|Wednesday, December 6th, after clearing Singapore and Malaysia customs and immigration, The Melaka-Singapore Express took us up the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia to the city of Melaka.
It was a four hour bus ride through the industrious state of Johor. Miles and miles of rubber, pineapple, palm and oil plantations. Joel got into a shooting game (using their fingers as the gun) with a young Malaysian boy on the bus, but when things got out of hand -- the boy was running up and down the aisles looking for the best angle to shoot Joel -- the boy's mother stepped in and put a stop to things.
When we reached the historic city of Melaka, we checked into The Kancil Guesthouse.
The exchange rate in Malaysia is about 3.8 to 1. For $1.00 U.S. dollar you get about 3.80 Malaysia ringgits (RM).
Thursday, December 7th, we explored historic Melaka. Melaka was once the greatest trading state in all of South-East Asia. The complete series of European incursions in Malaysia -- Portuguese, Dutch and British -- were all played out here, and Melaka still bears testament to their presence.
We started our tour of Melaka in the old city on the easterns side of the Sungai (River) Melaka. The Stadthuys is the most imposing relic of the Dutch period. It is a massive red town hall, built between 1641 and 1660. It is believed to be the oldest Dutch building in the east. Today it houses an excellent series of museums. We lost a few hours within the impressive walls.
Near the Stadhuys is Christ Church. Built shortly after Stadthuys, its bricks were brought all the way from Holland. There are old Dutch tombstones laid right in the middle of the floor and the huge 15-metre long ceiling beams were each cut from a single tree.
On St. Paul's Hill, which overlooks Dutch Square, is St. Paul's Church. It was originally built by the Portuguese in 1521. In 1556 the church was enlarged to two storeys and a tower was added in 1590. When the Dutch tookover, they built Christ Church, so the church on the hill fell into disuse. The British used it to store gunpowder. The church has been in ruins for more than 150 years, but the setting is beautiful, the walls are imposing and fine old Dutch tombstones, which used to be in the floor, stand around the interior.
Just below St. Paul's Church, on the other side of the hill from Dutch Square, lies the Porta de Santiago. Porta de Santiago was once the main gate of a Portuguese fortress, orginally constructed in 1512.
Later in the day, we braved the heat and headed into Chinatown, west of Sungai Melaka. The twisting streets, fascinating shophouses, ancient temples and mosques, and the history of its settlement and trade totally surround you. We found a magnificent, hand carved statue of a bull. (It would look awesome in a stockbroker's or money manager's office.) Unfortunately the thing weighs a ton! We plan on checking into possible shipping options tomorrow.
Friday, December 8th, we spent the entire morning, in blazing heat, trying to find someone who could ship back the bull at a reasonable price. To ship it by sea you have to have enough cargo to fill an entire, huge ship container -- so that won't work. The other option would be to send it by air, which would cost over twice as much as the bull itself! We decided to pass.
After finally admitting defeat on shipping back the bull, we went and bought a bus ticket to Temorloh for tomorrow. From there we plan on taking a bus to Jerantut, the jumping point to Taman Negara National Park.
A really fun way to get around town in Melaka is to take a trishaw. These three wheel contraptions are plastered with colorful lights, ornaments and often will have Malaysian rock music blasting from a boom box under your seat.
After getting our tickets we saw a group of Malaysian fishermen bringing in the morning catch. We approached them and inquired into the possibility of getting a boat ride. After some difficult negotiations (the fisherman couldn't speak English) we were on board heading down Sungai Melaka. All the locals on shore stared at us and then waved. It is apparently a very strange sight to see Western "tourists" going on an afternoon crusie on an old rickity fishing boat. Well that's ok. Today we weren't "tourists", we were travelers.
We had a great time in Melaka, but now it was time to go. We had to decide where to go next. We had planned on traveling up the West Coast of Malaysia, but from talking to other travelers we changed our minds. Everyone says the West Coast of Malaysia is totally overrated. The only thing that had been holding us back from tackling the East Coast was the rain. It's monsoon season there. We decided to give it a shot anyway. It's just water and the low season means less people and lower prices. East Coast here we come.
Saturday, December 9th, we took a bus to Temerloh with two Brit girls we met in Melaka. From there we took another bus straight north to Jerantut. Saturday night we stayed at the Sri Emas Hotel in Jerantut after walking to another hostel, being quoted a price that was too high, and then walking back toward the bus station when the mini-bus from the Sri Emas drove right up to us and gave us a ride. We think he was stalkng us because he knew we wouldn't like the first place we looked at. He did give us a hard sell when we walked off the bus but we went to the place that was recommended to us. Bad choice.
Sunday, December 10th, we took another bus, this time to Kuala Tahan Village, which is located just across the Sungai (River) Tembeling from the park headquarters for Taman Negara National Park.
Trekking into Taman Negra National Park is a true jungle experience. It is one of the most pristine primary rainforests still existing in the world. The jungle which surrounds you is claimed to be the oldest in the world, having existed largely as is for the past 130 million years -- due to it being uneffected by the ice ages and also free from volcanic activity.
We spent Sunday afternoon experiencing the canopy walk, hiking to the Bukit Teresik and then going for a swim in the Lubok Simpson.
The canopy walk is incredible. You are literally walking hundreds of feet up in the air, right next to the tips of the tallest trees in the entire jungle. It's definately not for the faint of heart.
The Bukit Teresik is a beautiful vista. We enjoyed it with some travelers from South Africa, who gave us some awesome tips on touring South Africa. Sterling and his brother Mark have an aunt who runs a fruit farm, called Rhinewood outside of Capetown, with a bed and breakfast attached. They said the place is beautiful and the food is delicious. We can't wait to get there. Thanks guys.
The Lubok Simpson was a welcome relief from the near 100 percent humidity and 100 degree temperatures.
Sunday night we stayed at the Agoh Chalet. It was tough sleeping with jungle rats crawling inside the walls trying to get in and get our food. We could hear the scrathing all night long.
Monday, December 11th, we hiked through the thick jungle to Pengkalan Gua. There we flagged down a boat, which returned us to Kuala Tahan Village. The boat ride literally took under five minutes for a hike that took over one and a half hours.
Monday afternoon we jumped on a boat that was to take us on a two hour journey down the Sungai Tembeling, out of the park to Kuala Tembeling. About half way through our journey the boat's outboard motor broke down. We were forced to take the wooden planks that served as our back rests and paddle our way downstream. We got stuck on a sand bar and everyone had to get out in waist deep water and push. After about 45 minutes of struggling down the river this way, another boat finally came to our rescue. We abanded ship, jumped on the other boat and finished our journey.
We grabbed a ride from Kuala Tembeling to Jerantut and crashed at the Sri Emas Hotel.
Tuesday, December 12th, we took a bus from Jerantut to Kuantan. Then we took a taxi from Kuantan to Cherating. Cherating is a rustic, backpackers hangout right on Peninsular Malaysia's East Coast. The beach is only alright, but it is good for swimming and the nasty "monsoon" weather we are supposed to be getting has not developed. It's been down right nice. One big difference in the low season is the amount of travelers. Cherating is dead. This has good and bad aspects. You trade in the lack of action for cheaper prices and more solitude. We crashed Tuesday night at the Matahari Chalet for $5 U.S..
After hanging out at Cherating's beach most of Wednesday, we jumped on a 2:30 AM bus (Thursday morning) and drove north, up the coast, to Jertih. From Jertih we took a taxi to a sleepy fishing village, Kuala Besut. We arrived in Kuala Besut at 6:00 AM, Thursday, December 14th.
Kuala Besut would be our lauching point for the Perhentian Islands.
We had heard that the Perhentian Islands were arguably the most beautiful islands in all of Malaysia. Particularly the smaller of the two islands -- Perhentian Kecil (kecil means small). Perhentian Kecil is more of a backpackers hangout, with cheaper, more rustic accomodations. It also has the best beach -- Long Beach. Perhentian Besar (besar means big) is more of a resort island.
We had also heard that we were picking the worst possible time to go to the Perhentian Islands. Not only does the monsoon season virtually shut down the islands, but it also makes it almost impossible to get there. The waters of the South China Sea can be mighty rough in monsoon season, so the ferries that usually are happy to take tourists over to the islands all shut down.
We weren't going to let a little thing like a monsoon stop us. This is Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure -- isn't it? We spent the entire morning walking around the streets of Kuala Besut looking for a way over to the islands. After some difficult negotiations (the language barrier was in full force), we finally convinced a local fisherman to brave the South China Seas and take us over for 30.00 RM. The way over was a beautiful ride. The sea was calm and the skies were clear. What was everybody worried about? We would find out on the way back. But for now everything was great as the beautiful Perhentian Islands came into view over the horizon.
We wanted to stay on Long Beach, on the east side of the island. Unfortunately, the fisherman who took us over said, "Seas to rough Long Beach. Must drop other side."
Ok. There wasn't really much we could do about that, so the fisherman pulled his old rickity boat into Coral Bay, on the west side of Perhentian Kecil. The first problem we faced was the fact that he couldn't go all the way into the beach. The water was to shallow. So we sat out in the harbor, blasting off the boat's horn, hoping someone would hear us and come out in a row boat to get us. After an apprehensive wait (it didn't look like anyone was even there to hear us), someone finally paddled out in a row boat to bring us in. We told the fisherman that we wanted him to come back on Sunday morning to pick us up. He said he understood, but you just had a feeling that he didn't quite understand. Oh well, we figured we would deal with getting back later. Right now we were so excited about getting on the island that Sunday seemed like the distant future.
The beach on Coral Bay is not that great. We heard there is good snorkeling there, but we wanted Long Beach, on the other side, so we strapped up our gear and started walking through the rainforest. The trail to the other side is only about twently minutes, if you don't stop to gawk at the huge monitor lizards at your feet, and soon we walked out of the canopy of the rainforest onto one of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen.
Beautiful white sand, stretched out before huge crashing waves and surrounded by a lush tropical rainforest. It was a truly amazing sight. The best part was, there was nobody there. We had it all to ourselves. Finally a few islanders emerged from the forest, seeming very surprised to see us. They set us up in a beach side chalet -- and we mean right on the beach. Ok, so there wasn't any electricity (the generators had been turned off for the low season), but we got the chalet for only 20.00 RM, when it would usually go for 80.00 to 100.00 RM. Awesome!
One thing we didn't P.P.P.P.P. (Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance) about was food and water. We didn't bring any. Luckily the few islanders who remained on the island set us up. We got a breakfast of one pancake each and a dinner of one plate of fried rice each. We also got one bottle of purified water per day, but that was it. This part of Malaysia is intensly Muslim. Right now they are in a religious fasting period called Ramadan. For one month they can not eat or drink from sun up to sun down. (They're not even supposed to swallow their own saliva.) So because they fast, we fast. We have to admit there were a few hungry moments. We kept talking about what our favorite food was, or what we were going to eat when we got back to the mainland. But we survived. It was easier than it would normally have been because we had so much beauty all around us to focus on.
So from Thursday afternoon, December 14th, through the morning of Sunday, December 17th, we lived in a tropical paradise. We explored the island, we climbed to the highest point and gazed down on Long Beach from above, we snorkeled through colorful fish and amazing coral, we soaked up the sun's rays, we played in the huge waves and we lost ourselves in a world of wonder and beauty.
The weather was awesome until Saturday night. We really had begun to think we pulled a fast one on mother nature until a huge storm came in as night fell. "Batten the hatches and shiver me timbers." (We both just read Treasure Island.) The preceeding two nights we had left the windows open in our chalet and enjoyed the gentle, cool night breeze coming in from the ocean. But Saturday night everything was different. The winds this night were anything but gentle. But hey, it would just pass over and everything would be fine. Right?
We were awoken very early Sunday morning by a young Malaysian man we had never meet before. He claimed that he was the replacement for the fisherman who took us over. He said he would take us back, but we had to leave, "RIGHT NOW"! The winds were really kicking up and the sea looked bad. We scurried to get our stuff together, hiked to the other side of the island and boarded the new fisherman's craft. The ride back was plain scary. The waves were HUGE and the boat was all over the place. You know it's bad when you keep looking around at the surrounding islands, trying to decide which one is closest, in case you go in and have to swim.
Mercifully, we finally arrived back in Kuala Besut. What an adventure.
We grabbed a taxi from Kuala Besut to Kota Bharu and crashed at KB Backpackers Sunday night.
We spent most of the day Monday, December 18th, exploring Kota Bharu. They have a real lively market in the center of town. Even if you don't plan on buying anything, walking through a good South-East Asian Market can be a real trip. The sights, smells and sounds can be surreal. Kota Bharu also has some great hawker food stalls. Of course you have to wait until after dark for them to come out during Ramadan.
After another night at KB Backpackers, we got up early Tuesday morning and took a taxi to Rantau Panjang.
Rantau Panjang is an exit point from Malaysia into Thailand. You get dropped off right at Malaysia exit immigration and customs and you literally walk across a bridge into Sungai Kolok, Thailand.