A Travellerspoint blog

July 2008

Checking in

sunny 34 °C

I've just returned to Sandakan from a few days in Kinabatanan National Park, where I saw Bornean pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, a silver langur, a couple of orang utans, water monitors and a croc. Not to mention snake birds, brahminy kites, crested serpent eagles, Storm's stork, stork-billed kingfishers and great egrets.

I'm off in the next few minutes to spend the night on Turtle Island. Meanwhile here is a photo of a bat, taken yesterday at Gomantong cave.


Posted by Wardsan 09:05 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)


sunny 31 °C
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In Vietnam I was probably accosted by motorbike taxis and cyclo riders about 10,000 times (that's a genuine estimate). I said no to all the cyclo riders but the last. I realised it was my last chance. They irritate the Saigon local government, which is making life difficult for them by banning them from lots of streets. If I ever go back to Vietnam they are likely to have disappeared.

My cyclo took me from Chơlơn to the Ben Thanh market and it took half an hour. All that time we were in the middle of the traffic and the fumes. The ride was uncomfortable and bumpy. I felt sorry for the guy and tipped him. It’s no way to make a living, and it’s no way to travel.

Chơlơn – ‘big market’ – is the Chinatown of Saigon, albeit quite a bit less Chinese since 1975 (many of the 'boat people' were Chinese). I can’t tell the difference, visually, between the Chinese and the Cochinchinese, but you know you’re in Chinatown when you start seeing lots of paunchy shirtless men.


I visited seven temples. Most are temples to Quan Cong. The temples in Chơlơn have the best roof decorations of any pagodas in Vietnam (some in Bangkok are comparable).





Mendicants outside a temple.


There is also a section of shops selling roots and herbs, most of which I think are medicinal rather than nutritious. The products on sale included the biggest mushrooms I have ever seen. (The largest life forms known are fungi of the genus Armillaria. There are several huge examples in the US. One in Oregon covers ten square kilometres.)


Other shops sell festival goods such as hats and dragons' heads.


I am starting to get Chinatown drunk. Since visiting Chơlơn I’ve been to the Chinatowns of Bangkok, KL, Melaka and Singapore and they are merging in the memory.

  • **

I’m in Kota Kinabalu, formerly Jesseltown, capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah in northeast Borneo. My hotel is hardly as described in the guidebook but there is a shower, a television and a TV. The rooms can also be rented for two-hour periods but I don’t think it’s actually a brothel. It’s two-thirds of the price of the oubliette in Sing-Sing.

I arrived on a rainy evening and KK was not at its best. It seemed unfriendly and evening a little threatening. Today the sun is shining for a change, and it looks better.

Ninh Bình and Huế are regional capitals too, I think, but they are far more foreign than KK; there are western-style shopping malls here, and branches of KFC, McDonalds, Burger King, Body Shop etc. Presumably that is because Malaysia is (a) five times richer than Vietnam (income per capita, PPP basis), (b) more open to foreign investment and (c) a former British colony.

I’ve come to Borneo without doing much research so today it’s time to find out all that can be done. Provisionally, I want to go to Kota Kinabalu national park and climb Gunung Kinabalu; go diving in Sipadan; and visit Tabin wildlife reserve; and see whether I can ride a steam train to Tenom. It all seems rather difficult to organise after being spoon-fed for a few weeks. [Update: it is difficult to organise. One travel agent basically refused to speak to me because I'm travelling alone. Some of the places and tours don't cater for less than two people. The train line to Tenom is closed for renovation - why travel when I can get this experience at home? - and the park at Tabin is protected by economic fortifications. But, for the first time since Penang, I'm really excited at the prospect of my next stop...]

Posted by Wardsan 12:49 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Superstition in the pigeon

semi-overcast 31 °C

I'm still in Singapore, trying to buy a camera. I like the place a lot more after eating a beautiful meal in Little India: mutton Hyderabad, bhindi masala, naan, served on a banana leaf - enough for two. Two hippos. Last night I ate in Chinatown: sliced pig trotters with jellyfish, followed by a congee with abalone, fish, meatball and dried pig's intestine. Lovely.

I'm still in Singapore because my attempt to buy a camera has been delayed. I have found prices in at least ten stores, and returned to the best yesterday only to find that I could not buy at that price because it was a 'superduper' price that only the manager could sign off on (S$250 below standard quote), and he was absent. At least I know I got a good price. I'm buying a Canon EOS 400D with a Sigma 18-200 OS lens, with international warranty. The combination is much heavier than my current camera, but not as heavy as carrying two lenses, and I use the zoom a lot, as you can see from the animal portraits. I'm buying an SLR for better performance in low light/high ISO/fast shutter speeds; better lenses; filter flexibility; hotshoe attachment; faster focusing; RAW data. It's costing S$1450 minus the 7% VAT reclaim. To get to sterling, multiply by three and divide by eight. Do it in your head, right now, and help delay senility.

  • **

In the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam, one of the authors recounts a story in which his bike broke down in the countryside. A friendly soul helped him out and refused payment. His conclusion: this was the real Vietnam and the real Vietnamese, the people the tourists don’t see.

If you broke down in the countryside in Montana, someone would probably help you out. In my experience the highest proportion of people who are sincerely friendly and helpful is to be found in Canada, the United States (outside Manhattan) and rural Scotland. In Canada, you wouldn’t bother mentioning it in the guidebook. In Vietnam it’s worth mentioning, precisely because it is out of the ordinary. About 95% of the Vietnamese you meet as a tourist – and my sample size is very large – are brusque and charmless. There are heroic exceptions – I would want to mention people in Ninh Binh and Dalat in particular - but they are in a small minority of the people who deal with tourists.

The Vietnamese haggle as if at war, aggressively and without humour. If you don’t offer a price they are prepared to accept, they look at you as if you just spat your spleen at them. It makes no difference if you smile. (A lot of the Thais are out to get you too, and some can be just as charmless. But a good many are very ready with a smile, which makes the process of bargaining much easier.) The only code is: screw the customer; he’s a cretin; the more you diddle him, the greater the triumph. Try offering ten times the real price and see if he accepts. I don’t think this is directed to foreigners alone, although the Vietnamese are in general understandably nationalistic and xenophobic after over a millennium of Chinese rule and nasty wars with the French, the Americans and their imperialist aggressor lackeys (not to mention the Mongols, and China in 1979).

In England, if a bus driver tried to charge double the price, people would disapprove and someone would probably speak up. Occasionally you hear that some taxi-drivers rip off unsuspecting foreigners on the route from Heathrow to London; they are condemned as thieves. In Vietnam, when the same thing happens the other passengers will support the bus driver. Foreigners are, by tacit agreement, there for the taking.

In every country where there are tourists, people are out to get to the tourist dollar, but there are different ways of doing so. Just because you want to trade with someone doesn’t mean you have to treat them as an enemy.

Now, there is a strong selection effect here. Most of the people who talk to you as a tourist are selling cigarettes, books, sunglasses, drugs, transport or erotic experiences; but in fact four in every seven Vietnamese works in agriculture. But from the tourist’s perspective the touts are the real Vietnam, and a guidebook should be honest about it instead of burbling an apologia for the invisible.

This is not just my twisted opinion (and I should mention that I quite like the Thais, Malaysians and Singaporeans and very much like the Laos); almost every traveller finds the same thing.

To aver that the real Vietnam is what you don’t see, while what you do see is not real, is asinine (that Plato did it does not make it valid). You could use the same reasoning to assert that, at home, the Vietnamese have two heads, green skin and can fly. Not only is there no evidence for it, it contradicts the evidence; this is the sort of failure of inference on which superstitions (and religions) are built.

  • **

After that, I'd better mention some good things.

Best Vietnamese restaurants: Nam Phương, Hanoi; the Temple Club, Saigon; Quán Ăn Ngon, Saigon; Cafe Can and Café 96, Hội An; the live fish restaurants on the beach at Hội An; Khanh Kat, Nha Trang.

Best beer: the pilsner at Le Lousiane, Nha Trang, head and shoulders above the rest. Honourable mention: Tiger, Heineken (brewed in Vietnam). Raspberries: everything else.

Best spot for a coffee: Highlands Coffee on Nguyen Hue in Saigon, from where you can see the Rex Hotel, the Hotel de Ville and the Municipal Theatre; Highlands Coffee, next to the Opera in Hanoi; anywhere on the lake in Ðàlạt; the posh hotel in Quy Nhơn.

Posted by Wardsan 11:24 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)


overcast 30 °C
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I'm in Singapore feeling hungover and Eeyorish after saying or implying goodbye to all the others - Rita, Riaan, Alex, Andy, Graeme, John, Hannah, Amber, Aneil, Ashley, Sam, Hayley, Flora and Elisa - and checking into a depressingly crappy backpacker hostel. Most have already left the country. Once you get into the rhythm of travelling on your own it's easy, but immediately after spending 17 days in a crowd I feel desolate.

(A special na zdorovie, to Alex, my good-natured room-mate for 16 nights.)


Singapore has not grabbed me yet, although its inhabitants have struck me as being even more friendly and helpful than the Malaysians. It takes for ever to walk anywhere because you can't jaywalk. Except for cameras, the prices cause vertigo after Malaysia. The hotels are very expensive. I don't think I can afford to stay here for very long, so the only objective for the day is to choose where to go next: Sumatra, Java, Borneo, or back to the peninsula?

(It's now evening and it hasn't yet been achieved. I'm even considering flying straight back to KL, which I liked, and cogitating there. I spent the afternoon going to camera shops and having a Singapore Sling with Hannah and the Qlders at the Raffles Hotel. Except not really at the Raffles Hotel: they built a shopping mall around it in the 1990s, and the 'Long Bar' is therefore less than twenty years old. Its interior was a bit Berni Inn - fine in itself, but unfitting for a grand hotel. The cocktail cost S$25 - about £9. Incidentally I always used to think that the hotel was named after AJ Raffles, the 'amateur cracksman' of the EW Hornung stories; it's a shame it wasn't.)


  • **

The real Raffles, Sir Thomas Stamford, had a spice garden planted at the foot of the hill that is now Canning Park. Among the spices were nutmeg and cloves. Cloves originally came from Indonesia but Indonesia now has to import cloves because it makes so many clove cigarettes.

  • **

In Malaysia I usually tried to eat Malaysian/Malay food. It's harder than it sounds, since there are more Chinese and Indian restaurants. A bit like Britain actually, although the two 'Indian' cuisines differ. It took me a while to realise that eating solely Malay was foolish: there were Indians here long before the Portuguese arrived in 1511, although most were brought over from Tamil Nadu by the Brits to work as servants or build railways. And there have been Chinese here for ever. Indeed, the primary reason that Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian Federation was that, with Singapore in the Federation, there was a small Chinese majority in the country - unacceptable to a Malay nationalist government. (Since the Chinese have procreated more slowly than the bumis, the latter are in a comfortable majority these days.) So Chinese and Indian food is as much Malaysian as Malay is. And Nyonya - eaten in Melaka and Penang - is a mix anyway.

  • **

Time for another photo gallery. How about some more photos of Penang? The Qlders and I visited the Botanical Gardens and Penang Hill, which would afford great views over George Town and the Straits if the smog permitted. In the gardens we saw a few animals scuttling/swimming/hovering around.





The gardens and the hill are home to colonies of macaques. They have become used to humans, and have learnt to regard them as ready sources of food. They can be quite persistent, apparently, although those we met were well brought up.




Posted by Wardsan 20:37 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Cameron Highlands

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I'm posting from Melaka, the old trading town that dominates the narrowest point of the Melaka Straits. The last couple of days have been hideously hot, but today promises showery relief. I feel rather bored of travelling today, but we're only here for a day so I'll head off shortly to a couple of museums instead of just sitting down and reading as I'd prefer.

We bussed yesterday from Kuala Lumpur, where we spent two nights. KL was hot and humid. It possesses fifty or more buildings above 25 storeys and more outlets of US chain stores than London does. So it's probably like Atlanta, except more muslim: most women cover their heads and quite a few are in burkas.

Before KL we spent a couple of nights in the Cameron Highlands, named after William Cameron, who discovered the plateau while surveying in the late nineteenth century. (While the coast of the peninsula has been well surveyed for centuries, most of the interior was only surveyed in the twentieth century.) It's 1,500 metres above sea level, and its specialities are tea and strawberries. This makes afternoon tea and scones a possibility, and they are on offer; I indulged gladly in a tea room that took me straight back to Yorkshire. A lot of other plants are grown under polythene; the area is an important source of agricultural produce for Malaysia.


In the Highlands we visited a tea plantation run by the Boh company, which is still owned by a British family.


In the lowlands the picking is now largely automated, but in the highlands the leaves are still picked by hand. The pickers come from Indonesia, Nepal and Bangladesh.


The picked leaves are left to wither. Then they are rolled in order to twist and break and withered leaf and expose its juices. The third stage is 'fermentation' (actually oxidisation). Then the leaves are dried for twenty minutes at 100 degrees C. Finally they are sorted. The best grade is leaf. The intermediate grades are broken, and fannings. The lowest quality is tea dust; this goes into tea bags.

After visiting the tea plantation we went for a walk in the rain and in the jungle. It was warm work. After about an hour and a half we reached an area containing several buds and flowers of Rafflesia arnoldi, discovered by Raffles and Arnold in Sumatra in 1818. It is the largest flower in the world; this alien-spawn is a bud. The plant is parasitic.


They flower for only a couple of weeks, unpredictably. For the first week they are bright red, as here, and they don't smell of much. Then they darken and begin to stink of rotten meat, which attracts the flies essential to the plant's reproduction.


This is Hannah with a millipede. I managed to cope with it crawling on me for about two seconds.


Then we visited a waterfall. The water was muddy and uninviting, but three hydrophiles entered. We had been told that there were no leeches, but two people got little leeches on their feet. This is John, our Gruppenfuehrer.


Upon retracing our steps some of us had a go at blowpiping darts using the blowpipes that some of the local non-Malay bumiputra use to hunt. The blowpipes are about two metres long. It takes less blowing effort than you'd think.


And then we bussed off to a butterfly farm. This was great fun. First we were shown a number of large insects and other arthropods. This is Sam with some scorpions.


Hannah with a mantis.


A Malaysian horned toad, and a couple of lizards.




Then we wandered into the butterfly enclosure. It was well below the temperature at which the butterflies are active - cold, in fact - so they just sat torpidly in vast numbers. They only live for a few days, and quite a few had ceased to be.


The majority were Rajah Brooke birdwings, Trogonoptera brookiana, named by Alfred Russel Wallace after the first White Rajah of Sarawak. These butterflies have red heads and brilliant tooth-shaped flashes of green on the back of their wings.




This is a beautiful idea: Idea lynceus fumata.


Posted by Wardsan 08:19 Archived in Malaysia Comments (3)

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