The 14-hour flight and the 7-hour time difference means we land late afternoon Malay time having had in-flight breakfast just a couple of hours earlier, and the sun is setting by the time we’ve cleared immigration and boarded the train into the city. From the swift train on to the LRT, the tube equivalent, it’s all very efficient and modern and as simple to navigate as any city transport system we’ve used before. Our home for the next few nights is on the eleventh of 34 floors and with a view that looks across the high level pool straight to the Petronas Towers – wow!
With limited time and more than a hint of travel weariness it’s a quick change and a brisk walk in the direction of Chow Kit, the nearest area with a reputation for the famous KL street food which we’ve so been looking forward to. After a quick reccy of the area around the street Jalan Putra, one place draws us in, there’s not a single Westerner inside the place, food smells tantalising and chatter and laughter amongst the customers sat on those ubiquitous garish coloured plastic chairs so adored in Asia. There’s beer too; we’re not sure if alcohol will be available everywhere on this trip, but there’s bottled Tiger here, which is welcome. The food drill is soon clear; you go up to the cooks, point at your choice of dish from the faded pictures on the wall, and they cook from fresh before your eyes, all under the attentive gaze of the little guy in charge.
It’s just a brilliant start to this trip and one we couldn’t have planned better. The noodle dishes are tasty, spicy – the chilli has a proper burn to it – all is cooked fresh and the atmosphere alive with unfamiliar chatter. Just a perfect start. A great way to fill just a brief couple of hours before we turn in.
Hey listen, we know we’re backpackers and all about rustic, but we can do upmarket too, because mixing it up is good, so before we hit the rural areas we’ve billeted ourselves in the Sunway Putra Hotel, all high rise 34 floors of it. We might not have admitted this if it wasn’t for the fabulous breakfast which just has to make the blog, with its great tasting Malay curries, pickled veg and, well, loads more.
We have just two days in KL to cram so much in so we plan our route and set off on the LRT to Merdeka Square and the colonial district and our first experience of the clash of old and new which is an unmissable characteristic of this city. We walk through the grubby streets of Little India to the rather sanitised Merdeka Square and the grand Sultan Abdul building built in a Moorish style with a back drop of the KL tower and overlooking the cricket green which is central to the square. Adjacent, The Masjid Jamek Mosque, an impressive white building with peaceful gardens, a tranquil spot in the midst of the city buzz and at the confluence of the City’s two rivers. We take in the chilled atmosphere, the locals reading the Koran in the prayer room, simply resting in the cool airy marble courtyards or enjoying the serenity of the manicured gardens. We move on from this relaxed haven and reach the bustling Central market selling everything from fish to handbags and pretty much everything in between. The market is, unusually for Asia, noticeably devoid of aggressive selling. The polite Malaysians simply wait to serve. On next to Chinatown with its busy market selling an array of counterfeit goods amongst a multitude of eateries.
Two more temples complete the morning, the first, Sri Maha Mariamman, is the complete opposite of the peaceful mosque with a cacophonous mix of drum, wind instruments and clanging bell as we witness the Hindus pay homage; the second, Guandi, a Chinese temple so filled with incense that our eyes water on entry.
After working up an appetite we set off in search of lunch. Madras Lane, we are told, is the best place in Chinatown to sample some of the local fayre, it’s a scrubby area of street hawkers, with plastic tables and chairs strewn about. Some of the aromas from the huge vats are mouthwatering, others, well, alien to us and actually not enticing; we join one of the longer queues waiting our turn to point out our choices. We choose Laksa, a soup with noodles and just about everything in it from chicken to cockles and some unrecognisable stuff. Was delicious, apart from the lumps of soggy chicken fat! Chopsticks again, like last night.
The LRT system here, a combination of light railway and monorail, is everything public transport should be, easy, efficient, reliable and cheap. And it’s driverless. We use it again to head to Kampung Baru, described in Lonely Planet as a Malay village within the city. Nowhere is the clash of old and new culture more evident, the old Malay timber houses nestled in the shadow of the gleaming steel clad towers, corrugated roofed cafes with the Petronas Towers as their backdrop. It is as charming as it is unique; both quaint and incongruous at the same time. Its lanes though are lined with quiet Malay eateries waiting for evening to bring customers. We resolve to be amongst them.
So after a scruffy beer at yesterday’s bar – we are welcomed back like old friends – we gravitate back to the lanes of Kampung Baru and its irresistibly characterful cafes, where we opt for a grilled river fish, tilapia, and grilled stingray, both served in a banana leaf with a wonderfully hot chilli sauce and soft fluffy rice. In this quaint and atmospheric backwater, dusty and noisy, eating rustic food in a traditional Malay village, yet all the time dwarfed by the iconic high rises of this remarkable city, it is impossible to ignore the combination of tradition and new money, the clash of wealth and poverty, which define KL. The clashes of culture, origin and religion play their part too in a city which we feel we have already started to unravel and understand.
We may still be in the city but the wildlife spotting seems to have begun already. As we wended our way round the dark lanes of Kampung Baru back to the LRT station last night, giant bats flitted above our heads, then a mongoose dragged its long tail across the road in front of us.
There’s no sign of KL’s famous thunder storms yet; it’s hot and sultry but no hint of a storm. No hint of a beer last night either; the Malay village is of course Muslim so no alcohol; in fact our scruffy bar near Chow Kit is the only place we’ve had any so far.
So today is tourist day; no matter what type of traveller you are, you have to do the big sights, especially in a city, and today we do KL’s biggest two, the Petronas Towers and the Batu caves. The iconic bridge between the two towers is one thing, looking out from the 86th floor windows is another experience altogether. Even for confident people like us with no fear of heights, you cannot help going just a bit wobbly, it’s so incredibly high, nearly 400 metres above the streets below and with views right across the sprawling city. The view looking up from the extensive Titiwangsa Gardens below is almost as awesome, standing ant like beneath the forest of colossal steel towers circling around you and reaching for the sky. It’s still amazing to think this is all just a stone’s throw from the humble abodes of Kampung Baru.
The cloud and haze has blocked out the sun today, so the humidity is ramped up to new levels as we walk back to the LRT and head out to the caves. We hear that Batu caves are colossal, once inhabited by the Orang Asli (aboriginal) people of Malaysia but now the site of an array of brightly coloured shrines, only when we arrive do we realise what a major tourist trap the place has become. A giant gold painted statue stands on guard at the seemingly never ending steep staircase leading to the cave high above in the side of the rising cliff.
The climb is tiring in the heat but on reaching the top we are rewarded with the view of the cavernous interior, its size and rock formations stunning albeit rather spoilt by the renovation works everywhere with much of the icons and statues being repainted. However, despite this interference, this is the most important pilgrimage site for all Malaysian Hindus and there is a feel of preparations for a festival. It’s also a huge tourist attraction though and is nowadays more fascinating for the wonder of its history and natural creation and for its monkey colonies than as any kind of temple, though once inside it’s very easy to see how its cathedral like interior became a place of worship. The monkeys are so used to the huge numbers of visitors that they are truly adept pickpockets, nicking food and drink from under the noses of any inattentive individual.
Altogether different is the Dark Cave, a short distance down the limestone cliff from the Temple Cave. Equipped with hard hats and torches we follow our guide on a discovery of the ecosystem deep within the mountain, this time the tour is all about mammal and insect life inside the deep cave. As we first hit the twilight zone we are greeted by the constant loud call of the bats, 200,000 of them live in this cave, it sounded like they were all calling at once, incessantly! As our eyes adjust we see them high up in the roof flying in what appears to us in a reckless haphazard way in danger of collision but of course they know exactly where they are aiming and it is more like a well rehearsed dance. Life in the cave wouldn’t exist without the bats (and their droppings) we see a number of the dependants, spiders, cockroaches etc but unfortunately not the snakes. In the depth of the caves we are plunged into darkness, no torches, no light at all, the blackest black you could imagine, eyes incapable of adjusting. If you were left too long in such intense darkness the sounds of the bats would really freak you out. It’s an informative and well constructed tour and kind of makes the whole Batu Caves trip complete.
The terrific foodie experience of this trip continued in style today. It’s about 3pm by the time we reach the caves so lunch is late; we decide to catch up at one of the eateries around the entrance to the Temple, even though all our experience tells us it’ll most likely be bland rubbish given the touristic location. We couldn’t be more wrong; the traditional vegetable thali is a wonderful mix of exciting flavours and textures and is a terrific surprise. Later in the day, by the time the train returns us from Batu, it’s already sundown so rather than head to the hotel it’s straight back to Kampung Baru. No matter what the guidebooks say about KL’s famous street food in other districts, for us this is the place to be, so many great choices strung along its scruffy lanes. The well known Malaysian speciality of chicken satay with peanut sauce is delicious – and absolutely nothing like the English attempt at a copy- and the curries we choose from the vats beneath a makeshift corrugated roof are sweet, spicy and completely tantalising. Sat here, under the watchful eye of the skyscrapers yet in a Malay village, in this sultry darkness, the call to prayer a haunting backdrop to the sound of chatter and the scents of curry and charcoal, a banana leaf in place of a plate, we are lost in the moment and utterly in our element.
Kuala Lumpur is a city of intense diversity and radical contradictions; a city where Muslim meets Hindu, where China meets both India and British colonial, where poverty meets riches, even to a degree where Asia meets the West, but most of all where traditional meets intensely modern.
And today’s long and tiring day brings our time here to a close, as we move on tomorrow to the very different surroundings of Taman Negara and the tropical rain forest.
After a bit of confusion over delivery of our hire car, we end up hitting the road at 12.30 instead of the desired 10am. Mind you, we’d then allowed at least an hour for the inevitable trouble we would have finding the right road out of the city, but this turns out to be uncomplicated and we more or less reclaim that lost time.
And so we are away and on to an unusual motorway which is soon crossing the mountains, but follows the contours of the land rather than passing through cuttings, the result being a fast 3-lane road with steep inclines, fast descents and sharp bends. A kind of motorway roller coaster. The toll booths are our only obstacle, with all lanes marked either “Touch & Go” or “Smart Tag”, and not always with a manned booth. We pay cash at two before the third one tells us you are supposed to purchase a pre-paid “Touch & Go” card when you join the motorway, so presumably the first two trousered the cash and raised the barrier!!
Once off the motorway and on to the country roads, we make the kind of lunch stop we love, a roadside cafe in a busy village, choosing our food from the trays of curries and laksas. Like in Kampung Baru, the ladies here have little English, and simply invite us to choose “spicy” or “not spicy”. All you need to know is that “not spicy” will blow your head off, whereas “spicy” rips your throat out. And then blows your head off. No it’s not really that bad, but you do need to like chilli and spice to enjoy the food here. The ladies are, by the way, not the first to laugh when we choose “spicy”. Well, you have to, don’t you.
And so we reach our next destination, Kuala Tahan, around 4.30 and we instantly love it! A tiny steep village at the edge of the Tembeling River, very rustic, rickety dwellings turned into hostels, and rooms, some garishly painted as with many things in Malaysia. We check into our bright purple lodge, our room painted red and pink is very basic but clean, a resident lizard on the ceiling, we wonder what other bugs might join us during the night under the large gap under our door. We head down to the waterfront, it’s fabulous, the muddy river in front of us and nothing but forest beyond that. Long narrow boats buzzing around, a handful of floating restaurants with just giant plastic barrels for buoyancy, we will eat here later. But first we take a short boat ride, which just whets our appetite for the days and activities ahead.
We end our day on the balcony of our lodge, looking out into the darkness over the river we can no longer see, the noise of the forest deafening, a crescendo of cicadas, various unknown calls, this is a perfect place for chilling out amongst nature. This sleepy village is a travellers destination with activities in mind, we are ready to find new adventures tomorrow. It puts us in mind of a previous favourite place, Zabljak in northern Montenegro, which like here is a formerly remote village growing into a new role as a destination for experience-seeking travellers, its villagers just learning how to exploit this unexpected opportunity.
And there are certainly plenty of adventures to get involved with, and after our first supper on one of those floating restaurants, we put together our plan.
We rise early to the mysterious calls and songs of jungle bird life and head down to the village for breakfast after the pleasant surprise of a hot water shower, eager to set off to explore this intriguing place. First up today is a jungle trail trek, so after hailing one of the many shuttle boats to cross the river, and buying our licence to enter Taman Negara, we are soon into the dense and humid jungle, which looks, sounds and smells just as you would imagine from all those childhood impressions.
Everything is so intense, from the incessant bird noise to the occasional booming monkey call, to the colossal and ancient trees, the sheer size and density of the plant growth and, most intense of all, the unbelievably cloying humidity which saps strength and has you reaching for water within minutes. One bird call is genuinely incessant; in truth it must be dozens of birds of one species, hitting a long note on a monotone high pitch, but all the human ear picks up is one unbroken sound, like an elevated version of the hum of electricity. We climb, trudge and sweat up along the trail until we come to the start of our next adventure, the canopy walk – a lengthy series of rope bridges stretching along through the top of the jungle canopy – which is according to its claims the longest canopy walk in the world. We set off on the walk, narrow planks for footings, ropes to hold on to, the dense jungle below and as we near the middle of each section it starts to swing, just a little bit. We must now be over a deepening valley as the ground dips further away beneath us and the trees are getting taller and thinner in their bid to fight for more light. We enjoy this immensely, so much fun.
We resume our trek, we hear a commotion high in the trees, fruit starts falling around us, and then we see them, the monkeys jumping from tree to tree, they are so fast but we keep catching glimpses of them, they appear to be toying with us, throwing things down barely missing us. We move on and a huge lizard scurries in front of us, he is at least 2ft long, so prehistoric looking, we watch him silently slope off into the undergrowth. We reach part of the river which is safe to swim in, the water deep red in colour and the shore is soft white sand intermingled with boulders, we don’t have our swimwear with us so we just paddle,the water is so warm,we vow to come back tomorrow better prepared. We stay a while in this beautiful place and watch the wildlife, the water teeming with fish, butterflies as big as small birds all around us, their colours and their movement mesmerising. On the opposite shore a tribe of monkeys edge down to the river to drink, the youngsters cavorting under the watchful eyes of their parents. The trek back to the tiny ferry, they are rather like coracles, presents glimpses of more exotic birds and butterflies, and crazily huge fungi, the jungle alive with sound all around us.
Our post lunch adventure is a boat trip, this time something akin to a dugout canoe with an outboard motor, taking us to a jungle village occupied by one of the aboriginal tribes of Malaysia, the Orang Asli. Our very informative guide imparts a wealth of knowledge of their origins, beliefs and lifestyles, and it’s all fascinating. The two original tribes have lived here for centuries, ruled throughout by a spiritual leader steeped in knowledge, made to sound by the guide like a kind of witch doctor who holds ultimate power over the tribesfolk. We are shown how they utilise bamboo to make fire, to communicate across the jungle, and of course to kill, with a bamboo blowpipe; in fact we each have a go at the latter, and Phil, improbably, wins the day with a shot which spears the teddy bear target between the eyes from 40 paces! It’s an informative excursion, but we are left just a little uneasy by the whole concept of commercial holiday trips to a “genuine” tribal village, and just what the implications are of money and exploitation reaching their humble lives. Best not dwell too much on that one.
This time the Tembeling River is too tempting in the heat and we take a semi clothed dip in its warm waters. And finally for today, after another visit to the floating restaurants, we take a night boat safari, torch lights searching for life at the water’s edge as the dugout swishes gently upstream. As far as spotting goes it’s not a great success, though a flying fox gliding through the night sky is exciting, but the eerie mist gathering above the surface as the air cools, the almost full moon illuminating menacing clouds, and the distant flickering lightning, add to the experience.
Now, sat on our lodge balcony as midnight approaches, the jungle air is alive in the darkness with croaking bullfrogs, calling birds and screeching cicadas. But suddenly the mood is changing, a fresher wind blows through the darkness to dispel the humidity, deep thunder rumbles around the mountains, and brilliant white lightning flashes images of the treetops before our eyes. Heavy rain starts to hit the trees, the birds and animals all but silent for the first time. Our desired jungle storm is approaching.
And we wonder fleetingly whether, a few miles upstream, a witch doctor is saying his warnings of selling the soul are coming true.
The thunder rumbled on and the overnight rains came, but the storm was never overhead and so Himare in Albania remains top of our best ever thunder storm league table.
So with today being our major jungle trek day, we take breakfast at the cafe where, we’ve noticed, the boat drivers and tour guides eat, which for us means it’s probably authentic. We’re right, and so breakfast today is nasi lemak, which is rice cooked in coconut milk served with fried egg, peanuts, cucumber and sambal, washed down with a sweet milky tea rather like chai. This cafe also has an assortment of pre-cooked foods for trekkers’ packed lunches, so we choose a few unidentifiable items and head off to catch another little ferry across the river.
As the incredible bird sounds of the jungle surround you, you can’t help but compare them with more familiar sounds back home. So amongst today’s birds we’ve heard electricity, a distant vacuum cleaner, a car alarm, a chainsaw, a hacksaw, the BBC radio one o’clock pips, and, best of all, the intro to “Silver Machine” by Hawkwind. They’re brilliant, these jungle birds. Our aim today is to climb Bukit Teresek, the nearby mountain with a view over the forest canopy. We follow the long and steep trail, wending our way amongst the trees, the sights and sounds are fantastic. The humidity makes the climb difficult, perhaps that’s why we don’t see many people on this trek, we reach a clearing and see how high we have climbed and catch a glimpse of the muddy waters far below. One last push and we are at the top looking across the tree tops and only then can you see the extent of the forest, nothing but trees and mountains ahead of us.
Most people would descend the same way, but not us, Phil spots an alternative trail so off we go deep into the jungle the path is narrow and so steep. Giant tree roots provide natural steps and strategically placed ropes help us to climb down the steeper parts, almost like abseiling. The trees are enormous, the “Tarzan ropes” thick and heavy twisting round the trunks, this is fun and strenuous but we feel a great sense of achievement when we reach the bottom although we feel totally sapped of energy. All along we are still spellbound by our surroundings, so many fabulous plants, so many amazing sounds, glimpses of vivid butterflies, soldier ants of ridiculous size, it’s all so interesting. The inside of trunks of fallen trees have been eaten away by termites, who have then filled the entire trunk with earth to form a home for their colony; incredible. We don’t see a snake though, that remains on our list here.
We take a well earned swim in the Tahan River – we’ve swum in both rivers now – before tonight’s “rice or noodles” decision.
Tonight we take a guided tour back into the jungle, in darkness, for a nighttime walking safari. The guide’s local knowledge is enormous and we are able to spy much that we would otherwise miss, such as the giant leafhoppers, the luminous aggressive scorpions, a huge centipede with enough venom to harm a human, the poisonous huntsman spider, and, probably the biggest wow of all, a tarantula big enough to prey on birds. We don’t see a snake though, that still remains on our list here!!
Last night’s rain has brought such a change to the rivers; they are now much wider, the current stronger, the water higher, the colour changed to light brown. We talk to the guide about how the rivers must change in the monsoon season, and he shows us the level the waters reached in the disastrous floods of 2014. It’s breathtaking. This truly is a different world.
We’re done now. We’re just about walked out. Michaela’s app tells us we’ve walked 45 miles since arriving in Malaysia on Friday night, and we can tell. It’s our last day here tomorrow, we move on, on Friday.
Ah well, it happens now and again, especially travelling like this, rustic style, you can cop a dose of “Delhi belly” or whatever else you might call it, and Michaela loses half her night’s sleep and probably all of the contents of her stomach in an uncomfortable night. It’s fortunate that today was a planned chill day after all the exertions and excursions of the last few days, as we can just take it easy.
So it’s an uncharacteristic lay in to give her a chance to catch up on sleep, a late and light breakfast, from which point the day only consists of a wander back to Lubok Simpon and some more swims in the Tahan River. While Michaela snoozes in the shade, I take time out to simply enjoy this place, and think about life, the universe, and everything, sitting astride a fallen tree in the brown jungle waters, fish around my feet, insects buzzing and pied kingfishers diving into the water to catch lunch, comparing our materialistic lives back home with the lives of so many others in the world, I find myself pitching Western values against ecology and the need to stop raping our planet. I don’t want to get too philosophical, but each time you travel, you learn, and each time you learn, you reassess values. Maybe it’s time to get out the rat race and do something meaningful. Maybe it is time.
After a third swim, Michaela wilts visibly, and it’s clearly time to get her back to the lodge to sleep it off. Never mind saving the planet, I’ve got some short term nursing to do….
…..She’s out for the count for about three hours, but it hasn’t done the trick and she’s still wafty and a bit weak. We have to hope she’s better by morning as we have a long and fairly complicated journey tomorrow as we head to the next phase of the trip. So in the circumstances we call it a day, take one last stroll through the village down to the waterfront, stock up with water, collect our washing from the rather odd laundry (£1.40 per kg, rude not to), and turn in.
The fact we’re ending our time in Kuala Tahan on something of a low note won’t detract from the great few days we’ve had here, it’s been a wonderful experience and we have loved the place. With tomorrow being a day of travel, we’ll probably take time to reflect more on this great little village in our Day 8 blog.
And so Michaela drops into a deep sleep, so deep that she isn’t disturbed when the storm commences, the thunder rumbles and then booms, the rain becomes heavier and heavier. I’m torn between waking her – we love a good storm- and letting her have much needed sleep. She sleeps on, even as the rain becomes so heavy that it’s a thunderous noise in its own right, and the thunder starts to crash. She stays asleep until….
The electrical lightning flash is INSIDE our room, followed by a massive bang like the sound of a fuse blowing multiplied by a million, then an ear shattering thunder clap. We’ve been struck by lightning!! We didn’t feel the tingle, probably because of our metal roof, but there’s no doubt we’ve been hit. The lights have blown, but the rest of the power has stayed on. Er, wow!
So today we have a drive to Kuantan where we meet our pre-booked driver to take us to Mersing, only because we couldn’t find a one way hire with a Mersing drop off. We take our time to get to Kuantan, on the old roads rather than motorway, stopping at several places of interest along the way, though not breakfast; Michaela is better but not yet ready for anything more challenging than Jackers, the Malay equivalent of Pringles.
As we leave Taman Negara heavy mist shrouds the forested hills and an eerie silence hangs over the village following the drama of the storm. One of our stops en route is a Hindu temple, in the middle of nowhere, an unlikely place to find such a huge temple, it appears that we have turned up at a special celebration although what it is we don’t know. An array of stalls are selling food and the usual offerings of flowers and fruit and the Indian style music is loud. Car loads of people are arriving dressed in their sequined finery, excited faces in anticipation of the day ahead, it’s a real family outing. As we leave, the first of the ceremonies begin.
Even away from Kuala Lumpur, the three temples of Hindu, Islam and Chinese seem to be in equal measure across the country, each instantly identifiable through their distinctive appearance. This really is a nation of mixed influences.
We make Mersing around 3pm, and by the time we’ve checked in (£16 for the night!), the heavens have opened again and Mersing’s streets are awash. When it rains here, it really does mean serious business. The rain clears to make way for a lovely evening and we explore this busy little port town with its seemingly oversized fishing fleet, the boats, many of which are looking long overdue renovation stranded on the sand at low tide. We stroll along the seafront, and look out across the huge expanse of muddy sand to a number of islands and wonder if one of these is our paradise island, we shall find out tomorrow.
Mersing at first impression appears to be more Chinese influenced than previous places visited, though a rather grand mosque sits high on a hill above the port. And so tomorrow we sail to the next phase of the trip, though some of our thoughts are still with that lightning strike last night – we will probably never forget it!
After yesterday’s long drive across Malaysia, this morning’s near 2-hour hydrofoil crossing, then the ride in the 4-wheel drive up and over the top of the island on a ridiculously steep narrow concrete road, we now feel a long way from Kuala Lumpur, let alone England.
We approach Tioman Island, its imposing twin peaks towering above the emerald jungle which tumbles down to meet the soft white sands, the clear blue waters swishing gently onto the shore. We arrive in Juara our home for the next 6 days, just 7 rustic beach shacks, the Driftwood restaurant and juice bar, the beach in front of us and the jungle behind, this is a beautiful setting. We spend an hour or two on the beach and as we swim in the warm waters of the South China Sea, we watch the sun set behind our shack and the silhouette of the mountain against the darkening sky.
We take an evening stroll to the village, jungle noises surround us, huge bats fly overhead, a beachfront restaurant draws us in, we see fresh grilled fish, exactly what we pictured eating here. The mackerel is good but the Travally mouthwateringly delicious, a welcome change to the staple diet of noodles and rice.
We spend the rest of the evening chilling on our deck, taking turns in our hammock, the sounds of the sea below us, the night sky so dark that the stars are incredible and the milky way visible. This place truly has a chilled vibe. In fact we’ve stepped into a little piece of paradise, this is going to be very special.
Juara, where we are now based, is a small coastal village on the east coast of the island, strung along a narrow concrete jungle road lined with single storey wooden Malay houses. The beach is split in half by a cluster of rocks, so it’s necessary to walk the 100 yards off the beach on to the road to get between the two.
We are at the southern beach, away from the village centre and the quieter of the two, with just our handful of beach shacks, the juice bar, some Malay houses dotted around behind, and a single building at the far southern end. The whole cove, including both beaches, is probably about 2 kilometres long, boundered at each end by forested hills dropping into the ocean. Behind us the jungle rises steeply up to the peak of the island, giving Juara a beautifully remote feel. An island within an island.
A modest jetty juts out from the main beach, which has a couple of inviting beach restaurants featuring barbecues for freshly caught fish. There’s no alcohol at our beach but there’s three or so with some beer elsewhere in the village. Our beach, the Southern beach, is a site at which rare turtles breed, protected by a conservation project housed in the building at the southern end.
Our beach shack faces due east, to the ocean and the sunrise. The ocean laps gently but not too gently to miss the wonderful wave sound which drifts into our hut; our hammock is slung across the veranda above the beach. The soft sand is white gold.
Our juice bar is the peaceful and chilled hub; all visitors are backpackers; guys strum guitars, sit in groups to talk, watch the waves. Everyone is calm, peaceful; all have settled into a small piece of paradise at least for a while. We guess the rest of the World will go on, but it doesn’t call in to Juara too often.
This is one beautiful place.
So we spend today settling into our surroundings, wandering around the village and both ways along the beach, noting places to eat and things to do this week. But our idea of taking up this first full day by soaking up the sun is scuppered by an afternoon of tropical storms, wave after wave of cloudbursts sweep over the mountains and drench the village. We can do nothing other than wait it out, watching from our hammock under the deafening rain battering our metal roof. It sure as hell rains properly round here.
Today is the chill day we envisaged; apart from a handful of wanders a few hundred yards up jungle tracks and around the bay and the village, it’s a recharge day soaking up sun and wallowing in the warm sea.
Amongst the eating options in Juara is something rather appealing; some of the wooden village homes now have a small awning and a few plastic chairs and the owners have opened up their home kitchen to cater for around ten customers at a time. We chose one last night, and the food, ordered through and delivered by a guy who looked about 90, was absolutely delicious and you would guess traditional and authentic. The sambal chicken in particular was utterly fabulous. We have an evolving food story as we move through different parts of this country which we’ll try and detail later in the blog.
A theme which is so far constant on the trip though is the character of the Malay people; they are to a person polite, friendly, calm and always ready with a smile. They have impeccable manners and are so eager to please that they are always willing to go out of their way to help, with a politeness that they exude at every level and even in the capital city. You get the impression that they would never lose their temper.
One piece of advice for travellers to Juara which is a bit of a mystery. Both of our guide books, and several websites we researched before we came, describe the wonderful jungle trek across the top of island, from Juara back to Tekek, and it was something we intended doing whilst here. Well, it simply doesn’t exist! There is no such trail and none of the villagers have ever heard of it. Even the local trek guides look at you nonplussed if you ask any questions about it. Lonely Planet and DK, amongst others, please note!
A rarity last night, we actually found, and enjoyed, a quick beer before dinner, not something that’s happened much on this trip. Generally the substitutes have been the amazing range of fresh juices (we’ve done coconut, guava, lychee, water melon and orange) and ice cold lemon tea (not a bottled version, but genuinely cold tea with lemon juice), all so refreshing.
Today, breakfast included porridge with banana, apple, coconut and peanuts; lunch was peanut chicken (Phil) and giant garlic prawns (Michaela), as the food story evolves further. Tonight is looking like grilled fish again, whatever the guys have caught today.
That breakfast was taken with thunder rattling around; now, as we sit on the balcony early evening, the incredible rain sweeps in again, ridiculously heavy and another, well, tropical storm. As we said earlier, when it rains round here, it really means business!! The heavy cloud rolls in, the rain heaves down, lightning flashes and the thunder cracks loudly, yet with the sun still up behind the mountains, we are treated to a mini miracle as a perfect rainbow forms before our eyes, arching at the water’s edge with both ends visible on the beach.
This is some place.
There’s two things which are odd about the bats here. One, not all of them are truly nocturnal and some are out before the sun goes down; two, they fly lower to feed than any bat we’ve ever seen, swooping just above ground level like swallows. There’s rather a lot of them, too.
Last night we fancied fish, we followed the plume of jungle smoke which lead us to a wooden shack with a handwritten sign “BBQ fresh fish at 7pm” We settle at the one spare table and place our order of grilled fish. He beckons us to the grill and opens a box for us to choose our fish. Only big fish are left and we choose a whole tuna, big enough for a family of 10! It’s so meaty and delicious, so fresh.
After lazing on the beach yesterday it is now time to explore the island jungle. We start the ascent from the beach, and are soon in the thick of the jungle and face to face with the bats. They are flying straight at our faces, dodging us at the last moment, they then swoop around our knees, they must be eating the insects that surround us. Bats flying around and right next to us, in the middle of the day! This place gets more insane by the minute!!
And at last we see, amongst other things, a snake. It’s not huge, but we get a close up photo. Mission accomplished. Mission unaccomplished though was finding the big waterfall which is somewhere on this mountain. It’s here somewhere, but it’s Jungle 1 P&M 0 and we’re beaten by nature.
Here’s something backpackers will recognise. Neither the lodge at Kuala Tahan nor the beach shack here had any clothes storage, so it’s now 8 days since we last unpacked the backpacks, and that unmistakable odour has started to creep in. So our clothes got treated to a day laying on the bed, inside the mosquito net, today, to air a bit. We’ve all been there.
No extremes in the weather today; hot and sultry but no massive sun and, for the first time, no storms and no rain. Just another day in paradise, we suppose.
I awake to a beautiful clear morning but unfortunately for Phil Delhi belly finally caught up with him in the night. I leave him sleeping and take a solitary walk on the shore, it feels as if the whole village is still sleeping. The sun rays dance on the impossibly clear water and distant cockerels crow. This is the start of what becomes the hottest day here by far. Phil makes a brief appearance but then returns to the shade of our shack while I take an early morning swim.
We’re up and about before long and take the chance to look at another part of the island today; we hitch a ride in the back of a pick up truck up over the crazy mountain road to the island’s hub, Tekek. We take a walk round the compact port village, not really much here, the sun is intense so after a lunch of spicy squid (Michaela only) we head off back to our own village for chill time on the beach.
Tomorrow is our last day on Tioman; Friday is the long trek to Singapore, starting with a 5.15am rendezvous with our lift to the port. This is an amazing island full of surprises but we’re looking forward to the final stage of this adventure.
Our ever reliable mosquito spray has met its match in Juara and has no effect on the tiny sand flies here who are having a field day on our bodies as a result.
So last night for our penultimate evening here we go again for the grilled fish, again straight from sea to grill to plate, and again enormous. Sitting together feeding from one huge fish is a bit like being guests at a medieval banquet, and this time so big that even with two of us, we can’t finish it. A short stroll home and we reach shelter just in time. The the wind whips up from nowhere, clothes blow away, we have to batten down the hatches, shut windows and take refuge, and this time the rain breaks records, deafening on the shack roof and heavier even than all the torrential stuff we’ve already seen. God knows what it’s like in monsoon season!
Today is Thursday and there is more activity on the Island. As we walk to breakfast we notice crowds of people on the end of the jetty. As we get closer we realise that a small cargo boat has moored and an army of villagers are collecting their weekly supplies in the now familiar moped and “sidecar” contraption they all seem to own, goods of all descriptions precariously balanced, enough to keep this side of the island ticking for the next week.
And so our last day on the island is done, we say goodbye to probably the warmest sea we’ve ever been in, take one last long stroll along the paradise beach, and head for satay and samosas. Juara has been everything we wanted it to be, with the unfortunate exception of the weather; we anticipated a tropical storm perhaps once a day but the cloud and the incredible storms have probably matched direct sunshine in terms of hours. With that one exception this really has been a paradise location.
Early start then tomorrow, car across the island, ferry to Mersing, then a long bus ride down to Singapore, and a farewell to Malaysia.
We’re beginning to run out of words to describe torrential rain, so if we now refer to heavy rain, you have to imagine thrashing, soaking rainfall in incredible quantity, visibility down to yards, water flowing down the streets, surface water ankle deep on main roads, thunder, lightning. Got it? OK…
As planned we leave early, over the island, on to the ferry at first light, on the sea just as daylight dawns. A couple of hours to kill in Mersing filled with breakfast and a Phil haircut, and on to the 4-hour bus trip. The 4-hour journey starts at 12.30, finishes in Singapore just after 6.30pm. You don’t have to be a mathematician to see the flaw in that equation. Basically, it was:-
Mersing to Johor Bahru (Singapore border) 2 hours 30 mins
Stop at Johor Bahru for driver’s break 30 mins
Getting through Singapore border control 2 hours
Getting through Singapore rush hour 1 hour.
En route, we pass through some heavy rain (see above – got it?), and pass about 4 billion palm trees. Passport control, then luggage control, is confusing and time consuming, and when we emerge to reclaim our seat on the bus, it’s raining really heavily (are you still with us?), and darkness is falling. Traffic is ridiculous, and by the time we reach our disembarkation point, it’s really raining very heavily (no, we mean unbelievable, picture it just once more), so we abandon all our travellers’ principles and hail the first cab we see. And rejoin the silly traffic.
In the very heavy rain (no further comment).
We’re anticipating culture shock now. Having just spent the best part of two weeks in rustic and rural, unable to unpack, unable to spend our money, we are about to enter one of the World’s most technologically advanced cities, described in our guide books as where sci fi meets reality. We’ve just done jungle trekking, Muslim culture, an isolated village on a remote island, and now we’re about to step into the space age city state which is Singapore. Our culture shock alarm is ready to sound…
Day 15 Part 2: Evening
Unpacking, hanging clothes up, a decent shower, a big comfy bed, all feel like huge treats after our fortnight of backpacking, but with time marching on it’s a fairly quick turnaround and we head down to the quays as this renowned nightlife area is only walking distance from our hotel.
Oh my God where are we? Culture shock? This is more like a different planet. Our first hour out on the town blows away everything we thought we knew about Asia. Everything we’ve ever learned, and said, about piety, lack of alcohol, restraint, is consigned to history as we sup beer and observe the consumption of cocktails and shots, in this bar laden, booze- and food-soaked neighbourhood of hedonism and indulgence. We’re surrounded by bright lights, live rock, bars which are open till 6am, massive skyscrapers, space age architecture, and we’re paying £22 for two beers when we’ve been spending £6 for a whole night out for two weeks. Culture shock is massive but is matched by the level of feelgood. It’s great fun to be here tonight.
Take a wander along the quays and you uncover a Disneyland of world food; we can’t think of anything that’s not here. Tapas bars, curry houses, Persian, Turkish, Indian, Italian, Mexican, Korean… even a “Victorian London pub” and a fish and chip shop for God’s sake! Touristy, OTT, overpriced, loud, overzealous, yet for us, tonight, an exhilarating clash with where we’ve been and a fantastic start to our whirlwind visit here. We are cramming such variety into this trip!
We sleep like logs.
We are woken early this morning by yet another loud tropical storm, however by the time we finish breakfast and make our plans, the rain stops hopefully for the rest of the day.
First stop today is Clarke Quay, this is all but deserted after the madness of the night before. We stroll along the riverside to Boat Quay, more eateries here, and if it’s fish you want this is where to come. Each restaurant dominated by tanks full of huge lobster and crab, we have never seen crabs that big, they are giant monsters!
Still no rain so we take the MRT (underground) to one of the top picks of our tour, Gardens by the Bay, home of the “Supertrees” and the most wonderful and extensive gardens, including amazing biodomes and a barrage of powerful messages surrounding mankind’s destruction of the planet. The Gardens are a simply fabulous place to visit; some of the design and creativity that has gone into these gardens is utterly inspired and the result is a wonderful creation. The Skywalk provides fabulous views of not just the Gardens, but the whole of Singapore. All the time we stroll around the Gardens, our eyes are drawn upwards to the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, one of the most awe inspiring structures you could ever see, this whole area is just spellbinding.
Eventually we tear ourselves away and hit Chinatown, a stimulating hotpot of crowds, noise, cramped streets and hawker stalls. It’s sweaty and intense and humid and it’s brilliant. So is the tasty Chinese lunch, and so is the hugely refreshing Singapore Summer Ale. Pausing to read plaques, we discover this district’s history, with its street of death houses and its huge brothel count, where literally hundreds of prostitutes once “catered” for the gender imbalance in the immigrant population. There is though peace amongst the chaos, within the beautiful temples of the various faiths. The Buddhas watch over everyone, encouraging peace and enlightenment.
Our evening destination is a definite; we return to Gardens By The Bay, now thronged with crowds to witness the spectacular night time illumination of the Supertrees and other displays and this magical place takes on a whole new identity. Laying on the grass watching the “Garden Rhapsody”, during which the Supertrees are turned into a massive light show to accompany music, is spine tingling, something akin to the biggest gig props you could ever see. It’s just simply brilliant.
Tired and with minds blown by the whole day, we unwind at Boat Quay, a couple of notches quieter than the madness of Clarke Quay but still full of life.
With only two days here, we aren’t going to cover everything, but from what we’ve seen so far, we are enthralled by Singapore.
Day 17 – Part 1
Being straightforward, down to earth types, we don’t share the Chinese cultural obsession with objects that supposedly bring good luck. Yes we have a boncuk hung outside our house, stuff like that, but we know that inanimate objects can’t possibly change your luck. In Chinatown yesterday we bought one – a Chinese “lucky knot” with lotus flower symbol. This morning we wake up to an email telling us we’ve won £175 on the lottery back at home. It’s just a coincidence. Isn’t it. Surely…
Something like fifteen minutes into our foray today it starts to rain heavily (qv earlier description – remind yourself, it’s there somewhere) and we are forced to take refuge in what we think is an arcade but turns out to be an incredible Chinese food court and again our confident knowledge about Orientals is blown out of the water: it’s 11.30 Sunday morning and literally hundreds are scoffing large meals and most of them are washing it down with beers. The variety of unusual foods is enormous; here’s some examples which may or may not make you hungry:-
Pigs liver meatball porridge
Yep, they were all there, and more.
Our tour today includes Little India, Kampong Glam and Arab Street, effectively the original Indian and North African immigrant quarters. These little streets, bursting with life and activity, kind of bind Singapore together. You realise that the amalgam of cultures is not a confusion, it’s a fusion. Boundaries cross and differences fade; crossover is normal and enclaves are not, Singapore is one stimulating melting pot of influences. It’s a fascinating, exciting place.
It’s here in Little India that we use our well practiced bargaining skills and come away with our desired purchases more than 50% less than the starting point, we are happy and so are they so good deal all round it seems. We really wanted it, she wanted 450 dollars, we settled at 190. Love a bit of haggling.
Around the city temporary stands are being built and roads are being closed as Singapore prepares for next week’s Grand Prix; we pass these preparations as we head towards the river for our planned boat trip. The bumboat trip shows this wonderful city from a myriad of new viewpoints; nothing about this place is ordinary and everything is fantastic. We wish we were here for longer and we vow to return.
Day 17 – Part 2
Let’s clear something up: it didn’t rain again today. As if to leave us feeling we have unfinished business here, the sun beats down until it sets and Singapore says a fond farewell. We’re torn tonight between the last thing on our list – a Singapore Sling at Raffles – and a new want – a beer on the top of the Marina Bay Sands. There’s no longer time for both, so we sensibly opt for our original plan and leave the new dream for another day.
Approaching the Raffles building, we have to skirt hoarding around a building site as we head to the Long Bar full of anticipation, ready to sign off our visit in style. Reality dawns disturbingly slowly: the building site IS Raffles; somehow we’ve completely missed the fact that the whole place is closed for refurbishment until next year. Oh ARSE!!! Oh well.
Plan B. Sitting by the Singapore River, beneath the soaring buildings of this visually stunning city, illuminated bumboats drifting by, eating satay, pork ribs and ginger beef, drinking draught Tiger, reflecting on this fabulous trip and vowing to return, is not exactly a hardship. Time, sadly, is up. We have so many memories.