PPS… (Post-trip Perspective… oh! and some Stats)

Well we have been back ‘home’ now for about a month and are starting to look back on our trip with a little perspective and seeing it for the first time as a complete entity.  To be honest we entered this period with some slight dread, as many overlanders will tell you about the post-trip blues when suddenly the world stops, all notion of onward travel ceases and you are faced with the reality of having spent the pot of gold that paid for the trip just past and the necessary adjustments needed to get back into some sort of employment and more ‘mainstream’ / ‘normal life’ whatever that may be.  On top of the you are trying to assimilate everything that happened on the road in a world where most folk have no idea of what you have just been through…

We didn’t really experience too much of this on our previous Pan-American trip. We returned to Northern Ireland, where we spent some time living with Maggie’s mum.  We also had a little money inherited from when my own mother passed away plus a small income from the rent from our own house in England so we had something of a cushioned landing.  At home things were more or less as they had been when we left, so it was just a question of deciding what we wanted to do next.  Eventually we drifted back to work when we felt ready, having written our two Pan-American travel books.  This time it is very different.  The trip itself has been over twice as long as the Pan-American (38 months against 15 months) and cost a lot more so there is a more pressing need to find employment. Additionally, we are coming home to a country much changed by International events; namely Brexit.

Brexit had a massive and immediate impact on our travels and it happened on day 355 of our trip, which lasted 1164 days in total.  Immediately, the pound fell by around 10% overnight on the decision that Britain would leave the EU. Simply put, when we next went to get £100 worth of local currency from the ATM it was suddenly costing us £110!  We calculated that, had the pound retained its pre-Brexit exchange rate, we could have stayed on the road for another 80-days (or at least come home with a better bank balance at the end).  In work too Brexit has had a huge impact.  I worked for Airbus, in their space division and when I left in 2015 the UK sites had a massive workload, most of it European and I just assumed there would be no problem in slotting right back in to the next programme to come along, as we were always looking for skilled people. Now, post-Brexit, it seems that European space programmes are simply no longer being awarded to Britain and the workload is suffering.

Consequently, these circumstances have made us consider working and living elsewhere.  I started looking for employment back in June and was successful in attracting interest from firms in Holland and Germany.  I had two really good video interviews by Skype (hence the haircuts in the last post) and these were to be followed up by face-to-face interviews on site in each country upon our return.  We landed in Gatwick on a Tuesday morning and on Wednesday I flew to Holland for the Dutch interview in Delft on the Thursday.  The following Monday I had a UK interview in Surrey and then flew to Bremen for the German interview.  So our homecoming was somewhat busy to say the least.  Before declaring the outcome of this here are some facts and figures from our journey…

THE STATS!

 We don’t really have a detailed cost breakdown for the trip but here are some statistics that may be of interest to anyone thinking of a similar trip. We had been slowly planning this trip since the end of the Pan-American ride in 2006.  It was funded by some savings accrued over that time + a monthly income from a rented property in the UK.

 THE TRIP

 Duration:  3 years, 2 months and 6 days (1164 days in total).

Distance Travelled: 51,000 miles.  Note: on average, for every day riding, we spent three days off the bikes allowing us to really explore our changing environment.

 Number of countries visited: 26; England, France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, UAE (Dubai), India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, East Timor, Australia (including Tasmania), New Zealand and finally Canada.

 Favourite Country: hard one this… toss up between India and Indonesia all based on the colour, aromas and vibrancy of both places.

 Most Memorable Moments:

Every day was truly memorable but a few occasions really stand out…

The Burmese New Year Thingyan Water Festival, the biggest water-pistol fight on the planet.  See post – Magnificent Myanmar (or Burma in old money…)

Helping to cook and serve 5000 Biryanis in Singapore with ‘Free Food For All Charity’.  See post: Singapore feeding the Five Thousand

Meeting an Orang-u-tan in Sumatra.  See post Wild Sumatran Roads

Riding our bikes inside the crater of the volcano at Bromo in Java.  See post And Now For Something Completely Spectacular…”

HU 2017 Indonesia on Sumbawa.  See post Profile of an Adventurer; HU 2017

The spectacular wildlife encounters in Komodo National Park, Indonesia. See post Way of the Dragon!

Worst Moment:Seeing the little girl die in India.  See post Tragedy on the Road East…

 Scariest Moment:  Trying to pass an oncoming truck in roadworks on an elevated highway in Java with millimeters between the side of the truck and a broken neck had he nudged us over the edge. See post Wild Sumatran Roads: The Ride to Java…

 Top 10 Most Beautiful Places that made us go ‘Wow!!!’ (in no particular order and click on each entry to see the relevant photogallery)

Pamukkale (Turkey)

Cappadocia (Turkey)

Tomb of Safi-ad-Din (Iran)

Hampi (India)

Amber Fortress (Rajasthan – India)

Ko Phi Phi Island (Thailand)

Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia)

Bromo Volcano (Indonesia)

Whitehaven Beach (Australia)

Milford Sound (New Zealand)

What We Loved Most: 

 Every day, being able to make the world what we wanted it to be: At home you are bound by the responsibilities of holding down a job and running a house.  Your life is dictated by a fairly rigid timetable of events centred round this and it is further encumbered by a plethora of material things that need care and looking after.  On the road life is minimal and stripped to the basics leaving us the ability to order our lives as we saw fit.  Don’t like a place? Just move on.  Carrying something that isn’t contributing towards the trip? Just give it away. Life is soon pared down to the basics, leaving a lot of time to focus on the things that make you happy and the garnering of beautiful encounters, experiences and meeting simply wonderful people.

 What We Disliked Most: 

 Shipping the bikes: Every time it is different… a different set of documents required, a different set of costs and most of it beyond your control. We hated being separated from the bikes and worrying that something might happen to delay their arrival at the next destination. On a similar note we also hated any protracted dealings with Customs.  The entry into Singapore was perhaps one of the most stressy days of the trip (see…

BIKES: 2 x 2002 model BMW F650GS

Note: for details of the bikes themselves please see the reference section here: The Bikes

 Norm’s Bike – KP52 VTO– covered 51,004 miles on this round the world trip.  Total mileage at the end of the trip: 116,407

What went wrong?:

1 x waterpump & head gasket replaced @ 105,000 miles.  I suspect the head gasket didn’t need to be replaced. I had water in the engine oil but no weep from the special weep hole that indicates waterpump failure.  The head gasket was replaced but in the subsequent pressure test the waterpump was found to be leaking so it too was replaced. I suspect that it was the cause of the water leak all along.

1 x Radiator cap – was sticking and caused over-pressuring of the burp tank when the engine was hot in Darjeeling.  Swapped caps, which confirmed the cap was faulty on both bikes.

1 x leaking fuel pump.  This was the bane of my life for many months on the trip.  A bit of an unusual one, where one of the feedthroughs on the electrical wires that power the pump had overheated causing the rubber seal to yield and allowing petrol to leak via the feedthrough in the top of the plastic fuel pump.  I tried every glue, paint, sealant, putty under the sun to fix the leak and every time the petrol dissolved the fix (I suspect that there is a lot of ethanol / additives in some of the fuels we were using) and the pump leaked again.   As the leak was in the pump, which is mounted on the top of the fuel tank, it was only a problem when the tank was full, but this meant that I couldn’t fill the bike at night in readiness for an early morning start on a full tank of gas.  Eventually I sourced a replacement second hand pump in Brisbane, Australia and that was the end of the problem.

1 x Speedo PCB capacitor replaced – known problem on the F650 that I’d lived with for quite a while, causing the instruments to flicker when cold/damp. Fixed by Wayne Toll in NZ who was aware of the problem and had the parts.

1 x front wheel bearing set replaced due to wear & tear.

2 x Batteries – started with a Motobatt that lasted from May 2013 for 62,000 miles. Replaced with another Motobatt in NZ due to failing performance / start problems.

1 x mystery fail to start attributed to a dodgy relay that was replaced.

Maggie’s Bike – KG02 FUU– covered 50,439 miles on this round the world trip. Total mileage at the end of the trip: 113,710.

What went wrong?:

3 x waterpumps replaced @ 75,000, 85,000 and 109,000 miles.  Not really sure why this bike chewed waterpumps. The third one was attributed to use of a radiator sealant that had fine metal particles in it.  Although they fixed a leaky rad, the little metallic particles also worked their way into the waterpump seals and destroyed them.

1 x Radiator cap – as per the other bike – went shortly after the first one was fixed – good job we ordered two caps!

1 x front wheel bearing set replaced due to wear & tear.

1 x broken wheel spoke (front) – replaced by a custom-made part from Retro Classic Cycles, Yogyakarta, Indonesia .

3 x Batteries – started with a Motobatt that lasted from May 2013 for 30,000 miles.  This died (dried out) in Sumatra, Indonesia and was replaced by a local ‘Gold Shine’ 12N10-3B lead-acid battery, which lasted for 12,300 miles and died on arrival in NZ.  Replaced with another Motobatt.

Service items:

13 x Oil & Filter changes

2x Air Filter changes

2 x Spark Plug changes

3 x Chain & Sprocket kits.

5 x sets brake pads.

5 x Front tyres:

  • 1 x Bridgestone Battlewing – Home – Dubai.
  • 2 x Metzeler Karoo 3’s – Dubai – Chiang Mai (Thailand), then 2ndtyre on to Darwin
  • 2 x Heidenau K60 Scouts – Darwin – Christchurch (NZ), then 2ndtyre on to home

8 x Rear tyres:

  • 1 x Bridgestone Battlewing – Home – Dubai.
  • 1 x Metzeler Karoo 3 – Dubai – Jaipur (India)
  • 1 x Vee Rubber – Jaipur – Chiang Mai
  • 2 x Metzeler Karoo 3 – Chiang Mai (Thailand) – Singapore, then 2ndtyre on to Darwin
  • 3 x Heidenau K60 Scouts – Darwin – Melbourne, then 2ndtyre on to Christchurch (NZ), then 3rdtyre on home.

No real complaints about the road performance / grip of any of the tyres we used.  The Karoo 3’s have a dreadfully short life (about 5000 miles on the rear) as did the Vee Rubber, a Thai tyre and the only replacement we could get in India.

In summary the two bikes were superb.  Great performance (will cruise at 60 – 70 mph all day), economy (60 – 70mpg) with no major breakdowns and nearly all of the problems listed above were simply due to age / wear and tear.

3) ACCOMMODATION

 Accommodation is one of the biggest costs of any trip and here is a breakdown of our accommodation by the number of nights spent at each type of shelter…

Type No. Nights Comments
B&B / Hotel / Apartment (paid) 649 Out of Europe and all the way through Asia.
Camping (paid) 239 We left our camping kit at home in Europe and procured camping kit in Australia for use through there, New Zealand and Canada, where other accommodations are astronomically expensive.
Tour (paid) 25 We were required to join guided tours through both Iran and Myanmar, which included accommodation as part of the overall package.
Family & Friends (free) 142 All the wonderful people who hosted us at their homes across the world, from cousins and friends from home who live overseas to people who followed our website and kindly offered us shelter and hospitality along the way.
Workaway / House-Sitting (free) 109 Workaway / House-Sitting was where we worked or house-sat in exchange for free accommodation and sometimes food.

Add websites

Total = 1164

Taking the total of the paid and free nights accommodation (less the tours), our average spend on accommodation worked out at £17.80 per night.

4) HEALTH & FOOD

In general we both enjoyed improved health throughout the trip and had zero colds / flu for the duration.  I lost a little weight as we find we don’t snack so much when travelling, which is also a more physical activity so you are burning up the calories every day.  I suffer from a Hiatus Hernia and found I was able to reduce my medications for this again due to a more active lifestyle (and not drinking so much wine!).

We had one major health scare when I found a lump in my groin in Thailand. We had fantastic treatment at the local hospital in Chiang Mai, where I was promptly examined and scanned.  It was traced to a side effect from taking Malaria tablets, which can cause inflammation of glands and lymph nodes. We decided to abandon the tablets and worked on preventing bites instead by using insect repellant / mosquito nets / wearing long sleeves etc.

To be honest insects proved to be but a minor inconvenience in Asia. There are a lot of flies in Australia and we got eaten alive by sandflies in Queensland.  However the worst country of the entire trip for insects was Canada, where we provided free breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper, with snacks in between, to just about every winged critter from coast to coast.

We had zero gastric problems / food poisoning etc, over the entire trip!  The food from end to end was awesome! We really enjoyed eating / trying the local food and although we didn’t camp through Asia we did carry our kitchen kit so cooked where possible, when staying in apartment style rooms, using local ingredients.  In India we went vegetarian for the entire 4.5 months except in Kerala and Goa where we also had seafood.

5) THE FUTURE

Everything is now back in the UK.  The bikes are MOT’d, taxed and insured and we have enjoyed a wonderful round of catching up with friends and family both in Stevenage and back home in Belfast, where we had a wonderful reunion with my wee sister Gina, her hubby Robert, my nephew Ryan and niece Becky.  We missed everyone terribly and it was great to come home and feel the love!

So the interviews are all concluded and, with great deliberation, we are opening a new chapter in our journey through this life as we move next to northern Germany to start a new life in Bremen.

Thank you all for following us and watch this space for what happens next…

There is no specific photogallery for this post but I have updated the photogallery page with a favourite snapshot to lead you into each gallery, indexing the entire  trip from start to finish.  Click here to see everything… Photogallery 

Advertisements

Singapore – Feeding the Five Thousand…

Singapore; we were in! Ermmmm… except not just yet… Passports and carnets all stamped: check. Fully road legal with 28-days insurance and ICP (costing almost $300 each @ exchange rate of $1.7 SGP = £1): check. Now just one more thing; we needed an Autopass card @$12. This is a sort of credit card that covers road tax and grants the holder 10-days free access to Singapore’s roads but then accumulates a $4-per-day charge thereafter. It was starting to feel like someone had snicked the corner of my wallet leaving me wandering around customs bleeding cash…

“So that’s it?” we asked, “After Autopass we’re free to go?”

“No; still need ERP,” was the reply.

ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) is a congestion-charge (on top of the road tax) for accessing certain busy central areas. The system works off gantry-mounted cameras that read car number plates and charge accordingly. The penalties for ERP infractions are severe; $70 fine per gantry. It’s OK for cars as you can pay this with the Autopass but for bikes (with no standard front number plate) you need to mount an electronic unit @$125 rental deposit + $5 daily usage charge + all accumulated ERP charges. They were talking about finding units and getting someone to wire them onto the bike! At this point we declined; we confirmed the route to our Workaway was ‘ERP free’ and decided to just hide the bikes for the duration of our stay on the island. Packing our documents away to finally leave the border, I checked the passports and noted that the newly inserted immigration card bore the legend “DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPOREAN LAW.” As the closing act on a stressful border crossing it all seemed so aggressive, unnecessary and unwelcoming.

Motorcycling in Singapore proved to be about as exciting as riding around Birmingham except all confined on an island. The ride to Azra’s house took us through a mess of conurbation and traffic with nothing much to look at other than repeat visions of high-rise tenement blocks, shopping malls sploshed in the familiar heraldry of the big chains, industrial units and a plopped-on-top spaghetti mess of carriageway. I was sure I had seen this landscape before… A few days later, riding around on the impressive MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system, it struck me; this is surely a prototype for one of the Mega-Cities from Judge Dredd in the 2000AD comics. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, where the planet has been reduced to a nuclear wasteland, people are confined in huge Mega-Cities where space is at a premium and the only way to build is up; Singapore with its Mega-Bloks and Malls! To put this in perspective, the islands of Singapore cover a miniscule land area of only 720 km2, yet have a whopping population of 5.4 million people. To give you an idea of how cram-packed that is our homeland, Northern Ireland, covers an area of 14,000 km2 with a population of around 1.8 million (that’s almost twenty times bigger with only a third of the population). Even other big cities like London have nowhere near this population density. Another startling fact is that the increase in Singapore’s population has been relatively recent. In 1980 the population was just under 2.5 million souls. By 2000 it had reached 4 million and now this… A March 2016 article in the Economist, comparing cost of living indices, rated Singapore as the most expensive place to live on the planet for the third year running, topping Zurich / Hong Kong, Geneva, Paris, London and New York who hold 2nd – 6th places respectively.

So far I’m not painting a very good picture of Singapore, a muss of fuss and hassle, unfriendly border bureaucracy and petty rules with whopping fines; overcrowding and congestion with nothing much to look at and premium prices for everything thrown in. But Singapore had one supremely redeeming feature that would end our recent purgatory and reward us with some of the finest travel experiences of this trip to date; its people. Singapore, you see, is rather like a hedgehog; all the pricks are on the outside…

The GPS took us to the east of the island where we pulled up outside Azra’s town house in a rather pleasant leafy suburb. Her father, Afandi, greeted us with the breaking news of the day; Donald Trump had won the US Presidency. We hoped against hope that this was some silly Malay joke but sadly it was true; the muppet with the mop was in. Then we met Tin-Tin, the Indonesian maid, who showed us to our ample room at the top of the three-storey house. Later Azra with Nicholas, her Belgian husband, returned from work to bid us a very warm and smiley welcome to their house with apologies for not being there earlier to greet us. Their three children, Danish, Leah and Luc joined us for a tasty pasta dinner and we had a pleasant evening discussing our Workaway roles.

Azra works as general manager for a local charity called Free Food For All and next day we met the members of the board. The gentle Faiz, the experienced and kindly Karim and the chief and founder himself: Nizar, a great big bear of a man with a heart of corn. The meeting, in true Malay fashion, was conducted over a vast mound of food in a café in one of the tenement blocks where the charity had a lot of beneficiaries. Outside a horrific monsoon storm brought a deluge of rain with violent smacks of thunder and whiteout sheets of lightning. With introductions made, we sat down to ‘just-a-snack’ of Murtabak and some ‘John’s Bread’– delicious variants of stuffed hot roti breads. We’d already eaten lunch but this was too delicious to pass on so we found ourselves tearing into the steaming bread with everyone else as we learned the whys and wherefores of Free Food For All.

Most expensive place to live on the planet…? Why would anyone need ‘free food’ here? Well, as we all know, lives change and people suddenly find themselves in dire straits. A partner walks out, you get fired… made redundant; you are diagnosed with a long-term illness and cannot work. Suddenly there is a clutter of young mouths to feed with no money coming in. One of the first things to suffer is food and nutrition, as the household budget is drastically restricted. That’s where the charity comes in. To start they provide a decent cooked meal once a day to qualified beneficiaries, removing at a stroke the worry of where that next dinner is coming from. But this is just the start. The free food is an inroad to other services, including counseling and planning services, to help get the beneficiary back on track, into employment and helping them to once again become a contributor to society. To date FFFA has delivered over 200,000 cooked meals to members of all communities across Singapore and, we can vouch, they are dong a sterling job.

Our first activity was a forthcoming “Meal for a Meal” event where individuals purchase a $10 lamb biryani as part of a 2-for-1 deal, providing a free dinner to a beneficiary. The target was to sell 5000 Biryanis in a day and a caterer was onboard to cook the food. Many individuals had already pledged to take dinners and we spent several days on the phone securing donations and chatting with chirpy Singaporeans. It seemed that people were happy to make an event of the occasion, organising ‘Biryani parties’ with friends and families, whilst others placed substantial orders and simply gave it all away to the beneficiaries. Then came the weekend of the epic cookout. Kick-off was 7pm Friday evening in the public meeting space in the Chai Chee tenement block, with over twenty huge cauldrons set up on industrial sized gas burners. Marinating meat was set to stew and rice was washed and cleaned before mixing with vegetables and spices. Steaming cauldrons were stirred with oars, the entire set resembling the giant’s kitchen from Jack and the Beanstalk. Cooking continued throughout the night and by early morning everything was ready.

A legion of volunteers had arrived to undertake the logistics of feeding this five thousand. The area was a hive of frenetic activity and we willingly threw ourselves into every aspect of it. The production line was soon rolling with containers loaded up with rice, a serving of meat and a jollop of sauce, lids on, all labeled up, container sealed and then stacked. Stacks were then boxed into area orders and couriers dispatched for delivery all over the island. The air hung rich with the smell of good food, high notes of cinnamon, cardamom and curry leaf, wafting from the rich gravy that was lovingly ladled into each serving. I stopped for a moment to contemplate how on earth our travels had led us to this point and realised there was another gravy going on today; a gravy of community and humanity. Scanning the scene before me I noted beautiful smiling Malay and Indian Moslems, ladies in hijab, working side by side with grinning Chinese, Buddhist, Christians and Atheists all towards one end; to give someone less fortunate a decent dinner.  There was no demarcation, no us and them, just us… all of us, doing this act of kindness, right here and now. I never felt so alive in my life and a look across at Maggie in a throng of willing hands round a table, busy sorting the next orders, told me she was feeling the same elation. By 3pm, after an exhausting night and day we were all sold out; the five thousand had been fed!

The rest of our Workaway time in Singapore was spent helping draft web content for the charity. We also helped to cook a barbeque in a children’s orphanage, reciprocating help with some friends of Azras who had been in the thick of it at the Biryani cookout. We learned (while chatting over the coals at the barbeque) that the event was simply organised by a bunch of old school-friends who decided that instead of holding an annual reunion, they would cook a treat for a bunch of orphans. It was such a simple and beautiful consideration and once again we felt privileged to encounter the great spirit of community that exists in Singapore.

It’s so funny but with the overcrowding and population density noted above you would expect a fair degree of chaos and disorder to reign here. Journey into the mega-blocks and you wouldn’t be surprised to find slums, graffiti, maybe burned-out cars and trash piles everywhere all of this a veneer for a seedy life filled with crime, petty and serious, a place where decent people hide unseen for the most part. But Singapore is nothing of the sort. We visited one of the blocks with Azra and all of these things are notable by their absence; there is no trash, no graffiti, no slum. My guess is that the only way to live in such a packed environment is to have strict rules (such as we experienced trying to enter the country) and for everyone to stand by them, with stringent penalties enforced for all infractions, such as transgressing the ERP gantries (we later noted a ‘no fishing’ sign in the Marina Bay area with warning of a $3000 fine for transgression!) Any relaxation, any permission to just do what you like, would simply lead to chaos. But more than that, such an environment seems to breed a caring community such as we had witnessed in our charity work here, where everyone is ready to pitch in and either contribute or participate. Free Food For All certainly gave us food for thought.

Our bikes sat in Azra’s yard unused but certainly not uncared for. We needed replacement tyres and some of our riding gear was in need of some attention. We put out a call for recommendations on Facebook, which was answered by two fellow bikers, YemPaul Antonio and Elmy Ahmad. They turned up on their off day to drive us around town to source tyres, gloves and other bits and pieces. Again, in true Malay fashion, they introduced themselves with smiles and the stock question, “have you eaten yet?” We had learned by now that there is no negative answer to this question and a huge nosh-up lunch ensued.

Considering all the kindness and hospitality we had bestowed upon us during our stay in Singapore and indeed participated in, it came as no surprise to learn that Singapore ranks as the 22nd happiest country in the world and No.1 in SE Asia, according to the World Happiness Report 2016 published by the ‘Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations’ (the same report identifies Denmark as the happiest place to live out of a total of some 165 nations). We can attest that that ranking is well warranted. Singapore had been a tough nut to crack but the filling proved to be both delicious and nutritious in every way! It had been hard to get in; now it would be even harder to walk away…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Singapore

 

 

Back to George Town, Back to School

As you may have picked up in the last blog, we are finding Malaysians to be simply some of the friendliest people on the planet. From the charming ladies at George Town Tourist Information to our ‘Workaway’ host Krish and his liberal top-ups of whiskey in the Cameron Highlands. Krish, a retired bank manager, bought De Native as a place to meet travellers and enjoy their company with his buddies, Velu, Cochi and Kannan who together make up an outstanding collection of ‘older men behaving badly’… They loved a glass or two at the fire and now and again would get the munchies. Some delectable curries and surprising dishes resulted. On one memorable occasion a friend drove up from Kuala Lumpur with an icebox full of blue crabs and ray wings. The barbeque was lit at 1am and an early morning feast ensued.

One of Malaysia’s greatest passions is certainly food and the national cuisine is a fine mish-mash of Malay, Chinese and Indian with jollops of everywhere else thrown in when it suits. Malays talk about food the way the English talk about weather. The main topic of conversation for Malays at breakfast is nearly always ‘what’s on for lunch!’ On our way back to George Town we took a break from Workaway for a few days in the city of Ipoh. Before leaving De Native we asked Velu for some recommendations on what to see and do at Ipoh. “Try the boiled chicken and beansprouts, Ipoh’s famous for it” was his reply, “Oh, and the Soybean milk…” This was the entrée to a rather splendid little city, one of those places we’d never previously heard of and now we wonder why? With a compact city centre and easy sprawl streets lined with more of those five-foot walkways and yet another art trail to meander, we quickly settled in for the next installment of this phase of our adventures, which we have now entitled “Om, nom, nom; munching our way through Malaysia.”

The boiled chicken looked distinctly unappetizing; pasty-looking whole chicken boiled in a watery broth, carved up and served with a side of equally pasty-looking stir-fried beansprouts. Our noses said otherwise and the final tasting was delectable to the point that we wondered would they really think we were greedy gannets if we ordered another plate or two? Honestly, even sitting here writing about that simple repast has set my taste buds flowing. Ipoh yielded other culinary surprises including biscuit shops selling a delectable peanut brittle and another Ipoh specialty, chicken biscuits named after a cook at the Chengzhu Restaurant in Guangzhou, China, called Siu Fung, which means ‘Small Phoenix’ (stop sniggering at the back there…). Apparently, in Cantonese, Siu Fung is also the slang term for a small chicken, hence his name was applied to his very own biscuity invention. The flat crispy biscuits are typically made from lard, ‘nam yue’ (fermented beancurd), maltose, sugar, candied melon, 5-spice powder, and sesame seeds, all seasoned with a pinch of garlic and salt and bound together by egg before baking and not a chicken in sight. The result is a sweet and savoury treat that went quite well with a cuppa back at the hotel.

Much as we could have lingered in Ipoh to explore its many options for expanding our waistlines we had that appointment with Nazlina back in George Town, where our next ‘Workaway’ experience awaited, as we became little helpers in her world-famous cookery school. The ‘Spice Station’ located in the heart of the old town, next to Campbell Street wet-market has been operating for the past seven years. Nazlina Hussin was waiting to greet us and bid us welcome to her school. The bikes would live downstairs, safe and dry in this monsoon season behind roller doors while we moved in to the small bedroom upstairs adjacent to the school with free use of the kitchen to cook in the evening on the odd occasion when we were not stuffed to the gills from the days activities. Nazlina lives on the other side of Penang so we received simple instructions on how to set up the class for an early 7:30am start the following morning.

Cookery School Day 1: The smell of fresh roasted Penang coffee pervaded through the school, the floor was swept and mopped, the workstations were gleaming and everything was ready to go… Enter Peter Van Der Lans, a giant of a Dutchman and warm-up act for the day. Initially Peter seemed a bit gruff and his size can be a tad intimidating but, over breakfast, he set out the itinerary for the day and was quickly into his repertoire of great George Town tales. Breakfast itself consisted of freshly made Roti Canai (pronounced ‘chennai’); a stringy Indian flatbread served with a side of dhal brought in from a little stall across the street. Peter then led the students on a tour of the daily market, which runs from around 5 to 11am every day of the year. We have walked through these same markets alone and in ignorance, perhaps a little intimidated by the sheer amount of unrecognizable and unfamiliar produce on display, reluctant to waste the stall holders time asking inane questions about things we will probably never buy just to satisfy our curiosity. Walking through the market with Peter is an act of illumination making the weird familiar as we filled in the gaps in our lexicon of Asian market produce. We can now identify a whole gamut of fruit and veg from jackfruit to galangal, banana flower to ginger flower, lotus root and pandan leaf. We can spot an ‘old’ cucumber from a ‘new’ (old ones are orange and make good soup), well know the merits of your stinky bean and pick the choicest of four-angle beans for the days salad.

Meanwhile back at the school we cleared away the breakfast dishes and then helped Nazlina equip the workstations for the class ahead occasionally nipping out to shop for last minute ingredients, a sheer joy with that market right on your doorstep. We welcomed the prospect cooks back from their market tour with a chilled glass of water and then Nazlina sat everyone down to run through the dishes for the day, which were customised to cater for any allergies or special requests. Nazlina is an outstanding cook and teacher. Small, with a round face permanently beaming that huge smile, she took the class effortlessly through the intricacies of a table full of fine fresh ingredients as the education begun at the market continued and the ‘whys and wherefores’ of each recipe were fully explained; then it was time to cook. On a normal morning we prepared around five dishes ranging from Malay classics like Nasi Lemak and Beef Rendang to more hybrid fusion plates such as Beef in Black Curry Sauce. We also cooked fish and seafood; Barramundi steaks, just caught, bought and fileted at market that morning, coated in salt and turmeric, deep-fried and topped with freshly made Sambal. We learned the craft of de-inking and preparing fresh squid to make a simple dish of fried squid tossed with tomatoes, garlic and ginger all drizzled with lemon juice. Exotic yet simple salads were crafted from those four angle beans, sliced and tossed with shredded ginger flower, lemon grass and Belachan (fried shrimp paste). Each plate was a dish of sheer delectation in its own right and the lunches that followed left us pleasantly filled for the rest of the day. As the guests left we said our farewells and then set to cleaning up to make ready for the next class.

We stayed with Nazlina for a whole mouth-watering month and in that time only ever witnessed delighted customers leaving the premises. Whilst performing our ‘Workaway’ obligations, we got to know the people at the market from the many fishmongers with their individual special catches to the crowd of Indian guys who spent all morning processing coconuts and where we obtained fresh milk and grated flesh. At the rear of the market was a poultry stall with freshly slaughtered chicken and duck, the meat still warm from the animal’s body heat. Nazlina has made numerous guest-appearances on British and Australian TV cookery shows. Indeed John Torode, of BBC ‘Masterchef’ fame, visited recently to make a pineapple curry with Nazlina as part of his TV series on Malaysian cooking. You can view the full episode, which also contains glimpses of more fantastic George Town street-food on YouTube at https://youtu.be/EquLm-soBH8.

After class we had long chats with Peter who also offers guided tours of the island. It was Peter who recommended we visit the Crag Hotel way up on Penang Hill. The hotel, sadly now abandoned, was the location for the fabulous UK Channel 4 drama ‘Indian Summers’, where it provided the setting for the Royal Simla Club. We spent a hot sweaty day hiking along the route of the world’s steepest funicular railway that runs to the summit of Penang Hill. It was worth it for the magnificent views and also for the hour or so that we spent wandering around the abandoned hotel. We sat on the same porch where Julie Walters, playing the thoroughly dislikeable character of Cynthia Coffin, lorded it over all and sundry in the series set in the twilight days of 1930s India under the Raj. Sadly Channel 4 axed the series, which was originally due to run for 5 seasons, after the second season following a drop off in the audience figures between season 1 and 2. The Crag Hotel has since fallen into abandonment and disarray but the signs proclaiming the Royal Simla Club are still there along with an assortment of TV show props abandoned around the place.

Another day took us on a ramble around the Kek Lok Si Temple complex with its spectacular views over George Town but by now our month at the school was coming to an end. Sadly our 90-day Malaysian visas were due to expire so we had to make a run south to Singapore to exit the country for a while. There were big hugs and sad goodbyes to both Peter and Nazlina as we dusted off the two motorcycles downstairs and took once more to the road. We left having gained a wealth of experience both in the realms of Malaysian cuisine and in town life in this wonderful little city of George Town that we had grown to love. Malaysia however, had one more surprise in store for us. Back in the Cameron Highlands we met a gentleman by the name of Peter Yoong, in the middle of his cycling trip from Penang to Kuala Lumpur on a little Brompton folding bicycle. Peter runs a guesthouse in the city of Puchong, not far from Kuala Lumpur and is preparing to cycle around the world. He invited us to stop by on our way south. But this is Malaysia so it our visit became yet another foray into fabulous food. Within seconds of rolling up at the door we were hailed by the time-honoured Malaysian greeting ‘have you eaten yet?’ It doesn’t really matter if you have or not as a feast is invariably standing by… in this case a luscious dinner of Tilapia fish steamed in Miso paste accompanied by a delicious battered pumpkin dish drizzled with Soy Sauce. We will forever remember our Malaysian days by neither name nor date but simply by what we ate. The following morning we visited a local market for an Indian breakfast of Roti and Dhosas and later dined at a clay-pot chicken stall for an ambrosial chicken and rice stew. Peter and Alice were excellent hosts throughout and we left wishing our two-night stopover could have been longer. However the time on those Malay visas was fast running out so there was nothing else for it but to head to Singapore…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Ipoh and George Town

 

George Town and the Highland Way

If we found Langkawi lacking in the way of a true Malaysian experience, then George Town, on the island of Penang, was a more than just compensation for this deficiency. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It didn’t take much; after the first lunch I yielded my heart willingly to this beautiful old colonial gem. The British established the town as a trading post at the end of the 18th Century when the Sultan of Kedah accepted an offer of ‘protection’ against neighbouring Siamese invaders made by a Colonel Francis Light, illegitimate offspring of an unknown father, from Woodbridge, Suffolk. Light set off to earn his fortune with the East India Company and was sent to Phuket from where he travelled down the coast and recognised the strategic and trade potential of Penang. Local legend tells how, in order to clear some jungle to make a stockade for his base, he had a ships cannon fire a load of silver coins into the area. He then told the natives they could keep whatever they found and so the ground was quickly cleared for what eventually would become Fort Cornwallis. This developed into George Town, which soon became a major port and naval base serving British interests in the region right through until Malayan Independence in 1957.

Francis Light was a fascinating character. He was unusual for his time in that he mastered both Thai and Malay languages, which gave him a lot of advantage when dealing with native rulers. He had no authority to make any kind of offer on behalf of the British Government with any Sultan; this was just a ruse to get his foot on the island. When the Siamese invaded, the forces of Kedah faced them alone with no support from their ‘new’ ally. Once the dust had settled on the war with Siam the Sultan decided to teach the British a lesson and sent an invasion fleet of Sampans against the fort, which were utterly destroyed by a few broadsides from warships at anchor there. Eventually a formal treaty was drawn up whereby the British agreed to pay the Sultan a sum of 6000 Spanish Silver Dollars per annum for the island of Penang and this fee is still paid today by the government in Kuala Lumpur. Light married a Eurasian lady of Portuguese / Thai parentage called Martina Rozells and had a brood of children with her. As she was Catholic, the marriage was not recognised by the authorities of the day so when Light died in his early fifties from malaria one of his friends moved in and took over all of his property leaving Martina penniless. She soon married another gentleman of wealth so there was a reasonably happy ending. One of Light’s offspring would become the first Surveyor general of Western Australia and founder of the city of Adelaide.

Today Fort Cornwallis is still there at the tip of a low-lying headland, surrounded by a network of cosy-snug streets lined with old Chinese shop-fronts that make up the ancient quarter of a town that oozes with atmosphere, yet on arrival it looked anything but. We rode across the magnificent Penang Bridge, one of two modern constructions that join the island to the mainland, to be confronted with a modern skyline replete with a concrete jungle of skyscrapers and apartment blocks that are home to half a million people in the greater metropolitan area of modern George Town. We soon spilled off the four-lane highway into the maze of narrow old-town streets that eventually led us to the Sovereign hotel and a warm welcome from a lovely lady named simply ‘V’.  First stop was a trip to Tourist Information down by the Fort where the two lovely smiling ladies who worked there quickly had us festooned with maps and advice on how best to tackle the city delights.

George Town is an epicurean paradise and rightful food capital of Malaysia. On emerging into the street, ones nostrils are gently forked by wafts of food being cooked, demanding you follow those luscious vapors whilst mouthing the war cry of the gastronome over and over; ‘Om Nom Nom…’ The trail threads through byways choked with food vendors operating from little handcarts and motorcycle restaurants where the entire apparatus to cook and serve scrumptious food is strapped to a ‘wee’ bike, mainly the ubiquitous Honda C70. Each vendor seems to specialise in one dish only and all over the city there is an astonishing variety of rice (Nasi) and noodles (Mee). Our favourite was one of the most ‘Om Nom Nom’ breakfast dishes ever; Nasi Lemak; rice boiled in coconut milk served with a topping of cucumber all pimped with roasted peanuts and a spicy anchovy / chili paste. This is made into a little pyramid and topped with a boiled egg before wrapping in banana leaf to seal-in all those juices and flavours. It makes every breakfast like a birthday with a little present to open and, while the ingredients may be the same, the combination is different making for a new food sensation at the start of each day.

But just to wander the labyrinth of narrow streets of George Town is bliss in itself hugging the merciful shade of colonial five-foot walkways. These are a British innovation, whereby all shops had to be fronted by a covered sidewalk with a minimum width of five feet across to provide pedestrians some relief from the sweltering sun (and frequent downpours during Monsoon season). Their stylish archways and stunning tiled pavements make it a photographer’s paradise. Once suitably gorged on foody goodies you can walk the calories off by following the extensive art trail, including a number of inspiring and interactive murals by Lithuanian born artist Ernest Zacharevic (check out his ‘Boy on a Motorcycle’ in the photogallery). Small wonder this place is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were absolutely delighted therefore to secure a ‘Workaway’ place at the world famous Nazlina Cookery School providing us a great base to further explore the city and an opportunity to delve deeper into its cuisine, but that will be for the future; we met Nazlina and agreed to return here in October, when she will be back from a trip to Europe…

Before that we had arranged another ‘Workaway’ up in the Cameron Highlands at a place called the De Native Guesthouse in the little mountain town of Tanah Rata. We left George Town early on a Sunday morning and rode south along the east coast of Penang to exit the island by the second of the two bridges; the grandly titled and utterly spectacular ‘Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Bridge’. Why ‘spectacular’? Well the bridge is a whopping seventeen kilometers / ten and a half miles long, as it snakes across the sea to reach the mainland. It even has a dedicated motorcycle lane all cordoned off from the rest of the traffic. In fact Malaysia, is one of the most motorcycle friendliest places we’ve ever been. All highways are toll-free for bikes and there are purpose built shelters and pull-offs under bridges for when it is raining, so you can either wait out a heavy shower or pull in to get some wet-gear on. Rejoined with the mainland we rode south and then turned inland and east to ascend into the Cameron Highlands, reaching an altitude of around 1200m, which promised a cooler environment for sleeping than we’ve been used to of late.

The highlands themselves are full of more echoes of empire; quaint cottages with mock Tudor-beam facades, Victorian hotels festooned with wrought iron work and a number of tea plantations complete with tearooms offering afternoon tea complete with scones and strawberry jam. As with places like Darjeeling and Shimla in India, the area was a popular hill-station due to those cooler climes and the sons of empire settled here in their droves. Sadly today a lot of the landscape has been marred by the awful greyness of poly-tunnel farms. Whilst they grow a rich variety of everything from tomatoes and cabbages to tasty strawberries, in places they have despoiled entire vistas. The road network is small and winding making for our first serious congestion in a long time so it was with some relief that we spotted the sign for ‘De Native’ immediately on entering Tanah Rata.

We followed a narrow, twisting road for a short distance and then tackled the sheer drive up through densely jungled hillside to our new home. On past the gateway we passed a small shrine to Babaji with beautiful views over the town below before riding into the parking area where we disturbed a number of sleepy dogs. Off the bikes we were soon surrounded by wagging tails and friendly smiles as we shook hands with Krish, the owner, and met Steph and Daryl, a young couple from Cornwall / Fareham, our working buddies for the next few weeks. Duties were fairly easy, just keeping the place tidy and making up vacated rooms so they were ready for the next guests. De Native has three largish mixed dormitories and half a dozen fully en-suite, ‘glamping’ style, bamboo chalets. There is a bar and a fire pit where staff and incumbents gathered around the little bonfire in the cold evenings for a beer and a natter.

De Native was brilliantly placed as a jump-off point for a number of spectacular jungle trail-hikes in the area. Our first was Trail 9, the start of which was only a ten-minute walk from the guesthouse. A small path chased an old water pipe out to the quite beautiful Robinson Falls and then meandered on along the edge of a valley through dense jungle. At times the way seemed blocked by fallen trees across the path but a quick scramble up and over soon had us on our way. Eventually we found our way out of the bush into a small farm nestled along the bottom of the valley where they were growing gourd, cabbage and onions.   A few days later, Trail 1, was a much more challenging prospect as it climbed out of the nearby town of Brinchang to ascend Gunung Brinchang, a 2000m peak that overlooked the town. Again a well-marked trail through dense jungle but this time with a steep ascent most of the way, in places so steep that knotted ropes had been installed to aid climbing some of the more challenging sections. It was also very muddy due to recent rains and took around two hours to make it to the top, followed by a three-hour descent down a winding mountain road that led us through the Boh tea plantation for a deserved cuppa and mouth-watering cheesecake taken at the beautiful restaurant that overhangs the tea plants. These jungle trails were well marked and easy to follow for the most part so there was no repeat of our getting lost as happened at Khao Sok in Thailand. The foliage and form of the riotous plants with their glossy pointy leaves was soothing on the eye and here and there brilliant coloured flowers shone out from the greenery like little jewels. Running ones eye from the path to the heavens scans an ascent of monster tree-trunks reaching ever skywards, with here and there the slash of some fallen trunk propped up against his neighbours like a drunken giant, the lot draped and hung in jungle finery of vine and runner like a ghost-ships graveyard with a tattered disgrace of masts, spars and rigging.

Back at De Native in time for dinner: we generally cooked and dined with our ‘Workaway’ buddies and supped on discount beer courtesy of Krish who looked after his crew well. Then back to the fire to meet the days new arrivals followed by a round of the day’s tales and the ear of a friendly mutt to rub. We spent three weeks at De Native but looking back it seems much longer as it was one of those places where one could really unwind and watch the trickle of the grains of sand slow in their downward fall through the hourglass of life as if magically retarded by the company of good companions… So why would you leave such a place? Well, every time we sniffed the aroma of food in the pan, the haunting refrain of “Om Nom Nom” would rise and remind us we had an appointment with Nazlina in George Town. Time to go back to school…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed at George Town and the Highland Way