Sunday, 27 October 2013

KL, JB & Singapore

The final loop of our SE Asia trip has returned us to where we started in August, at the Perak Hotel in Little India, Singapore.

We actually got here without further incidents and at reasonable times of day, mainly because we snubbed any further use of the trains! After a leisurely breakfast at the Orange Peko Hotel in KL (toast, fruit and cornflakes!), a comfortable 4 hour bus ride on a fairly luxurious coach and a taxi to the Zen Zeng Hotel in Johor Bahru, we were ready to hit the town by about 2:30pm.




The State Secritariat Building

Being very close to Deepavali there’s plenty of loud Indian music and flashing lights at the street stalls, which all makes for a pleasant wander around, but my main interest was to see the Istana Palace (now the State Secritariat Building), which is a very grand building standing close to the shoreline of the Johor Strait, separating Malaysia from Singapore Island. Apart from its architectural appeal it was also the place the Japanese commander General Yamashita used as his HQ before the final invasion of Singapore Island in February 1942, its fine tower giving a splendid view over the island and allowing him to make final invasion plans. The building was as grand as we thought, but sadly we were not allowed inside, the guard on the gate telling us we could only look from the outside.

The Indian 'Glass Temple' in JB. The only temple made of glass

The only other building worth seeing is the Royal Museum, a splendid Victorian building, but it’s closed for refurbishment, with the outside covered, so we didn’t bother, but instead visited a small museum in the tiny Chinese road (not even a Quarter!) which plots the history of the Chinese in Johor, which was quite interesting.





Jesus Christ in the Glass Temple

We were faced with a three choices for our trip across the strait into Singapore, the cheapest was the bus at about RM3.5 each, but we have to get off twice with luggage, both at Malaysian emigration and Singapore immigration and wait for another bus. We then get dropped off at a place in the north of the island, whereas the main city is in the SE, so we’d have to get a metro or taxi to the city. The alternative is the train, also about RM3.5 each, both immigration booths are in the JB railway station making that fairly easy, but it terminates at the same north island place. The third option is to take a special Malaysian taxi that goes right into the heart of the city and, as we found out, to within a 10 minute walk of our hotel. He can’t take us to our hotel as he isn’t licensed in Singapore and they have strict regulations of where he can go. The taxi costs RM60 (£12), we don’t have to get out at the two checkpoints and the driver handles everything. Now we’re all for being hardy backpackers, but RM60 (£12) for an easy life vs RM7 (£1.4) on the bus or train, plus a metro, another S$10 (£5) or a taxi (don’t know how much), there didn’t seem to be a decision to be made, so we had an easy entry via taxi and a pleasant walk back to our familiar hotel.

Singapore Island across the strait from JB

We’d forgotten the stark differences between Malaysia and Singapore, but it is quite noticeable on returning. The quiet precision and cleanliness is immediately apparent. I’d read that Singapore is a very affluent city of just over 5 million people, 76% Chinese, where one in six people have a disposable income of over S$1,000,000 (£500,000), not including property. It has the fourth largest financial institution (after London, Hong Kong and New York), the second largest gambling casino market, the world’s largest manufacturer of oil rigs and the third largest refiner of oil products, plus a large ship repair business and one of the busiest ports in the world. Its tax rates are amongst the lowest in the world, attracting large investment in business from USA, Europe and China and it is regarded as being one of the easiest places in the world in which to do business. Its crime rate is negligible, its unemployment rate is less than 2% and its trade balance is always in the black, making it the richest country in this part of the world. Its defence is a major concern due to its location and one in four dollars of government expenditure is on defence. It is a republic with a parliamentary democracy and president, although the same party has been in power since its independence from Malaysia in 1965. On balance it seems a great place to live as long as you work hard, there is no minimum wage and little welfare for those without work, although we saw little begging or sleeping on the streets (maybe, like spitting, they don’t allow it!). It’s an expensive but great, clinical place, you either love it or hate it.

Anyway, after arriving at the Perak Hotel we went out for the rest of the afternoon. There were several WW2 places I wanted to see, but the one we chose was the Old Ford Factory Museum, which was the place where the British surrendered to the Japanese. It’s a way out of the city, to the west and was a Ford car assembly plant, until being taken over by the British in 1941 as part of its war effort. The building is an Art Deco design, but I got no photos as I’d left my phone/camera on charge in the hotel and Jackie wouldn’t let me go back for it! We went on the metro (part underground, part surface railway) and, before Jackie puts a comment in, I chose the longer route round by mistake. It’s possible to go clockwise with two changes, or anti-clockwise with one change. We did the latter, which turned out to be three sides of a square and 1.5 hours on the train! This was then followed by a half hour bus ride, where we found out the bus would take us straight back to our hotel area direct, in half an hour! You can imagine, Jackie said nothing about this at all!

The famous photo of British surrender to the Japanese in the Ford Factory

Finally we arrived at the museum and what a great visit it was. The original table used to sign the surrender document is now in Canberra in Australia, having been given to them by the Ford Motor Company in recognition of the suffering of Australian troops in the war, but they’ve made an exact replica and placed it in the exact position of the original. There’s much speculation about the chairs and whether they were the original chairs, the general feeling is they may well be, but in any case were in the plant at the time.

It was great to be in such an historic place and the museum was lined with many posters depicting the final battles, life under occupation and the aftermath, leading to independence. Rather than just factual, it had many personal accounts of what life was really like and this personal touch was really sobering, making the visit really worthwhile and moving. We were both glad we’d made the visit to such an historic place.

So today is not only our last day in Singapore, but the last day of our year away. Tomorrow we board our plane to fly back to the UK, to catch up with our friends and family. Of course we’re looking forward to seeing them, but we’re going to miss our travelling and adventures and are very sad it’s all coming to an end. We think back to all the things we’ve done and the people we’ve met: John in South Island New Zealand, with his four (now sadly only three) cats, where we housesat over Christmas last year, went back to see with Pauline and then met again in Napier to help him house hunt; Robin and Murray, Jackie’s relatives who looked after us so well on several occasions in Katikati, North Island New Zealand, particularly when I had my little operations; Paul and Cat in Brisbane who took us in for a couple of weeks, taking us camping and climbing; Sharon and Dennis also in Brisbane who took us out for the day; Simon Price, who took us skiing near Melbourne; Bill and Marilyn Lingard in Melbourne who put us up in their house for a week and took us round, plus all the other people we met in the various campsites who made us friends and really enriched our experiences. It’s been a great year and many great experiences and we don’t want it to end! We hope to meet up again in the future, NZ and Australia are both definitely on our list again, so here’s to the next time…..!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Late breaking news…..

We are now safe and sound in KL again! No this wasn’t the plan, but as we were drifting round Kuala Lipis this morning trying to buy snacks for our 10 hours combined train journeys, we came to the railway station. Why we went in and showed her our e-tickets who knows (“look aren’t we clever we bought these on the web?”) but she walked away and came back and said there was a problem, a train derailed last night north of Gemas, so we wouldn’t be going there today! Now it’s odd, I’ve had really bad vibes about this journey and as soon as she said that I actually felt relief! We marched fairly quickly to the bus station, after the ticket lady and I convinced Brian that the only way out was by bus to KL, to find many buses would be leaving, so we booked tickets for 13:00 and B went back to the railway station to get the ticket money for the next two journeys refunded. This seemed to go smoothly, but may take 30 days, so we’ll see!

So here we are back at the Orange Pekoe our home away from home in KL, they seemed pleased to see us, and they are all lovely people, so we are happy to be here. All that remains is to go to the bus station tomorrow to get a ticket to Johor Bahru, hopefully this won’t present a problem, it’s not school holidays or anything.

What is odd though, we’ve hunted the web for news of this derailment, but all we can find is a headline: Singapore-bound train derails in Malaysia, 6 injured - Channel ... but the link goes to a news site where there is no story….! Go on Tim, find out the details for us!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Kuala Lipis

The Sungai Jelai river

Another short stop on our way south to Singapore, Kuala Lipis (estuary or mouth the junction of two rivers, Sungai Lipis and Sungai Jelai) was at one time the capital of the state of Pahang until 1953. As such, the British built some reasonably interesting colonial buildings, but due to intermittent and sometimes severe flooding of the rivers, most of these buildings are built on hills or higher ground, making the town fairly spread out. The exception is the Chinese area which fronts the river and, behind it, the railway station which is on slightly higher ground.

A small kitten with stumpy tail (common here) gets some attention.
The city has a ‘forgotten’ feel about it and since the re-siting of the state capital to Kuantan it seems that visitors seldom stop here so, once again our white faces are in the minority. It’s not a bad place though and well worth the one and a half days we’ve spent here. Our hotel is very nice, quite new with clean well equipped rooms and a decent size and is in the new area, but only a 10 minute walk to the old. There are also a couple of restaurants nearby, one of which lies at the edge of the new area, which is on a hill and gives quite good views over the city, so last night we ate there, returning to our hotel just before the heaven’s opened, with an impressive storm and quantity of monsoon rain that lasted quite a few hours.

The closed and sadly neglected Pahang Club
The terrace at the Pahang Club
Today in grey skies we went for a walk round the historic buildings while it was still a reasonable temperature. Some buildings had been renovated and looked pretty good, but others, notably the old Pahang Club, built in 1907 was closed, neglected and in a decaying state, even though it’s a protected, listed building. It’s built of wood and has an old world charm about it, despite its sad condition and, although we couldn’t go inside, we could walk around the outside and stand on the old terrace, where British officers and gentlemen would have sat drinking, smoking and discussing colonial business.

this owl at the zoo was not happy when I got close with my camera
The other sad place we visited was the local zoo. Sad because of the conditions for the animals and also the death traps of steep slopes and steps for visitors. It was only RM3 (£0.60) each to get in, but it really should be closed down. A crocodile was in an old pit with no water that had obviously drained out through lack of maintenance, various primates were in small cages on their own, one little monkey came over to us as we paid it attention and he kept sticking is arm through the cage so we could hold his little hand. He did like us being there though as he started dashing around his cage, swinging off things and eating and then coming back to us, putting his arm through to touch us. There were plenty of other animals, but all seemed uncared for. It really needs closing down and the animals sent somewhere where they have more space and better caring!

Kuala Lipis from the hill top zoo
The restored State Secretary's House, now a museum
Anyway, we visited a few more buildings and came away with the feeling that it was a great spread out city in amongst jungle, but has been left behind and can’t quite decide what it is or what it wants now, but it is quite a nice place. It wants to be visited, but not many people do!

Anyway, we move on again tomorrow by train again, one night in Gemas, arriving after 6:00pm after a 5 hour journey (depending on the punctuality of the train, which was an hour late when we left Gua Musang!) and leave again on the 06:46 morning train for a 5 hour journey to Johor Bahru, so no time for a blog entry tomorrow!

The railway bridge over the Sungai Jelai. This walkway had a number of rotten boards, some of which had been replaced with tree branches! It didn't stop moped riders using it though.
She said I could have ONE piece of cake (it is real cake by the way)!
Late note: we’ve just got in from dinner, having walked 5 minutes or so to an Indian restaurant nearby. Excellent food that was self-service from a buffet and, after they had pointed out the various dishes in limited English, pointing to the one’s that weren’t spicy, we chose the one’s that they told us were very spicy. They weren’t that hot, just nicely hot, served with Biryani rice, popadums and a non-alcoholic iced lime drink. We sat down in the covered, but open sided dining area with a fan on full blast behind me, so fast it blew one of our popadums away! The local cats took a liking to us and came over for some of our food, three cats in all including one kitten, so Jackie was very happy. (So was Brian, in fact he was the first to feed the little white kitten!).

Happy that is until near the end of our meal, when it was virtually dark and the insects came out, in this case swarms of very large flying ants that got caught in the fan and propelled to us, hitting us on the head, landing on the table and in the remains of our meal (and one down my front!) We had to finish quickly, pay and leave to get away and as we walked to the 7-11 convenience shop to get our usual after dinner ice cream, we could see swarms of the things in the street lights. The 7-11 shop had its lights out as the swarms were landing outside in the lights and they didn’t want them inside. They were just everywhere, even in the doorway and the foyer of our hotel, just hope they don’t get into our room round the gaps in the window frame. Just a bizarre experience! So, fire in The Blue Mountains outside Sydney, where we went with mum and flood in at least three of the places we have been in Malaysia and now a plague of flying ants! Whatever next?

Monday, 21 October 2013

Gua Musang

The bus station at Kota Bharu in the rain

After no more incidents at the Sabrina Court Hotel in Kota Bharu, we packed up and left in the rain. It had rained heavily in the night and the night before (probably the start of the NE monsoon), but when we left it was not too bad. We elected to go by local bus (local? It was nearly 4 hours away, but that is what they called it) rather than train as the train we could have taken was the regular commuter service, stopping at every station, we couldn’t buy tickets in advance, it left early (07:40) and it involved a 6km, RM20 taxi ride, so the bus was an easier and cheaper solution at RM17.50 each.

Halfway stop, cold in the bus, hot outside
It was a bus rather than a coach, it was pretty old, but it was reasonably OK so, dumping our rucksacks on two seats, hoping it wasn’t going to be too full, we settled back to look at the jungle. We weren’t too disappointed as we already knew a lot of jungle had been cleared for palm tree plantations, but it was all pretty depressing to see how much had gone. There were many mature plantations, but a huge quantity of new clearance with newly planted and tiny palm trees. What is going to happen to the wildlife that’s left? The central area of lowland Malaysia was once covered in tropical rainforest, with 195 species of mammals, the second largest in the Indo-Pacific region, but much of it now clings to existence due to habitat loss.

In these jungles exist unique animals such as the Asian Elephant (numbers estimated between 600 and 6,000), the tiger (somewhere between 350 and 600), the Malayan Tapir (the largest living), the two-horned Sumatran rhinoceros (the worlds smallest), plus squirrels, deer, civet, primates, the rare sun bear, the clouded leopard and many species of bats (see:, but from our bus we could see jungle only on high remote peaks, isolated by cleared land and palm forests.

Gua Musang High Street, with it's scenery of limestone outcrops
The railways running past the limestone cliffs. We walked all along that path at the base of the cliffs today!
The Malaysian government recognise the problem and are apparently committed to retaining 50% of the land area of the peninsular as jungle, but how successful they are and will be remains to be seen. I suppose it’s likely that the most cleared areas will be closest to roads, so perhaps we saw it at its worst, I hope so! Tomorrow our onward travel is by train, so perhaps we’ll see more forest.

Anyway, we arrived at Gua Musang (translated as Cave of the Fox) around 13:00. Up until 1988 it was only accessible by train and now there are two towns, old and new Gua Musang, separated by about 2km. 
The old railway station. Hey Tim, that's train no. 23108!
There’s also an old and new railway station, but both situated in the old town (?) and we’re a 15 minute walk from the new station, making it easy tomorrow to walk there with our rucksacks (they don’t appear to have any taxis here, or none that we’ve seen). It was a bit of a problem when we arrived as the bus station is in the new town, 2km from our hotel and, even though he drove right past our hotel he wouldn’t stop. I asked him but he said ‘no, at the bus stop’, so we had a 2km walk in the midday hot sun to our hotel (good job we’d looked on Google Maps the day before to see where we had to go!).

The hotel offers breakfast. Here's this mornings: blue rice!
The hotel is pretty good, but the room is quite small. It’s probably the size of the bathroom we had in Kota Bharu, but it has everything we need and is clean! Once again it seems few Europeans stay here, so we are in the minority, our white faces being stared at, particularly by small children. English is also fairly uncommon, a feature of Malaysian schooling, who only teach English only once per week in the schools, so all people under 50 (since independence) have only a slight grasp of the language, only older people having a good knowledge.

Moustache cat no. 2
We have the feeling that, as we walk past restaurants owners breathe a sigh of relief that they won’t have to use their limited English (I know what you’re thinking, why should they have to, why don’t we learn Malay? Why indeed, but we can’t!). Last night we went to an outdoor area that is a car park by day and a restaurant by night (parking meters were in amongst the tables and chairs!), with 5 or 6 restaurants serving the tables. You go to each restaurant, order what you want and they bring it to your table. We sat at one and an older lady who could speak reasonable English was sent over to take our order (we think the others pushed her out front to go and talk to those funny white people) and we had a delicious and cheap meal (RM16 = £3.20, including non-alcoholic drinks), but we spied a satay stand so I went over to order some. 
A very rickety bridge that seemed to lead nowhere
Sitting behind it was a young girl wearing a tee shirt with a UK union flag printed on it, but as I approached I could see a look of dread appear across her face and she tried to shrink away. The elder ladies sat at a table nearby told her that she had to try, so I pointed, held up a number of fingers for the quantity I wanted, but could see her anxiously looking to her elders. ‘Chicken or beef’ one of the ladies asked, so I looked back at the girl to reply ‘Ayam’, which I thought was Malay for chicken. The ladies confirmed ‘chicken’ to me in English (maybe it was my accent!) and the girl set to work, bringing them over without saying a word, but they were delicious!

Inside a Chinese temple
We really like the town and surrounding area, it’s got a really nice semi isolated feel about it, the old town is really nice, but the really good thing about it is the scenery, there are quite a number of large limestone outcrops all around, many of them riddled with caves (none that we can go in though, many of them being high on the cliffs). The rock faces look fabulous and we’ve been sizing them up for climbing, most looking fearsomely difficult and very high, but some look sort of do-able, although we’ve seen no signs of either bolts or footpaths to the base and most of the possible do-able bits are severely overgrown. Jackie looked on the internet and found that there are some crags about 6km away that have some routes on, about 30 bolted routes ranging from 5a to 7a, the majority in the 5c to 6c range. Mmm, probably a bit hard even if we had the gear here (which we haven’t, we’ve heard it’s just arrived back at Andantex in the UK after we posted it back from Melbourne on 12th August!).

So instead we’ve been for a couple of walks through the palm plantations, near the crags, just to feel we’re out in the country rather than in city’s looking at museums! Trouble is, in the sun it’s just so hot! We set off at 09:30 this morning and, in the sun, the heat just gnaws away at us until we’re running with sweat even just strolling. Fortunately the crags cast a shadow in the morning sun, so it was a pleasant few hours walk, until the sun cleared the crags, the oppressive heat bore down and we were on a dirt road, probably the best part of an hours walk from our hotel and little idea where we were with no map! We walked back a bit, found a way across the railway line, into a small local village by a river and, eventually back to the main road towards home and, at last, a shop selling iced drinks! Give me one of those ice-blended one’s and let me consume it immediately, whilst holding its icy container to hot arms, hands and face – that’s better! After that, as usual, we retreated back to our air conditioned room. That’s the problem with Malaysia, it’s a great and very cheap country, but we couldn’t live here, it’s just too hot!