group." In a place like this it's hard not to wear a smile on your face.

Today saw more islands - a freshwater lagoon, eagle feeding (the island is named after its eagles) and pristine sandy beaches - and my education about Malaysia, courtesy of a Malay ex-Londoner on my boat. Until two days ago I didn't know Langkawi was in Malaysia, and knew very little about the country at all. She amused herself with my surprise as she told me a bit of its history as a British colony turned commonwealth country. The best she saved for last.

"You know this island used to have a curse on it? That's right. Until very recently. There was a woman, living here, whose husband went off to fight in a war. Whilst he was away she had a friend, a man, who she liked to spend time with. Another woman got jealous, and accused her of adultery. She was arrested, and although she protested her innocence, she was sentenced to death. When they cut her, however, they found her blood ran white, because she was chaste, and she put a curse on the island to last seven generations. In the 1990s it ran out, but until then noone wanted to develop here."

Perhaps that explains the scrappiness of the place. The road by the beach is still under construction, and on the pavement wooden planks stand every four or five paces to stop you dropping into the sewer system. There are few large hotels, and plenty of room on the beach, despite this being a Malay bank holiday, seeing lots of visitors from Kuala Lumpur. Still despite - or maybe rather because of - the lack of neatness, the island can't help but be a stunning place.


Friday, 6 February 2009

Phi Phi Island

I really wanted to be principled here. A long time ago I remember reading about the impact of filming The Beach in Thailand, a beautiful island torn upside down to make room for cameras, lights, generators, and to turn a naturally beautiful beach into a natural looking wonder. I was all ready to follow it up with the final insult, the tourists who now come trudging through to see the beach where Leo ran amock (or am I misremembering?), and just maybe they'll find a lock of his hair or a broken flip flop inscribed with his name, hidden where the less observant searchers missed it.

All of that is probably pretty accurate mind you. Maya beach, stunningly - shockingly - set away in an enormous natural harbour of high rock faces fluffed with greenery on all sides, loses the impact it had on screen in the face of packed tour boats and smaller motor boats. It's now a box to tick, on every Thai traveller's radar. Still, when there's so much beauty around, it's hard to care less.

From Maya the boat tour (I'm no less guilty of these crimes than anyone else) shows us a small harbour where small, safe sharks swim alongside swordfish and other wonders of the sea. Next Bamboo Island, around which the sea is a perfect sapphire crystal lit up by showers of fish striped yellow and black, silver or violent purple. Shooting past small islands, shining beaches or fertile rocky outcrops, we reach a cove where monkeys will come right up to you, sitting on sand as soft as flour, hoping to steal your food or a sip of your drink.

The reason I'm in Phi Phi, an island I'd never heard of until a week ago and whose beauty leaves me a little lightheaded, is because of Danny Wallace, author of Yes Man. His memoir of a year of positive thinking saw him wind up in amazing and surprising places, and inspired others to do the same. One guy he spoke to was inspired enough to end up travelling the world and sends him a postcard from this very island. It's a great book, and chimes with my own experience - the unbelievable chain of events that sprang up in Hong Kong purely through positivity and saying yes to new experiences. If anyone's suffering from Winter blues right now, I'd say forget the movie (Hollywood adaptation with Jim Carrey - yawn) and pick this one up!

Tomorrow Langkawi Island, Malaysia. Till then...