A Travellerspoint blog

June 2010

Vietnam is Braw

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Hello avid readers of Karla and Paula’s South East Asia Travel blog. My dear friends and co-authors Karl and Paula have kindly given me the privilege to contribute my thoughts. Firstly, introductions are a necessity. My name is Iain Logan and I was part of the Scottish contingent that boarded the flight from Glasgow to Dubai nearly a year ago to the day. Previous to Karl’s blog called ‘Goodbye Beautiful Brisbane’ I will begin by giving a brief outline of my thoughts on Brisbane and Australia. Karl is truly in love with Brisbane. He bravely took the leap from the comfort of Glasgow University and studied his junior honours year at the University of Queensland. Upon his arrival back in Glasgow we moved into a flat along with another friend Stephen. Karl would simply not shut up about Brisbane. Every time we were having a wee bevy (a mix of cheap Scottish alcohol and banter) in the flat he would load up the old Dell computer, dim the lights and the slide show of Australia would commence. Suffice to say his enthusiasm was contagious and a year in the Sunshine State was firmly planted in my immediate plans. However, as regards to Brisbane as a city I simply do not share the same level of love that the Karl possesses for her. Yes Brisbane is a fantastic City in terms of location and climate. To the north is the majestic Sunshine Coast with hidden gems like Coolum Beach and the French Riveriaesque style Noosa. To the South you have the fun and games of the Gold Coast where all your dreams can become reality if you have the required capital. Yes the climate is subtropical and for any Scotsman simply luxurious. However, Brisbane lacks one key ingredient – an edge. For me this is why Brisbane simply cannot compete on a City level to the diverse, cosmopolitan and bohemian Melbourne. If any readers have visited Glasgow before you will understand what I mean by a City having an Edge. Not in dangerous way but a place of excitement and energy. For me Brisbane did not have this. However, Brisbane is currently entering an economic and population boom period so it will be extremely interesting to visit in 10 years to see if it’s inherited this edge that Melbourne currently possess.

Moving onto Asia, the rough plan was to meet Karl and Paula in Hanoi Backpackers situated in the Old Quarter in the Social Republic of Vietnam. I was on a marathon journey from the small holiday resort of Krabi in South Thailand while Karl and Paula were on crazy 24 hour bus journey/flight from KL. Basically, we were arriving in Vietnam airport at approximately the same time after horrendous journeys. To be honest I was fairly anxious and nervous about entering Vietnam customs as I had heard so many horror stories from various backpackers. At customs I was filling in the necessary forms and suddenly my ears prickled with the unmistakable dulsic tones of a broad Kirkcaldy accent. I spotted Karl and Paula and to their detriment they didn’t notice me. Always one for a practical joke I decided to sneak up behind Karl, grab his right arm with considerable force and drag him off his feet while simultaneously shouting a concoction of made up Asian gibberish. As soon as I played this prank I felt guilty as his tanned face drained of all blood and turned a strange shade of yellow. He absolutely shat himself!!! Like I said I instantly felt guilty but could also not stop laughing at the success of the prank. So... welcome to Vietnam folks.

We managed to befriend a fellow Scot in Hanoi Airport and share a taxi to Hanoi City Centre. Wow... the most unforgettable driving experience of my life. For any Mothers or loved ones of Karl and Paula reading this I think it is best to omit certain finer details. So Hanoi... Stop. Close your eyes. Smell the petrol fumes of thousands of motorbikes. Hear the constant din of over revved engines. Open your eyes and welcome to what can only be depicted as organised chaos. I instantly fell in love with the place. If you want a City that has edge - come to Hanoi. If you have ever worked with a ‘jobsworth’ who loves rules and regulations transport them to Hanoi and watch their eyes bulge while their veins on their neck pump with blood as the physically breakdown and weep at the madness. The French have visually left their stamp of imperialism on Hanoi. This ranges from the beautiful architecture of the quaint cafes serving coffee so strong it would be illegal in any other country to the best French baguettes outside Paris. After checking into our spotless hotel with ensuite, mini-bar (which got destroyed) and satellite TV we ventured out onto the paved jungle of the Old Quarter. After 100 yards of walking like stupid sleep deprived western tourists amongst the chaos, Karl and I nearly got pick pocketed. Not for the first time in our adventure in Vietnam, Paula saved the day by scaring the pick-pocket away with a forceful slap. Fore his sake, he luckily managed to escape!

I simply cannot emphasise how beautiful Vietnam is. After a day of recovery and finding our bearings in Hanoi we booked a boat tour to the famed Halong Bay and a 3 night/2 day trekking adventure to Sapa (North Vietnam). Paula will cover these days in more detail so I will finish my post with a brief view on our current location in Ha Noi. If anybody reading this post dreams of paradise beaches with palm trees, literally servants to fulfil all your desires beach side and the cheapest tailored made clothes in the world, then cancel all your current holiday destinations and come to Vietnam. With one hundred percent certainty you will not be disappointed. From my perspective it is only backpackers that venture to Vietnam and this should not be the case. Yes it is technically a communist government and perhaps this distracts Westerns from visiting Vietnam. However, I believe this is to Vietnams’ benefit as it retains its unique culture, heritage and charm. Thailand on the other hand is like a Disney Land version of Asia compared to Vietnam. This is mainly due to Thai Government freely welcoming all Western tourists and making it extremely easy for any Western to holiday in Thailand. My advice is to be gallaus and book a flight to Hanoi and explore this wonderful country before the rest of the Western world discovers this gem with the detrimental result of driving up prices and in the worst case Vietnam becoming a replica of Thailand.


Hanoi, Vietnam.

Posted by karlnpaula 08:58 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Chillaxing on Kecil Island in the Pulau Perhentians

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We’re in Malaysia’s Pulau Perhentian Islands and it’s paradise. We booked the mini bus at our hostel in Penang, we were picked up at 5am and it still always surprises me how they fit all our bags in the back of the bus. The journey took 5 hours to get to Kuala Besut which is the gateway to the islands. We then took a speed boat to Small Island which was going to be our home for the next 7 days. We had not booked accommodation on the island, but Karl assured me this would be easy – “you just rock up!” – little did we know it was a Malaysian public holiday and accommodation was very scarce.

As we stepped off the boat into the turquoise water onto the white sands our first priority was to find a hostel. The first ‘resort’ had one room left but did not fill us full of confidence as it looked like a shanty town and the bed was collapsed, so we swiftly moved on. Now Karl being the gentleman that he is offers to look for a room while I wait with the bags at the second hostel, which was lovely but fully booked. A few minutes later he comes back drenched in sweat saying he has found us a beach hut for the first 2 nights. Great! At this moment, I was just so glad to get sorted and take my backpack off in the 40 degree heat. So we struggle along the beach burning our feet and dripping with sweat to be faced with a lovely green swamp, a plank of wood acting as a bridge to a range of beach huts. The ‘resort’ was called Chempaka Chalets and the lonely planet describes Chempaka as getting ‘extra points for cleanliness and its beach bum vibe’. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Firstly, the beach huts were very unstable and rotten. As I climb up the stairs (while some are missing), things get worse as the fan doesn’t work, the sheets look like someone had died in them, there was no mossie net and wait for it...piles of rat droppings in the corner of the room. I turn to Karl, he smiles sweetly and says ‘I told you it was basic’. I draw the line at having rats for neighbours and we upgrade to a slightly bigger room and stay for only one night. The new room however came with an ‘en-suite’ but this didn’t mean much as the outdoor facilities were cleaner. Our toilet was lopsided, not even connected to the pipe work, and there was a huge bucket of dirty water which is meant for flushing your business away. The last straw was after we had outdoor cold showers, I was brushing my hair next to the swamp and two GIANT black creatures literally jump out of the swamp and chase one another into the trees. As it was dark, we never had any idea what they could have been and concluded they must be nasty, disease ridden and dangerous. Needless to say I felt rather uneasy going to bed that night and couldn’t wait for check-out.


In the morning we woke bright and early and checked into a really nice place called Bintang. This beach chalet is owned and operated by an Irish lady and her Malaysian husband who strived to create a hostel which is clean, chilled and offers a great balance of Western and Malaysian food. Bintang is truly a hidden gem and really should be listed in the Lonely Planet. It was so clean, the beach huts are great and it just had a great relaxed atmosphere. I could tell I was going to love spending a week here. The funny thing was our cabin was a magnet for strange creatures of the forest. On our first night, we had to deal with a huge hairy spider which I told Karl to get rid of it and couldn’t help but smile hearing his screams trying to catch it. We also made close acquaintances with ‘Harry’ a rather big lizard who often tried to crawl into our bed and spent most of his time on our balcony which overlooked the ocean. We also bumped into many GIANT black creatures which turned out to be monitor lizards which I still have no idea whether they are dangerous our not, but we thought it was best to avoid them as they looked like they could easily hack one of your legs off.


The rest of our time was spent enjoying Long Beach which is the islands most popular backpacker congregation spot. Long Beach was stunning with its white sands, turquoise waters and jungle. During the day all you can do is eat, drink, sunbake and dive. At night the beach becomes alive with bbq’s, fire throwers, live music and partying. This all sounds like paradise (which it was) but we quickly realised that there was a growing problem with stealing on the island and unfortunately we were victims of this. We had our bag stolen with BOTH our cameras in it, but thankfully we lost very few pictures. This was really disappointing as petty theft seems to be rising on the island and we would have liked to have been warned.


To put a smile back on our faces we arranged two dives which were just brilliant. The Perhentain Islands are said to have some of South East Asia’s best scuba diving and it was easy to see why. The seabed water temperature was 32 degrees, the visibility was great and the marine life was really diverse. We went with a company called Quiver which is run by a Scottish guy and they really made us feel at home. During our dives, we saw bamboo sharks, various types of stingrays’, loads of nemos and beds and beds of fish... the list is really that long. It was without a doubt some of the best dives I have ever done. For our final few days on the island we just relaxed, but it was slightly hard as I was upset about losing our cameras but life goes on. On the upside, we met this really nice English couple called Kerion and Donny who kindly let us borrow their very expensive camera to take pictures, which we took full advantage off. Their kindness and trust made me realise the up’s and downs that go along with travelling and how can you cant let stuff like that ruin your trip. Trying to enjoy the Perhentian Islands really wasn’t hard though as it is paradise and was prefect in helping us revitalise for our next trip to Vietnam in less than one weeks time....


Paula xxxx

Kecil Island, Pulau Perhentian

Posted by karlnpaula 08:47 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

A Federation of Food in George Town

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Our final day in Borneo was spent on the beach in KK. Not only is KK the gateway to Kinabalu national park, but can brag to be one of the world’s only industrial city’s to have direct access to Abdual Rama (Marine) National Park which houses not one, but four paradise islands. Within 15 minutes, you can literally go from filthy industrial streets to crystal clear water and golden sand by water taxi. It was not difficult to work out how we were going to spend our final day in Borneo.


Despite a rather turbulent time, we were both very sad to leave Borneo and wish we could have stayed for longer. We grossly underestimated Sabah (Eastern Borneo), never-mind the rest of the island in terms of holidaying activities and it was clear you could spend at least a month taking it all in. For example, Sipadan which is located in south eastern Sabah is considered by diving enthusiasts to be one of the best scuba diving spots in the world. We never had time for this which was very unfortunate, but sometimes even for the avid traveller sacrifice is the only option when you are on a time budget. One of the things I liked most about Sabah was the minuscule amount of Western tourists that come to visit in comparison to the neighbouring mainland peninsula. In both KK and Sandakan for example, if you walked past a ‘Westerner’ in the street, you would almost automatically and expectedly exchange a glance or nod, acknowledging that you were not the only tourist in the city. I was not expecting to experience this for the remainder of our trip.

When we arrived in Penang International Airport, I immediately felt like we were back to normality. The airport was clean, standardised and normal, so all in all, very boring. We then jumped in a taxi, the driver spoke perfect English, charged us a set price and directly dropped us outside our hostel. Too easy! The City of George Town is located in North West Malaysia close to the Thai border. Originally named the Prince of Wales Island (Penang), the settlement soon grew into George Town and was named after King George III. For more than one hundred years, Penang was held under British Colonial Rule until 1957 when it gained independence and became part of the now Federation of Malaysia.

On first impressions, George Town was very different to KK. The city is strongly influenced by British, Chinese and Indian settlement and this is certainly apparent in its cuisine. Penang is known to have the best food in Malaysia. There is diversity, fusion and value for money. There are street stalls everywhere selling everything from Noodle soups, to Indian favourites to Cheeseburgers. It really did seem that eating for over £2 was going to be a challenge. KK never had this diversity as it was noodle soup, Malaya curry or nothing else. However, some places in KK offered the dreaded ‘Western Menu’ which is the most terrible attempt at ‘bolognaise spaghetti ‘, ‘hamburger, cheese and fry’ and ‘American breakfast’ which consists of turkey bacon, egg, bread, cucumber and celery... Mmm, yum yum yum!!! It was very clear Penang never had this problem but instead was the epicentre for Malaysia’s food federation.

Our only day in George Town was therefore spent walking around the city and eating – we done lots of eating. We recovered from our previous day’s travel by sleeping into midday and we decided to walk to Little India for lunch. One of my main observations about George Town was that the city really is split into cultural districts which are all a short walking distance to one another. As we left our hostel walking down the cramped busy streets, it felt like we had literally walked through China and crossed the border into India. This took 15 minutes and it was amazing to experience the buzz, the shops blaring out bollywood music and shopkeepers heckling you to visit their shop to buy silk and gold. I’ve never been to India, but it certainly wetted my appetite for future adventures ahead. We then decided to sit down at one small market stall on the street and they brought over the only choice – Indian curry. I have no idea what it was but my suspicions were that it was a Chicken Balti. The sauce was thick, rich, tomato based, hot and spicy. But what I did know that it was one of the most memorable meals I have ever had. It was unbelievably flavoursome and just awesome. After the meal, we bumped into some Australians we met on the bus from Mt Kinabalu to Sandakan (see blog 5) who said if you ask nicely and pay the stall-owner a fee, they will happily provide you with a cooking lesson and let you recite their one and only culinary masterpiece, which has most likely been within the family for generations. If had known this, I would have been right on it, taking the recipe home, starting my own stall on Buchanan St and charging 6 quid a serving. I reckon it would be a definite winner!!!

After we had lunch in India, we then set out to find an ATM in the financial district, which was the British part of our trip – or little London. All of the major banks are here such as HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Barclays as well as the Malaysian banks. Like London the banks are located in substantial Georgian period buildings. This area is clean, tidy and wealthy and then you only need to walk 5 minutes to be back in the hustle and bustle of Chinatown and the food markets. The food markets were just incredible and you could literally spend all day there eating yourself to death. For dinner we had beef curry noodle soup and a fruit shake for desert. Overall, I found the cultural consolidation of George Town quite amazing, refreshing, unexpected and I think it can only be best realised on a visit. Today has been a great day. Tomorrow we head for sun, sea, sand and diving in Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands. Pick up is 5AM and the bus journey takes 5 hours, so I best get to sleep. Visiting and eating in three countries in one day can be very tiring work.


Georgetown, Penang.

Posted by karlnpaula 07:35 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Monkey Business in Sandakan

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After making the trek up the hill from our hostel in Mount Kinabalu with our heavy backpacks we waited for the bus heading to Sandakan, which we were informed would take roughly 3 hours. In actual fact the journey took 4 hours and 30 minutes. The bus itself was very comfy and the long journey would not have been much of a problem if it wasn’t for the dramatic speed at which the bus was moving or by the constant ‘beedy eyes’ staring back at me. Just to mention this is my first trip to Asia and Karl had warned me to be prepared for the staring locals as “they are not used to seeing white people with blonde hair.” For the first week of my trip I am not going to lie I found the staring extremely uncomfortable. KK was my first experience of this. Everyone stared! From the children’s curiosity stares, the female evil stares and the men I just want to suck your blood stares. I began to wonder how I would handle this new found celebrity status!

Anyway back to the point, arriving in Sandakan was easy as we were travelling with Jo (an English girl) who was recommended a great hostel in the thick of things. We arrived in the city centre by taxi at 8pm and got settled into our room. Sandakan Backpackers was a great place to stay and I felt a lot more relaxed here than our first dodgey hostel (Borneo Global Backpackers, see blog 2) as there was no ‘beedy eyes’ here as they were just accommodating backpackers. Once we got settled in, we went for a late night meal at the waterfront and it became very apparent that I am just going to love the seafood in Borneo. It was just so fresh, tasty and CHEAP! I thought Australia was good for seafood, but this was on a whole new level.

Sandakan is located in Far Eastern Boreno and is a major shipping port. Apparently Sandakan was once home to the worlds largest amount of millionaires, but the city certainly didn’t give off this affluent impression as most of buildings appeared to be almost falling down. However, the main reason we came all the way to Sandakan was to see the Sepilok Orang-Utan rehabilitation centre. We were on a tight schedule but as I am here with Karl this means that tight schedules become even tighter. And of course in the morning I was up, showered and raring to go, Jo and Karl on the other hand were still in bed sleeping so peacefully. Long story short we missed the morning bus (thanks Karl), so had to get a taxi which was 10 times more expensive than the bus (thanks Karl). Taxi rides in Malaysia have so far not been normal, well in comparison to the Western World. For example, as we were in a rush to see the orang-utans, our Malaysian driver decides to take a detour and stop at the local shops to pick up his wife who greets us with a toothless smile “Hellooo welcome.” Then (all ready very late) he decides to stop for petrol with his wife still showering us with that beautiful smile. Long story short, we get to the centre at 10:30am to be told by the not so polite man behind the desk that we will not see any orang-utans as we have missed the 10am feeding, and we must wait until the 3pm feeding. This was when we said our goodbyes to Jo as she was heading on a jungle safari and it was back to me and Karl. We then had to make a decision, is it worth staying here for 4.5 hours in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do in the deadly heat? Not even a book to read!


It was worth it! The orang-utans are one of the most endangered creatures in the world and can only be found wild in Borneo and Indonesia, however seeing them in the forest rehabilitation centre was just like seeing them in the wild. We got so close to a young male who was just dancing about in the trees sometimes hanging down from branches right in front of our noses. He was a total attention seeker and we later saw other orang-utans who all had very distinctive personalities.


After the tour, we took the bus back to our hostel and headed out for another great meal. This time we were accompanied by a singing waiter with a guitar, who was just hilarious, but was short lived as he only played three songs and became very annoying. There’s only so much pretend smiling you can do.


The next day, we left Sandakan to head back to KK and again, this was an experience. We got the same taxi driver who already had his wife in the car and I must say I was growing fond of her cheeky gummy smile. They then helped us out and made sure we got the cheapest bus back to KK. On arriving in the bus station we were greeted by a dozen screaming men running at the taxi, pulling my door open and grabbing my bag. Luckily Mr and Mrs Taxi shouted at them and retrieved my bag as I was a little taken a back at the fastness of it. They were just trying to get you to spend your money on their bus. The bus journey was a tad strange, it was empty so Karl and I took a row of seats each but every time we picked someone up, they would try and sit down next to me even though there were loads of other available seats. First an old lady then a pregnant lady? What can I say I must just look inviting? Thankfully, there were no ‘beedy eyes’

Until next time....xxxxxx


Sandakan, Borneo.

Posted by karlnpaula 11:47 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Trials and Tribulations of Mt Kinabalu

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Kinabalu National Park is one of Boreno’s main attractions and having spent two days here I can see why. Located in the tropical rainforests of North Eastern Borneo (see map), the national park is home to Mt Kinabalu – South East Asia’s tallest mountain. The mountain stands proudly and ominously at a whopping 4095 meters above sea level. For those of you who aren’t regular mountaineers (such as myself...) this equates to being half, yes half, the size of the Mt Everest and in Scottish terms, four times the size of Ben Nevis – the British Isles tallest mountain. In short, altitude sickness is common, it typically takes 2-3 days to climb (depending on fitness levels) and it is regarded as one of the world’s most spectacular climbs. As I struggled for air in the unrelenting heat, with my newly accumulated Australian beer gut weighing me down, it was quite clear that even Warner might have bitten off more than he could chew with this one. What I forgot to mention was we were still at base camp trying to organise the climb for the next day.


To embark on the climb, there is a lot of bureaucracy (some would call it health and safety), which is very untypically Asian. Firstly, you need to organise a climbing permit and compulsory guide. This is due to the fact that it’s bloody difficult and the second day commences at 2AM (in darkness) so you are able to catch sunrise on the summit. Organising a guide was a not a problem, there were plenty of them. The second task is you need to book compulsory accommodation midway at Laban Rata which is the only rest house on the mountain. This is where you are meant to sleep for the night, adjust to the altitude and obviously rest. Excusing the pun, things started to go rapidly down hill from here. To our shock, the only rest house was fully booked, not for a few days, but for 4 weeks. As we stood around national park HQ (observing and talking with other travellers in the same situation) it became clear our adventure to visit Borneo, to specifically climb Mt Kinabalu, had turned into a slight disaster. The only other option was to try and complete the climb in a day by departing at sunrise and returning for sunset. This was however unadvisable for inexperienced climbers due to altitude sickness, the late-afternoon thunder storms and the obvious risk of getting stuck on the mountain. Again we arrived unprepared, expecting everything to fall into our laps and this simply doesn’t happen in Borneo. Disappointment was an understatement.

Instead, we opted to do the Liwagu Trail which is the most strenuous of all the trails in Kinabalu NP. The trail took over 6 hours, and as we hiked ‘around’ the circumference of the mountain, we trekked through jungle, avoided snakes, crossed over rivers and waterfalls and overall, it was a worthwhile experience.


Nevertheless, (and not be ungrateful) it was a substitute for the real thing. For example, it was like turning up to Hamden Park (Scotland’s national stadium) having bought a fake ticket from a tout, to be told by the ticket inspector to watch the game in the pub next door. Or getting on a flight and walking through the business class cabin thinking ‘oh this is nice’ to realise your economy seat is at the back of the aircraft. Or chatting up a beautiful girl in a bar to find out she has a boyfriend once you have spent all your time, money and energy, but at least she wants to be friends. Overall, this was all slightly annoying.

But I hear everyone say...’Poor Karl and Paula, how did you recover from such a setback and mishap?’. Well on the next day when we should have been making our Kinabalu descent, but still with our PMA (positive mental attitude) hats on, we decided to search for bigger and better things to do. We then spoke to a local who said, ‘You must go to the Poring Hot Springs – they are one of the world’s natural wonders – my taxi friend will take you for special price!’. As we had nothing better to do, we negotiated a special price and after a 1 hour taxi ride, we arrived at the Poring Hot Springs. While in the Taxi, I had this image of relaxing in a volcanically powered hot spring in the middle of the jungle, blinded by natural beauty, and only slightly distracted by the ‘egg-ey’ smell of sulphur. Instead we turned up to this:


Yes a range of bathtubs, some full, but mostly empty. Basically, we travelled 60 miles for a hot bath. In all fairness the hot water was from the springs, but who in their right mind in the +35 degree heat wants a hot bath. Well obviously the locals (and Japanese) do, they were going nuts for it. Filling their bath tubs up, laughing, chuckling, giggling, snapping like crazy to running tap water on their Cannon SLR’s, it was quite obvious they were having a grand old time. Unfortunately, I struggled to share the same sentiment. My theory for this is a hot shower, never mind a bath is a total rarity in Borneo, so the masses must congregate for this luxury. The Japanese on the other hand is a mystery. Thankfully, we decided to do a few treks and accidently stumbled upon a massive waterfall which led onto a freshwater creek. We then discovered some Western tourists, all of whom where bemused by the purpose of the Poring Hot Springs. After our refreshing dip, we then went for food at a local restaurant and ordered the old faithful Malaysian curry. As we thoroughly enjoyed our meals, we put the day down to a ‘memorable experience’ and headed back to the national park, to catch our bus to Sandakan to embark on the next stage of our trip. Karl’s top tip for today, if your visiting Borneo for a short space of time, plan beforehand and make sure you come prepared.




Mt Kinabalu, Borneo.

Posted by karlnpaula 11:28 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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