Archive for May, 2011

Singapore – the end of Asia

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

(James) All too quickly our time in Australia had come to an end. We’d been busy throughout our stay but our list of jobs – top of which had been to get the blog up to date – was now even longer than before. We said a sad goodbye to Sal and Meg and then drove down to Melbourne airport with my dad. It’s always hard to say goodbye to family when you live so far apart as you all know that the distance is so great, and the cost of flights so prohibitive, that in all likelihood you won’t see them for another couple of years. We dealt with this as men normally do, by just giving a firm handshake and maybe and ‘man hug’ (complete with clenched fist for the obligatory punch to the shoulder) and parted with a ‘look after yourself’. All a bit stiff upper lip, but then, hey we’re British!

As sad as it was to leave, we were both excited as we knew that we were heading, in a roundabout way, towards our bikes and the next part of our trip. At least we hoped that was what was happening; our attempts to use the tracking tool on the website of the company that owned the ship our bikes were on had proved futile as the system hadn’t been working. Still, we were slightly nervous verging on optimistic, but we didn’t want to tempt fate so wouldn’t dare say anything too positive or hopeful to each other.

Our flight was fairly uneventful (there are only so many ‘events’ that can happen on a flight and none of them are good, so I’m not entirely sure why I said that) – so, nothing of note happened and we landed at a lovely, steamy Singapore airport at around 5pm. We were staying with an old teaching friend of Em’s called Laura, who had been working at an international school for the previous four years and had a nice two bedroom apartment in the city as part of her contract. We’d told her to expect us at 6pm but by the time we’d got through the airport, made our way to the area she lived in and then found her apartment block amongst the thousands of other identical blocks, it was gone 8pm. (Em: we didn’t have a phone so poor Laura was starting to worry that something had happened to us!) We popped out for a bite to eat at the local Indian and Laura bought us a couple of beers (just as well as Singapore, it turned out, was bloody expensive!) before we called it a day – it was still a school night after all.

Given that we only had one day in Singapore, we weren’t exactly up at first light to see the sights. In fact it was gone 11am and a very humid 100 degrees by the time we emerged out into the street. We took a bus down into the city which, as one might expect in Singapore, was simple, clean and efficient. The demographic of our fellow passengers was just what we’d expected of the city too – a healthy mix of Indians, Chinese, Malays and, of course, western ex-pats. The bus took us down immaculate tree lined avenues, all perfectly manicured and with old English names. In many ways it was as if nothing had changed since the days of Empire, except that in Singapore, such is the rate of change that virtually any building over twenty years old seems to get demolished and replaced with a new one – which means the city’s skyline is in a constant state of flux. Some buildings don’t change, however, and one of these was the first stop on our little tour.

The Raffles Hotel is without doubt the most famous building in Singapore and one of the most famous hotels in the world. Famed not just for its colonial era opulence but for its Long Bar where, in 1910, the Singapore Sling cocktail was invented. It’s still possible for non-guests to go to the bar and order the famous cocktail but at $20 a pop it was a little out of our budget, and frankly had we had one, given the combination of the hour, the temperature and our now pathetic tolerance for alcohol, we’d have spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping on a bench somewhere. Instead we wandered around the bits that non-guests could access and imagined what stories those walls could tell. Apparently the hotel had been in danger of being closed down in recent years but such is the affection the locals seem to have for it that funding was found to renovate the building, restoring it to its former glory. It’s a funny thing, as there are now plenty more expensive flashy hotels in Singapore, and every building around absolutely towers over it, but somehow Raffles seems classier for it. No 80 floor glass tower with roof top infinity pool here, just a nice old white stone building with grand but modestly tasteful lush gardens and shaded sitting areas. It’s just cooler – James Bond would stay here (in his usual suite of course).

Having survived the temptation of an early (expensive) cocktail we popped over the road to the Swiss Hotel, from which, we’d been assured by Laura, we could get a great view of the city for free. All we had to do was take the lift to the 69th floor. We wandered in, trying and failing to look like we belonged, and made it to the elevator. Arriving on the 69th floor we stepped out to find a function taking place (and one we couldn’t have less appropriately dressed to blend into) so we dived back in before the doors shut on us and continued up to the restaurant above. In the end we decided we might as well be honest about our intentions (there was no way we looked like we were here to dine!) and asked the maitre de if we could take a few photos of the view, which of course, they were only too happy for us to do! It gave us a great view of the city and the surrounding waters which were full of thousands of container ships and oil tankers as far as the eye could see (Singapore is the world’s busiest port). As we looked down on the city, we were still able to pick out the odd building that had somehow defied the wrecking balls – St Andrews, the city’s cathedral, amongst them. Seeing the streets from such a height also allowed us to plan our next move as our view was effectively the same as looking at a map – although any map here that’s more than a year or so old can be utterly out of date, and so it proved for us. Land reclamation and new buildings meant that the road we wanted didn’t technically exist and should have been in the harbour!

We continued our tour through downtown Singapore and couldn’t help but feel a bit scruffy. Whilst we’re quite used to feeling ‘under dressed’ in our travel clothes, we felt more conspicuous than usual as people in Singapore dress incredibly formally. Whilst the men wear the usual shirt and tie, the women wear really flash outfits. Standard dress seems to include high heels and the kind of outfit one might expect at Ascot, a cocktail party or a movie premiere! It just seems to be expected here – part of a culture that ‘wants’ everything smart and immaculately clean. (Em: as you can imagine, I looked really classy in my ripped cut off shorts, adapted from the trousers I’d been wearing when I’d had my accident in Istanbul!) We continued our little tour round town, walking through the slightly touristy but undeniably cute Boat Quay, a collection of old colourful two-storey wooden shuttered buildings, all restaurants, that sit beneath the towering glass and steel skyscrapers of the financial district – another example of old and new existing in perfect harmony. We also had a walk around Little India which, like Boat Quay, was charming and colourful (Em: and immaculately clean… so not really like India then!!)

We had agreed to meet Laura and Caitlin, an old friend and workmate of mine from back in London who was now living and working in town, later that evening. We still had time to kill before our rendezvous so spent the rest of the day wandering around and reading about our surroundings. Singapore, despite its small size (its population is just over 5 million) is the world’s fourth leading financial centre. Although officially a democracy and with a good reputation, it not quite as open and free as one might expect. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in government since independence in 1959 and although there are democratic elections every four years, there are very strict controls over what any opposition can say or do. When elections do come about, every four or five years, PAP offers ‘rewards’ for those who vote for them (such as shares that can be converted into cash) or threats (i.e. their buildings won’t be maintained therefore turning them into slums). There is no electoral commission to oversee events, only nine days are allowed for campaigning and the (re-drawn) constituent boundaries are only announced the day before the election. Critics and opposition leaders are often taken to court to face a variety of charges in financially debilitating cases – the government has never lost a case. There is strict censorship of media, all of which are government owned (the foreign press is controlled by either being continually sued or having its circulation curtailed).

Singapore is famed for its criminal system under which extremely tough sentences are applied to even minor crimes (the death penalty, caning and public humiliation are all used). Certainly the system acts as great deterrent (which, I guess, is the point of any crime prevention scheme) and as a result Singapore has an incredibly low crime rate – lone women can pretty much walk the streets at night without any fear. More disturbing, Singapore has the ‘Internal Security Act’ (ISA) to fall back on which allows the government to arrest anyone without trial – 23 years is the longest I’m aware of (trial by jury has long since been abolished)! There’s no sign that things will change soon in Singapore. Western countries turn a blind eye to it as always because Singapore is good to do business with and it doesn’t rock the boat. The Prime Minister is Lee Hsien Loong (his father was previously PM ruling from 1959 until 1990),meanwhile Loong’s wife controls one of the biggest Government owned companies, and his brother controls the government-run Singapore Telecom. Nepotism at its finest!

Singapore still has many old British traits from colonial days including a speaker’s corner. For those who don’t know, Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde park is famous for people going there to stand on a box and speak on any issue of their choosing. People go down to listen, heckle and argue and it all makes for good viewing. Censorship in Singapore, however, means that its own Speakers Corner has certain limitations. Religion, politics and government cannot be discussed – I can’t help but think that having banned the juiciest subjects from the soap box must make it all a bit less interesting! Things aren’t helped by the fact that gatherings of five or more people for ‘political purposes’ counts as illegal assembly. Unsurprisingly, Singapore’s system of ‘democracy’ – a capitalist system with strict controls but the façade of openness and freedom – is attracting admirers; both China and Thailand are amongst those are looking at it as a potential model to base their own systems on. So, things aren’t always as great as they seem.

As the working day came to end we made our way to Robinson Quay to meet Caitlin (Em: unfortunately Laura had to pass; she’d lost her voice – a common teacher’s affliction – and needed an early night). It was great to see Caitlin again and a surprise to see her so formally dressed (apparently it was ‘dress-down Friday’ so god knows what she normally has to wear! ) Unlike most people, Caitlin doesn’t require a couple of glasses of wine to be excitable and bubbly – she’s from Vancouver so it just comes naturally! And like everyone else we know from Vancouver, she’s also incredibly outgoing and has a positive view on things. We had a great evening catching up over a few glasses of wine but all too soon our evening came to an end and we had to say goodbye, but not before Caitlin had decided she was going to take her motorcycle test (Em: awesome, there aren’t enough female bikers out there!) Caitlin? This is your official reminder to get on the case! We walked back along the old canal past the hundreds of bars and restaurants, now packed with those welcoming in the weekend, and a group of people flying silent remote controlled kites (no strings!) fitted with LED lights and lasers and looking like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind! Awesome! (Em: Gadget Geek Boy was in his element!)

The following morning we were up early for our flight to Vancouver via Manila. Laura was still feeling rough but got up to give us a lift to the airport, bless her (Em: thanks so much for everything, Laura, good luck with the move back to London and we’ll see you there soon!) It was a genuinely sad moment for us. We’d spent the last twelve months in Asia and had ridden from one side to the other. It really felt like the end of an era for us, as if the ‘adventure’ part of our trip was over. North America would surely be routine, after all as Brits we’d be totally familiar with everything, right? We spent the next few hours reminiscing about Asia and recalling some of the incredible places, people and experiences we’d been so lucky to encounter. We had one final hitch at the check-in desk when we were told we wouldn’t be allowed to board the plane as we didn’t have an onward ticket from Canada. We tried to explain that we were exiting Canada overland into the USA, showed them our US visas and told them our bikes were already in Canada but, of course, the rule book didn’t mention anything about land crossings, only onward flights. A few phone calls were made and still nothing. We explained that Vancouver was right next to the US border so many people crossed overland but the computer just wouldn’t except that as an option. Eventually we had our problem sent upstairs to the management (along with one of our business cards so they could go online to our website to verify that we would actually be moving on from Canada overland). After a slightly nervous 15 minutes they came back saying they’d let us through but we might get the same treatment when we transferred in the Philippines and that Canadian immigration might require us to buy an onward ticket on arrival! (Em: And we’d thought our border crossings would be easier in the west without the bikes!)

As our plane took off, we watched Asia recede beneath us and spoke about our crossing of the Khunjerab Pass between China and Pakistan which, at 4750 metres (approximately 15,000 feet) had been our highest point. We watched the in-flight monitors as they displayed our speed and altitude and at the right moment looked out of the window at the sea, coral atolls and clouds below. It was quite a shock; next time you’re on a flight, look out the window as the plane passes through 15,000 feet – it’s hard to believe that there are roads at that altitude! With that, we sat back with a smile and a small sense of satisfaction at what we achieved, and a growing sense of excitement at what lay ahead of us….

Downtime Down Under

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

(Em) I think I mentioned in the last entry that the budget Air Asia flight from KL to Melbourne was surprisingly good. We both remarked that it was one of the quietest flights we’d ever been on, both in terms of general engine noise and fellow passengers (well, you never know who you’ll end up sitting next to and in our case, we had three seats between the two of us!) I did get slightly unnerved when, whilst flying over Indonesia, we noticed a spectacular lightening storm lighting up the night sky outside our window – I’ve never seen so many forks striking all at once, and they seemed to be so close! James, of course, wasn’t worried in the slightest and sat with his face to the glass, absolutely riveted. (James: It was incredible, with quite literally, dozens of strikes every second. Almost as if someone was fast forwarding  through footage of a storm! And after all planes can handle lightning. Right?….)

We arrived in Melbourne early the following morning. We had a few hours while we waited for Dan (James’s younger brother, who you may recall came out to see us in Istanbul ) to come and meet us after he’d finished his lectures at nearby Monash (one of Melbourne’s two universities, where he is currently half way through his first year) so we had a bit of a wander around town. It was great to be back in Melbourne, one of our all time favourite cities, and at the same time very surreal. Just hearing the Aussie-accented but undoubtedly English language all about us in the airport had seemed strange after so many months in foreign language-speaking countries, and it was equally odd to be met with a sea of white faces, not Asian ones! Then, when we got into the centre of town (via the airport shuttle bus which, convenient and friendly as it was, shocked us a bit by the price – we hadn’t quite adjusted back to the Western cost of living!), we were struck by how calm and quiet everything was: Melbourne may be a busy, cosmopolitan city, but in comparison with Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur it seemed like a ghost town!! The roads were quiet and orderly, and people gave each other space, real space, as they went about their business. Amazing the things you notice when you’ve been living somewhere else for a while! We were also loving the laid back, friendly attitude of everyone around us. On the bikes, we’re used to constant attention and questions but as ‘normal tourists’ you usually blend in a bit more. This was still the case in Melbourne, but it seems that local or tourist, you’re greeted warmly and end up having a chat when you go into a shop or café. And why not? Unfortunately in London, this seems to be a bit of a lost art.

Once with Dan, we got the train back to James’ family’s house in Avenel, about 100km (60 miles) north of Melbourne. Sal (James’ step-mum) picked us up at the nearest station and when we got to the house, we were immediately leaped on by Teva, their young boxer puppy and possibly the most excitable and insane dog ever!! I’m a cat person myself (you might have gleaned that from the numerous feline photos in our gallery) but luckily I’ve warmed to dogs in recent years – and it’s hard not to love Teva, for all her madness she’s pretty adorable. It was great to see David, James’ dad, not least because he was looking so fit and well; back when we were in Pakistan, he’d been taken seriously ill and it just so happened to be the one time on the trip when we couldn’t have gotten to an airport for a flight to see him. This was partly why it was so important to us to get over to Oz now while we were ‘in the neighbourhood’. Pretty soon, the kettle was brewing, the laundry was on, and Meg (James’ sister) was back from school – all of a sudden we were in an environment with familiarity, routine and home comforts… and it’s amazing how quickly we adapted right back into it! (Hopefully this bodes well for our return home – one of our most frequent questions is ‘How are you going to adjust to living a ‘normal’ life again?’!) I think it’s the cold that we had the hardest time getting used to – we constantly felt freezing!! I borrowed extra layers from Sal and Meg, and David took to lighting the fire for us even during the day, but it was no good: we’ve turned into complete wimps and anything below 90 degrees has us shivering!

Aside from being a good chance to catch up with the family, our fortnight in Australia afforded us some welcome downtime. We slept in, went for walks with the dog, made ourselves a cup of tea whenever we felt like it (I’ve never consumed so much tea in my life – I think we were missing it!) We enjoyed some lovely home-cooked meals (and accompanying wine…) from Sal and David (that really was the best shepherd’s pie I’ve ever had; sorry, mum!) and James  had the opportunity to get back in the kitchen too, which in turn meant that I got to have my first ‘James risotto’ in over a year, yes! We went to watch Megan play netball a couple of times, and if it’s not netball, it’s horse riding or tennis. Growing up in Australia promotes such a healthy, outdoors lifestyle –we were hoping it might rub off on us a little bit but a couple of cycle rides with Sally (aka fittest, healthiest woman in the world) and we were done for! (James: 20km into a bitterly cold headwind was the end of us!)

The next weekend saw us meeting up with Dan again in Melbourne where we ended up going to see at AFL game (Aussie Rules), the Richmond Tigers v the Western Bulldogs. Neither of us had much of a clue about the sport but Dan did his best to explain the rules and it was a fun experience for the lively atmosphere and good natured joshing from the crowds alone. (James: Bizarrely the sport isn’t actually played across Australia, but is more a game played in the state of Victoria. It started out as a warm up game for cricketers, but has evolved into a contact sport, with plenty of room for a bit of good old fashioned confrontations. Phrases being yelled  around us during random breakdowns in discipline like ‘let him stand up for a fair fight you dog!’ sound a bit pathetic and old fashioned in ‘english’ English – more something you’d expect to hear at a duel – but the phrase takes on a much more earthy quality when coming from the mouth of  the extremely large Aussie sitting next to you!) That night, I steered the boys in the direction of Lygon Street – they’d had their sport, now I needed my Italian food! The Lygon and Brunswick areas of Melbourne are home to lots of different immigrant communities – Greek, Italian, Lebanese etc – and, as a result, are well known to foodies. We stuffed ourselves stupid then made our way back to Dan’s halls of residence where we crashed for the night!

All too soon, the day of our flight back to Asia approached. We didn’t know where the time had gone! We’d been sure that we would be up-to-date with the diary by this point (the fact we’re only just posting up Australia shows you how wrong we were on that front!) and there were some jobs we’d wanted to do for Sally and David that we’d never got round to (sorry guys!) Nevertheless, we had been fairly productive – James had helped David get his MG up and running again, we’d installed a wi-fi modem to the computer, James had been in touch with Yamaha Canada about possible help with our crates at port in Vancouver and I’d managed to sort out a teaching job for September! One task that had thwarted us completely was trying to clear the tumbleweed from the garden – following an incredibly wet summer, the first after several years of drought, the stuff had grown at an unstoppable rate and now the area was experiencing an influx of dried tumble weed that was blowing in over garden fences at a far quicker rate than it was possible to gather it up. We spent several hours clearing the stuff and filled about ten big garden sacks, but by the time we’d finished, the first area we’d cleared was already full again! Oh well, at least Teva enjoyed herself trying to catch the rake and dragging sacks all around the garden!

David took us to the airport and we lucked out with a short check-in queue. It’s always sad saying goodbye to David and the family – with the massive distance between them in Australia and us in the UK, we never know when we’ll next get together. Our wedding, just before the trip, was the last time and Ben’s wedding (James’ brother in the UK) a couple of years before that… I guess next time will be for a birth (?!!…) or perhaps when Megan or Dan go travelling or even get married themselves…  (that’s a scary prospect, eh guys?!!) This time we were flying with Jet Star (another budget airline) – they’d been pretty rubbish when we’d used them for an internal flight in Vietnam so we didn’t have high hopes but at least the journey to Singapore is only about nine hours (a trifle compared with the usual trip home from Oz). This would be our last destination in Asia after over a year on the road and it’s fair to say, we were excited to finally be making to ‘land’s end’ so to speak!…

See Australia gallery for photos.

Swapping bikes for beaches

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

(Em) At the end of our little road trip from Kuala Lumpur across the Malaysian Peninsula with Henry, we arrived in Kuantan on the east coast at lunchtime. Henry had parked up at the Hyatt (very flash) where he was having an afternoon meeting but his appointment wasn’t until 2pm so we sat down for cup of tea at the beachside veranda café (trying, but in all probability, failing to blend in!) It was exciting to see the sea and know that the next day we’d be sailing out to a tropical island for a few days… However, Henry then received a call that threatened to put a big spanner in the works – it was his colleague from Crown Relo who was currently being told by customs at Port Klang that the crates with our bikes in wouldn’t be permitted on the ship because our carnets weren’t valid. What?! There must be some sort of mistake: the carnet is an all important document that acts as a temporary import/export for the bikes in each country and we knew for sure that they didn’t expire for at least a month. As it transpired, it was the entry stamp to Malaysia that customs had a problem with; apparently the counterfoils in each of our carnets hadn’t been signed and stamped correctly by the overseeing official when we’d entered the country two weeks previously. Again, what?! We really couldn’t believe it. The irony was that the Thai-Malaysia crossing had been our most straightforward and simple yet and, unlike most countries, customs had asked for the carnets themselves, seemingly 100% familiar with the procedure – at some borders James has to help border officials fill them in because they’re not sure what they are! (James: although this was clearly a customs mistake I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was something I should have picked up on – maybe we’re getting a bit blasé?!) From the sound of Henry’s conversation on the phone, things were not looking good – customs wouldn’t budge and were saying that we’d have to get the slips signed before they would release the bikes from the country.

We were stunned. After all the stress of sorting out the shipping over the previous ten days, we felt that our elation at having found the right agent at the last minute and just getting our bikes booked on the next sailing was now being mocked by the fates. The ramifications of this small oversight were pretty far-reaching: it would mean making our way back up to the border post where we’d entered Malaysia, a real pain, especially without the bikes to ride, and in doing so we would wave goodbye to our island getaway. (James: it wasn’t guaranteed that we wouldn’t have to un-crate our bikes and ride back up to the border!) Worse, the bikes would have to wait until the next sailing a week later when already we were really cutting it fine with the short period of time we’d given ourselves to do North America. The lack of cooperation by customs at the port was exasperating – all they had to do was ring up the border post where we’d come through and they’d be able to confirm we were legit as they would have the counterpart half of the form which is always retained by the border when you enter – but they refused. Henry’s colleague, Rudi, was doing everything he could to sort the situation out but we knew only too well how officious officials can be. By this time, Henry needed to go for his meeting so we gave Rudi our number and stayed put at the hotel, crossing fingers (and everything else!) that somehow the situation could be resolved. 

Several nerve-wracking hours and many phone calls later, Rudi – hero of the hour – rang once more, and this time with good news! We were on! With customs at the port still refusing to be proactive, Rudi had taken it upon himself to contact customs at the northern border who had agreed to fax a copy of the counterpart form down to Port Klang and luckily, the customs chief had finally accepted this as proof we weren’t faking. Phew! With that all sorted we were back on for a few days of island living, so we parted ways with Henry (who ended up having serious car problems on the way back to across to KL, poor thing!) and went to find a place to stay in Kuantan, ready to take a bus further down the coast to Mersing for the ferry across to Tioman Island the next morning. It wasn’t exactly ripe pickings, and I was pretty appalled by the state of the some of the places on offer at the cheaper end of the scale – stale, cobwebby rooms with dirty linen that the owners (in a similar state to the rooms) seemed to have no shame about as they happily showed me what was on offer. Perhaps our standards had risen again after staying at Andrew and Henry’s lovely homes! In the end, we got somewhere that, while still pretty grotty, at least had clean sheets and had seen the business end of a vacuum cleaner in the last decade. We went out for tom yam (fast becoming the new ‘noodle soup’ ) and when we checked our emails that evening, we were surprised and chuffed to discover that we’d won a travel photography competition we’d entered (and had forgotten about) with Nomad Tents – so thanks to Harry W. for putting us onto that one!!

Making our way to Tioman the next day was a simple affair – a three hour bus ride down to Mersing, a couple of hours wait, then the ferry over to the island. It was all a bit vague as to where we should disembark – despite having an open air deck, passengers were not permitted outside and were instead stuffed into the hold, making it impossible to know which beach we had arrived at. James and I elected to jump off at Salang beach at the top end of the island (our arrival only made obvious by a deck hand yelling the destination down the stairs) as from what we’d read, it seemed to have a good combination of amenities and solitude. We made our way down the pier with a handful of other backpackers and started to systematically work our way down the beach to check out accommodation options at the various chalet clusters. We’d taken a relaxed attitude towards booking – i.e. we hadn’t – but it soon became apparent that this could have been a major error. Everywhere was fully booked! Unbeknownst to us, we had arrived at a peak bank holiday weekend so all the world and his wife had pretty much reserved the whole island! Ah. Feeling a bit foolish, we continued in our quest, hopeful that there might be somewhere for that evening at least (it was Thursday), and were rewarded (sort of) at the penultimate resort on the beach: all their cheap end, basic chalets were full (40 ringits, or about £8) but they did have an air con chalet on the beach for 120 ringits! Oh well, there wasn’t much we could do and it was my birthday weekend (James: Emily doesn’t have birthdays anymore, she has birthday weekends! This could be a slippery slope….) so it gave us an excuse to splash out a bit!

The four days we spent on Tioman were great; very chilled and luckily, despite the ‘full to the brim’ accommodation, there really didn’t seem to be many people around. Tioman is a picture-perfect beach destination: hammocks swinging under the palms, soft pale sand, and the clearest, bluest water. The only problem was the damn sand flies. Pesky little buggers, they’re small and hard to spot so I was only made aware of their existence by the small red bites I noticed on my legs the first evening. Seasonal sandflies are well known in the area so I knew immediately was the tiny dots were from and was relieved that they appeared to be fairly innocuous. Oh how wrong I was – they worsened considerably over the following days and became an itchy, unsightly nightmare!! (James: they’re way worse than mosquitoes and last for several days! Not ideal.)Thank goodness after that first day on the beach, I elected to stay on the chalet deck, a hammock or in the water which served as sufficient damage limitation (I cannot say enough how horrible the bites are, and how plentiful when you don’t take precautions – back in KL the next week, we kept spotting sandfly victims with tens, almost hundreds, of weeping angry bites all over their legs!) Anyway, bites aside, it was a lovely break and a fantastic setting in which to celebrate my big three-oh. James surprised me with a bottle of white from the duty free shack and we supped it out of plastic cups whilst sitting on a rock watching the sunset. What more could a girl ask for?! (James:  I’m all class as you know –  the wine also served to soften the blow of moving out of nice chalet, and into a more shabby little hovel which had become available at the end of the beach to save some much needed money!)

Once back in KL, we were all set for our US visa interview at the American embassy, thoughtfully scheduled for 7.20 am on the Tuesday morning: we’d filled in the online applications, which had frustratingly kept freezing so had taken hours, and which asked all kinds of bizarre questions like ‘What tribe or clan do you belong to?’, ‘Have you ever committed genocide?’, and ‘Are you a spy?’ (well, let’s see, now you mention it…); obtained some over-priced ‘special US size’ passport pictures (we always carry a stash of standard ones with us but, oh no, if you’re coming to America you need to be on a 2 inch x 2 inch square or computer says no); gone to a Standard Chartered bank to pay $140 each (ouchio, especially when most Brits get in on a free visa-waiver); and booked our interview online using the code from our bank receipt. We also made sure we had all sorts of other documentation with us – bank statements, letters from employers, our carnets etc – as recommended on the website. Our booking form outlined the process step-by-step (30 minutes for security clearance, 45 minutes for finger printing…and so on) to an expected total of 2.5 hours – blimey, we thought, we are in for a real grilling!! As it turned out, it was indeed a long old stint at the embassy but most of it was spent waiting around. When we were finally called up to a booth for our ‘interview’, the guy simply said something along the lines of ‘What a cool trip! I have no problem granting you visas, enjoy the US’! (James:  After having spent so long giving my work and education history as well as listing the countries we’d been through I almost wanted more of a grilling – at least enough to make this all worthwhile!) And just as one final act of madness, rather than be asked to return to the embassy a few days later to pick up our passports complete with visa, we instead had to get them returned by courier and pick them up from the ‘depot’. Hence, two days later we could be found out in the middle of nowhere on an industrial estate 20 miles out of the city centre wandering around trying to find ‘Unit 8B’ or whatever it was! Still, we had our visas so a big weight had been lifted, that’s for sure (not much point our bikes currently being on a ship to Vancouver if we wouldn’t be allowed to use them!….)

After all that palaver, we were ready for a another break! Well, not really, we’re not quite that pathetic but we did have almost a week before our flight to Melbourne (we were making the most of the time the bikes were spending ‘transpacific’ by visiting James’ family in Australia – it was after all, just round the corner…) and we knew that sticking around in Kuala Lumpur would no doubt prove expensive. There were  a few options: we could go back to Tioman (not an unappealing choice, and budget friendly if we went back to the cheap huts at the end of the beach), try another island (perhaps the Perhentians, further north of the east coast and somewhere I’d been before) or simply go across to the east coast but stay on the mainland. In the end, we went for the third option as it saved the cost of a ferry, and we found ourselves in Cherating, a beach resort town popular with the locals, but overlooked by international visitors. It turned out to be a great choice, not least because the accommodation (which I’d found recommended on the internet) was absolutely beautiful; raised wooden chalets set around a lake amidst lush green lawns and just a minute from the beach. There was a great little bar just up the beach (called ‘Don’t tell Mamma’ – love it!) where the super chilled barman served up freshly squeezed orange juice in big jars and, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, there was a little black kitten that liked to go swimming in the sea!! We couldn’t believe our eyes! And that wasn’t the only cool creature around  – the area is famed for its large monitor lizards. We saw quite a few of them wandering about the grounds of our chalet and James caught some great shots by following the biggest into the undergrowth! We also had a troop of cheeky monkeys living in the trees above our chalet who seemed to revel in chucking fruit on to our roof – which had a tendency to scare the life out of me in the middle of the night!

Eventually, our time in Cherating drew to a close and we headed back to KL for the last time. We had a day to wander round (for James this meant one last visit to the huge Nikon shop in one of the many mega-malls for some obligatory drooling and sighing!…) before heading off to the airport  for the budget flight to Oz. We knew we hadn’t really done justice to Malaysia – it would have been great to have spent more time exploring the country on our bikes – but at least we’d sampled (a lot) of food and made some new friends! (And evolved from the cricketers tan to a more even spread!…) The journey to Australia was remarkably comfortable – maybe our standards have dropped, or maybe it was the difference from the usual mammoth flight time from the UK?! We were excited about the prospect of being ‘at home’ for a while after so long on the road but weren’t exactly looking forward to the weather – our warm tops were in our hand luggage for easy access as after thirteen months of almost constant heat, we knew we’d be in for a bit of shocker arriving in Melbourne in winter time!….

Photos here (a bike-free zone this time, sorry!)