Monday, 16 July 2012

Days 17-20: Melaka and final days in Malaysia.

I have to say it was a bit of a relief to get to Melaka. Singapore was so impersonal; it was too much of a big city.

The bus to Melaka, was long and slow and uneventful. We ended up getting there about six thirty in the evening, and everything was closed. Everything. We walked down the main street in Chinatown, and there were literally no shops open, not even the hotels were open. We were supposed to find a hotel for the night, but after walking down the main street and half way up the street to the right of the main street, and finding only two open hotels, one of which was way out of our price range we started to worry. Turns out we were just on the wrong street, we’d turned to the wrong left at the wrong point. 

Eventually we found a place, it was cheap and cheerful, and MUCH nicer than the place we had in Singapore, but we thought it wasn’t really the sort of thing we were there for, not one of the Baba Nyonya Houses. But by that stage we didn’t really care, it had been a long day, and very difficult to find anywhere at all to stay so we decided to go with it. 

After dumping our bags in the room we needed food, neither of us had eaten much that day and it was getting quite late. As I think I mentioned earlier, there was very little open. It was really weird, if we had been in KL, or even Penang there would have been hundreds of places open, and it would be just starting to get busy, but in Melaka, nothing. After walking for a while we found one place that looked open, but when we tried to sit down, we were told that it was closed.  Eventually we decided that our only hope was the big hotel, and that we were too tired and hungry to really care very much.

The next day, we decided to get some breakfast and have a look around Jonker Street. The place we went for breakfast was rather standard Malay food, apart from one of the starters – Top Hats. These are like spring rolls except they are shaped like top Hats. They were absolutely delicious. 
Top Hats, Mango Lassi, and Kopi Ice

Entrance to one of the boutique stores
China town is quite lovely, lots of little boutique shops.We found a lovely little shop that sold Kashmiri imports, clothing, cushions, jewelry and nick-nacks. We spent such a long time in there, we started looking at the clothes, and found some lovely trousers, I'd been trying to find some nice eccentric trousers for my brother, but they had all been way to expensive or too girly, or too short. But this place had so many different choices and the owner kept ducking into his house and bringing out more sacks of clothing for us to go through. We spent hours in there, so long in fact that the owner had to go out to pray even though his "brain isn't working and he's failing as a Muslim and a Human being." He left us in charge of his shop while he was out to pray, he'd decided that he trusted us because we talked and were friendly. 

By lunchtime, my uncle had arrived to meet us. So we went to get lunch, the local Melaka specialty is Chicken Rice Balls -  very tasty. The rice is cooked in chicken broth and then rolled into balls, the balls are served with meat, usually chicken and we also had barbeque pork, and chilli sauce. Very tasty.

M in a Tri-shaw
After lunch we went for a tri-shaw ride to the Portuguese fortress on the hill. The fortress is the oldest building in Melaka, it predates NZ by about 300 years. It really puts things in perspective. The building was quite impressive, although mostly a ruin. Melaka is always the first place to be occupied in Malaysia because it has a very convenient costline. In it's time it has been occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch, The British (I think) and the Japanese, before Malaysia finally got independence. 

Chinatown, in Melaka, has a very fine night market, which was one of the main reasons that we were there. Each of the shops had a little stall outside, and there was Karaoke and lots of street food. We tried some delicious spicy deep-fried chicken and some chicken Satay. Very tasty.

We found a man making hand made personal stamps, which my uncle called chops. These stamps were used instead of signing your name in many parts of Asia. My uncle said that when he was working in Hong Kong every company had to have one and they used them instead of signing for packages etc. So M and I each got the man to make one of these chops for us with our own names translated into old Cantonese, which is somewhat like translating something into Runes, and then he made them for us while we watched. 

My "Chop"

Our final day in Melaka, well morning anyway, we decided to go for a boat ride up the river and look for some monitor lizards who like to laze around on the river banks. Was a pretty boat ride, and well worth doing.

Our final dinner in KL was at an Indian place that did a slightly different style of food. It was still curries and things and mostly the sort that you would normally expect, but somehow they made them slightly different. Hard to explain. We had Butter Chicken, Briyani, Mutton Curry (of some discription), three different types of bread, and dry Dahl which was so wet it had to be eaten with a spoon and I can't imagine what the normal Dahl would have been like. Even though it was strange it was very very tasty. 

The next day we got up bright and early and went to the airport. It was confusing trying to work out how to check in, although eventually we joined the right queue and waited patiently until we finally managed to check in. It was very sad to say goodbye to my uncle, it was lovely to see him and spend some time getting to know him.

Our flight was long (12.5 hrs) and incredibly boring, things seemed to keep going wrong. The entertainment set in my seat broke about halfway through and it was difficult to find my books to read. M's set broke too, but hers was easily fixed. 

When we finally arrived in England, it only took us twenty minutes from leaving the plane to walking through the gate. This was a very pleasant surprise as we had been hearing horror stories for quite a long time about people having to wait up to 4 hours to get through customs, which after such a long flight seemed horrible.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Days 15-16: Singapore

What can I say about Singapore? It is not my first time here, I've been here a fair number of times before when my Granny and Grampa used to live here, but that was a long time ago, and this is my first time here as an adult. 

I've already mentioned that the hostel was a bit of a shock, but that is ok. We've grown used to it now and it's not so bad. The part of Geylang we are staying in is right next to the Aljunied SMRT station, and isn't obviously part of the red-light district, apart from the sex shop downstairs that is, but there are no street walkers, and, apart from there being absolutely no sound proofing between rooms, really it isn't too bad.

Yesterday we went to Singapore Zoo. It is always worth a visit if you are in Singapore, I'm not sure whether it still is, but it used to be classed as the best zoo in the world, and if it isn't still it must be well up there. Top five at least. So many cool animals and most of the enclosures are pretty neat too. We managed to catch two of the shows; The Rainforest fights back, with monkeys and apes and birds and otters, and Splash Safari with Pedro the Sea-lion. Have some animal photos:
Gibbon, just hanging out
Red Lemur
Rather attractive
Orangutan in overhead play area
Naked mole rats, Very creepy
Pygmy Hippo
South American Tree kangaroo
Baby goat asleep in its food dish
Pedro the Sea-lion
Asian clawed otters, smallest otters in the world

There were a few species I'd never heard of before, and a few that I'd never want to meet again, like the naked mole rat. Other than that it was cool, but it was a zoo. I don't really have much to say. 
Today I had a Ghee Dosai for breakfast. Apparently it is a breakfast food, I've been to a couple of places and tried to order it for dinner and been told that it is only for breakfast. Dosai are like large pancakes that you eat with Masala and dip in curry sauce, a little strange for breakfast, but I love curry so I'm quite happy to have it. 

We had thought about going to visit the Jarong Bird park today, but it was raining this morning, and we wanted a chance to look around Singapore as well as doing the touristy things. We planned to take the MRT. For those who don't know, the MRT or as it's now called the SMRT is the public transport system, a bit like a much smaller version of the London Tube system.

Our first stop was Holland Village, a place I remembered as a rundown little mall with a really nice Haagan Daas shop around the corner. I found the hagan daas straight away, which really please me. I recognise almost nothing from the Singapore I knew when I was little, finding Haagan daas felt like winning to me.

Next stop was Orchard road, a big quite expensive, shopping district, which I didn't recognise at all, but as I didn't really remember it at all it wasn't too much of a big deal for me. We had a  look around a couple of malls, found one place that was selling different liquors in fill your own bottles. They had some great things, Sammy I don't know if you read this but you would have loved it. 

Then we decided it was time for a drink, and we were nearish to Raffles hotel, so thought it might be time to tick something off our bucket lists. We went to Raffles and got Singapore slings at the place where they were invented. Very expensive but very worth it. They had a promotion on where you could get the Sling in a cocktail shaker which you could then keep, and it had the instructions on the side.

The laser show on the fountain showing the fountain.
Whilst we were drinking our cocktails we were reading the guidebook and discovered that we were quite close to something called the Fountain of Wealth - the worlds biggest fountain, that grants wishes and brings luck if you walk around it in a clockwise direction. So off we went, to do just that. Only find that the fountain is closed between 7 and 9:30pm for a laser light display. We waited and watched the display. Some of it was good but a little repetitive. Eventually we walked and wished around it, but I'm not telling what I wished for.

We were going to go to China town for dinner, but what with the fountain and the MRT, by the time we got there everything was shut, so we headed back to Geylang for dinner, and got back just in time to miss a torrential downpour and Thunder and lightening storm.

Today we are going to go to Melacca, but without knowing w even which bus to take, or where from, or even where we are going to stay. This could be fun.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Days 11-14: Nents, Yum cha, and a view from the top.

On Friday, we decided we were going to have a relaxing day. We needed to update our blogs so we took our computers to Old town white coffee, and sat and updated things; sent emails, wrote postcards, and updated our blogs. At least I would have done except my computer annoyingly ran out of battery.  We were both feeling a little lazy, and we needed to pick up some washing for the next day, so we decided to give ourselves a day of relaxing by the pool at my Uncles.  In the pool was the first time I’ve been cold in Malaysia, actually shivering, it was strange. 

In the evening we went out for dinner at an Italian place. I know it seems slightly odd to come to Malaysia to eat Italian food, but we felt the need for something familiar. The food was quite nice, not amazing, not bad. There was no pork though, because it’s a Muslim country, so all the bacon was made with beef, and all the ham was made with chicken. It makes a surprising amount of difference.  Then we got an early night, because we knew we were getting up early the next day, and I was very excited.

Now, if you know me you may have noticed that I like Elephants.  I have been collecting elephant figurines since I was quite small, and have always found them fascinating. So one of the things I wanted to do while in the part of the world was go to an Elephant sanctuary. When we first started planning the trip we were going to go to Thailand specifically to go to the Elephant sanctuary at Chang Mai, but then we discovered that there was one in KL and the extra trip didn’t seem necessary anymore.

Tiny village
The Elephant sanctuary was about two and a half hours drive from KL. Two hours by bus, to a tiny little village and then a private car took us the rest of the way.  We went with my Uncle and his friend Shirley, who is Malay and could help us with translating things, which, as it turned out, was quite lucky, because a fair number of people at the park didn’t seem to speak any English, or at least very little.

The park was cool, but if I’m honest was a little disappointing. I was expecting a safari park type thing where we could walk around and see elephants being elephants, instead we got a zoo type thing where the elephants were either kept chained up, or caged, and were trained for the people coming to visit. I don’t think they were mistreated, and I certainly still enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what I was expecting, and all the elephants seemed so bored. 

There was no entrance fee to get in, you just donated what you thought it was worth, and there were limited tickets available, if you got there early enough you could get a ticket that allowed you to ride an elephant, and have a bath with the baby elephants. You could also pay a couple of ringgit and get some bananas to feed the elephants, which, of course we did.
Feeding the nents

You could also hire a guide to take you to feed the baby elephants, again something we did. The baby elephants were all taught to bow and say thank you on command, which the guides would make them do after the tourists gave them food.

Bowing to say thank you
Apparently the elephants at the sanctuary are rescued from various places, and taken to the park to rehabilitate. They are kept for a year to 18 months, or longer if they are injured or young and then released back into the wild. While at the park they are allowed to paint, play music and socialise, they are all taught at least one trick and are used in the daily shows for a little while. It doesn’t really sound like a bad life
Bathing the babies

On Sunday morning we went out for Yum Cha. We caught the LRT to a giant mall, well giant by NZ standards, probably quite small, or at least normal by Malaysian standards.  The restaurant was quite nice, there was a window looking into the kitchen so you could see the chefs preparing the food, which looked rather cramped. There were about eight chefs crowded around a coffee table sized bench making dumplings. I don’t think I would want to work in those sort of conditions, although it didn’t seem to impact on the quality of the food.
The Yum Cha wasn’t what I know as Yum Cha, with the waiters bringing the food to your table and you taking what you want. Instead it was Yum Cha type food but you order off a menu, like you would in a normal restaurant.  We got, pork buns, and pork and vegetable dumplings, Xiao something or other dumplings, Pea-shoots stir-fried with garlic, noodles in a peanut sauce,  a different sort of dumpling, and thousand year old eggs.  

The thousand year eggs,  looked qute disgusting, but knowing that my uncle had ordered them as some sort of ninja test, I tried them with no squeamishness,  and determined to look like was enjoying them, whether I liked them or not. They were, surprisingly, really delicious. They tasted kind of like really well made devilled eggs. 

After we had eaten way too much, drunk a lot of tea, and had a history lesson – did you know that you shouldn’t say thank you when someone pours you tea? Instead just subtly tap your first two fingers on the table. This is left over from a king going undercover to get some idea of how happy his people were. He disguised himself as a man servant, and his man servant was a travelling official. When the king poured tea for his servant, the servant would tap his fingers as a way of subtly kowtowing. – we went to  find a bakery where we could get some Kaya. I think I’ve mentioned Kaya before; amazing coconut, Pandan and sugar stuff, kinda like nutella? We wanted to get some to take to England with us so that we could still enjoy Kaya toast. 

Taffy pulling, changes the colour from clear to white
After we had got the Kaya, we were looking around and saw a place called Sticky which sold “delicious handmade yummy.” With a Slogan like that who could resist going to have a look? It’s really lucky we did, because it meant we got to see them making their yummy almost from start to finish. Turns out “yummy” is boiled sweets. We didn’t get to see them melting the sugar and making the actual toffee stuff, but we saw them dye it, and pull it,  and form the design to go in the centre (in this case a cluster of berries but we couldn’t tell that for quite a while), and then stretch it to bring it to size. It was fascinating to watch.

Once we had finished being mesmerised by the sweet making for a surpisingly long time we decided to go and do some touristy things around KL. First we went to the technology mall - an entire mall dedicated to phones, cameras, gaming and computers. It was crazy, thousands of people in a huge four floor mall, with hundreds of shops selling exactly the same things at very slightly different prices. We didn't stay very long.
Then we went to Bukit Nanas (Pinapple Hill) to visit the Menara Kuala Lumpur, or the KL Sky tower. It was pretty cool, the view from the top was very cool, you had a three sixty view over KL. 

For dinner we caught the Monorail to one of the Little Indias, where we had some very nice Badam (almond milk) and some absolutely enormous meals, which were also very nice. We wandered around a bit looking at the shops and admiring the Bollywood video clips.

Today, we caught a bus from KL to Singapore. Quite an experience. We had to get on and off the bus to go through customs a few times, our bus driver didn't speak English, so we were never really sure what we were doing, or whether the bus would be waiting for us on the other side. We made it however, and eventually found an internet cafe that gave us the address of our hostel. 

Our hostel was a bit of a shock to the system. It was very cheap, so we were expecting basic, but not quite this basic, it is spread over two seperate buildings, not even on the same street, the rooms are very simple, just bunk beds, and the bathroom is shared. If you wanted, you could shower whilst on the toilet.  Oh, and here is the kicker, we booked our hostel from NZ, not really knowing much about anything, and ended up booking it in the red light district. Our bedroom is above a sex toys store.

Days 9-10: Cable car, fish, and Kaya Toast.

On our last morning in Langkawi, we decided we had to leave the hotel, and see something of the island. We decided that the best way to do this was to go up the Gondola style cable car, up the tallest mountain on the island. It was amazing. The view from the top was indescribable. You could see so many different things, and every direction you looked had an amazing view. We wanted to do the skywalk, but unfortunately it was closed so we missed out on that opportunity.

Back in KL, we decided to take a look at a craft market. It sells lots of different things, and as the name would suggest some interesting crafty things. We saw one man filling a glass with sand, using sand in different colours, and some metal funnels he made a picture of a camel in the desert at night with birds flying across the moon. It was pretty impressive.  

One of the other things available at the craft market was a traditional fish massage, where you can have the dead skin off your feet eaten by fish. I’m not scared of fish, and unlike M, I have no fear of people touching my feet, but I still found it very weird. The second you put your foot in the water the fish flock round it and start nibbling, probably about a hundred to one foot. It doesn’t exactly hurt, but it is certainly a very weird feeling. I managed to keep my feet in long enough to take several photos, but I couldn’t keep them in for the full ten minutes. It’s just too bizarre.

Once my Uncle finished work, we decided to go and get a drink, which meant catching the monorail to a different area of KL. Catching the monorail, in the evening when everyone is coming home from work, feels, I imagine, something like it does for sardines being canned. It is so crowded, you barely have enough room to stand, and there are people on all sides of you. You have to dodge and squeeze to get off. 

Once we had proved our mettle by surviving the monorail, we headed up one street that had some bars on it. My uncle had described our options: Fake Irish, Fake English, Fake Italian, Fake Mexican, Fake Cuban, Fake Jamaican etc. We went with the fake Cuban, and ordered a jug of margarita, it arrived. Now, in New Zealand, we try do something unusual with our margaritas and add tequila.

Ordering drinks in Malaysia seems to be a bit chancy, because it is a Muslim state, and a lot of people don’t drink, alcohol seems to have a very high mark up, and because it is so expensive, it often gets watered down, to make it more affordable for the bar owners. We asked whether there was any tequila in the drink, they assured us there was, we drank some more, got one of the wait staff to taste it, he said he couldn’t taste any and walked off. We assumed he was rectifying the situation, so we drank some more, still no one comes. Eventually, we found out that they hadn’t been doing anything about it at all, and had just wandered off for no reason. They said they couldn’t do anything as we had already drunk the jug, so my uncle asked for a discount on the next jug, they had to check with their manager, we waited. The manager said no, but what he would do is put lots of tequila in the next jug.  This time at least we could taste the tequila, but it didn’t taste strong, tasted like a normal amount. In NZD it ended up being about $55 for the two jugs, so not unreasonable, but considering that one didn’t seem to have tequila in it, by no means brilliant.
After the drinks we went out for Iranian food. It was really tasty. Very similar to Turkish food, we had a Mezze Platter, with Hummos, Baba ganoush, some other eggplant dip, a plate of cheese melted between pita bread, some falafel, and lamb kofte with rice, with baklava for desert to finish it off. Very tasty it was too. The Baklava was interesting though, I couldn’t put my finger on where the difference was, but it tasted nothing like Baklava from home, I thought it was still good though.