Dotting around KL

Plans are set and I leave tomorrow for Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. In the meantime, some updates on my last couple of days. Admittedly, I’ve spent a lot of them sat on my backside reading, surfing and chilling out. But I have seen a fair bit of the city, too.

First up, a huge “thank you” to Nick and Linda who I met for dinner on Sunday night. Well, I’d eaten by then but I munched on some chicken wings and had a beer while they ate. We chatted for ages about where I’ve been and about KL and Malaysia. They then drove me around for well over an hour so I got to see a lot of the city after dark – not too easy using public transport, especially some areas which are a hike away from the MRT and LRT.

After hardly seeing any of the city on my last visit, I made a bit of effort this time and opted to do both the Chinatown and Little India / Colonial walks from Lonely Planet. Wow. Even looking at the names makes this place sound more like Singapore. Despite the guy in the hostel telling some other guests they’d need to take a taxi or walk to Chinatown, I jumped on the nearby MRT and went three stops west to Maharajalela. This cost about 20p and took less than five minutes.

The walk around is pleasant enough and I was lucky with the weather – hot, but not too sunny. There’s not a huge amount to see, but I can definitely recommend the Central Market if you’re after knick-knacks and souvenirs. It also has a great food court. I got a huge bowl of rice with black pepper chicken for around MR5. A wedding was taking place in the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, so I couldn’t go in. Coincidentally, we’d seen the wedding cars in town the night before.

Nick and Linda had taken me to Merdeka Square the evening before, but it was good to see it in daylight as well. Unfortunately, it seems most government-run things are closed on a Monday so I didn’t get to visit the History Museum. However, I saw plenty of other stuff and the walk did me good!

I lucked out a the rain started just as I returned to the hostel, but didn’t get too heavy. Much better than the downpours when I was here before.

Today was an early rise as I wanted to get onto the sky bridge connecting the Petronas Towers. I couldn’t do this last time as I was only in town on a Monday when it’s closed. The recommendation is to get there early as “only” 1400 tickets are issued. Groups go through in 15-minute segments, but it costs nothing at all. It’s pretty good, too.

An exhibition in the basement tells you a lot about the building with some hands-on gizmos to get some points across. At the appointed time, you’re ushered into a small room and shown a 7-minute advert for how great Petronas is, with a few bits about the towers thrown in for good measure. After this, you head into the lift which whizzes you to the 41st floor where you have 8 minutes to spend on the bridge itself.

The view’s nice but not as impressive as I’m sure it is from the 88th floor. As a tourist, though, this is as high as you can get. It is the highest double-decker span bridge in the world – but I reckon it’s probably also the only one given the obscure description.

I do still think these are pretty cool structures, and even more so now that I’ve been there and read all the bumph about them. They’re certainly one of the more attractive “tallest buildings” I’ve seen. Given the price of the visit (naff all), I’d definitely recommend it. I don’t think you need to get there ridiculously early, but on the other hand I do believe it’s a fairly quiet time now which could have accounted for  the moderately small queue I waited in.

After this, I walked through the park backing onto the KLCC centre and checked out the cinema times at the nearby mall. Despite the poor reviews, I bought a ticket for Babylon A.D. and endured ninety-or-so minutes of complete cinematic tedium. I didn’t even get a salty popcorn – they only do “caramel” and “sweet” here!

Another chilled day, nattering to other people in the hostel then I popped out to a nearby cheap Chinese place for dinner with Alex, a fellow traveller from Switzerland. I patiently walked around with her afterwards as she checked out shoes and dresses – to be honest it made a pleasant change to be out of the hostel and in the fresh(ish) air for the evening.

And that’s KL for this stay. I’ll keep an eye on the Thai situation. If it stays the same I may just head back to KL and fly to Bangkok, or even go to HCM City and leave Thailand for later on. We shall see!

Oh, and as I sit here, Jenny (the Swedish girl I dived with at Sipadan) has just walked into the hostel! Small world…

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Sipadan

Up early again to get to the dive shop for the Sipadan trip. I thought I’d be diving with John and Mel, but it turned out they were doing Sipadan the next day and were off to Mantabuan instead. Sipidan is strictly regulated when it comes to diver numbers – no more than 120 per day. This is to ensure it’s not spoiled and is a good idea, though it can make diving there a pain if you don’t pre-book well enough in advance. At one time, you could holiday on the island but now the small resort plays host to the soldiers who protect it. Very little of the island can be walked on – one small beach, the jetty and the toilets.

Still, nobody goes to Sipadan to trek in the jungle. The 45-minute boat ride takes you to what is reckoned as being one of the world’s best dive sites. And having done three dives there, I can see why. The sheer volume and variety of creatures there is breathtaking, though be prepared for a few currents. At times it’s fun to just make yourself buoyant, curl up and let the waters push you past the coral. It’s like watching a film float past your eyes.

Barracuda spiral in a tornado. Turtles can be found in almost every rock crevice and eye you wisely before gliding gracefully past. Shark appear as a shadow above or below you – annoyingly very rarely at the same depth as if they just want some privacy. The number of fish species is too numerous to count and they’re all very blase about swimming around you. They see enough divers that you’re not going to upset them.

One word of warning, though – and this holds for every dive site – don’t touch the wildlife. Any of it. Coral, turtles, fish, nudibranches. Unless you’re trained, know what you’re doing and know for certain you won’t harm anything, keep your damn hands off. If I see anyone tugging on a turtle‘s flippers (and I’ve heard of this happening too many times) I’ll happily pull their dive mask off with no warning. Think yourself lucky I don’t rip out a regulator or turn off their air.

I know I’ve not written much about Sipadan, but you really have to go there to experience it. Even with poor visibility on the second dive due partly to rain, it was a hell of an experience.

Back at Semporna, I met up with Michael (my dive buddy from Switzerland) and Jenny (a Swedish student) for dinner while I also said goodbye to Mel and John. I really hope I get a chance to catch up with them again somewhere, though they’re working homeward now.

After walking Jenny back to her place (Semporna gets dark afetr sunset – not too many street lights) I popped into Scuba Junkie for a beer as I’d been told it was rocking on a Friday night. Well, not this Friday as they’d postponed things to the next evening for some reason. I had a couple of bevvies with some people I got talking to then walked back to the Dragon Inn around 11-ish. In truth, I was knackered. A good day and sadly my last here, but diving’s not the cheapest hobby and if I didn’t leave I’d spend far too much money!

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Back in the water

Small post and a few photos and videos, so they’re all at the bottom. I didn’t get to dive with the girls this morning as their dive boat was full. I took a walk across the road and found most of the other dive shops shut. One, Sabah Divers, had an open door but the staff were busy preparing for the day. I sauntered in anyway.

They quoted me MR281 for 3 dives including kit hire, which isn’t too bad. The girls got theirs for 250, but a fiver extra for a walk-in is fine. My dive master was Russel, and there were a few others in the group including a young guy from Singapore doing the last day of his Open Water course.

We boated out to one of the nearby islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park where there are many reefs around. All three dives were in excess of 40 minutes, visibility was superb in the morning (first two) and a little more limited in the afternoon as a storm closed in overhead and took away some sunlight.

Still, we saw some pretty good stuff and I managed to get my camera down there on the third dive. Dive 1: tested the casing. Dive 2: took camera, spotted case leaking at 6m and the other dive master took it back to the boat for the. Dive 3: all OK and I’ve got what I hope is some good video of a cuttlefish.

Russel certainly knows his stuff and where to find it. Sadly we didn’t spot the hairy frog fish which has been lurking around recently, but plenty of other things from starfish to octopi and the now-mandatory “Nemo”.

Between dives we retired to a resort on the island for drinks and food and chat. The staff and other divers were a good bunch and the lengthy surface time breaks seemed to fly by.

Oh, and I got my foot licked by a 2m long monitor lizard, which was cool.

Not a bad day considering it was all decided on at the last minute. The guy who runs the hostel took five of the guests to another tiny island, so had I not managed to get a dive I’d still have had a good time by the sound of it.

I caught up with the girls again later and it turned out they were the only two on their boat apart from the dive master and the boat operator. They had a great time, and they had lunch included. I should have found out what company they went with. However, they didn’t land on the island – they stayed on the boat all day. We’d intended to go out for dinner, but by the time we met we’d all eaten. Diving does make you hungry! Plus, we were all exhausted after too little sleep and too much exercise!

Kota Kinabalu is shaping up as a town which in itself isn’t really spectacular, but which has a lot going on around it. And at £3.20 per night for accommodation, I can handle staying here for a night or two more.

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Hot in the hills and a visit to a longhouse

We didn’t need too early a rise as Daniel said he operated on “elastic time” (flexible) and we should be at his for around 9:30. Ish. So we had a leisurely breakfast then carried our bags to the Corner, after our hoteliers said they would have the same room waiting for us when we got back.

At Daniel’s, we juggled luggage around and filled daybags with waterproofs, bottled water and the like. The day was to involve looping back to Belaga so we didn’t need to worry about nightwear. We’d pick that up afterwards, and before heading to our hosts’ for the evening.

We had two guides – one a bearded guy with a huge grin and big machete, the other an older-looking chap who walked barefoot. The former was our primary guide, the latter our boat captain who would pick us up from the far end of our trek. The path we were taking was over a mountain (not a huge one) and onto a track used by the British to escape the Japanese in WWII.

A short boat ride up the river took us to a small village with several piles of ash. They’d had a serious fire very recently and lost three quarters of their housing. Through the village, the guide took us into the jungle. Then around in circles for ten minutes until he spotted the right trail.

It was a fairly uneventful if enjoyable hike. The canopy blocked a lot of the sun out, but it was still a very hot day and our guide made sure we stopped for water at regular intervals. It seems a lot of other people had done the same judging by the number of plastic bottles scattered around. So here’s a warning:

If you’re on a hike with me – anywhere: the wilds of Borneo or the chilly Lakes in Cumbria – and you chuck a plastic bottle, or a crisp packet wrapper, or whatever onto the ground I will make you eat it. Shove it back in your rucksack – it weighs less than it did when it was full.

It took us around three hours to get to where we met our second guide and lunch was cooked up for us. A healthy mix of rice, chicken (some seasoned, some plain), fish (ick), something “from bull” (very gristly – not sure what part of the bull it was from) and pineapple. We enjoyed the food then walked across a small beach to our boat.

Another small trip took us to a muddly landing site. Ten minutes or so of squelching through sucking muck and trying not to slip into creeks and we arrived at a small but secluded waterfall. Clothes were swapped for swimming togs and in we jumped/slipped/tenderly stepped. There were many small fish in there with us and it’s the first time I think I’ve had my toes munched on by one. Well, several, in fact. Gents, do ensure you’re not swimming au naturale as it could get very uncomfortable.

We cooled off in here for the best part of an hour before packing up and squelching back to the boat and sailing to Belaga. At Daniel’s we met up with some more incoming tourists, changed into slightly less smelly clothing, picked up some gifts and were driven to our accommodation for the night. The longhouse we visited was owned and populated by Kayan people. There are many different “tribes” inhabiting Sarawak of which the Kayan are just one. They have their own language, clothing, customs and so on. The clothing has become more of a tradition, and used for ceremonies and celebrations. Everyone we met was dressed in t-shirts and shorts.

The houses themselves are simple affairs, electricity provided by a generator and generally a whole family lives inside. The houses are like a terraced row back in the UK – many individual houses joined together. Small family units will be in each one, but everyone from end to end will be related by birth or marriage to everyone else. It does make for a very close-knit and friendly community.

Our hostess was Rini (I think I spelled that correctly) who spoke some English, though her sister next door was much more fluent and helped out a lot. She herself was hosting Chrystelle and Jean, though we spent most of the evening as a group of four outside chatting to the children and to the elders.

Ah, the children. Wide-eyed and shy except for one little monster called Cecelia who was constantly the centre of attention. Great fun! They loved the things we’d brought – colouring books, coloured pencils, exercise books and the like. The coloured pencils in particular were greated with huge smiles and a small scramble. I ended up being used as a pencil-holder as we tried to find out how many I could stick into my beard before they fell out. I think we peaked on five.

Dinner was lovely, and enough food for four – but it was only Anthony and I eating as the others were being fed by their host. We ate as much as we could so as not to apear rude (and because it was good!) then rejoined the crowd. The children had gone to bed (except Cecelia who had rules of her own, it seemed) and chewed the cud with the older folk – all of them women. I’d say the men were down the pub, but there aren’t any in Belaga!

Traditional head-dresses were brought out for us to wear; one old lady did a traditional dance to music blaring from a traditional Sony mobile phone/walkman/camera; the French couple decided to try some of the “tobacco” that was produced. One of our hosts mimed that it “makes your head go a little strange” and asked if she could send some to them. She was somewhat puzzled as to why the police on the border may not be too happy about it, but I think Anthony did a decent job of explaining!

Other “local” things were tried out. Chewing leaves, some very hard nut (I think betel, but I’m not sure) and then some men came in with a nest. The bees inside are very dangerous and apparently the sting can be fatal. These adults were plucked out (unconscious – I guess they’d been “smoked”) and held in a flame tail-first to destroy the sting and kill them. Obviously, we were thinking “honey”. Not “larvae”.

Hum.

It was gone midnight when we retired. Thin mattresses had been put down for us, and sheets provided. Enough for a night’s sleep. Our “room” was cavernous, taking up the entire upper floor, and the aircon consisted of permanently open windows at either end. Bats used it as a short cut. Really rather cool.

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