Twelve Kingfishers and a Cobra…

The title of this piece sounds like a splendid beer order on a curry night back home, a beautiful thing to behold indeed, yet this title was granted by something far more wondrous than a round of alcoholic beverages but I am getting ahead of myself… First, rewind to a sun-dappled day riding the coast road north under a sapphire blaze sky. Stop after an hour or so to woof down a couple of Roti Chenai, our second breakfast of the day, promising ourselves it will do us for lunch knowing full well we’ll probably be tempted in a few hours time by the waft of some other roadside vendor… Overeating is a common problem in Malaysia where some folk eat up to six meals a day and it is so easy to join in. The bikes are purring along, all clean and tidy after our month-long stop in Melaka; it’s a good day to be alive. The road leaves the coast to serpent crawl through mile after mile of palm oil plantation, the trees waving to us as we speed along like a convention of green-team cheerleaders. Then a stretch of major carriageway drops us into the suburbia of KL: Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. It is the middle of the afternoon, a good time to arrive in the big smoke for traffic and the journey is effortless with big carriageways delivering us right to the doorstep of the Prescott Hotel.

The Prescott was a delightful find; 3-star room at 2-star off-season prices and everything in the city within easy monorail / walking distance. From hawker-stalls on Jalan Alor to the Indonesian Embassy where we are granted 60-day visas (with up to 4 x 30 day extensions granting us up to 6-months there should we need it) to the atmospheric Chinatown and Little India. We decline the £4 a head hotel breakfast for a plate of that mouthwatering morning staple, Nasi Lemak, across the street; a measly £3 for the pair of us including white coffees lashed with evaporated milk that taste like mugs of melted caramel. KL quickly wins a place in our hearts as our favourite city in South-East Asia, easily outshining both Bangkok and Singapore. It’s a big city with a small town feel and it’s denizens really go out of their way to make a traveller welcome. The city is host to a delightful mix of old and new; grandiose colonial-era civic buildings around Merdeka Square, with its cricket style pavilion in the heart of the city, mingle with modern from the ‘donut on a needle’ KL Tower to the utterly dazzling Petronas twin towers while here and there, mosque and a minaret mish-mash with shrine, church and temple. A Sunday train ride takes us out to see Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine on the northern edge of the city sculpted out of a curtain of limestone rock.

The sands in the hourglass marking our time in Malaysia are slowly running out and we have one final trip to make before it all ends. We wanted to cut across the peninsular to see something of the east coast, looping north and returning via the central highlands for a hike or two in Taman Negara National Park to give us a feel for the interior. The monsoon season prevented us from visiting earlier, but the rains are now ending and we travelled in the hope that the weather may have eased enough to let us see the place. It would also be a superb opportunity for our first attempt to film part of our trip. We have always been reluctant to video our travels for a number of reasons, chiefly, that your trip can easily turn into one big movie shoot with all the attendant frustrations and hassles of catching the right footage. From the expense of buying decent camera equipment, the masses of computer memory required for movie footage as opposed to stills and finally the inordinate amounts of time spent editing the movies, splicing in soundtracks etc, and you lose a heck of a lot of travel time making what will probably be a mediocre home-movie at best. Back in Melaka our little Panasonic Lumix camera died after many years of sterling service and, seeking a suitable replacement, my eye was drawn to a fantastic deal on an SJ4000; a little ‘Go-Pro clone’ that came with a fantastic array of accessories with a freebie selfie-stick and memory card all thrown in. A few YouTube reviews convinced us to go for it; if successful we could use all the accessories on a more expensive Go-Pro while at the same time it wasn’t such a big expenditure if it ultimately proved unsuccessful.

A fantastic sunlit dawn provided the scene for the inaugural video; “The Leprechauns Leaving of Kuala Lumpur”. With the camera mounted on top of my helmet we set off catching the sleepy-eyed city as it woke from a Saturday night. Dust motes twirled through the crepuscular rays as the sunrise crept around skyscrapers filling canyons of streets with golden light. Mopeds buzzed around my front wheel giving some feel to what it’s like ride through an Asian metropolis and then the towers hove into view. First the KL, spire first, peeking over a curtain of high-rise blocks. The road skirted the buildings revealing the entire height of the needle from stem to tip, all sited atop the jungled garden that laps around its base. The road wound on beneath the monorail into a futuristic cityscape, all glass, concrete and steel, the route lined with spectacular palms and banyans with the tendril roots of the latter trailing down from lofty branches to remind the viewer that these are equatorial climes. Suddenly the Petronas Towers hove into view. I gasped at the beauty of these jeweled icons, their stainless carapace sparkling all diamante and reflecting laser beam lights of pure sunshine in all directions. Traffic lights ahead changed to red and I sat awhile jabbering excitedly on the intercom to Mags, enthralled that my directorial debut was yielding such fantastic material. This was just superb! What a start to the day!

The lights changed and the road led us away from the excitement into more mundane suburbs. The cool morning breeze wafted across my face as we gathered a bit of speed on the link road to the motorway out of town. Better drop the flip front of the helmet then… At this point I should explain to the non-motorcycling reader, Maggie and I are using what are known as ‘flip-front’ helmets for this trip. They look like a full-face crash helmet only the entire chin piece can be raised like a medieval knight would raise his visor after the joust. Flip-front helmets are just great for slow speed riding around town so you can enjoy the benefits of a cool breeze just like this morning… except that this morning I have a new video camera mounted on top of my helmet that is supposedly capturing fantastic footage of the metropolis… Later when I downloaded the movie, you guessed it… about 40 minutes of flip-front, totally obscuring every shot. No towers, no trees, no sparkles just a crappy piece of white plastic proceeding vaguely along some road.

The highway across the country to Kuantan was some compensation for my failed cinematography and surely one of the great rides of Malaysia; the E8, a staggering, slaloming, super-wide motorway into the mountains full of fast bends and stunning scenery. Then the slower coastal road delivered us to the surfer beaches at Cherating for a couple of nights at a mostly vacant resort. It is still too early in the season and we had lashings of rain and stormy seas dictating an earlier than planned ride on up to Kuala Terengganu. On the surface Terengganu didn’t seem to have a lot to offer, especially when dappled dull by grey skies, but this is Malaysia and the friendly and welcoming people here simply make anything seem great. Our hostess at the ‘Titi Villa’ (…stop sniggering at the back there!) delivered a bountiful supply of home cooked food to our door at least once a day, delicious repasts ranging from lightly curried Malay pasta to a fragrant fall-apart fish platter that tasted like the catch of the day basted in a curried bisque.

Sadly we learned that the heavy rain had destroyed our intended route up through the central highlands to Taman Negara, incurring a 60-mile detour to the north to circumvent the blocked road. Rain induced landslides had destroyed several roads in the area with some loss of life, including the tragic tale in the local paper of a schoolteacher whose car veered into a collapsed drainage ditch. The car was wedged in the ditch and, unable to open the doors, she called her husband on her mobile as the car filled with water. He rushed to the scene only to retrieve her drowned body.

Fortunately the sun was now shining as we rode into the Malaysian heartland and made our way to Kuala Tahan, where the road ends at the broad reach of the Kelantan River across which was the gateway to the park (you will have noticed the word ‘Kuala’ appearing in quite a few Malay place names; it means ‘place were two rivers meet’). But let’s not go there just yet… That road ran like a liquorish bootlace through palm plantation chased all the way by telegraph poles, their sagging lines adorned with clothes-peg arrays of beautiful little swallows. Now and again they descended to chase along the road in front of us turning our slow ride into a real zippity-do-da-day. Then a tracer-round of electric blue flashed by; a Kingfisher, most beautiful of birds, had joined the fun! We rolled off and watched as he alighted on the lines up ahead, heads swiveling like mechanical owls unable to take our eyes off him. Back home in the UK most of our native wildlife is fairly drab and muted in colour. One exception is the Kingfisher, most elusive and tiniest of birds and we have glimpsed flashes of these little streaks of blue maybe four or five times in our lives. So you can imagine our delight at this encounter on the bike, even better to see him perched on the telegraph wire allowing a good look at him. We rode on; another Kingfisher on the other side of the road, a while later yet another and then a pair of them watching us ride by, then another and another until we had counted a round dozen providing a spectacular avian honour-guard for the day.  Indeed our Kingfishers were appropriately bright jewels to stud what was for us the crowning beauty of all Malaysia; Taman Negara National Park.

Kuala Tahan, service town for the park, was something of a sleepy outpost backed on to the river, a collection of a few shady guesthouses, eateries and package tour companies offering everything from day trips to jungle expeditions into the park. Down by the river a number of floating restaurants lined the banks. At the far end one of them hung suspended from the trees high up on the bank, like Dorothy’s house from the Wizard of Oz, marooned when the river flooded a few years back. We spent days in the park, wandering muddy jungle trails (after all the recent rain) and climbing up to try the canopy walk, a run of rope-ladder and netting constructions that take you high up into the trees, rendered utterly frightening by the ricketiness of it all.  We saw monkeys, more Kingfishers, heard rather than saw a racket of Hornbills up in the canopy above and gawked at a splendid Brahminy Eagle circling the riverbanks. On our final hike, we were making our way back to the ferry back to town when we bumped into a couple of locals walking in the opposite direction. They were stopped and frantically gestured for us to halt! keep quiet! stay back! and take care! The guy made a sinuous motion with his arm and pointed into some bushes at the side of the trail. He then uttered one word “Cobra!” If we were unsure of his gestures that word put the fear of god into us and made us obey… After a few moments we cautiously crept along the path, eyes glued to the bushes where the snake was last observed. Peering into the gloom we spied a small clearing into which a one-metre length of chalybeous serpent unraveled his length to move rapidly away from us into the more dense undergrowth. Back at the park interpretive centre we identified our snake as a fully-grown Monocellate or Monocled Cobra and, whilst the snake is extremely venomous with the additional ability to spit its venom, they will only strike when cornered and prefer to evade contact as had happened today. It was another beautiful encounter and one that will ensure that Taman Negara remains a special place in our travels.

And so our time in Malaysia was drawing to a close. We rode back to Kuala Lumpur, stopping off to see yet more spectacular birds around the old hill station at Fraser’s Hill on the way. The sign on the way into town bills this as Malaysia’s Little England and indeed it feels like we are in the Lake District, if you can imagine Cumbria surrounded by jungle. Back in KL we replaced the waterpump on Maggie’s bike for the second time on the trip, the task made easier this time by the use of the facilities at Sunny Cycles, in our books the number one motorcycle dealer on the planet! Sunny is a fellow overlander and was very sympathetic to our needs, immediately offering floor space in his workshop to complete the repairs and then taking us all out for lunch. Then it was time for the ferry to Sumatra and bid farewell to Malaysia after nearly seven months here (including the month long stop in Singapore), the longest we have spent in any country on our travels to date. Malaysia is a magical place, not so much for the beauty of the country but for the kindness and hospitality of the Malaysian people who we will forever after hold dear to our hearts. But up ahead the monsoon is clearing and it is time to proceed to our next destination… Indonesia!

The gallery for this article may be accessed by clicking the following link: Last Days in Malaysia

Back to Malaysia

Leaving Singapore, we were turning our backs on some of the best days of the trip. It had been fantastic living with Azra and getting involved with the Free Food For All Charity. Azra and Nico had already gone on a short vacation so that sad goodbye was at least over us yet it was still quite a wrench as we packed the bikes and rode to the border and another encounter with the wrong side of the ‘hedgehog’ (see last post).   Given the mass migration of two-wheelers that takes place every day at this frontier, there are custom booths for motorcycles at the border with a toll-type office on one side and then a knee high kerb on the other. Once committed on our laden mules, we were stuck in a one-way track, with no possibility of dismounting as there was simply no way to prop the bike to get off. I went first with the passports, to get them stamped and Maggie could then follow on through.

I moved forward, retrieved the passports from down the front of my jacket and slid them through the mouse-hole in the window. The frumpy girl on duty tutted and lifted each of them by the corner, like they were a pair of dead mice and frowned ‘what’s this?’ I explained the second passport was my wife’s who was just behind. She opened one of the passports, Maggie’s; ‘and who is this?’

‘I just explained, it belongs to my wife’… another tut.

‘Give it to her.’ She flung the passport back at me. I looked around. How the hell was I supposed to do that?

‘I’ll just set it here’ I said leaving the passport on the counter to the side of the mouse-hole. Another tut, this one louder. Maggie was listening to my end of this over the intercom. ‘Hey! Be patient. She’s just doing her job.’ ‘OK missy,’ I whispered back. ‘Can’t wait till it’s your turn…’

Troglodyte customs lady was flicking through my passport. ‘When did you enter Singapore?’

‘About a month ago?’ I replied, ‘the date is stamped in the passport.’ I sensed she was now looking for some reason to delay us. I really couldn’t see the point, as we just needed to stamp out and leave. She sat there in her air-conditioned booth, picked up the phone and made several calls, discussing something about my passport, while I sat outside slowly stewing in the rising heat off my engine. After about ten minutes of this, she stamped the passport and returned it with a dismissive wave. I moved on through the booth and waited for Maggie. A few minutes and she was stamped and through but her face was like thunder. “Ignorant cow! What was all that about?” she said as we sorted the carnets for stamping out. “I have no idea my dear. Just a minion flexing her pathetic power.” The contrast when we crossed back to Malaysia was incredible. Smiling officers, efficiently checking our documents, before granting us a 90-day visa, giving us directions to the carnet office and dismissing us with a singsong “enjoy your ride in Malaysia!”

The customs office, where the carnets were processed…

Singapore – a pointed finger instructed us to leave the carnets in the in-tray, then we were shooed away by a flick of the officer’s fingertips with ne’er a ‘good morning’ or any such pleasantry dispatched. Trying to find the office, we had been wandering around outside. When Maggie got up to go find the loo, the officer snapped ‘where are you going?’ Maggie explained she needed to find a bathroom. ‘Must be escorted!’ and a lady auxiliary marched with her to the bathroom and waited outside.

Malaysia – seats were cleared and provided and we were asked if we needed some water while the officers recorded our details, stamped the carnets and asked us about our journey. It was all done in a few minutes attended over a bevvy of beaming smiles that cost nothing but were priceless to receive.

We rode to the UNESCO world heritage city of Malacca, where we spent Christmas and the New Year. We had found a great deal on a Condo and spent a month mooching around this charming little city. Malacca is a layer cake of Malaysia’s colonial past; founded by the Portuguese, taken by the Dutch and finally handed over to the British after the Napoleonic wars, it was soon eclipsed as a trading post by Singapore one hundred miles to the south and George Town up in the north. Spices brought the Europeans to these coasts with Nutmeg, Mace and Cloves passing through from their sources in Indonesia. Then white gold followed by black gold and finally today; orange gold. The ‘white gold’ was tin, found in abundance on the Malay peninsular. International demand rose steadily in the nineteenth century due to the application of tinplate in the modern canned food industry (why we refer today to a ‘tin’ of beans, the biscuit tin, etc). By the end of the 19th century, Malayan tin exports supplied just over half of the world output with Singapore now a major centre for refining the ore.

Tin mining brought considerable prosperity to the country but it was clearly a non-renewable resource so it was with incredible good fortune that, in the early twentieth century, Malaysia’s ‘Black Gold’ came to the fore when demand for rubber as a raw material escalated for new industries in the West, notably to supply tyres for the blossoming automobile industry. Rubber originated from the output of scattered trees growing wild in the jungles of South America, an arrangement that offered poor yields. So, in the 1870s, the British government organized the transport of specimens of the tree Hevea Brasiliensis from Brazil to colonies in the East, notably Ceylon and Singapore, where the trees flourished and within the five years it took the initial batch of trees to mature the rubber boom began and fortunes were made. By 1921, Malaysian Peninsular rubber plantations covered an area of around 1.34 million acres, and accounted for some 50% percent of the total world production. As a result of this boom, rubber quickly surpassed tin as Malaysia’s main export product, a position that it was to hold until 1980.

Both of these industries were to have a massive impact on the population of Malaysia. The indigenous Malay people were few in numbers and scattered in villages across the country. Many were descendants of Arab traders who brought Islam to the region and introduced the Sultanates that are still present in the Federation of Malay states today. Yet these new industries needed manpower, both for the open cast tin mines and for the rubber plantations, where the process of bleeding the trees and collecting the latex run-off was very time-consuming and labour intensive. This manpower would be provided by a rush of Indian and Chinese immigrants, who flocked to Malaysia to satisfy the demand and whose descendants make up a huge proportion of the population today. All of this industry made a massive impact on infrastructure with a good road and rail network implemented to move product around.

Today riding, through Malaysia, this entire environment has largely disappeared. There are a few scars left on the landscape from the tin mines but the rubber trees are almost totally gone as the ‘white’ and ‘black’ have been replaced by ‘orange’ gold; palm oil. Vast tracts of the countryside are totally given over to palm tree plantations, which cover a staggering 77% of agricultural area in the country, making Malaysia the world’s second-largest producer of the world’s most common vegetable oil (after Indonesia). Since the 1980’s palm oil has become one of the world’s most versatile raw materials and palm oil based ingredients are found in approximately 50% of products on our supermarket shelves ranging from simple cooking oil and margarine to lipstick and soap.

Malaysians today, be they of Malay, Chinese or Indian descent, are some of the friendliest people in the world. They are mildly inquisitive, without being intrusive and keen to offer help at the first sign of confusion or hesitation. Yet we have suffered a rather curious confusion over our accents, which has left the pair of us baffled. Now we are no strangers to misunderstandings of the North Irish tongue, most notably in the French phrase for explaining where we come from; ‘Nous sommes de Irlande du Nord.’   At school I was taught to pronounce this as ‘Nou som de Ear-lawned du Nord’. I spent two hours in a campsite in Avignon one evening listening to a guy who, on hearing where I was from, told me how he had visited my country and loved it, especially the waterways and the flowers.  Now there’s me thinking ‘gosh the Newry canal isn’t that impressive but has clearly left an impression here’ and ‘he must have visited at the 12th July to see all the orange lilies.’ He went on and on and what could I do but agree? It was only about an hour later when he started talking about windmills and how flat the place was that the penny dropped and I discovered that to the French ear ‘Ear-lawned’ sounds remarkably like ‘Ol-lawned,’ which is of course Holland.

Yet here in Malaysia the latest confusion concerns the numbers ‘two’ and ‘three.’ Even speaking in our harshest ‘Norn’ Irish’ accents we find it amazing that the word ‘tu’ in the Ulster vernacular could sound anyway remotely like the word ‘three.’ The first occasion happened when we ordered ‘two’ cups of tea and ‘three’ arrived. ‘I thought you said three,’ explained the lass as she took the extra cup away… Then, shopping for some contact lenses, both of us clearly heard the young lady quote a price of two hundred and seventy Ringgits (the Malay currency). Seemed a reasonable deal only to be shown a bill for three hundred and seventy at the till, which suddenly made the lenses very expensive and we declined with a little embarrassment. It has happened five or six times now to the point where we spell the number out each time to avoid confusion.

Monsoon is upon us although we have only yet seen a few heavy showers arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon. We made a few exploratory trips on the bikes along the coast to Cape Rachado and on to Port Dickson. The coastline is fairly developed and not particularly scenic but the halts for white coffee and the odd Nasi Lemak have made it a fond memory. Our condo became a little haven with a few hawker stalls just outside the door complemented by a brilliant fishmonger stall, where the owners and customers have competed to show us how to select the best, fresh, seafood. Our table has been finely adorned with juicy prawns, succulent squid and seared seabass several times a week. We found contentment in wandering Malaccan streets and the fine riverfront with yet more of those fantastic wall murals endemic to Malaysia. We mooched shops stuffed with Santas and Snowmen in the windows just like home only we were clad in shorts and flip-flops rather than parkas and welly-boots. Supping a beer at a pavement table outside the splendid ‘Geographer’s Café’, we listened to Christian Christmas carols played in a Buddhist bar (in the heart of Chinatown) in this Moslem country. What a mélange of race, colour and culture… It was some compensation for missing friends and family over the festive season, which is never an easy time to be away from home.

2017 ushered a move to the big smoke; the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. After Bangkok and Singapore it wasn’t a place we looked forward to but duty called, as we needed to organise visas for Indonesia at the embassy there. And once again Malaysia would provide yet another delightful surprise in one of the most easy-going, laid-back big cities we have ever visited but that will have to wait for next time…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: ‘Back to Malaysia’

‘Singapore – Cannot!’

“Sorry Singapore cannot. You go back M’laysia,” said the smiling customs officer, a slightly chubby chappie. A quick scan of his nametag disclosed that we were dealing with (and I kid you not) Mr. Wee. The obvious question arose… was he taking the piss? This morning was fast unraveling into a right nightmare at what was proving to be the most horrific border crossing yet in accessing over sixty countries around the globe. In principal the formalities for entering Singapore are the same for anywhere else; you get your passport stamped ‘in’ for immigration and then proceed to customs where the ‘Carnet de Passage’ gets stamped, to permit access for the bikes. Some countries require vehicle insurance and sometimes vehicle permits with everything more or less procurable at the border. Normally we try to arrive early to fill in the necessary forms and allow for possible delays but generally the business can be conducted in anything from thirty minutes to a couple of hours, but not Singapore, oh no, this was going to take a couple of days.

We were up with the birdies and outside the hotel in Johor Bahru (JB in local parlance), Malaysia, loading the bikes by the dawn’s early light. Panniers on, bags strapped secure across seat and tank, water bottles full, check out of the hotel and a final farewell wave to the charming Malaysian staff. Ten-minute ride to the Woodlands border crossing, an exit stamp in the passport from Malaysian immigration where we explained we also needed to process our carnets. The guy vaguely waved us on to customs somewhere up ahead. 8am; so far, so good… The air was buzzing with the sound of small motorcycles whizzing through on the daily commute from JB, where living is cheap and easy, to Singapore where it’s… well… not. We filtered into a steady stream of 2-wheelers, missed the pull-in for customs (it wasn’t marked) and, before we knew it, were out on the causeway over the Johor Straits headed for Singapore ‘unstamped’. We joined hundreds of little bikes all headed one way using the filter lane especially for ‘Motosikal’ and it was impossible to turn back. The road widened on the approach to the imposing Singaporean frontier post that looked like the control tower of a beached aircraft carrier and then split, offering the choice of one of four marshaling yards, each stuffed to capacity with little bikes seeking access to the island. Thousands upon thousands of bikes were backed up and slowly edging forward, feet down, towards some invisible portal way in the distance.

This was one of nature’s great migrations… Forget your David Attenborough ‘Wildebeest hordes on the plains of Africa’; forget the bison herds of bygone days or the great salmon runs in the Americas. We learned later that anything from seventy to one hundred thousand small bikes cross the border every day! It was the one occasion when arriving early at a border crossing was actually a very bad idea. On a day that was pre-destined to go down the pan, we followed one of the streams into yard No.2 and were immediately packed into the crush. Suddenly a customs guy appeared from god knows where and informed us of our error. “You have to turn back! Yard No.3! This one for locals with autopass.” Like Moses parting the Red Sea, he cleared the way for us to make a somewhat precarious U-turn amidst thousands of turned heads watching the two idiots on the monster bikes wobble our way out and on to Yard No.3, where we were immediately encased in a similar throng to the one we just left. This was the immigrant yard, mostly Philippinos, Indonesians, Tamils and many from Myanmar, they make this crossing every single day to perform all manner of tasks in Singapore. In the momentary silence, dust motes twirled in the sunlight above the herd. I have never seen such a collection of patient folk, everyone calmly waiting their turn. Thankfully the sun was still low in the sky and we were afforded some shade from its equatorial heat. No horns parped (can you imagine if this was in India?), indeed engines were switched off and folk were calmly catching up with events on their mobile phones or sitting with hands draped across handlebars in silent contemplation of the day ahead. Here and there a newspaper was sprawled across a bike and every now and again there would be a spasm of movement as we all lurched forward.

We contemplated Singapore up ahead. It was reputedly a mega-clean, no-nonsense, hi-tech metropolis; modern success story and jewel of SE Asia. It had history too from the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, who recognised the strategic significance of its harbour as the essential trade hub for this part of the world, through to the infamous WW2 surrender – the biggest single defeat in the history of British arms when 120,000 British and Commonwealth troops surrendered to an Japanese force of only 30,000. We had also contacted a fabulous ‘Workaway,’ corresponding with a lovely lady called Azra, who needed help with a free food charity, providing food for those in need through forthcoming charity events that would happen while we were there. We had been in two minds as to whether to bring the bikes at all having been warned that accessing Singapore could be complex and expensive but we planned to stay for a month and had also been warned that JB, the Malaysian mega-city on the other side of the straits, was a hotbed of crime (including bike thefts) so we decided to bring them anyway.

Finally we arrived at a small customs booth where we explained that we needed to go back to Malaysia to have our carnets stamped. Our passports were confiscated and we were told to move on through into a yet another holding area. Here another officer snapped at us to move the bikes across the yard to the offices. We started the bikes to ride across and he went ballistic, yelling at us to turn them off immediately and insisting that we must push them across. He then demanded the keys to both bikes; I have no idea what he thought we might attempt, as any further progress was obviously impossible. With keys and passports now confiscated we were marched into the office where we explained our predicament.

We sat around for nearly two hours while dozens of customs officer milled about doing bugger all. Outside the mass exodus of morning rush hour had subsided, the flow of little bikes had stopped, the big yards were closed and silence reigned over the post. Mags asked for the nearest toilet. “Are you sure?” is not a terribly reassuring reply… The toilet was a portakabin affair, the portakabin no more than a dust cover over a place of filth and excrement instantly dispelling one of the myths that Singapore was some ultra-clean haven. Eventually the necessary paperwork was dispensed and we were escorted through a gate by some armed officers and returned back over the causeway to Malaysia, where we quickly found the correct office, aided by the ever so helpful customs people and had the carnets stamped all correctly to show the bikes had now left the country. Back across the causeway, back to Singapore. Now, rush-hour over, we filtered to a small customs booth where we where our passports were stamped for a 90-day stay; great stuff… Now for the Carnets and our encounter with Mr. Wee. We were directed to the LTA office (Land Transport Agency) and explained we needed to process our Carnets. Two middle-aged ladies manning the desk were ever so friendly and explained they had to call in someone from Customs. Oh! and if we didn’t have the right documents they would send us back. “Polish couple tried same-same last week… No have insurance, no have ICP. Send’em straightback M’laysia.”

By now we were grown accustomed to listening to the corruptions known as Minglish (Malay English and now Singlish; the Singapore variant). Sometimes it just sounds like bad ‘Benny Hill’ Chinese that raises a smirk, but it also has a way of simplifying entire sentences into one of two words… ‘Can’ and ‘Cannot’. In the UK we are terribly polite. The answer to the question “Could I possibly borrow your newspaper” will invariably be something like “of course you can, no problem at all. Just let me tidy it up a little for you and there you are. I’ve finished with it anyway so just bin it when you’re done.” In Minglish this response would simply be abbreviated to one-word, one-syllable; ‘Can.’ It is a staggering application of brevity, the more so devastating for us when Mr. Wee arrived and looked at our carnets, shook his head and said another word; ‘Cannot’.

“Sorry?” we gasped “why not”.

“You need Insurance and ICP (Internal Circulation Permit) from Singapore AA”.

“Yes we understand that but can we get these here?”

“No. You must go AA Singapore. Get documents!”

“OK then can we can leave the bikes, get a taxi to the AA and get sorted? We’ll only be an hour or two at the most…”



“Leave bikes here one hour, bikes get clamped. Very serious problem” he frowned.

“Sorry Singapore, cannot. You go back M’laysia.”

“What, are you crazy? Why do we need to go back there? We just left the place. We just need insurance and ICP. We’re not trying to take our bikes in without the correct documents.”

“Cannot. You go back!”

By now I was close to totally losing it. Mr. Wee really was taking the piss and was sending us back. I threatened him that if we went back we would strike Singapore off our list of countries to visit on our ‘World Tour’ and just stay in Malaysia. Singapore didn’t know what it would be missing if it dared turn us away… OK, a rather pathetic threat, I’ll give you, but all I could come up with in that moment of rage, short of stamping my feet, shaking my fists and throwing a paddy. “You go. Come Singapore by taxi, get correct documents, go back M’laysia, get bikes. Then we let you in.” We were dismissed. A typed ‘rejection note’ was raised for the Malay authorities, our passports were stamped out of Singapore and a posse of armed contract security police arrived to escort us off sovereign territory.

“Push bikes all-way back,” the unsmiling, slightly plump, lady sergeant in charge said.

“How far?”

“Maybe 1km, maybe 2. No ride bikes. Cannot.”

Now Mags lost it and point blank refused. When they looked at the loaded bikes they realised what they were asking us to do. A compromise was reached…

“Wait here…” Half an hour later a trio of expensive looking mountain bikes in customs livery appeared and they saddled up to escort us back once more. It was a fair way but certainly not one or two kilometers. A section of barrier was removed and we once more exited Singapore and went back to Malaysia. Beaten.

We were both hopping mad at the intransigence and ludicrous stance taken by Singapore customs. It was all exacerbated by the fact that most of the staff had been overly officious, impolite and downright rude in the transactions. We were being sent back for not having two documents we could only obtain once we were in Singapore! In the time we had been messed around, we could easily have collected the damned documents and returned to gain lawful entry. We decided that if Malaysia granted us new 90-day visas we would forget about Singapore forever. We would be devastated at missing the Workaway for sure, but if we couldn’t even get into the country…?

It was now well into the afternoon but the nightmare continued. On reviewing the Singapore reject note, Malaysian customs decided we could only stay until our previous 90-day visa expired… the next day!!! Then we had to fly home or to another country for a month before we could return. “But what about the bikes?” They didn’t know. We had one day. We spent over seven hours up to our necks in bullshit border shenanigans today and were mentally and emotionally exhausted. A sleepless night followed as we contemplated our position. In the end we decided that the only sane option was to go back to Singapore.

4am alarm for a 5am taxi pick-up. The taxi whizzed us through customs where we were again granted a 90-day stay and dropped us off at the AA Singapore office just as they opened. We coughed up $225 for 28 day’s insurance per bike and $60 each for the ICP (@1.7 SGP dollars to the pound). Another taxi back to Malaysia (where they forgot about yesterday and now gave us new 90-day visas!!!), pick up the bikes and finally head back to Singapore. Mr. Wee was smiling as he came in to the office to greet us. He surveyed the mighty ensemble of documents arrayed across the table for two little motorcycles. “Everything now good”, he declared. “Singapore… Can go.” It took another grueling twelve hours today but we got the desired result; Singapore was go!

To be continued…

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

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

Langkawi and the Lost Hotel

In our many years of traveling we have stayed in many accommodations ranging from hotel to hostel, B&B to boarding house, homestay to hospedaje, from occasional 5-star down to the more humble and basic dormitory with the odd doss-house thrown in, but never before have we stayed in a lost hotel…

It was early in the morning when we left the Seaview Hotel. Outside we were greeted by a total absence of both sea and view; instead the most horrific downpour as the monsoon season had well and truly started. Never mind your common-or-garden stair-rods, this was raining rebar with shafts of water cascading like silver-glass javelins that smashed into the ground in a deafening roar, each strike shattering into a thousand silver droplets. The ferry terminal was but a three-minute ride ‘round the one-way system of the little seaside town of Kuala Perlis yet we found ourselves donning wetsuits to avoid getting soaked to the skin. When the little Ro-Ro ferry left harbour we rushed up on deck to see if we could see our island destination ahead but the horizon this morning was a fuzzy line ‘tween featureless slab of silver-steel sea and the hem of a dirty dishcloth sky.

We were heading to the island of Langkawi, first major stop in Malaysia, to try out a new experience; ‘Workaway’. On our ride east we have been slowly but steadily running into the monsoon and if we continue at our present rate we will hit eastern Indonesia at the end of the year, just when the weather can get really nasty so we needed to find a place to hole up until we can find better weather. ‘Workaway’, an online site that unites travellers with people and businesses looking for temporary help, seemed an ideal solution. In return for a few hours graft per day you get free accommodation, sometimes with food, along with an opportunity to learn new skills, meet local people and absorb some of the local culture. The work can be anything from helping out on a farm or an eco-project to assisting in the running of traveller accommodation. There is no obligation on either party so if you don’t like a particular stay you can just walk away. The description of our first ‘Workaway’ read; We are a happy Malay family managing a Country Resort, with the help of our volunteer friends. The hotel is located in the center of Langkawi, a beautiful island in Malaysia, close to the border to Thailand and surrounded by lush tropical gardens, where you can even spot white face monkeys or even monitor lizards. We are currently renovating some of the rooms, and the other facilities, so any skills in this area will come in handy. Reviews from previous travellers suggested it was an idyllic site and a great place for our first ‘Workaway’ experience. We were absolutely delighted when Ayub, the site manager, accepted our request to join his merry crew at the Hotel Panorama.

The rain stopped just as the ferry was docking so we packed away our waterproofs and set off to explore our new home. Covering an area of twenty-five square kilometers, Pulao Langkawi (Langkawi Island) isn’t that big and the winding road up to the Hotel Panorama was gracefully lined with tall trees that provided dappled shade from the afternoon sun. Above us to the right we glimpsed the lofty jungled peak of Gunung Raya, highest point on the island. Then we had our first glimpse of the resort itself through the trees to our left, a sprawl of low lying accommodation blocks behind an impressive reception building set amidst an explosion of palm trees. We pulled in to the grand porch, our arrival heralded by the throaty growl of my Scorpion exhaust, which summonsed a couple of fellow volunteers who wished us a warm welcome and, even better, helped us unpack the two bikes. Walking through the open reception area we were greeted by the site of a beautiful rolling garden full of mature jungle foliage in the heart of which lay a very large and rather inviting turquoise-blue swimming pool. The accommodation was hidden away in a series of seven blocks, containing around one hundred rooms, around the periphery of the cool shade of the garden. From these first few glimpses the Panorama looked magnificent. Surely a four-star+ resort and for sure there must have been some glory days when it first opened but over the next few days we would gradually see the hotel for what it really was and the realisation dawned upon us that the Panorama somewhere along the line had become quite lost…

One hundred rooms, huge swimming pool, mature gardens, outdoor gym, conference facilities and remote setting; you would expect such an establishment to feature a sturdy force of personnel; housekeeping and cleaners, chef and kitchen staff, gardeners and groundsmen, bar staff and security, all with a team of managers and deputies headed by the redoubtable Ayub to keep it all in line and ever ready to cater handsomely for every request… The full time pay-roll staff of the Panorama consisted of two personnel; an Indonesian receptionist who suffered from the twin maladies of shyness and being barely able to speak English and a security guy who worked nights. There was also a part-time housekeeper who mainly looked after the owners’ quarters. My preconceived image of Ayub (based entirely on the contents of a few short emails) was that of a friendly, possibly portly, Malay who would greet us with a gap-toothed smile as he introduced us to his merry crew yet even Ayub was not a full-time employee. It came something of a shock to find that ‘he’ was actually a ‘she’ in the form of a very pretty twenty-four year old Danish lass named Mette who had earned the position of manager by virtue of the fact that she, along with her boyfriend Paw, had been there longer than any of the other the ‘Workaway’ volunteers. And it was a crew of half a dozen ‘Workaway’ volunteers who made up the rest of the staff. So how on earth were we supposed to cover all of these duties and run such a big hotel?

It turned out to be quite easy for, you see, the hotel had no guests! There were a number of reasons for this. First, the location demanded access to a private vehicle as the nearest town was several kilometers away and there was no shuttle-bus or easy access to public transport.   Secondly, the hotel had zero facilities: the kitchen was mostly derelict, the bar was long closed and you couldn’t even buy a bottle of water on site. Finally the rooms themselves were slowly falling into a state of disrepair. One entire block had no running water, another had a termite infestation and a third had been used as a depository for broken furniture and building material. Beyond the property walls, the jungle was ever ready to encroach on gardens and grounds. In the rooms, doors were broken, locks didn’t work and linen was shoddy, yet the asking price was top dollar. As a consequence the place had appalling reviews on Trip Advisor being likened to Fawlty Towers in one review. It was a standing joke amongst the crew that most arrivals checked out immediately on being shown their room. We would spend just over two weeks here and in that time saw only a couple of rooms occupied mainly by Malays who didn’t seem to mind the state of the place.

On a quiet afternoon I explored the abandoned staff quarters down at the back end of the site (volunteers were accommodated in some of the better hotel rooms). The building that housed the quarters was called ‘The Love Shack’ and artful murals on the wall illustrated how previously the Panorama had been a riotous ‘anything-goes’ party venue, which may further account for the decline in guests and general lack of interest in developing the site. The main problem with the Panorama was that the business plan, if it ever existed, was never communicated to the volunteers so we were never quite sure if the place was to be readied for new customers (unlikely given the state of the place) or merely being kept on tick-over for eventual sale. We were told to just keep the pool and gardens tidy, otherwise we had the run of the place to ourselves.

Our first week was marked by easy and somewhat idyllic days where we enjoyed the change from travelling offered by a bit of gardening. Then there was the pool with a delicious dip each day after work to escape the heat of the afternoon sun. The central location was great too for exploring the island and we took the Skycab to obtain splendid views of the Langkawi archipelago. For sheer physical exertion we climbed the 4287 concrete steps to attain the summit of Gunung Raya, a splendid hike up though dense jungle that had us soaked to the skin with exertion and sweat, yet worth it for the fantastic views over the island (tempered slightly by the thought that we had to descend back down the same stairway). The owner, a kindly lady called Yanee who lived on site alone with two of her four children, made us very welcome and sometimes treated her volunteers to splendid dinners and on other days we had the run of the kitchen to cook for ourselves.

Our fellow volunteers were an interesting mix of new and veteran travellers. This was the fourth time that Mette and Paw had been volunteering at Panorama. The lure of pool and garden along with the cheap prices (Langkawi is a duty-free island) were just too attractive but their talents were wasted running the place. Otherwise they were lively company in the evenings and had the unenviable task of holding the team together. We had Greg and Isa from Poland and Jonny from Donegal with an accent from home that was music to our ears. He ran an online business that funded his time on the road and was a real pleasure to work and socialise with. Mustafa was a quiet young doctor from Egypt who was suffering from a deep conflict between medical training and religious faith. His piety had gotten him into trouble for administering the Islamic equivalent of last rites to a dying woman who he later found out was actually a Christian. We felt sorry for Mustafa as he genuinely thought he was doing the right thing, providing dying comfort to someone in last moments of their life, yet it all backfired when the lady’s family sued the hospital. Cardi of the dreadlocks looked knackered when she first turned up at the Panorama and we initially put this down to a long bus journey, however her vacuous appearance never altered much during her short stay at the Panorama due most likely to the intake of lots of ‘herbal stuff’ in the privacy of her own room. Although born in France her folks were English and she spoke with a rather plummy English accent. Conversation with Cardi was a bit limited as she had all the vocabulary of a talking Barbie doll and chats mostly consisted of her repeating the last thing you said to her and adding the words ‘that’s amazing’ to it. She incurred our wrath when, along with Greg, they decided to raid the fridge for lunch on her last day and scoffed our dinner.

Originally we planned to stay here for one month but by the end of the second week our travails were all starting to seem a bit pointless and the realisation dawned that the Panorama was in fact a lost hotel. The hotel had lost its sense of purpose; there were no guests and no realistic plan to attract any. Gardens were more or less under control, at least out front and in the area around the pool but then we heard that the volunteer programme might end soon, which would certainly give the jungle a green light to come in and reclaim the place and all our efforts would really be for nothing. Duty-Free Langkawi also quickly lost its appeal with the islands development poorly planned and executed with horrid malls and resorts blotting out some gorgeous beach territory. It was a poor substitute for our recent travels in the jeweled islands of Western Thailand and we sensed little in the way of a true Malaysian experience. We were hearing great things about gourmet delights in George Town and a second ‘Workaway’ beckoned in the form of a legendary hostel needing help up in the Cameron Highlands. It was time to move on…

We mounted up and waved goodbye to the crew at Panorama closing another little chapter on our ride east. In the balance we both really enjoyed our first ‘Workaway’ but just wished it had been for a more constructive project. Having said that, Panorama has the potential to be a magnificent hotel with such a unique, lush and laid-back setting and we really hope that one day it will find itself and be restored to the glory it deserves.

The photogallery for this post can be accessed by clicking on: Langkawi and the Lost Hotel