Monday, December 30, 2013

Malaysia - Cameron Highlands

Sunday, October 27

After breakfast and settling our account for the apartment, we lugged our bags to the nearest local bus stop for a one-stop ride to Pudu Raya, the terminus for long-distance buses, getting there well before our 10:30 departure time. This gave us plenty of time to look for some food for the 4-hour journey, after which it was  just a question of waiting.
It was already hot and humid, and the bus station appeared to have no cooling apparatus: no AC, no fans. The ceiling was only about 6 1/2 ft high which Michael at 6 ft 1 in. found particularly oppressive. To reach the bus you had to descend a concrete staircase into a a dark cavern rich with diesel fumes so that was even worse. We stayed above until our bus appeared ready to go. Nevertheless, once on board we waited an additional 15 minutes, perhaps for late-arriving passengers.

It was a relief to get under way, and once out of the terminus, we found it very comfortable. The bus had well-upholstered reclining seats with footrests, and since it was only three seats across (two on one side of the aisle, a single on the other), they were wider than average. Mesh pockets on the back of every seat held pink plastic bags; a sign at the front of the bus advised "Plastic bag is for vomit." Fortunately, no-one needed it despite the swaying of the vehicle as it snaked its way around hairpin curves on the narrow road up into the mountains.

Blocks of highrises gradually gave way to lower apartment buildings and finally to jungle as we left KL behind. As we climbed into the hinterland, our driver frequently honked as we approached a bend, to warn approaching traffic that our behemoth of a bus needed the whole width of the road to make the turn. There were a few hair-raising moments as we came face to face with another huge bus or a truck.

 From time to time we passed small kampungs (villages)

..or sometimes individual huts tucked among the trees.

As we climbed higher there were also several roadside stalls selling vegetables, fruit, objects made of cane, or something mysterious in cloudy bottles that I later found was wild honey. I was also told that the cane items, which I had assumed were handmade and regretted not having an opportunity to examine more closely, were actually made in factories elsewhere to be re-sold to gullible types like me.

We passed through a couple of cloudbursts en route, and it was raining and cool when we stepped off the bus at Tanah Rata, the largest town in the Highlands. Breaking out the umbrellas, we negotiated the few blocks the Cameronian Inn where we'd booked their only room with private bath. Most of their accommodation was dorm-style for young backpackers who arrived in two and threes all afternoon and congregated in the cafe area, where wi-fi was available. All of them had smartphones or iPads. The decor in both the common areas and in our room with its two narrow, single beds was pretty spare, but clean, and the management not only spoke excellent English, but served fabulous scones every afternoon with locally-made strawberry jam and very good tea from a large nearby plantation.

Dinner was at an Indian restaurant in the town, where the manager was chatty and amusing, complaining about the rain and the cold. He'd only arrived 4 months ago himself, to help out a friend.

Monday, October 28

A quiet night, broken in the early morning by other guests using the showers, located only a thin wall away from the head of my bed. The Cameron Highlands are almost impossible to get around without transport, so we had booked a morning tour that included a butterfly farm, strawberry farm, tea plantation and a short jungle hike. A small 4WD bus picked us up with two other couples and then collected another two couples en route for a complement of ten.

We hadn't been very impressed by the butterfly farm in KL, but this one was a pleasant surprise, with some attractive plants and many more butterflies. Perhaps because of the cooler temperature, more of them were at rest and it was easier to observe their beautiful wings.

It was hard not to stop and photograph just one more!

A separate area held enclosures of snakes, spiders and even a pit of large, evil-looking scorpions. Some of snakes were entwined in intricate knots of 7 or 8 together.

By comparison, the strawberry farm was a disappointment. The strawberries were being grown in long, polythene tunnels filled with a fine mulch and fed by drip irrigation. It was not exactly a scenic sight, but I had to admit that the strawberries we bought there tasted delicious.

Winding higher toward the peaks, we came to a viewpoint from which we could survey one of the vast tea plantations, the main source of income in this region. Constant picking grooms the bushes into waves of green,

 ... and turns individual plants into bonsai.

While we were standing on the roadside, admiring the sight, a small plane flew over our heads.

Moments later, a rain of little pellets fell over and around us. Our guide explained that this was the modern way of fertilizing the bushes. I was glad that it wasn't dust. Who knows  what we might have inhaled?

From the tea plantation we motored even higher on what became little more than a goat track to reach Bukit Brinchang, the highest point in the range, where a metal tower and viewing platform gave us a panorama of the surrounding, tree-clad slopes.

On the way down our driver parked the van and led us off on a short but tortuous track into the jungle. We were not surprised to learn that people had got lost in there without a guide. The ground under our feet was springy with fallen leaves and bark, and in some places squelchy with water. Several times we had to duck under low branches or long vine-like tendrils of bamboo.

I was fascinated by the variety of plant life, and our guide proved to be a good ethno-botanist. Though self-taught, he was knowledgeable about many of the different species we encountered.

A final stop on the route back to Tanah Rata took us to a Buddhist temple.

By this time our tour had run overtime; it was two in the afternoon and we were all getting hungry. We asked the driver to let us out in the centre of town, and everyone else followed suit. Clearly we were not alone in needing some fuel. All the same, the tour was certainly excellent value for money, and more comprehensive than we had expected. Just for a change, we ordered muffins and coffee at the local Starbucks - a mistake as it cost us more than our entire meal of the night before. We bought some fruit to take back to our inn, and made it there just as the skies opened. With other guests we sat around in the cafe area, everyone reading or doing on-line games or email while we waited for the downpour to ease.

Dinner was another good Indian meal, and we went to bed early as we were leaving first thing in the morning to return to the coast and the island of Penang.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Malaysia - Kuala Lumpur

Friday, October 25

After disembarking from the train, we found a small, dim and depressing food court inside the station, where we had a very good roti telor (egg pancake) and coffee before looking for a taxi to take us to our destination, getting a cab to our destination, a studio apartment we had rented over the internet. Thanks to our host's detailed information we were able to avoid the luxury cab stand and find the budget one.

When we arrived, we were met by our host, Paf, who showed us our suite, and gave us a cell phone to contact him if we had any questions during our stay.  From our windows we looked down over old houses,

and out towards the shiny modern Petronas Towers, KL's most famous buildings.

After a brief rest and an exploration of our surroundings, we took the nearby monorail into the city centre, getting off at the station beside the vast Jamek mosque, all white marble, Moorish arches and onion domes.

From there, it was a short walk to  Merdeka Square, site of the Malaysian proclamation of independence, with its huge flagpole and, more interesting to me, its green walls.

From the top of those steps, we had a good view of the Royal Selangor Club, where the British colonials used to play cricket and drink their gin and tonics.

Facing it across the road is the magnificent Sultan Abdul Samad building, formerly the High Court and now the Ministry of Information.

Our lack of sleep the night before was catching up with us, so we headed back through busy streets towards the monorail. Our route took us along a section of river enclosed by ugly concrete walls that local artists had made a good job of improving, well as across an overpass that offered an interesting view of the old KL railway station, another fine building bedecked with minarets and domes.

  KL is difficult to get around in as a pedestrian. The roads are plugged with cars, buses and motorbikes, and there are very few pedestrian crossings. Occasionally there are walkways above the roads and railway lines, that involve much climbing up and down steps to find that they lead off any every direction except the one you want. Sometimes the sidewalk is occupied by parked motorbikes or stalls or simply barriers, so that it's necessary to take your life in your hands and charge into the traffic, hoping one of the other pedestrians doing the same thing will buffer you from oncoming vehicles. It was a relief to find a pedestrian mall for part of our route.

A couple of interesting vehicles drew our attention as we walked the last couple of blocks: a taxi cab with improvised sunshade,

 ... and a colourful bus .

We were hot, tired and footsore by the time we got back to our temporary home. A dip in the rooftop pool refreshed us somewhat, but we weren't up for more exploring. We got some fish curry from a nearby take-out cafe, ate it and went to bed early.

Saturday, October 26

After a leisurely start, we set off to visit the large KL Bird Park, a huge area of paths, streams and lakes filled with plants as well as birds. Many of the birds roamed at will through the landscape, including peacocks,

ibis, both white...

... and red,

crested pigeons,

and assorted other colourful species.

Sometimes the other visitors were more colourful than the birds.

The flowering trees and shrubs were spectacular too.

Being a weekend, it was quite crowded with people and the overhead netting contributed to the humidity. After an hour or more we were feeling the heat and escaped to an orchid garden across the road. This was a little disappointing as it seemed to be the wrong time of year for many of the species featured to be in flower. There were beautiful leaves to admire,

but the best examples of orchids that we saw were in pots in a little shop on the site. They were incredibly cheap, about $12 a plant. How I wish we could have brought some home!

The garden was on a slight rise, giving us a good view back over the smoggy city.

Walking down the leafy roads from the hill, we stopped at a butterfly garden, which was rather disappointing, and then came upon the Museum of Islamic Art. We were hungry by this time and hoped to find some lunch in their cafe, but all they were serving was an expensive full buffet lunch, far too elaborate for our simple needs. Fortunately just across the road was the national mosque and a few food stalls had set up beside the entrance. We sat on a sidewalk bench, eating delicious chappatis stuffed with chicken and mayo, dripping with a spicy curry sauce. From where we sat we had a good view of both the national mosque with its clean modern lines and the old railway station with its pinnacles and onion domes. Both seemed in need of a good scrub and some fresh paint. By contrast the Islamic Museum, a very new glass and white concrete structure, was still spotless.

It turned out to be the highlight of the day. A beautiful piece of architecture itself, it had one room given over to finely-detailed scale models of famous mosques around the world: everything from the great mosque at Mecca to the Taj Mahal to a small mud-walled building in Uzbekistan.

This is the mosque at Mecca, with the Ka'aba in the central courtyard.

And this is the mosque at Medina.

Another room held glass cases of ancient and beautifully illuminated copies of the Koran.

The building itself was capped by a dome with an intricate, elegant, subtly-lit interior.

Beneath it were displays of robes, jewellery, pottery, woodcarvings, calligraphy and art, all very well interpreted. Even the gift shop contained only items of a high standard: beautiful art books and jewellery, notecards and fridge magnets.

That evening we set off on the monorail in search of the Pasar Minggu, the weekend night market in Kampong Bahru, a small warren of undeveloped shacks cut off from the modern heart of the city by a tangle of freeways. Looming over the corrugated tin roofs we could see the highrises of the modern city.

As night came on, we wandered among the street stalls and ate plates of nasi ayam (chicken rice) cooked in a vast metal wok by a little Malay lady.. The chicken was rather tough, but the spicy rice was delicious and filling.

The ride back to our stop was crowded as usual. Because of our grey heads we had become used to younger people offering us their seats, which we were glad to accept. This particular time, however, I was amused to see a row of young women all strenuously concentrating on their cell phones under an ironic sign.

The next morning we left Kuala Lumpur en route for the Cameron Highlands, where we hoped to get a break from the suffocating heat and humidity of the coast.