Tuesday 9 March 2010

Onwards to the Lion City

We took a bus from Melaka down to Singapore to go on the trail of something quite significant. Over 50 years ago John Dunbavand and Andrew Armstrong spent two years here, serving Queen and Country and making fantastic music. Well, 52 years later, Jon Owen and Simon Dunbavand have come to seek out one of the favourite haunts of an intrepid duo of an earlier generation!

And here it is! A Muslim Indian restaurant called "Zam Zam'. Now John always used to talk about the fiery Nasi Goreng here being the best in town. The restaurant was founded back in 1908 and is still going strong, turning out its famous dishes such as Mutarbarak.

Here's Simon with a photo taken of John back in November 1958, at a location somewhere near here! Two of these photos came on this trip, and one is already floating in Singapore harbour, to close the circle, as it were. There are still plenty of photos of the Cheshire Regiment band in action, and plenty of stories Andy can recollect. Simon always remembers mention of the name Zam Zam's.

Simon and Jon both started off the special meal with a fantastic "Milo Dinosaur"!

Soon a fabulous pair of Nasi Gorengs arrived...

Jon played it safe with a Chicken Korma with plenty of chicken meat, but maybe too much ghee?

Job done! And so the pair went off to Changi Airport, but where do you think they are going next then...?

Sunday 7 March 2010

Vrai: Malacca?

Today we've been on the trail of many Malaccan delights: St. Francis Xavier; Chinese temples; Baba Nyonya grub! But exactly how successful were we?

This Lion Dance was a riot of sound and colour, highlighting for us the whole concept of "Baba Nyonya": the blending and melding of Malay and Chinese cultures.

One local speciality is "Oyster Eggs".
Fried noodles are always very welcome, as you can see from this shot of three hungry diners, the two Simons and Jon:

Keep watching our blog in the next few hours, for there are going to be a few mystery destinations coming up very soon...

Saturday 6 March 2010

Shooting (Rapids and Targets…)

Are you ready to get wet? Well in the hot, humid and steamy climate of this rainforest, it’s a terrific idea. There are seven rapids to shoot right upstream from the village here at Kuala Tahan, and doing it in the longtails will mean a fair amount of water sloshing around all over us. And then to recover, we’ll visit a small settlement of the Batek people (only 3,000 remain), a tribe of the Orang Asli (this term simply means original people, the aboriginal tribes of peninsula Malaysia) where more shooting is going to take place, this time involving Jon and a very long blowpipe.
But before we went off to get a soaking, we bumped into a chap from St. Austell. Small world, isn’t it? And it’s shortly about to get even smaller…

The rapids shouldn’t really be compared to the grade 5 rapids we encountered up at the Last Resort in Nepal, or to the wonderful kayaking experience we’ve recently had on the Nam Ou up in Laos. Here the encounter with water involved a motor, but much, much more water. It didn’t last nearly long enough, but long enough for us to wish that we could do it all over again. Fast running water always appears to be freezing, but putting your hand into this river is quite a different experience. It’s very shallow and as the rapids woosh over the stones, it appears that the river is boiling. The temperature is more akin to a Jacuzzi, though! The wooden longtail in which we were seated had to almost come to a complete halt before the captain steered harshly from side to side to create the large sprays that completely drenched us.

Visiting the Orang Asli settlement seemed slightly staged, but in any event gave us quite a good insight into the life of this semi-nomadic people, deep in the heart of the forest. Firstly, we witnessed the making of fire. They really are skilled at this technique, and try as he might, Jon didn’t quite manage to get the wood to smoke.

Leave it to the pros and you can guarantee that the leaves will burst into flames. But then there was the blowpipe demonstration. These blowpipes are much, much longer than you might imagine, and the poison darts are skilfully made on the spot. It takes a considerable amount of puff to get your dart out of the blowpipe, let alone hit the target. Here we weren’t aiming at the monkeys, but at a target closely resembling a dartboard, but with the names of animals inscribed around the concentric circles. Whmmmmmph! On his very first attempt, Jon hit the target! An elephant. Great shot! Not as good as our new friend, Caroline, who hit a deer (that’s two rings in towards the bulls-eye, which resembled a human).

Meanwhile, back at the floating restaurant in Kuala Tahan, it was time to chill out for the evening over food and liquid refreshment (being a Muslim restaurant, there’s absolutely NO alcohol, but nevermind because they always manage to rustle up a tasty juice, tonight’s involving rosewater. It was at this point that we discovered than Jon’s new friend was actually his long-lost school friend from Berrycombe school, Simon Welch: they haven’t seen each other since they were five, and now here they are, reunited up the jungle on the other side of the world! Plus, it turns out they both recited the same poem in a festival competition at St Austell’s Methodist Church (next to the fire station and Ozzel Bowl, for those of you who are familiar).

“A little sardine saw its first submarine,
It was scared and watched through the peep-hole,
Come Come Come, said the Sardine’s mum,
It’s only a tin full of people”

He’s just spent a whole year teaching Maths and IT on Vanuatu, and is now heading home to Cornwall. Talking of which, we’ll shortly be heading home too!

But first, here’s an idea of just what might be lying in store for us in the next few weeks: something for you to look forward to! Coming up in the next few days will be the glories of Malacca. No, not the old Portuguese quarter; not the colonial Dutch architecture; not the historical museums, of course not. What will be interesting us on our visit to this sultry city? Well, the answer can be found in the name ‘Baba Nonya’, but you’ll have to keep on reading to find out exactly WHAT we’re on the trail of! And then the best part of two weeks in Sri Lanka, whale watching amongst other things. Which brings us to out traditional Middle East stopover on the way back home. Not Jordan this time, but something much more mysterious: the frankincense trail in Oman. Finally, would you like to know what Dubai is like? Well, we’re going to find out on your behalf, but just for an afternoon.

The Canopy Walkway

If you tend to suffer from vertigo or have a bit of a fear of heights, then look away right now. This blog entry is all about heights, for virtually all of the interesting action in a rainforest takes place right up in the canopy, and for us this is 45m above the forest floor. The trip started with a quick hop upstream by longtail, and then from the riverbank up, up into the canopy for a 500m stroll on some pretty rickety walkways. Take a look at this in action:

Following this experience, there was a further climb up to the hill Bukit Teresik to admire the view all the way to Gunung Tahan, the highest peak on peninsula Malaysia, 55km to the north. In the hot and steamy jungle, this climb was fairly demanding, but very rewarding when we finally made it!

There were some spectacular sights along the way too, particularly millions of organized ants going about their daily chores. Several lines of these wonderful creatures scampered along semi-exposed tree roots and then reformed even more orderly to single-file as they reached a thin twig en route. The morning concluded with a hearty lunch for the weary climbers, with some tasty fried rice enlivened with freshly chopped red chilli and a local air-dried river fish sautéed with ginger.

A Night Walk in the Jungle

Do you have any idea of the noise a rainforest makes? It seems deafening and goes on incessantly, whilst somehow this effect seems to be magnified at night. The purpose of our night time trek was not to view the larger animals of the national park, but to get up close and personal with all the insects: spiders (including tasty tarantulas…) scorpions, centipedes and stick insects. They didn’t seem to mind being illuminated by torchlight, all except the scorpions, who were very shy! Before we set off, there was time for a tasty Malay curry!

We made it to the hide overlooking the salt lick, where we waited for thirsty deer to come to the watering hole. Unfortunately, just like the tigers of Palamau in Jarkhand, they remained elusive. But that didn’t really matter, for the whole point of the night walk was simply to experience the other-worldliness of the rainforest. It’s almost impossible to put this into words, and being night, rather tricky to put into pictures too. So take it from us, being inside the rainforest at night is a pretty special experience.

The Journey to Taman Negara

Leaving Kuala Lumpur in the direction of Jerantut the scenery becomes spectacular: very hilly, with lush, green vegetation directly either side of the roadway. Upon reaching Jerantut, it’s necessary to transfer to Kuala Tembeling jetty for a three-hour boat journey, which actually seems way too short: we wanted the experience to go on and on. The boat is just a small dug-out longtail with a 40hp engine at the rear, the luggage perching precariously in the bows. In a matter of thirty minutes or so, we had reached a tranquil paradise where the multitonal trees of the Taman Negara towered on both sides of the meandering river. We sailed upstream, fighting against the current, and spotted ripples over the shallow areas where large pebbles laid menacingly. Observing a leafy outcrop from the riverbank to our right, we were fortunate to spot a stork-billed kingfisher. It was hard to spot initially, but it’s blue, shiny feathers and it’s red and yellow bill radiated reflection from beneath the forest’s shrubbery. Continuing upstream we were being watched by a terrestrial reptile, in fact, it we noticed that it was a montitor lizard as we got closer to the pebbly on which it was crawling. I don’t think that it’s meant to be the dry season here right now, but there has been no rain since January. Places along the river look like the water levels could go at least two metres higher, and then: crunch! Just like our kayaking in Laos, we’re aground, and won’t budge. There’s nothing for it but to get out and push, so Simon and Axel, our Swedish friend hop out into the river and attempt to get the boat off the rocks. Eventually we’re freed and continue upstream. This river is running worryingly low at some points, and the boatmen seem to know every turn in the river and exactly where the best channels are to be found, so we find ourselves meandering even up otherwise straight stretches of water.

As we reached the floating restaurant where a couple of guides greeted us and directed us to the hostel on site. There’s nothing quite like travelling on a river by small boat; this time around three hours just flew past and wasn’t nearly long enough. Dangling your hand languidly in the hot water of the river as the boat chugs along, taking in the myriad types and sizes of trees and creepers on the riverbank is simply magical.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Kuala Lumpur: KL, ok?

The metro here is great: efficient, clean and cheap. The day started by hopping on, then changing to the rinky-dink monorail to get to the Golden Triangle. It’s a stiflingly hot and humid city, built relatively recently where virgin rainforest once stood. Sometimes the pavement seems irregular where vegetation seems to be making an impressive effort to reclaim the land. The clearing of forest is an explosive issue here in Malaysia. Coming in to land yesterday we descended over a carpet of lush, green tree cover which looked fantastic from a distance, but upon closer inspection bore all the hallmarks of vast palm-oil plantations. Elsewhere in the country, logging is a force to be reckoned with. The stewardship of the natural habitat seems to have been handled in a cavalier-like fashion here in the past; the green spaces in this city seem all the more poignant as a result. It’s a brash, modern metropolis, yet everywhere you look there are trees and parks.
By the time we’d made it to the Golden Triangle, it was time for lunch, so we ducked down into the Lemon Food Court for inspiration.

Nasi Goreng jazzed up with some sambal really hit the spot, but an unexpected and welcome dessert came in the form of churros with butterscotch and lemon dips. Chilled sugar can juice with some fresh pineapple chunks rounded off a really great snack… Suitably fortified, our curious pair hit the electrical goods mall, checking out the latest Viao laptops and netbooks, but not finding the Apple Tablet, even in the Mac store. Nevermind, it’s time to climb the fourth highest telecommunications tower in the world!
The Menara TV Tower has a lift that whisked us all the way to the observation deck in 58 seconds. At first visibility was poor, although the thrill factor was high as we watched fork lightening strike all over the city, but as the rain cleared it became possible to see the forest clad mountains to the west, shrouded in mist. Next to us stood the Petronas Towers, looking fantastic by day, and even more impressive from such a height!

At the base of the tower we visited a menagerie of exotic animals (the racoons were the most entertaining) and did some Formula One simulated driving (Jon beating Simon partly by virtue of the fact that Simon completed one-and-a-half circuits with his left foot on the brake…)
Meanwhile, back at the KLCC mall, it was time for some cooling down. Here the ice cream comes in such amazing flavours and weird, exotic colours. Imagine Black Sesame flavoured ice cream, which is actually very dark grey. But the taste, ahhh the taste! We went more mainstream for our bigger order: Honeydew melon (surprisingly accurate and very thirst-quenching) lemon&lime (sharp!) and a very mellow mango. Yum! |Ok, ok, it’s a mall; it’s the best mall in KL, so I suppose we should actually do some shopping. We did.
Ending up once more at the top, there was nothing for it other than to have supper. Jon gave the Penang-style stall a chance, with a massive bowl of fragrant, saffron coloured Curry Mee soup, whilst Simon went for the black-bean chicken from Little Wok, again aided and abetted by the fiery sambal. This level of fortification will help our pair of intrepid explorers, for tomorrow they are to spend the entire day travelling deep into the heart of a rainforest 130 million years old. If you don’t hear from us by Sunday, send a search party…