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Archive for the ‘Malaysia’ Category

We rose at 7.30 and were soon packed ready for our flight. Taxi to Terminal 2, check in straightaway and then time for a snack breakfast at an airport cafe. We sat and read for the remainder of the wait; the girls are so good at coping with the boring bits compared to the early days of the trip, happily devouring a book or two in the spare hours at our disposal.

We were called for boarding at the scheduled time and joined the queue snaking towards the gate. Except that one local man chose to bypass the line and barge in just ahead of us, dragging his family reluctantly along behind him. Well, don’t mess with Global Prices. We expanded to fill the width of the roped-out channel, thus preventing any further overtaking, and Mr Barger was compelled to wait for the rest of his gang to catch up with him at the point where they checked boarding passes – while we sailed through ahead of him…

We took our traditional seats (pre-booked to be identical on all five of our AirAsia flights) and found we were sharing a plane with the entire Sandakan Rugby Team; flying with the Eagles. Our take-off presumably took us right over our hotel, but our view was of the various islands we had visited for snorkelling.

They usually get the food served early on, and we had our pre-ordered sandwiches along with water purchased at the airport; ‘Eau Claire’ was the refreshingly grammatical Malaysian brand name (as opposed to ‘Eau de l’Mineral’ or some such), though I’m sure ‘Eau Claire’ is a Gilbert O’Sullivan song… It’s ‘underground natural mineral water’ filtered for thousands of years, and then they warn you ‘best before Nov 2012′.

We landed 10 minutes early in KLLCCT (snappy, eh? Kuala Lumpur Low Cost Carrier Terminal) and endured a longer connecting wait. Time for a Dunkin’ Donut each, and the girls got new books based on The Wizards of Waverly Place, a programme they enjoyed in North America (Ellen finished her 120 pages during our second flight). A major thunderstorm came and went as we sat in transit.

Our Bali plane was also on time, taking off around 6pm, and the journey passed uneventfully. Just another round of stepping into a metal canister and stepping out again somewhere completely different, with little sense of how you got there – especially when the flight is mostly in darkness.

We stepped off the plane into 29’C heat and joined the first of several queues. For your Visa On Arrival you first line up to pay US$25 per person (children included) in return for a receipt. At the next desk you then hand over your receipt, passport and completed immigration form in return for a 30-day visa stamp. Except that we chose the queue that wasn’t going anywhere; a whole group of flights had just arrived and we were at the back, but the fingerprinting and photographing of each and every passenger was taking an age (they’ve just introduced this US-style system).

After perhaps half an hour of wondering whether to risk swapping queues, an official came to whisk certain groups – including us – over to a secret channel on the far right-hand side. It soon became apparent that all young families were being fast-tracked, and as a bonus they didn’t want any of our fingerprints. If you have children then you can’t possibly be a terrorist?

Anyway, we emerged ahead of the bulk of waiting passengers (a shock to be among so many Westerners again), collected our hold luggage, cleared customs, withdrew some cash (I’m a Rupiah millionaire!) and were relieved to spot a man holding a name placard waiting to take us to our hotel. He warned us that the journey might take 40 minutes but we were happy to sit back in the large, air-conditioned vehicle while we caught our first glimpses of Bali By Night.

So much traffic, endless built-up areas, youths on motorbikes hogging the fast lanes but getting in our way, overblown statuary at roundabouts. A sign advertising ‘Chocolate Therapy and Red Wine Spa’ and lots of ‘Circle K’ shops.

After half an hour we turned into the Graha Cakra Hotel (which I’ll always think of as the Graham Chapman Hotel – ‘c’ is pronounced as ‘ch’ here as in Malaysia). We collected the key, paid in full – they added a supplement of one-third of the room rate for the girls – and were shown to our room.

Er, is this it? I was expecting something nearly twice the size, going by the website description, and they had brought in just one extra floor mattress and pillow to accommodate both girls. Disappointed, we returned to Reception. Had we been given the larger Deluxe room rather than the Superior (i.e. standard)? And please could we have another mattress and pillow; we have two children.

Okay, but there would be an additional charge for this mattress, too. What?? That meant our £45/night had now shot up to £75/night. Can they be serious? I had specifically asked in my emails whether there would be any extra charge for the girls (it’s always been minimal everywhere else) and they had never responded on this point.

We said that this was now way over our budget, so please could we see a Superior room instead. Once there, we realised it was scarcely any smaller than the supposed Deluxe, and we also spotted a connecting door – perfect! And the maths told me that it would be a lot cheaper to get two Superior rooms than one Deluxe with two extra mattresses. More space, proper beds, more privacy, an extra bathroom, and all for less money; a bizarre situation arising from their scandalous overpricing of the extra mattresses.

Oh, and although they initially quoted a price of RP450,000 for the Superior room, they then bumped this *up* to the internet rate of RM465,000. Firstly, why is the online rate higher? And secondly, why are we paying this online rate when we’re standing there at Reception?

So we ended up paying more than the full rate for two standard rooms, with no hint of a discount for children (although they eat less breakfast and they didn’t get their own welcome fruit bowl, pathetic though it was; one apple, one orange and three mini bananas). Not an encouraging start to our time in Bali – it’s back to being a cash cow there for the milking, an I.O.ewe ready to be fleeced. Bali after Malaysia seems like the difference between Peru and Bolivia: in one country you’re treated as a tourist sucker, in the other you’re treated as a human being.

Some time after 11pm we got the girls into bed and we followed not long after. The BBC World Service reported forthcoming talks between the Tories and the Lib Dems, and then we zonked out.

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Our final full day in Malaysia, and Kirsten seems to be going down with the same bug that I had; hope it passes quickly before tomorrow’s flights. Meanwhile, Ellen suffered from a general fed-upness with being confined to quarters all day – but there’s simply nowhere around here to go out and let off steam. This should all change in Bali, where every property has its own pool and garden.

So plenty of time to sit around and ponder questions such as whether the (remaining) Beatles mind the fact that the incidental plunky music in Shaun the Sheep is virtually identical to the opening phrase of Yellow Submarine, why Rachael Ray’s studio audience (US talk show) are required to cheer and applaud every single mundane banality, and whether you request the Set Asian Menu if you want to order whalemeat in a Japanese restaurant…

This morning the girls wrote their accounts of yesterday’s island trip, and Ellen started her fifth(!) exercise book, graduating this time to narrow lines and no space for a picture – very grown up…

We splashed out on a packet of instant noodles and a box of Jacob’s crackers with tuna mayonnaise spread for lunch. In the afternoon there was time for some more numeracy with the girls. Hannah managed to remember all her multiplication tables up to 10 within a three-second time limit per question, and then tackled 256×128 on paper (good old grid method). Ellen did some simpler tables using games from the BBC website and scored full marks.

Later the girls were somewhat bemused because every time an aeroplane rumbled and lumbered overhead, Kirsten or I would dash to the window in a frenzied attempt to photograph what has become a regular feature of our life in KK. (That and the afternoon thunderstorms.) My timing was atrocious; planes appeared the moment I sat down to peel a pomelo or have a cup of tea, but Kirsten was more successful.
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For our last supper here, we returned to my birthday bistro, Rumours. This time we secured one of the three prized window tables which come complete with free internet access (a keyboard and wide screen at one end of the table). So much for not eating or drinking in the computer room… The girls browsed videos of Mr Bean and pictures of Phineas and Ferb while our orders were being prepared; mostly the same choices as before because they went down so well last time (the grilled salmon and the tuna sandwiches).
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The bartender generously stood the girls an ice cream dessert each, on the house, and our chocolate pudding came with extra scoops of the cold stuff. Perhaps most visitors don’t stay here as long as we have done…

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I had a rough night with a queasy stomach – must have been something on our big day out to Mount Kinabalu; now was it down to too many chilli peppers, those bananas that the vendor sneezed over or simply overdoing things when helping to finish the girls’ food and drinks in the evening? I don’t know, but by the morning I felt well enough to contemplate a day out rather than face 72 hours confined to our hotel room.

We packed our coolbag with towels and snacks and set off to the nearby shopping centre to get a taxi there, working on the assumption that they would charge about half the hotel call-out rate. Sure enough, we were quoted a mere RM10 to take us to the far end of town, to Jesselton Point Jetty. Once there, we braved the melee in the booking hall where there were about ten counters with queues of assorted lengths. Is it one for each destination? Counter 7 was free and a man beckoned us over; yes, he could sell us tickets for Manukan Island (RM17 per adult and RM12 per child). We filled in our desired time of return (2pm) and we were then offered the chance to hire some snorkelling equipment; “On the island you have to pay a deposit, but here you don’t.” So we signed up for three masks (RM10 each) and two life-jackets (RM5 each) for the girls before being sent off to pay the jetty fee at Counter 2 (RM6/RM3).

On the way to the ferry we impulse-bought a ready-peeled pomelo, collected our snorkel stuff and then joined the waiting throng. Other groups went straight through to board a boat but we (and some other tourists) were kept back. At last we were allowed through and squeezed on to a large speedboat bound for Manukan; we sat as near to the back as we could, ending up around the middle. Fortunately the journey was smooth on a surprisingly calm sea, with just the odd jolt as the hull smacked down into the water.

A mere ten minutes later we arrived at our chosen island. Yet another fee to pay – the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park fee (RM10/6, but Ellen was free). As we walked along the jetty we could see hundreds of large tropical fish in the clear water – this was a good start.

There is a long stretch of beach on both sides of the jetty, and we found half a wooden picnic table free under the shade of some trees to base ourselves and leave our things. The water was wonderfully warm and we were soon sticking our faces in to see what we could see, see, see. Shoals of little shimmering fish which do that clever trick of all changing direction simultaneously so as to move as one cohesive body. The occasional larger fish: our usual stripy friends and some paler, sandy-coloured ones.
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This is obviously a popular day trip for the locals at the weekend; there are no beaches along Kota Kinabalu’ waterfront, so this is where they come to snorkel, swim and relax. And it’s certainly one of the most pleasant seaside spots we’ve encountered in Malaysia so far. One curious activity offered along the beach is ‘Scuba-doo’; a sea-bed mobility scooter with an attached air-filled helmet and oxygen tank. You sit on it, stick your head up into the helmet and then pootle off into the sea following a well-marked course, gazing in wonderment at the marine life around you. A bright orange buoy marks your position on the surface, but what you do if you run into difficulties (e.g. spring a leak) I don’t know.

There was lots of coral washed up on the shore, but we couldn’t spot any live coral gardens within the confines of the swimming area marked by buoys. Even so, the girls had an enjoyable time playing in the near-waveless water and Ellen kept her snorkel mask more or less permanently on – though we found it hard to understand her when she insisted on speaking through the breathing tube…

We emerged for lunch – filling rice dishes from a beachside fast food stall – and then had another hour in the sea before it was time to dry off and get changed ready for the return trip. Back at the jetty there was a mass of people waiting and no guidance as to which boat went where. We flashed our tickets a few times but were sent away, even when the boat was leaving for KK as opposed to another island. Eventually we were informed that we had to travel with the company from whom we had bought our tickets. The company name was displayed on the side of the boats, but even then it was not clear where the boat was headed.

At last we were invited to board a boat, although it seemed to be going to Sapi Island (where Kirsten and Ellen went snorkelling the other day). Sure enough, that’s where we went; but we collected more passengers there before heading to Jesselton Jetty, our desired destination. Once there we took a slightly more expensive taxi back to the hotel.

We rested awhile in our room and the usual afternoon thunderstorm soon began (good thing we hadn’t opted for a later boat back). For supper we tried a new local place, the Firefly Bar & Grill; very popular with the locals, and our three dishes (a hefty burger, a big chunk of chicken in a bun and a bacon – yes, bacon – club sandwich, all with curly fries – how do they make those?) were such big portions that they defeated us.

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Yet another slow day today. We all slept pretty solidly after our long and tiring day on the coach yesterday and we weren’t too disturbed by the mystery ‘ding-dongs’ that regularly emanate from the lift in the small hours of the night.

For breakfast we had cereal and some leftover bananas and apples and then most of us settled down in front of diaries or computer. Tim spent several hours trying to catch up with yesterday’s blog entry and Hannah wrote wonderful descriptions about our walk around the botanical garden at Mt Kinabalu.

Meanwhile I handwashed another load of clothes and hung them in the bathroom to dry. Tim and I then chose photos for our respective entries and added them onto the blog.

By now it was lunch time so I popped down to the local “Orange” mini-supermarket and bought some crackers, a tuna spread, jam, instant noodles and water. Tim only managed a couple of crackers as he is slightly suffering from an upset stomach – either a bug, or some food that didn’t agree with him.

The girls practised a new magic show and played a card game and the Lonpos game. Ellen managed to do several 2D puzzles off by heart.

Yet another afternoon thunderstorm, after which we all walked down to the supermarket at the nearby shopping centre. The sky was still overcast and the air felt so much cooler, which made our walk quite pleasant.

At the “Giant” supermarket we bought some more fruit, yoghurts, cereal and “reward” sweets for the girls.

We popped into our local cafe/restaurant for a plate of fried rice with pineapple and seafood and three spring rolls. It wasn’t much but it was enough for all four of us, especially with Tim only managing a small amount.

Not sure what our plans are for tomorrow. We had hoped to catch a ferry back to Sapi island to do some more snorkelling, but it depends on Tim’s tummy as a choppy speedboat crossing won’t do him any good…

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So it seems that both Belgium and the UK are having problems deciding who should run the country; is this what happens when we go away and leave it to the rest of you? We’ll give you four weeks to sort things out before we get back…

Meanwhile, we went on our Kinabalu Park tour today (incidentally, it’s ‘Kinabalu’ stressed as in Kajagoogoo, not as in Kalamazoo). We were collected at five past eight by a chatty driver who transferred us to a more central hotel where we would board the tour bus; there would be 23 of us on the trip.

The bus duly arrived and we then picked up the remaining passengers from a mixture of backpackers’ hostels and plush resorts, finally leaving KK at 8.50. We had chosen a beautiful day for it; the sky was clear almost as far as we could see, auguring well for good views of Mount Kinabalu – indeed, we could see it looming in the distance from the outskirts of KK, over 50 miles away.

Ben was our tour guide with Paul in the driver’s seat. As we left the city, Ben pointed out the Floating Mosque (which doesn’t float – it is simply surrounded by a moat) and a round tower which is apparently one of four hanging buildings in the world (built from the top down). It has a revolving restaurant at the top, but we were reassured that it rotates extremely slowly; “you won’t vomit.”

After our final pickup from the extensive 1Borneo shopping and accommodation complex we started the slow journey up steep and tortuous roads into the mountains. We kept catching tantalising glimpses of Mount Kinabalu through trees or spoiled by roadside electricity cables and we were aware that it generally clouds up early in the day – that’s the reason that climbers set off at 2am to make the summit for sunrise. Fortunately, it was still clear at 10am when the bus pulled over to let us get out for a couple of minutes and snap away; such fine conditions are unusual, we are told.
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We then stopped for half an hour at a touristy market in Nabalu just short of the National Park. Another viewpoint here up an observation tower and a chance to buy a bunch of mini-bananas for RM1. We browsed the souvenir T-shirts, with Ellen unsure whether to get a Rafflesia top (she didn’t, in the end).
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By the time we got to the Park entrance the sky was grey with the occasional spits of drizzle, and the temperature was comfortably cool. We were herded round the Botanical Garden, Ben constantly urging “come closer, come closer” when he wished to show us a plant of interest, but with 23 of us on a narrow path everyone missed out half of the time. He seemed to know his stuff, anyway; highlights included the pinhead orchid (the smallest such flower in the world), the flammable fruit of the Kerosene plant, a certain leaf used for birth control (“If you use it for more than five years you are permanently disabled; not from making out, but from producing” was Ben’s idiosyncratic way of putting it.) We also saw a bunch of miniature but inedible bananas (little-finger-sized), giant pitcher plants, a dancing lady orchid and pink/purple berries that may taste sweet to one person but sour to another.
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Sweet and sour berries.
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Pinhead Orchid.
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Mini-bananas.
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Laughing Orchid.
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Kerosene plant.
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Pitcher plants.
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The National Park is a ‘beacon of biodiversity’, with over 1,500 varieties of orchid alone. There are colour-coded labels to help classify specimens in the botanical gardens: black for common plants, blue for those with medicinal uses, green for orchids and red for endemic species. Sadly we had insufficient time to explore at leisure (there is an extensive network of hiking trails) and no chance to escape the crowds to get a shot at solitude…

At 12.30pm we piled back onto the bus and drove for a further hour towards Poring Hot Springs. First stop there was for lunch; a slight step up from the usual tour buffet, with dishes brought to our tables. We began with chicken and sweetcorn soup, followed by rice with beef, prawn and fish accompaniments, and then one small chunk of watermelon, melon and starfruit each.

Next we were instructed to take everything we’d need for the Hot Springs with us off the bus. Problem; we had a bulky cool bag with towels and swimwear, and we didn’t fancy lugging this along a wobbly canopy walk. So we compromised by leaving most of our stuff and restricting ourselves to dipping just our feet at the end.

The canopy walk is another of those disappointing missed opportunities; why do they not give you any information or guidance on what you’re doing up there, what you should be looking at? It reduces the whole thing to a production-line tame adventure activity of crossing swaying rope bridges at an unnerving height above the ground. (They have staff along the way – but purely to restrict the numbers passing through, not to educate or explain.) Kew Gardens do this so much better…
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Er, isn’t the canopy up there?
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By the end of the canopy procession we had an hour to ourselves, so we found a cool pool and dangled our legs over the edge.
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The site is known for its hot springs (the complex was constructed for the Japanese by prisoners of war) but we didn’t feel in need of any extra heat. Another member of our group walked to the base of a waterfall where the resident Doctor fish nibble the dead skin from your feet. I quite wish I’d tried this; I could have cooled off and had a free exfoliation at the same time…

There was time for an ice cream before we departed at 4pm. This coach journey would be longer, especially when Ben mentioned that we could do a detour to see a Rafflesia flower that had just started blooming. So we ended up doing this ‘once in a lifetime’ experience for the second time, with Ellen especially keen as we could get that elusive photo of her with the flower.

The bus drove us up a gravel track to a country shack with suspiciously extensive parking for large tour vehicles. A short walk (half a minute) behind the house took us to wooden viewing platforms erected to support entire coachloads; what a contrast to our tough 3-hour trek in the Cameron Highlands…

Yes, there was a Rafflesia, a bit smaller than last time (maybe 50cm across), as well as one recent bloomer which was now black and rotting. More buds were on the way, promising further lucrative income for the community (they charge RM30 a head to see the flower and share the money among the locals, we are told). A cynical corner of my brain wondered if they might invest in a lifelike waxwork to bring in the crowds and the cash, but I suspect it’s genuine; we still couldn’t catch any whiff of rotting meat, but there was the odd fly crawling over the centre of the flower.

Ellen with Rafflesia – at last!
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It was drizzling again but we got our photos (on three different cameras, just to make sure!) and then took our seats on the bus for the long drive back to Kota Kinabalu. A combination of cloud mist, slow traffic and winding roads delayed our return until just after 8pm, giving us a tiring 12-hour trip with the majority of that time spent sitting on the bus.

We dumped our stuff and immediately headed out for a late supper at ‘Rumours’; plates of tuna sandwiches and some ice-blended drinks. Then we all collapsed for a good night’s sleep.

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Our last malaria tablets of the trip were swallowed down with our cereal or coffee. After our extremely lazy time yesterday, we decided to be slightly more active today.

First we visited a nearby tour operator to look into a day-trip for tomorrow to Mount Kinabalu National Park and Poring Hot Springs. Tim had already done some research and we knew what we wanted. We counted out our money and had just enough to pay for it in cash; by credit card we would have had to pay an extra 3%.

Every time we asked the girl a question she seemed to have to double check with her colleagues. This did not involve her getting up from her desk and discreetly asking someone for advice; no, instead she would shout from her desk and hope someone would answer!

We were a little worried when she couldn’t produce a receipt, though. We had just handed over our last RM600 and had nothing to show for it. She would drop the receipt off later at our hotel, and if there were any problems she would phone us, not that she was expecting any…

We returned to our hotel to pick up some water bottles for the girls and our camera. We needed to buy some sturdier shoes for Hannah who only has one pair of flip-flops left, and replace Ellen’s battered trainers.

This is the third pair of shoes on the trip we had to buy for Hannah. Her first pair, Peter Storm trainers, lasted a very long time, but recently it has been really difficult to find shoes her size that either don’t look too grown up or are strong enough. The last two pairs of trainers only lasted a few weeks.

So off we walked to the nearby shopping centre. It wasn’t even 10 o’clock but the sun was already extremely hot and we were very glad when, ten minutes later, we arrived at the slightly cooler building.

After raiding the ATM we went in search of shoe shops. Some shops were particularly slow in opening up. All in all it took us about 1.5 hours to find two pairs of shoes, lovely multi-coloured crocs for Ellen and slightly upgraded flip-flop type sandals for Hannah with a strap around the back of her heel.

We rewarded ourselves with some fresh fruit juices (orange, pineapple and honeydew) and biscuits in the food court.

On the way out we stopped at one of the many stalls to replace the girls’ old hats (freebies from our flight from Tahiti to Auckland). Ellen chose a beautiful plain pink hat with a velcro bit around the back so she would be able to put her ponytail through. The front and sides of the hat are slightly wider which provides enough shade for her face. Hannah eventually settled for a brighter pink cap, which won’t cover the back of her neck, but it is stylish!

At last – Bah Pigi Muzium! (Let’s go to the museum!) We grabbed a taxi to the State Museum, which was lovely and cool inside. Our tickets only cost RM15 each and the children were free – great. We left our shopping bags near the entrance and walked straight up to the biggest Bryde’s Whale skeleton which measured 18.6m long.

Other exhibits included musical instruments (violin, different sized drums, xylophones), farm tools and woven baskets that were used to collect agricultural produce. One of the rooms showed lots of different tribal wedding costumes, blue and yellow bead jewellery, long necklaces worn over shoulders and across the chest, silver coin necklaces to be worn around the waist and wide brass bracelets.

Another part of the museum showed wall after wall of black and white photos of different tribes people performing dances or participating in an assortment of sports (swimming, rowing and horse races).

At one point we reached a replica of the Tapadong Cave. Ellen and Tim walked through, but Hannah and I chose to sit this one out. The other two joined us shortly after and by now everyone was starving. I couldn’t take in any more exhibits without food!

The security guard pointed out a cafe in the car park, so that was where we were headed. We ordered one fried rice & chicken dish and two fried noodle dishes (one with chicken, the other with beef). The food was absolutely delicious, especially the very tender beef. But again the portions were far too big for us.

Just as we were about to leave the cafe and visit the Heritage Village it started to rain. Initially we sheltered outside, but then the rain turned quite heavy so we escaped back inside the cafe and had a chat with a Scottish woman and her mother.

After a couple of minutes the rain had almost completely stopped and we were on our way to the village. There was a handful of old wooden huts and a longhouse. Our visit coincided with the handicraft demonstrations and we bought a couple of bracelets and keyrings. We also witnessed a couple of tribal dances, and guess who was invited by the Murut Banai to join in! Both girls declined so I felt I had to step in so as not to let the side down. It was great fun, though.
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We were all getting quite hot by now, and Ellen insisted on returning to the main museum so that she could walk through the cave again (this time *with* Hannah and me) and see the natural history exhibition. We saw stuffed bats and birds and the skeletons of a muntjak and rhinoceros.

I was ready to return to our hotel by now, I was feeling a little run down and I am now sporting an unsightly coldsore.

Back in our room, I rested while the girls put together a fashion show (with their new shoes and hats) and Tim booked accommodation for the very last night of our trip (in Singapore).

For supper we nipped next door again, the waitress waving at us even before we had entered. Every time she tries to take our order but gets confused by our questions and then she has to call a different waiter. Tonight was no different and we all had a good laugh about it.

The girls chose chicken sandwiches, mainly because they came with french fries, and the grown ups settled for spring rolls – we knew we would have to help the girls out so we didn’t order too much.

We finished the day by writing diaries and getting our bag ready for tomorrow – again an early start and a long day.

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Quiet day

Not a lot happened today, so unfortunately this blog entry will be of the shorter variety.

Our snorkelling adventure yesterday seemed to have taken a lot out of us and we all had a pretty solid sleep, waking up very slowly this morning.

Nothing was planned for today and after our cereal breakfast we settled down to write yesterday’s diaries and blog entry. Tim took several hours to finish writing about his experience before I added a few paragraphs about the third session that Ellen and I participated in.

After we finished writing our respective pieces we chose a huge selection of photos, which Tim then uploaded.

I only briefly popped out to buy some more milk, crisps and chocolate filled finger rolls for lunch. The finger rolls weren’t very fresh and didn’t taste at all nice, so we complemented lunch with juicy apples and digestive biscuits.

Most of the afternoon was spent reading, dressing up, trying out different hairstyles and playing the Lonpos game the girls found in their Christmas stockings back in New Zealand. We also managed to do some numeracy with both Hannah and Ellen becoming more fluent and confident with their times tables. As a treat, Hannah & Tim dashed to the shop to buy some chocolate bars – we hadn’t had any chocolate for quite a while and after eating half a bar I started to feel pretty queasy.

Whilst the grown-ups watched a film called “New in Town” with Renee Zellweger, the girls played some games on the computer and explored the Disney Channel website.

By now there was a massive thunderstorm raging outside, so we just nipped next door to the Nisha cafe for supper. There we ordered two different fried rice dishes as they had already run out of roti canai (some type of fluffy bread) and two portions of vegetable spring rolls. The waiter then recommended a dish of fried sweet potato with a cinnamon dip for dessert. The rice was delicious and the spring rolls were just as tasty as last time, but dessert was simply too filling.

Back in our room the girls carried on playing the Lonpos game, and Tim read up on other activities or day trips in and around Kinabalu.

Not often on our trip have we had such a lazy day, and certainly not a whole day inside our hotel room. But this was all we could manage today. I, in particular, seemed to have spent a whole day moving around between chair, comfy armchair and bed – but sometimes that is just what we need!

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The alarm woke us at 7am allowing us time to have some cereal for breakfast before going downstairs ready to be collected for our day out. A taxi driver beckoned someone in our general direction. Us? Or some of the locals sitting around the water feature? Turned out to be us, so we got in. We had the usual “Where you from, sir?” followed by the slightly more cryptic “When do knee?”. I was flummoxed until Kirsten correctly interpreted this as “Wayne Rooney”.

We were whisked just around the corner to the harbourside near the posh Sutera resort (which was well out of our price bracket when we were booking KK accommodation, but which looks like just another complex of concrete). We checked in with the organisers, filled in our liability release forms (more or less “if anything goes wrong, it’s not our fault, even if it is”) and sat down to wait for the boat.

A little after 8.30 we climbed into a suspiciously speedy-looking boat and sat at the less bumpy end (we’ve learned a thing or two from that glass-bottomed tour). Sure enough, the twin Yamaha engines powered us at top speed over to Gaya Island, bouncing us over the waves. It is perhaps a bit sad that I’m sitting there considering the fact that two engines make you go only 26% faster than one engine; it’s all to do with maximum velocity being proportional to the cube root of engine power (ask any Further Mathematician). And especially sad that I’m pondering this on my birthday…

Just a few minutes later we reached the island and emerged onto a lengthy wooden jetty just as the rain began to mean business. Not quite how I had imagined the day, with a grey sea, 100% cloud coverage and a downpour rather than glinting turquoise shallows under a tropical sun.

A quick introduction in the hut at the start of the jetty before we reported to our respective areas to get ready. Our guide would be Fidilis (assisted by Bob to look after the one other lady in our group). Lunch to be served at 1pm, biscuits, fruit and drinks available throughout the day. They thought the weather would soon clear up – and indeed it did.

We were sent off to get kitted out, starting with the footwear; all very colourful, certainly, and they had the girls’ sizes, too. The suits were more of a challenge: ‘large’ by Malaysian standards is agonisingly small for me, while ‘XL’ is still a slight underestimate of my frame – as it is of my age. Once we had the third and final item we were ready, though we also decided to rent a special camera to record the day (ours would not be up to the job).
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Fidilis led us down to a rubbish-strewn beach where we waded out into murky water (the result of the recent rainfall), with Ellen barely keeping her head above the surface. At last it was time to don our flippers and masks; as you will have guessed by now, we were all going snorkelling for the day – a first for all of us. We began with a practice in the shallows, getting the hang of breathing through the tube thingy. Kirsten found that the large mouthpiece made her want to gag, while I kept gulping seawater every time I inhaled – the angle of the tube required a weird sideways contortion of the mouth to get a good seal. Then there’s the eye/nose mask which is designed for those more clean-shaven than myself; I had trimmed my moustache but still there was water seepage up into my nostrils.
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What have we done? Is this going to be a miserable failure of an experience for the family? We now ventured into deeper waters over some coral; Fidilis had brought a lifesaver ring for the girls to cling to once they were out of their depth, and the waves picked up now that we were further from the shore. We all put our faces in the water and saw dingy brown wrinkly bits down below (no, don’t titter). Not quite Tahiti; where were the vibrant rainbow colours and teeming fish life? I was still having seepage problems and couldn’t stay under for more than a minute before I’d have to gasp for air at the surface – it took me a while to learn not to attempt to breathe through my covered nose. And then a wave would catch me off guard and I’d gulp an unwelcome cupful of salt water.

Kirsten valiantly took charge of the underwater camera and snapped away, though it was hard to see what picture you were taking or even if the camera was on at all. The girls hung on to the lifesaver and dunked their heads to have a good look, the guide with them to point out items of interest.

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After perhaps 45 minutes it was time for a break and we returned to shore. We were all ready to have a rest, and I was feeling queasy from a combination of wave motion, salt intake and general tiredness. Hannah’s flippers and suit were uncomfortable – simply too tight – and she was glad to escape their confines for a while.

Back in the hut I grabbed plenty of fresh drinking water to flush out the sodium and sat down to recover. The next thing I knew there was the sound of a strumming guitar and the staff processed out from the back singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in 4/4 time and bearing a cake for me! (With a tactful and economical single candle.) It was a delicious sponge cake with cream filling and icing and a fruit topping; there was enough not just for the family but for everyone else there, visitors and staff.
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Then it was time for Session Two. We’d take a short (and rapid) boat trip to an area just up the coast, and we would be able to sit out in the boat at any time if we so wished. Okay, let’s see if this is more spectacular – perhaps the first session was just for training purposes.

Out we zoomed, then climbed off the boat down a ladder (tricky with huge flippers on) and into deep, undulating water. A combination of salt, waves and birthday cake meant I didn’t last very long before asking to come out (with Hannah as her suit was just too uncomfortable – she ended up with three angry red marks on the back of one of her legs), but Kirsten and Ellen stayed the full term. We all saw some fish – stripy black and white ones and the odd ‘Nemo’ clownfish – as well as blue and purple coral, but the colours were still somewhat subdued because of the depth and murkiness.
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Back to base for a rest before lunch, and I found someone worse off than myself; a Dutch lady who got seasick going diving and was sitting out the second session. Apparently she suffers badly from motion sickness (and felt ill for two weeks after crossing the Bass Strait to Tasmania on the overnight ferry) – but still persists in diving… That’s like being a claustrophobic chimney sweep or an airline pilot who hates flying.

Lunch was a buffet of rice, chicken curry and mixed vegetables; we all found something to eat, although the girls probably consumed more biscuits than anything else during the day (there was a giant ten-gallon tin of Marie biscuits from China).
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We had half an hour to let the food settle, but for the final afternoon session Hannah and I opted to rest on the beach while Ellen was so desperately keen to do more snorkelling that she virtually dragged Kirsten along with her.

[Kirsten] Yes, I would have liked a rest in the afternoon, or maybe just go for a short walk on the island, but I felt I couldn’t let Ellen down.  After yet another briefing we were ready to walk down the jetty again for another 2-minute boat ride.  Although, according to the guides, the waves were quite high, for some reason they didn’t make me feel the slightest bit queasy.

Afternoon briefing.
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Fast boat to Sapi Island.
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We arrived at Sapi Island and walked down the jetty, and almost immediately I wished Tim and Hannah had come with us, as this beach looked really lovely and they could have done a little snorkelling in the shallow end.  Fidilis had pointed that out to us, but we didn’t know exactly how nice the beach would be…

We walked through the shop and bought one small plastic bottle filled with cubes of bread so that we could feed the fish.  Before entering the water our guide pointed out not one but a whole family of monitor lizards strolling along the beach.

Just as we reached the water we were instructed to put our flippers on and Fidilis offered to carry Ellen out a little more as the current was pretty strong.  Soon we spotted some fish and I emptied the bottle with bread and suddenly we were surrounded by loads of fish.  Little black and white stripey ones, small blue and purple fish and bigger “rainbow” fish.  [Apparently they are called parrot fish, but I liked rainbow better.]
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After I had finished the bottle, Fidilis managed to grab a few bits of bread still floating around and lured the fish to his hand.  This gave Ellen a great opportunity to see the fish up close and it made it a lot easier for me to try and photograph them.  Ellen then also wanted to have a go at feeding them, but as Fidilis later told me, she would pull her hand away as soon as the fish came too close!
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Ellen feeding the fish.
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All too soon our guide told us it was time to return to the boat as the Japanese diver couple had already come out.  This session was by far the best and I was so glad that Ellen insisted on coming out, but felt sorry for Hannah and Tim to have missed out.  Maybe we can catch a crossing from Kinabalu to Sapi island in the next few days?

[Tim] Hannah and I stayed in the shallows near the first beach we had visited, but the filth in the water was offputting. At one stage Hannah spotted a large piece of paper floating in the water and I wondered why it appeared to have a sponge inside it. Closer inspection revealed it to be a used nappy (diaper). Yuck…

Grotty beach.
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We met up with Kirsten and Ellen and had half an hour before our return boat trip to get changed, return our hired camera and retrieve our memory card. But because the divers amongst us were taking a while to finish writing in their log books, we didn’t set off for a further 30 minutes.

Girls with Fidilis.
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Leaving Gaya Island.
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Back at Sutera Harbour we passed the array of moored yachts from all over the world; not just nearby Australia but the Netherlands, USA. They can afford to stay at these pricy resorts…

A two-minute round-the-corner taxi ride got us back to our hotel, and we’re sure we saw the driver being handed three RM10 notes by the snorkelling staff (this was an all-inclusive day for us). You can get half an AirAsia flight for that money!

We had a quiet hour in our room and then went out again to find a nice place for a birthday supper. We toured Times Square. Korean? Not sure. The Italian place didn’t seem to serve anything except wine. We decided on the relatively busy ‘Rumours’ Bistro just further down our street, and we didn’t regret our choice. We splashed out at £6 a head and had beautifully-cooked sirloin steak (K), chargrilled salmon (T) and upmarket sandwiches for the girls, washed down with a Hoegaarden Belgian beer as a treat. The waiter brought out the food along with the now-expected ‘Beckham’ comment once they realise you’re from England – before we realised he was indicating the bacon sandwiches… (no, they weren’t served with posh spice.)

Following our active day we had a big enough appetite for dessert as well – chocolate pudding (a dainty little number) for the adults and one scoop of ice cream for the girls (they ended up with the full three scoops for no extra charge but couldn’t finish them). We might go back there again before we leave KK.

So, certainly a memorable day. Even if I am discovering that I should confine my lubbing firmly to the land, I am delighted that Ellen (especially) has been so inspired by her day of snorkelling – she wants to buy her own mask now (and so does Hannah) – and we’ll probably have another go in some suitably calm and shallow waters, maybe off Bali?

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Unlucky 4

“Times Square” conjures visions of a busy intersection replete with gaudy animated signs, but ours is altogether more sedate. It’s a collection of clinical concrete; a sort of spruced-up Swindon, but near deserted. As Kirsten pointed out, it strongly resembles one of those artist’s impression sketches that architects produce to show what their new mall will look like; designer water features, neat planting, angular geometry and a smattering of faceless people sitting at pavement cafe tables.
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It’s also largely empty; a few bistros huddle together for safety, two children’s stores hold hands and the odd tour company office hides away on the upper floors, but most units are unoccupied. All rather desolate for a nine-night stay. Yes, it’s clean, safe and quiet – apart from the fact that we’re three kilometres off the end of the airport runway (the first three planes of the day rumbled overhead just after six o’clock this morning). But a garden or a park is what we crave; the girls to let off steam and the adults to have a break from relentless grey right angles.
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Today’s title? Our hotel has no fourth floor. The lift goes 1, 2, 3, 3A, 5; I gather that the number 4 is unlucky for the Chinese. (Certain districts of China have even banned the infelicitous digit from car number plates.) Now tomorrow is May 4th (be with you) and also the author’s birthday, so I’ll keep my chopsticks crossed. No – that’s bad luck, too…

Anyway, back to the events of today. We had cereal or half a greasy doughnut this morning (in our room – this place is so much cheaper because there’s no ‘free’ breakfast included) and then popped out to a neighbouring block to arrange something for tomorrow (not giving away the birthday treat just yet).

Time for writing diaries, then we asked Reception to phone for a taxi to take us in to the Centrepoint shopping mall (shorter than yesterday’s trips). This time the driver came straight out with the rip-off RM15 fare, and there’s not much you can do to argue when he’s been called out especially. It’s only a few minutes’ drive down the main road, and just 40 such trips would bring in the average monthly wage of a shop assistant here. By contrast, taxis in Cusco charged a mere RM3 (equivalent) for far lengthier journeys.

We checked out the shopping centre but failed to find a food court so we settled for lunch at the expensive Secret Recipe chain (we went there once in Melaka when we visited Tesco). We shared two dishes between the four of us, not that the portions were in any danger of being too large…

Not much to grab our attention in Centrepoint, but we did want to get some ‘adult’ cereal from a supermarket (no, I don’t mean they keep it on the top shelf… just something that isn’t thickly coated in cocoa powder or sugar). We had already walked half way back to our room by the time we found it – along with some plump grapes and crunchy apples – so we eschewed the massed ranks of taximeter cabriolets (they are easy to come by in the centre) and completed the journey on foot.

We were pretty hot from the overhead sun so it was time for ice creams all round from the store next to our hotel. “We could buy these three times over with the money we saved by not taking a taxi” and the girls eagerly concurred with our financial logic.

We stayed in until suppertime – and the increasingly expected late afternoon downpour. Fortunately there is a cafe (Nisha) just beside our hotel so we dined there for a little over RM30, about half our usual bill. The waiter recited our order before heading off to the kitchen, and somehow they still got one item wrong – but this was immediately rectified with genuine apologies. We very much enjoyed our spring rolls (Kirsten even ordered a second helping), meatball and noodle soup and sweet and sour chicken.

Back in our room the girls wrote up today’s diary entry with no fuss and then we got them into bed for a prompt start tomorrow morning. We’re packed up ready to go – it’ll be a new experience for all of us, and should make for a memorable birthday.

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Our last morning in Basaga Residences in Kuching and we were awoken by yet another heavy rainstorm.

Today we had a buffet breakfast (because it is Sunday?) and had the choice between fried eggs, potato wedges, sausages and noodles.  We were also offered two dishes of toast with butter and jam.  Between the four of us we had a little bit of everything and we even got fresh warm milk for our coffees instead of these horrible little sachets of powder milk.

Once back in the room we finished our packing and within half an hour we were done.  We settled up our bills.  The laundry was probably the most expensive we have had during our trip, but then again all our clothes have been ironed and smell really lovely!

Leaving Basaga Residences.
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Shortly after 10 our transport turned up and within 15 minutes we arrived at Kuching International Airport.

We waited around for a little while and had our hold luggage security checked and labelled.  They use these thick and extremely horribly sticky yellow labels that are almost impossible to get off. We checked in effortlessly and were appointed the seats we had booked earlier online.

We were just wondering what to do and where to go when I spotted the elderly couple from Tasmania who we met at the Permai Rainforest Resort.  It was lovely to catch up with them.  They stayed at the resort for 10 days and found it far too long.  Also the Labour Day holiday was extremely busy with 400 guests at the resort.  They were on their way to Alan’s son in Kuala Lumpur, before returning to Tasmania.  After a good natter we shook hands and hugged and wished each other a safe flight.

What time is it?
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We stocked up on a handful of sweets and chocolates before going through another security check and metal detector.  We settled at gate 8 with our new books to read.  Forty minutes later our plane had arrived and yet again there was an extremely quick turn-around.

The flight went very smoothly, we had the same meals as last time and before we knew it we were getting ready to land at Kota Kinabalu International Airport.  Out of the window we could spot some beautiful little islands and lots and lots of water.

After all our luggage had finally turned up we dashed through the main hall and noticed a stand where we had to book our taxi.  You tell the lady where you want to go, you pay and then you get given two tickets, one of which you hand to the driver.

Our driver seemed a little confused when we asked him to go to KK Times Square.  I couldn’t quite understand his confusion, surely we would spot the hotel once we had arrived at the square…

But when we did arrive at Times Square, we were just as baffled as the driver had been earlier.  Times Square is not a traditional square but more a separate “island” just outside the city centre.  It has a number of rectangular shaped office blocks and cars are not allowed between these buildings, but can only drive around them.  This meant we had to carry our luggage, but fortunately it wasn’t too far.

Once in the hotel we checked in and then there was confusion about payment.  They showed us a certain amount on the calculator (everything is worked out with a calculator here) and the man said it was the amount of the deposit.  Surely not, it looked more like the full amount.  In the end we paid the full amount plus a “deposit” of RM52.  When Tim asked why we had to pay the extra RM52, the man only explained we would get our “deposit” back when we check out.

We were handed our key card and were ready to walk past reception to where I thought we would find the lift.  But the man pointed to the door and indicated we had to get outside, turn left and up one set of stairs to the lift which would then take us to the fifth floor and our room.

Our room is a large rectangle with two double beds, a small desk, two armchairs and a coffee table and a good sized bathroom with an absolutely huge shower cubicle (it would easily fit all four of us).

After a little rest we wandered around Times Square and popped into the little shop just down the road where we bought some milk and cereal and some biscuits for tea.  The area looks very deserted with empty office blocks and only one or two eating places and a bar.  I assume that would change during the working week.  We also haven’t seen any other guests and it feels like we’re on our own.

Not far from here is a shopping centre so we asked for a map at reception and the kind lady indicated it would only be a 10 minute walk.  The weather had cooled off and the temperature was fairly comfortable by now.  Traffic was busy but not at all hectic.

The shopping centre was heaving with people and the food court on the third floor was very disappointing.  I think we have been really spoiled in some of the other places we’ve visited.  We decided to get some money out and find a taxi to the night market near the waterfront.

We finally tracked down an ATM and while we were patiently waiting outside the small cubicle (as it was pretty packed already), this lady just simply came to stand in front of Tim and then went in before us.  Tim did point out to her that we were waiting as well, but that didn’t seem to put her off or make her apologise!

We had no problems finding a taxi and the driver was happy to take us to the night market.  Except there were two night markets and he drove us to the one without hawker stalls.  When we pointed out we wanted to be dropped off at the other market (with all the food!) he abruptly charged us an extra RM5 with a big smile on his face.

This night market was amazing, with stall after stall after stall of delicious foods and fruits.  The different stalls are also grouped together.  We ended up near the sweets and desserts and bought some doughnuts and pisang goreng (or fried bananas).  Again there didn’t seem to be any sort of queueing system as people arrived later than us, but simply shouted out their orders.  Are we that invisible?  There are not that many westerners around here so we should stand out quite a bit!

We wandered further down towards the fish stalls and decided to share a fresh tuna steak (extremely tasty) and plain rice (extremely bland), whilst the girls nibbled on their corn on the cob which we had bought earlier.  The bananas and doughnuts filled us up even more.

Although we had only seen a small part of the market, we felt it was time to return to the hotel and catch up on the blog.  We’re here for quite a few more days and I’m sure we’ll go back another time.

As we reached the main road Tim spotted a taxi.  No driver, only a lady in the passenger’s seat.  We hovered around wondering what to do, when the lady opened the door and asked if we needed a taxi.  She said she would phone her husband, who was visiting the market.  Shortly afterwards she told us how much it would be and that we could hop in the back.  Just before Tim tried to squeeze in as well, she told us she would drive instead.  “Don’t worry, I have my licence!”

She was our first female taxi driver ever, and she explained she was actually not working as she was expecting her first child.  She seemed extremely confident that the baby would be a boy.  “Yes, because my father only has granddaughters.  Five granddaughters!”

After a gentle 5 minute ride she dropped us off at Times Squares, where we wished her all the best with the pregnancy and the baby.

Back in our room we gave the girls some reading time, diaries will have to wait until tomorrow.

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