Category Archives: Malaysia

On the DL in KL

We had such a homey experience in Kuala Lumpur. In fact, here we felt more like “real”people than we have in months. (Real people of course meaning those with things like “homes”and “jobs.” Things that are sounding more and more foreign to us 😉 ) Life on the road is grand, we can’t complain. We absolutely love getting out and exploring the world (hence the actually doing it), but every once in a while we really just want to throw on a pair of sweatpants, order a pizza and watch a movie on Netflix while we sit on the couch all day. Our couch. This does not happen on the road. So we took a week to stay in Kuala Lumpur and rented a downtown studio through Airbnb, as a means to do two things: first, to catch up on blogging, bills, taxes and all things life and WiFi related after a packed trip through Southeast Asia and before an even more packed trip through Nepal and Central Asia. And second, as a way to feel kinda like normal people for a while. So our first day in town, we woke up, grabbed coffees, and walked to the supermarket! We were so giddy, walking around and gleefully filling our cart with cereal, milk, cheese, crackers and wine. I’m not even kidding; I was ecstatic doing the dishes, because for the first time in four months, I had dishes to do! And I could make my own dinner! Ah, it was wonderful.

Also contributing to the feeling of homey-ness, we had a fantastic evening with a friend of Alan’s mother who is living with her husband in KL. They invited us over for a dinner party, which was the first time we attended a home-cooked dinner party since before Thanksgiving. It was greatly appreciated and we loved getting the ex-pat’s insight to the area. It was one of those small world coincidences, which was even more small world feeling when another friend of hers – from Alan’s hometown! – visited a few days later and the four of us went out to explore KL together. Teeny tiny world, it is.

Our friendly hosts guided us to the spot for our first experience being massaged by the blind, which was lovely and cheap, but more hilarious than anything. Alan’s masseuse was a chatty one, opining on such things as how Alan “looked” young, by which he meant 40s. (It’s OK, those with sight know he really looks 20-something 😉 ). He may or may not have also compared Alan to Chuck Norris, among other entertaining tid-bits. We shared a room and Jenni could barely stop giggling listening to all this. Then Jenni’s masseuse took a phone call and never stopped massaging. Albeit one-handed, but she never skipped a beat. Impressive, if not entirely zen-like. Also, two blind men walked in while Jenni was changing. Now there’s a situation that causes a disconnect between your rational brain and impulses.

Afterwards we grabbed a solid Indian lunch at Anjappar in Brickfields. Always a good decision to eat Indian food in a restaurant where you are the only non-Indians present. We also learned a little bit about how to maneuver your way through the city via malls and air-conditioned walkways so as to minimize your time out sweating in the hot humid streets. While some of the trains are air-conditioned, the above-ground monorail was quite hot and overall we thought the public transit, as with much of the city, felt somewhat less modern than Singapore or Hong Kong (that said, it’s super cheap and fairly easy to navigate). This theme extended to the overall vibe of the city for us. While KL has a reputation for being very modern (the Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world for a while, and they remain the tallest twin buildings), and it is very much a developed city with malls that rival (perhaps even put to shame) those you’d find in any western metropolis, after visiting Hong Kong and Singapore on this trip we were actually struck with the opposite impression. It is somewhat less modern than we’d expected. You do still see the mixing of old and new, finding hawker stalls a hop, skip and a jump away from the Ferragamo at the Suria Mall at the base of the Petronas Towers, and of course the decidedly less modern Chinatown and Little India neighborhoods nestled in amongst skyscrapers (Malaysia is predominantly a blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian).

Aside from these excursions spent with our new friends, we did little exploring (opting instead for aforementioned couch, cereal and wine and cheese), but we did check out the KL Hop-On Hop-Off bus to orient ourselves to the area, which conveniently stopped right nearby our apartment. It took us around to many of KL’s highlights, and we alighted at Central Market as well as Merdeka Square. And our last night we did manage to go out after dark to compare two bars known for their views of the Petronas Towers. The verdict: SkyBar at Traders Hotel trumps Marini’s on 57.

Practical Info

We were warned repeatedly about KL’s motorcycle bag snatchers, so take caution. You should also bring an umbrella (or buy a cheap one here) or raincoat as it poured (torrential downpours!) our first five days sometime between 4-6 pm, and our last day it began around 2 pm.

Note that KL Sentral and KLCC are different places. Our friends said that BFM is a great radio station. Time Out Kuala Lumpur is likely a good resource. When I lived in NY, it was my nightlife bible. It is worth noting here that we heard good things about Fraser’s Hill (and Shahzan Inn there), which is a couple hours away.

Transportation: The airport is quite a hub (and is the hub for Air Asia). We arrived after midnight and took a taxi which cost 112MYR, reflecting a 50% surcharge in effect from 12-6 am. It took about 45 minutes to KLCC. You can also take a train or bus (8MYR each) to KL Sentral (different from KLCC). And if you’re headed back from the city to the airport, you can check in (and check bags) at KL Sentral and then take a train. Our taxi from the city to the airport at 5 am cost 100MYR (you could probably find a cheaper one if you tried) and again took about 45 minutes.

Public transport is said to be very good here. We took the subway from KLCC to KL Sentral and it was painless and cheap at 1.60MYR each. We also took the monorail from KL Sentral back to Bukit Bintang which allowed us to see a bit more though it was crowded and hot (despite A/C). It cost 2.10MYR each. As with most places, you need your token to exit. I’m told taxis are cheap but often dishonest and may refuse to use the meter.

Accommodation: We stayed at an Airbnb apartment near KLCC. There are many luxury hotels and prices tend to be a lot lower than what you might find in other cities. We saw high-end chains for under $150/night. While we didn’t see the whole city, it seems like staying around KLCC or Bukit Bintang is probably a good bet, or possibly Bangsar though I’m less informed on this. I think there are more backpacker options in other neighborhoods. KLCC felt very safe, and there is a small running track in the park.

Food and Drinks: We went to the grocery store (Cold Storage at Suria KLCC) and ate many meals in our apartment. We dined one night at Healy Mac’s, a popular Irish bar on Jalan Ramlee. It was not bad, and the pint of Guinness was welcome (114MYR for salad, pizza, Guiness, sangria). Sushi dinner in the Isetan food court of Suria KLCC was pretty good and reasonable. Our Indian lunch at Anjappar (an international chain) in Brickfields was very good and inexpensive (about 12 MYR most mains).

Jalan Alor is a popular food street. There are tons of food courts in shopping centers and elsewhere. Lot 10 is said to be good. While perhaps pricier, the food court at Suria looked great. We heard Little Penang Kafe there is good. Old China Cafe is another eatery recommended to us.

We barely dabbled in the nightlife, but I’m told it is abundant in Kuala Lumpur. Our one (early) nighttime jaunt took us to Marini’s on 57 and SkyBar at Traders Hotel. We were a little underwhelmed by Marini’s bar area. There is a dress code and a wee bit of snootiness, and the music and vibe were so-so. The views of the Petronas Towers are nice, but you are so close that it’s hard to fully appreciate the grandeur. The restaurant and lounge may be nicer. We preferred SkyBar, which at least on Monday night played tunes like Marley, CCR and Clapton. We just missed that happy hour as it ended at 8 pm, but I think the bartender said Wednesday night is ladies night with free margaritas all night. Make a reservation or put your name down on arrival for one of the window seats, where you’ll find spot-on views of the towers plus the light/fountain show at Lake Symphony.

Changkat Bukit Bintang is lined with bars. There are a handful more on Jalan Ramlee right by our apartment. Zouk is a popular club. I think the Bangsar area has a bit of nightlife.

Activities: If you like to shop, you will not be bored. There are malls and stores everywhere. One day we took the Hop-On Hop-Off bus around the city. It is a nice way to orient yourself, though it can get pretty crowded (and if you’re standing and can’t easily look out the window, it’s less enjoyable). It costs 45MYR for 24 hours or 79MYR for 48 hours. You cannot board with a beverage, unless it’s bottled water (or maybe anything in a closed bottle?).

Central Market was formerly a functioning wet market, nowadays it houses varied craft shops and some F&B options. Kasturi Walk is a covered way alongside the Central Market, and I saw a sign advertising cultural performances every Monday-Saturday at 9 pm and a martial arts performance every Sunday at 9 pm. The other place we disembarked from the bus was Merdeka Square. It is here that the Malaysian flag was raised for the first time in 1957 to replace the Union Jack. The 95-meter flagpole at one end anchors an enormous flag. The attractive Sultan Abdul Samad building (housing government offices) is here.

I thought the blind massage was great, and cheap at 35MYR for 45 minutes. They also do reflexology.

Since we don’t have any particular insight to add on most attractions here, I’ll just list some out for you to consider. The bird and butterfly parks; National Mosque; Masjid Jamek; National Museum; Sin Sze Si Ya Temple; The Annexe Gallery; Brickfields (we still can’t tell if this is the same as Little India?); Chinatown and Petaling Street; Petronas Towers; KL Tower. Outside the city but I think reachable on public transportation are the Batu Caves.

March 25 – April 1, 2014 (Tuesday-Tuesday)

Kinabalu: The One That Got Away

Kota Kinabalu (“KK”), like much of Borneo, surprised us with its modernity. It’s a remarkably developed city for one I’d not heard of before, exemplified by the hospital (and that is something for which we were immensely grateful). We actually even saw commercials on television for the hospital we stayed at, and another promoting Malaysia as a destination for medical tourism.  Lest you get the wrong impression, it still feels and smells like a seafront developing nation city in many parts, too.

The city of KK was supposed to be a short stopover for us in transit to and from Mount Kinabalu (at Kinabalu National Park). We spent our first night in town doing little, as we were to get on the road for our big hike. We did little more than hit up the 7-11 for water and other supplies.

The drive out to Kinabalu National Park takes about two hours, and I was pleased to discover that there are kitschy roadside attractions in Malaysia, just like back home. We stopped for the obligatory photo ops at the Upside Down House, well worth the 5 MYR entrance fee (for the outside and bathroom parts only, it’s 18 MYR for the whole shebang) if you ask me. Highly recommended for those with kids and those kids at heart. As you get closer to the mountain the roads of course get windier, but we were still blown away by how modern and developed everything was.  And by the glorious views of the mountain for much of the drive.

As most of you know by now, we were unable to climb the mountain, due to a pesky interruption thanks to meningitis (you can read about the ordeal here if this is news to you). We have high hopes to come back another time though. We were mentally prepared (as prepared as you can be) to conquer this massive peak, the highest in Borneo and one of the highest in Southeast Asia.

It is a serious hike that usually entails ascending from ~6,150’ to a mountain lodge at ~10,800’, spending the night there and waking around 2 am in hopes of watching the sunrise from the peak at ~13,500’.  The upper portion of the trail is very steep and requires climbers hold on to a rope.  Less than a month ago, a German girl tragically died after falling from the summit.

The first documented ascent of the mountain was in 1851 by Hugh Low, a British colonial administrator.  The locals found the mountain a frightening place and believed the summit was home to the spirits of their ancestors.  That is why every climbing party used to sacrifice a chicken at the peak.  This is no longer necessary as an annual ceremony now fulfills this requirement for all of us.  A couple other interesting facts: there is an annual race to the top and back, last year the top three men were Kenyan (obviously) and the winner finished in less than 2.5 hours (!!!!); and the mountain has the world’s highest via ferrata, called Mountain Torq.

While we can’t vouch for the accommodation mid-way up the mountain or the view at the top (yet), it looks like a stunning hike and one we very much look forward to conquering in the future, meningitis free.

Liwagu Suites, one of the hotels near the start of the hike, was great. We received service so wonderful we felt like celebrities. The pre-hike day lunch was so absurd in portion sizes and quality that we ache longingly to know what it must taste like post-hike. The staff were exceedingly accommodating, and especially when I was in need of medical care.

::teh tarik::
::teh tarik::

Upstairs at Liwagu there is an educational display with preserved bugs and animals from the area. Borneo sure does have some creepy crawlers, and I’m pretty glad we missed out on seeing those. Silver lining! 😉  We did see some very cool moths (and butterflies?) after dark.

We returned to KK after our stay at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria to continue recuperating before heading off to the Philippines, and this time Jenni was able to join Alan at the impressive market on the waterfront, as well as check out a handful of restaurants around town. While the food was good, beware the rats. We saw what was quite possibly the world’s largest rat at that market, and mid-dinner at a popular Indian restaurant we saw a honker of a rat come scurrying out from under a neighboring table.

Practical Info

KK is the capital and largest city in the state of Sabah.  It is quite developed with large buildings, shopping malls and of course world-class medical facilities!  And traffic.  Lots of it at rush hour, which seems to take place in the morning, at lunch and in the afternoon.  I am amazed at how much development is taking place here.  There are new high rise residential towers going up and major construction much of the way out towards Rasa Ria…think industrial parks and malls and towers.  Some sort of rapid transit system is probably on its way.

It doesn’t seem like there are so many tourist attractions in the city, but if you visit Sabah (which has the greatest share of Malaysian Borneo’s top attractions) you will most likely come through here.  There are several offshore islands (per Wiki: “Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park comprises a group of 5 islands located between 3 to 8 km off Kota Kinabalu”) you can visit for a day or overnight.  On a street one block off the water and just north of Le Meridien, there is a nightly market with costume jewelry, sunglasses, apparel, etc.

In terms of Mount Kinabalu, everything was arranged by our tour company but here is how I think it works.  You can do it as a day hike, but there are only four (?) permits available per day for this.  I think all hikers need to hire a local guide.  You could also drive up to the park in the morning, hike up to the mountain lodge (Laban Rata) for the night and summit and return the next day.  But I think they try to discourage this so the concessionaire can make more money??  So it seems the most widely available option is to drive up to the park, spend the night at one of the properties near park headquarters, have breakfast around there and then hike up to Laban Rata, have a buffet dinner there, wake around 2 am when you can get some toast and coffee etc. before the summit attempt, watch the sunrise on the summit, hike back down to Laban Rata for a full breakfast, and finally descend back to park headquarters.

Many people visit the park with no intention of climbing the mountain.  The air is much cooler and there is abundant flora and fauna.  I think it’s very rare to see most of the fauna that lives in the park, but birding is popular.  There are many easy walking trails around the park headquarters and a botanical garden with limited hours.

Our arrangements were to include all our meals from arrival at the park through lunch after descending the mountain.  I’m not sure if this is standard.  There are some little stores at the park selling drinks and snacks and clothing you might need (rain coat, gloves, hat, head lamps, walking poles, etc.).

Note that you probably want good gloves because much of the top requires holding on to a rope, and it might be wet and will be cold.  So the under gloves we packed might not have been sufficient, but fortunately the hotel gave us a bag with thicker gloves and other items.  I would recommend bringing some form of water purification.  There are conflicting reports on the safety of drinking the water available on the mountain trail, but I don’t drink untreated mountain water in the US and I wouldn’t do it here.  Also, you need to show your passport for the hike.

We did not get a chance to do any of this, but near the park there are places you might be able to see the rafflesia (the world’s biggest flower, it can be a meter in diameter and weigh 12kg), and the self-explanatory Poring Hot Springs.

Transportation: There is an international airport (Air Asia flies here) with connections to several destinations.  There are three direct flights each week to Palawan in the Philippines.  The drive to Kinabalu National Park takes about two hours.

Accommodation: Our first night in KK we stayed at the Promenade Hotel.  We were upgraded to a suite that was quite nice.  The hotel does not get great reviews and the breakfast buffet did feel a touch dingy, but the location is good and we didn’t really see enough to judge.  We had planned to stay at the Jesselton but it was full.

Our night before being admitted to the hospital and then the nights after Rasa Ria we stayed at Le Meridien.  The first time we had a big room with full ocean view which was very nice as we could see the offshore islands and watch the sunset.  The second time we had a smaller room and partial ocean view, still quite nice.  There is a nice pool and gym.  The WiFi leaves a lot to be desired, though we complained so they actually put a router in our room and that helped a lot.  Hey, we need good bandwidth to file our reports from the road!

Both hotels we stayed at are on the waterfront, and this seems like a good place to be.  I’d probably choose Le Meridien’s location from what I’ve seen as it’s straight across from a great market (more on this below) and I think closer to the waterfront development with bars and restaurants popular among expats.  There is a Hyatt on the waterfront a few blocks north that might be a slightly more peaceful location.

For Mount Kinabalu, we stayed at Liwagu Suites, which is part of Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.  I think they hold the concession from the park so they operate multiple properties near park headquarters plus the main mountain lodge.  Our suite at Liwagu was very spacious and quite nice, with a living area downstairs plus sleeping loft with additional half bath.  Less expensive accommodation is available, including more hostel-like quarters.

The lodge on the mountain is called Laban Rata.  I believe there are a few private rooms that are hard to book so chances are you’ll stay in the dorm.  They have everything you need for sleeping so no need to bring a sleeping bag.

I don’t know much about it, but there is also a place called Mesilau Nature Resort.  I think this is in a slightly different area than the other base lodges and you begin the hike on a different trail before joining up with the main trail well below Laban Rata.

Food and Drinks: There is a lot of seafood and Indian food in KK.  And probably near anything you might want given how large and modern the city is.  The market across from Le Meridien has a section with Malaysian rice and noodle dishes plus endless purveyors of grilled chicken and “you point, we cook” seafood.  I tried chicken ass.  It wasn’t that much better than it sounds.  But this market is vibrant and fun and smoky.  And when I was there alone the night we returned from the mountain, this little kid walked by and rubbed my red arm hair.  Then he whispered to his friend, pointed at me, and came back and did it again.

Just down the waterfront is a collection of bars and restaurants.  We had delicious pizzas at Gusto (30-35 MYR each) and tasty north Indian cuisine at Kohinoor (entrees 20-30 MYR, I requested my butter chicken spicy and it sure was).  There is an Aussie place, a hot dog place, Starbucks, plenty of Guinness around, etc.  Our driver said Bed nightclub is popular among expats.  Lunch at Malaysian chain Secret Recipe was fairly inexpensive and fine.

Coffee and kaya toast at Borneo 1945 Museum Kopitiam (at Borneo Backpackers hostel) was pretty good.  It seems to be a bit of a traveler/backpacker hangout spot and has free WiFi.

February 25 – March 3 and March 7-11, 2014

Recovering in Rasa Ria

Leaving the hospital in Kota Kinablau was intimidating. There’s nothing like a bout of meningitis in Borneo to knock you off your game for a while. So we figured the best thing to do would be to stay local, travel minimally for a while and go somewhere supremely relaxing where we could unwind, recuperate and recover. And Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria ended up being the perfect spot to do just that.

Located only about an hour outside of the surprisingly large city of Kota Kinabalu, Rasa Ria is a little slice of paradise set on a cove of the South China Sea. The Shangri-La brand is well known, and it didn’t disappoint. I don’t know if this was the doing of Audley’s local agent or the fact that I showed up sporting my hospital bracelet and bandages on the IV holes in my hands, but the hotel upgraded us to the Ocean Wing.  This is the fancy side, and it comes with such perks as a fabulous and large room with a spacious lanai containing a day bed and giant soaking tub; chocolates, fruits and snacks provided daily in the room; a separate pool just for Ocean Wing guests; and a separate breakfast spread that includes a build-your-own-mimosa bar.

We practiced baby-mooning, Alan enjoying the specialty cocktails, and me sticking to the mocktails (for the most part anyway, I had to try that mimosa bar by the end!). While I took it easy, Alan partook in some activities at the resort: tennis (where he experienced for the first time a macaque walking along the top of the back fence while he played!), the gym, and winning the putting competition. We even played a little game of croquet together. But mostly our recovery involved a lot of reading, a lot of napping, a lot of floating in the pool.

We felt incredibly fortunate to be able to recuperate here, and it was a much needed period of relaxation and restoration for both of us.

Practical Info

The resort is only about an hour from Kota Kinabalu (a taxi costs 90 MYR) but feels worlds away.  The property is enormous, with multiple buildings, an 18-hole golf course and 400 acres of tropical forest.  The beach is deep and gorgeous, but for some reason people didn’t seem to swim in the ocean or even hang out on the beach as much as near the pools.

The Garden Wing is closer to some of the activities but the Ocean Wing is so near that it doesn’t really matter.  The hotel is expanding the Ocean Wing so you do hear and see construction in what is otherwise paradise.  Their website says it is expected to be complete in the fourth quarter of 2014.  WiFi worked great.

Nearby is the Nexus Resort, which I think is a similar concept that is less nice and less expensive.

Food and Beverage: There are five dining areas plus a couple bars.  Coast restaurant is the most upscale (with a dress code at night) and where the Ocean Wing guests have breakfast (which was excellent).  Our dinner there was good but not amazing, though I did satisfy my craving for a steak.  The Coffee Terrace has an a la carte menu plus a buffet with various theme nights.  We ate there for the Western (mainly Mexican) and Mediterranean nights.  The buffet costs 106++ MYR.  Then there is an Indian a la carte restaurant, a Japanese teppanyaki spot with a few menu sets, and a Malaysian-oriented buffet that is sort of a fancy resort version of a hawker center.  And there is 24-hour room service.

::coast restaurant::
::coast restaurant::

There is a nice bar in the main lobby with live jazz music nightly.  The highlight on the F&B front and maybe just overall is the 4:30-7:30 pm happy hour at the beachfront Sampan Bar.  They have a neat, cultural lighting ceremony at sunset and a guitar/upright bass trio doing acoustic versions of Western classics.  Of course the main attraction is watching the sunset.  We had four straight glorious evenings watching that ball of fire plunge into the South China Sea.

We enjoyed lunch at the Ocean Wing pool most days, and the staff walk around with ice water, cold towels and these delicious black glutinous rice ice cream bars.

::glutinous rice pops::
::glutinous rice pops::

Activities and Wildlife: We were here to relax and did not partake in most of the activities, but there are several on offer (mostly at additional cost).  There is an orangutan center and I’m not sure how it works, but I’m sure we would have participated had we not already visited Semenggoh.  There are day and night boat trips to see floating villages and fireflies in the mangroves.  You can rent a jet ski or borrow a kayak for free.

I think you could visit Kinabalu National Park and they may be able to coordinate hiking there.  The golf course looked pretty nice.  On Thursday (every week?) there was a good deal for the guest/manager competition where it cost 185 MYR for nine holes including all the rental equipment you might need.

There is one hard tennis court in very good condition.  You can borrow a racquet and used balls for free, though I should have just stumped up the cash for a new can!  You can pay a bunch to hit with the coach, but instead I asked and they connected me with Alvin on the staff free of charge and he was very good.

In a tree in the middle of the property we saw a few big red and green macaws plus their resident hornbill.  On the drive in, we saw a huge monitor lizard in the water at the golf course.  We walked back a couple days later but didn’t spot any others.

March 3-7, 2014 (Monday-Friday)

And Then…Meningitis

Sometimes things happen that require a change of plans.  Like getting meningitis in Borneo.

Jenni first started feeling sick our last night in Kuching (Sunday), after we returned from a fantastic trip staying at an Iban longhouse.  Her symptoms were not immediately apparent.  I recall her saying “I don’t know, I just don’t feel well.”  This soon became a severe headache and fever with chills plus fatigue and mild nausea.  The next morning we woke at the crack of dawn for a flight to Miri and a drive into Brunei.  Jenni spent the rest of the day resting in the hotel room, and by dinner she was tired but otherwise pretty much fine.

On Tuesday, we were out and about in Brunei and that evening we flew to Kota Kinabalu.  The next morning we drove a couple hours up to Kinabalu Park, where we planned to spend the night near park headquarters before beginning our Mount Kinabalu hike on Thursday morning.  When we arrived, Jenni was tired and spent the afternoon relaxing on the day bed.  Many tears were shed, but that’s because she was watching The Notebook on HBO.

As we went to bed, it seemed like the hike was nearly sure to happen.  But that night Jenni’s fever spiked again, accompanied by horrible chills and a crushing headache.  In the morning, she said she could not make the hike but that I should go for it.  After all, we had come to Sabah only to climb this mountain and we were both thrilled at the prospect.  It is a serious hike that usually entails ascending from ~6,150’ to a mountain lodge at ~10,800’, spending the night there and waking around 2 am in hopes of watching the sunrise from the peak at ~13,500’.  The upper portion of the trail is very steep and requires climbers hold on to a rope.  Less than a month ago, a German girl tragically died after falling from the summit.  We will cover the mountain in more depth in a separate post, since we learned a bit about it despite missing the hike.

I had a couple hours still to decide whether or not to begin the hike.  Given I would have been away from Jenni for about 30 hours and communication would have been difficult if not impossible, it seemed the right choice was to bail on the hike.  Of course had we known then the severity of the situation, it would never have been a question.  We had started to suspect Jenni might have malaria, but we still wondered if she was just experiencing something akin to the flu.

We spoke again with my dad who pointed out to us lay folk that it is one thing to suffer severe headaches, spiking fevers and some nausea.  It is quite another when there is a complete absence of any upper respiratory symptoms, no diarrhea and at that point no vomiting.  Despite that we have been very conservative (spendthrift even?!) in taking malarone our entire trip, her symptoms sounded quite similar to malaria.  And so on Thursday morning we decided to leave the mountain and head straight to KPJ Sabah Specialist Hospital (fka Sabah Medical Centre) back in the city of Kota Kinabalu.

::Sabah Medical Centre::
::Jenni’s first walk post-meningitis at Sabah Medical Centre::

By this time, Jenni was feeling worse and worse.  A doctor examined her in the E.R. and they drew blood for general analysis plus to test for malaria, dengue fever and typhoid.  The results came back negative, but we learned that false negatives are not unheard of, and even more so if the patient is taking malaria prophylaxis and blood is drawn while the fever has come down.  (By the way, this isn’t medical advice and if you’re a doctor and disagree with what I’m saying, then you’re probably right!  I’m only conveying what I was told and what our experience was like 🙂 )

The medical staff sent us home with instructions to return in the morning for further blood work.  Jenni spent the rest of the day near incapacitated, and as we had finally bought a thermometer from the hospital I was able to check her temperature: just shy of 103.  By this time we were growing very concerned because Jenni’s condition seemed to be worsening and as yet we had no diagnosis.  Friday morning was the nadir.

We returned to the hospital and she immediately had to lie down.  The E.R. doctor from the previous day had said he’d just begin treating her for malaria today even if the results again were negative.  She was in so much pain and barely communicating, and I was terrified.  Was it cerebral malaria?  It started to feel to me like seconds and minutes became critical.  I became quite pushy and the E.R. doctor called down one of his colleagues.  At the same time they put Jenni on an IV because she was not eating or drinking anything.


I was on the phone constantly with my father, and at one point walked away from Jenni’s bed so she wouldn’t hear me cry.  I knew she needed me to be calm and in control, and if she knew how upset and scared I was that would only exacerbate her own fear and could only make matters worse.  Our new doctor administered some antibiotics and agreed she might have malaria or perhaps it was meningitis.  Jenni was admitted to the hospital and within a few hours we saw the neurologist.

Her second and third malaria tests (the second taken immediately upon arriving at the hospital Friday morning, a third blood test drawn a couple hours later when her fever spiked again) also came back negative.

Next came Jenni’s first MRI, followed a few hours later by her first (and hopefully only) lumbar puncture, aka spinal tap.  Here again I will pretend to possess some medical knowledge.  Meningitis cannot be detected in the blood, but rather it requires an analysis of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF).  And since it’s not that easy to put a temporary hole in someone’s head, the doctor gets the CSF sample from the base of the spinal column.  Or something like that.  By now Jenni was far from well but certainly better than she had been that morning or the previous day.


After several more agonizing hours, we got the results of the spinal tap and the neurologist told us that Jenni had viral meningitis.  Not usually cause for celebration, but since we at last had a diagnosis and it was not malaria and did not seem to be bacterial meningitis, we were quite relieved.  At least I was.  We found out the next day that Jenni didn’t realize viral is the less serious type of meningitis.  She thought she had the type that could be fatal, and she cried tears of joy when her father mentioned otherwise.

She ended up spending three nights in the hospital, getting poked by a lot of needles and with several drugs administered…antibiotics, antiviral, pain medicine, nausea medicine to counter the nausea caused by the meningitis and the pain medicine, etc.  Luckily the other bed in the room was empty so I did not have to sleep on the floor.

::getting unplugged::
::getting unplugged::

I knew Jenni needed to rest and not think too hard, so I suggested we try to download a movie to watch.  Jenni asked if I thought watching the Bachelor would be OK.  I’m no doctor, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but since meningitis is an acute inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain, it seems logical that shrinking the brain might be advantageous.

Once we knew what was wrong and Jenni started to feel better, we had the chance to begin reflecting on the experience.  What struck us first and foremost is how lucky we were that it happened here.  While it’s hard to say you’re lucky when you get meningitis, we felt that Singapore is the only place we’ve been the past three months where it’s easy to imagine the situation could have been better.  More on this below, but we were working with a tour company for the only time on the trip thus far and they were most helpful, the hospital facilities were modern and clean, and the care Jenni received seemed excellent.  I’ve been to many hospitals in the U.S., and this was at least as nice as several of those.  We also heard this hospital has the only certified neurologist in Sabah, a rather fortuitous fact.

In addition to a crash course in tropical diseases and meningitis, we learned a few other lessons.  Be pushy.  Do not sit back and assume someone else has everything under control.  While it might have worked out the same either way, I believe that constant inquiry and double-checking and pressing led to greater and more prompt focus on taking care of Jenni.  Having travel insurance can be a good thing.  We never have in the past, but for this trip we do.  So we hope to suffer minimal financial loss.  Have a doctor in your life that you can call on any time.  More on that below, but it made a really scary and difficult situation slightly more tolerable.  We have bought SIM cards in most but not all countries.  Having one here was a lifesaver (figuratively, at least).

Many of you have asked about our travel plans in light of this ordeal.  Our flight to Manila on March 1 was obviously out of the question, given that Jenni was lying in the hospital with an IV in her arm that day.  We had made all the arrangements to snorkel with whale sharks in Donsol and then trek in northern Luzon before heading to Palawan.  Those former destinations we will have to skip for now.

To say that Jenni has been a trooper through this is a massive understatement.  It would have been reasonable, if not expected, for her to want to head back home and reevaluate the situation and our plans.  Instead, she has shaken off the emotional impact and we’re ready to get back at it.

We feel very fortunate that Jenni was able to recuperate at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria, a terrific beach resort less than an hour from the city.  Next week we will fly to Palawan and with any luck Jenni will be 100% recovered and ready to proceed with our planned Nepal trek in April.

I think a “special thanks” section would be in order here, and this is by no means an exhaustive list.  We appreciate all the love and support of our family and friends   My father has been my first call for any medical issue for my entire life.  Not only because he’s my father, but because he is brilliant.  Unfortunately, this means he had to field calls from drunken frat boys at odd hours of the night during my Tufts years.

He was in communication with us throughout, starting well before we reached the hospital.  In fact, we first appreciated Jenni’s condition could be serious when he said that it didn’t sound like nothing.  For those of you who know Ron, his personality and incredible knowledge conspire to make him shrug off most problems.  Well, he does’t really shrug them off, he just seems unimpressed.  Like, “oh, it sounds like X.  If doing Y hurts, don’t do Y.  I predict a full recovery.”  He knows just about everything, but supplemented that with research of his own since he’s not an infectious disease doctor and certainly not a tropical specialist.  He guided us from afar, including in the middle of the night and at times speaking on the phone with the attending physician.  There is simply no way to overstate the value of a doctor 100% focused on your interests and with a competence level way off the charts.  When Jenni was starting to recover, she said something to the effect of “your dad is a freak of nature.  I am so happy we have him.”  Me too.

We booked our Borneo trip through Hannah G. at Audley.  Their team and local agents/partners in Kota Kinabalu and up at Mount Kinabalu were exceptionally helpful and thoughtful.  We were staying at Kinabalu National Park when we decided medical attention was in order.  The staff at the lodge there were so accommodating (the whole time, not just in sickness), we thought we might be getting punked.  Audley’s local agents are the ones who recommended the KPJ hospital.  When our plan to spend the night on the mountain was superseded by a night in Kota Kinabalu, they put us up at Le Meridien which was first class.  The team was in touch constantly, and one of the guys on the ground even visited us at our hotel and later at the hospital.  I would call out the names of these local agents since they certainly deserve it, but if you want to know just get in touch with Audley.  We had done virtually all our travel independently until Borneo, and boy were we glad that Audley and their team were there to help us.

While we suspected malaria and before we understood the quality of care at KPJ, I reached out to Swimmy and Matt K. in case we decided we should rush to Singapore.  Both assured me I could count on their full support and would not have to touch down blind.  Much love.

When it became clear that our onward travel plans (immediately to the Philippines) required alteration, I started making calls and sending emails.  Expedia’s customer service was very good, as was agoda’s.  Leo at Uncharted Philippines continued to “wow.”  The Philippines is not such an easy place to figure out travel plans for a first-time visitor.  The options seem endless and many destinations are difficult to reach.  I had extensive email and phone conversations with Leo while planning our trip.  I cannot say enough good things about his responsiveness and even more so his diligence.  He is one of the only people I’ve ever worked with who answers all my questions and then answers the four other questions that I should have asked.  His attention to detail is impeccable.  We had booked a couple awesome sounding treks and he provided some other travel services.  Five days before the arrangements were scheduled to begin (i.e. well beyond the 15-day advance notice requirement), I emailed Leo on a Saturday morning explaining the situation.  I offered to provide a medical certificate but did not yet have it.  He replied four hours later, by which time his refund of our payment in full (other than out of pocket expenses he’d already incurred and charges for planning services previously delivered) had already hit PayPal.

Last and certainly not least, the doctors and staff at KPJ were wonderful.  We really couldn’t have been more pleased with the facility nor the quality of care, especially considering this is still a developing country.  By the time Jenni was discharged, we were sad to say goodbye!

It is times like these when it’s hard to describe the soul-warming effect of great friends and family.  I tear up just writing this because it means so much to me.

Alan covered this trying experience in a moving and honest way, but it’s important to acknowledge his incredible support and contribution throughout this ordeal. I’ve had a history of being a slight hypochondriac, so when I was told by multiple doctors that my symptoms could indicate any one of several tropical diseases (raise your hand if you’re familiar with chikungunya) and/or meningitis (none of which I know very much about), you could say I was panicked. (Prior to this experience my knowledge of “lumbar puncture” was limited to “isn’t there a movie called This is Spinal Tap? And didn’t I read somewhere that a spinal tap is one of the most painful medical procedures out there? (turns out, it’s not, but it’s still pretty damn scary when a doctor in a foreign country tells you he needs to insert a needle into your spine)). To be sick is one thing. To be undiagnosed and later diagnosed with a disease you’ve only heard of in the context of college students dying, all while in a foreign country whose health care system you know next to squat about? This is a situation in which you need moral support.  Alan was my rock throughout the entire experience. He fought for my access to the best care I could receive, he wore his bravest face even when he was scared himself, fielded phone calls from my parents back stateside who were understandably terrified and helpless feeling, bought every cracker available in the convenience store when I couldn’t stomach hospital food and got a craving for saltines, and he tirelessly took care of me and all the headaches this disease caused, making phone calls, canceling flights and hotel reservations, obtaining test results and letters from the doctors, reaching out to insurance companies, and so on and so on. I am so thankful to call him my husband and my partner. I’ve teared up several times since this ordeal, at how lucky I am in a number of respects, many of which Alan outlined above, but especially for his love and support. 

::got crackers?::
::got crackers?::

Oooooo-Ha’ing with the Iban

First of all, just know that despite the fact that when we look at the photos from this trip we are filled with a burning desire to know whether the glass Jenni is holding in each picture is carrying meningitis, we still consider this one of the absolute highlights of our entire trip.

The Iban are a Borneo tribe, a branch of the Dayak people. They are renowned for their headhunting practices and had a fearsome reputation in days past as a tribe successful in war and territorial expansion.

::Iban org chart::
::Iban org chart::

The Iban typically live in longhouses, which (not surprisingly) are long, rectangular buildings housing several families. They are somewhat akin to attached apartments, with separate rooms in the back fronted by a large common room spanning the length of the house, and a large verandah outside where residents dry crops and laundry. The indoor common area is typically used for welcoming guests and communal ceremonies. Of course historically they were quite rustic and many still are today, including the one we stayed at, though even this one had running water and toilets in an outhouse, and televisions in the rooms.

We were surprised to learn that for the most part this is not communal living.  Each family tends its own crops and eats its own harvest.  The original purpose of the longhouse was to provide safety in numbers.  Nowadays the allure of the city is too strong for many of the younger generation, and this legendary way of life may not be around so much longer.

To get to the longhouse, we took a longboat up the Lemanak River. These boats are narrow and quite long, like really long canoes. Luckily ours had a motor so the ride wasn’t too long, but our hosts still had to use a bamboo pole to punt the boat forward as we passed through shallow, rocky patches. Lady is jacked, my friends. These rides were surprisingly pleasant. The water is brownish and not terribly inviting, but the scenery is spectacular, the river flanked on either side by massive jungle trees and vines.

Once we arrived at the longhouse we took a quick tour of the property, visiting the house pigs and chickens (which we came to hate when the roosters crowed ALL. NIGHT. LONG.). The Iban grow dry rice (directly on the hillside, without terracing), pepper and a handful of other crops nearby, mostly for personal use, but they also sell their pepper once a month.

Alan joined the kids for a quick dip at bathtime. While they do have running water now, the laundry is washed, the people are bathed and the teeth are brushed in this murky river.

Once everyone was cleaned up, the real fun began. We joined Eric and Paul (our indescribably phenomenal guide and driver) and our hosts in the kitchen of one family’s living area while Eric and Paul finished cooking up our feast. And our boatman brought out the langkau at this point. Oh, the langkau. So much langkau. Langkau is a drink, which, per Wikipedia, “contains a higher alcohol content because it is actually made of tuak which has been distilled over fire to boil off the alcohol from the tuak, cooled down and collected into containers.” It’s hot as Hades in this little room to begin with, and with the oven going it got sweaty real fast. The men are hanging out shirtless, and the shotglass starts making its way around the room. The Iban believe in black magic and spirits, so they won’t drink something that you won’t drink yourself, and so when they drink the langkau, the person serving first pours himself a shot, lets out a hearty “oooooooh-ha!” cheers before taking it, then pours a shot (using the same glass) for his guest, and makes his way around the room offering everyone a round out of that same glass. (We checked with Eric afterwards and nobody at the longhouse has fallen ill, but doesn’t this just sound exactly like how your parents warned that you would get meningitis in college!?). Let’s just say the “ooooooh-ha’s” got progressively louder and louder as that shotglass made the rounds. We bought a bottle for the group (at the spectacular price of 6 MYR a bottle, how could you not? Perhaps that’s why we bought two over the course of the night). There was another couple staying at the longhouse and cooking in the next room with a different family, and we may or may not have gotten into an “ooooooh-ha” off. Iban drinking contests are the best drinking contests.

Our boatman, Bundong, the ripped 57 year old with ab ridges (what!? I don’t know many 20 year olds with abs like that!), was big on the langkau. Relentless with those shots. And his big grin is infectious as he pours himself a shot and says “I first.”

All that langkau had us working up an appetite, an appetite so great that Alan tried his first taste of chicken feet. We learned that the Iban look forward to these visits from tourists, despite that many of them cannot communicate with us verbally, because they get to hang out, drinking langkau and eating their favorite chicken feet soup. Eric and Paul are serious cooks, too. We thoroughly enjoyed the spread they prepared for us, and we were particularly blown away by the fried bitter gourd. I take back what I said in Penang, that shit is great.

Paul, our driver, was perhaps the most hilarious throughout the night. I don’t think he wore anything but a towel once we arrived at the longhouse (I don’t blame him, it’s insanely hot in there). The women wear sarongs.  They are Christian mixed with animist and not socially conservative in terms of dress, which Alan loved because he didn’t have to wear a shirt all night, either. When Paul brought out some bananas for dessert and offered them with a “ba-na-na-na” to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth, we all collapsed into laughter. Both Paul and Eric were so appreciative of us because it allowed them the opportunity to spend this time with the Iban, and we can totally understand why. Still, it was over the top when Paul sat there insisting that he is there to serve us and fanned us to offer some relief from the heat.

After dinner we all gathered in the common room to watch a few of our hosts perform their traditional dance. The rhythm of the beat was exotic and entertaining, and we adored watching the few guys and gals in costume move to the tunes.

Eric blew us away though, closing the performance with an impressive dance he crushed and then wowing us by lifting the mortar that weighs maybe 10 kilos with his teeth!!

We were invited to join for the dancing, and when you’ve had that much langkau it’s easy to get up there and take part, though we left the oral mortar lifting to the pro.

After the dance we gave our gifts to the chief. It’s customary and expected to bring small gifts for each of the 12 families as an offer of appreciation for their hospitality. We had picked up little boxes of tea and salt for each family at a shop on the way (not terribly exciting, but Eric advised that it’s something they would actually use. Still, had we come directly from the US it would have been nice to bring something more personal). They put the gifts in even piles on the floor and someone from each family gathers the loot. It reminded me of sorting the goodies and comparing your take to your brother’s after a night of trick-or-treating as a kid.

The drinking continued after the dancing, and well into the night. It was such a fun party, and we didn’t feel like outsiders at all. We were even brought in on the inside jokes, like their use of the word “nee-koh-dee,” which translates to “whatever,” and which everyone says with an almost Clueless tone to it and never fails to get people laughing. We became a little obsessed with the riddle games on Eric’s phone, and the guys even got massages from crazy Paul. Alan’s drunken munchies amused the crowd when he devoured half a loaf of cake late night. When it was finally time to hit the sack, Eric even tucked us in our mosquito nets ☺. We slept in the common room on mattresses they laid out. It was not the most restful night of sleep we’ve ever had, those roosters were like a caricature of farm life.

Eric and Paul made us another small feast for breakfast, which helped negate the effects of all that langkau 😉 . We tried our hand at the blowpipe after eating, and Jenni nailed a dead-center bullseye on her first try. Beginner’s luck for sure.

After a quick walk through the woods where we saw a rubber tree and some traditional animal traps, we hopped back on the longboat to go downriver for a picnic barbecue lunch on a rocky beach. Eric, Paul, Bundong and his wife cooked up yet another veritable feast for us. They cooked the chicken and a handful of other dishes wrapped in banana leafs and stuffed in bamboo shoots, which are then filled with some water and placed over the fire. Delicious. Bundong was back at it and the guys killed another bottle of langkau before continuing down and back to the van. Look at the joy on his face when he’s pouring those shots. Man loves his langkau.

Our time with the Iban was extraordinarily fun, an absolutely amazing experience that we will forever cherish.

On the drive up to the river, we had stopped in Serian, a crossroads and trading post where we checked out a native market with lots of fruits and vegetables, giant bins of catfish and other seafood, and some more exotic treats like soft shell turtle and even a huge python hacked into pieces and the lifeless body of another terrifying snake (we couldn’t snap photos of these as they’re illegal, but it didn’t stop the vendors from showing off their wares to us tourists). Alan was also tempted by the larger than life bacon slices on offer. While Eric was doing the shopping for our meals at the longhouse, we couldn’t help ourselves and had to sample some eats at the prepared food stations, the highlight by far being the “Mexican hats,” a superbly healthy mixture of deep-fried flour and brown sugar at the even sweeter price of three for one ringgit (about 30 cents US).

We also stopped along the road to see some even more impressive species of pitcher plants. Look at the size of those things! They are carnivorous plants with fascinating trapping mechanisms to catch their prey. We briefly explored Liew’s pepper farm and learned a bit about the pepper farming process, a common crop in Sarawak. On the drive back we also stopped to see some palm oil trees. Apparently these palm trees are farmed for their oil in these parts, and the plantations are known to attract king cobras who covet the rats eating the fallen fruits.

After our stay at the real longhouse, we drove a short way then took a boat to stay at a longhouse styled resort, the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort. The resort sits on the shore of a lake created when they dammed a river and flooded the area back in the 80’s.  The hotel has a nice lobby and grounds, which is great in the evening for sunset cocktails (and watching the fruit bats) and birds chirping in the morning.  The rooms could use a facelift, very 80’s/90’s jungle chic. And the longhouse design is neat and makes the buildings blend in nicely, but it also means your room is cut off from a view of the lake.  The staff were super friendly and the service was great, but we probably wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to stay here. That said, the pool area is pretty nice, and we enjoyed a swim as a relief from the pressing humidity and played a (pitiful) game of Scrabble poolside.  Still recovering from that langkau perhaps.

The resort also has a short jungle walk with a treetop canopy, which we explored with Eric. The tree-top walk is not ideal for those with a fear of heights, as it’s literally a series of ladders (narrow!) with two by fours laid atop it and a little bit of netting up the sides (wobbly! rickety!). Jenni was a real trooper to make it across, even Alan agreed it was a little scary :). Had I been able to look outwards, this is the view I would have seen:

On our ride back to Kuching we stopped for lunch at Ranchan, which is a small park with a swimming hole and waterfalls that kids would jump off up to maybe 30 feet. Lovely spot for a family Sunday, Borneo style.

Back in town we finally checked out the Sarawak Museum that had some good displays on fauna and native traditions and history, including some actual skulls from headhunting days and longhouse displays etc.

Practical Info

I believe that only Audley’s local agent sends guests to the particular longhouse we visited.  There are other day and overnight trips to longhouses, but we heartily recommend ours.  Especially if you can have the Eric and Paul team.

We offered our views on the Hilton above.  It was nearly empty as this was still the offseason.  There are lots of fruit bats and geckos around.  The lake is lovely but you cannot swim in it, I believe for safety concerns but it wasn’t clear whether this is due to a crocodile relative or risk of injuring yourself on the trees that were submerged when the dam was built.

You didn’t hear it from us, but you could buy beers for 5 MYR in advance vs. paying 20++ there.  That said, my Batang Ai Sunset cocktail was well worth the 24 MYR, as was my tilapia (many farms in the area) at dinner for 28 MYR.  Our room included breakfast, which entailed a ludicrous amount of food.  We got bread and pastries then cereal then pancakes then an omelet.  Plus coffee and fresh guava juice.

Back in Kuching, the Sarawak Museum is free and open every day but check the hours.

February 21-23, 2014 (Friday-Sunday)

Borneo’s Hairy Gymnasts

On our way out to the Iban longhouse we stopped at the Semenggoh (aka Semenggok) Orangutan Rehabilitation Center to try our luck at seeing some of these awesome creatures in the (semi) wild. Orangutans are another rare primate found in Borneo. You’ll recall from our Bako post that proboscis monkeys are endemic to this island, and orangutans are nearly so.  The only other place they may be found in the wild is the Indonesian island of Sumatra.  They are the largest tree living mammals in the world, and the alpha males have super wide cheeks with concave faces. Apparently these grow larger when they become the dominant male, crazy!

Semenggoh is Sarawak’s main orangutan rehabilitation center for those people of the forest (literal translation of organgutan) that have been injured, orphaned or previously kept as illegal pets. After initial rehabilitation in smaller centers they are brought here for re-introduction to the wild, while they are still monitored. Thus they are semi-wild, and since there is nothing like a cage or enclosure separating us from them, our introduction came complete with a number of warnings that incited just a touch of fear in addition to the suspense and excitement.

We were told not to carry food or even water bottles with us, and after hearing the stories about some of the bouts of violence from these mean lean hairy machines, I’m very glad we listened. Luckily for us, but sadly still, the most violent orangutan died recently. Hot Mama, as she was called, liked to start ish. But apparently she tried to start something with Ritchie, the alpha male weighing in at around 250 pounds, who took matters into his own hands and left Hot Mama for dead, dismembering three of her limbs in the process.

We lucked out and got to see three orangutans right away. A mama and baby plus another that was either a female or young male. This was a fantastic experience. These are such incredible and acrobatic creatures, swinging around on the ropes and trees. They jump around, do cartwheels upside down on the ropes, and hang from various limbs while they eat.  Their flexibility is extraordinary.  It’s like watching really hairy muscular people doing the parallel bars at the Olympics.

One of the rangers fed them from a platform, handing them bananas and coconuts. It was crazy to see an orangutan carry a coconut away in its foot while it scurried up a tree. I hadn’t realized their feet are basically like additional hands, shaped almost identically and with opposable thumbs/big toes. They’re smart, too, banging the coconuts against the tree to get the juice out.

Orangutans live quite long, up to about 40 years in the wild or into their 50s if in captivity, and we got to see Semenggoh’s first and only grandmother. She and her son were just hanging out in a tree above the parking area. Grandma was so mellow, and she blinked her eyes real slowly like a wise old grandma, not worried about missing anything. After ogling at her for a while, a ranger came by and gave her a turnip, which she shared with her boy orangutan, while everyone oohed and aahed.

As we were hustling to get back towards the parking lot when we heard Grandma was out, Alan had a near-miss with a Wagler’s pit viper that decided to chill out in the middle of the trail!!  Foot mid-way in the air he fortunately spotted it in time and so (thank our lucky stars) there was no trip to the hospital (if only we were so fortunate the rest of our trip!) and our guide Eric was able to stop and warn all the other tourists approaching from both sides.

We also saw some crocodiles in little cages. Aren’t they scary looking?! Those eyes… And we got our first peek at Borneo’s neat carnivorous pitcher plants.

Practical Info

Semenggoh is only about a half hour drive from Kuching.  We arrived for the 9 am feeding.  I think there are at least two feeding times most days and your chances of seeing an orangutan are much higher at these times.  Because all our Borneo activities were handled by a tour agent, we do not have many details on how to visit.  But this information should be widely available online and your hotel in Kuching can probably arrange a visit…or see e.g.:

February 21, 2014 (Friday)

Proboscises, Vipers and Muffin Eating Macaques, Oh My!

Our day trip to Borneo’s Bako National Park (also known as the day a macaque ate my muffin) was our first introduction to the spectacular wildlife Borneo has on offer. Our hilarious guide, Eric, informed us in advance that there are six animals we would search for and with a little bit of luck and a lot of Eric’s great wildlife spotting skills we got to see all six! (They are hard to spot on your own, so while it’s possible to visit the park without a guide, we would highly recommend you hire one! Plus they are great resources for information about the flora and fauna.)

The “big six” were pretty spectacular. First, the monkeys! There are three types of monkeys in the park, in ascending order of coolness: macaques (most common, you see these guys all around Asia), silver leaf langurs, and the jackpot: proboscis monkeys.

Proboscis monkeys are peculiar looking animals, readily identifiable by their epic schnozes. They also have long, thin, whitish tails and the alpha males especially have gigantic pot bellies. These facially phallic monkeys are some of the strangest looking creatures we have ever encountered. They are endemic to Borneo and you can bet we were thrilled and in awe to have the chance to observe these guys in the wild for a while. Apologies in advance to the Dutch, but these fellas are also called Dutchmen. Wikipedia says this is because “Indonesians remarked that the Dutch colonizers often had similarly large bellies and noses.”  I did not realize that the Dutch were known as such, but you learn something new every day.

They are weirdly human despite their bizarre sniffers. Is it the hands? The eyes? The way they sit when they’re just hanging out?

Ok, and yes, this is a very graphic photo of a proboscis penis, but even though it’s essentially proboscis porn, it was just too funny not to share. We literally have dozens of photos of this guy’s frank and beans. In our defense, it was the first proboscis we saw, and we had no way of knowing whether it would be our last, and photographing from below makes proboscis penis appearances inevitable.

The silver leaf langurs are beautiful, and Eric joked that they are also known as David Beckham monkeys because of their spiky hairdos. They are pretty handsome, so…I don’t think it will ever get old watching monkeys clean each other, too cute.

The coolest thing about these primates is that they are a bright orange color when they are babies. We had the pleasure of seeing one youngin who had just a bit of orange coloring left, but unfortunately he moved around too fast for us to capture a photo. It’s pretty unbelievable though to see photos of the fiery newborns.

The macaques are known around here as pirates. And we can see why. Not five minutes into starting our lunch a macaque appeared out of nowhere, jumped on the table and stole Jenni’s muffin, running up a tree to relish his booty. We realized at this point that Eric wasn’t kidding about carrying a slingshot to protect us from these brazen monkeys. Don’t worry, you don’t actually shoot at them, but just holding up the slingshot is enough to make them run. And when the macaque came back for seconds Jenni held up the slingshot, and he ran cowardly away.

These bearded pigs were pretty cool, too. I wouldn’t want to piss off one of them.

The most surprising of the big six was the Wagler’s pit viper. I never thought I’d describe a snake as beautiful, but these snakes are absolutely exquisite. They can stay still for days, unless provoked by another animal, the rain, or the need to eat. It makes sense then that the locals joke that if you pick them up and turn them over their stomachs will read “Made in China.” Don’t try it though, these statuesque creatures are venomous and will bite.

The last of the six we found just in the nick of time, as we were getting ready to board the boat and return to town. The flying lemurs are the most difficult to spot. These nocturnal creatures sleep all day so you’ll never see them moving, and to top it off they are masters of camouflage against the trees to which they cling while snoozing. We had to take pictures and zoom in before we even realized this was a mama lemur with a baby in tow!

The rest of the animal sightings were just icing on the cake. We saw tons of fiddler crabs with their lop-sided Popeye-sized claw, and some lovely cerulean colored crabs. We also saw small mudskippers (baby dragon type animals we saw earlier in Penang), and these snake-like sun lizards.

We saw very few birds in the park itself, which was somewhat surprising to us, though we did see some blue kingfishers on the drive in that were quite beautiful.

While the wildlife was clearly the highlight, it’s worth noting that the surrounding environs are quite impressive. The park is accessible only via boat, which picks you up by the Bako fishing village, takes you down the Bako River, and out into the South China Sea before arriving on a wide beach backed by lush rainforest. Don’t expect to swim here though, as the water is brown and muddy, not to mention there are crocodiles and jellyfish.

It is incredibly humid inside the forest. We did a bit of nature walking where we saw lots of jungly plant life. We were surprised how many plants here are spiked. There are more pointed plants here than in the desert! There is also a rare tree called the Bintangor, which is being studied currently as it may be able to cure HIV. Fascinating.

Mangrove trees are sprinkled around the coastline, and we discovered that what appear to be young plants growing around these trees are actually roots of the big mangrove trees that pop up out of the earth so the tree can breathe. Amazing.

Practical Info

Bako National Park is just 37 km from Kuching and occupies a mere 27 square km.  But it feels worlds apart and packs a lot into a small space.  Many of the animals congregate around the headquarters.  There are a handful of relatively short hiking trails and some longer ones.  Most trails are out and back with I think one loop trail.  We took the Telok Paku trail to a more secluded bay, which is where we saw the viper.  We also took the Ulu Assam trail, which ascends to a platform overlooking the main bay.  This latter trail is very steep near the top.

Transportation: We booked everything through our tour company, but you need to get to Kampung (village) Bako, which is about a 30-minute drive from Kuching.  I believe you register there and hire a motorboat for the 20-minute ride to the park.  Depending on the tide, you may have to disembark in shallow water.  If you have one, a small towel is handy.  As is insect repellant.  And your required departure time may be determined somewhat by the tides, as well.

The park is on the mainland but accessible only by boat.  On arrival, you check in at the park headquarters.

::just for fun, because this van was so tricked out::
::just for fun, because this van was so tricked out::

Accommodation: Most people visit for a day, but right by park headquarters you can camp or stay in a “lodge” or a hostel.  I believe all accommodation is very rustic.  And be prepared to battle the macaques.

Food: We had a boxed lunch prepared for us that we ate at the canteen at park headquarters.  I’m pretty sure they sell food and beverages there, and toilets are available.

February 19, 2014 (Wednesday)

Welcome to Borneo

The island of Borneo holds legendary status among travelers.  The name conjures images and thoughts of dense rainforest, mysterious cultures and exotic wildlife.  It is the third largest island in the world, after Greenland and New Guinea (Australia, being a continent, doesn’t count).  Roughly 70% of the island (mainly the southern portion) consists of the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, with the remainder (mainly the northern portion) being the Malaysian states of Sarawak (in the west, where Kuching, our entry point, is located) and Sabah (in the east), plus the sovereignty of Brunei.

This is the first portion of our trip where we booked everything through a tour company (Audley).  Independent travel in Borneo seems quite doable, but we chose to spend less than two weeks on the island and felt it would be a smoother and more enjoyable destination if we had our plans laid out and the benefits of a private guide.

One of the biggest early surprises after doing research and arriving in Kuching is how developed the island is.  Kuching has a population of 650,000 and several buildings at least 15 stories tall.  For some reason, we kind of pictured Borneo as an undeveloped island with perhaps an airport or two and dirt roads and rivers.  I assume there are other landing strips for puddle jumpers, but Air Asia flies its Airbus A-320s to no fewer than eight different airports in Malaysian Borneo alone!

This city has a modern shopping mall with western chains and a Starbucks.  And a Maserati parked out front.  There is a large convention center outside town.  As if to confirm that we are not in the middle of nowhere, walking along the Kuching Waterfront we had our first chance encounter since California: we ran into Sheryl, my friend from Tufts.  Crazy small world.

For a city whose name literally translates to “cat” in the local language, you would think that it might appeal more to Jenni, but it somewhat underwhelmed. The cat thing is played up big time with cat statues all around the city (cheesy but cute) and souvenir and trinket shops selling I ❤ Kuching paraphernalia decorated with cats. There is clearly an effort underway to develop Kuching as a tourism hub for Borneo. It has the potential to become more Cancun than Cassis in class. Fingers crossed that this city can manage its growth well and preserve its character while adding facilities and benefitting locals.

Kuching is not a bad place at all.  It is pleasant enough and a fine place to spend a day or two to explore or while in transit.  The city is a bit weathered and our expectations were lofty. I think we envisioned a quaint, colonial-style riverfront village and that it is not. Perhaps though if we’d showed up here fresh from Los Angeles, and hadn’t just spent two and a half months gallivanting around other highlights of Asia we’d be more enticed by the Asian flair and the temples and all that. Are we becoming jaded!?

We definitely did enjoy the relief from Singapore prices and had a handful of tasty meals, including some fantastic laksa and teh tarik, a traditional spicy Malay noodle dish and tea drink, respectively. Walks along the Waterfront in the evenings were quite pleasant, with a handful of young musicians providing a soundtrack to the families and lovers walking about.  I really enjoyed my visit with Eric (while Jenni was sick) to the non-touristy Premier 101 Food Centre our last night in town. Tsingtao and chicken feet for the soul.

Our hotel was also a highlight, as it was the first place we stopped in Asia that had a bathtub. And not just any bathtub, a big lovely tub with a sliding door that opened to the balcony. Living large at The Ranee in Kuching.

Granted we are on a tropical island now, but it’s also the first place on our trip that we visited at the edge of its high season, and so we weren’t terribly surprised to experience our first rain on the trip since leaving the U.S.  But an impressive downpour and thunderstorm it was!  And very well-timed as it did not interfere with any of our scheduled activities.

There is much to see and do in Malaysian Borneo, and a comprehensive description is well beyond the scope of our blog.  But we will mention a couple places we skipped, in part because one area was a most difficult decision.  Some of the best places to see wildlife and I think the undisputed best places for tropical paradise islands in Borneo are in eastern Sabah.  This includes the Kinabatangan River and Tabin Wildlife Reserve, and world-famous SCUBA diving destinations like Sipadan and Mabul.  Unfortunately, there have been terrorist incidents on the offshore islands, with the most recent kidnap/murder occurring in November 2013.  The US State Department advises against travel to eastern Sabah.  We read the travel advice of the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, too.  Each is cautious on the coastal regions, though only the US recommends avoiding such a large geography.  Australia’s website warns: “There are recent indications that extremists may be in the advanced stages of planning to kidnap foreigners from locations in this vicinity.”

Most seasoned travelers will tell you that the US State Department is alarmist, and often we agree.  Every single person we asked (meaning Borneo residents and those in the travel industry operating on Borneo) said they would not worry about the travel warnings, or at least would only worry with respect to the offshore islands but not the slightly inland destinations of eastern Sabah.  People said they feel entirely safe there.  We take more comfort in such statements when the primary concern is petty or violent crime, as opposed to terrorism.  There is no right answer, but that is the decision we made.  Plus, we are hopeful that the risk will diminish over time (especially with the recent Philippines peace accord) and now we have a great reason to return.

Another top attraction we are skipping is the Gunung Mulu National Park.  This area in eastern Sarawak (close to Brunei) is famous for its karst formations and enormous caves, including the largest known natural chamber in the world.  We hope to return to visit this area, too.

Practical Info

Kuching is the largest city on the island of Borneo, with a population around 650,000.  It is the typical base for exploration of Sarawak.  It sits on the Sarawak River, a little south of the ocean.  Tourist activity seems concentrated on the Kuching Waterfront.  There is a lot of commercial activity on Jalan Padungan with food, hardware stores, bars, restaurants, etc.

There is a cluster of three banks with ATMs next to the Riverside Majestic hotel, across the street from a 24-hour McDonald’s.

We purchased a DiGi SIM card, and it was less smooth than in some other places.  Nobody could give us a clear answer on rates to call the US.  It seems to work fine.  We found lots of shops selling SIM cards on Jalan Padungan.  You can top up DiGi cards at 7-11, and you can also purchase U Mobile cards there.

Transportation: Kuching has an international airport about 15-20 minutes from downtown.  There is a Starbucks and a Coffee Bean.  Air Asia flies here, and there are direct flights from several Asian cities.  Since we are using a tour company for Borneo, we did not arrange our own transport from/to the airport nor to Bako National Park, etc.  I would imagine it is not too difficult.  You can walk around most of the downtown area.

Accommodation: We stayed at The Ranee Boutique Suites located across from the Kuching Waterfront.  The room is large and well-decorated, with a sitting area and big, modern bath with separate tub.  The location is excellent.  The included breakfast leaves a bit to be desired.  There is a large Hilton and other high-rise hotels on the eastern end of the Waterfront.  I think you would want to stay around the Waterfront, but the central city area seems small enough that it probably doesn’t matter too much.

Food and Drink: Lunch at James Brooke Cafe on the Waterfront was great.  10 MYR for a large, delicious bowl of Sarawak Laksa.  We were a little disappointed by Top Spot food court, a collection of seafood and other stands atop a parking garage.  It is very popular with locals and tourists.  We ate at Ling Loong seafood, and my snapper was neither grilled nor filleted as requested and at 26 MYR the value is questionable.  Though in fairness I inquired at a food stall in town that seemed entirely local and was quoted a higher price per kilo.  We dined at The Junk, a supremely atmospheric restaurant with good food and mediocre service.  Pizza, risotto, a glass of house red and a pint of Guinness cost 113 MYR.  We had lunch at Little Lebanon by the Sarawak Tourism Complex, across from India Street.  The food was pretty good and they have hookahs, which they also call Hubbly-Bubbly.  There is another location on the Kuching Waterfront.

There are many vendors selling popcorn, chicken kebab, laksa and more along the Waterfront.  Waffle stands are all over and smell amazing. There are a couple popular stalls selling pork satay (0.60 MYR each, minimum five, limited hours) across from Hiang Thian Siang Ti Temple (aka Shang Ti Temple) and next to Backpacker’s Stay.  We saw some Chinese noodle shops, dim sum spots and pork leg rice places on Jalan Padungan. Near India Street and the Electra House shopping center are food stalls with laksa, mee goreng, bao etc. for ~4 MYR per plate.

Premier 101 Food Centre is a mainly Hokkien hawker market located 10-15 minutes outside downtown.  There are hardly any other tourists, and perhaps 20-30 vendor stalls.  The spot at one end of the alley serves BBQ chicken feet (among other items) with a great, spicy dry rub (4 MYR).  I tried kolo mee (3 MYR) and kong pia (1 MYR each) and each was tasty.  Char siu bao (2 MYR) was also good.  The highlight was the apam balik, a very thin and crispy pancake that had ground peanuts and butter and was superb.

There are loaf-shaped cakes (Jenni deemed these “Tetris cakes”) sold around town, especially along Main Bazaar.  I hear Secret Recipe is the spot for cheesecake.

Zeus Sports Bar looks like a place you could catch EPL games.  21 Bistro had a more sophisticated menu.  Jambu and the Dyak are higher end restaurants that come recommended.

Activities: Walk along the Kuching Waterfront, which offers views across to the Astana palace (the official residence of the state Governor) and impressive State Assembly Building.  We did not visit any of the Chinese or Hindu temples and skipped a museum or two, but we managed to squeeze in a quick visit to the very good Sarawak Museum.  It has informative displays on fauna, longhouses and headhunting (among more), and it is open every day with free admission.  Walk along India Street, Gambier Road and the Indian Mosque Lane that connects the two.  It didn’t seem like the India mosque was too exciting, but we weren’t dressed appropriately to enter so couldn’t tell for sure.  You can cross the river and we read there are some villages and an orchid garden.  There is a weekend market that I believe is now located outside the city.

Day trips are perhaps the premier activity of Kuching.  We visited Bako National Park, and it was awesome.  We stopped at the Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary on our way to overnight at an Iban longhouse, but many visit the Sanctuary on a day trip that includes a nearer Iban longhouse.  You can also visit the Sarawak Cultural Village near Damai Beach.

February 18-21 + 23, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday + Sunday)


What do you get when you mix trendy bars sporting mid-century modern furnishings with the unrivaled affable nature of Southeast Asians, some of the best and most unusual street foods in the world, and a veritable melee of cultures? The impossibly cool city of Penang. We adore Penang! Street art galore, funky coffee shops and bars to get all hipster in to your heart’s delight. It’s like what Portland, Oregon is trying to be, but cooler. It’s not so much hipster-ism as it is awesome-people-ism, because the pretentious element is completely missing, replaced instead by an enriching openness and sense of engagement. You like yourself more in Penang, because everyone is so nice and friendly and happy that you want to be nice and friendly and happy, too.

It’s a place where you can meander down Love Lane and pop into an art gallery where a small band coos over acoustic guitar, and then wander over to an open-air bar for cheap beers while you mingle with tourists and the nicest locals. You can stroll around stopping occasionally to admire the street art and tiled sidewalks abutting a great mix of Western and Asian architecture.

And to top it off, you can order drinks with ice, eat street food without a dose of Pepto-Bismol, and go home and brush your teeth with tap water! Can I get a “HELL YEAH” for (moderately) clean water?!

A highlight (for Jenni at least) might be the coolest new trend of 2014: a tea shop where you come in, drink tea, and – get this – play with cats! Cats, books, life is good. Funny enough, we read an article a day later pronouncing this is an up-and-coming trend in various Asian countries. I’m considering bringing a puppy and tea shop to America. New career? I think so. Purrfect Cat Café (yes that’s their name) hadn’t opened their doors to the public yet, but kindly invited us in to play with the main attractions. I was delighted to be photographed as their first kitten-petting guest.

Perhaps what Penang is best known for is its food. Penang is a foodies haven, particularly the cheap and delicious street eats on offer. And we tried our fair share of what we could squeeze in our bellies over the course of a day and a half. Below is a breakdown of some of the spots and (sometimes strange!) delicacies we enjoyed.

Tek Sen: we went here for dinner our first night. Highlights:

  • The homemade barley and lime drink – tastes kind of like Quaker Oh’s cereal (my absolute favorite cereal in the world, how is it not more popular?)
  • Double roast pork with chili padi – one of their signature items. Delicious. Sweet and fatty.
  • Less impressive were the braised duck with dried oyster and the stir fried bitter gourd with salted duck egg, minced pork and minced prawn. Though I think I may just not be a fan of bitter gourd. Note to self, avoid items with bitter in the name.

Red Bean Ice at the hawker stands near the corner of Lebuh Carnarvon and Lebuh Chulia: Despite Kenny regaling us with a story of how he ate so much of it one night that he literally made himself sick, we found this one a little unexciting. Not bad, but I definitely would never eat enough to make myself sick.

Kafe Mews: we tried the guava mojitos, good but quite sweet. Jenni was tempted to order scones with cream, but abstained, saving her calories for more unique Malay treats to come.


Aik Hoe Dim Sum: we went here for breakfast. White coffee is superb, like a hot frappuccino. The dim sum is primarily self serve, you just go and pick up little plates of whatever calls your name from those steaming baskets of goodness. The water chestnut and prawn dumplings were DIVINE. I could have eaten seventeen of them. We tried a few others whose contents were a mystery, though a gingery dumpling was quite good as well. We ordered pork buns after seeing them on someone else’s table. They didn’t quite rival the BBQ pork buns we had in Hong Kong, but they were good nonetheless. We also ordered the fried noodles on our waitress’ suggestion, which were good, but arrived after we’d stuffed our faces with so many other items we could barely make a dent.

Food stalls outside Fort Cornwallis: Hainan chicken rice, meh. Mee goreng from Mee Sotonic. Real spicy, kind of like pad thai. The lime is key. Sadly, the coconut shake place was out of cendol so instead we tried ice kacang.  In addition to something you might hear on Hot 97 FM, ice kacang is a scrumptious and unusual conglomeration of flavors and textures.  Rather than spelling out each dish we will assume Google has that covered, but just as an example here’s a paraphrasing of how ice kacang is described in this foodie map we found: fill a bowl with finely shaved ice topped with sweetened red bean, creamed sweet corn, attap chee (palm fruit), strips of dried nutmeg as well as colorful jellies drenched in palm sugar syrup, sarsi and rose syrup.  For a finishing touch, drizzle liberal amounts of rich evaporated milk.  And add a generous scoop of ice cream.

The tea truck (Otea2u) outside Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was awesome. Impressively detailed list of teas with various add-ons like tapioca pearls, grass jelly, coconut jelly, etc. Alan tried the peach green tea with coconut jelly and Jenni the strawberry pearl milk tea, both are recommended.


At a warehouse-like store selling bulk candies, dried goods, jellies etc, we sampled some superb oat chocolates. The blue potato chocolates fell short.

China House is a funky, cool, mixed space with galleries, food and beverage.  There is live music at Canteen Bar on weekend nights. Vine & Single is a cozy bar that serves cocktails but specializes in wine and single malt whiskey.  Beach Street Bakery is best known for tiramisu but our coconut milk chocolate cake did not disappoint.  Not even a little. There is a tapas menu and also a courtyard where one can dine.

Hawker stands by Carnarvon (again):

  • Wan tan mee was Jenni’s favorite dish in Penang: ramen noodle with sliced pork, dumplings, bok choy, chili.
  • Lorbak: pork wrapped in red bean and deep fired. The accompanying sauce was phenomenal.
  • Alan ordered char kway teow and loved it.

Special thanks to Robyn Eckhardt, a prominent food writer, who was unavailable to give us a tour but provided great suggestions in a personal email.

For the non-foodies, Penang still has plenty on offer, perhaps most notable is the abounding and impressive street art. We went on a bit of a scavenger hunt to find a number of these bad boys. And more and more keep popping up. We even spotted one guy in the midst of painting a new one.

The art doesn’t stop at the streets; there are charming shops full of hand-made crafts and stunning photographs and paintings. The galleries on Armenian Street were particularly lovely. We hope one day to return to Studio Howard when we have a home to decorate, and our fingers will be crossed that the sweet grandmother who chatted us up will still be there.

There are a number of intricate and eccentric temples and clan houses dotting this city.  Penang has a rich history as a trading post and has attracted large communities of Indians, Chinese, ethnic Malays and Europeans.  Some of these settlers built small compounds or villages specific to their own clan.  Khoo Kongsi is perhaps the most famous clan house. We enjoyed lingering around this one, and the attached museum below, admiring the intricate stone carvings and delicate details painted inside.

In addition to clan houses, the waterfront is home to six remaining clan jetties.  These mini-villages built on stilts are still home to clan members but tourists are welcome to walk around the planks.  We checked out Chew Jetty where Jenni may have uttered “that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life” for the first time on this trip. She tends to be less than discerning in her use of this platitude, but these amphibious creatures were like little dragons. Dragons, I tell you. They alternate between land and water by taking out their arm/leg/fin things. They’re like tadpoles on steroids (not yet urine-tested by the MLB). Their faces puff up into giant triangles, they stick out shark-like fins when they fight (mate?) with other dragons. They have two eyes bulging out of the top of their heads that face opposite directions but touch each other.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as Le Maison Bleu for its deep indigo-colored exterior, offers daily tours. It houses a heritage bed and breakfast and one may also rent out the entire property for weddings and events. The building is lovely, but we were not so impressed by the tour. That said, our guide is bringing back the balding woman’s rat tail trend like it’s nobody’s business.  And Cheong Fatt Tze was apparently quite a guy: when he died in 1916, Dutch and British authorities ordered flags be flown at half mast throughout their colonies.

For the SJP, SATC, and pure Jimmy Choo enthusiasts among us, we’re told you can go to the factory where Jimmy Choo made his first shoe at the age of 11.

Granted our standards have been somewhat lowered along the way, what with our champagne taste and backpack budget, but Chulia Heritage Hotel rocks. It’s clean, the lobby is pretty, you get FOUR pillows! And the icing on top: a blowdryer. I don’t think we’ve seen a blowdryer since we left America. Did we use it? No, but still. Downsides: rooms are not huge, a bit loud, and I guess if you’ve spent a significant amount of time in psychiatric wards the all-white design scheme might cause flashbacks. Also, a rather large cockroach did make an appearance in Alan’s shoe as we were headed out the door, so, there’s that.

Practical Info 

Penang is a state and actually covers some mainland territory in addition to the more famous island portion.  The island itself has some nice hills and supposedly good beaches on the north and west, though we limited ourselves to historic George Town, the main city on the northeast corner.

Transportation: We took a ferry from Langkawi, which cost $39 for two and took a bit over three hours.  Upon arrival at Kuah Jetty in Langkawi you can pay a small fee (10-20 MYR depending on bag size) to check your luggage, which is a good idea.  This ride was inside a proper boat and infinitely smoother than the ride from Koh Lipe to Langkawi.  They were even showing Dark Knight Rises on the TV screens, albeit without sound.

There is an international airport here, and I believe ferries from Malacca in addition to Langkawi.  There is a very long bridge connecting the island to the mainland.

While sightseeing we walked everywhere.  If you wanted to visit the beaches (or stay at the beach and visit George Town), you would need to take a car or motorbike.

A taxi from our hotel in George Town to the airport at 6 am took 20 minutes and cost MYR 60.  The front desk said it usually takes 30-40 minutes and costs MYR 40.

The airport at Penang is quite nice, but at least Air Asia’s terminal in Kuala Lumpur (where we stopped en route to Chiang Mai) was much grimier.  Three hours free WiFi is available at each airport.

Accommodation: We stayed at Chulia Heritage Hotel in George Town’s UNESCO heritage district.  It was cheap and nice for the price at $40/night.  Options are abundant.  Other names we came across for George Town include the classic Eastern & Oriental, the heritage B&B at the restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, and Muntri Mews.  There are several beach resorts in other parts of the island.

Food: We covered this pretty well above.  After all, it is arguably the main attraction. Various food tours are available, and that would probably be a good idea. Prices were not dirt cheap, but far cheaper than in most developed countries.  I think our meal at Tek Sen cost less than $20, including a Guiness foreign extra stout.  Breakfast at Aik Hoe was ~$7.  Most food stall meals cost $1-1.50.

Activities: Eating.  Beaches on other parts of the island.  Visiting Fort Cornwallis, temples, Khoo Kongsi (admission is 10 MYR each), the clan jetties, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansions (the tour costs 12 MYR each), etc.  There is also a funicular to the top of Penang Hill which probably affords nice views on a clear day.  Alan’s mom’s friend recommended going to Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and asking for Joanne who gives city tours.

January 22-24, 2014 (Wednesday-Friday)


Getting to Malaysia was among the least pleasant travel experiences of Jenni’s life. The journey began with moderate trepidation. The tide was super low when we left our little slice of paradise in Lipe, so we were unable to take the longtail boat. Instead, we had to call a “taxi” to take us by land over to the immigration stand at Bundhaya Resort on Pattaya Beach. A taxi on Koh Lipe is basically a moped with a sidekick module attached to the side. And by sidekick module I mean a little metal basket. The engine was apparently not powerful enough to carry the both of us and our luggage up the hill from our resort so the driver picked up our bags and told us to meet him at the top of the hill. Then we hopped on and I, being of course a person afraid of approximately 87% of things in the world, hopped in the front as we began zooming down the semi-paved road. I held on to the damn seat for dear life as I imagined which bone would be protruding from which part of my body when I went flying face first into the pavement.

Alas, we made it to immigration. As is now par for the course, we encountered obstacles. All the normal tourists have their itinerary/confirmation pages for their ferry tickets printed out and neatly presented in little laminate pockets. We had an email on an iPhone, which didn’t make the cut. So Alan walked around to the resorts, trying to find WiFi to e-mail the immigration/ferry lady a copy of the PDF so she could print our tickets. Of course, though, the one resort where WiFi had worked well before…now not so much. It’s becoming comical how often technology fails us.

By the way, one of the cardinal rules of international travel is to never let your passport out of your sight.  But it’s impossible to follow that rule.  So don’t be alarmed when they take your passport at the immigration office in Thailand and then call out names and hand out passports (already stamped) 45 minutes after you disembark in Langkawi.

The “ferry” from Lipe to Langkawi was horrid. Perhaps someone could have warned us that it is not, in fact, a ferry, like the ferry we took from Railay to Lipe, but rather a motorboat cum amusement park water ride. Expect to get absolutely drenched. Not a little “sea spray,” friends. Soaked. Like how wet you get when you shower, and not a shower in India or some place where the water pressure sucks. Like a shower with a rain shower overhead and those side sprayer things coming out of the wall from three sides. I normally wouldn’t mind the wetness, but for the fact that everything of technological value was stored in a non-water proof bag I desperately tried to keep dry by hoisting it above the ground between my legs and covering it with my lifejacket when I wasn’t holding on for dear life as the boat and my stomach dropped over harrowing waves that caused all the Asian women on the glorified “ferry” to scream like I do when I see spiders.

The rational man’s take: It was a tad scary, but mainly a rollicking, rough ride.  Four factors jump to mind that often lead to accidents with casualties: a vessel in bad condition; passengers beyond capacity; lack of life jackets; inclement weather.  None of the four was present.

First impressions on arrival, however, are quite positive. The harbor is attractive, feeling less industrial and more like where your wealthy Malaysian friend might keep his yacht.  The backdrop is comprised of steep, jungle-covered mountains and the Langkawi cable car.  Langkawi is actually an archipelago of 99 or 104 islands, depending on the tide.  But the name usually refers to the largest, main island.

Here does not feel remote as Lipe did, and it seems decidedly modern. There are high quality signs with (almost) perfect English. (To be fair, though, passed and past are at least both words, as opposed to “showa,” as some Thai ads boast. I’m from Boston, but I don’t think the rest of the wicked smaht English speakers of the world would agree it counts.) Our taxi driver, while naturally charging us a bit of a rip-off price, was friendly, spoke pretty good English, and engaged us in conversation about both his hometown of Langkawi and our experience in Lipe.

We stayed a little bit off the beaten bath. We decided an ocean view for a reasonable price (with some compromises of course: shared bathrooms and no actual beach) trumped an expensive beachfront resort or a cheap place off the water. So we opted to stay in a tube. Tubotel is a strange little spot with “rooms” built into what are essentially large concrete pipes. They’re just about big enough for a bed (with your bags stored underneath) and a lamp. It’s definitely a funky and unique place, with lounge music, abstract and somewhat hipster art, a fun common area complete with day beds, plunge pools (pretty much just a couple large concrete tubs of unheated water, but pleasant enough to cool off in), a pool table, homemade pizza and mini-kegs on offer from the fridge.  The airport is nearby, and we quickly learned that Air Asia here is like Southwest in Los Angeles.  You see their planes constantly, easily identified by color.

Perhaps what we appreciated most about Tubotel were the “eco-pirate” tours they offer on a daily basis, shuttling guests to and from the nearby islands for free provided they pick up trash while on the beach. Even though we weren’t able to participate, we loved this idea, especially after our inspiration in Railay where we made a small contribution to remove some garbage from the otherwise magnificent beach.

Tubotel is just across a little inlet from the very popular beach (Pantai Cenang), but it takes about 20 minutes to walk there because the bridge is inland a bit. Once you do reach Pantai Cenang, be sure to look both ways when crossing the sand to avoid being hit by an SUV (they drive along the beach, jet skis and banana boats in tow). The beach is deep and the water is calm, albeit not so pristine looking and the sand quality is mixed. Picky comments for sure, but we’re coming from Thailand, and Cenang, my friends, can’t hold a candle to Lipe or Railay’s beaches. Though the sunsets were consistently marvelous on our three nights here.

Casa del Mar, a pricier resort on the Cenang strip, seemed like a great place to post up. So much so that we spent the better part of a day at its beach-side restaurant using WiFi and drinking sangria. The sangria was necessary, because much of this day was spent trying to pay for our new and improved (and by improved I only mean more expensive. Except for that pediatric dental care. That will come in handy for all the children’s teeth we’ve hoarded) Affordable Care Act health plan (seriously, how has this been so hard), and dealing with getting our credit card replaced (and all of our automated bill-pays updated) because the first time we shopped at a Target in probably two years was the week before we left the country and coincided with hackers stealing the credit card information of all Target shoppers.

The street just behind the beach resorts is abuzz with restaurants and shops. We thoroughly enjoyed Yasmin’s chicken shawarma. So much that we considered getting it again the next night, changing our minds only when we found a Turkish restaurant, Istanbul, where we wolfed down a chicken doner kebab sandwich and spicy lamb iskender kebab with yogurt sauce.  Near Yasmin we bought some potent Carlsberg special brews (8.8%!) at the 7-11 and noticed a sign that alcohol sales are only for non-Muslims.  By the way there are so many 7-11’s in much of Asia.

Langkawi manages to strike a nice balance between action and relaxation.  The main strip is lively and the beach has jet skis, but you don’t see rowdy partiers or hear much untz-untzing.

We did something here that we hadn’t done since leaving the states almost two months before: we drove! We rented a car to explore more of the island. It was such an incredible feeling of freedom we’d forgotten, to be able to go as we please, wherever we wanted, with no haggling or ten minute conversations with a tuk-tuk driver to try to communicate a destination, and just throwing anything we might need for the day in the trunk. Alan was a pro with the steering-wheel-on-the-right, keep-left style driving, which was made very pleasant by the fact that there are super nice, rule-abiding, non-aggressive drivers here! It’s interesting that we have traveled exclusively in countries that drive on the left so far this trip (Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Malaysia). You’d think this means I know which way to look before crossing the road by now, but it still isn’t quite second nature. The roads are also well-labeled and well-maintained, which made the contrast of roadside monkey clusters and later a herd of water buffalo crossing all the more intriguing.

We first drove up to what had been described as the nicest beach on the island, on the north side, where some fancy schmance resorts are (Four Seasons and Tanjung Rhu). It’s a nice beach for sure, but still can’t really compare to Koh Lipe or Railay. That said, it was very interesting to see some women sporting bikinis next to Muslim women covered entirely head to toe. And we arrived at low tide to some really cool sandbars, one of which Jenni walked out to. It was a very long path and she lost her way on the return. A Malay man wanted to talk, know where we’re from, welcome us to his country, but Jenni was having a mild panic attack worrying that if she couldn’t find the sandbar to lead her back the way she came then would she step on those sea urchins with the crazy long needles? Asian sea urchins are far more destructive looking than the ones you see in the U.S. Which reminds me, I found it amusing and impressively resourceful when a kind European man we’d met in Thailand warned us to be careful to avoid stepping on the urchins in the direction we were headed by describing them as “sea porcupines.”

There are lots of women by the parking area at Tanjung Rhu offering one or two-hour boat rides to visit the mangroves and watch an eagle being fed.  We passed, but I did see some mysterious animal poking out of the ocean that may or may not have been a crocodile. Or do they have seals here?

We planned to check out Datai Bay but stopped for lunch at Scarborough’s fish and chips.  This nice little beachfront spot caught a hold of us with its free WiFi, and it was here over fried snow fish and spring rolls that we took the plunge into joint blogdom! (Only to run into…you guessed it…technical difficulties that were not resolved for weeks).

::why don't they sell this in the states?? jasmine iced tea. so good::
::why don’t they sell this in the states?? jasmine iced tea. so good::

Hours later, we drove over to the Langkawi cable car at Oriental Village hoping to catch the sunset. This is a great opportunity to get views of the island, and a very popular activity for visitors. It was absolutely terrifying. I’ve been on aerial trams before. I ski. I’ve been on those sky-bridge platform things in the Australian jungle. I’ve taken the tram to Sandia peak in New Mexico. This was by far the scariest one. I cried. Both ways. Going up I made it to the first “stop” and to my horror I realized Alan wasn’t kidding that the ride wasn’t over. That’s when I cried. On the way down I tried closing my eyes, but it didn’t help. Wow. If you’re afraid of heights, maybe this one is not for you.

Fortunately for Jenni, at least the sky bridge at the top was closed so she was spared the horror of walking across this suspension path spanning a deep chasm.  It was a bit hazy so the views weren’t great, but we could still see quite a bit and the jungle covering these mountains is impressively dense and verdant.

Overall we would say that Langkawi is quite a pleasant place and good for a Thai visa run or perhaps a quick beach escape with its international airport.  But we would not advise traveling a great distance to visit Langkawi alone.

Practical Info

The main commercial area on the island is Kuah.  The most popular beach area is at/around Pantai Cenang.  The north coast is quieter with some fancy resorts.  There are ATMs in Kuah and also at Telaga Harbour and Underwater World.  Langkawi is duty free which means alcohol and chocolate, among other less important things, are cheap.

The exchange rate was 1 USD = 3.3 MYR.

Transportation: We took a ferry from Koh Lipe, Thailand which lasted about 1.5 hours.  As noted above, it was a rough ride.  We bought the tickets on Telaga Terminal’s website and paid $74 for two but the boat said Bundhaya on it.  This ferry lands at Telaga Harbour, which is closer to the beaches and resorts on the west of the island than is the Kuah Jetty.  There is an ATM and mini mart here.  From Telaga it was about a 15 minute drive to Pantai Cenang (taxi cost 30 MYR).  There is an international airport (and this is Air Asia territory), and also ferries from Penang and the mainland.

Our ferry to Penang left from Kuah Jetty, and a taxi there from Tubotel cost only 30 MYR and took 30-40 minutes.  The Kuah Jetty area has a Starbucks with free WiFi, several other F&B options, ATMs, SIM card shops, etc.

Many visitors rent a moped or car, which is a good idea because it’s fairly cheap and the driving is very mellow compared to many Asian destinations.  We got a Nissan Sentra automatic for 24 hours, delivered to and picked up from our hotel, for 90 MYR.  A manual transmission would have cost 60 MYR.  Petrol is subsidized and inexpensive at ~2 MYR/liter, far less than we pay back in California.

Accommodation: We stayed at Tubotel, an interesting property just west of Pantai Cenang that we described above.  There are loads of properties on Pantai Cenang.  Casa del Mar is very well-reviewed, and Meritus Pelangi is a big resort on the western end of that beach.  Many fancier resorts are on the north side of the island, including Four Seasons and Tanjung Rhu at the eponymous beach, and The Datai on its namesake bay.  There are also some less expensive, well-reviewed places off the beach in the hills.

Food: There are abundant options on the main strip at Pantai Cenang.  Yasmin is a Syrian joint with a small, proper restaurant as well as a nearby sidewalk stand where we enjoyed chicken shawarma (10 MYR).  Palm View offers seafood plus meats like deer and ostrich and was crowded.  Orkid Ria was packed each night.  Tomato is popular.  There is Starbucks and a 24-hour McDonald’s.

Istanbul was closer to Pantai Tengah, the beach just southeast of Cenang.  If you are near Tanjung Rhu then Scarborough’s is a good option for fish and chips.

There are also Dunkin’ Donuts and Dairy Queens in abundance in Langkawi and Penang. How is it easier to find a Dunks in Malaysia than it is in California?

Activities: Perhaps the star attraction is the cable car, ascending ~700 meters in less than 15 minutes.  Tickets may be sold in combination with things like a 3-D movie, but we did just the cable car and it cost 30 MYR each.  Pantai Cenang is the most popular beach area and it’s loaded with jet ski rentals and parasailers.  Underwater World is located here.  There are also some crafts centers, Telaga Tujuh (aka Seven Wells) Waterfalls, a museum or two and duty free shopping.

January 19-22, 2014 (Sunday-Wednesday)