Two great dives – T3 and Sugar wreck

Day 150, Saturday 2 June 2012, Perhentian Kecil

Unsurprisingly after seven beers last night I slept like a baby and woke at 6.50 which seems to be the prime crowing time for the local rooster. This actually suits me well. I woke feeling a wee bit dodgy, not hungover, just jaded I guess. I followed yesterdays example and lazed around till 8.00 then had quick internet catch up and off for breakfast and then to the dive shop for 9.00.

Today we are diving T3 (Awesome), I have heard good things about this site from lots of people and it was on my to do list for the Perhentians. One of things I have really liked about Spice Divers is they do listen to the requests of their customers, they ask what we want to dive and how many days we have to do dive the sites, then try to fit the dives in around customer needs. This was cool, especially as I got to do all the dives I wanted – it pays to be a repeat customer as well 🙂 The schedule was changed a bit so I could do T3 in the morning and re-visit Sugar Wreck on the mid-day dive, that others I had befriended we keen on the same helped I am sure, but I know they bumped some new customers to fit in what I asked to do.

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T3 (three reefs) is about twenty five minutes away by boat, as there was only five of us (Daniel, Jimmy, Catherine, myself and Mike the dive master) diving we took a small boat and had a pretty good run out. The swell is a lot smaller early in the mornings. From the surface T3 is just a couple of rocks sticking out of the water about a hundred metres off shore.

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There are some areas down to 24 metres but as only half of the group were able to dive past 18, the dive plan was to stick around 16 metres – which means a longer dive time anyway. As it turned out, and something that is true of most of the sites here, the visibility is fabbo to around 16-18 metres and then deteriorates quickly, so the good stuff mostly happens at the higher depths anyway. What was really cool here was the thermo clime (difference in temperature – and usually visibility as well) was really marked here, I was able to float in warm water and lower my arms into water that was significantly colder, there was almost no gradient between, cool.

There was not a huge amount of stunningly interesting life at T3, the site is interesting as it is a mass of huge boulders lying on top of each other, there was plenty of fish and some great nudi branches but the fun thing at T3 is the swim throughs. We did four short tunnel dives, a couple were complex in that they were narrow and had turns, so when you entered the tunnel you could not see the exit. On one of the tunnels I got a bit stuck and had to think about how to twist my body to get myself and the tank through.  In a cave on the surface I would freak out, but under water I was quite calm and able to make logical decisions, – it was only a matter of a couple of seconds, there was no threat of harm, but it did interest me that I didn’t get scared – faith in the DM ? but logically I could see I could get through, it was just working out the puzzle. It was fun 🙂 it was one of my favourite dives.

To maximise dive times for all of us the DM took those who got to the low limit on air (50bar) to the surface without taking the whole group through the decompression stops, which meant I was up before the Catherine and Mike, though not the first. So I had Jimmy take a picture of Daniel and I in the water and then I snorkelled down and took some shots of Catherine and Mike below.

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As we got close to the island we were dive bombed by some terns !

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This is how tight some of the swim throughs are – Mike exiting one, shot from the surface.

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After the dive I hung around the shop chatting with the other divers and staff. This seems to be one of the features of the shop, an encouragement to socialise with the other divers, great for us solo travellers. Richard and Blathnaid, my friends from Myanmar, recommended the shop because of this aspect. After the break we were diving Sugar Wreck again, I dived this on my first day but had really bad mask issues so didn’t get to see a lot. I was dead keen to go back as I love a wreck dive !

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We had a larger group for this dive so split into two, I got to dive with Jimmy, Daniel and Mike again along with a new diver. It was a good dive, again, visibility was best above 14 metres, but the ship had lots of places to explore – though of course we were not allowed to enter at all. The ship went down in 2001 and was carrying sugar – obviously. There were a lot of scorpion and dragon fish so care was needed. We did see some awesome little coral cat sharks – these are about a foot long and hide in the smallest spots, just lovely creatures.

And that was it, diving in SE Asia is over; but I did do thirty two dives in four countries – so I cannot complain !

After the dive I went back to my room and chilled for a while before heading back down to the shop at 7:00 where I hung around chatting till almost 9:00 – when the evening storm passed.  I went for dinner with Daniel and Jimmy and then stopped for a couple of drinks with some of the dive shop guys. I could see they were going to kick on for a biggie so I left at 10:30 and went to bed.

There were some cool fire dancers on the beach !

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I leave the Island in the morning. I really regret not skipping Koh Tao and coming here earlier, once I got into the groove with the shop this has been one of the more enjoyable places to hang out, and the diving has been exceptional. A highlight of the trip.

Diving, photography, beer – almost a perfect day

Day 149, Friday 1 June 2012, Perhentian Kecil

Wow, the year is disappearing so quickly, its June already. A good day today, one average dive, one awesome dive and I am going to catch up with some of the divers I met today for a drink tonight. Not too much as one more diving day tomorrow – and the last dives of the trip. On the way back from the dive today I was wondering how I could extend for one more day, but not possible, I should have come here sooner I think. If you are planning diving in SE Asia, you have to put the Perhentians on your list!

Not as good a sleep as the night before, but still woke at 7.00 and was feeling OK, I think once I get to the UK I will take a couple of days of doing nothing much – if I can, oh apart from getting some running in every day to drop a couple of KG’s before I have to join Mal in Cornwall on the 15th. Heck that is only two weeks away now !

Lessons were learnt from yesterday so did a bit of washing, caught up on FB and some email and then meandered down to breakfast for 8.30, and things were open. There is a lot of mess on the beach this morning, there was a big party last night – which I of course did not go to, so lots of cans and fag ends all over the place. At least an effort is made to clean it early and it will be spotless again soon I imagine.

The first dive of the day was another wreck – Vietnamese – named as the vessel was sunk during the war, it is a deeper dive so only advanced divers can do it, this meant a smaller group which was good.

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What was surprising was there was already four other dive boats when we got to the site !

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We were hoping for clear calm waters but the ride out was a bit choppy and we found from one of the divers who were surfacing when we arrived that there was a strong current and visibility was down to four or five metres at the wreck, bugger !

The descent to the top of the wreck at eighteen metres was awesome though, a warm warm, crystal clear sea. However it all turned to crap at eighteen, I was not wearing a wetsuit and the water was quite cold (not NZ cold of course – Malaysia cold !) and visibility was terrible. Could barely see the wreck even up close, seeing fish was next to impossible. We did do a very cool swim through, the entrance was tight and pitch black, and as I was last diver through there was a lot of sediment in the water, It was quite scary going in and then it is totally dark until you look up a bit to see the torch light, and then suddenly you are in the hull and you could easily stand up. Definitely the high point of that dive. After the swim through we ascended up the mooring line, did the safety stop in the stunning crystal blue and then jumped back into the boat. It was a bummer about the conditions, but at least my mask was good and I could see clearly – just not much to see !

I hung around the dive shop over lunch chatting to some of the other divers as we waited for the second dive of the day to Temple.

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I had been told by Richard and Blathnaid, who I have kept in contact with since we met at Inle Lake in Myanmar, that Temple was AWESOME, one of their two favourite dives. So I was looking forward to this one.

The ride out in the full dive boat was “choppy”.

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And the site had a small swell going but not too bad.

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What can I say about Temple: my gear was good – I could see everything, the visibility down to about 14 metres was awesome, the water was warm, I saw bamboo sharks, eels, porcupine fish plus all the usual suspects. A fantastic site, and a great dive – I loved it, best dive for weeks – way better than anything at Koh Tao or Nha Trang. The only thing wrong with it, was it was too short ! The bamboo sharks are tiny and bottom dwell in small caves, in one tiny opening we saw a school of about five or six sharks, all under a metre long. We also got to swim in, through and with a huge school of trevaly and I got up close and personal with a nice sized snapper as well. Great dive !

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The ride back was fun, bouncing around the swells, luckily no one on the boat had any dry gear as it would not have been that way by the time we got to shore. I booked myself in for two more dives tomorrow and the guys will get me to a site called T3 which R and B also highly recommended – as did everyone who has dived there. These will be last two dives for a while, though I have completed thirty since I left New Zealand, so will not complain a bit ! The day after I leave Perhentians and soon after that SE Asia.

[edit] The rest of the post is written two days later : ) [/edit]

After the dive, a shower, a lie down and some internet time I wandered over the hill to Coral Bay on the other side of the island for the sunset. The path to Coral Bay was a good snap shot of the negative side of island Malaysia, though of course there are some beautiful bits too !

Unfinished construction

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Rubber trees in place of natives,

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and trash.

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When I arrived I could see the storm clouds gathering so raced out to the jetty to grab a few shots before heading back to find the nearest cafe where I had dinner and waited out the downpour.

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Luckily the rain finished and the sky cleared before the sunset so I headed back to the wharf to snap a few shots (quite a few in fact).

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And then down to the beach for some final photos.

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When it was too dark to take photos I headed back over to Long Beach and had a couple of beers with Jimmy who I was diving with today, and then hooked up with some English guys from the first day and had a few more. I wobbled back to my room at 12.30, a bit late considering I was diving the next day. The Tiger beer here is not as good on the head as other places…

A damn good day though ! diving, photography, companionship and beer !

A blurry old day

Day 148, Thursday 31 May 2012, Perhentian Kecil

Diving day today – double yay !

I have heard good things about the diving here and from what I saw from the boat coming in yesterday I am really looking forward to getting into the water – plus the first dive is on a wreck so even better.

You, my faithful reader(s), will be pleased to know I slept well last night and even the cock crowing from underneath my room didn’t really wake me from my slumber until after 6.30. A great start to the day. What was not so great is I could not find anywhere to eat breakfast at 7.00 – nothing was open, even worse the Nai Yang ! I walked back up to room, grabbed my phone and went and Facebooked for a while in the “reception area” of my “hostel” – not quite the words I would use to describe the accommodation, I will take a photo on my day off. It is comfy and quiet though – well last night it was any way.

I went back down to Long Beach at 8.00 and it was raining a little bit and mildly overcast, things were open so I did get to have poached eggs on toast for breakfast – I wanted fried egg and rice, and have not been able to get it for weeks – very disappointing as it is a great pre-dive feed.

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After breakfast I was off to the dive shop – “Spice Divers” to kit up and be briefed on the dive. There was ten of us diving, two groups of four with a dive master. The ride out to the “Sugar Wreck” site took about twenty five minutes. The wreck sits on the bottom at just over 18 metres so it is a good all round dive, with the top of the wreck at 5 metres, after the dive I jumped back in with a mask and snapped a quick shot.

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Sadly I had really bad problems with mask fogging and i could not clear it permanently even though I flushed the mask a dozen times, this really made the dive less enjoyable than it should have been, visibility was great and the water was so warm we did not use wet suits ! I enjoyed it, but I should have LOVED it. I will dive it again if it comes up over the next few days. The dive site – shooting into the sun.

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Through a miscommunication I missed the lunch time dive so remarkably spent a whole hour and a half on the beach under a shade – I never do beach, just not in my nature ! Long beach is beyond gorgeous, the sand is white and water crystal clear.

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The second, and late afternoon dive, was at Curtain Rock and again I had mask issues – different mask and different issue. This time things were blurry and I could not fix it all, it was like diving with my reading glasses on. Again a great dive made merely enjoyable by a dodgy mask. The first time it was my fault, but this time I am blaming the mask, though of course once you are under it is too late to fix.

The dive site.

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After filling in log books and chatting with the other divers for a while I wandered back up to le mansion for a shower, change and a rest. I met my new neighbour too.

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Like every night it is party night on PK tonight. I went down to the beach, where all the cafes are for dinner at 7:30, a lot later than last night and there was a few more people around. I had a mee noodle dish and another one of those awesome banana shakes, the cafes do not serve alcohol and neither do the mini-marts. The only place to buy beer is from one of the few bars, i grabbed a couple of cans and had one on the beach while I watched party night preparations take place. Not being either young or beautiful I decided not to stay.

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And just to rub it in some more !

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Two cabs, two planes and a boat – next stop.

Day 147, Wednesday 30 May 2012, Phuket to Perhentian Kecil

Well, I am sure some of you are wondering where on earth Perhentian Kecil (PK) is, so I may as well deal with it now. PK is the smaller of two inhabited islands in the Perhentians, a small group of islands about ten kilometres off the north eastern coast of Malaysia.

You would think, given its proximity to southern Thailand that I would have dropped down from Koh Tao rather than take twelve hours travelling across Thailand to Phuket and then taken two flights, and an hour long drive to get here. However, the south east of Thailand is deemed too risky for travellers at the moment, due to terror acts by Muslim separatists – so we are advised to avoid it. When I was in Bangkok a couple of weeks ago it was reported that seven people were killed in grenade attacks, so I followed the advice and took a very long way around.

Before I get on to the day, I am going to say I did not enjoy Phuket – OK I was way out of the main area, but that wasn’t the issue, what I did not like was being charged outrageous prices for everything, beer was minimum three times the price of Bangkok – or even Koh Tao, food was expensive and the cab to airport, which was 5km from the hotel was only slightly less than my share of the cab on the 75km journey from Kota Bharu to Kuala Besut later in the day. A bit like Koh Tao, some of the people were just not friendly – for instance, when you pay them they just take the money, no thanks – in either language. For a tourist destination, that is just balls, and don’t even get me started on immigration at the airport !

On to the day !

Slept Ok, more weird dreams and the best bit of sleeping was from 4:10 till the alarm went off at 5:45. I packed and was out at reception for 6:00 and into the daylight robbery cab company cab for the five minute $8.40 NZD to the airport.

Checking in was relatively painless, and then it was a one hour wait in the queue for immigration control, 22 counters -4 open. Ludicrous. This was just the queue to get through the doors into the immigration hall….

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Once through finally brought a coffee and a roll, but through the roll in the bin as the ham tasted off, a good start to the day. I did buy myself a magazine – first paper based reading material I have bought since I left NZ. I found an English photography mag with a section on the RRP for cameras and lenses, a good thing to take with me to Kuala Lumpur to compare prices as I am thinking of buying at least one lens in KL. It also had a good review of the new Canon 5d Mk3, which I drooled over for a while – I have a MK1, which I am looking forward to reuniting with when I get to England – though the MKII’s are now a reasonable price ! The mag entertained me for both flights today, so a good purchase.

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The flight to KL – and a one hour shift in time zone was good for the main, but about twenty minutes from KL we hit the roughest turbulence I think I have experienced – outside of flying to Wellington of course. If it wasn’t for the little calmer I had I would have left nail marks in the upholstery – I have to use my 10 valium sometime, I mean they cost me a whole $4. I am not a great flyer so will pop one when I fly.

[bugger the power has just gone off ] I had Macca’s for brunch at KL airport and then a Starbucks coffee (and free wifi) till boarding for the one hour flight to Kota Bahru – which I will say was smooth as, compared to the first flight anyway. [back on, whew]

The recommended way of getting the 75km from Kota Bahru to Kuala Besut to the ferries is via taxi, public transport is slow and unreliable, apparently. The airport sell tickets for a cab/boat combo to the islands so I took a shared cab with a young German couple for a pretty good price.

It was good to be back in the land of mosques, back to front wearing jacket scooter riders, girls in head scarves and the mighty Proton, Malaysia’s home brand car. Malaysia has been one of my favourite countries.

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We had an hour long wait in Kuala Besut for the high speed boat out to PK, and it was a fast ride ! Not a high speed boat, a fishing boat taken from the high speed boat.

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First view of PK.

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I found my way up to the Tropicana Inn, it is a hundred metres up the hill from the beach and is, um, basic. I do have a shower and loo in my room (D3), but that is about it, white walls, bed – no adornments, and there is internet too, only in the main area, but that is better than I anticipated. The place appears to be going through some renovations. No expense was spared on the room numberings !

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Once checked in I wandered back down to the beach and booked myself a dive for tomorrow with Spice Divers – recommended to me by my friends from Inle Lake in Myanmar, who were here a few weeks ago. And very cool, they are diving a wreck tomorrow !

I had dinner on the beach, so nice to have Malay food again, plus this awesome banana shake.

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By 8.00 I was pretty much bored with the beach, there were not many people around so I drifted back to my room and wrote this blog post.

My nearest neighbour

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Melaka

Day 43, Wednesday 08 Feb, Melaka (Malacca)

I woke with a mild hangover, but surprised myself by sleeping very soundly –  it was a great couch. Had a good cooked breakfast as it is part of Trefor’s serviced apartment deal, an awesome skin pealing shower and then hit the road before the day got too warm. I took the tube to the south bound long distance bus terminal about 20k south of central KL. I arrived in the bus terminal just before the 10:30 bus to Melaka  so perfect timing, and for a change the advertised two hour journey only took one forty five. The long distance terminal in Melaka is about fifteen minutes from town by local bus, which also conveniently was leaving in five minutes. The day is going so well !

We soon arrived in Melaka’s old town and I was instantly in love with the place. When I booked my morning flight to the Philippines I forgot I had to get from Melaka to Singapore, massive Doh ! So I had to reduce my two days in Melaka down to one, I so regret that now. Unlike me,  I had booked my accommodation ahead and have a massive room in the Oriental Residence Riverside Guesthouse, and it is a charming place with very welcoming, helpful and friendly owners. Once I had settled in my room they spent a few minutes with me and the map explaining how to get to all the various sites, great service.

After a coffee and a quick bit of sink clothes washing I set out to explore Melaka. With a couple of sweaty days and carrying the backpack everything I have, including the fresh washing seems to be greasy and sticky and sweaty and my day bag smells, it is just not nice! I have booked the nights in a guesthouse in Puerto Princesa, my first stop in the Phillies, and when I get there I am going to have a major cleaning session. The sandals are still good though !

Since its founding in the 1300’s by a Sumutran prince, Melaka (or Malacca)has been kicked around by most of the usual suspects, Chinese in the 1400’s, the Portugese in 1511, the Dutch in 1641 and finally the good old English in 1795. As you can imagine the town has some interesting architecture and the old town is now a protected place and is very attractive. I think the next thing they need to do is pedestrianise a couple of key streets, or maybe ban parking as it does ruin the view ! The old town is on the Melaka river, just inland from the straits of Melaka.

I wandered around the town for three hours in the very hot sun, including a visit to the local mall to buy myself a belt, my pants keep falling down, I think it is me that has shrunk not my pants that have expanded !

I took a number of photos as you would expect.

Over the past couple of weeks have really taken an interest in snapping photos of old bicycles so got a few examples today – I will do a bicycle photo special one day when I have time. But here is a genuine Chopper, oh man I have not seen one of these for years. I coveted one when I was young.

I also visited a “war is a crime” exhibition at the muslim museum and there was a presentation out the front. The exhibition seemed to be largely anti-American more than anything else, definitely lacked perspective. However in the presentation, which was in Malay I did here Bosnia and Rwanda mentioned, so maybe it wasn’t just yank bashing.

The bulk of the properties backing onto one side of the river have murals painted on river side walls, some quite amazing.

My hostel is the one with the pink flowers up the wall.

And I loved this shrine stuck to a corrugated iron wall (of course!)

By 4.30 I was starving so popped into the local laksa house for a great home recipe laksa and the coldest beer I have had in months, lovely stuff. After a wee lie down I wandered out again and up Melaka Hill, must be at least 20 metres high! To look at the ruins of St Pauls church and wait for a largely uneventful sunset.

Back to the hostel for a beer and a blog.

The Melaka river from the back of the hostel.

Reading back on this post, I have been a bit unfair on Melaka, it deserves way more attention than this , it really is a nice little town, stunning buildings and a nice feel – so sorry Melaka ! I am tired.

Thaipusam – Day time

Day 42, Tuesday 07 Feb, Kuala Lumpur

I didn’t get a huge amount of sleep, paid a lot of money for this bed and was only in it for four hours!  I got up at nine and packed my stuff up and headed downstairs for breakfast and got a call from Trefor, he is back in KL and I can stay the night on his couch ! Awesome. I checked out of the hostel and left my bag in the locker and headed back out on my own to see what Thaipusam (TP) looks like during the day.  I had to only walk meters before finding the first bus heading to Batu Caves, as I was one of the last on board we pretty much went straight to the highway and were off. The traffic was a lot worse today and there were cars angle and double parked a good kilometre up the motorway from Batu…. Crazy !

When I arrived there seemed to be a lot less people than last night, still tens (or hundreds) of thousands around the site, but  the main entrance to the caves  was relatively calm today, it was only thinly packed ! There were a lot more stalls selling souvenirs and the usual cheap Chinese crap that seems to find its way into every market I have been to. There were also a few stalls selling the dreaded horns that were a real feature last night, bit seemed quieter today.

I walked back up the motorway ramp where we saw the small procession of guys with the hooked ropes in their backs. It was pretty deserted but I could see there was some action at the end of the ramp where we spent most of the time last night watching the blessings and the garlands being made and the guy being pierced. I snapped a couple of shots from the bridge.

The river here is where people were bathing last night, the rubbish was just everywhere.

 You will see more of this guy later.

And this guy !

Fortunately there were still a number of devotees getting ready to do the walk and I got a number of shots of the hooks being pushed into the skin. One thing you will notice, and it was not obvious last night was there is no blood. Writing this the next day I do not recall seeing any blood at all during the festival. I will let these pictures speak for themselves…

I spent a bit of time just watching and walking around, as it was extremely hot and sunny I finally wandered off with the intent of getting to the caves and doing the “steps”.

In one of the shots above you will see a guy standing there with a large curved sword, I didn’t see any weapons at all last night and was wondering what it was for, I soon found out…

The devotees  come to the steps from a number of preparation sites but all end up walking along the final section of road to enter through the main entrance to the caves, I am guessing they probably walk around a kilometre to the steps. As I said above the day was very hot and the closer we got to the steps the more breaks the devotees we taking. As they walked people mainly women stopped and gave the pierced guys drinks of milk from the cups they were carrying as part of their worship. The pierced guys then ‘blessed’ them – or something anyway !

This guy has three spears through his cheeks, everyone of those chains ends in a small hook in his skin. He is also carrying a large feathered kavadi (offering) that must weigh many kilos.

At the bottom of the steps, you can just see it in one of the photos below, there s is an entrance way the devotees must pass through, for those with the tall kavidas, they have to bend their tortured bodies down to pass underneath. In the middle of the entrance they stop to dance with their supporters, watching this was an absolute highight of my day, but we soon got moverd on by the police.

The devotees then climb the 272 steps the temple inside the cave. It was incredibly hot by the time I got to the walk through the crowds, and the suffering the devotees must be going through would be incredible.

The skewer through the cheeks or tongue is to prevent the devotee from sharing his pain with others.

Remember this guy from one of the early photos !

Once their offering has been presented the piercings come out.

I wandered around the cave for a little bit and then literally dripping with sweat I went back down the stairs, skulled a warm bottle of water and caught a bus back to the hostel. And there ended my TP experience.

The day was interesting certainly, so much easier to take photos than last night but it did ‘feel’ the same for a witness, I am sure the devotees and their friends and family do not share my simplistic point of view though !  The heat got to me definitely, the level of commercialism was frustrating, not that the festival was in anyway commercial, but the number of stalls and people trying to sell me cell phone contracts and pirated DVD’s was just not what I was there for.

Don’t get me wrong, it was still amazing ! and I am extremely glad I came bacthe day, was gok t KL for it. The night experience definately rocked my boat.

I grabbed a shower before heading off to the Petronas towers to meet up with Trefor.

Ah, NZ – famous for its curry houses

We went and dumped my gear in his 24th floor apartment, (the lift shows 23a as 4 is unlucky !) and soon headed for a wee lager at some of the local bars. Trefor had two old work colleagues  from his London days in the 90’s also turn up in KL as well so the four of us spent a few hours sucking down suds before heading back for some (for me, much needed) sleep.

An interesting final day in KL !

Thaipusam – night visit

Night 41, Monday, 06 Feb, Kuala Lumpur – Thaipusam Festival

As at least one person has probably guessed, I have been really avoiding trying to write this post as I just don’t know how to document in written form the experience that was attending Thaipasum (TP) at Batu Caves (BC) at night.

I wrote notes on the night to capture some of it, but it is now four days later and I am in Singapore. I picked myself up a (relatively speaking) cheap bottle of Shiraz and have some sounds cranking so hopefully the words will fly. I am hoping that my pictures have captured a tiny bit of the essence and intensity of the night, but I am no National Geographic photographer !

TP is a Hindu festival, primarily celebrated by the Tamil people, though each year there are more and more people of other races celebrating and this was quite obvious in KL with many Malay and Chinese people actively involved. The festival is celebrated in a number of centres but one of the biggest is at BC in KL, with well over a million people attending over the four days. The eve of the first day and the first day are the two most popular times. To save me some time describing the history, here is the wiki….

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thaipusam

Right, back to the beginning of the night, which is roughly 7.00 PM,  and lets crack straight into my daily whinge, it seems there is always one, and as usual it is going to follow a similar path – information ! Information on the festival is surprisingly sparse on the internet as well as locally. Much as I really liked the hostel guys they were totally useless when it came to information on anything, I would have thought they would have the details on such a major festival (and public holiday) that starts less than a km away !!! .  Surprisingly most of the other travellers in the hostel were not interested in it, so they were not much use either – why do people visit foreign countries with no interest in their culture ?

The festival starts with a parade from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, just up the road from the hostel and ends at BC about 15km away.  The parade kicks off around 12.30 am on the eve of the festival.  I was not expecting vast hoards on the street at 7 pm so was patient. Over the next three hours I went out numerous times and saw nothing on the street. At 11.30 PM two other guys from the hostel were heading out with a plan to stay out so I asked if I could join them and off we went. Mike from Canada and Giovanni from (you guessed it) Italy and I wandered up to the temple and it was still closed and dark, not a great sign. As we were standing around wandering what to do a car pulled up,  I went over and asked the Indian driver what time the parade left, he said it had – 23 hours ago….  Apparently the parade does start on the eve of the festival, just really really early on the eve. (Tip for anyone going in the future – you need to be there 24 hours before the official start date !). He also told us to head up to BC as there will be plenty happening, he also told us the train was running 24 hours a day during the festival.

We shot back to the hostel so I could grab my camera and some water and then hit the streets again to walk to the station, as we arrived on the main street near the station we found a bus with BC written on it so jumped on board, we were the only passengers. After waiting for a while we found that the bus doesn’t actually go to the caves until it is completely full. The bus finally left and did a few laps of little India and little China as we got increasingly twitchy. Eventually we stopped outside a closing restaurant and a busload of very ‘happy’ Hindu men piled on board and we were off !

We arrived close to BC about 12.30 am, the traffic was appalling and after a while of virtually not moving and BC well within site I got up and walked to the front of the bus and said we wanted to walk, this seemed to start a rush and we all got off the bus into a heaving throng of scooters, barely moving cars and throngs of people heading in all directions at once, scores of people had plastic horns and the night air was a blast of noise.  I know it kind of sounds like going to Eden Park on the train to see the All Blacks play a test against the Aussies but it wasn’t anything like that at all

We followed the crowd that was heading into the site and soon found ourselves packed into a massive scrum of happy, smiling people, lots and lots of men, but numerous family groups and many dressed in what was their finest dress. The three of us are all quite tall so stood out like sore thumbs in the crowd. Before we left I was a bit concerned that some would see us as voyeurs to their special, holy moment and we would be made to feel unwelcome, but this was so far from my experience, a lot of people smiled, waved and said hello and seemed so pleased that we were interested in their celebrations. We spoke to many people over the night, got some good viewing tips (would never have ended up by the river without being told to go there) and people were so keen to hear what we thought of the event and our experience, one of so many things I found humbling.

Our first viewing point was almost opposite the entrance to the temple area, and it was heaving with people, being quite tall we sort of had some sort of view of the proceedings. The devotees come from numerous start points around the site but all come down one final section of road into the temple grounds.

It was very hard to take photos here, quite dark but lots of bright lights to throw exposures off, and well, it wasn’t if I was going to set up a tripod and ask people to stand still for a long exposure !  flash was used on occasion. We soon saw a number of devotees coming through with their kavadi (offering). As you would have read in the wiki (you did read it didn’t you ?) these can take many forms, and the first of these huge feathered towers (I can think of no more apt description) came past.

It was quite warm – a woman collapsed in front of me from the heat, but we all formed a circle around her, someone produced some water and someone else a fan and she was soon helped up and off – I am so glad I am six foot and reasonable access to air. These men were carrying a large, completely top heavy, weight, with hooks piercing their skin, in this heat and for hours. We were watching the parade for an hour and it moved less than 50 metres.

Finally I managed to get close enough to get a couple of shots of one of the devotees with hooks, which to put my voyeuristic hat on, was what I was there for.

After an hour in the throng we decided to move further up the road way, as were passing through one of the many small areas where families were sleeping the night a man stopped us for a chat and pointed out a spot we should head to down by the river, where the men are blessed and the hooks and skewers are done. He was so pleased to find that three strangers from three different continents had come together to visit his people’s festival in his continent. The atmosphere was amazing, I know my photos do not show it at all, but there was a real feel of joy and celebration in the air.

We walked down what appeared to be a motorway onramp which had a mix of devotees who were heading to the preparation area.

And some on their walk.

When I saw this group approaching I jumped over the mid-lane barrier in the motorway to get some closer shots, others were  there and no-one seemed to mind and I ended up being extremely close, I didn’t want to offend by taking a million shots, so snapped a few and left. But I was very close, I could feel the intensity from these men, the shared pain and purpose, the devotion,  it was unlike anything I have experienced before and I really cannot describe it at all. I have never seen or head anything like it in the flesh before. It was just amazingly intense, powerful, alien, but also full of life, of celebration. It looks painful, and you could see pain in their eyes and in their bodies, but mostly you could feel pride, I won’t say joy – maybe celebration is more apt…  When I crossed back to Mike and Giovanni I was almost shaking with the experience.

We carried on down the road until we reached a smallish area partially under the on-ramp and by the canal, it was utterly heaving with people and this area encapsulated the TM experience. It was complete sensory overload, with every sense being assaulted all at the same time, it was confusing, it was extremely intense it was everything.

Imagine every sense being battered at once – a number of the devotees had a drumming group and leader who would lead a chant and there were a large number of seemingly independent groups going as well. As we were all jammed together it was a cacophony of sound, like being at a rock festival and having five stages playing around you all at once, somehow it all made sense. Adding to the noise were a number of supporters blasting toots from the ubiquitous (and eventually very annoying) plastic horns. Each devotee had a small shrine with incense burning and a number had small fires going, so there was a good layer of smoke rolling through the site. It was so packed that we were constantly jammed up against the people around us and none of the people around us looked like us, or us them, and they didn’t mind at all.  And finally the sights – just so much, colour, action, scenes so un-western that you didn’t know where to look. Every sense was in action, almost overwhelming, very intense, very powerful, very alien.

A small group of women were making garlands, I am not sure how they weren’t crushed.

Blessings

A devotee being hooked up.

We watched this guy preparing for his walk for a long time. He was part of a small group, they danced, they hugged, he blessed some of his supporters. The intensity of their preparations, which include fasting, special diets among other activities over the preceding days puts the devotees into an elevated space, the look in their eyes is just the most amazing thing, they call members of their entourage out and bless them and the fervour passes on, sorry I cannot describe it adequately at all, but it was amazing. This man had a very slow and special walk he undertook as his devotion.

These guys were in the same group

My fave shot… there was something massively primal in this hug, you could feel it from ten feet away.

It was soon almost 4.00 Am and we were hungry and tired so decided to head back into town and the hostel. We wandered back past the entrance to BC and it was still packed so changed direction and aimed for the train station, which we discovered was not running!

To get across the tracks we followed a crowd and climbed up the side of a locked over bridge, squeezed through the fence, crossed the tracks, then through another fence to drop down on to the road on the other side. This just added to the whole radicalness of the experience for me, loved it !  We  found our way to a bus and got to bed about 4.30…

So, what did I think ?

The most intense thing I have done, ever. Words cannot describe it. There were a lot of people, hundreds of thousands – and I would have seen maybe a dozen other westerners. It was loud, it was full of smells, it was close and tight and I was constantly banging into people, the scenes were amazing, the ‘feel’ was one of celebration, of a shared pain and a shared joy. It was utterly alien to my wee sheltered New Zealand world.

On the bus on the way in I was – hmm, scared is not the right word, but almost. This put me into so many places I don’t like, and the crazy thing was I think I was the least concerned of all of us when we arrived. So rising above my own discomfort and enjoying the festival for what it really is, a huge celebration of the human spirit, where race and wealth or caste seemed to irrelevant and celebration was the order of the day (or night in this case).

It was fucking awesome ! and I am so utterly glad I went – I almost didn’t, so thanks Mike and Giovanni !

PS. Excuse the swearing mum.

Cameron Highlands Adventure tour

Day 40, Sunday, 05 Feb, Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands.

Up earlyish for an omelette and coffee breakfast and to get ready for my adventure tour. There are a load of tour companies in Tanah Rata and I just picked the one next to my dump of a hotel, Kangs Tours. Kangs are pretty big in the backpack scene in town, running the last remaining big hostel as well as an inn and the tours, this meant there was a large bunch of people on the tour and a good mix of young and not quite so young, so people to talk too – yay, it seems like it has been a while.

I thought my tour had 4wding but it didn’t, which was probably OK as it seemed to be a very short 4wd trip and the vehicles came back clean, considering it was wet in the jungle I have no idea where they went.  Anyways, back to my day. We non-4wders piled into a reasonably comfortable van and were driven for about an hour and half (as you would expect with no info on where we were going or how long it would take !) We eventually stopped on the side of the road and waited for the 4wds  unlike the rest of Malaysia, I would say the temp was around 18/19 degrees even in the sun. I had my trail shoes and was gagging to go run !

I hooked up with a couple of young Belgian guys, one of them had a tiki tattoo on his leg so I went and asked him about it and  introduced myself as a kiwi.  We chatted for most of the early part of the walk up a 4wd track, I was really hoping this wasn’t going to be the two hour jungle trek as it was like walking along Long Rd in the Waitaks, so not particularly interesting or challenging. We soon got into a bit of nice single track, in parts it was a bit like how I remember Gibbons Track with a free flowing stream running down it ! that was really the only mud though.

There were a couple of nice and rickety bamboo bridges to cross. (I should have sucked that belly in a bit harder!)

The forest surrounding here is heavily infested with bamboo and wild ginger (not referring to the girl in the photo) and the bamboo is massive with huge trunks and very tall, there was still a good amount of native forest to see.

The bamboo has been lain on the track in a lot of the muddy patches.

After about an hour of walking we got to the fun part with some rocky, rooty trail and a couple of cool log bridges, needless to say it took a while to get the whole group through! The water is reasonably “clean”, just looks like coffee due to the colour of the sooil washed into it.

 Our guide,  happy fellow !

The rafflesia is not a flower, it is a fungus, the biggest in the world (maybe ?) they are unique to SE Asia, are quite rare and intensely studied. They take 6-7 months to bloom from a bud and only bloom for a few days, as they die they emit a pungent stench, akin to rotting flesh apparently, which attracts insects to it, than then take the pollen and spread it.On the walk we saw two rafflesia, this one was four days old and was on the verge of dying, it had to start to smell.

After another ten minute walk further up stream we came to the site of the second one, which was two days old, and you can see how big they are!

From there we walked back down to the vehicles about an hour away, the day was warming up a bit but was still comparatively cool, If only Borneo had been this temperature!

After a drink and shoe washing stop we walked over to the local village, the tour included “an aboriginal village” – this turned out to be ten or so concrete houses with no one about and was a complete waste of time !  But we did get a demonstration and brief talk on the blow pipe. Some of us had a go but most of the group didn’t. Weird… 

The ride back to Tanah Rata hit the traffic from yesterday though it was a lot worse and took us almost two half hours to get through. Still I had nothing better to do.

After a shower and a wee lie down I wandered back to Sri Brinchang, my favourite eating place in town and had a most delicious paneer masala and naan for dinner. I had discovered at breakie that they had w-fi so I posted an older blog post I had prepared earlier over a beer.

Back to the hotel early and watched “Fast and furious 5” which was as bad as it sounds but did keep me entertained till I turned the light off and failed to sleep again.

It was a pretty good day, but I am really missing company at meal times now. Hopefully once I am in the Phillies in a few days I can settle into a hostel for a time and hang, it has been almost two weeks since Jerome and I parted company.

Cave temples of Ipoh

Day 38, Friday, 03 Feb, Penang – Ipoh

Ipoh is a city of 700,000 in the state of Perak, inland and south of Penang. The city was started in the 1870’s to support a rapidly booming Chinese population that came to develop, own and work in the nearby tin mines. It doesn’t really have much of  claim to fame and I going to say the much smaller Penang was a lot more lively, though it is Friday in Ipoh so a lot of the Islamic businesses are closed.

Anyway, back to the start of the day ! The night wasn’t too bad considered the volume and sheer awfulness of the cacophony from next door, thankfully after some long and rambling, but still loud, speeches it all shut down around midnight and I slept like a dead man till the alarm went off at 6:30. I had allowed myself thirty minutes to brush teeth, get dressed and walk the couple of kms to the bus station. I am going to say even at that time of day power walking with a 15 kg pack on your back and a day pack on your front works up a sweat. On the subject of day pack on the front backpackers, I used to think they looked stupid, I still do, but I am now one of them – it works.

Highly unusually for Malaysia, the bus was late…  something that is very usual though and one of my big annoyances is, I asked how long it takes to get to Ipoh, I was told 2 ½ to 3 hours, which in fact is pretty much the driving time to Ipoh. What they don’t say is the trip actually takes about 4 hours because you stop and wait for 30 minutes in other bus depots, twice. So my expected arrival in Ipoh was around 10 -1 10.30, we arrived at 11.45, at the express bus terminal which is about 15 minutes from town by local bus, which I caught for the first time today !  Yes…

My other pet gripe is lack of information. We got to the first bus stop and were ushered off the bus, no reason why, nowhere to go, even the Malay girl was confused. We stood vacantly around for a while until someone came and swept the bus, we then all got on and sat there for 20 minutes, waiting…

I had planned on staying at the Station hotel in Ipoh, as it was supposed to be a lovely old English colonial hotel, though a bit run down, hence a reasonable price. In fact it was so run down it was closed….

The station cafe was open so I headed in there for my first coffee of the day and to check the guide book for more hotel options – of which they are not many apparently. I met this older American guy in there (and have forgotten his name) and he gave me his map of Ipoh and directions to the hotel he was staying in, in case my chosen one from Lonely Planet, the Embassy didn’t work out.  Which it almost didn’t, I couldn’t find the Embassy, so after over an hour of wandering around downtown Ipoh looking for accommodation that was not too expensive I realised there are two roads named Sultan and I had been looking on the wrong one, so put right I soon stumbled dripping sweat into the Embassy Hotel and took my 12 dollar room. Once I changed the sheets, chased out the geckos and realised that all water, including I suspect some from the loo ends up on the bathroom floor, the room was sorted and mine for the night. For a change I had somewhere to hang washing !

As I had pretty watched seen all the sites of Ipoh,  I had planned on being brave and taking a local bus to the temple caves just out of town.  As I had lost a few hours with the bus and finding my hotel I just decided to take a cab as it was only $4. My cabbie, Sam, was a great guy, sister lived in Auckland and he was a retired cop with Ok English, nice to chat with someone after quite a few days of being alone.

All around Ipoh are a number of small limestone hills, randomly dotted about, I would love to have been here to see them before they stuck a small industrial city in the middle of them. A number of the hills have Buddhist temples and shrines in them.  The Perak Tong temple complex was amazing, not particularly old being started by Perak Tong in 1926, but built inside and above a cave system in the limestone hills.

Inside there are a number of paintings on the cave walls, along with half a dozen large statues of Buddha figures.

Come here young man !

The alien scared the crap out of me though, I thought it was just a movie!

There is also numerous steep staircases to pagodas scattered around the top of the often jagged hill and this quite cool shrine.

Sadly the view from the top is dominated by an ugly industrial wasteland infront of those beautiful limestone hills, tragic !!!

I was quite impressed with the place, especially as it was one of my key reasons for coming to Ipoh. I will aim to get to one of the other temples tomorrow. After the temple it was 4.00 PM I was very hot and dehydrated and had not eaten all day so when I went outside to wait for a ride back to town I decided whatever came by first would be ride, bus or cab. I got a cab, it was the shittest cab I have been in in my life, I am fairly sure we just made it back – it is only 6km..  I snacked at a hawker stall on the local speciality Kway teow, which I happen to like, bonus ! and then went to McDonalds for a shake as I knew it had free wi-fi from when I had walked past it earlier in the day.

Strike action ! Just like home.I then wandered back to my room about 6.00, and did not much, but I did have a hip flask of Famous Grouse scotch to keep my spirits up as I watched The Mechanic on my laptop, what a great movie, well all things considered, a great movie…

Am currently in Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. My hotel does not have any internet so I am in one of the Indian restaurants that has free wi-fi. I have just had the best paneer mattar ever !