|Singapore June 21 – 24
We arrived in Singapore at 23.30 hrs. We hadn’t been successful at booking a hotel through the Internet beforehand, but were confident we would be able to arrange something at the airport. How naïve!! Singapore is far more expensive than we could ever have imagined. Budget/mid-range rooms here start at 60-80 US $, unless you want to sleep in a dorm between bugs, cockroaches and whatever else … or in the red-light district. Finding something suitable for us 5 was even more complicated, as many budget hotels only have twin rooms, which means we would need two of them. On top of that, many of the hotels were fully booked as well. Aaarwhh….it was a bit of a nightmare! After 10 weeks in Asia, in 4 different countries we were quite disoriented, because until now we’d always managed to find good midrange quality for between 15-35 US$ a night (for the 5 of us). After almost a half day search (we stayed in a awful place that first night), the best price/quality we could find here was a 130 US$ room. Anyway, it’s all in the game, isn’t it? Apparently hotel prices have increased enormously the recent months, and bookings have been rocketing. The Switzerland of Asia??!! It is true. Everything is well organised, very clean, and it all has a bit of an American touch to it. And, very strange, almost silent traffic, no honking any more!!
We went shopping along Orchard Road, and found out that it truly is the national obsession. So many shopping malls, and all full of people. Although it is the Sales month, we however didn’t manage to find the bargains. It was all much more expensive than we thought.
We had an excellent night of sleep; even Michiel slept in until 09.45! This was definitely the most comfortable night in 10 weeks time. Good aircon, no mozzies, excellent beds and soft pillows. It was worth the money.
The next day we did some more exploring of the city, it is impressive and so different from the other major cities we have visited recently. This is where the money flows, that’s obvious. Being in a comfortable, almost western environment, made us realise we already miss the atmosphere of the “continental” part of SE Asia. We have grown into it without noticing. Saskia and Nadine immediately noticed the difference and wondered if there were any poor people around here, and if so, where they lived. And Saskia noticed, very sharply, that she saw a lot less children here. We had a nice dinner at Boat Qaui, a very touristy area, and we enjoyed the view over the River.
Tomorrow we are travelling up into Malaysia, on our way to some islands.
Pulau Tioman June 25 - 28
From Singapore we travelled up to Mersing by bus and taxi, where we stayed overnight. From there the next morning we took the speed ferry to Palau Tioman. Time Magazine rated Tioman amongst the 10 most beautiful islands in the world 30 years ago. To be honest, at first sight, we were a bit disappointed. We arrived while it was pouring down with rain, which didn’t make the island look very attractive. But also the place looked just a bit sprawling. Most of the development (it is all very low key, except for 1 large international resort) has been done nicely, but the litter around some of the places, laundry hanging everywhere, lots of old (plastic) furniture, ugly concrete buildings, it all somewhat distracts from the island's natural beauty.
The island has several beaches, which are (almost) not connected to each other overland (transportation between them is by boat), and they all have their little resorts built along the beach. We are staying at Saleng beach, the one most up North..
But, at the end of the day, the sun came out, and we settled in a little bungalow built right next to the jungle, just a short walk behind the beach area, and we already started to like it a lot better. The whole place has a very laid back atmosphere. Monkeys come out of the jungle to look for food (=garbage) and walk around our bungalow (the children are so used to seeing them now, they don’t even blink anymore by the sight of them), iguana ‘s (leguanen?) are crawling around all over the place and the island has serious cat overpopulation. The latter means, to the children’s great happiness by the way, a lot of kittens as well. Unfortunately, they are not all that healthy. Saskia is now determined to be a pet vet when she grows up, and then to come back here and save all the helpless kittens.
The beach has white sand, is fringed by huge palm trees and the water is as crystal clear as we have never seen it before. Snorkelling is amazing here! Just a few meters of the beach into the water, and there is already much aqua life to be seen. The children just love it! At first they were a bit frightened being surrounded by so many fish, but soon their fear was replaced by excitement and joy. So basically, all they do during the day is: run from the colourful fish in the sea to the kittens and back to the sea again.
We rented two kayaks and went boating around the nearby shores a bit. The sea was so calm; it was like a mirror. We snorkelled a little further out, which was an amazing experience: so many colourful fish and beautiful coral, it was like swimming in a aquarium. And we saw the biggest fish we had ever seen before: the Napoleon, about 1 meter big! Nadine thought it was scary, but Saskia was thrilled about it, Michiel wasn’t sure. Then Saskia received some bread from a nearby snorkelling couple, and she fed the fish under water. By dozens they came and ate out of her hand. It was wonderful!
Tomorrow we are moving up to the north of Malaysia, to our next tropical island destination, where it is said to be even more beautiful than here.
East coast/Cherating June 28-30
Travelling independently and not having planned anything in advance has its pro’s and its cons. You have a lot of flexibility in terms of staying longer or leaving sooner, but on the other hand sometimes you end up stuck somewhere where you didn’t want to be. Leaving Tioman turned out not to be so easy. That is to say, we had no problems catching the first ferry at 07.30, but when we arrived at Mersing and casually tried to buy bus tickets to go further up North, all the express busses turned out to be fully booked! Yes, of course, it was Friday, and all the locals travel around the Peninsula, we should have known. And I can tell you, Mersing is not THE place you would like to hang around for another day ….
So, after asking around and some improvisation, we headed to another bus station, got on a local bus to a town 1 hour further up North, where we would be able to catch another bus etc. The difference between a local bus and the express bus is, besides not having aircon, that it stops wherever you like. Great, isn’t it? When we on top of that found out we had to change 2 more times, and wait at each station for the next bus, we hopped into a taxi after the first bus part, and drove up only half way to Cherating instead. This place is supposed to be a nice travellers hangout, but we thought it was a bit ghostly; there was just no one there, and it all looked a bit run down. We checked in to some resort, where I was the only female guest without a headscarf (which has been the case in any town along the upper part of the east coast, by the way), and didn’t feel very comfortable.
The next morning Jan-Rene was told the bus station was just 20 min away by bike, after which he went of to check for the bus timetables and buy tickets. Poor him, it turned out to be more almost 1,5 hour (it was 20 min by car)! He came back after almost 3 hours, completely washed out by this unforeseen physical exercise at 30 degrees without having had breakfast. But the good news was: he had bus tickets. The rest of the day went very smooth though. The first 3 hrs in a comfortable express bus, we had a perfect connection with a local bus (which stopped about 100 times in 3 hrs), and we just made it in time to catch the speedboat (a thrilling ride, the kids just loved it!) to the island. The scenery along the east coast ride that we had was not very exciting, by the way.
So far we find travelling in Malaysia and the whole atmosphere quite different from the other countries we visited. The obvious difference is the strong presence of the Islam in the culture (especially on the east coastal area); we saw almost no women without the traditional headscarf and gowns on this side of the country and many mosques. The country has known economical prosperity for a longer time, which you notice best by the fact that there are much more overweight people (many children), but the litter problem has not been solved here either. We are not very impressed yet by the service mindedness of the people; the funny thing also is that no one is trying or even interested in selling you anything. Bargaining is apparently not a custom here; they are not really in for that game. And, the children finally have their peace back, because nobody seems to even notice them.
Pulau Perhentian (Besar) June 30 – July 6
Perhentian Besar is a textbook tropical paradise. Exactly what we were looking for! Resort development has been done much nicer than at Tioman, it is cleaner, and slightly more upmarket, without having lost its informal and laid-back atmosphere. Good food, nice people and (again) white sand beaches and crystal clear water (water temp near the shore 30 degrees, by the way) and many fish.
We have this sort of small cottage right on the beach, with two bedrooms and a nice veranda at Reef’s Place. And it is so quiet as well. So far we have been enjoying our stay here very much, and are really having a holiday within a holiday! We are not doing much, the kids love to climb over the rocks, we did some snorkelling (saw 2 big turtles of nearly 1m!), and are just relaxing. We are probably going to stay here for a week.
The way we spend our day on Perhentian on average is as follows: once the whole family has woken up (the usual order is: Michiel, then of course us, then Nadine and … finally Saskia), we stroll along the beach to our favourite restaurant at Watercolours for a good breakfast. Feast for the kids, because the pancakes with chocolate are excellent here, big bowls of musli with fruit for us, yoghurt and several plates of fresh fruit, and large fresh fruit juices. Then 1-2 hours work for the girls. The rest of the day we hang around on our beach in front of the chalet or take a short walk to the beach around the corner, where the kids enjoy themselves by jumping of the jetty and climbing over rocks. Some luch somewhere in between.We swim out in the sea for around 100 m to greet the giant turtle and watch him surface to breathe right next to us. Next we have a cool beer (which you can not get everywhere on the island, some places don’t serve any alcohol, some places only sell alcohol to foreigners) and have dinner at our favourite place again, while watching the sun go down. After the kids are in bed one of us goes to check the internet, we read a book on our veranda, and, while I stroll along the peaceful and quiet beach to pick up our fresh laundry, I realise that this whole trip is truly a dream and how lucky we are to have this experience. And then to think there is still a very exciting month in Indonesia ahead of us!
On the 5th of July we celebrated Nadine’s 7th birthday! We decorated the kids’ room (with toilet paper, it actually didn’t look that bad at all), and a banner, and we had some balloons. She didn’t expect much, and was very surprised to receive the few gifts we had bought in Singapore for her. In the afternoon she and Saskia had their hair braided, and after dinner a huge birthday cake (Watercolours restaurant had baked a very tasty chocolate cake) with candles and all was served by singing waiters. It was a lovely day.
On our last day we took a short boat ride to the north of the island to Turtle Beach, where the turtles lay their eggs at night. It is a kind of sanctuary, where a ranger watches over the eggs and the newly born turtles, which are released into the sea 3 days after they are born. There were 4 little turtles we could hold, still very small, they were very cute!
Tomorrow we are leaving this paradise, on our way to Kuala Lumpur. We will be taking the jungle line through the oldest jungle of the world!
Kota Bharu and Kuala Lumpur July 7 – 10
We left at 08.00 in the morning on the speedboat, a thrilling, bumpy ride. We headed up to Kota Bharu, a town at the very north-eastern corner of the Peninsula. During the last days of our stay on the island, Jan-Rene’s lower leg (still the Cambodia burn that kept dragging on …) had become quite infected, and it was necessary to see a doctor and get some treatment for it. Without much difficulty we found a private clinic, where his leg was examined, after which we left again in possession of some “horse power” antibiotics (which indeed did the job!). We walked around the town centre for the rest of the day, with absolutely no tourists in sight. This is the area where Islam is most strictly adhered to in all of Malaysia, and it was interesting to get a good flavour of the atmosphere this brings along.
The next morning we boarded the “Jungle Railway”, which winds through the valleys and sandstone hills, to get to Kuala Lumpur. Initially we wanted to squeeze in a one day visit to the Taman Negara National Park, but decided during the train trip that it would all become too much of a rush. Although we did get some views of the jungle, the journey was not as exciting as we had expected. Coming of the train we still had another 180 km to do by road to reach Kuala Lumpur. And of course, again we were stupid enough to travel on a Sunday, which meant all the express busses (and I can tell you, there are a lot of busses!) were fully booked for the day. We took a local bus, got sick and tired of it after 50 stops, and did the last part by taxi.
What an impressive city! I remembered a completely different setting from 20 years ago; modernisation has come fast here. It is a city with a serious skyline, a compact clean center, super duper shopping malls, modern high buildings combined with markets, temples and historic mosques, and lots of “green” area’s in between which make the whole combination of the city appealing. We had two great days, with lots of “fun stuff” for the kids. We stayed at the Swiss Inn, a hotel at the heart of Chinatown, right on Petaling Street with the night market. It was the smallest (and noisiest) room we have shared the 5 of us during our whole trip so far: 2 bunk beds and a mattress on the floor, all on 6m2 including bathroom. But it was clean, the beds were comfortable, and it was cosy.
We visited the KL Tower (483m high), and the Petronas (Twin) Towers, and had thrilling rides at Asia’s largest indoor amusement park in the Time Square building. It also has an IMAX theatre, where we watched a sea life 3D sea life movie. Michiel had a hair cut, and we got a flavour of another totally unexpected culture: during their 3 months holiday period large groups from Saudi Arabia come and spend quite some time and money in KL. The women are completely dressed in black gowns, including veils, the men of course are casually dressed in shorts, and we bumped into them just about everywhere we went. Under the black dresses they wear fashionable designer clothes (I think, by the fact of what we saw them buying) and shoes, and wear a lot of make up (on the eyes at least). It was funny to be amongst them (they were the majority of the visitors at the amusement park); it was something different again.