A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Bimbler

"I can't believe I'm in Kuala Lumpur"

all seasons in one day
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Maybe it's a slightly obscure place to be having such a thought about, when I've been to so many more historically famous cities, but never the less, when my bus pulled into this shiny modern city that was the thought that tightened my stomach with excitement. Maybe it was the obscurity; a name heard on the BBC, a place I never thought I would see, or maybe it was the multitude of skyscrapers glittering in the early morning sun. Either way I was glad to be here.

Along the way I've heard a lot of people slate KL, but I can't say I see why. There's loads to do here, cheap internet, shopping and cinemas for when you want to do nothing and though the street food is bad, the restaurants are delish!

The Petronas towers, once the tallest towers in the world, now just the tallest twin towers in the world, stand at an enormous 88 stories/1,242.1 ft tall and are connected at the 41st floor by a sky bridge. It's free to visit; you just have to queue early in the morning for a ticket. We queued very early in the morning and were rewarded by being in the third group up that day. At the base of the tower there's an interesting museum on the engineering behind the towers and a very corporate 3D film on all the good Petronas does for Malaysia (free eye tests for kids) and then finally it's our turn to ascend. The lift climbs astonishingly fast, reaching the 41st floor so smoothly my stomach doesn't even have time to back flip. The view from the bridge is wonderful, a panoramic vista of KL that is well worth the queuing.

So, what else is there to see in KL? There's the beautiful Masid Jamek mosque, built in 1909 from red brick and gleaming white marble; an airy building full of sleeping prayers that requires you to don a full tunic and headscarf to look around. There's the planetarium on top of a hill overlooking the city which proudly displays memorabilia from Malaysia's space travellers. There are many architecturally beautiful buildings; the old train station and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building for the old and the Menara KL Tower, with its viewing deck at 276mand all the rest of the KLCC for the new. And then, when you're tired of buildings, there are always amusement arcades. With an Indonesian student I shoot aliens and race rally cars. Crammed in a tiny booth between two six foot something Irish men we scream a Queen song into the microphones. And this was all before the drinking.

However one of my favourite things about my stay in Kuala Lumpur was not man made architecture of any kind but nature set loose amongst it. Every day come late afternoon the blisteringly hot sun and bright blue sky would become hidden by a layer of clouds, high up and far away. Then lower, more bilious clouds roll in and everyone has about 5 minutes to get undercover before the rain starts to pour down. As tower after tower is obscured by the incoming storm thunder rumbles in the distance. Lightning flashes in the distance, moving closer. Soon the cracks are right above, strobing the sky purple and white as the rain lashes down and the thunder crashes around the skyscrapers like the drums of war. The effect is awe inspiring.

Onwards apace!!

X X X

Posted by Bimbler 03:00 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

A Tropical Paradise

Conference suite included...

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The blue water twinkled as our speedboat bounced over it, hammering back down hard enough to elicit a groan from some of my fellow passengers. Sitting in the bow of the ship, the salty wind making a bird's nest of my hair, I was loving it.

The east coast of Malaysia receded into the distance as we approached the twin islands of Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil. It was Kecil I was headed for and even from a distance I could see it was my most idyllic destination yet. The sand was fine and cream coloured, the shallow water turquoise and the palm trees which lined the beach rustled in the breeze. OK, it might have been a little short on accommodation, but I really enjoyed sharing the floor of an air conditioned conference suite with 7 other people!

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I mainly spent my days in paradise snorkeling. From the very first try I was hooked by the fascinating and beautifully exotic underwater world that revealed itself to me. When I saw my first neon fish I followed it for 10 minutes not realising I would see hundreds of them by the end of the week. So many varieties! Different shapes, sizes and patterns in a hypnotising array of colours. Huge clam like creatures with pulsating neon lips, coral gardens of pale pastels, anemones with families of Nemos protected by the adults who would come and square up to your goggles if you swam down for a closer look. Stingrays lurked on the ocean floor, squid floated past in formation and hours could be spent herding and splitting the various shoals of fish swimming around.

You know there are sharks about when you run your fingers through some red fibres hanging in the water and they dissipate instantly. Blood. After a check we were all still intact we looked outside the group for the source and sure enough, lurking in the gloom was not one but 2 sharks, measuring our interference and swimming away. Over the week we saw many sharks of varying sizes; though none were big enough to be dangerous, some were large enough to be bold. The biggest we saw circled a group of 5 of us before swimming through the center in a "you don't bother me" gesture.

I also saw my first sea turtle. It was enormous, at least a meter long, with a perfect shell covered in a symmetrical pattern of hexagons, coloured in hues of reddish brown/green. Even the skin was perfectly patterned - I was entranced. The creature had a real feel of the prehistoric about him, with folds of tough neck skin and an air of continuing as he always had been. And yet the spatula, oar shaped flippers moved him through the water with surprising grace, searching the ocean floor for food and then surfacing for air. I want to be reincarnated as a sea turtle.

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The evenings were filled with all the things evenings on a tropical paradise should be filled with - seafood BBQs, lying on the sand starwatching, drinking by candlelight, dancing round bonfires and shisha pipes on the beach.

Heaven x x x

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Posted by Bimbler 00:14 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Laos

A skip and a hop through Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane

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Calm and serene as Muong Noi was, Laos is not always that way. Despite having a scattered agricultural population, once my feet landed on the well trodden path, the trappings of tourism in their different guises shaped my experience of Laos.

Luang Prabang is a lovely city in a beautiful location, although, to be fair, the whole of Laos is a beautiful location. As the ancient capital it holds UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and as such there is an 11pm curfew. The first night I spent there I stuck to the curfew at least, going out for a cook-your-own barbecue with a pair of couples I met in Muong Noi. The food was delicious; cooked on a sort of inverted colander with moat at the base and hot coals underneath to do the heating. You place meat on the metal, and in the moat water, egg and vegetables bubble away, mixing with the meat juices that trickle into it to make an accompanying soup. We ate our way through two large plates of meaty goodness before stumbling home to sleep well.

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There are plenty of temples to explore in Luang Prabang, a surprisingly plain palace with an ornately mosaicked throne room and a photography exhibition of a Buddhist monastery. It also has an enormous amount of souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants and guest houses. The very center of town is given over entirely to a tourist ghetto. Anyway, what I was looking forward to were elephants. Even being prepared for their size, elephants are massive animals. Their skin looks as tough as armour and is rough and wrinkly. I started the ride off perched in a little basket seat on her back; very colonial. I get a whole elephant to myself because of odd numbers so have plenty of room as we set off, swaying gently, the driver scrambling nimbly around its neck without a second thought. We plodded slowly into the forest with more grace than such a loping stride should allow. After a while the driver let me take his place on the neck; I moved tentatively forward, sliding and wobbling and trying not to think about the long drop that ended dangerously close to the elephant's feet. From this position the ride was even better, I could feel the powerful shoulders between my thighs, feel the coarse skin beneath my palms. There was no way to hold on and from time to time she would hit me with her ears, balance was tricky but I loved every second of the hour and I half I was up there.

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That evening I went to the Laos ballet with a couple I'd met in the internet cafe (an excellent place for meeting folk). Them ballet was extracts from the Ramayana, the style oriental with stylised gestures. The costumes were bold, bright and beautiful; the male characters in masks and primary colours, the women in pastels and gold with ornate jewellery.

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The next day I moved on to the madness in Vang Vieng, a town completely given over to western hedonism. The bar/restaurants that line the streets play Family Guy and Friends on a constant loop and all offer 'happy' toppings on their food. But it's tubing that everyone comes here for, me included, though I didn't quite know what it entailed...
You rent a large tractor inner tube from the tubing mafia and get a tuk-tuk to the start point upriver, about 6km out of town. The start point is a bar with decking out over the water and a massive rope swing. And buckets, lots of buckets of whiskey. Taking your tube & floating down the river there are more bars, more rope swings, slides, mud pits and volleyball courts. And lots more buckets. By the time the final bar is reached it's late in the afternoon, and everyone is tired, muddy and sporting at least a few cuts and bruises, not that that stops many people going for another go the next day. It's fantastic fun, I loved the rope swings and the messing about in the mud, but the accident rates here are pretty high. I guess being from a country where every activity is risk assessed to death, it was just nice to do something with a bit of edge.

So, after a few days it was time to leave town and I buzzed on to Vientiane. It's a pretty city, with crumbling colonial buildings, temples glittering with gold and even a half-finished concrete monstrosity of a triumphal arch. However, the rain kept up pretty much constantly and after two days of damp drizzle, there was a group consensus to head to the warmer climes of eastern Malaysia...

X x X

Posted by Bimbler 23:14 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Over the Border

And into Laos

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At 5am, the time I had confirmed the night before, I turned up at Dien Bien Phu station with my backpack on and sleep dust in my eyes. "No bus today" "Yesterday you said there was" "No bus today." "Right." As my visa ran out that day, I didn't have much choice, I had to get to the border. Luckily I met a couple who were also headed that way & shared an overpriced taxi with them to the border. The Vietnamese border that is. By the time we cleared immigration it became apparent that the Laos border was not in the same place. We asked. It was 6 kilometers that way. Right. Off we went, six of us now, shuffling along like racing snails towards the distant yellow dot that was the Laos border. It felt a lot like the opening of a horror movie, but then I was getting quite used to that sensation.

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When we had been processed by the Laos officials we inquired after the bus to take us to the nearest village "No bus." Ah. Luckily for us (as the nearest village really stretched the use of the word 'nearest') there was a construction worker lazing in a nearby tent, a bright blue pick up truck gleaming with potential beside him. After some tricky negotiation in which I took no part, we hired the truck to take us down to the river port, where we could catch our onward transport. As we bumped down the 'road' the mountains of Laos spread out below us. Covered in light, bright green, branches that trailed like vines gave the impression of a sea of writhing snakes coating the mountains side, in outher places only a few such branches showed; camoflaged elephants peaking through the canopy.

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The road deteriorated into a muddy ditch and we stopped moving. The engine was pushed until the creamy brown mud under the wheels turned black, but we were getting nowhere. The guys all got out and pushed, but we still couldn't get out of the holes the truck had dug for itself. Shovels were bout out to help create a ramp, stones and twigs put down to make a more solid surface to push against & once more we were on our way. Passing villages of bamboo huts & and engineers working to electrify the border post, we crossed fords that looked too river-like to pass and bridges that looked to pedestrian to hold the wait of a truck, 8 people and 6 backpacks. Three hours and a very sore bottom later we jolted our way to the river port, a dirty outpost town in a spectacular setting.

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Mong Noi is a village that can only be reached by the river and its isolated spot seemed to me to be a perfect place to rest after a long week on the road. There were a few of us heading there, so we hired a speed-longtail to take us there. once our backpacks and bodies were safely packed into the tiny boast we set off. The boat fairly flew across the water, sliding as if on ice through direction changes, the beatiful cliffs on either side and the beaches below them zipping past us. And then we arrived. And the village was everything I could have hoped; my very own bamboo hut & a hammock outside to watch the sun go down. Bliss.

Posted by Bimbler 04:55 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Goodbye Vietnam!!


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The old part of Hue made for a prettyish city, the imposing concrete walls of the citadel rising like an ironclad from a lily filled moat enclosing a mostly ruined palace complex. The surrounding countryside is littered with temples and mausoleums including the Buddhist Thien Mu Pagoda which is the symbol for the city and the mausoleum of Khải Định, covered in beautiful glass mosaics.

Hanoi was surprisingly non-descript, though its busy streets and bustling markets were a hive of activity day and night. The water puppet shows that the city is famous for were wonderfully whimsical and

Halong Bay, a 4 hour drive from Hanoi, is justifiably a fixture on every Vietnam visitor's itinerary. A multitude of tiny islands just off the coast jut out of the sea in striking limestone cliffs. Hundreds of boats it seems, depart every day to take passengers on a mini cruise into the archipelago and yet once you are there you are lost within the karst outcrops, there seems to be hardly anyone around. We kayaked into hidden lagoons through tiny cay tunnels, the tops of the little islands brimming with wildlife. The sunset that night was one of the most stunning sunsets of my travels; the cloudless sky showing off the deeply saturated rainbow & the water reflecting it back in smooth wave-pools of liquid colour. We paddled into it, basking in the deep red/orange/yellow and it was only after 5 minutes I thought to look behind me at the other kayaks following behind against a backdrop of musky purple. It was beautifully surreal & I was entranced.

Sapa - tourist capital of the far north - was already full of "minority hill tribes" when we arrived after an exhausting overnight bus ride. It was impossible to cross the town centre without being asked by at least 25 "minority" saleswomen and children to buy their handicrafts. It felt incredibly crowded and staged and I wondered if anyone would wear the traditional costume if it wasn't for the brisk tourist trade. I left the next day on a local bus heading deeper into the mountain range, taking with me a sense of pervading consumerism.

The mountains were simply beautiful, the verdant slopes catapulting their way to first place in my all time favourite mountains. The variety of their shapes, from steep valleys to lolling rounded peaks amazed me and the lush density of the vegetation that covered them surpassed anything I had seen so far. The minority tribes people, so concerned with tourism around Sapa, were here just going about their traditional, agriculture based lives. And yes, they still wore their traditional clothing.

As lovely as the mountains were, the roads left something to be desired. We rounded a corner and I spotted across the valley what looked like a quarry with a sheer sandy ledge dug out of the hillside. I remember thinking "That can't be the road", but of course it was. Road improvements were underway for a good half of the two day journey (daylight driving only) and this ranged from dry sandy dirt tracks to muddy bogs. We had been driving through a sticky, splattery version of the latter type for about an hour when we arrived at a road block. Some sort of construction seemed to be going on, but all it consisted of was a digger chucking boulders down a hill onto the road. We waited for half an hour as the digger trundled down the hill and nudged the boulders off the road. Tentatively we moved off, the driver using considerable skill to keep us on the fine line between getting stuck in the mud and slipping on the surface towards the sheer drop on our right. On the other side of the bend we went past a broken down bus, but we couldn't stop, it was all we could do to swerve around it, fishtailing wildly before pulling off it the right direction.

Having spent two days travelling to Dien Bien Phu, I can appreciate why the French believed the Vietnamese army would never be able to get their artillery through the impassible mountains, but, like me, they arrived at this little border town and the rest is history.

x X x

Posted by Bimbler 00:49 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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