A Travellerspoint blog

Malaysian Borneo

We have just come back from a few days around and near Mt Kinabalu, a two to three hour drive from the city of Kota Kinabalu. At over 4000 meters, it is the highest peak in Southeast Asia. We gave some thought to climbing it, but the steep price tag put us off, as well as time restraints. It is a fairly serious undertaking, though not technical, with some 8000 feet of vert. Most people complete it in two days, although we met some young bucks who had managed it in one, partly in order to save money. It is also a bit dicey with the weather, as it is often socked in by rain and clouds that rise up from the tropical south China Sea.





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The area around it is very lush, as it is more or less a rain forest that sees precipitation on many days. It is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with tree ferns, enormous dipterocarp trees, many variety of orchids, rhododendrons, and even carnivorous Pitcher plants. One of these almost got my friend Debbie on the way in. (just kidding)

The four of us took some short hikes through the very dense forest around the perimeter.

We also had a bit of an adventure with our rental car. Bill tossed me the key, which I missed, and it fell to the ground. It had been taped together, and the two parts separated with the fall. After putting it back together, the car refused to start. It was getting dark and starting to rain. At first, we couldn't figure out the problem, but then realized it must have something to do with the "smart" key, which had become stupid, because of the tiny chip which had fallen out. With the help of park staff, we were able to call the rental car company in the city, who agreed to send someone to drive up into the mountains with the only spare. In the meantime, we were able to walk the mile back to the main road, where, just outside the park entrance, was a decent restaurant. After warming and filling up, we then walked to our guest house, luckily just a few hundred meters down the road.

Sure enough, later that evening our man showed up with the key, and gave us a lift back to the car. The next day, Nanette and Debbie returned to the scene, avoiding the Pitcher plants, and surprisingly, managed to find the chip. It worked fine after we reinserted it, but we noticed that the spare key was also taped together. Obviously, although the car itself was fine, the keys were not. Perhaps this was why the rental car company didn't give us an argument about having to drive up with another one. It had happened before.

Getting the car started enabled Bill and I to drive part way around the mountain to the Mesilou trail, which sees much less traffic than the main route. Our plan was to go for a long day hike and see how far we would get.



Bill on a bridge on the trail
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On the Mesilou trail
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It is very steep and muddy, with many ups and downs in both directions, gaining and then losing vertical, until the final pitch to a trail junction, where it meets the more heavily traveled path from the other side. Sensibly, with the near constant rain, Bill turned back before I did. I continued on through the gloomy cloud forest, which became increasingly stunted as I gained altitude. I made it most of the way up to the junction, before being turned back by drenching rains, and near white out like fog. On the return, I met a number of local kids who seemed like they had no business being on the mountain, given their lack of equipment, obvious inexperience, and hypothermia inducing weather.






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A rare sunny moment
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Mt. Kinabalu at sunset from a viewpoint near park entrance
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Before returning to Kota Kinabalu, we were fortunate to get a glimpse at the world's largest flower, the rafflesia. It blooms infrequently, and then only for a few days before decomposing. We just happened to be there at the right time.






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For our last day in Kota Kinabalu, Nanette and I went out to Sapi, a small offshore island, to do some snorkeling. Sitting next to us on the beach was a mother and her daughter, who are Chinese-Americans. The daughter, a lawyer, lives in Hong Kong, while her mother, a very spunky lady, our age, remains in Michigan. We quickly hit it off, and later went out to dinner with them and our friends, in the large, outdoor food market.

Vendors were furiously barbecuing everything imaginable, and an aromatic cloud of smoke hung over the market and extended out to the adjacent harbor. In very Chinese fashion, the mother quickly took charge, told us where to go, and which fish looked the best, even arguing with the cook about the exact ones she wanted and how fresh they were.




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Malaise in Malaysia

Overall, Malaysia has been a mixed experience. Perhaps this is because of the ethnic and religious divisions that are so much a part of life here. The Straits Chinese, roughly 20% of the population, tend to control much of the economy, and are largely Buddhist. Seven to eight percent of the population is Indian and Hindu, and they also have an outsize impact on the economy. Ethnic Malays, a somewhat diverse group themselves, are roughly 60% of the population. They are increasingly religious Muslims, and though they control the government, seem to resent the other two groups because they are generally poorer. In 1969 there were race riots in which several thousand people were killed.

On an individual basis, the Chinese and Indian Malayasians, seem to be reasonably cordial, if not that interested in getting to know us. However at a number of hotels, and not necessarily the cheapest, the service has been sorely lacking. Maybe this is because of ethnic tensions, but often the staff never offer to help with bags, and don't seem to have a clue as to how to treat guests. Our present hotel, Eden 54, in Kota Kinabalu, is a delightful exception, possibly because the owner was educated in the states.

Even some Malays have confirmed that the service industry is lacking. There seems to be some kind of problem with the work ethic and the educational system. One young man that I met while hiking on Mt. Kinabalu, an educated, ethnic Malay, told me he thought it had something to do with the colonial past, but I said to him that certainly the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians have even more reasons to be resentful, and yet they don't appear to be. Of course, they don't have the same ethnic divisions as Malaysia. He didn't respond to my comment, though he was very friendly and generous, and insisted on giving me a sandwich, because I had a long walk back and very little food.

These recent quotes illustrate some of the problems.

"The Malays have been left behind as they lack feelings of shame, discipline and are not hardworking, charged former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad today. (Malaysian Insider, January 7, 2014.)

"The raid (of a Methodist church charity dinner) may reflect tensions that undercut Malaysian society, which is divided along both religious and ethnic lines. Sixty percent of the country is Muslim, and just over half are ethnic Malay.

According to the constitution, citizens claiming Malay ethnicity must be practicing Muslims, speak the Malay language, and adhere to Malay cultural values. The conditions are in place to ensure that only the Malays may claim protection under special laws that reserve jobs and other benefits for the ethnic majority. Although they are an ethnic majority in the country, the Malays have been historically disadvantaged, advocates say, because of ethnic Chinese and Indians’ advantageous roles in trade and commerce.

As a result, ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the civil service, universities, and at other institutions. (Al Jazeera, Aug 25th 2013.)

A note to my loyal readers: This marks the end of last year's excursion, but stay tuned, because we leave for southern India on February 20th. I will be gone for three months, and as usual, will blog on my return, after taking copious notes and photos.

Posted by jonshapiro 09.01.2014 14:26 Archived in Malaysia Tagged landscapes mountains people Comments (2)

Tanah Rata, Malaysia

Making our way to the Cameron Highlands took the better part of the day, with a long hot layover in the scuzzy bus station of Ipoh.The town of Tanah Rata is not particularly picturesque, despite it lovely surroundings. They are building like crazy, and putting up huge high rise hotels and apartment buildings in between several obviously abandoned and half built edifices. There doesn't seem to be any restraint on where, how much, and how high, they can build. The streets are packed with vacationing Malays, as well as a fair number of western tourists. Despite this, it is still small enough to have a relatively relaxed atmosphere, and is full of good restaurants.



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We were fortunate to be in town to witness a Hindu celebration, with dancers decked out in full regalia, drummers, musicians, floats, and fruit and sweets given out to all.




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Photo by Bill Wertz
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This Caliban like figure was riding high in a float and blessing babies
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And the moon made it pure magic.

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For the past couple of days we have been happily encamped at Father's Guest House, which is a low key place largely for western backpacking types. Father, aka Gerard, picked us up from the nearby bus station. The staff here is the opposite of the Anjungan, friendly, and helpful.

As it was for the Brits ,who established this town as a tea growing hill station, the climate is positively bracing compared to the rest of lowland Malaysia. A very nice change for us northerners. Every day so far we have had some sun, mist, and late afternoon thunderstorms. We have gone on some enjoyable hikes on the extensive network of trails. In between, we have had some memorable meals, especially the Malaysian version of hot pot.

Yesterday was by far the most challenging walk, with a gain of at least 2000 steep and muddy vertical feet to the top.




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A little disappointing and anti-climatic, the summit had several building and an assortment of cell towers.



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We walked back down on a narrow road on the other side, past verdant tea fields and strawberry farms.




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The views across the steep fields were stunning, especially the sunlit rows of tea bushes against the black sky of an approaching thunderstorm.




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And the tea workers kept picking and planting until the last moments before the storm.

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We took shelter in a small Hindu temple not far from these houses, just as the rains hit.




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After a half hour or so we continued on through the mist, and ended up in the dead end of the Boh Tea Plantation, after having been directed down the wrong road. It was getting late, and we were a long way from town. Luckily, a Straits Chinese man offered to take one of us back to his hotel. The car was too full for him to take all of us , but 20 minutes later he returned for Bill, Nanette and I. We were then able to call a cab to take us back to Fathers. An altogether enjoyable day, thanks to the kindness of strangers.

The Malays have been a mixed bunch in terms of friendliness. Some, like the previous gentlemen, have gone out of their way for us, but others do not want to be bothered even to make contact. We have heard it has something to do with their work ethic, which seems to be lacking.


Another day, another hike, and we ended up in Tan's Camellia garden quite by accident.



Photo by Nanette
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I, of course, took this one.

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Yes, this is a pina, also in Camellia's garden
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Tomorrow we return to KL once again, where we will fly to Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, for the final leg of our journey.

Posted by jonshapiro 01.01.2014 07:13 Archived in Malaysia Tagged landscapes mountains people photography Comments (3)

Palau Pangkor, Malaysia

Following Malacca we took a bus back to KL and then on to Lumut, where we caught the ferry to Palau Pangkor, a small island on the Straights of Malacca.

We stayed at the Anjungan Resort, the most expensive hotel, outside of Hong Kong, on our entire trip, at $60 a night. And the place was misnamed. It should have been Faulty Towers. Right off the bat we had to switch rooms because the ceiling was covered with mold. The managing staff was surly,and refused to give us beach towels, and this, at a beach resort. The next day our AC blew a fuse three times before they allowed us to switch rooms, and then didn't offer to help us move our things, and I had to walk back and forth several times in the hot sun to switch keys at reception. Not that big a deal, but service was not their middle name, or their last name for that matter. Some of these issues could have happened anywhere, though in the most upscale place in Pangkor, you don't expect it. Mostly, it was their attitude that was the problem. Not exactly hostile, but Indifferent with a capital I. In short it was pretty much of a disaster, and affected our experience on the island somewhat, despite the nice beach.

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The water was just short of bathtub temperature, but relaxing nonetheless, and Daddy's Restaurant, right on the beach, served up some tasty morsels and cold beer.





Dinner at Daddy's with the Gang
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Fisherman at Sunset
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This place is somewhat off the main tourist circuit, though as we found out, popular with locals from KL on weekends. On our last night, Saturday, it was quite the party scene, with an influx of food stalls and music on the "main drag." Though we were happy to leave after three nights, we felt fortunate to be on the island for this.





The Main Street Scene on Weekends
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Nanette Chatting it up with Street Musicians
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Crepe Maker
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Muslim Female Bathers
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Muslim Sand Burial
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Posted by jonshapiro 30.12.2013 09:51 Archived in Malaysia Tagged beaches people photography Comments (2)

Malacca

Arrived in Kualu Lumpur, or KL as everyone calls it, and then on to Malacca the next day to meet our good friends from home, Bill and Debbie. Malacca was hot and touristy, though mostly with non-western tourists. There were Interesting shop houses among the many narrow streets, and a mixture of Dutch, Portuguese, and British architectural influences, in this once thriving port and city state. The city was more or less founded by Parameswara, a Hindu prince from Sumatra in the late 1300's. Now it is a mix of Indians, Straits Chinese, and ethnic Malays. The Chinese have been here some 500 years or so, whereas the majority of Indians did not come until after the British in the early 1800's. The ethnic malays are Austronesian peoples from disparate backgrounds, including south coastal Thailand, Burma, Borneo, and parts of what is now Indonesia.



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In the middle of the day, we went for a boat ride on the Malacca River to cool off. Marginally effective, it was good way to see this former trade route.

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In the evening we took a stroll along the river walk.

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Another view of the river from a bridge downtown
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Though I cut my toe on one of the very uneven sidewalks, we all managed to avoid this place.

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The best part of the experience was eating at Amy's Nyonya Restaurant.




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A very friendly Amy, who spent three weeks cooking at the UN in New York, helped select the dishes, which were a mixture of all the various cultural influences in this polyglot city.




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It was a fabulous meal, though I can't remember the names of what we ate, nor can I adequately describe it. Her cousin, Florence Tan, has a cookbook which which I intend to purchase. It was so good we went back for lunch the next day. We also had a melt in your mouth tandoori chicken and naan in a more modest place, while sitting outside.

Yes, we saw the sites, but the food is what I will remember.


On the other hand, I couldn't resist a shot of this guy.

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Posted by jonshapiro 28.12.2013 12:07 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Cham Islands, An Bang Beach and Village

An Bang Seaside Village:

Before coming here, we took the public boat to the undeveloped Cham Islands. We heard the crossing might be rough, but it was not a problem getting there and back.


Not our boat, but it was similar to this
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The island we went to was beautiful, with snow white beaches, and the scruffy town also had a certain appeal.




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The children were curious as they often are.




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However, the people at our homestay were not particularly friendly. And they were intrusive, coming into our room, without knocking, to turn off the fan while they thought we were asleep. A bit weird, as almost everyone else has been so nice.

We are now staying in a bungalow just off the beach outside of Hoi An. The people are lovely. It is expensive compared to what we have been paying, but seems to be run in part to benefit the locals here An Bang "fishing village." Apparently the government gave the owner some money to start this project, after a similar ecotourism project in the nearby "vegetable village" was successful in attracting tourists for a woofing type experience. A local woman cooked dinner for us, which was quite good, and she gave me a mini-cooking lesson to boot. The manager, Phuong, told us she lost her husband and son two years ago, after a fishing accident. It is apparently quite common here. They fish in round boats that are essentially big baskets. It is easy to flip them, and get carried out to sea in the often rough waters.




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Every morning at 5 AM a loudspeaker comes on to make government announcements. At times it is a weather forecast, and other times it is lecture about something the government wants to promote. For example they want to encourage people to have fewer babies as the population is exploding, and so one day there was talk about the importance of birth control. Phuong also said that sometimes they broadcast government meetings and trials that go on all day long. A bit like big brother. We have not heard this anywhere else except the Cham Islands. It is interesting, as everyone says the former head of the province was the best official in Vietnam. He has now gone to central government in Hanoi.

Encouraged by Phuong, Nanette gave a group of village kids a singing English lesson yesterday for about an hour. Twinkle Twinkle and other songs. The Hokey Pokey was a particular hit. They were an enthusiastic group , all different ages, though most seemed small for their age. Perhaps their diet is not adequate.



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Some of them already spoke a bit of English, perhaps taught by other travelers like us. One self confident and obviously bright 11 year old girl said she wanted to be a tour guide. She and many of village children are quite engaging and seem eager to interact with us. Phuong thinks that learning English and getting involved with tourism may be their best hope to escape the hard life of fishing. Based on what we saw, some of the kids seem to have already figured this out.






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The beach here is still largely undeveloped, unlike Cui Dai and the areas closer to Danang, which are full of big resorts. Right now there are just a cluster of low key seafood places that put out loungers during the day to attract customers. For a buck and a half their steamers in broth are hard to beat. We ate them everyday for lunch, and then enjoyed lying on their lounge chairs sipping 50 cent beers before going in for a dip. As with other beaches in Vietnam, the locals only show up at the beginning and end of the day.




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Sitting on the beach yesterday, I was thinking about the people who died here less than 50 years ago. Now I am enjoying an idilic vacation in a place where GI's would come for R and R in between battles. This thirty mile stretch of sand between here and Danang was known as China beach during the war. It is hard to make sense of all this, looking out at the stunning South China Sea.

How do we account for these accidents of time and place?

How do we explain the atrocities that so many have perpetrated?

Perhaps the sea knows the answer.

The unforgiving sea, that also took the son and husband of our cook .

Posted by jonshapiro 19.12.2013 12:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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