A Travellerspoint blog

August 2014

Living on Koh Phangan

sunny 35 °C
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I left Chumphon early with the intention of catching a train to Surat Thani and a boat to the Islands North of there, Koh Phangan. However, I missed the train and so caught a minibus instead! I arrived in Surat Thani and waited for an hour to catch the last boat to the Island. Watching the sun set over Ang Thong marine park (a collection of small protected islands) was the highlight of the journey and made the start of my adventure to Koh Phangan memorable.
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I landed on the Island at 8pm and caught a tuk tuk going to Baan Tai to stop at a place I had found online, Echo Beach Backpackers. I don't really know my reasoning for choosing here (think it had something to do with there being a pool table in the bar) but I was going to find out soon that checking into this hostel was the best decision I made on my trip!
The beach of Echo Beach!
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I checked in around 9pm and was immediately approached by a group who were planning on going to a local party; Eden, on one of the beaches around the island. I showered and got ready quickly to join them! We travelled by scooters to Haad Rin beach, about 20 minutes drive away, I bunked a lift off Ryan, but as there were not enough bikes for people, Marty jumped on the back too! Making it three of us on one bike the whole way from Baan Tai to Haad Rin; a long and winding road with steep inclines and descents. A crazy night so far! We arrived on the beach and each bought a bucket, literally a bucket filled with alcohol! We drank on the beach and when the time came (you can't be too late to one of these parties...) we got a boat over to a secluded bay where Eden was. The setting for the party was incredible; clambering over huge rocks and on wooden stilted walkways into a dancefloor built over the sea. But it was the people that I was with that night that made it for me... We were there until the sunrise, at which point we all jumped into the sea in our underwear! We got a boat back at 9am and slept most of the day!
A selection of lovely buckets...
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Lina, Chris, Chelsea, Jacob, Me, Dave, Marty, the Eden week 1 crew!
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In the boat on the way over to Eden
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The venue for Eden
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Party on the rocks in the morning!
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The following days rolled together with the group of us visiting local beaches, snorkelling, playing pool and partying more. We visited 'Secret Beach' a beautiful little bay fringed by rocks and coral with amazing snorkelling by the rocks.
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Chelsea, Chris, Dave and I, with Marty at the front
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Slowly, and one-by-one, the group left the island, but it was constantly renewed by new people arriving. I also got to know a few people living and working on the island, since Echo seemed to be a hub for local people to come to relax and socialise during the day, either around the pool table or in the air conditioned cinema room...

Jess, Michael, Ryan and I visited Koh Ma, a tiny island in the far North-West of the island connected to the mainland by a think strip of sand. Motorbiking across the island here was amazing, surrounded by beautiful scenery. We took a brief stop off along the way to play archery!
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Ryan, Michael and Jess
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One of the reasons Koh Phangan is well known as a island for tourism is due to it's monthly full moon parties. However, there are countless other parties on beaches and in the jungle throughout the rest of the month. Of these, the most popular are the half moon parties in the Jungle. My first experience of this was incredible, once again, because of the people I was with; Vince from the bar at Echo, Justine the new Frenchie, Ryan who also casually worked at Echo and Rob and Beth who live on the island and hang at Echo. There were thousands of people at the main stage of the party, however I preferred the music at a smaller Tech-House stage (as did everyone else at Echo) and so this is where we stayed
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The music during the night started going a bit boring at around 5am and so we went back to Echo for an after party.
Beth, Justine, Myself and Deamon (with Zack in the corner... poor Zack!)
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Resident DJ Vince entertained us all
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My favourite party that I went to on the island was Maya, a relatively small event compared to half/full moon, with fire performers and usually great DJs. This party was weekly, so I did end up going to a few :)
Fire dancers starring Sarah, one of the Echo crew
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Zack, Justine, Myself and Hugo
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Taken by the resident photographer!
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The few days I had planned to stay on the island quickly turned into a few weeks, and my flight home which I had booked for 26th August was looming.... I caved in, not feeling ready to stop my adventure, and feeling in love with the beautiful island and people, I rearranged my flight to the end of October and planned to stay on Koh Phangan for the rest of my thai visa. To couple with this, Mark; the owner of Echo, offered me a free bed at Echo in exchange for helping out a bit over full moon which was coming up. It was a pleasure to be part of the workings of such an amazing hostel and I spent the 4 days over full moon helping out where I could.

After the full moon period and once the island had settled down again, I decided to try something I had never done before and rented a scooter of my own.... It actually was very easy to ride and I loved the freedom of being able to do what I wanted and go wherever I could. I spent the whole day driving around the island before meeting some of the Echo lot down at the beach in the afternoon for sunset.
Ryan, Tom, Jen and Michael
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The next few days rolled into one as I began to really relax and get used to staying in one place after travelling for such a long time. Koh Phangan began to feel like home... The beautiful natural surroundings were hard to ignore, but most of all it was the people that I met at Echo that welcomed me so genuinely and openly. In fact there is a whole different atmosphere on the island, more relaxed and more of a sense of community that I felt almost instantly when I arrived. And let's not forget the great parties on the island... it really does have everything. So I fell in love, like so many people do, I lost my heart to Koh Phangan. I hope it won't be too long before I find myself back there.

Posted by Libbytes 04:58 Archived in Thailand Tagged beach party koh_phangan Comments (0)

First taste of Malaysia

all seasons in one day 35 °C
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I left Koh Phangan not because I wanted to (I could have stayed forever....), but because I had to... My thai visa had expired. I caught a very early morning boat/bus combo to take me all the way to Georgetown on the island of Penang in Malaysia. Only after paying a fine for overstaying my visa... eeek.

Once in Georgetown I headed towards Clockwise hostel which was unfortunately fully booked. Luckily, Claire, who organised the hostel, agreed to sleep on the sofa to accommodate me and we went out together where I had my first taste of Malaysian food; soon to become my all time favourite cuisine...

My first full day in Georgetown I walked around the water front and headed into the ancient Chinese clan villages and stilted houses built on jetties out into the sea. Walking through one of the quieter clan jetties felt a little odd, people were just getting on with their lives or hanging out in the back yards. I didn't want to take pictures of them, and in some cases I felt like I was imposing on their personal space. So I headed to the larder clan jetty, also the more touristy. Here, most of the houses had been converted into little shops for snacks or tourist trinkets. The jetty was so busy here, I think I arrived just when a coach load of package tourists arrived and so this jetty was uncomfortable for opposite reasons.

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There were even Chinese temples in the villages
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Giant otters playing in the sea
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A view of the spectacular bridge connecting the island of Penang to the mainland.

From the clan jetties it was just a short walk to the modern cultural areas of Georgetown to look at the amazing street art. Along my way I was stopped by a group of locals to pose for some photos and they left me with a gift of 'Langsat' a small plum-like fruit which had segments and large stones like mangosteens. I had seen and tried them before, but I never knew what they were called until now!
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Building on my skills developed on KPG, I decided to rent a scooter! Driving in Georgetown was so crazy compared to the quiet roads of KPG, not to mention the insane number of one-way streets. I drove to the mall to do a spot of retail therapy and fit in with the fashions of Malaysia. On the way there I "accidentally" drove through a police road block which took me by surprise. On instinct I just waved back to the police officer!! I think I could've blagged my way out of it anyway!
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My bike
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I got treated to a meal by Ken who rented me the bike...
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Lok Lok was one of my favourite street stalls in Malaysia; you pick your skewers and cook them at the stall yourself either in frying oil or water baths, you get a paper plate and unlimited spicy peanut sauce. At the end you give the stall owner your empty skewers which are all colour coded based on price. Each skewer was no more than 40p!

The next day the rain was torrential, and so I started with coffee and a cake at a local 'cat cafe', where you could cuddle some posh kitties over your coffee! After the rain stopped I took my bike along the coastal road to one of the main beaches on the island; Batu Ferrengi, before continuing on towards the island's national park. Unfortunately, due to the rain and the fact that I stopped about 20 times along the road to take photos and look at the view, I arrived too late to enter the park... Not like me at all...!!
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Batu Ferrengi
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Jetty at the national park

That evening after searching the internet for a high rated restaurant; Ivy Nonya House. I treated myself to the first of many beef rendangs (probably the most expensive meal of my trip so far, the meal cost me all of £8!). The rendang was fantastic and set the bar very high for all future rendangs!
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My final day in Georgetown I drove my bike through some of the local residential areas towards Penang Hill and the botanical gardens. The freedom of driving wherever you want on a scooter was just incredible and allowed for a more natural way to sightsee and discover the city. The buildings in the suburbs of Georgetown were very bizarre, like the concrete tower blocks from the 70's, built so high in concrete painted white the mould and staining on the buildings made them look awful, but the people living in this areas are what made it beautiful to explore. From the road I saw an amazing looking building partially up the hill and so headed towards it just from sight... As I climbed the hill up towards it I found that it was a huge Buddhist temple complex; Ke Lok Si, which was well kept and had great views out over the city.

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A cow just chilling out at the side of a busy main road!
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White concrete tower blocks dominated the area
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Spotting the temple through the trees
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The road appeared to continue on past the temple and there was some kind of cycling race going up there, so I decided to inspect further... Passing tired cyclists pushing themselves as hard as they could up the steep incline on a motorised scooter shouldn't have been fun, but every single person had a massive smile on their face and said 'Hi' to me as I passed. The road got very steep at one point, but then ended at a beautiful reservoir with an even better view point of the city... I relaxed here for a few minutes but left after I started to attract a lot of attention from the finished cyclists who all wanted photos with me!
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For my evening meal I once again decided to splash out and went to another high rated restaurant I found online; 'Mama's Nonya House'. I sat at a table by myself, but before I had finished looking at the menu I was invited to join a table of 3 Malaysian business people on a business meal, one lady from Georgetown and two guys from KL. They were surprised to see me travelling alone and asked me many questions about where I had been and what had led me there. After the small inquisition the conversation turned casual, and we ordered multiple dishes off the menu to share, one of which was lemon fish head soup, which I did try but was pretty horrific! The group were really lovely, honest people, who were just genuinely interested in getting to know a foreign tourist. There was no scam, no trying to rip me off, no ulterior motive at all... in fact, they wouldn't let me pay my share at the end, for which I was very grateful. Unfortunately, my camera battery had not lasted the day, as it would be lovely to have a photo memory of this meal.

This was the second meal that I had paid for me in 3 days in Malaysia, and I was going to find that it would by-no-means be the last.... the relationship of the Malaysian people with tourists was so so different compared to what I had experienced in Vietnam or Cambodia for example. I was not being exploited, I paid the same as any Malaysian person, people seemed to be honest and but curious... I assumed that this was due to the wealth of the country, but I guess I would see as my travels continued...

That night Claire from Clockwise and I went for a few drinks at the local reggae bar, where there was live music of a mixed duo. Their singing almost brought us close to tears on several occasions! After this we headed to a skybar across town and had some swanky cocktails with another great view out over the city!
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I loved Georgetown, not only was the city full of art and culture, but also some cool bars and amazing food. But by far the best experience of Malaysia so far was the interactions I had had with the local people, It was a great first impression of Malaysia!

Posted by Libbytes 06:31 Archived in Malaysia Tagged penang georgetown Comments (0)

Living like a local in Ipoh

semi-overcast 30 °C
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From Georgetown I decided to take a bus to the city of Ipoh, not a place in Malaysia that is well-renowned for tourism, but it was only a short journey away and the bus was cheap! The bus dropped me at a bus-station that was quite a way out of town, but I didn't feel stranded for long; local people in the station showed me the way to the public bus into the city centre which cost about 20p!

Once in the centre I checked into an awful hostel... probably the worst I stayed in my whole trip, small with no window, pretty foul smelling and overpriced... but it was the only hostel in Ipoh that I could find. That evening I ate at an Indian restaurant, and on the way back to the hostel bumped into 2 swiss guys, Greg and Fady. I guess just cause we were all tourists, they said hi to me in the street and we chatted for a while before exchanging details to perhaps meet somewhere else in Malaysia since they were heading off.

The following day I planned to head out to some of the local temples and caves, but I was finding it difficult to work out how to get there. As I mentioned, Ipoh is not a busy tourist town, and so the infrastructure to the sights is practically non-existent, and I couldn't find anywhere to rent a bike or scooter even the locals didn't know how to get there. I eventually found one guy who was in the reception of my hostel talking to the manager who knew which bus to get to the temples, so I headed out.

However, I decided to go and grab some food first since and headed off in the opposite direction to the bus stop... a few minutes later, the guy who gave me the directions caught up to me in the street, concerned that I has misunderstood his directions. When I explained that I was getting lunch, he got excited to take me to his favourite kari mee (curry noodles) restaurant which we said was just around the corner. I figured that it was worth a try, and it didn't seem like he was trying to trick me. So we did go just around the corner to a little oudoors stall which was quite busy, and the kari mee was.... amazing!
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This is what sparked my addiction to kari mee, which I then had almost everyday for lunch!

At lunch, I got talking with Ikram and he asked if I was still thinking of visiting the caves... I was. Ikram asked if he could join me in visiting the caves since he had never been before. I was a little doubtful at first, but based on our conversations I agreed and we went to the Sam Poh Tong Caves in Ikram's car. From here, we drove to Gua Tempurung, a massive cave system, and joined a walking tour through the caves which was full of local University students (who again all wanted photos with me, as the only tourist..). Ikram and I had a fantastic day, it really was fun. In our journeys between the caves we discussed the differences between our cultures and mainly religion. Ikram was muslim and couldn't believe that I didn't believe in any higher being. He kept asking, "but what do you think happens when you die?!", he couldn't get his head around it, and in the end we both just laughed about it!

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A beautiful view of limestone karsts.... oh, and a kfc sign
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It is good luck to release tortoises within the temple grounds, and there were hundreds of them here (quite sad really)
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After the caves, Ikram took me for some cendol, (a malaysian dessert of shaved ice, coconut cream, sticky rice and sugary sweets... very odd), before dropping me off back at my hostel.
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Back in the hostel I met 2 new additions to my dorm room; a Japanese guy called Takaaki and a Chinese guy called John. we arranged to go out for food together and so headed out to a local hawker market. The satay and peanut sauce we shared was pretty good, and dirt cheap.
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After our starter, we met Ikram at a small restaurant where he introduced us all to cheese naans with curry sauce, before driving us to a place where we go a make your own fish medley... which if I'm honest, I wasn't a fan of. Most of the items where pretty fake tasting, like the artificial fish balls and fish sticks (a little like crab sticks but worse!). Ikram dropped us back at our hostel and after chatting before bed, we all planned to go to the bus station the next day to move on...

Ipoh was not a touristy city by any means. I was very lucky to have found Ikram who played as a personal tour guide and malaysian-culture educator! After speaking to both John and Taka, I found that their experiences of visiting the caves were very different to mine; a 2 hour bus ride there and an expensive taxi journey back... didn't sound like the fun I had. Also neither of them had even heard about the large Gua Tempurung caves, it seems that it is more of a malaysian-tourist attraction rather than one for foreigners. I was beginning to feel the true warmth and hospitality of the Malaysian people. The day with Ikram was so fun, what's more, he insisted on paying for everything that day and wouldn't accept any of my money... there was once again, no scamming, not ulterior motives, just a genuine helpfulness and curiosity of tourists and foreign cultures (plus he also wanted to visit the caves and skive-off work!)

You could say that I took a risk... You are always taught not to go anywhere with strangers, especially strange men, and especially not in a foreign country, but the whole day just seemed natural. There were no apparent ulterior motives, I was never once suspicious, and I trusted my instinct to judge the situation. If I hadn't gone with Ikram, based on public opinion or risk assessment, then I don't know what I would have done... spent all day on hot public transport and potentially needing to be bailed out using expensive taxis....?!

I mean, it is easy to say it was the correct decision in hindsight, but I did learn a lot from this experience. The correct advice is to always keep yourself safe - at all times, not to put yourself in vulnerable situations, BUT - to trust your instincts and to trust humanity. Each individual should be judged separately, not everybody is out to get you.

Posted by Libbytes 16:56 Archived in Malaysia Tagged cave ipoh Comments (0)

Feeling the cold in Cameron Highlands

rain 20 °C
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From Ipoh, John and I headed from the local bus station out towards the Cameron Highlands. The road there wound through the mountains and jungle and was one of the most incredible roads yet. The higher we climbed into the interior of peninsular Malaysia, the worse the weather got... foggy and misty looking out over the valleys from the road. When we finally arrived in Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands region, the sky was completely grey and it was raining heavily... A nice difference from all the heat, well, for about 10 minutes before I realised I only had one pair of full length cotton trousers and one jumper! By the time we checked into a hostel in the town it was late, so we headed straight for food at an indian restaurant which did delicious naan bread.
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The next day the rain was still relentless, but John and I decided to try and brave it anyway. We got as far as a coffee shop where we had scones, strawberry jam and cream with local tea (well, coffee for me). The climate in the Cameron Highlands makes it perfect for growing many of Malaysia's fruit and vegetables, but in particular, strawberries, which were bought to the region by the British - hence the influence of locally produced strawberry jam with a cream tea.
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After chilling for a bit the rain died down enough for a walk down into one of the valleys for some strawberry picking and sightseeing...
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Chocolate coloured river!
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On the way back to the town from the valley the heavens really did open up and we managed to find some shelter in a local golf pavilion when we stayed for about half an hour before sucking it up and just getting wet... we arrived back at the hostel very cold and very very wet! After a hot shower and a nap to recover we met some of the other travellers staying at our hostel; Chin, Romy, Roelie and Bryant. We made arrangements to meet up the following day to visit the tea plantations and hang out.
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Surprisingly (and luckily), the following day was actually lovely weather, and so John, Romy, Roelie and I caught a taxi over to one of the local tea plantations that is open to the public. In the plantation was a small museum and information showing how the tea is dried and packaged on the site, but the main attraction was the views of the plantation out over the valley. After a quick pit-stop of cake and coffee we took a walk up one of the hills which we heard lead to a mossy forest and even better views over the valley.
Cake and coffee
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We managed to hitch-hike back into town, which meant all 4 of us squeezing into the back seats!
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When we arrived back the weather turned slightly and so we began a game of pictionary, which slowly attracted lots of people! I was the best by default... as the only English player it was easy to guess words such as 'Wellington boot', that nobody else had ever heard of!
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After the game, Chin took us out for some traditional steam boat, a Malaysian variation of Chinese hot pot.
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The evening carried on late into the night, with far too much Malaysian vodka being drunk... the next day was NOT a good one!

The Cameron Highlands region of Malaysia were such a contrast to the rest of asia I had visited, and reminded me somewhat of Da Lat in Vietnam, with the cooler climate and fruit and vegetable growing farms. However, it felt slightly more commercial than the rest of Malaysia, with more group tours, open tea plantations charging a fortune for coffee and all the gimmicky 'pick-your-own' strawberry farms. But this meant that I was able to meet lots of other travellers who I keep in touch with even now, and there was no denying the beauty of the plantations.

Posted by Libbytes 13:54 Archived in Malaysia Tagged cameron_highlands tanah_rata Comments (0)

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