Langkawi

Langkawi, officially known as Langkawi the Jewel of Kedah, is an archipelago of 99 islands in the Andaman Sea.  It is separated from mainland Malaysia by the Strait of Malacca and used to be a haven for pirates until the British disbanded the pirate’s land bases in 1945.  Transformed from a sleepy island into a major tourist resort in 1986 it continues to attract millions of visitors a year, many of whom for the duty-free status of the island. 

We chose Langkawi for our penultimate destination to relax, enjoy the beautiful beaches and explore the geoparks that the island is famous for.  Almost two thirds of the main island is dominated by forest covered mountain, hills and natural vegetation so it is a haven for wildlife.  Our accommodation was in Pantai Cenang which has several beaches and a good selection of bars/restaurants.  Having splurged out a little more for a “superior” room in a resort, we were disappointed with the first impressions of our room.  It was clean, but the towels were ragged and stained.  Also, on the wall they’d clearly tried to over up marks but had used paint that was about 5 shades darker than the original colour.  Never the less, we’ve seen worse and the main thing was that it was clean and comfortable. 

Arriving at the start of September, the start of their wettest month in the rainy season, days varied from hot and humid to hot, humid and wet.  On one of our first few days we were woken early in the morning by a thunderous storm to find that the resort had flooded with water levels more than ankle deep.   On another day I couldn’t resist taking a picture by a sign stating “more sun this way” in the middle of a massive rain storm!  On the positive side, we were informed that the wet season is the best time to see some of the flora and fauna, with many migratory species arriving onto the island during this time. 

During our first few days in Langkawi we explored the town, beaches and relaxed in the resort.  We were surprised to find much wildlife only a short walk from our resort in the evenings; families of long tailed macaques and hornbills roosting in the trees.  Sunsets were also very pleasant with the storm clouds creating interesting patterns in the sky. 

On the Tuesday evening we decided to partake in the local pub quiz in Bam Boo Ba, which was run by a fellow Scot.  Our plan had been to have a few drinks at the quiz then return to our chalet but that’s not quite how it turned out!  We came second in the quiz, winning a crate of beer, so not bad for a team of 2!  Sharing our winnings, we got chatting to other people in the bar then continued with the crowd to another 2 bars before finally calling it a night after 4am!  Needless to say, the following day was a right off and we’ve once again vowed never to drink again!

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A few days later, when we’d recovered from our hangover, we arranged a tour to Kilim Geopark with Junglewalla Tours.  It started with a 45-minute ride to Kilim Jetty where we took a 2.5-hour boat ride through the park.   Langkawi was granted World Geopark status by UNESCO in 2007 but in 2014 it was issued with a yellow card.  I have searched for further information but after finding lots of links I have been unable to open any of them here in Malaysia so one can only wonder.  However, knowing what UNESCO stands for I can only assume that the yellow card was given due to failure to conserve the local flora and fauna. 

When we visited we saw lots of tour groups feeding the white bellied sea eagles and the Brahminy Kites with chicken skin encouraging the birds, that normally live alone or in pairs, to flock to the river.  We also saw the tour groups feeding the macaques later too.  I was appalled but when I questioned it with our guide she confirmed that whilst her company refused to partake in such practices, approximately 70% of the tour operators in this region were feeding animals.  She said that laws were being passed by the government this year to deter this behaviour but didn’t seem overly confident that it would resolve the issues. 

The tour through the mangrove area was interesting and we were surprised to learn that since the tsunami in 2004 no crocodiles have been spotted in any of the 3 river estuaries within Kilim Geoforest Park, when before they were very prevalent.  At one point a naughty macaque joined us on the boat searching for food and we were intrigued to hear that they become aggressive when humans feed them, not because they want to food but because in their hierarchy the food giver is the lower rank, therefore by feeding a macaque a human is basically admitting to being of a lower rank. Despite its small size the macaque’s ego tells them that they are the superior species.  I can’t disagree with the reasoning!  Those who choose to feed wild animals most definitely deserve to be of a lower rank in this world as they are too stupid and arrogant to understand the consequences to of their actions!

Having enjoyed our Geopark Tour with Junglewalla we arranged a further tour later in the week to visit the rainforest after dark.  This started with a 45-minute drive to the base of Gunung Raya, the highest peak on Langkawi Island.  From here, we drove up the mountain slowly looking for wildlife using binoculars.  We saw more long tailed macaques, the shy Dusky Leafed Monkeys, Hornbills and various other bird species.  Our guide informed us that the numbers of Hornbills in this area have decreased by more than half over the last few years due to poachers killing the animals to sell for Chinese medicines on the black market.  Once again, we learn of yet more devastation to the wildlife populations and a pure disregard for nature.  We finished our tour with a night walk through Lubuk Semilang where we watched the spectacular flight of the Giant Red Flying Squirrels. 

 

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Georgetown, Penang

We were relieved to arrive in Georgetown, Penang Island following 3 flights over 2 days and a bout of food poisoning, so our first few days were confined to our hotel before we felt well enough to explore.  Even now, 10 days later, neither of us are 100% and I finally admit to being ready to return home.

Georgetown is situated on Penang Island and is the capital of Penang State in Malaysia.  The island is about a third the size of Singapore and the most densely populated island in Malaysia so not a place to come and relax, but definitely a place to explore.  We stayed near the UNESCO heritage site in Georgetown in a colonial heritage house away from the chaos of the city centre. 

Walking around the town there are many examples of the colonial architecture, but you must look up, past the gaudy shop front signs.  Navigating the narrow streets, you need eyes on the back of your head with motorbikes coming from all directions; with the traffic, in the wrong way of the traffic (even up 1-way streets) and along the pavements!  Crossing the road is another problem as a green man and zebra crossing mean nothing here, especially to motorcyclists!  Our tactic was to wait on locals to cross then dart across with them, even then there were a few near misses. 

On our first day exploring the city we walked through Little India then to the sea front where there is a famous clock tower and Fort.  The Queen Victoria Clock Tower is a 60ft high tower that was presented to Penang in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and further down the road is Fort Cornwallis which is a star fort built in the site where Captain Francis Light, founder of Penang, first landed in 1896. 

Near our hotel was the Upside-Down Museum; described as an interactive museum offering a unique experience with everything in the house being upside down.  Inside there are replicas of various rooms, all turned upside down.  There was some excellent attention to detail, but we weren’t able to explore independently, instead we were rushed through by staff members telling us to pose in a specific way then taking our pictures before moving us on to the next room.  Some of the pictures were rather amusing, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe the museum as “interactive”.

Later in the week we ventured further from the city, deciding to take the hop-on-hop-off bus for 3 days to cover various out of town attractions.  We thought that this would be the easiest option but in hindsight it was a bad idea!  The buses were apparently every 20 minutes but on day 2 of our ticket we waited an hour before giving up and returning to our hotel.  The other problem was that the city bus only runs in one direction, so we had to do nearly a full loop of 2 hours to get to a venue 3 stops from our hotel.   In the end we reduced our plans, seeing less than we’d initially intended. 

Our first stop was Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm, which we took a Grab Taxi to for 28RM.  In the 45 minutes it took to drive there we passed 3 serious vehicle accidents and witnessed numerous near misses but still not quite like the hair-raising taxi rides from South America.  Entopia is a shared ecological space for a variety of animal species, including more than 15,000 butterflies.  It also contains more than 200 species of flora and a discovery centre that was very informative.  We spent several hours there and enjoyed a tasty meal in the café, albeit of rice!

Along the road we visited Tropical Spice Gardens which contain more than 500 species of flora, including spices and other tropical plants that have shaped global history.  It contains 6 landscaped acres and you are provided with an audio guide to explain different plants in more detail.  This was very interesting and we both learned many interesting facts.  The gardens were well tended, and I’d have like to have spent more time there if I’d gone earlier in the day rather than the heat of the afternoon. 

Our final attraction was Penang Hill which is accessed by Penang Hill Railway.  This is the only funicular in Malaysia and is a popular tourist attraction.  In the British colonial period Penang Hill was turned into a retreat due to the cooler temperatures, often around 5 degrees cooler than Georgetown.  It was the lure of this cooler temperature that made us pick this as our final attraction!  At the top of Penang Hill there are numerous hiking trails, where you can view the unusual Dusky Leaf Monkeys, and a viewing deck that gives panoramic views of Georgetown. 

We had planned to visit the National Park and Botanical Gardens but due to illness and the unreliability of the buses we changed our plans, if I returned to Georgetown I’d make more use Grab and the local buses. 

10 Things I’ve Learned

Having spent the last year travelling around South America, Antarctica, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia I’ve learned so much.  Not only have I experienced things that were out of this world, but I have gained an endless amount of random facts.  Below are 10 pieces of wisdom I’ve accrued over the last year:

1.       Food classed as a delicacy is generally best avoided!

2.       Places described as “bohemian” tend to mean dirty and rundown!

3.       Just because you can get to your destination easily on public transport doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to return by the same method!

4.       A green man and a zebra crossing don’t mean it is safe to cross!

5.       Stray dogs needn’t cause much worry……unless they are running at you and snarling!!  Most of the stray dogs in South America are very docile and nothing to worry about.

6.       Google translate doesn’t like the Scottish or Yorkshire accents!

7.       The world is a noisy place, but the cry of a cockerel and prayer calls broadcasted over speakers at 5am are the most difficult to block out!

8.       Some of the richest people we’ve met seemed to be the most rude and miserable, yet some of the poorest the most content and willing to share the little they do have. 

9.       Overnight buses in Chile and Argentina are much more comfortable than long haul flights. 

10.   If, like me, you need to avoid dairy products then avoid restaurants that try to take a western twist.  Often even the most innocuous dish that is traditionally prepared without any dairy products has additions.  One of the strangest I’ve had was Tom Yam soup made with condensed milk!  Thankfully I realised something was wrong on the first sip!

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Sandakan

After a disappointing week in Kota Kinabalu we were excited to move to Sandakan which is often referred to as the “Nature City”.  Situated on the eastern coast of Sabah, it is a port town on the Sulu Sea, with a tropical rainforest climate and renowned for ecotourism.  Upon reaching Sandakan we took a short walk to reconnoitre the town and have lunch before relaxing in our hotel for the afternoon.  Within 5 minutes of returning to our hotel the most powerful storm I’ve ever experienced suddenly hit.  We were glad to be sheltered in our hotel and watching from the window!  Later in the evening when the storm had ceased we went out in search of more food, only for the storm to return with vengeance as we were leaving the restaurant.  In the short walk back to the hotel we were absolutely drenched through!

Our first trip from Sandakan was to Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, set in the Kabil-Sepilok Forest Reserve which covers over 10,610 acres with much of this being virgin rainforest.  The sanctuary was established in 1964 for orphaned baby orangutans from logging sites, plantations and illegal hunting ventures.  Nowadays the orangutans are classed as “semi-wild” as they are not constrained to a cage or specific area of the forest so have the freedom to roam as they please, however, twice a day they are offered a free meal by the sanctuary if they wish to take it.  Having read that the tour groups visit the 10am feeding session we elected for the 3pm feeding to avoid the crowds.  We had also planned to visit the neighbouring Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre during this same trip so left early.  Unfortunately, when we arrived we were informed that it was closed due to damage from the storm the previous night, so we had to wait for several hours until the orangutan sanctuary opened at 2pm.

Although not guaranteed sightings of orangutans at Sepilok, we were lucky to see one playing in the trees above the entrance.  It seemed almost intrigued by the humans and happily continued eating the bamboo shoots.  As we walked further into the reserve we spotted another Orangutan high in the trees that followed us along to the feeding area.  During the feeding session the orangutans were fed fruit and would check that the route was clear before grabbing what they could and taking it higher into the trees.  A large male macaque turned up, stuffing as many bananas in his mouth before scarpering to the ground over several visits.  During one of his visits the orangutan literally threw a large bunch of bananas at him, hitting him on the head, which was clearly intentional and amusing to watch.  Needless to say, he didn’t return after that!

Shortly after the departure of the male macaque a female orangutan with very small baby appeared to the feeding platform and we watched her until it was time to leave for our bus back to Sandakan.  It was a local bus, stopping off in the most random of places to collect and drop people with their wares.  At one point we were tapped on the shoulders by an old lady sitting behind us who insisted in giving us some of her fruit; rambutan, a strange hairy fruit I’d never seen before.  She then showed us how to access the fruit which was a cross between a grape and lychee, before departing the bus at the next stop.   Also on the bus was a fellow backpacker who chatted to the driver for most of the journey.  At one point he told the driver that he hadn’t changed his clothes in 3 days but then tried to add that he didn’t smell!  We thought that he should perhaps let others be the judge of that statement!!!!   In the 36-degree heat and over 80% humidity you can’t step outside for 5 minutes without becoming drenched in sweat!  He later told the driver that his wife was also travelling, but in a different continent, perhaps she was so disgusted with his personal hygiene she left him!

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Later in the week we took an organised tour to Gomantong Caves and Kinabatangan River, which are situated a 2-hour drive away from Sandakan.  Thankfully it was a small tour with only us and a family from Vancouver who were very amiable.  Our first stop was Gomantong Caves which is home to large numbers of swifts, bats and cockroaches.  We were warned before we left that cockroaches are in abundance and that its not unusual for them to crawl up your legs, equally we were told that the stench of the large quantity of guano was overpowering so we were fully prepared, tucking trousers into socks.  Walking through a beautiful forest reserve we arrived at the caves to find lots of men scrambling around.  It seemed that we had inadvertently arrived during bird’s nest season where permitted locals collect the edible swift nests from high in the caves.  Twice a year they climb to the roof of the caves using only rattan ladders, ropes and bamboo poles, to collect the nests which are made by the swifts using solidified saliva.  Said to be one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans they are prized due to their rarity and supposedly high nutritional value.     

Inside the cave a boardwalk was constructed along the outer extremities with massive piles of guano in the middle.  If you looked closely the whole ground appeared to move with the quantity of cockroaches clambering over one another.  We could also see the cockroaches on the boardwalk and on the walls of the cave but thankfully none landed on me, let alone run up my leg!  Looking up to the cave roof I was uncomfortable seeing the men harvesting the bird’s nests with only rudimentary equipment and no harnesses, despite being more than 60 metres up. 

After completing the boardwalk in the caves, we returned to the van to be driven a further 20 minutes to Kinabatangan River.  After lunch we were informed that we had a 3-hour wait until our river cruise at 4pm.  Having not been informed of this long wait with our itinerary we had not brought books so had a long wait with little to do other than sit in the non-air-conditioned cafeteria and wait.  I still can’t figure out why they didn’t just start our tour later in the day!

At 4pm we embarked on our wildlife cruise along the Kinabatangan River; the second longest river in Malaysia, running from the mountains of southwest Sabah to the Sulu Sea.  The Upper Kinabatangan has been devastated by excessive logging and clearing of land for plantations, but the lowland forests and mangrove swamps near the coast provide a sanctuary for wildlife.  It is considered the best area for viewing wildlife in all southeast Asia and we were not disappointed. 

Within 5 minutes of leaving the jetty we saw a large salt water crocodile swimming from the bank.  Later we watched families of long tailed macaques and short tailed macaques playing in the trees and a juvenile snake resting.  In the evening as we returned to a spectacular sunset we observed families of proboscis monkeys in the trees by the river banks.  It was a lovely experience and a highlight of our time in Sandakan.  Efforts have been made to have this area declared as a national park to protect the wildlife from further deforestation but these have so far been opposed by oil palm plantation owners seeking to expand their cultivated land so who knows what the future holds for the Kinabatangan River area. 

Our final trip was by far my favourite.  We took a boat to Turtle Islands National Park which is a series of 3 islands: Selingaan, Gulisaan and Bakkungan Kechil, situated in the Sulu Sea 3km north of Sandakan.  We had arranged an overnight stay on Selingan Island to see the turtles in the evening as there is only 1 boat a day. Upon arrival we felt like we were on a tropical island with white beaches and blue seas.  We circumnavigated the island on foot which only took us an hour and a half, but we stopped often to look at the brittle stars in the rock pools and the water monitors sunning themselves on the rocks.  After a tasty lunch we hired snorkels and were surprised by how warm the sea was.  We had a lovely relaxing afternoon swimming around and watching the fish.  Returning to the chalet I was surprised to find that my legs had burnt, having avoided any sunburn since the start of our trip in Quito! 

In the evening we ate dinner then were instructed to wait in the cafeteria for the rangers to announce the arrival of the first turtle.  Shortly before 9pm we were led to the beach to watch a Green Turtle laying her 75 eggs on the beach.  She almost seemed unaware of us and in a trance as she laid, undeterred by the ranger measuring her and checking her tags.  The eggs were collected and transported to the hatchery where the ranger dug out a hole similar to the turtle’s nest, protecting it from predators with a net.  Later we were lead to a different beach and baby turtles that had hatched earlier that night were released.  Not all of them wanted to go into the sea though and some had to be gently guided in the right direction.  Afterwards as we walked to our chalet we saw several hermit crabs that had made their homes in plastic aerosol lids, a stark reminder of the sheer quantity of plastic that litters our beaches and nature reserves around the world!

Top 10 Most Useful Items Packed

My top 10 most useful items packed for my RTW trip, in no particular order.

1.        Iphone SE

I chose the SE model as it is small enough to be inconspicuous yet has a reasonable camera.   Some of the best apps I downloaded were internet banking, google maps, wordpress, XE currency exchange, Airbnb, duolingo, blinklist and loop journal.  I also downloaded lots of games and my music kept me entertained during long journeys. 

2.       Kindle Voyager

I am an avid reader, so my kindle allows me access to a library of books without having to carry extra weight or find a suitable bookstore every few days.  Before I left the UK, I downloaded lots of books and topped up my collections when Wi-Fi connection allowed. 

3.       Sony DSC-H400 Camera

I was given this camera as a gift many years ago but never used it much as it was heavy and occupies a lot of space in my bag.  About a year before we left the UK I attended a photography course that not only helped me to learn how to use my camera properly, but it reignited my enthusiasm towards photography.  I am so glad I took it as I have captured some amazing moment during our trip which I can reminisce over in the future.  Also, when I next own a house I will have some interesting artworks to display. 

4.       Lenovo ideapad 100S

Nowadays most things can be done on a smart phone, so I debated long and hard over whether to take a laptop.  I decided to buy this small ideapad as a compromise, but I have used it a lot, especially for keeping my spending spreadsheet updated, editing my photos and typing up my blog. 

5.       Salomon Walking Boots

Cumbersome to pack, heavy on your feet and too hot to wear in warm weather, yet waterproof, supportive and non-slip!  I debated long and hard about including these in my packing, but the clincher was weakness in my ankle after a bad break a few years ago.  In the end, they were the most worn footwear I took with me. 

6.       Stanley Water Bottle

Between us Mike and I took 4 water bottles, but this is the only one that has survived our trip, despite being the most used!  It was more expensive than some bottles on the market, but it is durable and easy to clean.  I particularly like the fact that I can fit my hand inside the bottle to clean and dry properly which is especially important in regions where tap water is not drinkable. 

7.       Steripen

Being environmentally aware we wanted to be responsible tourists and try not to add to the surplus of plastic waste discarded every day.  The Steripen is a water steriliser device that uses UV light to make bacteria/viruses dormant so that they can’t reproduce inside you.  We used this consistently in South America in conjunction with boiling water.  In Asia we found it more difficult as we were in hotels rather than Airbnb.  The difficulty here being that there was no fridge in our rooms and after being out in 36-degree heat with 80% relative humidity you really don’t want to drink lukewarm water from the tap, sterilised or not!  Still, the steripen is a great piece of kit and I will continue to use it when travelling in future. 

8.       Packed Lunch Kit

Although this takes up quite a bit of room it was a lifesaver, not only when I didn’t have access to cooking facilities but also when we did as many simple things would be missing or dysfunctional.  Also, a tin of fruit is sometimes a safer and healthier option to the prepared fruit sold at the markets or the many prepacked snack foods available. 

9.       Clothes Washing Kit

This was an absolute must!  The universal plug was used almost daily.  Initially I bought a packet of the soap leaves for hand washing from an outdoors store but found these to be no substitute for a good old bar of handwashing soap. 

10.   Notebook and Pen

This was a last-minute thing I picked up from a National Trust shop before I left.  I liked it as the pen was attached to the notebook.  I used this lots in South America to write down the address to give to taxi drivers or sometimes to try and explain something when I knew the Spanish word, but my pronunciation was not understood. 

Packing

Whilst normally I enjoy packing for a holiday I found packing for this trip rather difficult.  Over the years I’ve become accustomed to packing light but I’ve never had to cover so many temperatures and terrains in one trip before!

Every time I read another blog or article on packing for such a trip I only ever came away with more ideas to add to my ever extending packing list rather than things I could do without.  Then when we booked our trip to the Antarctica I got worried I’d be cold and headed out to buy another jumper!

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Clothes
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Packed Lunch and Clothes Washing Sets
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Accessories
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Shoes (minus walking boots)

Electronics

In the end I concluded that regardless how much I analysed I’d ever get it perfect so 6 weeks before the trip my bag was packed and sealed! By that point I was also officially unemployed so didn’t want to waste holiday money on things I didn’t need!

Setting a Budget

Every holiday is different and exchange rates often fluctuate more than expected, so setting a travel budget can feel like a minefield.  When I first considered taking a long trip I searched the internet to find out how much it would cost.  This proved to be near impossible, partly because most people do not want to share financial information and secondly because of the endless variables that exist. 

Whilst in our early planning days my partner and I took many European trips and treated them as mini backpacking trips, testing what works for us and keeping a close watch on how much we spent.  On average this came to £50 per person per night so I used this in our initial budget, with the knowledge that Europe is an expensive destination in comparison to many of the countries we wished to visit I concluded that this should be a conservative estimate.  I also added estimates for flights, vaccinations and travel insurance, most of which were easy to find online.  Finally, I included specific tours that would be outside of the daily budget such as the Galapagos Islands and Inca Trail (although a few months before departure we decided to cancel our Inca Trail and book an Antarctic Cruise instead!). 

As our savings increased and our trip became more real we finalised our itinerary and I updated the budget specifically for each location.  I found an amazing website, www.budgetyourtrip.com, that provides lots of budget details so used this as my basis for constructing our final budget.  I can thoroughly recommend this website, even for planning shorter trips.  It was this final budget that I used to track our spending throughout our trip. 

Following many discussions my partner and I agreed that we would realistically only take such a long trip once, therefore it was important to both of us that our budget was not so tight that we missed out on an experience because we couldn’t afford to pay for it.  With this in mind, we each added a contingency fund; 15% to our day to day costs.  Finally, we included a secondary contingency fund for our return to pay for a car and living expenses until I find employment.