Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday, June 29 – Exploring Cherating, Malaysia

The internet has really changed the traveling experience.  The last time we did a backpacking trip, there were internet cafes everywhere, in every country, and you would rent out a chair and computer for as long as you needed and do your emailing, research and so on.  Now, the advent of 3G and smart phones has rendered these nearly obsolete as it is cheap and easy to carry the internet around in your pocket.  We have a small laptop so have been using the wireless hotspot on Ana’s iPhone to provide an internet connection which means we can do all our research from anywhere.  Yet, once again, this is another example where the internet allows us to physically disconnect from other people and rely less on others, which is sometimes one of the adventurous parts of traveling.  For example, we have been able to book all of our accommodation ahead of time, whereas in the past, it would be more common to show up in a new place, then start scouting around for a place to stay, which obviously had unpredictable results!

As this was our last day in Cherating we decided to make a real beach day of it and spent the whole time lounging and visiting with our new friends.  As it was a Sunday it was especially gratifying knowing that we could enjoy the day without thinking of returning to work the following day.  Although we did have to do one chore – laundry.  I was expecting there to be laundry places everywhere here, but we have only seen one, and that was through the window of a speeding taxi, so we are taking care of laundry backpacker style.  Which means, fill the bathroom sink with hot water, dump in some Woolite (actually now we have these cool green sheets which are made of detergent and simply dissolve in the water), then hand wash each piece of clothing, wring it out, then hang them on any available outdoor furniture, or use an iron to dry them out.  So far I’ve work the same pair of shorts every day so Ana forced me to relinquish them for a washing.  I should now be good for at least another week.

Saturday, June 28 – Exploring Cherating, Malaysia

It’s been one week since we left Canada and are now well into the travelling groove.  I’ve only thought about work once, but easily shoved that out of my mind.  A few days ago Ana bought a SIM card and a 2 gig data package for her phone which cost about twenty bucks and included at least an hour of voice calls to Canada.  Man, we’re getting ripped off at home!  So now she has access to the Facebook and email and we’re also able to use it as a hotspot for our laptop to research destinations and book accommodation.  Actually, it is now six in the morning and I just looked over to see an otherworldly glow coming from the bed – Ana checking email.  She loves staying connected!

We started the day with a big buffet breakfast then a long, slow stroll down the expansive beach.  Along the way we counted 13 large, pulsing, transparent, slightly juicy jellyfish that had washed up on shore.  Jellyfish are quite fun to poke with sticks and Stella enjoyed some sweet revenge from the attack she suffered yesterday.  By the time we returned to the hotel it was blazing hot, but we decided to continue our walk and explore the town.  Turns out, Cherating really isn’t much of a town; it is more of a five mile long speedway with an assortment of shops scattered on both sides of the road.  We headed down the road, popping into shops to buy snacks, talking to a few locals and finally settled on a restaurant to sit to down to enjoy some cold drinks.  As none of us has experienced any stomach upset yet, we felt okay with the water so we got glasses full of ice to keep the drinks cool.  As we sat under the shade a herd of free range cows strolled by, and as Ana leaped up to take some photos she spooked the herd and a few of them ran right into the road, nearly causing a collision with one of the speeding vehicles.  Damn tourists.

We met a lovely family from the Czech Republic and spent much of the day with them.  Their names are David and Tatiana and their boys are Mikel and Daniel, whom our kids connected with instantly, even though they didn’t really have a common language.  But they somehow seemed to get along just fine as kids can get around language issues much better than adults usually can.  The parents spoke perfect English and told us many stories of their travels, which are extensive.  They are stationed in Malaysia for six months on a project so were just out for the weekend exploring their new home.

During the day we booked an evening trip to go turtle watching so at 9pm we were picked up by a chap and whisked off to a beach in a neighbouring town.  We arrived to a throng of 150 people all jostling for space in the small parking lot and I immediately regretted our decision, as I had expected that we would be the only tourists there and our eloquent guide who would take us on a life changing, mystical, turtle egg-laying experience under the glow of the moon and stars on a pristine beach.  I can be such an optimist at times.

It actually turned out to be quite fantastic.  After marching us half a kilometer down the beach, seeing all sorts of glowing fireflies and phosphorescent in the sea along the way, we were asked to wait for a while as the turtle was still digging her nest and could not be interrupted until the egg laying process actually began.  So we found a nice piece of beach, laid down and watched the stars.  Stella curled up to me and we both had a brief, but delicious beach nap as we waited.  We were eventually called up and semi-organized into groups of ten then each group was taken in turn up the beach to see the green turtle as she laid her eggs.  I’ve seen this process several times now and always feel a little ashamed watching this – even more so here with so many people pushing each other around trying to get in close for a look.  But the kids liked it, and were even happier when the guides produced several large baskets full of ambitious turtle hatchlings that were just born that morning.  Everybody who was there was given one or two of these lovely little baby turtles, then we all lined up on the beach and were given the cue to simultaneously release them.  We then watched as their little flippers propelled them, slowly but surely, across the sand and into the water, off towards their very uncertain future.

Friday, June 27 – Malacca to Cherating, Malaysia

It was time to move on so we were all up early and Ana delivered the distressing, yet predictable news that Portugal didn’t make it into the second round of World Cup.  Too bad, but like my dad says, they were playing like sausages so didn’t deserve to go any further.  Next team for me to cheer for is the Netherlands – I just love those cloggies.  Ana will probably go for Brazil.  The games are playing on televisions all over the place here, but they are all after the actual games so as long as you don’t watch the news or check internet it’s all fresh and exciting.

We took a taxi to the bus station and soon discovered that all busses heading to our next destination – Cherating – were full.  Lesson learned, book early to avoid disappointment.  But there is always a way, so we bought tickets on a bus to Kuala Lumpur as we were told there were plenty of busses to Cherating from there.  Two hours later we were in the middle of this giant city and quickly learned that the bus terminal we ended up in, though it was the cleanest, newest and most amazing bus terminal I’d ever seen, didn’t have busses to Cherating so we were told to take the underground train system to a different terminal.  So after a few mis-steps we found the right counter, bought tickets and were blasting through KL.  I think this is the part about backpacking that scares some people – not having a well defined plan.  But that really is the whole point of traveling like this, not ever knowing how your day will go, what you will do, or even where you will end up.  If we hadn’t been able to get to Cherating, we would have just found local accommodation in KL and booked an early bus for the next day, and who knows what interesting things we would have found by doing that.  But in this case, we arrived at the terminal, and as it happens there was a bus leaving to Cherating in five minutes so we bought our tickets (about thirty bucks for all four of us for a 3.5 hour trip) and were on our way.  It was a double decker bus so we grabbed the top front seats which gave us an incredible view of the lush countryside as we traveled right across the country to the east coast of Malaysia.

Along the way both Magnus and Ana had a nap while I simply enjoyed the scenery and did a little reading and Stella was just being goofy.  I don’t know exactly where she gets it from (we are thinking Ana’s brother Mark…) but she is such a funny, goofy little girl.  You can’t get her to look normal in a picture, usually she gives you the horse teeth, or squeezes her eyes shut, or does a jumping jack just as you take the picture.  I love her so much!

My high class fashionista backpacker wife booked us three nights at the Legend resort in Cherating for about sixty-five bucks a night.  It looked exactly like an all inclusive resort that you would find in the Caribbean, complete with a few hundred rooms, two pools, beach bar, kids play area, loungers, restaurants, and an expansive, pristine beach.  We arrived at about 3:30, got settled in our room then went for a walk around the resort and found ourselves practically alone in the entire resort.  We sat down for lunch and there was no other guests in site, in fact we only saw three others guests the whole time.  Felt a bit spooky actually.  We would find out later that the resort rules seem to be that everybody must nap in the afternoon, because a few hours later there were people everywhere!

After lunch we walked down to the ocean for a swim and I stepped into the warmest ocean water I believe I have ever felt.  Magnus and I strapped on our snorkeling gear, but were cut short when I heard Ana calling for me and carrying Stella back out of the water, crying.  Turns out they both suffered a jellyfish ankle attack just as they had stepped into the water.  Fortunately, after fifteen minutes the stinging stopped and she was fine, so we spent a couple hours in the pool and were happy to see that there are many, many kids staying at the resort so I’m sure the kids will make some friends.

Though I was aiming to stay awake until 9pm, but by 8 I was doing the head bobs while I drank hot tea and watched Animal Planet so was sent to bed.

Thursday, June 26 – Final Day in Malacca, Malaysia

Magnus and I woke up to the sounds of the imams singing the call to prayer from the loudspeakers in the mosques.  We went to the window of the hotel but couldn’t quite see exactly where the mosques where, but thought we might like to get up early the next day and walk out to see one of the them as the people are going to pray.

On our third and final day here we decided to walk back into the centre, see the tourist sites we had missed and go to a movie.  We walked into town, finding it to be a clear and exceedingly warm day, and this time we took yet another route into town, which led us right to the beginning of the Jonker Walk, which passes through Chinatown and to the centre of town where we found the St Paul Hill area.  The centerpiece here was a 17th century fort built by the Portuguese after they had conquered the local population.  It was then converted into a church when the Dutch conquered the Portuguese, then was converted into a different church when the British conquered the Dutch, then was renamed and had a lighthouse component added when the British gave it back to the Dutch, then was converted into a tourist site when all the damn foreigners finally left Malacca alone.

After a long climb up several steep staircases you finally reach the structure on top of a hill with a stunning view over the entire city and the ocean sloshing around in the background.  Inside were some 500 year old grave markers and markers giving more information about the site.  There were also a number of vendors selling trinkets and trash (which are like lanterns to my firefly Magnus) but they simply sat there and didn’t at all approach any of the tourists.  We have found that everywhere – none of the vendors in the shops pressure you, or really even pay much attention to you at all unless you ask to buy something, which is quite nice as it lets you browse around at your own pace.

Being at the top of the hill allowed us to understand the geography of the area.  Basically, they had built a wall of malls which cut the historical district off from the ocean so if you were on the modern side you had no idea there was a centuries old fort directly behind you.  From here we were able to walk down the hill and walk through the historical side to pop up directly behind the mall with the cinema, and by that time we were exhausted by the heat and the sweet artificial mall AC was like manna from heaven.

There must have been thirty screens in this cinema as they were showing at least fifteen movies and some of them played ten times a day.  We decided on the new Transformers movie, mainly because none of us had seen it and the ones that Ana and I would have preferred probably had too many bad words for the kids.  Speaking of that, why is there so much goddamn profanity in fucking movies these days?  People don’t even talk like that in real life so I can never understand why there is so much swearing, none of which adds anything to the movie, and is mainly an unnecessary distraction.  Even the Transformers movie had the gratuitous use of the word “shit” about ten times.

So the good news is the tickets for the movie cost about twelve dollars for all four of us.  And the snacks of drinks, menthos, chips and cheezies were about four bucks.  Yes, amazingly cheap – sort of makes me thing we may be getting ripped off in Canada.  The bad news is that this was the worst movie I have ever seen in my life.  I hated it like I have never hated a movie.  I squirmed the whole way through, wishing it to be over.  It seemed like it was going to end about three separate times, then it would re-launch itself into another inexplicable, stupid sub-plot.  People in other countries who watch this movie must think that Americans (at least not the ones in the special effects industry) are completely brainless.  I felt like giving Optimus Prime a giant wedgie and slapping Marky-Mark Walberg in the face for taking on such an idiotic role.

My anger subsided about half an hour after the movie with the help of Ana talking me down from my agitated state.  We began walking back towards the hotel, again through the Jonker Walk and settled into the Geographer’s CafĂ© for lunch.  I ordered a beer (only the second of the trip so far….something about the extreme heat, high alcohol prices, and yearning for cold water), the kids and Ana got freshly squeezed juices, and we had a delicious lunch of curries, satay and Thai soup.  We are so proud of the kids on this trip so far, they haven’t complained about the heat once, are happy walking around all day, have been trying new foods, adjusted to the time difference with no problem (more that can be said for me, I’ve been doing the zombie walk between about 1 and 3 each morning) and have been curious, adventurous, little explorers.
We walked back to the hotel, went for a glorious swim, then returned to the hotel room.  I laid down on the bed at 6:30 and was zonked out shortly after that so am not sure exactly how the day ended for the rest of them!

Wednesday, June 25 – Exploring Malacca, Malaysia

After a glorious sleep in our luxury hotel room, we came down for our free breakfast and found the most amazing spread you could imagine.  They had the regular breakfast stuff such as eggs, beans, toast (actually they had bread that was coloured green, felt like I was in a Dr. Seuss story for a moment) and potatoes, but also some more interesting things like giant pots of rice, chicken curry, fish sauce, lobster balls, many types of noodles, soup, bread pudding and fresh mango and guava juice.

We set out on a similar route as yesterday, but instead of following the river veered right in search of one of the two Unesco World Heritage sights in Melacca.  It was still quite early so there wasn’t much activity, but it was a perfect time to explore the area, which was filled with architectural treasures.  One shop that was open was the Durian Puff Shop.  They sell these puff pastries which contain a deadly custard made from the durian fruit.  These are the fruits which are basically banned from all public places because they smell so bad.  I decided I had to try one and convinced Ana to experience it with me so we bought two of them, noticing the sign which said “One bite, All in, No chew”.  Thankfully Ana ignored the instructions and peeled off a small piece, dipped it in the custard and popped it in her mouth…then nearly hurled.  I decided to do a similar test and ate a small piece which tasted like pure ass.  Stella even dipped her finger in and tried a bit, but Magnus was already sprinting down the street after seeing our reaction to the pastry.  I disposed of the remains in the closest trash bin I could find and we agreed that this was one acquired taste we were not going to pursue.

As we were getting increasingly overheated we came across a free museum with air conditioning so immediately slipped in for a short reprieve from the blazing hot sun.  This particular museum was dedicated to the history of the Malaysian Customs and Immigration department and may well be one of the top ten most boring museums in the world.  One of the exhibits was the plain black desk and chair of the director who ran it from 1985 to 1990.  Another was a small knife and toy gun that was confiscated in 1974.  Another small case contained a cache of confiscated alcohol which included one Tiger beer, one Carlsburg, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bottle of wine – this would have made Al Capone’s bootleggers green with envy.  The most controversial one was a glass case which held three female mannequins (probably from Sears) that were sexually suggestive (they had tits) and were confiscated because they could lead to the corruption of society.  The exhibit concluded with portraits of all the directors of the department over the past hundred years, and by that time most of the sweat marks on my shirt had vanished so it was time to get back out in the exciting heat.

The geography of Melacca’s centre is confounding.  After wandering around for a while (we actually saw a huge monitor lizard in the river, then watched him crawl up on the bank – kids loved it!), we ended up on a giant street that was supposedly near the ocean, though we couldn’t see any water.  We walked down the street and soon encountered four gigantic, air conditioned malls.  Ana’s eyes lit up.  The malls were incredibly large, full of people and sold anything you could imagine.  We spent a couple hours browsing around, had some lunch, then headed back to the hotel and went for a glorious swim.  We met an American man and his son and the kids had a great time playing together in the pool while he gave us some great tips on places to see in Malaysia.
We gathered up the leftovers from lunch and some rice I had bought for the bus trip, and whipped up a backpacker dinner in our room then retired early after a very full day.

Tuesday, June 24 – Singapore to Malacca, Malaysia

We decided it was time to move on so after a hectic morning of packing up our stuff (which had literally exploded all over our small room), having breakfast, exchanging money, figuring out bus schedules and booking accommodation, we found ourselves on a VIP bus coach with massage chairs headed for Malacca, Malaysia.  We decided that Singapore was clean, fast, efficient, easy to navigate, but hard on the budget, and we were anxious to begin exploring Malaysia – especially the beaches.  As we drove north towards the border of Malaysia we realized how large Singapore is, but it didn’t seem unusually dense as there are still many parks and some open spaces around.

Once we arrived in Malaysia, the scenery changed dramatically and we were surrounded on both sides of the road by mainly palm plantations, but in some spots what looked like wild jungle.  The highway we traveled on was in excellent condition and all the exits and speed limits were well marked.  We were originally thinking our first destination in Malaysia would be Pulau Tioman, but we weren’t having much luck finding available accommodation so instead we chose Malacca, which is on the west coast.  We bought the Lonely Planet book “South East Asia on a Shoestring”, which covers all the countries we plan on visiting and has quite comprehensive information, though you have to keep in mind that such books are simply a guide and not a bible, and the information is not always completely up to date.  More often than not, you visit a place for yourself and leave with a completely different opinion than was presented in the book.  We find the guides are good for getting information on specific things to do in places and also the most commonly visited sites in a country.  So you never want to plan your trip completely “by the book”.

Malacca is a big, bustling city and the first thing we noticed was the majority of women wearing the head scarves.  The vast majority of citizens of Malaysia are Muslim, and it is a Muslim state, but it is known as a very tolerant country so the rules and customs don’t appear to be nearly as stringent as what you would find in Pakistan or any of the Arab countries..  We were dropped off at the central bus station and took a taxi to our hotel.  My amazing wife is the most luxurious backpacker you will ever encounter and she found us a four star, regal hotel just outside of the main city centre for fifty bucks a night, which included breakfast and access to the swimming pool and gym.  The price was only five or ten bucks more than we would have paid staying in a family room in a grimy hostel.

After getting settled in our room and doing a family happy dance we headed for a walk to the central downtown area.  It was probably the hottest time of the day and we soon began melting so after a few blocks we stopped at the first place we could find that had air conditioning – Pizza Hut.  After scanning the menu I realized two things:

  1. They don’t serve alcohol
  2. They don’t serve pork, and pork includes a lot of neat things like bacon, ham and sausages

Because of this second restriction, they seem to rely heavily on chicken ingredients.  In fact, every pizza had chicken.  We could choose from Chicken and Cheese, Triple Chicken Classic, Hawaiian Chicken Supreme, Chicken Pepperoni, or the Meat Lover (chicken loaf, chicken meat balls, chicken shreds).  Upon scanning the menu Magnus said, “That’s a whole lot of poultry.”

After lunch, we returned to the hotel where Ana and the kids went for a swim in the luxurious pool while I had a nice, long nap in the room.  Fully refreshed, we headed back outside and walked towards the centre and found a lovely, winding river, which we followed all the way into town, eventually winding up at a small park which was bounded by two spectacular buildings and three large bushy trees which must have held ten thousand birds, judging from the noise originating from the canopy.
We found a backpacker hotel which was showing a World Cup game so we settled in, ordered some drinks, and enjoyed some soccer.  Before long the kids had practically fallen asleep at the table so we decided to catch a taxi back to the hotel to finish off our first day in Malaysia.

Monday, June 23, 2014 – Singapore Zoo

I awoke after a rotten night’s sleep – turns out that three hour nap yesterday afternoon was not such a good idea.  The rest of the gang slept okay and by 8:30 we were out of the hotel and in an open air restaurant on the main street enjoying a breakfast of fresh watermelon, strong coffee, buttery toast and fried eggs.  We found a place that was showing the Portugal/US world cup match so pulled up a piece of sidewalk and watched it until the US pulled ahead by one goal then, fearing the worst, decided we just couldn’t watch any longer and head to the subway station to catch a train to the Singapore Zoo.  The Singapore public transport system (called the MRT) is fast, clean, cheap and easy to use.  As the zoo is on the north side of the island it took well over an hour to get there and by the time we arrived it was already blazing hot outside.

The zoo was pretty good, especially all the lush forest and open air animal enclosures, but after paying a hundred bucks for the four of us to get in we realized that we have already been to some pretty amazing zoos over the years, and seeing the animals driving themselves crazy pacing around a small enclosure is never that satisfying.  It was especially disappointing to see a polar bear collapsed on a concrete apron in the 35 degree heat.

After the zoo we took the MRT back to the city centre and met my friend Hassaan for coffee in the super modern mall beneath the Chevron Centre.  It was so great to see him again – he was looking fit, happy and was still the positive, funny, optimistic guy I remember from Pakistan.  He gave us the whole rundown on Singapore and suggested a few places for us to explore for the rest of the afternoon.  After coffee the girls browsed through some of the nearby shops while Magnus and I sat on the grass and watched all the busy work people bustling around, probably on their way to another boring meeting.  I can tell you, there is nothing better than sitting in your shorts and t-shirt in the middle of a busy work day in a financial district of a big city, watching all the work people scurrying around.  The reason this is so gratifying is because 98% of the time, you are that sad sack wearing the nice clothes, hurriedly doing your business things, with no time to appreciate the sights around you.  And one of the sights around me was the J. Lo World Cup video playing on a gigantic screen hanging off the side of one of the office towers.  The only thing missing from this scene was a cold beer in my hand, but besides that it was perfect.

We ended up passing on further sightseeing and instead returned to our hotel to have a shower and clean up in advance of our dinner date as were becoming just too sweaty and smelly and didn’t want to horrify our hosts.
The dinner with Hassaan, his wife Wajiha and their three boys and Hassaan’s parents was the highlight of my time in Singapore.  We had a wonderful meal and a great visit and did our best to catch up on the many years which had passed since our last meeting.  The kids disappeared as soon as we arrived and their young hosts kept them very entertained.  They served an outstanding meal which included Chicken Biryani, one of my favourite Pakistani dishes, and some amazing yoghurt.  In the book I wrote this year The Found Vagabond, this is one of the things I mention several times – being invited to a local’s house in a country you are traveling through is probably the most important experience you can while traveling.  You will learn more about the people in that country in one evening than by visiting a dozen museums.

Sunday, June 22, 2014 – Arrival in Singapore

After touching down and clearing immigration (first passport stamp of many!) we retrieved some clean, crisp Singapore dollars from the ATM in the airport and took a taxi to our hotel.  Ana had booked us two nights at the Fragrance Hotel in the area of Geylang, which we found out later was one of Singapore sleazier areas.  We loved it right away!  After getting settled in our room we went for a walk to explore the area and were hit face first with that unmistakable odour of a busy Asian street – an eye-watering mingling of diesel fumes, garbage, cigarette smoke, incense, frying food, spices and others you just couldn’t place, probably because you had never smelled them before.  We chose one of the many open air restaurants and sat down for our first meal, which was a plate of pad thai, chicken satays, and a pork and rice dish, which I lathered generously with this super spicy pepper sauce.  We shared a cold Carlsberg and the kids had fruit juice.  It felt good to be on the ground, enjoying some local food, in no rush to go anywhere and simply watching all the action unfold around us.  Magnus spotted a sign for “Frog Porridge” at a place across the street and I made a mental note to try that out the next day, subject to the appropriate level of culinary bravery being in place at the time.
After a lengthy afternoon family nap, I called my friend Hassaan who lives in Singapore and he invited us to dinner with him and his family the following night.  I last saw Hassaan 17 years ago when we worked together on a project in Karachi, Pakistan.  He taught me a lot about Pakistan and its culture, as well as so much about the religion of Islam.  We connected on the Facebook just a couple years ago and when I found out he was in Singapore I let him know we were coming so that we could arrange for a visit.
We were asleep by 10 pm after a very long journey.

Saturday, June 21, 2014 – The Adventure Begins

Friday – our last day in Canada for a while.  On the way home to pick up our bags I said to Ana, “So what do you think of having ten weeks of free time?”  Normally, finding ten minutes of free time during a typical day is a challenge.  And is it really “free time”?  That usually means you have nothing else to do, and with two kids, jobs and a house, there is always something to do.  This summer, the only items on our to-do list will be Food, Drinks and Shelter.  And we will be able to spend time on things we choose to, not things we have to.  This is a luxury that few people will ever get to experience, so we plan on relishing this time with our children, exploring the world, and appreciating every minute of it.

We left Toronto late Friday night and it is now early Sunday morning as we wait in the Hong Kong airport for our connecting flight to Singapore.  The flight took us over the North Pole then down through Russia and China, and the airplane had an amazing flight tracker system which included a camera on the bottom of the plane where you could watch the ground passing below – the kids loved it!  We all got some sleep on the plane and enjoyed the limitless selection of movies, televisions and music that was available.

We purposely did not plan much for our trip as we didn’t want to be tied into a schedule of places we had to be at particular dates and times.  We have our return flights booked from Bangkok at the end of August and our first two nights of accommodation in Singapore – besides that, anything goes.  We are hoping we can meet some fellow travelers along the way who can tell us of some nice places they have visited.

It is an exciting time for the Olson family!