Monday, 30 September 2013

Ipoh and Gua Tempurung Caves

We’ve arrived in historic Ipoh, the capital of Perak district and a town of 700,000 people. We arrived by coach from Taiping bus station to Ipoh bus station in just over one hour, which was a bit quicker than the Japanese took on 25th December 1941! It looks like an interesting place, with lots of colonial buildings, which we want to explore tomorrow.

We’d booked the D’Eastern Hotel for 4 nights on the Agoda website before we left Taiping and, when the taxi pulled up outside we thought he’d stopped at the wrong place, it’s a really luxurious hotel (well, by our recent standards anyway), a really nice marble reception area, proper reception counter, porters, a lift, carpet in the corridors, a credit card style door lock and a big room and bathroom with a doorbell (the room, not the bathroom!) The room has two easy chairs and low table, plus a desk with chair, tv and a kettle and cups and saucers (we’ve been out an bought some tea – Cameron Highlands tea of course, so we can have afternoon tea and cakes from the cake shop next door!).

Afternoon tea and cake - how fantastic!
It was lunchtime as we arrived so we went down to reception to ask where we could get some lunch. In their restaurant next door she said. On entering we thought we wouldn’t be able to (or want to) afford their prices, but we found it really quite inexpensive. A bit more than we are used to paying, but we sat in posh chairs at a table with tablecloth in a beautiful restaurant and were personally seen to by the chef who spoke quite good English. We had 1 Nasi Goreng (fried rice) with chicken between us (which is our norm to share at lunch) and a couple of iced lime drinks, all for RM15 (£3). It tasted fantastic, was beautifully presented and their menu looked full of great things. We’ll be going there again! We like the look of a ‘Steamboat’ which, according to the chef, is a Tom Yam broth and vegetable broth over a flame served at the table, with a plateful of prawns, crab, fish balls and all sorts of yummy things, veges and noodles, with a selection of dips, plus a raw egg. The idea is to crack the egg into the boiling broths, dip the seafood in, like a fondue and, after eating the seafood you’re left with two broths flavoured with the seafood. Sounds great and we might try it tonight. It’s in the menu at RM30 (£6), so it won’t even break the bank!

I was a bit worried when I saw the hotel as to how much it’s costing us, but checking our booking we paid RM98 per night for the room, which is £19.60. How fantastic is that!

Taiping kitten
We’ve been having a bit of a ‘cat-fest’ these last few days. Jackie picked up a tiny kitten yesterday in the market in Taiping, before we left. It just fitted in her hand and was the cutest kitten and well up for strokes and fuss. Jackie thought it was about 6 weeks old and wanted to take it with us! (So did B, he was quite smitten with the kitten!) However, in Ipoh we went out for dinner at a food market (which is a load of tables and chairs surrounded by hawker type stalls selling every type of food. You select a table, noting its number, then walk round the stalls selecting what you want, they cook it and bring it to your table, so you can have something from many stalls until you’re full, including Western food (which we didn’t have!).

Ipoh restaurant kitten
We selected a table near another group of small kittens, with mum cat nearby. These were even younger than the one we saw in Taiping (about 3-4 weeks old) and some were still a bit unsteady on their feet (and a couple looked quite unwell unfortunately). She’d originally had 7 but was left with 4, wandering round the tables, some keen for strokes, some not, but they would play, playfully fight each other and just crash out on the floor when tired in the middle of walkways, with people just stepping over and round them. They had food and water nearby and many people were throwing scraps in their direction, which would have them trotting over. They didn’t like the chicken Jackie saved from our Mee Goreng (fried noodles) though as it was too spicy.

In fact lots of Ipoh restaurant kittens
Anyway, today we thought we’d go out to Gua Tempurung, which is an intricate system of caves (gua is the Malay word for cave) and is the largest known system in mainland Malaysia. It reads very well and it’s possible to do four tours, tours one and two being in the dry and walking on prepared metal steps and walkways with electric lighting. That, on its own shows amazing rock formations with huge stalactites and stalagmites, many joined to form pillars and massive flow stones. Tours three and four start with the dry cave, but then go onto wet caves, where you’re crawling (literally) through streams under low ceilings, climbing (using hands but no ropes) up rock and sliding down muddy rock slides into a fairly uncertain destination, but always after our guide who did it first! Tour four, the one we chose, is the ‘Grand Tour’ and is a three and a half hour tour through 3.8km of underground caves, of which three quarters is in water through natural caves with no lighting (bring a torch! Unfortunately one of ours had almost flat batteries, but Jackie managed – mine was fine!). We phoned the day before to make sure it was on, as 8 people are needed for it to run and it was Monday morning! Yes they said, they’ve got a big group booked in, so turn up at 09:30am.

Ooh, a big cat, I'll just arch my back and look fierce!
Getting to the caves is not easy, there are no tour companies and it’s 20km out of town, so our very nice reception people organised a taxi for us for the day. He would pick us up in the morning, take us there, wait the three and a half hours while we did it and bring us back. It was a bit pricey (for Malaysia) at RM100 (£20), more than the cave trip at RM22 (£4.40) each, but there is just no other way of getting there, so we went for it.

We got there a bit early, which was just as well as there were more cats and more tiny kittens, (about 9 weeks old) one of which was keen for Jackie to pick it up, stroke, cuddle and carry it around for half an hour. I have never seen so many tiny kittens before!

We were joined by an Australian guy of about 35 who has lived in the UK for the last seven years (and loves it there, he doesn’t want to go back to Australia – the first one we’ve met who prefers the UK to Australia!), and very friendly and chatty he was too, we stayed with him throughout the trip. The big group were about 20 young (20 something) Malay’s, some macho fearless lads and an equal number of girls wearing their Muslim headscarves, who spoke some English. Our guide was a really nice Malay guy who spent time talking to us in English as well as Malay to all the others.

Jackie in 'catty heaven' with Taiping kitten
After the dry cave area we ducked under the railings and set off for the great adventure of rock slides, water and caves that required ducking, weaving and lots of paddling, until we arrived at an outdoors bit apparently in the middle of a jungle and we thought that was it and were feeling a bit disappointed. After a brief stop we returned back into the cave system and now it got really adventurous. Now we got really wet, the water being a bit deeper in places and the roof low enough to require crawling on all fours, with our chests under water and just enough room to keep our heads clear of water and roof. It included rock scrambling, down scrambling on really slippery rock and dirt, with some sections where you just had to sit down and slide down very slippery rock into oblivion, some with 9m drops. We had to keep our eyes open as the floor occasionally had holes in it with quite deep drops, one of which we climbed down, followed by another rock slide into more water.

Unlike caves in the UK, which are quite cool places with icy cold water, this was quite hot (we were sweating most of the time) with the water being nicely warm, but cool enough to cool us down and make it feel quite comfortable. The whole experience was great and we’d certainly recommend it to anyone who happens to be visiting out here.

Our Australian friend thoroughly enjoyed it too, he had come up on a private trip from KL and was going off white water rafting this afternoon. I think he’d have quite liked us to have joined him as we and he enjoyed each others company.

No pictures I’m afraid as I didn’t take the phone camera (I didn’t want to wreck another camera!), so you’ll just have to put up with the ‘cat-fest’ pictures we’ve taken these last two days!

Saturday, 28 September 2013


The Lake Gardens in Taiping

Continuing our southerly travel, we’re now in a town called Taiping. It’s a smallish town of about 200,000 people, located near the west coast about one third of the way down mainland Malaysia, about 270km north and a bit west of Kuala Lumpur. It has the dubious distinction of being the wettest place in Malaysia, receiving about 4m of rain per year, due to its location at the foot of some impressive hills of about 1300m in height. The locals apparently don’t ask ‘if’ it will rain, rather ‘what time it will rain’.

It doesn’t seem to be on many people’s tourist list as we haven’t seen any other white face’s since we’ve been here. It’s pretty much of a standard town, laid out in a grid format, with shops, an indoor market and quite a few impressive old colonial buildings. It seems the locals, particularly the children, aren’t used to seeing white faces as we often find we’re being stared at as something really unusual and novel. 

Just after taking this picture some locals asked to pose next to Jackie for a photo
On two occasions now, people have come up to us and asked if they can have their photograph taken standing next to us. They are all very friendly and often people wave and say ‘Hello’ and, if they can speak English, they come over for a chat wanting to know where we are from and genuinely wanting to know about us and England, it’s really quite nice. We keep on wanting to say we’re nothing special, there are literally millions just like us back home, but it doesn’t stop them staring and smiling.

Health and safety at work!
Taipings history started in 19th century when tin was found and the town received a large influx of Chinese people to work the mines. Feuding occurred between rival Chinese groups that was only settled after the British arrived in the 1870’s, who assumed control of the town, negotiated a peace and had a treaty signed between the warring groups on 20th January 1874. The town was renamed Taiping after the signing, which is a Chinese word meaning everlasting peace. It used to be the capital of the Perak district until 1937 when nearby Ipoh replaced it.

Otters at the zoo
The Japanese also came through here during the Second World War on their way to conquering Malaya and Singapore. Although I can’t find any direct reports on the Japanese in Taiping, I know that they had to go through this town on their way from capturing Penang Island and Butterworth on their way south. A major obstacle just to the south and east is the Perak River that runs through Kuala Kangsar just to the east of the town and the British were hoping it would stop the Japanese advance. By my reckoning they would have entered Taiping around Christmas Day in 1941, then swept east through Kuala Kangsar, made light work of crossing the Perak River and entered Ipoh (our next destination) on 26th December 1941.

Jackie just has to!
The old tin mine alongside the town has long since been abandoned, the huge gashes in the ground filling with water and it’s been landscaped and made into the very attractive Lake Gardens with a very nice zoo attached, with animals that are well looked after, where we spent a few hours yesterday. It stands at the foot of a 1250m high hill called Bukit Larut, which used to be called Maxwell Hill after the first British Resident, George Maxwell. Being a very pleasant 12⁰C lower temperature at the top than in the hot humid town, the British built quite a few houses up there and there is still a small settlement up there today.

Now I ask you, is this any way to treat your teddy bear? Using him to support you kindle while you read!
The Land Rover
We took a trip up there today via a Land Rover. You can’t take any vehicles up there other than government Land Rovers as the road is extremely narrow and very steep with really tight hairpin bends. The vehicles go about every hour and we had already read about the high speeds they are driven up there, often with massive drops on one side and we weren’t disappointed. I think about 11 of us (including the driver) got into the Land Rover at the bottom and off he went. He rarely got out of third gear due to the steepness, but he took those hairpin bends like a ‘good-un’. 

The journey
No slowing down, just swing it round to not loose speed which would mean having to change gear. I think it was probably to impress the younger Malay lads in the back who make all the right ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ and ‘wow’s’ to cause a smile on our drivers face. It was accompanied by plenty of horn-blowing so the people walking up could jump out of the way and to alert the Land Rover on its way down to avoid a ‘head-on’.

The view from the top back to Taiping and the sea beyond
The little village at the top
Interesting to say the least, but in half hour we were at an end of the Land Rover journey, but alas not at the top. That was a further 3km and 250m’sh higher, so off we set on foot in quite pleasant temperatures (about 24⁰C’ish). After something less than an hour we’d walked into mist and reached the top, which was a transmission mast in a gated enclosure, so after all that walking we couldn’t even stand on the summit and there was very little view, all a bit of a disappointment.

The locked gate at the summit
However, we turned round and walked back down to the Bio-Diversity building where studies are being made on flora that can survive in this climate and we stopped to have a chat with some locals on a field trip off to study what they called the ‘moist forest’. There were some clever people there, one chap did his PhD at Sheffield and his Masters at Adelaide. Another chap we spoke to studied law at Cambridge.

Anyway, in no time we were back in the same Land Rover and same driver to go back down, but as it was only the two of us he was driving a bit more sensibly and handed us some fruit to eat. We think they were Langsat (Lansium domesticum – look it up on Google), and very nice too. Being the nice chap he was, he stopped to collect people on the way down to save them walking so, by the time we reached the bottom we were up to 13 in the vehicle!

Perak Museum
Unable to get a taxi back we walked to the local museum which, being a Saturday, was packed with screaming, running children, who often stopped to stare at us, another family wanting a photo, this time with dad and baby girl in arms who didn’t like the look of strange white faces and started to cry! Oh, and while we were in there we got the days rain, plenty of it, accompanied with some thunder and lightning. Glad we were down off the hill, it looked ugly up there now! We waited until it abated a bit and then headed for the nearest café and then back to our hotel with doughnuts!

Our hotel is a strange place, it’s called the Cherry Inn and comes out as number 1 in Taiping in Trip Advisor, but they have no website or any listing on the web for making a booking. Eventually Jackie found a phone number on the Malaysian ‘’, so I rang and spoke to a guy who has some English and managed to make him understand we wanted to book a room. The place is really nice and well done out, but it is right above a cold store and our room has the compressors right outside our window making an intermittent racket all night. Jackie’s been OK with her ear plugs, but I’ve been awake on and off each time it starts up. We asked to change rooms, but he showed us one with no windows, a smell of damp and a shared bathroom, so we stuck with the one we’ve got. There are other rooms, but we think they are occupied, although we haven’t seen anyone else. It’s only RM70 a night (£14) and we’re leaving tomorrow anyway, so we can put up with it for one more night (I hope!).

There are many cats in Taiping, most looking well looked after, there is only one thing more than cats though, and that’s rats! We must have seen 50 running around the gutters/sewers eating, chasing each other round restaurant tables, but no one else seems to bat an eylid!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Penang again!

Pussy cats in a gutter!

I’m writing on our last afternoon, we’ve been here a while – what’s not to like? Big room, A/C, good shower, TV and free DVD’s to borrow (all original, no knock offs obviously!) There is even a cat burglar that sneaks in the window next to our room – we’ve never seen it but the pawprints both in and out today wiped off the wall on a regular basis bear witness! All for 88 Ringetts (£16.60) Oh yes, and the food outside is very very good!

A bowl of chickens feet and some other prawny stuff
So, to start with the food again – we’ve done it, we had chickens feet as one of our dim sims at breakfast the other morning! They were ok, lots of bones, not much taste really except for the spicy ‘spare rib’ sauce (shame they weren’t spare ribs really!) I just felt a bit funny when I felt the little pad, of what would be its palm and thought of all the scratching about it must have done! So all in all, not too bad, but probably wouldn’t bother again! On the whole Dim sim (or sum?) for breakfast has suited me, B quite likes it but is complaining of my usual problem, so we spent today looking for fruit and roughage! 

Mmm, tasty!
The making of the dim sim 'shells'

Throwing in the filling, wrapping and chopping. All very quick, but all very nice
Penang Laksa. Spicy and really good!
We went to the nightmarket again last night and had a much better (all be it much more expensive) experience than last time. We stood our ground and only ordered the one item from each stall, sadly the stalls I really wanted (satay and soft shell crab) were both shut, oh well, B just had to suffer the messiness of a ‘normal’ crab instead, but both it and the huge garlic prawns were fabulous. We even had two beers, back to normal Thai dining, but not at Thai prices! Most expensive Malaysian meal to date, fresh crab (so fresh it was still walking so B had to look away) big prawns, prawn fried rice, yam icecream (it was purple, so had to be tried and was very nice) and 2 beers – still under £15.

Georgetown wall art. There's loads of this all round the town. You can pick up a leaflet with map and follow it round the town. There's 52 to find, including some wrought iron free standing one's
Skippy the cat with rat hiding round the corner

The motorbike's real, the rider a drawing
The bike is real, the riders are drawings

The modern funicular car (2011) on a 1923 line
We’d had a busy day, after our previous chilled day, we’d headed for Penang Hill which at 833m above sea level was actually a bit cooler. Fortunately there is a funicular railway – the longest in Asia and the steepest tunnel track in the world! We looked at the Mosque and Hindu temple right at the top, next to each other, shame there wasn’t a church really, walked to the viewing platform, said hi to a family of monkeys showing off their athletic prowess in the trees, before going to the café to cool off. My passionfruit juice was lovely, B’s hogplum with a sour plum in was very green, and very horrible! 

Ice Kacang
Having had one disaster he seemed determined to have another as we sampled ice kacang. A big bowl of shaved ice, flavoured and sweetened with palm sugar syrup and rose syrup with a blob of icecream on the top. Sounds ok so far, it was surrounded with jelly, palm fruit and nuts (still ok) and sweetcorn and sweetened red bean (that’s the odd bit obviously!) I’d probably have another one, I just have difficulty with red bean as a sweet!

The Hindu temple on the summit
A very English house. The British built them up here as it's a cooler climate
This was all to fortify us as he’d decided we were walking the 5km (or 8 according to our book) down, back to the botanical gardens. It started off marginally cooler (8 degrees he’ll tell you,) but still warm and got warmer and warmer, and boy, was it steep? 

My knees were screaming by the time we got to the bottom and my hips are still feeling decidedly odd today! Fortunately for him we did see two giant black squirrels – must have been 2’ nose to tail though with very slimming brown stripes down their cheeks and upper bodies. The first one was very cute until the second one appeared and wouldn’t leave it alone, when lots of strange noises occurred and they chased off.

I thought we were mad, until we got to the halfway point, where there used to be a café, half of it has now fallen over the edge, when we met a very chatty Ex-pat (74 he is you know? You wouldn’t actually he looked very good on it). He hadn’t planned on going up, just found himself on the path, but lots of people seem to, there was then a steady trickle of people walking up. They really were mad! Our man obviously thought so too really and having had a quick drink at the half way mark came back down, he caught us up talking to more monkeys, after which I had great difficulty keeping up with him. Did I mention, my knees were screaming?

The great architecture of Georgetown, a UNESCO heritage town
Saw the bus pulling off as we hit the carpark, so decided on half an hour in the botanical gardens which were very pleasant and probably deserved more time. But not then!

Pinang Peranakan (Baba Nonyan) Mansion
Today I feel a little like I’m on another planet, cracking headache last night, and vague today, B’s got the headache now, so really I’m not sure we are suited to this climate! We went over to Butterworth to try to buy our bus ticket for tomorrow, “no, come back tomorrow!” So returned to Georgetown and had a very enjoyable visit to the Baba Nonya, Straits Chinese Mansion. Absolutely amazing, very opulent and ornate, and some of the jewellery, wow.

Beaded slippers in the museum. Made by upper-class ladies to prove their skill and status

We could always go back to the Kapitan Indian again. The tandoori chicken on garlic nan bread was great!

All we have left is to decide where to eat tonight!