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    Thursday, 19 November 2009

    First Impressions of Australia - Perth

    Qantas Flight[Enlarge & More]

    Our round-the-world ticket didn’t know what hit it when, after four months of no use we flew from Singapore to Perth in Western Australia. The flight was uneventful – we were fed and watered, and it was slightly strange to be around so many other western passengers. There was a bit of drama at one point when the captain screeched over the intercom “Cabin crew take your seats IMMEDIATELY”. The plane wobbled slightly and then the seatbelt sign went off. It was all rather dramatic, and I wondered why maybe they couldn’t have some code word that sounds slightly less severe such as “Code Orange” or something. Still, being dramatic is probably part of being Australian, and the Qantas crew didn’t seem all that fazed.

    Perth Skyline[Enlarge & More]

    We arrived in Perth and took a very expensive taxi ride from the airport to the hostel we were staying at in the city centre. There we checked into our relatively (compared to what we had been paying) expensive room, and then wandered out to get some expensive dinner. That was the first shock – everything was so expensive! In fact, I’ve been working it out, and a lot of the stuff in the supermarkets is pretty comparable in price to stuff in the UK. I was surprised – I’d assumed it would be a bit cheaper. The second shock was what we perceived as general rudeness from some Aussies, although I think we’ve come to realise that actually they’re just quite direct in the way they speak. After four months in south-east Asia, which generally is a very polite part of the world, it was a bit of a shock to arrive in Perth! The final shock was the temperature. Although it was warm during the day while we were in Perth, at night the temperature dropped to around 15 degrees – around 11 degrees colder and a lot less humid than we’d felt in all our months of travelling.

    Planning @ YHA [Enlarge & More]

    On our first full day in the country, we decided we’d better get down to some actual planning for our trip in Australia, which we spent a lot of the day doing. We also – shock, horror – did our own laundry using the hostel laundry facilities. At first we weren’t quite sure, but it was so cheap and quick and the clothes came out so clean that we were really pleased we’d done the laundry! We also discovered the hostel kitchen, where we were able to make ourselves breakfast (a real revelation after five months of eating out!) and cups of coffee and tea. All very clean and efficient!

    King Park [Enlarge & More]

    One highlight of our three nights in Perth was our visit to King’s Park, just outside the city centre. We opted to walk there and got a little lost, but we eventually found it and when we did, we really enjoyed our visit. It was good to be in such a clean, open and well-maintained space, and the walk around the park was really enjoyable. The views of the city were also excellent – well worth the walk!

    Xmas Lights [Enlarge & More]

    One pleasant surprise in Perth was the highly multicultural population. This resulted in a very wide variety of available food – some of which was extremely affordable! Plus, our favourite Chinese, Cambodian and Malaysian dishes were all widely available – seeing Mee Goreng on a menu made me feel like I was back in Malaysia or Singapore, and helped soften the blow of being back in a western country.

    On our final night in the city, we watched the Christmas lights being switched on. This was a pretty major event, in which several local TV stars were involved, and all of Perth seemed to be out for the night. This was good to see, as on the other nights we’d wandered around the city the place had seemed a bit dead – there was no one around really! On that night the place really seemed alive and buzzing, and it made us both a bit more comfortable.

    In Perth [Enlarge & More]

    We did enjoy Perth, but it took some time for us to settle into it. We were both really sorry to say goodbye to Singapore and all of south-east Asia, and getting to Australia was definitely a major check-point in our trip. It marked the beginning of a different way of travel – and Perth was the place where we had to get used to that new way. After five months of eating out, travelling on buses and generally being very comfortable we can’t afford to do the same things in expensive Australia – what we can afford remains to be seen!

    Wednesday, 18 November 2009

    Singapore Lah

    Victoria Hotel [Enlarge & More]

    We arrived in Singapore at about 4pm, after our two hour flight from Kota Kinabalu. At the airport we were efficiently on our way to our hotel without any fuss. As we boarded the airport shuttle we were told by the driver to fasten our seatbelt. We did as we were told but it was odd as we hadn’t had to use a seatbelt for most of our trip so far. Oddly we nearly had two collision on the way to our hotel, I’m not sure why. I think it’s that some people follow the road rules and others don’t, which makes it unpredictable. In the rest of SE Asia rules aren’t followed as much but everyone knows where they stand.

    We checked into Victoria Hotel, which reminded me of all the generic hotels I’ve stayed at for work. Having said that it was spotless, there was hot water, the staff were very friendly and it was the most expensive place we had stayed in.

    Singapore Flyer [Enlarge & More]

    Ambreen was still with us at this stage and we headed straight out to meet up with Colin and Steve who had taken an earlier flight to Singapore on their homeward-bound journey. They only had a few hours left before catching the final leg of their journey to London. We spent a final few hours having something to eat at Clarke’s Quay which reminded me of the restaurant area at the O2 but out in the open. We did lose a little track of time as the guys missed their transfer back to the airport. However, they made it despite not having any Singapore Dollars left. I never did find out how they paid to get back?!

    While Ambreen was with us we packed in all the main tourist attractions. The Singapore Flyer was first on the list, it’s like the London Eye but bigger. From the top you got the feeling that you could see all of Singapore as after all, it’s tiny. It’s basically a compact city with 4.5 million inhabitants on an island.

    Night Safari [Enlarge & More]

    On our whirlwind sightseeing tour while Ambreen was with us, we went to Little India, China Town, Raffles and the famous Night Safari.

    The Night Safari was a strange experience; it’s like visiting the zoo at night. When you arrive you are first herded to a show which is a bit like being in a circus. You have performing otters, python and bear type creatures amongst the many. After the show you are waved onto a tram which takes you around the park and you get to see lions, elephants, deer, hyenas, hippos and much more. We elected to jump off half way round and do a walk to see flying squirrels, clouded leopards and bearded pigs and then jump back on again.

    Raffles [Enlarge & More]

    It’s the oddest experience as you are in the rainforest and you can’t always see what stops the animals just coming up to you and biting you head off. However there are absolutely no bugs of any kind and it’s tacky as hell. BUT it’s fab and lots of fun. The highlight was seeing three huge hippos cuddled up sleeping in their mud pool.

    On Ambreen’s last day we met up with one of her friends, Eunice, who has moved back to Singapore after working with her in London. She was a lot of fun and we made tentative plans to meet up again before we left.

    Once it was just the two of us we slowed the pace down again and spent the next few days pottering about. The more I got to see Singapore the more I felt like we were in a game, something like The Sims. It’s spotless, orderly and everything looks new. A lot of it’s like a computer generated image, so perfect. We got told off for eating in the MRT, their equivalent of the Tube. On our part it was a genuine mistake, I’d popped an Indian sweet bought from Little India in my mouth and offered Jono one. I hadn’t started chewing before I got a stern telling off.

    Sentosa Luge [Enlarge & More]

    On one of the days we took a trip to Sentosa, a ‘theme park’ off the island of Singapore. It has beaches and some tourist attractions; the one that drew us over was the luge. Basically you sit in a go cart contraption and point yourself down a hill. It was fun and a good taster for a much bigger and longer one found in New Zealand which we’ll get to. Sentosa just adds to the computer game feel of Singapore because as there is music being piped out everywhere. I liked it but it was not Jono’s favourite place, I think the plastic nature of it was too much for him.

    Singapore Art Museum [Enlarge & More]

    Something that was a departure for us was a home cooked meal courtesy of Lauren and Hadi (her boyfriend). I’d first met her while travelling in Thailand 10 years ago. They’d just got back from Cambodia that day but they were up for meeting up and feeding us. We had a lovely evening, reminiscing and sharing travel stories.

    On our final night we met up again with Eunice and her husband and went for our final meal in SE Asia at a hawkers centre. Hawker centres are excellent places to eat as they offer a whole variety of food from different stalls, all under one roof. Eunice and Owen ordered a plethora of dishes for us to try, including my favourite of the night, stingray. It was a perfect evening to end the SE Asia leg and thanks to Eunice and Owen we did not pay for a penny!

    Changi Airport [Enlarge & More]

    Singapore was our last stop in South East Asia and both of us were feeling apprehensive about leaving. The “western world” was beckoning and both of us felt strange about re-joining it. The 5 hour flight to Perth was ahead of us and we would soon be in the thick of it.

    Friday, 13 November 2009

    Five Spend 10 Days in Sabah, Borneo

    The Airport[Enlarge & More]

    Day 1 – Kota Kinabalu, Friends Arrive

    It was an odd day for us flying back to Kota Kinabalu as it was the first time we had retraced our steps in all the 4 months we’d been travelling. There was a good reason for this as we had some friends (Colin & Steve) and my sister, Ambreen, coming out to spend 10 days with us.

    That day we took two trips to the airport - once to Terminal 1 to pick up Colin and Steve and the second time to pick up Ambreen at Terminal 2. We took the local bus in each time to save costs and the nice guy at the bus station did look at us oddly the second time we turned up.

    Airport 2 [Enlarge & More]

    They all arrived safely and on time and they were greeted with balloons and a banner. In hindsight blowing up balloons in an airport is not such a good idea as when they burst you get some strange looks from the security guards.

    Mamutik [Enlarge & More]

    Day 2 – Mamutik Island

    On day two of the trip to Sabah, we went snorkelling in the Abdul Tunku Rahamn National Park, just off the coast from Kota Kinabalu. We rolled into the ferry dock rather late, and hired some snorkels, masks and flippers for a pretty reasonable price. Mahmoud and I already had a snorkel and mask from our trip to Thailand which helped! We boarded a speedboat from the ferry dock, from which it was a 10 minute hair-raisingly-fast ride to the tiny Mamutik Island.

    The island was very pretty, with all the necessary amenities (although the changing rooms were being renovated), and we set about our business of snorkelling and sunbathing. The snorkelling was decent, although it was low tide and the water was very shallow around some of the coral. Ambreen bought some “bottled bread” (bread in a water bottle), and we fed the fish. This generally resulted in a frenzy of fish surrounding the person with the bottle, and meant you got to see a lot more than if you just snorkelled around. A couple of us got bitten by the fish – I started to get a little paranoid by it, and got out shortly after getting a nip!

    Sun Protection? [Enlarge & More]

    All in all, it was a good day – although Colin got a bit sunburned! We rounded it all off by watching the sunset with a drink back in Kota Kinabalu, followed by a trip to some local hawker stalls selling fresh cooked seafood. It was delicious, and some of the nicest fish we’d had on our trip so far. A great start to our group trip in Sabah!

    Orang-Utan [Enlarge & More]

    Day 3 – On the plane to Sandakan

    We took taxis to Kota Kinabalu airport, where we caught a domestic flight to Sandakan – a mere 45 minute flight from Kota Kinabalu. We were descending before we’d even finished climbing, and once we’d landed we picked up our bags, and had reached our hotel – Hotel London – within half an hour of our arrival.

    Hotel London was cheap but clean and basic, and was a decent place to stay. Sandakan was an odd place – a bit soulless as it had been rebuilt following it’s destruction in WWII, and quite unclean with more cockroaches than Mahmoud and I had seen in our entire five month trip combined, but the people were friendly and it was a good place to base our activities in eastern Sabah from.

    We spent the first day relaxing into our surroundings, and exploring the town. We had a quick look around the local market, and then sat by the smelly seafront and had some food and drinks. Bedtime was early on day 3 – ready to be up and ready for our trip the following day to Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary!

    Mother & Child [Enlarge & More]

    Day 4 – Sepilok Orang-utan sanctuary

    The thing that everyone wants to see in Borneo is the orang-utan. Literally meaning “man of the forest”, they are rare to see in the wild, but the Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary is one place where tourists can go to see partially rehabilitated orang-utans being fed. We took a 45 minute local bus from Sandakan to the centre, where we were just in time for the 10am feeding.

    When we arrived, there were hundreds of people waiting at the feeding station, kept quite by men with large signs saying “Silence!”. We crept past the other tourists, and looked up into the canopy, where we saw our first orang-utans. They were hanging there, waiting for the feeding to start – we counted just three. There were two feeding platforms there, the larger one of which the orang-utans were waiting at and all the tourists were clustered near. The keepers must have changed their schedule however, as much to the chagrin of the dozens of tourists clustered at the larger platform, they used the other platform for feeding the orang-utans. Fortunately for me, I was standing right there when the feeding began, and got some good video of the feeding! There was a lot of angry muttering from some other tourists – they felt a bit short-changed!

    Cheeky Play[Enlarge & More]

    The best part of the feeding was when one large orang-utan jumped onto the viewing platform and knuckle-walked through the crowd – he walked right past me! Everyone jumped out of the way, as you’re not supposed to touch them in case you give them diseases, but it was great to be so close.

    We came back for the second feeding at 3pm, at which point we saw another five orang-utans, including a nursing mother and her tiny baby. They are very human in their actions, and she handled her baby with such tenderness that it was very sweet.

    Arrival of Macaque [Enlarge & More]

    On our way back to the main centre, we saw an Australian man stroking some macaques - really very odd behaviour considering the prevalence of rabies in Borneo. Even more odd was when he encouraged his young daughter to stroke them – bizarre, you wouldn’t catch me going anywhere near them! One of the macaques jumped on his shoulder which I think made him nervous – if it had been me, I probably would have screamed and run around in circles, but he very calmly coaxed it down. When lots of macaques started jumping onto the walkway we left for Sandakan – being surrounded by monkeys is not fun!

    Cockroach Cave [Enlarge & More]

    Day 5 – A trip down the Lower Kinabatangan and Gomantong Cave

    Gomantong Cave was on the way to the river trip. Our first experience of a cave in Borneo was amazing and we had high hopes for this one too. We arrived and were led down to the mouth of the cave by our driver who we had hired for the day. Travelling in a group of five had its advantages as you can spread the costs.

    The cave was looked simple enough, a walkway to the back of the cave and then circled back out again. As we started to walk into the cave the stench of the bats and birds was the first thing that hit us, a bit like our previous experience. Looking over the walkway I started to notice the piles of bat and bird droppings and then I saw them. COCKROACHES! Hundreds and hundreds of them, just like in a horror movie. I went to steady myself as it was a little slippery underfoot too and as I went for the banister of the walkway I pulled away just in time it was littered with COCKROACHES too. I stopped and gathered myself and then noticed around my open toed sandaled feet more COCKROACHES. After that I don’t really remember much about the cave, only that we all stamped our feet all the way round and stopped briefly at the back. It’s an experience I won’t be repeating anytime soon.

    What a Nose [Enlarge & More]

    After the cave we headed onto the river .So far our river trips have been some of the highlights of our trip, the one to Siem Reap and Cherating a couple of favourites. I was hoping this one would not disappoint as along the river banks you are supposed to be able to see proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, long tailed macaques and horned billed birds.

    Pygmy Elephants[Enlarge & More]

    We saw all of these and the highlight was definitely a herd of pygmy elephants. There must have been over 50 of them grazing by the river bank and we spent a lot of time watching their behaviour. Just fascinating!

    On the Bus [Enlarge & More]

    Day 6 – A bus trip to Kinabalu National Park

    Our last morning in Sandakan greeted us with rain, and we made our way to the bus station to catch the first available bus to Kinabalu National Park. Arriving at the bus station was a bit of a shock – it was more of a car park than a bus station, and on pulling up, touts surrounded the taxis we were in. We managed to buy a ticket for a bus that was leaving immediately, but the experience was a bit of an odd one – nothing like anything else we’d experienced since Cambodia three months beforehand. I can imagine for Steve, Colin and Ambreen it would have been rather weird!

    The bus sped off to Kinabalu National Park, and the weather just got worse as we got closer. The first half of the five hour journey was solely through palm oil plantations. It was shocking to see how much jungle has been cleared to make way for palm oil – it makes the scenery pretty dull to watch too! Unfortunately, at about the point the scenery should have gotten better we went up into the cloud cover and couldn’t see anything! So, unfortunately, what could have been a decent journey was a bit dull. Having a toilet on the bus didn’t help – buses with toilets always stink!!

    Still, we arrived at our accommodation near the park – Kinabalu Pine Resort. The accommodation was okay, but kind of overpriced in comparison to other Malaysian accommodation. The weather was miserable when we arrived too – it was so foggy we couldn’t see further than a few metres. Worse still, it was cold – only about 20 degrees – we had to wrap up warm!

    We wandered into the small nearby village for some lunch, and eventually settled on a small restaurant which served some decent food – but the village itself was a bit dull. On our way back to the hotel, the clouds parted to reveal Mt. Kinabalu looming overhead – it was very beautiful with the mists rising off of it. We were very relieved that the weather was improving – there would have been nothing worse than two nights in the fog and the rain!

    Kinabalu Peak [Enlarge & More]

    Day 7 – In Kinabalu National Park

    After a chilly night’s sleep, we awoke to a gorgeous blue sky and lovely soft light over Mt. Kinabalu. This was in stark contrast to the previous day’s rain and mist, and it was definitely a relief to have a bit of good weather.

    After breakfast we chartered a minivan to take us to the park headquarters, from where we did a guided tour of the park’s botanical gardens. The gardens were ok, and we would have rushed around them if we hadn’t been on the tour. The tour was really interesting and informative, and for all her apologies for her “poor English and information”, the woman who showed us around was very informative and easy to listen to – some tour guides preach but she chatted to us and it was much more interesting than I thought it would be!

    Botanical Gardens [Enlarge & More]

    After the botanical gardens we opted to do another guided walk, but it was not quite so useful as it basically contained the same information on a different walk. Still, it was a nice little walk, although we were always at the front of the crowd of oldies who were on the tour with us! Just before the walk started, Steve noticed that he had a cut on his leg. We weren’t sure what had caused it, as he hadn’t felt anything bite or scratch him, but Steve is not good with blood and he felt a bit woozy and had to sit down. Then he fainted! We were all a bit surprised, and he did come around quickly, but it was pretty scary for a few minutes!

    We did an hour long walk back to the park headquarters for lunch with the intention of doing another one in the afternoon, but unfortunately the weather packed in and it rained for the rest of the day. After hoping the weather would clear, we eventually gave in and went back to the hotel. That’s the problem with travelling in the monsoon and in the hills – it all gets a bit unpredictable!

    Canopy Walkway [Enlarge & More]

    Day 8 – Poring Hot Springs, and back to Kota Kinabalu

    On our final day in Kinabalu National Park we decided to hire another mini van to take us back to Kota Kinabalu via Poring Hot Springs. Poring is the name given to Bamboo in Malaysia and at Poring you get to see some really big examples of it surrounding the hot springs. There were two attractions – the first being the springs and the other being a Canopy Walkway high above in the treetops.

    The weather pattern in the park had been of nice weather in the morning and then rain in the afternoon. So as soon as we got to the springs we headed straight for the walkway just in case the weather turned. I’m good with heights but when I first stepped onto it I had a slight wobble, however I turned round to Colin who is not a big fan of heights and smiled to say everything was good. We all managed to get round and being up so high was terrific.

    The weather soon turned after that and we waited around a bit for it to clear but the rain stopped play again so we headed to Kota Kinabalu. Steve’s prayers were answered as he was a little concerned at the erratic nature of some of the driving he’d experienced in Malaysia, as our minivan driver was very cautious in his driving. His overtaking was non-existent so the journey back seemed to take forever. Luckily the cloud cover was not so low and some of the views were pretty impressive.

    Speedboat [Enlarge & More]

    Day 9 – Snorkelling at Sapi

    On our final full day in Kota Kinabalu we decided to go snorkelling again as we had had so much fun the first time and our visitors would soon be returning to the weather back in England. This time we chose an even smaller island called Sapi off the shores of Kota Kinabalu. I have to say that for me this was the better of the two islands we visited. Firstly because we got a longer hair-raising ride on the speedboat to get there and secondly the water was deeper so snorkelling was a little easier and just as much fun. Ambreen once again bought some bread stuffed into a plastic water bottle which the fish loved. At several points the fish that had gathered got frightened off, from what we thought were other snorkallers. However I spotted a larger looking fish in pursuit of the smaller ones as they fled. At one point the larger fish flew between Ambreen and I in a flash of silver.

    The Five [Enlarge & More]

    Day 10 – Goodbye Borneo

    The 10 days in Sabah had been fully loaded. I was really pleased with the way things had turned out. The Snorkelling was great, using Sandakan as a base to visit the Orangutans, and river trip was ideal. The trip up high to Kinabalu National Park was a bit damp but still lots of fun. Above all it was great spending time with Ambreen, Colin and Steve and the five of us had lots of fun. It was for us like having a mini holiday, jammed packed with activities, as travelling for a long time has become a way of life. A fantastic one I may add!

    Written by: Mahmoud & Jono

    Friday, 6 November 2009

    Our time in Sarawak

    No Durian[Enlarge & More]

    Aside from our time visiting the amazing Niah Caves, we had five more days in the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo. During this time, we used the town of Miri as a base to explore the region of north-east Sarawak. During this time, we spent most of our evenings staying in Somerset Hotel, a decent “No durian” hotel in Miri.

    Temple, Miri [Enlarge & More]

    There wasn’t a great deal to do or see in Miri, but we did spend a bit of time wandering around the town. There was a fairly impressive Chinese temple there, and a healthy looking market. One thing we noticed in Miri that we haven’t come across anywhere else, was that people offered us fruit when we were walking down the street, or taking a taxi – or sitting around doing nothing. From this respect, the people of Miri seemed very hospitable. I got the impression that not a lot of tourists go wandering around the town, as I got a lot of curious looks and smiles during our outings.

    One interesting place we visited was Ming Café, a really odd place which was sort of Westernised, served beer, and yet had a lot of local families dining. We partook of the dirt cheap Indian buffet, which was delicious. Still, there was something that didn’t quite ring right there, and I think it might have been the middle-aged sleazy looking older western men which seemed to frequent the place. In fact, there was a generally slightly sleazy feel about Miri, which we hadn’t experienced elsewhere in Malaysia. There seemed to be a lot of dodgy looking bars about the place – I think it might be somewhere which certain Brunei citizens visit to “let loose” a bit!

    Waterfall Swim [Enlarge & More]

    While in Miri, we visited Lambir Hills National Park, and stayed in the accommodation at the park headquarters. Well, it was an interesting place to stay. We were the only ones there for the two nights we stayed, and as such were the only ones using the on-site café, pretty much the only ones doing any walks, and definitely the only ones being bitten by hordes of mosquitoes. The accommodation was very basic, and a wee bit grotty feeling. The bathroom was clean, but smelled of those little smelly sanitizers they put in public loos – ewww!

    There were a couple of interesting walks which we did. First was the quite short walk to Latak Waterfall, just 20 minutes from the park headquarters. This was a brilliant and clean waterfall and bathing pool, with a few little fish flitting about. Brilliant for us to cool off after wandering about in the jungle, but we had to be careful of the ever-present mosquitoes which went after any bit of exposed skin! We visited this waterfall a couple of times, and both times had it all to ourselves – it was excellent!

    Rainforest [Enlarge & More]

    The second walk we did was a 9km walk to and back from Pantu Hill. It was pretty tiring wandering about in the humid jungle, and after an hour or so I was sodden from all the sweat. I was dripping constantly, and no matter how much water I drank I seemed to sweat out twice as much! The walk was hard work, and a lot of ascending and descending meant we were pretty tired by the time we got to the climax of the trek – the hill itself. Just a few hundred metres above sea level, the view was still well worth the hard work, and we could see for miles around.

    Sweaty Work [Enlarge & More]

    The trek itself was very interesting, and we saw plenty of wildlife and interesting plants. The most interesting animal we saw were giant ants – you see pretty big ants around South-east Asia, but none as big as these ants – I kid you not, some were the size of small mice! A part of me wished that an Orang-utan would come swinging through the trees past us but they don’t live in this particular park, and as predicted none came. We did, however, spot a wasp nest. In fact, we unwittingly stopped right next to one. I felt a jab on my leg, and thinking that I’d been bitten by one of the giant ants, swatted it away. I then got a jab on the hand, and subsequently spotted angry looking wasps flying out of a hole in the ground. I screeched at Mahmoud to run, and bounded off down the hill, fuelled by a bit of adrenaline. We didn’t get stung again, but my stings swelled up a fair bit – ouch!

    Flying to KK [Enlarge & More]

    Once our time in Miri was over, we flew back to Kota Kinabalu on a very short 50 minute flight. I was really pleased that we’d managed to get to Sarawak – I felt that we got to see some amazing sights in both Niah Caves and also Lambir Hills, and we’d gotten to experience a bit of Borneo that we otherwise would have missed.

    Tuesday, 3 November 2009

    Featured Travel Photograph

    Fire Performer, Featured Travel Photo from Sairee Beach, Koh Tao, Thailand

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