Monday, February 20, 2012

Monkeying in Malaysia.... just what the doctor ordered

As I write this, exactly one month has passed since we left for what would prove to be the most wonderful trip of my life thus far.  But leaving had been the easy part, as the whole voyage had taken quite a bit of preparation.  The process started with booking the plane tickets which finalized in late November: We would start by flying to Malaysia, spend a few days in Singapore and end with a stay in Thailand.  Then came the reading and planning bit. The better part of December was spent researching about things to do in each country and how to get there as well as finding accommodations.  Buses, trains, ferries, hostels, excursions, scooters would all have to somehow fit into our two week getaway.  How would it be possible to do and see everything we wanted to in such a short time?  Indeed, much planning was required.  I found that, the Lonely planet guides and of course, the Internet were huge helps figuring out all the details.  By the time January rolled around, we just had a few last puzzle pieces left to put in place.  So after finishing up our two week winter camps at school, we were finally ready to embark on this amazing journey.
First Destination:  Malaysia!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

For the first leg of our vacation, we wanted to relax and recharge our batteries and not have anything to worry about.  Our friend had recommended Pulau Pangkor as the perfect island beach retreat so that's exactly where we chose to start off our getaway.  We left our apartment at around 7:30pm on Saturday, January 14th and took the airport bus to Incheon, a red eye Air Asia flight to Malaysia, a shuttle bus to Sitiawan, a taxi to the Lumut wharf, a ferry to Pulau Pangkor, and finally a taxi to Nipah guesthouse, where we arrived around 3:00pm on Sunday; a journey of close to 20 hours but well worth it!  The only mishap happened when we arrived at LCCT.  As we were awaiting my brand new backpack, everyone seemed to find their luggage except for me.  When the conveyor belt finally stopped, only one bag remained... and it was identical to mine, only it wasn't.  I knew right away what had happened so I asked for some help. With a stroke of luck, it turns our the girl who had mistakenly grabbed mine had just turned on her cell phone and the airport attendant was able to reach her.  As we exchanged bags, we were both very relieved to have sorted it out before leaving the airport.

We were extremely impressed with our guesthouse and the staff.  Alicia and her husband took care of everything and were very helpful whenever we had questions. Our A-frame cottage was also exceptionally clean and proved to be the perfect place to spend the first nights of our adventure.  If you ever find yourself in Pulau Pangkor, make sure to check them out!
Nipah Guesthouse

My faithful backpack I nearly lost before even using (70,000KRW)
After freshening up, we headed straight to the beach for some cocktails and some long awaited relaxation.  Equipped with a beach pad and our books, we ended up spending the rest of the day just lounging on the sand or sitting at Big Daddy's (the only open restaurant on the beach) sipping our drinks.  The best part was that we almost had an entire beach to ourselves, save for a few other tourists.  On weekends, locals invade the island but during the week and low season it is almost completely isolated.  As the sun was setting on the first day of our trip, we enjoyed some local cookery while taking in the breathtaking scenery. Oh!  How life was good!
Our table at Big Daddy's

That's the life
The sunset
The next morning after breakfast (which was provided everyday at Nipah Guesthouse), we rented a scooter and set off to explore the other parts of the island.  Pulau Pangkor has a mere 6-8km circumference and it would take no longer than half an hour to ride.  Still, the island has very distinct and contrasting areas.  We rode through more populated tourist areas, impoverished-looking towns, and unoccupied jungles; to old Dutch and English ruins, and a suspended bridge; by an incredibly foul-smelling landfill, beautiful wharves, many white sandy beaches and even a monkey crossing the road. Even though the landscape offered a very picturesque scenery, the strong contrast between wealth and poverty left us with a stronger appreciation for the things we sometimes take for granted.  Unfortunately, this would be the case for many of the places we visited in the next couple of weeks.  So while we would not let it hinder our vacation, it would nonetheless serve as a reminder of how good we actually have it.

For lunch, we returned to Big Daddy's  on the beach and ended up spending the rest of the day there, reading, napping, sunbathing (or burning), and once in a while dipping into the Malacca Strait.  When the sun started to set, we got back on the scooter to try and find a better vantage point.  We also attempted to find another restaurant for dinner but, since nothing caught our eye, we ended up returning to Big Daddy's!  And why not?  A beach-side restaurant with great food, great drinks and an incredible serene atmosphere was as good a place to dine as we were likely to find.  With the votive candles burning on the tables, the sounds of the surf and soft music serenading us, the setting was truly romantic and relaxing.

Some local cuisine (Satay and pita sandwich)
Candlelight and spring rolls.  Doesn't get more romantic than that
A millipede decided to come great us.  It wasn't the grossest bug we'd seen 
Our last full day in Pulau Pangkor was spent doing much of the same: relaxing, reading, napping, sunbathing and catching the sunset on the beach (although we did rent a sea kayak to go explore Coral Island that was sitting just a few hundred yards from our beach).  The next morning, we packed, said our goodbyes to the wonderful staff at Nipah Guesthouse and jumped into our cab to the wharf.  Leaving the island was truly bittersweet, but we had a bus to Kuala Lumpur to catch.  As soon as we set foot back on the mainland, we walked over to the bus terminal, bought two tickets and hoped on the doubledecker bus.  Three quarters of the way there, we heard a loud "POP" and as the driver was pulling over to the side, we were sure it was a tire blowout.  Turns out it was just the fire extinguisher that had set off somehow so after a cleanup, we were back on the road.

After a 5+ hour ride, we got off the bus at Puduraya station and walked over to our hostel.  In the heart of Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown is where Reggae Mansion is located.  Just like Nipah Guesthouse, I can't praise this place enough.  The atmosphere was simply incredible.  Upon registration, the staff went above and beyond to make sure everything was taken care of.  We even signed up for a city tour for the next day that they organized for their guests.  The rooms were kept clean and our "pods" were very comfortable and private.  Reggae Mansion also boasts a restaurant, a sports bar, a cinema room, and a rooftop bar.  The ambiance here is unparalleled and really sets this place apart from other hostels... and all for $13 a night.  This place is a must if you are planning on staying a night in KL.

Our sleeping pods @ Reggae Mansion
View from the rooftop @ Reggae Mansion
So after freshening up and getting all swanky, we went for dinner at the restaurant which had a decent happy hour menu from noon to 9:00pm.  We had big plans for a night out on the town, going to the Petrona Towers, and checking out the rooftop bar when it got pumpin'.  Instead, after our meal we decided to try and grab a quick nap...  but when we woke up, the sun was already up.  We would have to make up for that today since, after all, we were only spending one more night in KL before heading over to Singapore.
The restaurant/bar @ Reggae Mansion 
Enjoying a beer and some onion rings
Buddhist Temple
We spent that day exploring Kuala Lumpur along with other Reggae Mansion guests.  We started off by visiting a Buddhist temple, followed by the national mosque, the two national monuments, the royal palace and the Batu caves, which enshrines an Indian temple.  We learned that while Malaysia is a Muslim state, they allow for religious freedom, which was very evident in the different quarters of the city.  For lunch, they took us to a traditional Malay village (within KL) where we chowed down on some delectable local cuisine.  Unlike in Pulau Pangkor, where the sea always provided a breeze, Kuala Lumpur was very hot and humid, with no wind to help cool us down.  So when the tour was over and we were dropped off, everyone was spent!  Although by that time, we had all become good friends.  We agreed to meet up later in the restaurant for some drinks and each went our separate ways to spend the rest of the afternoon.  Jen and I went for a well deserved afternoon nap (it's so good to be on vacation) after getting all freshened up.

National Mosque
Royal Palace
Batu Caves
Monkey enjoying a 7up @ Batu Caves
Malay Village
Local buffet-style cuisine (pick and choose what you want) 
All this cost me 3$, including a fresh squeezed juice
Later that evening, we met our new-made friends, had dinner and left for a night out on the town.  By that time, I had already pounded down a few brewskies and was feeling no pain.  The first establishment we "visited" was an Irish pub with cheap beer, followed by another one with disgustingly overpriced beverages.  By midnight, we decided it was time to go pay a visit to the Petrona Towers.  It was best to wait after dark to go since they were all lit up and made for amazing photographs.  Unfortunately, no one told us that they shut off the lights after a certain time and by the time we got there, two dark figures stood where the lit up Petronas should have been.  Luckily, I changed the shutter speed on our camera and was able to capture somewhat decent pictures.  But I guess that's what you get when you decide to drink...  When we left the towers, we attempted to go to a dance club but the cover and bottle service made us abort that plan.  Instead, we headed back to Reggae Mansion to party up on the rooftop bar.  We had been told that the place didn't really heat up before 11pm and that the partying goes on all night, until the wee hours.  But I guess someone forgot to tell everyone that.  When we showed up, the rooftop was empty, save for a few patrons.  So we ordered a drink and when the talk turned political, it was time to go to bed.  The next day, I woke up with a killer hangover.  We opted to bid our time at the hostel before transferring to the airport for our flight to Singapore.  We caught up on some social media, sent a few emails to loved ones and read our books in the comfort of A/C.  We also took a short walk to the Central Market in Chinatown to check out some local arts and crafts.

At around 4pm, we took the LRT to Sentral Station and a shuttle bus to LCCT in time to make our flight on to the next part of our adventure.  We left Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia and a deep sense of appreciation and relaxation.  We absolutely loved our time here and would not hesitate to come back in the future!
300 steps to get up to the Batu Caves
Nasi Lemak - National dish of Malaysia
@ Matay village - notice the contrast of wealth
Jen had to cover up at the National Mosque

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