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Boarding our flight to Malaysia

We left our hotel in Siem Reap this morning expecting a quick hop down to Kuala Lumpur which was not to be. The hotel taxi took us to the airport and here we found that our direct flight actually included a one hour stop over in Phnom Penh. While waiting at Siem Reap in what is quite a smart airport we tried to book our hotel in Kuala Lumpur. The mobile network did not allow international calls and the airport amazingly had no public pay phones. A new airport is being built and apparently this one will have phones!

It was a short hop to Phnom Penh where we all had to get off and wait in the airport for the connection south. This airport was very modern with shops, western style cafes, Ritazza coffee and even a pub. We could have been pretty much anywhere in the world. Before long we were airborne again and after a couple of hours we came into land at Kuala Lumpur having a brief glimpse of the Petronas Towers on our way down. Stef was already switching into the mode for the next country. Little things like announcements in Malay and English, and even the approach and attitude of the staff, started to indicate that we were about to enter a more modern and westernised (not that that is necessarily good!) world.

KL airport reinforced that feeling. The heat hit us as we stepped off the plane into the walkway but was soon replaced by air conditioning and a very efficient, modern and smart airport. We collected our bags and were pondering our choice of hotels before going into the arrivals hall, fully expecting the usual round of touts and taxis trying to get our business. A member of the airport staff came to check that all was OK and that we had all of our luggage, an unexpected and pleasant surprise and a first indication that people here will hopefully be very friendly and courteous.

We pre-paid our taxi to avoid the touts and were soon being whisked into the centre of KL. The airport is over seventy kilometres away from town so it is about an hours drive along very smooth and fast motorways where people drive on the “correct” side of the road – the left! We were both very grateful for the aircon in the car as the short walk from the airport to the car revealed how hot and humid the weather will be. The taxi driver told us it was currently pouring with rain in the city although it had stopped by the time we got there.

The motorway ended and before long we were in the midst of the city. It is the usual mix of high rise buildings but not on such a vast scale as the ones we saw in China. Cars seemed to be everywhere and the traffic was pretty solid but again in contrast to most other Asian countries it seemed to be orderly and disciplined not chaotic and crazy.

Stall selling durians - what an amazing smell!

We were dropped at our chosen hotel on Jalan Bukit Bintang, no longer the Novotel but now the Royale Bintang. It lived up to its name and was a bit of a luxury place to stay. The rates of course had escalated too but we were both too hot and tired to look for somewhere else. It looked very much like a business hotel and one where Chinese tour groups stay. From past experience we have learned that in the big cities it is worth staying at the smarter hotels. You benefit from the amenities and they are generally quieter and cleaner than the mid range options.

Our room was on the fifteenth floor and lived up to our expectations. Not only was it comfortable and spacious but from our window we had a clear view of both the Menara (tower) Kuala Lumpur and the Petronas Towers. Both we spectacular sights to see especially as darkness descended and their lights came on.

We ambled out a bit later to explore the local area, heading up Jl Alor which runs parallel to Jl Bukit Bintang. It was as if we had gone back to China. On both sides the road was lined with little eateries all with plastic tables and chairs lined up outside. It was a real hive of activity. We opted for a big place on the corner (which I think was called the Dragon View Restauran) and had a tasty meal the highlight of which for Stef was fish in very salty and spicy sauce. He has been dreaming of hitting Malaysia and its cuisine for months and was well and truly impressed with his first meal.

I woke this morning with the realisation that the bug that had hit Stef in Phnom Penh had well and truly come to pay me a visit and I was definitely not up to being out and about. I could not face the thought of food and left Stef to venture down to breakfast on his own. He came back a while later with a big grin on his face and a detailed report of how good it was especially the local Malaysian food – he had had beef curry, coconut rice and sambal chilli sauce.

The day was a bit of a wipe out for me as all I could bring myself to do was watch TV (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was my afternoon entertainment) and read my book. Stef opted not to go and start to explore on his own but used the day to start to bring the photos on our website up to date as for the first time in a while we had a fast and reliable internet connection.

I made it out in the evening for a brief stroll around the block. It was just before nine when we went out and the city was still full of life with people shopping, eating and simply out and about for the evening. Again this was a stark contrast to the last few weeks where the locals have been up at five in the morning and tucked up in bed well before ten at night. There was a real mix of people here – Indians, Chinese, Western, Arabs – as well as the signs that this is a Muslim country. It seemed strange to see Starbucks, KFC and McDonalds again.

We opted for a Japanese restaurant for dinner, a meal that Stef again really enjoyed but I picked at still not really feeling up to eating. We were back in our hotel and tucked up in bed reasonably early for yet another good night’s sleep.

Looking up the Petronas Towers

I gambled this morning and made it down to breakfast despite my tummy telling me that I would pay the price for it later but it was worth it as breakfast was as good as Stef had reported yesterday. We spent a couple more hours updating our website before heading out in the city. Outside it was hot, not as hot as it had felt in Cambodia and Vietnam but slightly more humid. We looked in a couple of shopping centres nearby to see if we could get a new lens for our camera. If we had a Canon we would have had no problem but shops in Asia are not very Pentax friendly. Ah well, Singapore beckons.

We decided to head for the Suria KLCC, yet another shopping mall but this time a very smart and swanky one under the Petronas Towers. Familiar brand names were ever present here with Marks and Spencer’s and Mothercare added to the list of names from home. It seems that KL is definitely the city to come to if you love to shop. There are many places ready and waiting to part you from your cash whether it is a few pounds, a few hundred or several thousand!

The city is much more modern and westernised than any we have seen so far in Asia. Everywhere we went people spoke English, almost it seemed in preference to Malaysian. The familiar sights of shops from home brought a reassuring and comforting feeling but even so, this is very definitely Asia.

We stopped for lunch at the KLCC at a Dome café, a chain that has a few branches dotted about the city. Sitting outside on a terrace looking out at the park we could have been in any major city anywhere in the world. There was a real mix of people here from western tourists, local families out for the day to the odd business person working at the weekend. Groups of teenagers were hanging around outside with the same “I’m bored but can’t show it in front of my mates” look on their faces that they have everywhere.

From the KLCC we had a hot and sticky walk down to the Menara, a four hundred and twenty one metre high communication tower, the fourth tallest in the world. Completed in 1996 it has been built in the Bukit Nana Forest Reserve, a small patch of tropical forest in the middle of the city. A lift whisks you up two hundred and seventy six metres to the observation deck from where you can see the city laid out before you.

It was a really good way to get a sense of orientation of the city. They have a short audio tour that guides you round each of the different numbered windows of the tower. At each one they point out the local buildings of interest from mosques to sports stadiums to old colonial era buildings. We just about managed to make out our hotel from the top before the clouds started to roll in setting off the daily thunderstorm.

A bank of masseurs hard at work kneading tired feet

I suspect it is just coincidence but the storm started to rumble at the same time yesterday. We were just walking up to the tower when the thunder kicked in, huge rumbling rolls and claps which spurred us both on to walk faster despite the heat. The rain starts slowly at first, almost giving you a ten minute warning of what is coming before the skies open and it simply pours down. You could almost feel the tower reverberate from the noise of the thunder and I have to say I was glad we were inside for the duration.

In the evening we headed up Bukit Bintang and turned left under the monorail just ambling about looking for somewhere to eat. Much to Stef’s disappointment I wanted to go for western and non spicy food and I hate to say we ended up in an Irish pub. It was a strange sight with lots of Brits coming in and out to watch the English football on the TV and to down their pints of Guinness. My Shepherds Pie and Stef’s pork chop were tasty enough but it never tastes the same as it does at home!

Obligatory headscarf required to look *around* (never mind, *in*) the mosque

Today we followed the two walking tours in Lonely Planet around the centre of Kuala Lumpur. From our hotel we walked up Bukit Bintang to get the Monorail to the main train station. One of the things that seems really confusing here is the public transport system, probably not helped because our edition of LP is a bit out of date and no doubt newer versions have more up to date information. There is the monorail, the three LRT lines (run by two different companies), and two Komuter train lines. Although they all seem pretty efficient and punctual, they are not integrated and this made us realise how good the system is in London (despite it being hot, cramped, dirty and not on time)!

The monorail, so well air conditioned that you catch your breath as you walk on board, took us to KL Sentral station and it took us a while to realise that this was not the start of the walking tour. The Komuter train then took us to the old KL station, which is a fantasy building of spires and minarets that I more usually associate with markets or mosques. We followed the walk past the Post Office and to the Kompleks Dayabumi, a large office block that from the outside has an intricate almost lace like pattern to it full of arches and windows.

Our route then took us down to the main Merdeka Square, home to the Royal Selangor Club, where the well to do hob knobbed in days gone by as well as the present day. On the corner of the square is the National History Museum. Small by London standards it was an interesting stop charting the development and history of Malaysia over the last forty thousand years.

On the ground floor exhibits mainly cover the pre-historic era. An old set of wooden stairs in the front corner of the building then curls up and round to the first floor where exhibits cover more recent history. The displays here chart the development the Malacca Sultanate and the history of the country then unfolds with the various different periods of foreign intervention. There is a real mix of cultures that have all come to play a part in Malaysia from the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Indian, Chinese and Japanese. Some of the treaties signed to agree territorial holdings were shown on the walls. They are interesting and quirky documents detailing reciprocal arrangements for dealing with debtors, criminals and other forms of mischief as well as for the trade and exchange of areas of land.

The 1900’s were still a period of big change for Malaysia. Japanese occupation during WWII set the scene for future calls for independence, which came in the 1950’s. But even that was not straight forward with original (British) plans being rejected and new plans formulated a few years later.  Now the nine Sultans of the different states of Malaysia take it in turn to do five years stints as the Federal Ruler.

Contrary to the description in Lonely Planet, we found the museum to be a worthwhile diversion and it certainly provided a welcome break from the heat of the day. From the top floor of the museum you also get fabulous views across Merdeka Square. Along the left hand side of the square is the Royal Selangor Club, which had a very inviting looking bar. Unfortunately it seemed well and truly inaccessible from the square, no doubt their way of keeping out the riff raff of grubby travellers! The square itself is a perfectly manicured lawn, originally a cricket ground and with signs that it is still used for the game today.

Across from the club the Sultan Abdul Samad building is a beautiful fusion of Victorian and Moorish architecture which to me looks more like a fairytale palace than a building where serious business is conducted. The memorial arches frame the square at the northern end providing a cool place to relax for a while and creating the temptation to dip your hot feet into its very inviting surrounding fountains to cool down. Although there were no signs prohibiting a dip I had the feeling that it would have been frowned upon.

We by passed the cathedral opting instead to ponder what possessed someone to create the Tree House Fountain which is certainly an acquired taste. It is a mock tree trunk with huge pitcher plant style decorations around it. Its saving grace is that it is located in the middle of a small and pretty garden which makes the detour worthwhile.

Collection urns at the Tamil Hindu temple

We then looped across and down to join the second walking tour, somewhat strangely named the Chinatown walk. Or at least we thought the name was strange because it was the least Chinese Chinatown we have ever come across. Little India, an area a bit further north, seems to have spread southwards. One of the early stops on the tour is a small street home to a Chettiar Indian community. I cannot say that it had the vibrancy that Lonely Planet implied but the old colonial buildings were interesting to see and the peacocks are still present at No. 85.

The Masjid Jamek was worth a look. Neither of us was dressed in a way that complied with Islam requirements for people visiting a mosque but help was at hand with a supply of scarves and long overcoats so that we were able to go in. I wished that they had people on hand to explain the purpose and function of the buildings and to explain some of the background to the rites and customs of the religion but unfortunately that was not the case. The mosque seemed to mainly consist of open sided pillared rooms where people were taking an afternoon nap. I am sure they are really prayer halls but I only saw one person praying. Water seems to be an important component not just in the areas designed for “ablutions” but also from a number of fountains in the grounds. We left none the wiser but the buildings were interesting to see.

From here we passed down Jl Benteng past more old colonial buildings and wiggled around past an art deco bank building, the old federal stores, painted in very faded green and pink, and KL’s oldest pharmacy which was shut. The walking tour then diverted off to the Taoist Sze Yah Temple which whizzed us back in time a few months taking us straight back to China. From the number of large executive style cars parked outside the Chinese community are obviously living up to their commercial reputation and doing quite well for themselves.

The red and gold of the Taoist temple was fantastic but very much overshadowed by the Sri Mahamariamman Temple further down the road. This time we were whizzed back a couple of years to when we were in India. The temple gate is topped by a large highly decorative tower similar to many we had seen in Southern India. Inside, the temple was full of people counting large piles of money. They all seemed very busy but there was no indication that any progress was being made, they simply seemed to be shuffling piles of money around.

Trying (yuk!) bitter tea in Chinatown

By this stage the heat was well and truly getting to us and we popped into a shop (one of the many Seven Eleven’s in town) to buy a cool drink. I was in seventh heaven to find bottles of Ribena, an old favourite that I stopped buying at home because I was drinking so much of it. It was just the ticket to refresh and cool me down. We did a brief stop into the Petaling street market which was still setting itself up in readiness for the night’s trade. As neither of us are great shoppers we headed off and back to our hotel.

The hotel’s outdoor pool beckoned to us and we succumbed to the pleasure of relaxing in cool water with the sun beating down overhead. Unfortunately our peace and quiet was soon disturbed by a French family with two very lively young boys. Even though their Dad told them a couple of times to watch out for the other people in the pool they were having too much fun to heed much notice so we left them to themselves in the water and crashed out on the sun loungers for a while.

In the evening we headed out to an Arabian place we had passed coming back to the hotel last night. We had had no mid afternoon storm today and rain started to threaten as we reached the restaurant. In less than ten minutes the heavens opened and the rain cascaded down accompanied by big flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder. People sought sanctuary under whatever cover they could and only a couple braved the elements to dash to their destination. Fortunately for us the rain ceased as we paid our bill so we had a dry walk back to our hotel and to bed.

Little boxes full of Chinese

Most of this morning vanished in another attempt to get our picture albums up to date on our website. We finally headed out a bit before midday in search of the British Airways office to confirm our flights home and to check options for getting to Africa. We both knew we should have double checked their address before we left the hotel but attempts to call them met an engaged tone so we assumed they had not moved.

As you can guess they had moved. We walked around getting hotter and stickier trying to find their office, realising again that the maps in Lonely Planet are desperately in need of an update. We gave up and headed for the KLCC where we knew we would find a travel agent who could hopefully help. Although they could not do the ticket bookings for us they did give us a new address for BA which turned out to be just the Cathay Pacific office.

Here we queued for what felt like ages before we were served. We initially had the run around that as we had no onward flights with Cathay Pacific they could not help us but in they end we walked out with what we wanted. It means we have had to time box our stay in Malaysia but at least we have certainty of flights and have time to prepare ourselves for our Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong to Johannesburg to Windhoek flight connections that will probably take over a day to complete!

By the time we left Cathay Pacific it was already late afternoon and as we still had bus tickets to sort for tomorrow we knew that any last sightseeing was now out of the question. We hopped onto the monorail to work our way down to Puduraya bus station, changing at Hang Tuah onto a different line run by a different company. Although you had to leave one station, walk down the road a bit and buy a ticket at the next station, the distance involved was only the same as many interchanges on London Underground.

The bus station was the same as bus stations we have now seen in many places. Lots of dubious looking food stalls filled a dingy looking building with people sat happily munching away. The ticket office was a separate section with lots of glass fronted small cabins. Outside each cabin someone, usually a man, was shouting out the destinations their company served doing their best to grab our attention so they could get our business. Behind the glass was normally a woman who issued the tickets and took your cash.

Being old hands now at bus stations we took our time, looking for ourselves at what the options were and checking out a couple of different companies, the times the left and their prices. They all seemed to offer a similar deal the only real difference being the time of departure. In the end we went back to the first one we tried and booked for the 9:00 bus tomorrow.

Stef plucked up courage and tried the durian - once was enough!

We took the train back towards our hotel but stopped off at the Times Square shopping centre on the way. This looks very new and some of the units are still empty. It is home to a Debenhams department store as well as Borders bookshop, Mothercare and Watsons pharmacy (that we saw often in Canada). The centre also has an indoor amusement park, complete with roller coaster ride, a multiplex cinema and an IMAX. We went to see what was on at the IMAX and had even bought tickets before realising that I had read my watch wrong and the show did not start for an hour. With a refund in hand we headed back to our hotel and the coolness of the pool.

Although there were more people in the pool today there were no French kiddies splashing about and being gently scolded by their parents for disrupting the peace and quiet. The water was again very cool and refreshing but as today was cloudier than yesterday it was not long before we were both feeling cold and got out. We lazed about for a bit reading until rain stopped play and we headed upstairs to shower, change and go for dinner.

We ended up back in the same place we had gone to on our first night. Stef was itching to try more of the street stalls but with me still having slightly dodgy guts he relented and went for somewhere that looked more hygienic. Whether it actually is or not I have no idea!

Roses with real *natural* scent, what will they think of next!

We were up and about early today to catch our bus up to the Cameron Highlands further north in Malaysia. We had had a late night trying to make the most of the high speed internet connection at the hotel and both of us struggled to leave the warmth and comfort of our beds. Before long though we were on our way saying farewell to Kuala Lumpur and heading for the Puduraya bus station.

With some time to spare Stef went in search of breakfast, having sacrificed his daily feast at the hotel in favour of extra time in bed. We found our bus easily enough and it was surprisingly spacious and comfortable, in fact I would go so far as to say it was the best bus we have been on so far during this trip. The seats were comfortable and not falling apart, there were foot rests for everyone and even enough legroom for Stef. Amazing. The only slight irritation was that with all passengers on board by the 9:00am departure time, for some reason unknown to man it was almost 9:30 before we left.

Driving out of Kuala Lumpur seemed to be really smooth and fast and before long we were out in open countryside. Signs along the way with pictures of a motorbike and rain cloud showed where people could take refuge from the daily downpour. With the roads being long, straight and well maintained I started to read my book (very unusual for me as reading usually makes me travel sick) but lack of sleep won the day and before long I was fast asleep. I woke up a couple of times to look around the bus and I think that everyone was snoozing. It is a shame really as I think we probably passed some fabulous countryside. The snippets I got were of long expanses of banana style palm trees stretching away into the distance. We will be back in Kuala Lumpur before we go to Africa so I may get chance then to see it again.

As we turned off the motorway to head further inland everyone woke with a jolt. The bus went through a toll station and then pulled to a halt for a quick loo break. Having spent about ninety minutes on very smooth straight roads the next ninety minutes or so was a direct contrast. The road wiggled and wound its way up to Tanah Rata, the main town of the Cameron Highlands hill station. One person fed back to Lonely Planet that there are six hundred and fifty three bends on the sixty kilometre drive up and I can well believe it.

The fact that the road is so twisty seemed to make no difference to the driver (who is probably used to it) and he lurched and rolled around each bend a little more crazily than drivers in South America. One lady succumbed and had to use the sick bags provided on every bus we have been on in Asia (they seem to be very bad travellers). I was feeling pretty queasy and even Stef admitted later that his stomach was churning, most unusual!

It was though a beautiful route up driving through tropical forest. You could almost sense the temperature dropping outside as we climbed. My mind pondered what the journey must have been like for William Cameron who first mapped out this area in 1885 and for the first batches of tourists who came here to escape the heat of Kuala Lumpur. They must have had a much rougher journey, without the benefit of air conditioning, and one that no doubt took much longer than three hours.

The bus dropped us at the Tanah Rata bus station where a lady got on board handing out leaflets. In direct contrast to Vietnam and Cambodia there was no pushy sales talk trying to get you into a specific hotel or to do a specific trip. She was from the Titiwangsa Tours and Travel company but just quietly handed out leaflets and helped everyone to get to their chosen hotel, all of which provide a free pick up from the bus station, even though they are only a five minute walk away.

We opted for the Hillview Inn which matched its Lonely Planet description of “bright, spotlessly clean, large airy rooms in a quiet part of town” exactly. We had a friendly welcome from the chap who picked us up at the bus and then also from the hotel owner. It seems to be a family run place and all the family were very friendly checking to make sure everything was OK. Our room is basic compared to the luxury of our hotel in Kuala Lumpur but it is exactly what we need.

I wanna be like you-hoo-hoo

The main things to see and do here are scattered around the nearby area so a tour is a good way to get to see them. We checked the leaflet from Titiwangsa and opted to join their Agro tour this afternoon. We were picked up at 2:30 by Mizan, also very friendly, and did a quick tour to a couple of other stops to pick up our full complement of ten people, two Malays, two Indians and a family of four from Singapore. Our first stop was meant to be a cactus farm but a landslide a few days ago has partly wiped it out and it is now closed to visitors.

Instead we went to the Rose Centre, a large garden housing different varieties of flowers, mainly roses. They also had brightly coloured gerbera’s, passion flowers, enormous gladioli, lilies, birds of paradise and a small selection of cacti and orchids. From some of the roses there came the most fabulous scent, sometimes sweet, sometimes perfumed. The gardens wound up the side of a hill giving great views of the valleys below and the terraced farming underway all around you. It was a bit tacky though with a large Snow White and her Seven Dwarves being just one of the examples of tat on display. One thing I did learn from here is that parsley plants help keep nasty bugs and insects away from your flowers and there was parsley everywhere.

Our next stop was one of the local strawberry farms, a big industry here in the highlands. Here the climate, not too warm, not too cold and a good supply of rain, makes it ideal for strawberries, vegetables and flowers. The farm we visited is quite new and about eight hectares in size. They are able to yield a crop all year round but primarily sell to the local markets or through pick your own for people who come and visit. The plants are grown in long grow bags full of coconut shell compost and where a flower blossoms one day, a ripe strawberry will be a few weeks later.

We opted to harvest our own small crop and with polystyrene tray in hand worked our way up and down the rows of plants. Both of us were thinking of my sister Beccie who is a big strawberry fan. She would have been in seventh heaven here. Eating our crop later those that were fully ripe and a luscious dark red were lovely and sweet. Those with still some white flesh were much more sour to the taste.

From strawberries we went down to a water cress farm which was probably the least interesting part of the tour. The cress is grown in watery fields similar to rice paddies, with a constant supply of water running through to ensure it is fresh and to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Our next stop was at a vegetable farm where they grown spinach, pak choi, cabbage and capsicums. The capsicum plants were the ones we walked around and the smell was intoxicating. It was as if someone had just sliced into a fresh capsicum in front of us. The crops here are all destined for Singapore and what is picked today will be sold in the markets tomorrow.

Flowers pre-packed

A flower nursery was our next stop to see where they grow chrysanthemums. Here they were in deep dark reds, rusty browns, golden orange as well as white and yellow. With some varieties, where the flowers are complex and delicate, the young bugs are covered with plastic netting to ensure that they are protected through growing and transport. We have seen them like this is shops all over South East Asia. Disappointingly though these flowers had no scent probably due to the intensive techniques used. At night, artificial lights are switched on to trick the flowers into thinking they are in sunlight twenty four hours a day to speed up their growth. The flower nursery was looked over by a lively Dalmatian called Kopi (Malay for coffee) who really looked as if he wanted to be let off his lead so that he could have a good run around and play with all the visitors.

Our final stop was a restaurant in the local Chinese village for dinner. It was a tasty meal with noodles, fish, pork, chicken, vegetables and rice all washed down with chrysanthemum tea. The only thing that I did not really like was that even though serving spoons were provided a couple of people still helped themselves with their chopsticks as they would at home. This is OK when you know who you are eating with but with strangers I was wary.

By about 7:30pm we were back at our hotel at the end of what has turned out to be a long and pretty busy day. Stef had been sitting in the front of the minivan for the tour and was chatting away to Mizan, remembering bits and pieces of the Malay he had learned before we left London and picking up some local knowledge. They seem quite proud here that the pace of life is much slower than elsewhere and that here there are no traffic lights and no air conditioning units.

Tea-time in the Cameron Highlands

Despite a slightly saggy bed we both slept well and again struggled to drag ourselves out of it. It had been a cold night and blankets and bedspread were well and truly needed, the first time in quite a while that we had felt chilly. Mizan picked us up shortly before nine and we then headed out to pick up another person before starting our tour for the day. Our companion for the day was an eighty year old German who lives in Indonesia and has been travelling for about three months.

Our first stop was a visit to the BOH (Best of Highlands) Tea Plantation. A vista point along the way showed the expanse of the plantation which was started in 1921 but only incorporated as a company in 1929. It was founded by a Scot, JA Russell, and his family still own and run the plantation today although they rarely spend much time here. It is the largest in the Cameron Highlands, the others being about tenth the size and owned and run by local cooperatives. Everywhere you look there are rows and rows and rows of tea plants from the valley floor all the way to the top of the hillsides. It is almost like looking at a sea of green with waves of green rolling across the valley.

Like the Cadbury and Fray Bentos sites, Russell founded not just the tea plantation but also created the village and facilities required for his workforce. Houses, schools, a temple, mosque, church, shop and small medical clinic are all part of the mix to cater for the eighty five employees of the site we visited. Today the company has four separate plantations and mixes traditional and modern methods of production depending on the local geography of the site.

Here, where the plants grow along steep hill sides, manual labour is still used to pick the leaves, although clippers are now used rather than picking by hand. Where machines can access the plants, machine harvesting techniques are used. The tea pickers are mostly from Indian and Sri Lanka and earn very low wages but all accommodation, electricity water, schooling, medical facilities etc are provided free of charge. The local Malay community fulfil the higher paid jobs or work in the burgeoning tourist trade in the nearby towns.

It is a continual process with new leaves being ready to pick every three weeks. Every four years the plants are severely cut back to ensure that they remain low bushes and do not grow into trees, as tree leaves are no good for tea. When picked the leaves are first rubbed to crush them slightly and release their moisture. There are three separate stages to crushing and once crushed the broken leaves are then dried out by passing them through hot air. It’s a different process to the one used in Darjeeling where the leaves are dried first and crushed later.

Next the leaves are passed through large sieves to sort them into different sizes and quality and to remove the stalks and other rubbish. From every two hundred kilos of leaves picked only forty kilos of finished product is produced. The leaves are then stored for six months before being sent to BOH’s plant near to Kuala Lumpur for packing. A promotional video they showed in the accompanying museum/tea house ran through the list of products they now make. As well as normal tea you can buy different flavoured teas, instant tea (one which looked like a cappuccino made from tea), tea in bags, loose tea, you name it, if it is to do with tea you seem to be able to buy it from BOH.

They have recently completed a new visitor’s centre on the site which has a small museum, a room where you can watch short programmes on the production process and company background, a shop where you can buy their products and an all important café where you can try them. We shared a pot of medium flavoured tea and it was very tasty. I think though that the location has a lot to do with it. The end of the café is open and you get great views of the plantation stretching out below you. Today was warm and sunny so it made a very pleasant stop for a while.

From BOH we followed a narrow road up to Gunung Brinchang, at 2031m the highest peak in the area. Part of the road was washed away a couple of months ago by a landslide so we crawled behind a big truck taking raw materials up hill so that they could rebuild the road. It is open and passable but it looked like a pretty nasty slide.

Before we reached the top we took a slight walking detour off through the moss forest to get views down to Ipoh, a large town at the bottom of the highland hills. The path through the forest was very muddy and springy underfoot because we were not really walking on the ground but on decades worth of decaying leaves. Stef and I managed to get pretty muddy but our guide Mizan who does this walk most days came away without any mud at all!

As it was a rare sunny day for this time of year we were rewarded with great views down. The jungle was surprisingly cool and fresh and along the way Mizan showed us different plants that you can use for medicinal purposes or simple survival if you get lost. The moss which covers the ground yields a fresh supply of drinking water. Some plants are used by women who have recently given birth to aid their return to full strength. Others help to stop the bleeding when leeches have been feeding off you, not that I would ever find it again if the need arose.

We followed the road up to the top where there was a small observation tower giving unobscured views of the valley. By this time it was late morning and you could see the clouds starting to gather. As with Kuala Lumpur, heavy rain showers are common in the afternoon and Mizan predicted that today would be no different. We certainly had a good downpour yesterday. Some of the men working on the road repairs were also taking a break there and we chatted to them for a while. As with all Malays we have met so far they were really friendly and wished us a good stay in their country.

We wound back down and round the hill, managing to avoid banging our heads on the low roof of the Land Rover (essential work car in these parts) as we lurched round corners and over bumps. Our next stop was at a village of the Orang Asli, the original indigenous people of Malaysia. Important in the early days of foreign trade subsequent years saw their land being eroded and their land rights not being recognised. They were useful to the British Malayan government in fighting the guerrilla war against the Communists and this led to the establishment of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs.

Today the government is trying to encourage these people to move into settlements where through the Department they provide most basic necessities. Food, running water, electricity, clothes, medical care and education are all provided free of charge to the Orang Asli although all other Malays have to pay for them. Some of these people have chosen to stay in the jungle following their traditional lifestyles but most have moved.

Can't be England - it has a working phone inside!

The village we visited was small, with less than one hundred families. Typically a family will have at least five children. The girls marry young, at fourteen or fifteen, and then stop their education although these days most will go to work to earn a living. Tourism has brought employment for these people who work as cleaners, maids and caddies on the local golf course. In turn though, this has brought drug and alcohol abuse problems to the teenagers of the town.

Following us around the village was a steady stream of young children calling “hello” and waving to us. The houses here varied from brick, to wooden, to bamboo to corrugated iron structures, all perched up on the hillside. It seemed a very colourful setting against the lush green of the landscape but I think it may just have been the sunlight that made the place look rosy. The arrival of the school bus in the square down below prompted a scurry of uniformed children who suddenly appeared from the houses and ran down the hill to make sure they did not miss the bus.

From the village we made our way to the Parit Falls stopping en route at Ye Olde Smokehouse. This transported us a few thousand kilometres into typical English countryside as this hotel could be in deepest darkest Surrey. It is definitely an English country house and even has its own King George red phone box outside. A look at the menu (Beef Wellington, Steak and Kidney pie, fish and chips, fruit crumble gives you a flavour of what they have on offer) sent shivers down Stef’s spine and he booked us in for dinner tonight.

The waterfall itself was a bit disappointing. Minute compared to others we have seen the view is marred by the rubbish lining the banks and floating in the water that comes from the near by villages. A short loop takes you through canopy jungle, very different to this morning’s moss jungle, over the waterfall and back round to the start. Mizan confirmed that not many people, even the locals, know about this place. The locals he said have little interest in the jungle that surrounds them.

We were dropped back at the bus station in Tanah Rata so that we could get our tickets for tomorrow. Unfortunately the VIP bus is sold out so we are probably on a bit of a bone shaker but at least the new road is open so hopefully it will not be as twisty as the road on the way up. We ambled through town stopping for a late lunch at an Indian restaurant which simply reinforced our feeling that the Chinese and Indian cultures are more easily accessible here than Malay.

A short afternoon nap and a shower left us both feeling refreshed and we headed back to Ye Olde Smokehouse for some traditional British fare. With no taxis available the owner of our hotel very kindly drove us there in his car. The hotel is a mix of local country pub and someone’s house. The staff were very friendly but there were few diners so the atmosphere was a tad on the quiet side. Our food was OK but certainly not as good as we had expected and I do not think I would recommend it to other people. Probably one of the highlights was getting home. Apparently it is difficult to get a taxi in Tanah Rata after seven at night but the taxi has its own limousine and driver which took us back to our hotel.

We were out and about earlyish to get out bus for the six hour journey north to Penang. We had both expected the bus to be a bit of a bone shaker but it turned out to be pretty comfortable if a little on the slow side. Our route took us along the new road, which in some places is still being finished off, down to Ipoh.

Unlike our journey up to the Highlands, which was on a very twisty and bendy road, this one was much smoother although it still had its fair share of twists and turn. The views out across the valleys were superb with long vistas of rolling green hills covered either in tea or in jungle. It was a bit disconcerting when the brakes started to make a screeching/growling noise part way down but we made it to Ipoh without incident.

Pretty much everyone got off the bus here as it seems to be a bit of a transport hub. Our twenty minute wait for our onward journey inexplicably stretched to an hour, time enough to wish we were back in the cool air of the highlands. The road north was long, straight and smooth and had the same hypnotic effect on us as it had leaving Kuala Lumpur. Before long we were both asleep, waking only when the bus stopped at the next interchange.

Confusion reigned slightly here about whether we should get off or stay on the bus. A Canadian chap in front of us had been given conflicting information about what was the best tactic. He initially got off but then a few minutes later got back on. We headed out towards Penang crossing the thirteen kilometres of Malaysia’s longest bridge, which took us over the Straights of Malacca and on to Penang Island.

Here the stories the Canadian chap had heard came true. The bus station is no longer in the centre of George Town, the main town on the island, it is now about a forty minute drive outside. The bus driver waved broadly in the direction of the road and said “minibus” in response to our question asking how we got to Georgetown. With many taxis waiting for our trade we opted for the easier and faster route which for RM25, about £4, was worth the money. The Canadian guy was wandering a bit aimlessly and obviously on a tight budget so we gave him a lift as well – our good deed for the day.

Cool pool, fantastic

The mid range hotels are all pretty close to each other and after a quick shufty we opted for the City Bay View Hotel. It is a smart business/tour group style hotel but for £30 a night has given us a very comfy room with a view out to see and down over the hotel’s outdoor pool. The latter is a luxury but one that is a very welcome way to cool down after the heat of a Malaysian day.

We checked in and cooled down for a while before heading out for a little local wander. We walked past the front of the Eastern and Oriental hotel, a very grand affair over the road from our own, and just wiggled down and around through the streets. We stopped at a bar for what turned out to be an incredibly expensive drink and then started down the Penang Road.

In a strip along the corner there are a load of hawker stalls selling food from little carts on the pavement. It was Indian food and the smell was intoxicating and overpowering. Stef’s plan was to stop for a little snack but this turned out to be a full blown plate of food – rice, chicken, vegetables, omelette, all topped off with a variety of different sauces – a locally known dish called Nasi Kandar. It was basically rice with a bit of whatever you fancied thrown on top. It was delicious food and dirt cheap with it.

This diversion changed our plans for the evening of an amble about the old town with dinner somewhere along the way. Instead we simply headed back to the cool retreat of our room and had a quiet night in.

The joss stick maker
Ice shaving machines, for delicious slushies

It was just after nine when we left our hotel this morning and it was already baking hot, a state of play that only changed briefly during the day when we happened to be somewhere where a cooling breeze came in off the sea. 

We started our tour of the old centre with a stop at Fort Cornwallis, the original landing place of Francis Light, the Brit who founded the Penang settlement. Most of the buildings in the fort are long gone. Those remaining are the chapel, the first in Penang, some of the cell blocks and a gunpowder store. The original fort was built of wood in 1786 but was replaced with a stone fort in 1793. A malaria epidemic a century ago resulted in the surrounding moat being filled in.

The cells have now been turned into a small museum documenting the development of Penang in the time of Francis Light and outlining some of the treaties made with the local people and the East India Company. It makes for an interesting read to see how much authority these early pioneers felt they had, only to have others in the company not fulfil the commitments they had made. In the middle of the fort some of the archaeological excavations of the original buildings have still been left on show.

An amphitheatre has been built in the fort and is used for concerts and plays. To the side of this a couple of bell tents and mock fireplaces have been set up to show what the living conditions would have been like in the early days after arrival. The perimeter walls are still home to many canons, one of which is believed by local people to have the powers to help childless women to get pregnant.

A quick stop at tourist information furnished us with copies of their Heritage Walking trails for the old town which made for a more interesting amble around than we would have had relying only on  Lonely Plant. We started off in Little India, making our way around the sari shops and shops selling offerings for the local temples. We passed the sign board maker, the goldsmiths and the joss stick maker before heading for the coffee maker.

The coffee maker set up shop in his house in 1988. He roasts green coffee beans for forty five minutes until they are cooked, adds sesame seeds, margarine, salt and sugar and boils it until the sugar has liquefied and the beans are sticky. The resulting mix is cooled and then ground into coffee powder. We tasted a small piece of the coffee mix and it was a pure caffeine hit, even too strong for Stef to enjoy.

From here we worked our way back down onto Lebuh Chulia in search of the Songkok maker. A Songkok is the hat worn by Muslim men. It takes about ninety minutes to make one hat and Stef decided to buy one to add to his hat collection. The only problem was that his head was too big so he ended up having one made to order!

Leaving India behind for a while we made our way back to China with a visit to the Cheah Kongsi Temple. An elderly man led us around pointing at different bits and pieces and uttering   a few words of explanation in English. He was very proud of their picture of Queen Elizabeth II and of the old furniture still set up like an administration office. Intricate wooden panels yielded another room with painted panels telling old tales that no one can now remember.

The temple itself was very ornate but seemed simple next to the grander Khoo Kongsi temple on the next block. This one belongs to one of the wealthiest clan families who trace their roots back to the Fujian province of China. They were a wealthy family of seventeenth century traders in Malacca and Penang. As with the Cheah Kongsi clan, the temple served as a miniature village providing food, shelter and employment to new immigrants until they had found their feet.

Ancestor shrine in Chinatown
Delicious roti canai

In the centre of the temple compound stands a raised theatre used for puppet displays and Chinese opera performances on festival days. At ground level below the temple is a small museum charting the Khoo Kongsi family’s migration to Penang and its development on the island. The temple itself is a riot of colours and a testament to the wealth of the clan. Across from the Khoo Kongsi stands the Malay Mosque, a bare and soulless place compared to the Chinese temples. Here no one was on hand to invite you in or to give you information and explanations about the mosque. For us it was simply a building to walk around.

We made our way back towards the main Jalan Penang wiggling our way through China Town. We stopped off at Bee Chin Heong, a huge Chinese shop, in search of a tea set we have been after since we had tea overlooking Lijiang in southern China. Whilst they had them they were not to our taste so we left empty handed. It was a strange shop, not just because of its wares, it was full of religious statues and brightly coloured stuff for house and temple, but also because we were given the evil eye all the time we were in there. Either they do not want money from Western tourists or they do not trust us to wander around without pinching something.

By the time we reached the Chowrasta pretty much all the stalls were shut and everyone had gone home. We had a quick look around but with nothing much to see headed on ourselves. By this stage walking for six hours in the Malaysian heat had well and truly got to me and I left Stef to carry on wandering while I headed for the cool of our hotel. The pool provided a welcome opportunity to rehydrate and cool down and we splashed around for a while.

In the evening we went back to the hat maker to pick up Stef’s Songkok. Helpfully it comes in a box but no doubt we will both soon be cursing it as it is definitely not something that can be squidged into the bottom of our backpacks. The corner of Penang and Cina was a great restaurant called Sri Ananda Bahwan where we had tasty but spicy southern Indian food, served up on a banana leaf and eaten in true style with the fingers of our right hand. For some reason food always tastes better when cutlery and chopsticks are not involved!

We hired a car for the day so that we could get out and about and explore Penang Island. We headed first to Penang Hill where a funicular railway takes you the seven hundred metres up to the top. The funicular was a really slow chugging affair that only runs every half an hour. Typically we had just missed one so we stood and waited for the next one to go. It takes you half way up then you have to change on to another one that goes up to the summit.

From the top you can get some pretty spectacular views down and across George Town and to Butterworth on the mainland. On a clear day you can see Langkawi Island further north but it was too hazy for us to do that today. The hill originally provided respite from the city heat for the British Governors and wealthy families of Penang. Some of the old colonial houses are still standing and on the way up more modest houses belonging to local people dot the paths and trails leading to the top.

The Bellevue Hotel, the only one on the hill, had a small aviary outside which Stef went to have a look at while I waited in the cool shade of a tree. Lonely Planet describes the hotel as a little frayed around the edges and overpriced and they were accurate on both counts. The buildings looked well and truly in need of a refurb and even the views out and across George Town from their patio at the back did not make the cost of the drinks worthwhile. Those in the know simply came in to take a photo and then left, much to the chagrin of the staff!

At the snake temple

We had thought the trip up the hill would be a relatively quick diversion but the slow progress of the funicular (half an hour each way without the time you have to wait for the next one) meant that it was over two hours before we were back on the road. We doubled back on ourselves turning right at the State Mosque to head down to the south of the island. The traffic was pretty busy, possibly because it’s the weekend and everyone was out and about. Although the cars were fairly disciplined the car rental agency’s warning about the scooters was spot on. They seemed to just appear out of nowhere zipping in front of you and alongside when you wanted to turn. It is incredible that there are not continual accidents.

Our next stop was the Snake Temple, so named because they have snakes draped on the incense burners inside the temple. The snakes are venomous pit vipers and signs are all over the place warning you not to aggravate or touch them. They looked pretty docile but even so I would have hated to see them move. As we walked around the temple Stef spied a stand with more snakes on. For a hefty fee you can have your photo taken with the snakes draped around your head and shoulders and he went for it. He looks decidedly uncomfortable in the photos and I think he was quite glad to get rid of them. They were also pit vipers but with their fangs removed.

Apparently the pit vipers make their own way to the temple. Not so the other snake that they have in a snake farm off to the side, for which you also have to pay. Here they had about thirty or so small cages with a variety of different snakes from around the world. Most were small and came in various different shades of brown, green, yellow, orange and black. In a large cage in the middle of the “farm” they had a python which was seven metres long and weighs sixty kilos. They feed it five chickens a month. In a smaller cage off to the side were two smaller pythons with their mouths tied shut. The man watching them took off his shoe and prodded one which quickly went on the attack and would have bitten him had it been able to. It was a strange stop but quirky to see.

The road continued down to the south of the island then turned to head inland and back up to the north. We soon left the flat and started to climb up through dense jungle which all along the side of the road is now populated. People here seem better off than those we have seen elsewhere in South East Asia. Their houses, while still simple, looked stronger and more sturdy and cars were in most driveways.

At the village of Balik Pulau we stopped for lunch to try the local speciality of laksa balik pulau. The village is pretty small and we had soon walked the length of the main street. At the end were a few hawker stalls selling street food, one of which had the local speciality, the only place in town where we had seen it. It was a bowl of rice noodles in a thick fishy soup with pineapple, chilli and onions. It was pretty tasty but also had a fiery kick to it. We were the only non-locals in the place and the two ladies sat at the table next to us seemed intrigued to see us there.

Does this need any explanation?!?

From Balik Pulau we continued north in search of the Tropical Fruit Farm. The directions in Lonely Planet are a bit wonky as it has the farm south of the Titi Kerawang waterfall when it is actually north. The waterfall itself was totally miscible as no water falls here now. It is something to do with a new dam that has been built further downstream but why that stops the waterfall is beyond me.

The fruit farm was definitely worth a visit. Your entrance fee gets you a guided tour and a free taster of various different fruits at the end. The farm was set up about ten years ago, opening to the public a few years later once the plants had become established. Privately owned but supported with government funding it is not a commercial operation. It has been set up for educational and research purposes and to help conserve rare and exotic fruit trees.

In the twenty five acres of the farm they grow over two hundred different types of fruit, including thirty different types of banana. The male banana plant has what looks like a large seed pod that grows on a stalk in the middle of the plant. It is in fact a flower with each leaf hiding a row of small pods which in turn become the bananas.

The varieties they have here include monkey bananas, tiny bananas the size of a little finger which are not for eating but produce really beautiful flowers. They have various different edible types all with a slightly different flavour, right through to large plantains used for cooking. It is the wrong season for most of the fruits but we saw quite a wide variety, albeit at different stages of growth. Among others we saw kaffir lime, lemongrass, avocado, betel nut, butter fruit (which had a fabulous scent), custard apples, dragon fruit (which are cactus flowers), the tree of the very smelly durian, Asian fig, mango, mangosteen, nutmeg, pineapple and rose apple.

At the end of the tour we also had the chance to sample some of the fruits. I had expected a few little tasters but we were each presented with a large plate of fruit – different melons, apples, guava, pineapple, mango, star fruit, mangosteen, bananas – and fresh fruit juices to wash it all down with. We certainly got a vitamin C boost today!

By the time we left the fruit farm it was already well past five and the swimming pool at our hotel was beckoning to both of us. We followed the road up to the north coast of the island and then headed east back to George Town. Pretty much the whole of this part of coastline has now been taken over by large hotels and apartment complexes. Where you could see the beach the sand looked lovely and soft but the beaches were narrow and the water did not really look inviting to swim in. Even the Penang Swimming Club must think so as their headquarters along the bay had a swimming pool on its terrace.

Back at our hotel we dropped off the car and headed into the pool to cool down. The water has felt pretty chilly both days but today it seemed even colder. By contrast the whirlpool felt almost too hot so it was a difficult choice of where to relax. Refreshed and showered we headed back to the Indian place we had trued on our first night here and had another really tasty dinner for the grand sum of £3. It goes to show what a big margin most places add to their costs when you can eat as well and as cheaply as this.