Tag Archives: Malaysia

Travel Guide: Kuching x2

I left Malaysia in the spring of 2015. I hadn’t been back until four girlfriends and I decided to take a quick weekend trip to Kuching, a wonderful town in Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states on Borneo.

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I visited the area once before (though my photos are way better this time, thanks to a fancy camera) and was excited to go back. Other than booking flights and a hotel, the entirety of our planning took place in the airport.

Friends: What are we doing in Kuching?
Me: Seeing the orangutans.
Friends: Anything else?
Me: Eating. Drinking tuak.
Friends: Cool. Anything else?
Me: Last time, I visited the Annah Rais Longhouse. Really enjoyed it and would go back, but I really don’t mind. It’s a nice town to wander through.
Friends: Sounds good.

And that was that!

As promised and planned, Semenggoh Nature Reserve was the highlight of our trip. We arrived in time for the morning feeding, which begins around nine. I love rainforests (or any forests) and enjoyed the walk to the reserve’s feeding platform.

The purpose of Semenggoh is to teach rescued or orphaned orangutans how to live in the wild, so the orangutans really only come to the reserve for a meal when there’s no food in the forest. They mostly stay away during fruiting season. My last visit was in October and we saw groups of orangutans during both feeding times, but this time around wasn’t as lucky. We did see the resident crocodiles, though!

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We also saw some really cool pitcher plants, which are really fun to look at because a) they’re carnivorous and b) they come in a surprisingly wide array of sizes. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were going to learn more about them later in the day.

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One friend and I decided to leave the reserve on foot, doubling back on the one kilometer path we’d followed on the way in. The rest of the gang went ahead in a car and I thought we’d meet at the gate to decide what to do for the rest of the morning. Since we hadn’t seen any orangutans, we agreed to return to Semenggoh for the afternoon feeding but that was as far as we’d planned.

When my friend and I got to the bottom, however, our other friends were nowhere in sight. We asked the guard if he’d seen them and he gestured vaguely down the road, telling us they’d walked. One look at the two-lane shoulder-less highway convinced us otherwise. We waited 15 minutes and then, as if answering an unspoken cry, a man in a small purple car pulled up and asked if we needed a ride.

We looked at each other. Yes, we did. We got into the car and asked him to take us to the closest town in the direction of Kuching. The hornbill statue indicated that we’d arrived in Padawan and the man in the purple car, who may or may not have been a taxi/Grab, drove off.

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We went immediately to the closest hawker for bowls of soup and noodles and cups of strong coffee. After lunch, we saw a sign for a pitcher plant museum, so of course we went!

Padawan was also home to a wonderful market. I love markets in all forms and we leisurely wandered through it, wishing we could buy some vegetables and take them home. I was less enthralled with the fish and meat, but that’s local life.

The market was also exciting because the lady selling jewelry told us she’d seen our friends! They’d been looking for a short one and tall one, they told her, and that certainly described us. And truly, how likely was it that two groups of white women wandering through a wet market in a tiny town in Borneo didn’t know each other? The woman knew they were heading back to Semenggoh and we went off to join them. The woman didn’t know, however, how we should get back. There was no bus, she told us, and while I had my phone, I didn’t intend to turn it on to call a Grab.

Luckily, my friend talks to literally anybody and after we stood on a corner for a few minutes and tried making eye contact and looking friendly and in need of help, she walked up to a man and asked how to get a taxi. Someone else overheard and told us he’d give us a ride. We followed him to his white truck and hopped in. We looked at each other. All I could think was, “Oh gosh, her husband will kill me if she doesn’t get back!” How I stayed alive in that scenario, I’m not quite sure.

But the man was lovely and pointed out several landmarks along the way. He took us exactly where we needed to be and even agreed to take our money after we asked twice. After all, we would have paid a taxi! We were greeted by our friends and a really cute lizard!

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We saw another neat lizard later on . . .

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. . . and then were back in forest looking for orangutans. In Malay, “orang utan” means “people of the forest” and that’s exactly what they are. Watching the orangutans is breathtaking because it’s like watching evolution. It’s watching yourself in a different form. Watching the orangutans play and interact leaves no doubt that we are very close relatives and that they have been around for a long time. Visiting the orangutans at Semenggoh was, and remains, the single most amazing experience I’ve had in Southeast Asia.

We took a very long bus ride back to Kuching and agreed that we probably should have turned on the cellular data and taken a Grab, mostly because we were all hot and tired by that point. The walk along the water from the bus station, however, which we repeated in the opposite direction the next morning, was really lovely and I was not sorry to end the afternoon there. Orangutans and boats, all in one day!

In addition to being located on the Sarawak River, which I like very much, Kuching is home to brightly colored buildings and a few cat statues (because “kuching” is the Malay word for “cat”) . . .

. . . and a great array of street art. I liked that very much, too!

Our wandering through the street art district took us to a few lovely cafés and one of the proprietors suggested we check out the Textile Museum. We did, and were pleasantly surprised at the range of artifacts on display. Since we decided to have an easy coffee morning and not visit a longhouse, the textiles provided us with a glimpse of traditional life that I think is important for any trip to Sarawak.

And, of course, there were temples. We only stopped into one and it was lovely and colorful, which is really the best way I can describe the city of Kuching itself.

All in all, it was a great weekend. Kuching is a quick hour and twenty minutes from Singapore and there are cheap flights that leave after work. It was fun to be back in Malaysia both because of what I remembered (accurately and inaccurately) and what I’d forgotten. It’s fun to experience a bit of your own past every now and then.

But most importantly, this trip to Kuching was a great break from real life with a wonderful group of women. Thanks, ladies!

Thanks for the Memories

Mitch and I are now back in the US and we’re trying to figure out our next steps. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking a lot about the positive aspects of my experience in Malaysia. I have learned a lot, befriended inspiring people, expanded my taste buds, and stretched my mind. Along those lines, I am grateful for (in no particular order):

  • the people I met who kept me grounded, taught me about traveling, and were always up for trying something new
  • finding the courage within myself to seek out experiences I never imagined I could or would have
  • my family and friends from home who supported me through phone calls, emails, text messages, comments on this blog, and updates on Facebook
  • the friends I made in Malaysia for being there all hours of all days, bringing me out of my comfort zone, and helping me become wiser, stronger, and braver than I thought I could be
  • the travels that I had all over Southeast Asia
  • learning about different people, places, and cultures  
  • the food I grew to love, like curry mee, laksa, Chinese vegetable curry, and Indian food of all varieties
  • learning to play badminton
  • my students for knowingly and unknowingly bringing a smile to my face every day with their inquisitiveness, curiosities, excitement for learning, and positive energy
  • my boyfriend, for supporting my desire to teach overseas, talking me off multiple cliffs, traveling all over with me, and never wavering in his affection (I love you, too)

Lesson learned: Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy. Ms. Frizzle was right all along.

Travel Guide: Ipoh and Cameron Highlands

With the aid of the trusty Lonely Planet guidebook that a friend left me when she fled to Australia and the sheer willpower of our dependable Kancil, known as Daisy, Mitch and I embarked on a road trip north to Ipoh and east to Cameron highlands.

Yes, we took this baby on a road trip up mountains. No, she did not survive the journey unscathed. More on that later.
Yes, we took this baby on a road trip up mountains. No, she did not survive the journey unscathed. More on that later.

For the geographically challenged, here’s a map of where we went:

It did not take 4 hours and 37 minutes. That is a lie.
It did not take 4 hours and 37 minutes. That is a lie. It took much, much longer.

If you’ve never travelled overland in Malaysia before, expect loads of traffic all the time for no apparent reason; lane closures that are unmarked until the moment the lane closes, leading to more traffic, speed limits of 110km/h that really mean cars are driving anywhere from 70-130km/h, and lots of trucks. As Mitch and I learned, stopping at a rest area is a bad idea. They are very crowded and there’s not nearly enough parking. I’m not sure if that’s because we were travelling over a holiday week/weekend, but that’s the experience we had. It honestly would have been faster to drive into a town to use the washroom and buy coffee, but we didn’t know that. So that slowed us down a little, too. Finally, if you’re driving in Malaysia, be aware of the demands you will put on your vehicle. Our Kancil has a 660 cc engine, which means it cannot go very fast. 90 is pushing it. 110 is nearly impossible. It also doesn’t accelerate, which is really scary when there are larger vehicles and motorcycles whizzing past in all directions at unthinkable speeds.. All that said, we got there and back in one piece. Well, Mitch and I did. Daisy needed a new battery after we left the lights on overnight. Oops.

Our trip started Saturday late morning and we planned to stop in Ipoh to wander around Old Town and grab some food. It took us a lot longer to get to Ipoh than we’d hoped or anticipated, but we did stop to wander, eat, and stretch our legs. Ipoh’s Old Town is a cluster of streets full of buildings with colonial-style architecture. There’s also a wonderful little hipster plaza where we saw three couples taking wedding pictures!

This is Ipoh’s Birch Memorial Clock Tower, dedicated to James WW Birch, its first British resident. There are figures painted on all four sides and we’re quite curious about who was rubbed out:

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I really enjoyed wandering around the hipster corner, and not only because I got a real salad at a great restaurant! The shops were adorable and a few had Christmas displays and Christmas crafts for sale. The whole place was basically restored buildings built in, around, and incorporating trees. There was a public toilet behind the wall of books, which is a strange place for a toilet. We also got a kick out of the rather ancient Chubb safe.

Ipoh, like Penang, is filled with street art. At least one artist who colored George Town in Penang also had a hand in painting Ipoh. We didn’t see nearly as many murals as we did in Penang because we didn’t spend as much time there, but the ones we saw were charming and the art itself was really impressive.

We left Ipoh in the late afternoon and began the ascent to Cameron Highlands, which is about 5000m above sea level. Everyone told us to avoid the back route and avoid travelling in the dark. So what did we do? We took the back route and we arrived in the dark. It was honestly an accident. We were perhaps too reliant on our GPS and didn’t check the route map before following blindly. I was terrified and not driving; Mitch was very calm and driving, so that worked out. He got loads of practice shifting, too!

As we learned in the morning when we could see, Tanah Rata is an adorable little town full of steamboat restaurants (the local preference) and Indian restaurants (my preference). There were also a number of restaurants catering to Western tourists and even a well-hidden Starbucks which, I am proud to say, we only visited once.

Tanah Rata
Tanah Rata

We were surprised to see a convent on a hill overlooking the town, but it was actually a comforting sight. Three years at OLM has had quite the influence on my feelings towards religious houses!

Convent in Tanah Rata
Convent in Tanah Rata

There are dozens of little markets all over the place in the three main Cameron Highlands villages – Brinchang, Tanah Rata, and Ringlet – and along the roads connecting the villages.

Beautiful vegetables!
Beautiful vegetables!
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I’m not sure where this fish comes from because there’s no ocean nearby, but it smelled VERY fresh

A note on the food for this trip: Indian food is my favorite food here in Malaysia because Indians understand what it means to be a vegetarian. Most of the tea in Malaysia comes from Cameron Highlands and most tea pickers are Indian, so Indian food was everywhere. We breakfasted each morning (and snacked once or twice) on some of our favorites: Masala tea, egg-cheese-onion roti with curry, and potato-vegetable thosai with dahl and curry. Delicious! I had vegetable curry twice for dinner because it’s just that good and we had amazing tom yam steamboat one night, too. The proprietor of this busy family restaurant clearly understood my dietary restrictions and assured me that there was no shrimp in the tom yam, but I’m still a bit skeptical. There’s shrimp paste in sambal, which is in just about everything spicy, so I’m willing to bet there’s at least a little in the tom yam. But darn was it good.

This sign was in front of the steamboat place where we had amazing food. The vegetables were kind of fresh, I guess . . .
This sign was in front of the steamboat place where we had amazing food. The vegetables were kind of fresh, I guess . . .

The first morning that we spent walking around Tanah Rata was literally the only time it wasn’t pouring. November and December are the rainiest months in the Cameron Highlands, which also makes them the coldest. We were not at all prepared for temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, but we joked that it’s good practice for our upcoming trip to Spain. Nevertheless, we had come all that way to explore and that’s exactly what we did.

Strawberry farm
Strawberry farm
Strawberry
It was weird to see strawberries grown so “unnaturally” – where I come from, they grow on bushes in gardens and are often eats by birds. There’s also much smaller at home and that’s how you know they’re going to be tasty!

I think our best adventure was to the Boh Sungei Palas Tea Centre. Boh tea is really popular here (think: Lipton or Twinings) and Mitch and I learned that we didn’t know anything about tea production. And now we do thanks to a factory tour! For example, all tea comes from the same plant that is picked every three weeks. The type of tea (green, black, white, yellow, etc) produced depends on the fermentation and oxidation time and temperature. (Who even knew tea had to be fermented and oxidized?!)

Roller from 1935 used to crush tea leaves that is still in use at the Boh factory
Roller from 1935 used to crush tea leaves that is still in use at the Boh factory

If teas are flavored or herbal, that’s because of added or substituted natural products, like chamomile flowers or ginger.

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The Boh plantation was astonishingly beautiful. Sadly, the pictures don’t even come close to capturing it.

We also made a very brief stop at a honey bee farm, mostly to sample honey sticks!

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Like everywhere in Malaysia, religion is important. It is telling that we didn’t see a mosque in Tanah Rata. Instead, we visited Hindu and Buddhist temples.

We couldn’t go inside Sri Tehndayuthapany Swamy but we enjoyed the gorgeous outside.

We did venture into Sam Poh Temple, quite a popular and even busy sight.

As if one tea plantation weren’t enough, we had to visit the other one, too. Cameron Valley Tea Estates didn’t seem as large as Boh, but it was equally incredible.

The other popular thing to do in Cameron Highlands is hike, but we had no real rain gear and it didn’t stop raining. I’m willing to bet that a hike in these mountains is a beautiful and unforgettable experience. Personally, I’m really glad we made this trip because this is the most beautiful land I’ve seen in Malaysia and we learned a lot about tea. If you go, go when it’s a little warmer and a little drier!