Buying dodgy reading specs in the DIY store, sampling Chinese medicine a la gecko, and a tortoise goes past on a trolley.

Day 76: Melaka, Malaysia. We headed out mid-morning to the mega mall for a spot of dreaded shopping. Thankfully as it’s midweek, the mall was pretty empty, so at least we weren’t tripping over people, even if we were frowning and grumbling about having to do the ‘shopping thing’.

We’ve almost run out of insect repellent – and given we’re heading to Borneo tomorrow and will be spending a fair bit of time wandering about the jungle, we badly needed to top up. We visited 5 pharmacies, but none of them had any 30% or 50% DEET repellent. From what we can tell, the selling point here for insect repellents is natural and DEET-free. Eventually we found one that was 15% DEET, and came in a giant orange can, but it was better than nothing. Time to dig out the 80% DEET gel that we’ve been storing at the bottom of our rucksacks in case of emergency – that should repel pretty much anything, including snakes and wild boars (hopefully).

We also needed to get Lil some off-the-shelf reading glasses – her current pair fell apart yesterday. After a lot of searching we tracked some down in a DIY shop (go figure) – for around a dollar. Lil said they’re fine so long as she stares straight ahead when she’s reading, if she moves her eyes left or right, or up or down, things go blurry. Hopefully we’ll be able to find a better option when we reach Kuching.

While it can be hard to find stuff we’re used to finding readily available in Sydney – we’re also discovering some things that we’ve never seen in Sydney at all. Including Ginger Diet Pepsi, which we’re fast becoming addicted to.

Late afternoon we paid another visit to the rice wine shop around the corner. Jim found more Chinese medicine – this time it was 36% alcohol, and included gecko – and is good for improving energy. The dosage this time says 20-40ml, twice a day (Jim thinks 40ml must be the best). Lil had lychee rice wine again – which is safe and doesn’t contain any reptiles (as far as she could tell from the ingredients list). Jim finished off with a Malaysian sake, then we paid our bill and headed out for dinner.

The weekend in Melaka was crazy – it was absolutely packed and every single bar, restaurant and shop was open and doing good trade. Midweek it’s a bit different, a lot of restaurants and bars are closed (particularly in the evening) so we had to do a bit of search about to find food in a restaurant that wasn’t too touristy. We found a food stall type eatery at the end of Jonker Street that had some rice dishes, which were served in plastic baskets with a paper lining. The upside was the eatery was open and was selling food, the downside was the eatery was about to close and all the food was cold.

After dinner we walked around to see if the bar where we sat on the pavement was open (we now know it’s called the Busdriver bar). On the way to the bar we spotted the tortoise that was having a bath the other night – tonight he was being wheeled along on a trolley with a bag of rubbish. Hopefully his owners haven’t got tired of him and decided to take him to the dump. We also saw a cat using a car tyre as a scratching post (giggle) – sadly it stopped its antics before we could get a pic.

We had a couple of beers at the Busdriver bar, watched a guy painting, and chatted to the manager and others who were chilling out on the pavement. And then it was time to head home and pack up our stuff again.

Tomorrow morning we’re up at silly o’clock again to catch a Grab to the bus station, then to catch a bus to KL, then to catch a plane to Kuching, Borneo.

More then.

Jim asks again for chinese medicine, a public holiday for the king’s installation, and munching murtaba at a local eatery.

Day 75: Melaka, Malaysia. We both woke today feeling a bit lethargic after a restless night sleep, for no obvious reason.

Jim was quick to mention he wasn’t feeling great and probably needed some more ‘Chinese medicine’ from the rice wine shop around the corner. Lil said he probably needed water, coffee and some more sleep. Nice try, though.

We’ve always found the best remedy for lethargy (excluding any possibility of Chinese medicine) is a long walk in the sun. So after a big breakfast and lots of caffeine, we set off west through the town, and beyond the heritage area. Soon we were wandering past gorgeous old houses – some kept well and some sadly abandoned – temples and mosques, and traditional street side shops selling all sorts of stuff.

We walked north-west along the coast, passing reclamation projects, and ended up at the Melaka Submarine Museum, which is plonked in a fairly isolated location about 8km from the town. The museum was packed with families and didn’t look overly exciting, so we bought some more water from the empty cafe and set off to retrace our steps back to the town.

From our guesthouse rooftop, we can see a building in the distance with a bright blue illuminated roof. Jim checked it out on Google maps and was pretty sure it was an arts theatre, so on the way home we decided to go and check it out. It’s called Encore Melaka, a purpose built 2,000 seat theatre which has a 70 minute long show recounting forgotten Melakan stories, from the days of the early voyagers to the birth of modern Melaka. Architecturally, it’s a pretty interesting building and we both reckon it has aspirations to be the Sydney Opera House when it grows up.

Then we headed home along a different route, and after walking almost 20km, reached our guesthouse about 6pm. We were both starving, so after a quick shower we headed out for dinner.

Today is the ‘Installation of the King’ here in Malaysia – they pick a new king, in turns, from each state every five years. It’s also a public holiday, so lots of places are closed. Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah was appointed in January 2019, but today was his official coronation (and his 60th birthday).

We found an Indian Malaysian restaurant open a couple of blocks away, and had some great chicken soup, beef soup and an astonishingly good mutton, beef and chicken murtaba – a stuffed pan fried bread made with egg and onion. Happy days.

We were hoping the bar we visited a couple of nights ago, with the outside pavement seating area, might be open but it was also closed for the holiday. So we headed to the riverside and had a couple of Tsingtao beers and a spot of people watching at a very cool little bar there.

Then it was back home for an early night, to catch up on some lost sleep.

Tomorrow we need to do some dreaded shopping, and finalise accommodation and transport for our trip to Kuching, Borneo on Thursday.

More then.

Confiscated items at the customs museum, Jim drinks alcohol to strengthen his body and waist, and bath time for a giant tortoise.

Day 74: Melaka, Malaysia. We had a much needed morning of admin – sorting out finances, replying to messages, and working through a list of places and things we need to research.

After lunch we headed out to tick a few remaining ‘must-sees’ off our sightseeing list. We dropped into a nearby church that we can see from the guesthouse rooftop, a Catholic church built in 1856 which was modeled after Montpelier Cathedral. A stunning and very calming interior.

Next on our list was St John’s Fort. Originally a Portuguese chapel dedicated to John the Baptist in the 16th century, the fort was built by the Dutch in the 18th century. It’s unusual for a coastal fort to have battlements pointing inland, which is where they feared an attack might come from (they were already comfortably controlling the surrounding seas).

Then we walked across town to the Royal Malaysian Customs Museum. The museum was opened in 2006 and provides information and exhibits on the Royal Malaysian Customs Department. It sounds a little boring, but actually it was surprisingly interesting and very well put together. The building the museum is housed in was constructed by the British colonial administrators in the early 1890s to store imported trade goods such as rice, sugar, spices and textiles imported from countries across Asia.

The exhibits show artifacts that have been confiscated, including animals and plants, along with guns, drugs and items decorated with religious texts.

There was also an exhibit of sexually offensive items that the Customers Department has confiscated over time. It’s pretty amusing that they chose to display them in a glass case for all to see – we’re sure some visitors must be offended to see a bunch of sexually offensive items.

Next was a major highlight – a visit to a tiny rice wine bar just around the corner from our guesthouse, called Sin Hiap Hin. The bar is over 100 years old and is managed and run by a sweet old lady called Mrs Lee (known locally as ‘Aunty’).

We plonked ourselves on two wooden chairs at the 100 year old wooden bar, and Aunty took down a selection of Malaysian rice wines from the shelves.

We started with lychee rice wine, and rose water rice wine. Both were fabulous, only a little sweet but fairly potent, at 27%. While we were sipping, Aunty told us a little bit about her background. She married her husband in 1973 and has lived in the bar ever since. The bar has been in the same family since it was started 100 years ago. She has 4 children and 6 grandchildren, but has no idea if any of them will take on the business and manage it in the future. Let’s hope someone takes it over, as it’s an absolute gem.

The bar opens from 9am to 6pm (sometimes 7pm) – it used to open later, but Aunty said that people get too drunk and then there is trouble, so now she prefers to only open during the day. Apparently many years ago, when her husband ran the bar, it opened much earlier and people used to pop past for a drink before work to get them through the day.

There’s an old round table in the bar, with a marble top which has been cracked in two. Aunty said it happened some time ago when a customer got drunk and smashed it with an empty bottle. He came back the next day to apologise and said ‘he had had too much to drink’. While it was nice to get an apology, sadly the table couldn’t be repaired.

Next Lil tried the coconut rice wine, and Aunty suggsted to Jim he should try a Chinese liquor that (perhaps not surprisingly) is very popular with the Chinese, called Male Silkworm Chiew. Lil wrinkled her nose when she saw that silkworm is included in the list of ingredients. It’s also prescribed as a medicine, traditionally used for ‘strengthening the body and waist’. The dosage for adults is 45ml, twice a day (‘after meal and before sleep’), which at 34% alcohol should have you feeling better in no time, or perhaps feeling nothing at all. Jim is now complaining regularly that he doesn’t feel well and needs some medicine. Nice try.

We shared one last drink between us – an original Malaysian rice wine, then paid our bill, thanked Mrs Lee for her hospitality and said we’d pop back tomorrow to try another couple of local drinks.

Dinner this evening was at a Chinese restaurant close to our guesthouse – we didn’t feel like straying too far. Noodles and more noodles and kung po chicken, all very good.

As we walked home, a girl was giving a huge tortoise a bath on the doorstep of her house, while another smaller one trundled about inside the house. Never a dull moment, as they say.

We’re still deciding what to do tomorrow. Doubtless it will involve a fair bit of walking and another trip to the rice wine bar, so Jim can have his medicine.

More then.

Lots of barking in the laundromat, getting freaked out by lumbering giant lizards, and chilling on the ground at a local bar.

Day 73: Melaka, Malaysia. Our guesthouse has no clothes washing facilities, so after breakfast this morning we walked over to a local laundromat with a bag full of dirty clothes.

The lady who runs the laundromat was clearly having a bad day, or perhaps she just doesn’t like working in a laundromat. She barked at us for not taking our shoes off, then barked at us to use washer No.6 (which didn’t exist, so we spun around in circles looking confused), then barked at us again because we put too much washing powder in the washing machine.

While our clothes were swishing around with too much washing powder, we walked down the street for a coffee at a local cafe, then returned to throw the washing into the dryer. Jim hid around the corner not wanting to get berated again, but thankfully cranky lady had gone somewhere, so there was no more barking. When the drying had finished we dropped into our guesthouse then headed straight out for a long walk by the river.

Melaka is packed with street art – on the outside of guesthouses and bars, shops and walls – it’s everywhere, it’s wonderful and best of all, no one seems to tamper with it. We checked out a series of paintings along the riverside bank, then headed further north along the river.

We passed what looked like a monorail track, however in the time we’ve been here, we’ve never seen a monorail moving or promoted anywhere. Online it says the monorail was opened to the public on 21 October 2010, but after only hours of opening it ground to a halt with 20 passengers trapped inside. By December 2010, it has closed completely due to more technical issues. After many years of being suspended, the 2.5km loop line was opened again in December 2017. We saw train carriages parked in a station as we walked around the river, but can’t find anything online about what happened between 2017 and now. A question for the tourist office perhaps, out of sheer curiosity.

We walked as far as we could along the river – or at least as far as we felt comfortable. It was getting pretty overgrown and we could see stray dogs ahead, that we were keen to avoid. We crossed a battered bridge and started to walk back the other side. Around the next bend Jim shouted ‘stop!’, and pointed ahead – Lil scanned the pathway assuming another snake must be slithering about, but no, it was a scary looking giant water monitor lizard, right in front of us on the path, about two metres long.

Like most animals and reptiles, water monitors generally don’t attack unless they feel threatened – though this one was looking a little threatened by our appearance. While we stood and wondered what to do next, we heard rustling in the bushes next to us and realised it had a mate in there too. Lil started tugging Jim’s sleeve to get him to walk back, but thankfully after another minute both water monitors lumbered across the pathway and into the river.

We walked back into the town, then out the other side and down to the waterfront – this time to the west of the town. There’s another large scale reclamation project taking place, which is the subject of lots of controversy, just like Penang. The current state government is keen to put a stop to the project, which was agreed under a previous government, but it’s proving tricky. So there wasn’t much to be seen – mostly barren land with cranes and construction taking place.

We walked around in a big loop and had dinner at Jonker Street hawker centre, about a kilometre out of the busy town. It was packed with locals having their Sunday evening meal, and a much better option than sitting in the heavily packed night market in town.

Then it was time for a beer, so we headed home and up to our rooftop to watch the sunset again. It’s the perfect place to get away from the noise and crowds of the town, and brings to mind the old Drifters song “Up on the roof”.

Last night, as we were walking along a quiet side street close to our guesthouse, we spotted a very cool little bar with a group of people sitting on the ground on the front porch around low tables. We said we’d go back this evening and check it out, which we did. It’s a fabulous little bar, so long as you’re happy to sit on the ground.

The guy who brought us beers is lovely, a guy called Gary who’s from Tunisia and says travelling is his life. He travels for a while then returns to Melaka, which is now his base, to top up this funds, then off he goes again. We met and chatted with a bunch of other people from India and the US. If we lived here, it would doubtless be our local – it’s a great little laid-back spot to chill and chat.

Then it was home to bed. Tomorrow we’re planning an admin morning to catch up with finances and messages, do some more travel planning, then we’ll head out to check out an old fort and visit a kooky old bar that serves lychee wine.

More then.

A hefty history walk, a cute cat on a hat, and dinner in very little India.

Day 72: Melaka, Malaysia. We woke to a hot sunny day, and headed out to explore the old streets and buildings of Melaka. As we walked through the guesthouse, down the multiple flights of bright blue stairs, and through the mini-museum in what used to be the front reception area, we snapped a few more pics of this sensational old building and memorabilia.

We set off on the Melaka heritage walk, dodging cars and bikes as we crossed the busy streets – and dodging a guy on the pavement with a parrot on his shoulder. A little random.

Melaka has a big and colourful history. Having been established in 1396 by a Sumatran prince, the Portuguese arrived in 1511; the Dutch took over in 1641; the British ruled from 1795; it was then back to the Dutch in 1818, and the British in 1824; the Japanese took occupation in 1942-45; then it was handed back to the British; and finally independence was granted in 1957.

Our first stop was St Peter’s Church, which was built in 1710 by the Portuguese and is the oldest church in the country. A lovely old guy who was the church attendant chatted us through some of the history, though he had a very strong accent and we both heard slightly different things. Lil thought he said you can find ‘peace and quiet’ in the annex; Jim thought he said you can find ‘a poltergeist’ in the annex. Who knows, perhaps you get both.

Next we walked up Bukit China (China Hill), through the cemetery, and over to the Sam Poh Kong temple which is dedicated to China’s Admiral Cheng Ho.

The temple houses the personal well of a Chinese princess, Hang Li Po, who married a local sultan in 1459. The water was used for their daily needs, and apparently never dried up. Legend says that anyone who drinks from the well, will return to Melaka. It was poisoned twice over time to kill invaders.

We had a quick trip to the Malaysia Independence Museum – two floors packed with information about Malaysia’s past and its strive for independence, which was granted in 1957. The volume of information and the layout and design was a little overwhelming, so we skimmed some of the key information panels and photos, and headed back out to into the daylight.

Then we had a look at Porta de Santiago, the only remaining piece of A Famosa, the name given to the fort that the Portuguese built to defend Melaka. The rest of the fort was demolished by the British in 1795, the strategic intention being to move everything and everyone to Penang, and leave Melaka indefensible.

Next we walked up a steep set of steps to look at St Paul’s Hill Church, which was originally built in 1521. It’s the burial ground of many Dutch noblemen.

Our last historical site visit for the day was to Christ Church, built in 1753. The pews inside are 200 years old, and the bell dates back to 1608 – unfortunately we couldn’t go inside today as the church was closed to visitors, hopefully another day.

We headed out of the town centre and walked across to Melaka Island, a reclaimed piece of land by the waterfront. Along the way we spotted a guy walking along with his cat on his head – surprisingly the cat seemed quite happy. Not sure if the cat was responsible for the piece missing from the brim of the guy’s hat or not.

The Melaka Straits Mosque is perched on the edge of the island. We both had to borrow gowns before we were allowed to walk in and take a look around. It’s a fabulous building, and was pretty busy – we were fortunate to be able to take a look at the praying room while a prayer session was underway.

Side note: in a blog post a couple of days ago, we mentioned green arrows on the ceilings of guesthouses we’d stayed in, assuming they were directions to fire escapes. One of our friends pointed out that they are in fact indicators of Mecca, so muslims know which direction they need to pray. Oops – just as well there weren’t any fire alarms while we were there.

Then it was back to the town, and time for a cold beer on the rooftop at the guesthouse, watching the sun set. It’s a lovely and very peaceful little space.

This evening we wandered about some more laneways and along the river, and into (very) Little India, where we had some sensational food for dinner, including mutton masala, chennai chicken, and a monster crispy dosai.

Then a late evening wander through another street market, and it was time for a final beer in a very cute side street, before heading back to our guesthouse.

Tomorrow we’ll continue to explore the town and surrounds, walk a lot, and doubtless pack in some more great food.

More then.

E-ticket madness at the bus station, noodling around the night market, and meeting Mr & Mrs Jones.

Day 71: Kuala Lupis & Melaka, Malaysia. This morning we packed our bags, again. This time to head south from Kuala Lipis to Malacca (or Melaka as it’s spelt locally).

We had breakfast at the guesthouse. A choice of Nasi Lamek – rice and egg served with a spicy, fishy sauce; or another dish we can’t recall the name of, but which was spicy noodles with prawn. Jim is happy to eat spicy food (or pretty much anything, really) for breakfast, however Lil struggles a bit. She had a few mouthfuls of her Nasi Lamek, pushed the rest over to Jim, then went and raided the bread container and made herself a pile of toast and jam.

Kuala Lipis bus station was only a couple of minutes walk from the guesthouse. We got there nice and early, as always. Jim showed our e-ticket to the guy at the ticket counter, which is usually enough to get us ticked off on the passenger list, and sometimes a ‘boarding pass’ issued.

But not this time. The guy insisted we needed a printed copy of the e-ticket. We asked why, and he said it’s because “the driver likes printed copies of all tickets”. He said we could walk into town where there was a shop that would print the tickets, except he couldn’t remember the name of the shop or what it looked like, or where it was. We were just about to walk back to our guesthouse and ask them if they could help us out, when the guy called the station manager over, who – after spending ages staring at the e-ticket and shaking his head, then nodding his head, then asking “2 people, yes?”, then shaking his head again – waved us on our way and said “no need to print”. Baffling.

One thing we noticed about Kuala Lipis is there are heaps of cats everywhere. Some are definitely strays, but most look in pretty good nick. A large bunch were wandering around the bus station – presumably to partake of the free bowls of cat food and water that some kind souls have left out for them.

As we were early, Lil wandered across to the supermarket to buy some snacks for the trip. The store had just opened and was already crazy busy. For some reason there was a team of staff mopping the floors around the store, while customers skidded past and around them. Lil did likewise, holding onto counters with one hand and her nose with the other (there were huge piles of dried fish which her sensitive sense of smell doesn’t cope well with), and luckily emerged again without any broken limbs.

The bus left right on time – the last person was just lifting their leg onto the top step of the bus, when the driver hit the gas and we shot out of the car park.

We stopped at one pick-up point along the way, and a guy took the opportunity to get off the bus to head to the bathroom. Once all the new passengers were on the bus, the driver hit his accelerator again. Except the guy who’d got off was still in the toilet. So his mate had to ask the driver to stop – which he did, very very reluctantly. And then sat blaring his horn until the poor guy emerged from the loo, looking hellishly embarrassed.

We arrived at Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (TBS) in Kuala Lumpur – our third time at the station so far. Jim got our boarding passes, and we sat and waited for the bus to Melaka. Soon we were on our way, zipping along the freeway south of KL towards Melaka.

We arrived early at Melaka bus station, and caught a local No. 17 bus into the town – a quick 15 minute ride. We walked across to our guesthouse, got checked in and had a look around. Booking accommodation online, and often at the last minute, can be a bit hit and miss, but this time we really got lucky. The guesthouse is superb – it sits behind an old rice warehouse on the river and was where all the business was conducted back in the old days.

On one end, outside, is a cute cafe and bar, and inside there are high ceilings, a maze of internal staircases, antique knick-knacks for decoration, and our room has a floor to ceiling window with plantation shutters that open on to the street. There are more stairs up to the rooftop with a great view across the town. Tomorrow we’ll take more pics of the cafe and interior.

The sun was just setting as we stood on the rooftop looking out over Melaka, a really glorious evening.

We headed out to explore the town, starting with a walk along the riverside where there are heaps of great little outdoor bars, some very quiet, some with music. We continued on and turned into Jonker Street, the main tourist area with a great night market. We walked the full length of the market, oohing and aahing at all the food choices, then walked back around to the river for cold beers at a Reggae Bar. Then back to the night market for food – two fabulous noodle dishes and pork and spring onion dumplings.

Melaka was established in 1396 by a Sumatran prince. Since then it’s been ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch and English, occupied by the Japanese during WWII, and became independent in 1957. It’s packed with lots of old interesting buildings from across the centuries. We’ll be taking a long walk tomorrow to check them out.

As we walked past a Buddhist temple, we spotted some sort of dance exercise class taking place in the one of the halls. Once again, Lil tried to convince Jim it might be fun to join in on a local dance class. And once again, failed to convince him.

Lil had read about a bar called Mr & Mrs Jones, a live music bar down a side lane. We found the bar and ordered beers – sadly there were only a couple of other people there. It’s run by a local couple called Hawk and Joan (aka Mr & Mrs Jones) – Hawk plays guitar and sings, and Joan runs the bar and serves drinks. They often get local musicians and tourists coming in to jam with Hawk, however for whatever reason, tonight was a really quiet Friday night. We said we’d pop back in tomorrow (Saturday) when it will likely be a lot busier. As we left, Joan called Lil back to loan her a book on the history of Melaka, which we promised to drop back before we leave town. Very thoughtful, and very trusting, of her.

We headed home, tired out and looking forward to a good night’s sleep after a busy day. Tomorrow we’ll go exploring around some of the old streets and buildings, and Lil can put her nose into Joan’s history book for a bit.

More then.

Jump out the window in case of fire, a train packed with sugar-fuelled school kids, and the search for a hidden saloon bar.

Day 70: Gua Masang & Kuala Lipis, Malaysia. This morning we headed to Gua Musang train station to catch the 10.10am train to Kuala Lipis, a small town around 110km south.

Before we left the guesthouse, Lil commented that the last couple of places we’ve stayed in have had green arrows stuck to the ceiling, indicating the direction of the fire exit. In last night’s room, the arrow was pointing out the window which, given there’s no fire escape and we were on the second floor, doesn’t seem too handy.

When we arrived at Gua Musang station, the waiting area was heaving with dozens of kids and some adults. Once again, lots of little faces turned to stare at us, as we pushed through the crowds wearing our backpacks and western clothes.

We headed to the cafe at the far end of the station for a bit of peace and quiet, and had a coffee while we waited for the train. A guy sitting at the table next to us spotted an opportunity to practice his English. He started chatting, asking where we were from, where we’ve been and where we’re headed, and in return Jim asked him why there were so many kids at the station. The guys said they were from a local school and were going on a train outing to Kuala Lupis (which is exactly where we were headed).

When the train arrived, we did our best to sit as far away from the gaggle of kids as we could. About eight or so ended up in our carriage but the rest were thankfully packed in elsewhere.

The bunch of kids sitting in front and opposite us were funny – they spent the first hour or so continually turning and staring at us, and watching our every move. Meanwhile they were scoffing all sorts of lollies and chocolate, and once the sugar rush kicked in, they became totally hyper. The volume in the carriage went up considerably, and as part of some game they were playing, shoes started flying up and down the carriage aisle.

It was another very scenic journey, albeit a lot shorter than yesterday’s. Once again, lots of jungle and lots of little train stations along the way.

We arrived in Kuala Lupis a few minutes ahead of schedule, and after finding our accommodation we dumped our bags in our room, and headed out to check out the town.

Kuala Lupis was the state capital of Pahang from 1898 to 1953, and a hub for gold mining. During that period, a number of grand colonial buildings were constructed and the town prospered. When the state capital was shifted to Kuantan in 1955, Kuala Lipis fell into decline. There are still over a dozen significant historical buildings to visit today, but many are in a state of disrepair including the Pahang Club, a black and white timbered building which used to be a members’ clubhouse, but closed down in 2004.

By late afternoon, we were hot and tired and a cold beer seemed like a very good idea. There were no obvious bars in town, however Lil had read online that there was a bar called Bar 55 tucked away on a back street that sounded interesting, so we went to see if we could find it. The short online mention said ‘look for the white saloon doors’ and gave a street name. After a bit of roaming about, we spotted two very small white doors with 55 painted on them, and swung our way into the bar.

The bar inside was pretty dimly lit, with round concrete tables, one rectangular wooden table and stools, and an old fashioned sofa. We were the only people there, apart from the girl who was serving, and her kid brother who lay on the sofa the entire time playing a video game (apart from one quick burst of energy when he shot up to turn on a fan, then lay back down comatose again).

When we’d finished our beer, we headed off in search of food. A lot of restaurants were shut (we’re not sure why), but we found a small Chinese cafe in an open area at the end of town. Lil asked for chicken and rice (playing it safe as always), and Jim pointed to one of their specials, which turned out to be a sensational mixed seafood dish in chicken and egg soup.

As we were tucking into our food, a Chinese guy appeared at our table and sat down next to us. He introduced himself as the husband of the lady cooking food behind the counter. He told us he had been at home, when his wife (who doesn’t speak much English) called him to say that two tourists had arrived, and she ‘wasn’t able to entertain them’. So he drove over specially to introduce himself, and make sure that we had everything we needed. How incredibly kind and thoughtful. His name is Fowzi, and he worked in the tourist industry for 15 years before retiring, so guess he is well used to dealing with Lil & Jim types.

After dinner, we headed back to the hidden bar for another beer, and this time we found we had company. A guy called Liew, who spoke excellent English, chatted to us to ask where we’re from, where we’re headed etc. It turns out that he and his mates used to be members of the Pahang Club that closed in 2004. They decided they needed somewhere else to meet and drink beers, and that’s how Bar 55 came to be established. These days, despite the 55 number painted on the saloon doors, it’s called Aramaiti cafe.

Then we headed home to book transport and accommodation for the next stage of our adventure. Tomorrow we catch the bus from Kuala Lipis to KL, and then on to Malacca (or Melaka, to use its local spelling).

More then.

More kerfuffle at the supermarket, people keep stopping and staring at us, and prawns out of a horror movie.

Day 69: Kota Bharu & Gua Masang, Malaysia. We had a relaxing start to the day, including a long snooze-on which was much needed after yesterday’s crazy o’clock start.

Just before midday, we walked to the local supermarket to buy some snacks, where Lil caused a bit of a kerfuffle by going in the out door. At least this time she knew to choose a ladies-only checkout on the way out. The couple of items she bought were shoved into a plastic bag, then the receipt was taped to the outside of the bag, and then one of the security guards stamped the receipt as she walked through the exit door. Such a lot of process – and very manual too.

Then we got a Grab car to Wakaf Bharu railway station, about 5km west of Kota Bharu city centre. Thankfully we were able to easily buy tickets for today’s East Coast Line Service, also known as the Jungle Railway. The East Coast title is a bit of a misnomer, as the train runs through the centre of the peninsula, only hitting the coast at the start of the line at Tumpat, at the border with Thailand.

The railway, which runs over 500km from the northern border with Thailand all the way to Singapore, was constructed by a Tamil workforce and paid for by the British, in several stages between 1910 and 1935, in order to transport rubber and tin from the jungle. At the time it was considered an engineering marvel due to the terrain. During the second world war around half the track was pulled up by the Japanese occupiers of Malaya and re-used to build the Thai-Burma ‘Death Railway’ that runs through Kanchanaburi, where we stayed six weeks ago. The rails were all replaced after the war.

We were over two hours early for the train, so we sat and had coffee at the small cafe and shop at the station, then Lil decided to go for a stroll to the local town, less than 10 minutes walk away. She came scurrying back pretty quickly as she was (quite literally) the talk of the town – everyone stopped and stared as she walked past – guessing they don’t get many non-muslim visitors there.

The train pulled into the station right on schedule. We climbed aboard, picked two seats and slung our backpacks in the overhead luggage rack. For third class, the train was pretty comfy – padded reclining seats, decent leg room and (at least some) air conditioning. The interior plastic trim was an interesting shade of green.

Wakaf Bharu to Gua Masang is a five and a half hour journey, with around 35 stops along the way. Some of the stations are absolutely tiny, often no more than a small wooden shed or just a table and chairs with a canopy. The further we got into the heart of the jungle, the more curious we became, wondering what it must be like to live in such small villages, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was an incredibly scenic and very comfy trip, and the time flew past. During the trip a lady walked through the carriages selling crunchy guava slices with sugar and salt, so we bought some to try it out – absolutely delicious.

We got lots of curious looks on the train too – we were the only non-locals, and people were clearly a little bamboozled by our western clothes, and Lil’s red hair and pale skin. At one point, Lil woke from a snooze to find a small girl literally standing and staring at her. When she saw Lil wake up, she gave her a big smile and ran away. She came back several times throughout the journey to check us out again – and was very intrigued by our phones too.

There were lots of kids on the train with their parents, and very few had any screens to entertain them. Instead they talked or slept or played with toys. And of course we had to be sitting next to a little boy who sang ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round’ over and over. We’re guessing kids must learn English songs in school or at home, although they converse in Malay.

We arrived in Gua Masang (which means ‘Civet Cat Cave’) at 8.20pm. Our accommodation was 10 minutes walk away, along a very dark road with no pavement. We slung our bags into our room and headed straight out for dinner.

Despite Gua Masang being a small town and it being after 8.30pm on a Wednesday evening, there were lots of local eateries to choose from. We were starving, so were happy to stop at the first place we passed. Lil had a great chicken and fried rice dish, and Jim had seafood with noodles, including some prawns that Lil said looked straight from a horror movie, with huge long claws sticking over the edge of the plate.

We had a quick stroll around the town after dinner, then headed back to the guesthouse for an early night. Tomorrow we continue the train trip, this time a much shorter two and a half hour journey to Kuala Lipis. And doubtless we’ll get lots more stares from curious people along the way.

More then.

Wandering the streets at crazy o’clock, separating genders at the supermarket check outs, and a plan B with no plan.

Day 68: Penang & Kota Bharu, Malaysia. We were up this morning at crazy o’clock, to finish packing, quickly inhale toast and coffee, and walk down to the jetty terminal to catch a bus to Sungai Nibong station, where we were catching another bus to Kota Bharu. We were both a bit sad to be leaving Penang; out of all the places we’ve visited so far, this one definitely ranks in our top three. Great city, great food, great people – we’ve really loved our time there.

It was still dark when we left the guesthouse, with hardly any cars or bikes around the streets. A nice change from the crazy daylight hours when the roads get snarled up with traffic, bikes and people.

We had a decent wait at the jetty terminal (we’d just missed a bus, so had to wait for the next one). By the time we were on the bus at 7.30am, the city was swinging into action – the roads were already starting to get congested and people were swarming around street-side food eateries to pack in breakfast before they got their days underway.

We arrived at Sungai Nibong bus station, which was a little chaotic. Instead of centralised ticketing checks, every single bus company (and there’s an awful lot of them) had their own booth set up on the upper floor of the building, in random order. There was no one at the Transnational booth – we could see a handbag and food on a chair behind the window, so they were clearly open, just not around. So we sat and waited, and eventually a lady appeared and issued tickets for our online booking. And charged us for printing them too.

We headed off from Penang Island, across the Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Bridge (more commonly known as the Second Penang Bridge) which opened to the public in 2014. It has an impressive cross-water span of 16.9km and is built to withstand earthquakes of more than 7.5 on the Richter scale.

The bus journey to Kota Bharu took over 7 hours. Thankfully the roads were really good again, apart from one small stretch where we climbed uphill and found ourselves hanging on while we swung from side to side. We made one short stop for lunch, but otherwise it was full steam ahead all the way. Half way through the journey, a little boy behind us decided to sing the same couple of songs over and over. We gritted our teeth and rolled our eyes, then let out a huge sigh of relief when he at last fell asleep about an hour later.

We arrived in Kota Bharu late afternoon, and walked across to our accommodation on the north east side of town. Once we’d dumped our bags, we decided to headed out for dinner and to see if we could book tickets for tomorrow’s train without having to visit the train station, which is a fair way away.

As we passed the reception desk at our accommodation, we asked the guy there if it’s possible to book tickets at the train station on the day of travel. His response: “I don’t know”. So we asked if anyone else working with him might know. His response: “Maybe”. He showed no sign of going and asking anyone, so we gave up and headed out to find a travel agent who might be able to help. There was one we found online that said it was open until 7.30pm, however when we found it, it was closed. So we’ll just have to hope we can get tickets at the station tomorrow, otherwise we’ll follow Plan B, whatever that might be.

Kota Bharu is situated in the north east of the peninsula, over 340km east of Penang. The name means ‘new city’ in Malay. It serves as the state capital and royal seat of Kelantan, one of the 13 states of Malaysia.

Photo copyright

It’s a pretty interesting place, with a highly concentrated Muslim population – around 93%, considerably higher than the cross-country average of around 61%. The local state government is headed by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and follows a stricter form of Islam in the city and state. Morality police are common; the New Straits Times and other media reported in May this year that 39 women had been given notices and told to attend counselling sessions for dressing sexily and behaving indecently in public. And local supermarkets have separate check out queues for men and ladies, as we discovered when we popped in to pick up some toiletries at a local store this evening.

There’s a small Chinatown in the city, which is where non-Muslim locals and tourists go if they fancy a beer with dinner – alcohol is scarce across the rest of the city. We found a great food court and scoffed a mixed box of Chinese pork and mushroom buns, with an icy cold Carlsberg.

Afterwards, Jim went and bought some mixed noodles and Lil went to trawl the different stands to find something that “doesn’t have fish or icky bits”. She picked a pork and egg dish with bean curd. The stall owner asked if she’d like intestines on the side (thankfully there was a picture of coiled up intestines that he was able to point at, or she may well have said yes, not understanding what she had opted for). When her food arrived, there were no intestines, but sitting alongside her plate of pork were two big fat greasy chicken feet. Which, of course, Jim happily took and chewed.

Then it was back to our accommodation and time for bed. Tomorrow we’re planning to travel on the Jungle Railway, a 526km line which runs all the way from the north, down the centre of Malaysia to Singapore. We’re stopping for the night at Gua Masang, which will take about 6 hours to reach on the train, then we’ll do another chunk of the line the next day.

Thankfully we don’t have to get up early tomorrow, which is a bit of a luxury these days. Check out time is 12 noon. Our train leaves around 2.50pm – assuming we can get train tickets on the day, and we don’t have to quickly develop a Plan B.

More then.

Too many ups and downs in the national park, an unsettling encounter with a growling wild boar, and coconuts on fire at the local street shrine.

Day 67: Penang, Malaysia. We woke to a gorgeous sunny morning, and started the day with breakfast on the guesthouse patio. We scoffed peanut butter and corn pancakes, banana bread, spicy curry puffs and chilled watermelon, while watching one of the guesthouse cats catching a fat cockroach, which it then happily tossed around at our feet.

We also had local coffee that our host showed us how to make. The process involves pouring boiling water onto local ground coffee, then pouring the hot liquid into another container, pouring it back again, pouring it back again… We were starting to think tea might be a good idea, when he finally stopped and strained the frothing coffee into glass cups. And we have to admit – it was a pretty good drop.

Then we headed off to catch the bus to Penang National Park, to try out a couple of the walking trails. When we got there, we registered our details with the information office, got our park permit, and set out on the hike.

A little disappointingly, the trail to Monkey Bay is closed (the noticeboard says it was shut due to a landslide in November 2017, and for whatever reason, it has never re-opened). So we did a short 3km walk to Keracut Beach, and checked out the Turtle Conservation and Information Centre while we were there.

Baby turtles

To make a day of the trekking, we decided to do an alternative and much longer return route from the beach, with the promiseof a decent view of Ferringhi Beach, which we visited yesterday, on the way.

We’ve been using a combination of maps on our travels. Local tourist paper maps are often the best option, but you can’t get them until you arrive somewhere, and they get crushed and soggy while you’re trekking. Google maps is brilliant at the big stuff, getting you from city to city and navigating around towns, but it needs an internet connection and data quota to work properly. So it’s pretty useless in a forest. We’ve discovered that not only works offline but has amazing detail of many forest walks, which are completely missing from Google maps. The one thing it doesn’t have (or at least we haven’t found so far) is contours. You can’t see the hills and valleys until you find yourself climbing up or down them.

Today was one of those days where we might have changed our mind, had we seen the climb ahead. We ended up walking pretty much straight up a 400m hill, along and down a saddle, and back up another 100m or so. It was over half the climb up Penang Hill we did a few days ago, and in only a few kilometers. Fair to say it was a pretty brutal trek, but the view of the beach from the top was spectacular!

About a kilometre before we rejoined the regular (and thankfully flat) return beach track, Lil squawked and stopped suddenly. She’d seen something that looked like a cross between a large pig and a horse in the trees ahead – it was a wild boar. We turned to start walking back down the track, but realised that was pointless, so stood still for a bit, not quite sure what to do next. The wild boar had obviously spotted us and wasn’t happy and was growling loudly. We picked up a couple of sticks (not that they’d be much good if the boar came charging at us, but it made us feel a bit better), and waited. After a while it looked like the boar had moved on, so we crept up the trail, keeping a beady eye on the trees for fear the creature was still lurking. We managed to get past unscathed and quickened our pace until we reached the return trail.

We were a bit shaken at unexpectedly seeing the wild boar, but perhaps not as shaken as a man we read about in the local newspaper, who lives in a village on the east coast of Malaysia. The article said he thought he felt his son tap his waist, so he reached back to pat his son’s head, and wondered why it was so furry. He turned to find he was stroking a tiger, which had found its way into the village. Let’s hope we don’t encounter any tigers on our future hikes.

By the time we got back to the park entrance and information office, we were feeling pretty wrecked. We sat down for a while at a local cafe, then walked a kilometre up the road to catch the bus. It was 6.30pm when we reached the guesthouse – we had a quick shower then headed out for dinner to an Indian eatery right across the road – our aching legs didn’t feel like walking much further.

After re-fuelling, we set off to find ‘the cheapest beer in town’ shop (thanks Google maps) that others in the guesthouse have been talking about – and yes, it’s very cheap. We bought a bunch of beers and headed back to the guesthouse, passing some sort of bizarre religious ceremony along the way. A man dressed in a robe was wafting incense out of a mobile shrine over the faces of queuing visitors. Then, from the flame in the shrine, lighting the husk of a peeled coconut and standing it on the visitor’s head before finally throwing the coconut so hard into a bin, the milk splattered everywhere. The whole ceremony lasted about 15 seconds, and we have absolutely no idea what it was all about.

Then we sat on the patio and chatted to some more people staying at the guesthouse, did a bit more planning and plotting, and headed for an early night.

Tomorrow we pack up and catch a bus to Kota Bharu, 8 hours east of Penang. From there we’ll either spend a couple of days on the east coast, or catch the jungle train down south. We’ll decide next plans tomorrow.

More then.