Posted by: Richard Marshall | February 20, 2018

Taman Negara

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View into the park

For my final trip in Malaysia I decided to head for the peninsula’s most famous national park, Taman Negara. I had always been interested in going but had been put off by the hassle of trying to get there from Penang. Getting  there involved a bus to the Cameron Highlands, spending the night there, another bus to Kuala Tembling and then a boat to the park. In fact much of the journey was very interesting, winding through what remains of Malaysia’s forested spine and then a very attractive boat journey to the main park entrance. The trip back was direct but absolutely terrifying as I caught a lift with a minibus being returned to Penang but not really intended for passengers. It was just the driver and myself in the vehicle and he drove so fast and recklessly I was convinced we were going to have an accident and the minivan would crumple like a concertina. That was later, however, and the boat trip especially, up the languid tropical river, was a reminder to me of why I love Southeast Asia.

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View from the boat

The boundary of the park is the Tembling river. With the exception of an overpriced and tacky resort in the park itself, most of the accommodation is on the other side of the river. I chose the Balai Serama guesthouse, run by a Dutch woman married to a Malay man, in the hope that she might have a better idea of what appeals to Westerners than most Malaysian operators. I was not disappointed. Although the inexorable palm oil apocalypse was creeping forward towards the  river, the hotel had a wide deck overlooking the magnificent forest on the other side. The food at the hotel was some of the best Malay food I have ever eaten and, fortuitously and controversially in rural Pahang, cold beer was available.

The park is quite heavily visited and one of the reasons I didn’t stay in the resort was that I predicted, correctly, that is was likely to be full of noisy people. Fairly typically, though, most people had no interest in walking more than a few hundred metres. Most of the local tourists contented themselves with visiting a long, vertiginous canopy walk near the park entrance. Foreign tourists tended to book tours that took them down the river to visit Orang Asli villages. The advantage for me was that I was not particularly interested in those things, and after walking just a few minutes I easily escaped the crowds and had the forest largely to myself. The forest is vast and truly magnificent. I was there for about 5 days and spent most of the those days entirely in the forest. Walking all day as very sweaty and tiring work, but I was rewarded over 50 species of birds, about a third of them new to me. Some were spectacular Southeast Asia specials, including Rhinocerous Hornbill. I saw boars, a gibbon and a brief glimpse of a mouse deer, but sadly no tapir and, of course, nothing like a tiger or panther. Nevertheless the park was one of the best outdoor experiences I’ve had in Southeast Asia and if I return to Malaysia I’d definitely make the effort to return.

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Part of the Canopy Walkway

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Beautiful river in the park

Posted by: Richard Marshall | February 20, 2018

Australia 2016/ 2017

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With Al, Sal and Claire in King’s Park, Perth

Ever since moving to Southeast Asia I had been planning to head to Australia to visit my family in Perth and Victoria but had never quite got around to it. After seeing the family at Christmas, however, I decided that 2016 was going to be the year, and in fact I ended up visiting Australia three times in the space of about 18 months. Each trip was wonderful and I did a great deal, so it’ll have be a longish post to include all three, but since I’m still several posts behind I’ll do my best!

My first trip was to visit Uncle Al, Auntie Sally and cousin Claire in Perth in June 2016. I took a red-eye flight from KL and arrived very early in the morning, waking my poor family up at about 7 am. The novelty of a crisp winter’s morning was wonderful after years of tropical weather, as were the flocks of cockatoos flying overhead shrieking. It was wonderful to finally see my family’s home in Australia and be shown around some of the sights of Perth. The first day we headed up to have lunch in the Darling Scarp, a low range of hills outside the city. We also headed to King’s Park, a huge park and garden with amazing views of the city centre. Claire had very kindly taken a day off work, so she, Sally and I spent a day exploring the prison in Fremantle. The prison was a grim but very interesting stone building, and we followed up our visit with lunch at Little Creatures brewery, a very pleasant spot by the water. I subsequently returned to Fremantle on my own to explore the well-preserved Victorian town centre. The train trip from my family’s house was very pleasant and it was great to see dolphins in the Darling river as the train crossed the bridge into Fremantle. It was also great to meet Jack, Claire’s boyfriend, for the first time, though I didn’t know then that I’d be returning the next year for their wedding!

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Claire and I outside Fremantle Prison

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The prison

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Typical Fremantle Street

I also headed down to the small town of Bunbury for a night to see my old university friend Russell. He had been teaching there for years, but it had been a long time since we had last seen each other. It was great to see his house, have a barbecue and to catch up. The next day we braved lousy wet weather and terrible hangovers to head down to Cape Augusta, through beautiful winelands and forests. It was a fantastic trip but by the time we were driving back in pouring rain and poor visibility we were pretty exhausted! On one of my last evenings in Perth I was able to meet up with Tracy and Gayle, cousins on my Dad’s side, as well. We were able to catch up after not seeing each other for eight years!

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At Cape Augusta

My second trip to Australia was to visit my Uncle Rob and Auntie Val in Warragul, Victoria in March 2017. I was on my way to New Zealand after finishing my contract in Penang was able to arrange a four day stopover in Australia. Rob and Val kindly picked me up at the airport and drove me out to Warragul. The first day Rob took me out to visit some friends of his and see a bit of the Victoria countryside in his Model A Ford, a truly gorgeous car. They also took me on two great day trips. The first was to Phillip Island, southeast of Melbourne. The scenery was beautiful and it was a great chance to do some birdwatching. Just before crossing the bridge onto the island was a place where pelicans were regularly fed, and the island itself was a great place to see waterbirds. While walking around a lighthouse on the island we also saw an echidna. I found it really exciting to see such an iconic Australian animal.

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The Model A

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Pelicans near Phillip Island

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Echidna

The second day trip was up into forested hills around a place called Noojee. The drive up into the forest was fantastic, and I saw lyrebirds on the road, another famous Australian animal. Our first stop was a huge, old eucalyptus tree in the forest. We also visited some waterfalls and an amazing old railway trestle bridge. We had lunch at a very pleasant restaurant with several species of parakeets flying around the surrounding gum trees. Finally, I did also manage to spend a day on my own wandering around downtown Melbourne. I took the train from Warragul to the magnificent Flinder’s Street Station. I first made my way up to Queen Victoria Market to get myself a bratwurst for breakfast, and then just wandered around the city admiring the gorgeous architecture. For lunch I found a pleasant pub just off Federation Square by the Yarra river, read my book and enjoyed a few beers. In the end I spent an extra day in Australia as Emirates refused to let me board my flight to New Zealand, despite the fact I had a visa. The 24 hours spent in a lousy Melbourne airport hotel watching junior Masterchef weren’t the best I’ve spent in Australia, but Mom and Dad helped me out and eventually I did make it to Auckland.

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Rob and I on the trestle bridge

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Flinders Street Station

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The Yarra River and part of Melbourne skyline

My most recent trip to Australia was December 2017 for my cousin’s wedding and for a family Christmas in Perth. Although the trip was only 6 days (I had to return to Vietnam for work) we did an amazing amount. Claire and Jack’s wedding was absolutely wonderful, and we had a great Christmas with all the family too. Overall I had three wonderful trips to Australia and hope to visit again and see more of the country. I’m also very grateful to family and friends for doing so much for me, having me to stay and showing me around. Thank you all so much!!

Posted by: Richard Marshall | February 20, 2018

Ipoh

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Entrance to a cave temple

I visited the town of Ipoh, 150 km southeast of Penang, twice, once with Luke and Emily in August 2016 and once with Kiyo, a friend from my China days, in February 2017. Although I only went overnight on each occasion, I was really taken with the city. In fact, Lonely Planet also discovered it and Ipoh, and the state of Perak generally, was one of their top recommendations for 2017.

Ipoh was a tin-mining boom town from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. After that it fell on hard times (though it’s beginning to prosper again),but has some spectacular colonial buildings left from that period. The railway station, city hall and law courts are particularly impressive. Like most Malaysian cities it was overwhelmingly Chinese until the mid-twentieth century so also has a charming old town of Chinese shophouses and temples. Parts of the town are becoming very touristy – the most famous street is the narrow Concubine’s Lane, where rich businessmen would house their mistresses. The lane is now the tourist epicenter of the town and has the usual tacky souvenir stalls but the city as a whole still feels fairly sleepy. It felt as I imagine Penang must have done 20 years before.

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Ipoh City Hall

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Shophouses

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Concubine’s Lane

Ipoh’s other great claim to fame is it’s food, which truly was spectacular. The city’s most iconic dish is salted chicken which is nice but not amazing. Luke, Emily and I, though, found a dim sum restaurant, Ming Court, which was the best I’ve ever had. It was an amazing meal even despite a terrible hangover. Ipoh has a surprisingly lively nightlife, and on both occasions I only made it back to the hotel pretty late. The other meals we had were less memorable but still excellent. Similarly to Penang, I’m sure spending more time in Ipoh and really exploring it’s food scene would be really rewarding.

Luke, Emily and I rented a car on the first occasion (Kiyo and I took the train), so we had the chance to head a little out of town to visit some old Chinese temples built into the karst hills nearby. The temple complexes were huge, a reflection of more prosperous days, but although slightly neglected were very impressive, and extended deep into caves in the limestone. We only managed to visit a couple as we had to head back to Penang, but if I had the chance I’d love to head back to Ipoh to do some more exploring.

Thanks so much to Emily for sharing her photos with me!

 

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Beautiful Temple Garden

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Temple inside a karst

Posted by: Richard Marshall | February 17, 2018

Bukit Larut March 2016

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View of the forest at Bukit Larut

Dalat has always been one of my favourite places in Southeast Asia, and while living in Penang I hoped I could find a similar place to get away from the heat and the chaos and just relax in the mountains. The Cameron Highlands was the most famous hill station in Malaysia but I had already visited with my parents and been disappointed by the traffic and hideous over-development. Fraser’s Hill near Kuala Lumpur sounded great, but was expensive and difficult to get to from Penang. So I decided to investigate Bukit Larut, formally and still familiarly called Maxwell Hill, outside of Taiping. It was one of the original British Hill stations and still had few old bungalows available for rent. Since we had a holiday coming up, Luke, Emily and I decided to spend a few days in the hills.

We took the train to Taiping which was only a few hours from Penang. Taiping itself is a pleasant, neglected little town with some fine old colonial buildings and a few streets of Chinese shophouses. It is famous for a zoo, night safari and theme park, none of which we troubled ourselves with, and it’s Lake Garden. The Lake Garden was one of the first botanical gardens founded in Peninsula Malaysia and although it lacks the resources and imagination to really live up to it’s potential, it fairly well maintained and a very pleasant place to walk. The gardens and the hill itself are very popular with Taiping locals: it’s one of the most frustrating aspects of Asia that while governments either neglect or actively destroy green spaces people are desperate for them, and any green space in the crowded Asian cities I’ve been to has been heavily and enthusiastically visited.

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View of Taiping from Bukit Larut

After a quick wander around the gardens we went to the park office at Bukit Larut. At first all seemed well, but after an irresponsibly hair-rising land rover trip to the bungalows the problems began. Some aspects of the trip were great, but regrettably some less so. We had been told the bungalows had been renovated, but it was far from clear that this was the case as they were all in very poor repair. I suspect they periodically were fixed up but then not maintained and this, combined with one of the highest rainfalls in peninsula Malaysia, meant they quickly fell apart again. Also, our bungalow was filthy as it had been used by workers trying to clear some trees. Although we subsequently realized the manager was present on the hill when we arrived, he didn’t identify himself to us. The bungalow was also hopeless poorly equipped. If we hadn’t brought a barbecue with us we would have had to leave, though we did discover that a rice cooker can be used for everything from popcorn to bacon and eggs. Another annoyance was that the staff spent a lot of time tearing up and down the mountain road in their government vehicles and, I suspect, poaching. Finally, after our trip we tried to remonstrate with the manager (they had charged us double the quoted price on the basis of the supposed renovation), but the whole thing ended up in a shouting match. Unfortunately the people working there seemed to embody the very worst of Malaysian bureaucracy: lazy, corrupt, incompetent and racially entitled.

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One of bungalows on the hill

The shouting match in the end was a particular shame because on the whole I, and I hope Luke and Emily too, had actually had a reasonably good time. The forest was truly magnificent and teeming with all sorts of life. I saw wild boar and heard gibbons hooting in the mornings and evenings. I did a lot of walking and bird-watching and saw numerous new species. We had plenty of food and booze and blessedly the barbecue to cook it on. I’m glad I went despite the endemic Malaysian neglect, mismanagement and corruption. One hopes that one day the bungalows will truly be renovated and the place will live up to it’s potential, and hopefully avoid some of the crass over-exploitation that has happened to other Malaysian hill stations.

Thanks so much to Emily for the photos!

Posted by: Richard Marshall | February 17, 2018

New Zealand 2015 Part 2: The North Island

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Lighthouse at Cape Reinga

After our trip in the South Island my parents and I returned to Auckland, but only for a day or so of rest. The whole of my mom’s side of the family came to New Zealand for Christmas and New Year. We all met in Auckland but soon headed up north. The first place we stayed was in Russell, one of New Zealand’s oldest settlements on the Bay of Islands. We stayed slightly out of town where we could hear, but sadly didn’t see, kiwis calling in the bush. The town of Russell itself is a small but beautiful and well-heeled tourist town. It had an attractive waterfront with old colonial buildings where we had a very pleasant meal. The Pompallier Catholic Mission has some of the oldest buildings in the country and was a charming spot for an afternoon tour. Russell was also where we spent Christmas day – the weather was great and we had a barbecue.

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The family getting ready for Christmas

The Bay of Islands is also the site of the Waitangi Treaty grounds, where the British and Maori signed New Zealand’s foundational treaty 1840. It was one of my favourite spots in the North Island as the Treaty House and the Maori Whare were very elegant and faced a wide lawn stretching down to the bay. Although the weather was a bit rainy the view was still beautiful and the place very evocative.

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Whare at Waitangi

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Cloudy view of the Bay of Islands

After Russell we headed even further north to Ahipara. In fact, the distances in Northland were one of the surprises of the trip. A glance at the map makes it seem like just an afterthought after Auckland, but in fact it’s a huge area. It’s also surprisingly poor and remote and many of the farms and small towns seemed quite deprived. Ahipara itself was small and oddly lacking in good places to eat, though the place we stayed was very pleasant. It sits at the bottom end of Ninety Mile Beach, a huge beach that stretches up almost to the top end of the island.

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A few miles of Ninety Mile Beach

From Ahipara we drove to Cape Reinga, the northernmost accessible part of the North Island. (The actual northernmost cape is a few kilometres away but can’t be reached). The Cape has a very pretty lighthouse and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean beyond. It was a beautiful day but with typically fierce New Zealand sun. Some us wandered down the lighthouse or just admired the view.

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Cape Reinga

After a couple of nights at Ahipara we drove down the western side of the peninsula back to Auckland. I had to return to Malaysia, so that was the end of the trip for me, though the rest of the family headed up to the Coromandel for a few days. But it was wonderful to have a Christmas and a holiday with the family and to have seen so many spectacular parts of the country.

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Dinner with the family

 

 

Posted by: Richard Marshall | May 10, 2017

New Zealand 2015 Part 1: The South Island

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Milford Sound Road

I’ve seen a lot more of New Zealand since my last posts, so had better start writing some updates. For my December break I returned to New Zealand. My parents had done a couple of scenic train trips, but for me it was my first visit to the South Island. I flew from Penang to Christchurch, a pretty exhausting flight, and was picked up early in the morning by my parents. They had decided not to spend the night in Christchurch, but to press on over the Southern Alps to Westport on the west coast. The drive took us out through the Canterbury plains and up Arthur’s Pass. The scenery became more and more dramatic as we drove on, and although the pass was shrouded in rain the views were spectacular. We also saw our first Keas – large, friendly flightless parrots that sometimes make a nuisance of themselves eating windscreen-wipers and window seals!

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Mom and I on the way to Arthur’s Pass

Westport itself is a pretty though somewhat depressed town – it was historically dependent on coal mining which has suffered in recent years. On the morning of the day we stayed there we drove out to Punakaiki a little further north to see the Pancake Rocks, odd-looking sandstone formations that resemble pancakes in layers. The site also has a number of blow holes that water and spray rush though at certain times, making it look as though the rocks are steaming. We admired some more scenery along the way, but that afternoon the weather closed in  -one of the few bad days we had. Fortunately, one of the attractions in Westport is the Monteith’s Brewery, where we did a tour of the facility and spent the rainy afternoon sampling a few of their beers.

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Pancake Rocks

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Blowhole at Pancake Rocks

From Westport we drove further south down the coast to Franz Joseph Glacier. The town itself was very pretty, with stunning views of the mountains and glimpses through the clouds of Mount Cook. We walked as close as we could to Franz Joseph Glacier, though recent rains had washed away much of the path. We could get a lot closer to the face of Fox Glacier, and both were visible extending up the mountainsides from further away.

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Fox Glacier

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Mountains, sheep and glaciers

After visiting the glaciers, we headed south and then back over the mountains at Haast’s Pass. As with all the South Island, the scenery continued to be stunning with incredible sweeping views of the Tasman sea and steep mountain sides cloaked in impenetrable beech forests. The landscape opened up on the eastern side of the mountains into grasslands, a result partly of rain shadows and of course farming. We stayed next in Lake Hawea, in an old fashioned hotel overlooking the lake and the mountains beyond. We decided not to stay in nearby Queenstown, the South Island’s most famous and tony resort town. Stopping there the next day made it clear that it was a good idea. Although the setting is gorgeous the scale of tourist development is a bit intense. We did stop at Arrowtown just outside of Queenstown, which was once on old gold mining town. Although obviously gentrified most of the historic buildings have been beautifully preserved, and we enjoyed exploring and having delicious meat pies for lunch.

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Arrowtown

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Lake Hawea

From Hawea we drove to another lakeside town, Te Anau. Te Anau is the jumping off point for one of New Zealand’s most famous attractions, Milford Sound. The town itself was very pretty, and Milford absolutely lived up to expectations. The road itself, winding over the mountains and through a tunnel, built with huge effort in the depression, was absolutely stunning. We then took a boat trip down the sound to the Tasman and back again. We were very lucky to have perfect weather in a place that gets 6 metres of rain a year. The most famous mountain, Mitre Peak, was perfectly reflected and we saw splendid waterfalls rushing down the mountainsides. Even in summer the mountains were snow capped which made the scenery even more dramatic.

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Lake Te Anau

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Mitre Peak

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Milford Sound

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Kea Parrot on the Milford Road

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The Milford Road

After Te Anau, the last leg of our trip took across the bottom of the South Island to Dunedin. We stayed there a couple of nights and I was really taken with the town. The natural setting is stunning, and the city has lots of beautiful nineteenth century buildings, the railway station in particular being an icon of the town. It is also the home of Speight’s brewery, and the alehouse there was the second great beer location of our trip! We went bird watching on Otago Peninsula which has a breeding colony of Royal Albatrosses. We also stayed till sunset to see Little Blue Penguins coming back from the sea to their burrows. We saw one more species of penguin, the much shyer and rarer Yellow Eyed Penguin. The next morning we drove out the airport and then headed to Auckland, where family was about to arrive for Christmas.

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Dunedin Railway Station

Posted by: Richard Marshall | January 30, 2017

Laos July 2015

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Reclining Buddha near That Luang, Vientiane

My first vacation in 2015 was taken up by preparing for and then doing the two-week orientation course for my Delta, and English teaching course that lasted until December. I was sent up to Bangkok, and although I had to do a fair bit of work I found the orientation stimulating, and managed to catch up with friends and have a good time in Bangkok too.

The next break was in June, and though I was worried about my coursework, I had stayed a couple of vacations in Penang and regretted it – it was very hot and hazy and I had been very bored. So I decided I could take some work with me and head up to Laos, I country in the region I had long meant to visit but had never quite got around to. One of the inconveniences of Penang is that regional flights tend to require flying to KL first and either hanging around the airport all night or booking into the tired and pricey Tune hotel. In fact I decided to stay the night, if only for a shower and a bit of privacy. Early the next day I boarded the flight to Vientiane.

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the region and striking contrast to Malaysia. The airport was decidedly sleepy with listless officials in communist style uniforms in no great hurry to get people through immigration. I got into town and checked into an unremarkable hotel. The backpacker area was much like any similar part of a Vietnamese town, and indeed Vietnamese influence is notable in the country. I managed to find a rooftop bar overlooking the Mekong and Thailand on the other side, simmering in the heat, and enjoyed a few Beer Lao. Later I walked along the river to try some riverside restaurants (My Dad had been to one during a conference in Laos a few years previously, and I believe I found the same one). I wasn’t always particularly impressed by the food I ate in Laos, though it is true that I was mostly in very touristy areas and probably didn’t get the chance to experience the best versions. In fact, the best food in Vientiane and Luang Prabang was French – whether as a legacy of colonialism or to meet the tastes of expats and tourists. The days I spent in Vientiane I rented a bicycle and rode around in absolutely brutal heat. I thought it an odd city. It has some pleasant boulevards with graceful French buildings, as well as a number of temples and palaces. The most impressive of these was That Luang, a large gold stupa which is the national symbol of Laos.

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That Luang

After a couple of days in Vientiane I headed up north to Luang Prabang, where I intended to take it easy, study Delta in the morning, sight-see in the afternoon and drink beer by the river in the evening. I have done many hideous bus trips in Southeast Asia (and South Africa for that matter), but this one came close to destroying any further willingness to endure such travel for the sake of backpacking! I decided not to stop at Vang Vieng, one-third of the way there, because although it is reputedly beautiful it is also famous as a place where backpackers go wild taking drugs and riding tubes down rapids, which wasn’t the atmosphere I was looking for. So the trip was twelve hours of winding up and down terrifying mountain roads in a dilapidated, noisy, dirty bus. It wasn’t even that scenic, for while the mountains are spectacular the deforestation was catastrophic, with dry rice planted almost all the way up the mountains and great swathes of red earth where the forest had been clear-cut. It as with huge relief that we eventually arrived in Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang is famously one of the most beautiful little towns in Southeast Asia, and it lived up to its reputation. It is obviously very touristy, but the architecture was wonderful and it still retains a peaceful, sleepy character. The main difficulty of the place was the tremendous heat – most days it was pushing 40. This made my plan of moseying around on a bicycle a bit difficult, and I spent an unfortunate amount of time holed up in my (lovely) hotel room, fitfully and inefficiently trying to plug away at Delta. I did manage to explore the little town, however, drink beers by the river and eat delicious French food as well as some local dishes. I would love to go back without work hanging over me and in cooler weather, but I was glad to visit and actually extended my stay an extra night.

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Temple in Luang Prabang

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Luang Prabang Street Scene

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Mountains from Phousi Hill

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View of the town and the river

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Former Royal Palace

The bus trip back was equally horrendous, and confirmed for the idea that I needed to do less solitary, uncomfortable travelling and try to spend more time visiting people and generally taking it easy. With the exception of my trip to Taman Negara I have mostly done this since.

Posted by: Richard Marshall | January 17, 2017

Family Holiday Singapore and Malaysia December 2014

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Singapore Skyline

So I’m now three Christmases behind on this blog, but determined to have caught up by the time I leave Malaysia in March this year!

For Christmas 2014 my parents came to my part of the world from New Zealand. We all flew to Singapore, where I met them outside our hotel in Chinatown. I don’t remember exactly what we did each day, but I took them around places I had been previously and had really enjoyed. We went to the botanical gardens which are as spectacular as ever, as well as to the Gardens by the Bay. Unfortunately, since it was December, the decorations in the greenhouses were kitschy white Christmas themed, somewhat bizarre for tropical gardens! But they were incredible all the same! It rained the afternoon we were there so we couldn’t make it up the elevated walkway, but on the whole we were very lucky with the weather.

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Greenhouse with Christmas decorations

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Mom and I in the botanical gardens

We also visited the historic downtown -the Asian Civilizations Museum and the quays – and walked around the tidal basin admiring the skyline. And of course we ate as much food as we could. We had a magnificent fish head curry at some old barracks near the botanical garden, and made our way to the Bak Kut Teh restaurant on Balastier Road which is one of  my favorite places to eat in Southeast Asia. We also went to the Raffles Hotel for a drink, which remains a fun experience despite the cargo-shorts clad tourists with mewling kids having robbed it of some of its old world charm!

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Eating Bak Kut Teh

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Too bad it’s blurry – but this is us at the Raffles

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Dad and I in the botanical gardens

From Singapore we caught the bus to Melaka. Although Melaka is suffering from over-development and poor management even more than Penang, it remains a charming little town (though absolutely packed with tourists in the December holidays). We found a very pleasant spot to sit by the river and have a few drinks, while watching the sea eagles flying around a communications tower on the hill. Melaka is small, so it didn’t take us long to check out the Dutch buildings in the town centre and to walk up the hill to A’Formosa, the ruins of the old Portuguese church and fort. We also walked through the streets of Chinatown which, though absolutely rammed, are very pretty. We went up the Melaka wheel which, while a characteristically tacky Malaysian attraction, does undeniably offer pretty good views of the city. As usual on this trip we made an effort to find some good places to eat. We walked miles to find a dim sum restaurant that had been recommended to me by a friend (and was indeed very nice!). We also queued for chicken and rice balls, a Melaka specialty, which was also fantastic. Our effort to get Laksa was unfortunately defeated by crowds, however!

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Melaka River with the Catholic Church in the background

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A rare quiet street in Chinatown

From Melaka we took the bus up to KL. Although I’ve been to KL several times I’ve never really been sold it – perhaps it’s a great place to live but it only need a couple of days as a tourist. It’s also always been wet and dank when I’ve been there and this trip was no exception. We stayed on Petaling Street which is in the heart of KL’s dank, rather run-down Chinatown. It’s a good base though to explore historic KL. Mom did some shopping in the renovated Art Deco Central Market, and we walked up to Dataran Merdeka, the big field surrounded by the City Hall, the Selangor Club and various other colonial civic buildings. We went up the KL tower, which while not as famous as the KLCC has a higher observation deck and gives a great view of the twin towers. We also visited the KL Botanical Gardens. Although they aren’t as famous as the ones in Singapore they are nevertheless a beautiful green space in a crowded city.

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Mon and I at the KL Tower

Our second afternoon in KL we headed out to the Batu Caves in Selangor, a huge Hindu temple complex. It was another muggy afternoon and climbing the steps up to the main temple was a sweaty business, but they were certainly magnificent in a gaudy way!

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Statue and stairs at the Batu Caves

Our next destination after KL was the Cameron Highlands, where none of us had ever been before. The bus wound up a terrifying narrow road through the forest and then through the hideous settlements in the highlands. In a lot of ways I found the place very disappointing. The quiet atmosphere of the old British hill station has long been buried under tawdry over-development, litter and choking traffic (the average temperature is even several degrees higher than it was 50 years ago). It was unfortunately a concentration of so much I dislike about Malaysia – traffic, litter, environmental degradation, reckless construction, and the substitution of tacky attractions such as strawberry farms and flower gardens for the original draws of the place – in this instance cool hills and forests. On top of all this it was mostly wet and cold! Nevertheless, we did manage to do a number of really nice things. We went on a birding tour in a patch of surviving forest and saw some lovely birds. We went to the famous tea plantation. And we had Christmas lunch in the old, mock-Tudor British hotel, a charming relic of a more relaxed age. We also enjoyed tasty, spicy hotpot in the cold weather!

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The Smokehouse, where we had Christmas lunch

Our final destination was of course Penang, where we stayed in my old apartment in Tanjung Bungah. I haven’t yet written anything about Penang and will do so in more detail soon, but we mostly concentrated on eating as well as taking in the main tourist sites. He wandered around Georgetown looking at the old shophouses and temples. We got the hop on hop off bus which is actually really convenient for see places slightly further out, such as Penang Hill and Kek Lok Si Temple in Air Itam. And I think we did a pretty good job of sampling the food! We spent New Year’s Eve at a beach side Chinese seafood restaurant just opposite my apartment. On our final evening we headed out to Batu Ferringhi, Penang’s most famous beach, which while also pretty overdeveloped has few nice spots to sit and have a drink. The next day mom and dad headed back to New Zealand and I got ready for another year in Penang!

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Section of the enormous Kek Lok Si Temple

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Eating Pan Mee in Air Itam

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Beers on the beach at Batu Ferringhi

 

Posted by: Richard Marshall | November 30, 2016

Historic Cities of Thailand September 2014

 

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Buddha at Sukhothai

Since I have been in Penang for nearly three years, it’s a bit ludicrous trying to write a post recalling my first impressions. For that reason, I think I’ll wait until next year to write a retrospective post instead. My first trip out of Penang was up to Thailand a few months after I arrived. At that stage my friends Luke and Emily were still working at the British Council in Bangkok, and another ila friend Mike had just finished a stressful year working at a law firm in Bangkok too. Since Mike had never been to northern Thailand we decided to meet in Chiang Mai and make our way back down to Bangkok. I had never visited Sukhothai or Ayutthaya, two of Thailand’s former capitals, so hoped Mike and I could check them out.

I flew from Penang to Chiang Mai, a wretched trip that involved flying to Kuala Lumpur first, 300km in the wrong direction. However, Mike and I eventually met up in the late afternoon and set about putting away quite a few Singha beers. I had visited Chiang Mai before, and found it to charming once again. Mike and I were slightly unenthusiastic tourists after a night of Thai beers, but we walked around the old town and checked out many of the Wats, the old city wall and the moat. We found a good place for the delicous local noodle dish, khao soi, as well as a Texan …er…restaurant? Eatery, anyway, with some pretty impressive specimens propping up the bar. We also hired a couple of scooters and made our way up Doi Suthep, a hill outside the town with a vast and teeming temple complex.

After a couple of days in Chiang Mai we headed down to Sukhothai on an inevitably uncomfortable Thai bus. The city of Suhkothai itself is a characteristically dismal Southeast Asian provincial city – a dirty concrete jungle of gimcrack buildings, noisy streets and a river full of slow moving muddy water that had only just receded from breaking its banks. There are two dull tourist strips – we stayed at the one closer to the city proper and a little out from the ruins. Oddly there was actually a pretty decent bar with good live music. Mike was convinced the singer should get on the first bus to Bangkok to treble his salary, and wondered what on earth he was doing out in the styx. We hired bikes and headed out to the ruins. Unlike Ayutthaya, where the remains of the former city are dispersed throughout the modern one, the ruins of Sukhothai are set apart in a green and leafy complex. This seclusion gave the place tremendous atmosphere and though obviously not on the scale of its contemporary at Angkor was nevertheless and fascinating and beautiful site. In the afternoon I drove my bike out into the countryside. Although there are paddy field areas in Malaysia, much of the areas I had traveled though were palm oil and rubber, a landscape I find hideous and depressing. So it was great to back in the land of paddy fields, emerald green and set against dark mountains, with tree-shaded villages incredibly still and quiet in the somnolent heat. To me it’s a quintessential feeling of being in Southeast Asia, and one of my favorites.

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Stupas and ruins. Sukhothai

We took an even more ghastly bus down to Ayutthaya. I think I watched “The Expendables 3” dubbed in Thai, though it was clearly a move where dialogue was optional. Ayutthaya is slightly younger than Angkor or Sukhothai. It flourished from the fourteenth century until its destruction by the Burmese in 1767, after which it was displaced by Bangkok. Since then, of course, a grimy Thai city has grown up again around the ruins of the old. Arriving quite late, we just had dinner at a very nice riverside restaurant and headed to our hostel. The next day we legged it around the city checking out at least some of the huge remaining palace and temple ruins.

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Seated Buddha, Ayutthaya

After Ayutthaya we headed down to Bangkok. Mike was in the final stages of leaving and departed for Vietnam a few days later. I stayed with Luke and Emily, who at that stage were working at the British Council there. Their apartment was lovely, and we did some tourist stuff, exploring some of Bangkok’s Chinatown looking at some of the old shophouses and go-downs by the river. We mostly focused on eating, however, and they introduced me to two of my all time favorite restaurants. The first was a fried chicken restaurant, so famous the alley it’s located on bears the name “chicken alley”: Soi Pollo. We had delicious fried chicken, pork neck and papaya salad, and I have always been back on subsequent trips. The most amazing restaurant, however, was Gold Bayleaves. The food was simply unbelievable – curries, fried fish, Thai-style steak, all on the side of the road and washed down with Singha beer. Luke and Emily also took me to a couple of their local markets and some lovely Bangkok rooftop bars.

I decided to take the night train from Bangkok back to Penang, thus (over the course of a few holidays) haven ridden the rails all the way from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur. (I’ll have to do KL to Singapore one day just to finish the last section). The trip was uneventful, though the new electric trains on the Malaysian side of the border were quite a contrast to Thailand’s creaking network. I arrived in the morning, crossed from Butterworth to Penang Island on the ferry, and took the bus back to my apartment.

Thanks Mike for the photos! 

 

 

Posted by: Richard Marshall | August 2, 2016

New Zealand January – March 2014

I was in fairly rough shape when I got to New Zealand in early 2014. However, I spent the first few months in my parents new house, which I hadn’t seen till then, while looking for jobs. I eventually found a British Council job in Penang (I was also offered Tunis and Tripoli which I didn’t particularly fancy) and left towards the end of March. I mostly took it easy while I was there – I joined a local gym and did some cooking. Mom, Dad and I did manage to go on a couple of lovely trips in the North Island, however, as well as exploring a bit more of Auckland and it surrounds than I had on my previous visit.

Our first trip was to Hawke’s Bay on the Eastern side of North Island. We stopped off at a couple of places along the way. The first was Haka falls, and hugely powerful and oddly turquoise blue waterfall on the Waikato river, which was spectacular sight. We also stopped briefly at Taupo, which is New Zealand’s largest lake. We we lucky that it was a clear day as we got a view of the snow-capped peaks of central North Island – Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe – across the blue water of the lake. (I’m a little unclear which of these three is which, so I’m sorry if I end up naming them incorrectly!). The road down from the central plateau to Hawke’s bay was spectacular though shrouded in mist.

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Haka Falls

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View of Lake Taupo

The main towns in Hawke’s Bay are Napier and Hastings, both of which were largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1931. They were rebuilt almost entirely in Art Deco style, which is their main to claim to fame and of course really appealed to me! We stayed in Napier, which is a small, compact little town and claims to be the most consistently Art Deco city in the world. It was indeed beautiful which a long shorefront on the Pacific and a charming town centre. We also visited Hastings up the road, which had been rebuilt in Art Deco and Spanish Mission style after 1931 too. As always in New Zealand we had some great pub meals and I enjoyed trying all the delicious local beer – always a refreshing change after Chinese or Southeast Asian beers. I also experienced an earthquake myself, though thankfully nothing like 1931. I was lying down and felt that the bed was moving. I looked over at my bedside table and saw the water level was also moving in a glass of water. Mom and Dad were walking around so didn’t feel it. They were a little skeptical but the evening news confirmed that yes indeed there had been a small earthquake centred a little way to the south.

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Art Deco, Napier

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Mom and I, Napier

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The Masonic Hotel and Vintage Car, Napier

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Spanish Mission Style, Hastings

On the way back from Napier we stayed a view days at Taurangi on the southern shore of Lake Taupo. The town is famous for trout fishing and, apparently, crazy gang violence, though it seemed a pretty quiet spot to me. It is also a convenient spot to explore Tongariro National park. We took the desert road to Taurangi, which runs through an area made arid by volcanic irruptions and by the rain-shadow of the three big mountains of central North Island. Unfortunately it was very misty and we couldn’t see the mountains, but it was an eerie and fascinating drive all the same. The weather was still cloudy the next day when we visited the national park. We drove to Whakapapa village in the park, which has a huge, alpine-style hotel called Chateau Tongariro as well as a few cafes and a visitor centre. We also went up to the ski fields on the slopes of Raupehu, though since it was summer there was very little snow. It was also difficult to see the mountain, which featured as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings, though the mist cleared occasionally so we got a few glimpses. We returned the next as the mist had lifted a bit and had a couple of better views of the mountain.

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View of Lake Taupo

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Chateau Tongariro

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Ski Fields, Ruapehu

 

The other trip we did while I was in Auckland was to the Coromandel peninsula. We stayed in a small town on the eastern side called Whitianga. On the first day we went to hot water beach, were water from hot springs filters up through the sand and people can dig pools of hot water to sit in. We also went to Cathedral Cove, a beautiful stretch of coastline with a large cave you can walk through. On the next day we crossed the peninsular to Coromadel town itself, where we took and eccentric railway that was initially developed to collect clay but is now a tourist attraction. It is narrow-gauge and makes a steep ascent up the side of the mountains overlooking Coromandel, with peculiar clay art along the way. After coming down from the railway we drove north up the peninsula passing more and more remote beaches. We stopped at one for a picnic before turning back and heading home to Auckland.

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Mom and I, Hot Water Beach

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Cathedral Cove

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The coastline above Cathedral Cove

I then had a few more weeks in Auckland, getting to know the city better, before heading off to Penang, where I have been now for nearly three years….

 

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