Koh Rong, but oh so right!

M’pai Bai, Koh Rong Sanloem. 19-23 January 2020.

No better way to end our travels in Cambodia than by laying low for a few days on the unspoilt, exotic Koh Rong Sanloem. Over the past few weeks we’ve gained a better understanding of the do’s and don’ts of local transport. Instead of involving the hotel, this time we book directly with a travel agent, a change in tactics that pays off in dividents: around mid-day a ferry lands us in the clear blue waters of M’pai Bai. Time to finally wash off all the dirt from the road!

Koh Rong Sanloem is the smaller of two inhabitated Cambodian islands in the Gulf of Thailand, the larger being Koh Rong. The place we stay is called M’pai Bai (meaning 23 in Khmer), a little village of about 150 people on the northern tip of the island. There’s no banks here, no ATM’s, no broadband, no electricity, we’re literally off-grid.

After evading the traffic of carts loaded with island supplies running up and down the pier, once the initial excitement of landing in a little slice of heaven has worn off, it’s quite impossible not to notice a certain hard-hitting prevalence of VCSO boys and girls on the island. Gap year douchebaggery is strong in this place serviced mainly by western volunteers, but once you look past all the duck faces, ‘loner’ tattoos and man-buns bragging about how wasted they got on red wine the night before, what remains is an utter and complete paradise.

The interior of the island is almost entirely covered in dense jungle. Though there used to be a basic road system linking up the two villages, this now completely overgrown with vegetation. Taxi boats and ferries connect the island’s seven beaches, along with the occasional rocky footpath. We follow the so-called driftwood path along the sandstone rock coastline to Clearwater Bay on the east coast. It lives up to its name.

One possible translation of Sanloem is far out. Some of the island’s inhabitants, such as Lookout‘s owner Benny, take this catchphrase from The Dude to the extreme by takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to procure a good smoke here, at all. M’pai Bai appears to have just the one policeman, whom we see returning a grinder to the bartender at one of the beach bars..

Once you’re feeling totally relaxed, there are boats available to take you to marvel at the glowing plankton the two Koh Rongs are famous for. At nights, near the shores of the uninhabited island of Koh Koun just to north of Sanloem, when you stir the water the plankton flashes gold. Far out, man!

Another three beaches are accessible by taxi-boat. In the morning we’re brought to Saracen Bay, which got its name from a British survey brig, HMS Saracen, that charted the area in the late 19th century. This stretch of soft, white sand is the main tourist area on the island. From here we choose one of the paths that leads through the jungle to the other side of the island. A sign explains the wildlife we may encounter on the walk: Great hornbills, kingfishers, ospreys, macaques and various (poisonous) snakes. Sadly (or perhaps luckily) we encounter nothing of the sort, and soon arrive at stunning Sunset Beach.

We may not have seen any land animals on the way here, when we snorkel around in the clear water of Sunset Beach the marine life we find around the scattered rocks and corals makes more than up for it. We spot angel fish, parrot fish, leopard fish, and even a few we haven’t seen before: a puffer fish, sea cucumbers and a cuttlefish!

Originally we were thinking of heading to the bigger Koh Rong for a few days, but somehow never made it there.. The nice thing about a small village such as M’pai bai is that in just a few days you begin to get to know everyone. Inside the actual village behind the beachfront there are a few local food stalls. Niamh, one of the chefs there, was on Cambodian Masterchef and her food is delicious, best lok lak we’ve had so far.

We also meet ‘the Mexican on a horse’, who is a bit of an enigma around these parts. No one knows why or when exactly, but he just appeared here one day with his hat and his horse, offering horseback rides to tourists.

But then, there was a lot about it that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so durned interestin’.

Wedding season in Kampot’s melting pot

Kampot, 15-19 January 2020

Following the example of the French elites in the 1900’s, to escape the heat of the Phnom Penh plains, it’s off to the countryside we go. On paper today’s an easy 150km ride to Cambodia’s west coast, but no matter how long or short the distance, travel in this country always seems to end up being a full day’s affair. When we drive past a giant durian statue in the late afternoon we know we’ve ultimately arrived in Kampot.

Famed for its pepper plantations and the trade of durian fruit, Kampot used to hold Cambodia’s main seaport, attracting an international crowd. The town itself used to be half Cambodian, half Chinese, and the surrounding area had both a Vietnamese and a Malay village. With the arrival of the French in the 19th century Kampot’ melting pot became an administrative centre for the coastal region as well as a resort area, which it still is today.

For our first night we stay at one of the resorts along the Prek Tuek Chhou river, which flows through Kampot into the Gulf of Thailand. We rent a kayak and explore the backwaters, which are completely quiet except for birds and gibbons.

From across the river at the resort you can just about see the outlines of nearby Bokor mountain.

After visiting the genocide museum and the killing fields, it looks like we’ve found ourselves the ideal place to unwind in Kampot. And then there’s a mosque..

Though Cambodia is almost entirely Buddhist, there are roughly 600.000 Muslim Chams also living in the country. Right now in the cooler, dry season it’s the most popular time to get married, and nothing screams “party!” more than having your local holy man rage against the microphone non-stop from 7pm until midnight. Very interesting how little sound a bamboo hut blocks. When the call to prayer wakes us up at 5 the next day we’ve heard enough. Time to pack our bags and head to the village for some peace and quiet.

Kampot proper is a provincial town of roughly 50.000 people. It has some of the best kept French indochina architecture in Cambodia. Even though the Khmer Rouge dominated (and wrecked) the area during (and after) the civil war, a lot of the old buildings have been left standing. Some of the architecture has been beautifully restored, while yellow paint is flaking off on others, giving it a different kind of charm.

After the ultimate defeat of Khmer Rouge, since the mid-90’s, expats from Western countries have settled in Kampot and become part of the community. Given its chilled-out vibe, it’s not hard to see why this town attracts a lot of backpackers too. It’s the kind of place where you end up staying.

One cool customer in town is Joe, a white-maned, Australian hippy with an impressive moustache, who is in the middle of skinning up a fat joint when we meet him in front of his hotel. Joe’s happy to help out a couple sleep-deprived travellers, and while we’re waiting to check-in he entertains us with a couple crazy stories. When Lauren jokingly asks if the old stoner might be her dad, the panicky look on his face is just priceless! So we found ourself a new hotel, but ironically a big tent is being set up right in front of it for yet another wedding. ‘Tis the season after all..

Luckily this one’s a Buddhist ceremony, which means singing and dancing rather than a four hour single player shouting match, a big mercy. Having an actual room this time also helps a lot, so after a pretty decent rest we’re ready to explore some of the area surrounding Kampot.

Salt fields just outside town. Water is let in from the ocean and left to evaporate, leaving crystals.

Bokor National Park

It’s a hot day, so to cool off a bit we drive up 40km to the old French hill station on Bokor mountain, which is part of Bokor National Park, a 1581-sq-km area of rainforest home to the Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear, clouded leopard and pig tailed macaque. Sadly the park is currently being threatened by poaching, illegal logging and development, so much so that in fact we’re probably lucky to see a lone macaque by the side of the freshly paved road leading up to the summit.

Once at the top it’s ten degrees cooler and we go check out the remains of the station the French built in the early 1900’s. Though most of it is no longer recognizable, the Old Palace was once re-used as a casino during the 50’s and 60’s. The old church is left mostly in one piece. While we’re there it’s being used as a backdrop in another wedding’s photoshoot.

Around the hill station there’s also a waterfall (mostly dry this time of year), some rice fields and an old temple complex on a cliff’s edge. On a clear day the views are supposed to be quite spectacular.

Between the old colonial ruins, a cliff-side temple, amazing wildlife and dramatic mist descending from the jungle on the side of the mountain, Bokor has a lot going for it, but sadly this may not last for much longer. In 2012 a 190-sq-km area within the national park was already granted to a Chinese investment group for a multi-million-dollar tourism development. Currently a gigantic casino and hotel have been completed, along with an entire ghost town of empty apartment buildings, and this is only the beginning. When you leave the park, a big sign reads: “Thank you for helping us maintain our national heritage.” Aye, right then.

During cocktail hour at RikiTikiTavi, the oldest bar in town, we meet Bjorn, an expat turned local boatman (though he prefers to call himself an immigrant), who is happy to answer a million questions we have about Cambodia, the country he fell in love with ten years ago. He has some great stories about what Kampot used to be like when he first arrived and how it’s changed over the years, and one very lively story about a former UN soldier he had on his boat, who came to Kampot to track down a former Khmer Rouge commander responsible for a massacre, gripping stuff. Together the three of us continue our way to a barbeque joint and end up at the market stalls for a few more beers afterwards.

Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple

The next day we head to Phnom Chhngok, to see a temple inside a cave complex set in limestone mountains. The ride alone is already worthwhile, when we cross rice fields, sleepy towns and a few giant temples appearing out of nowhere. Judging by how excited the local kids get when they see us my guess is not many people come out this way.

The main cave of Phnom Chhngok is home to a 7th century shrine to Shiva. Sheltered by the cave walls, the temple has been quite well-preserved. Local kids act as guides here and speak remarkably good English. They call it the elephant cave, because the rock formation next to the shrine resembles both an adult and baby elephant. Pretty dead on, isn’t it?

At the end of our time in Kampot we can say it turned out to be one of our favourite places in Cambodia. We found a welcoming community here, some good food, good vibes, nice people. Bye-bye Kampot, don’t ever change!

Khmer Rouge: Cambodia’s dark past

Phnom Penh, 12-14 January 2020

The 250km drive from Kratié to Cambodia’s busy capital city Phnom Penh is mostly uneventful and only slightly delayed (the equivalent of excellent when it comes to public transport in Cambodia). After finding our hotel at the city’s riverside, and scaling 6 levels to get up to our room, we’re greeted by a monkey peeping inside our window. Once again on our travels we’re being terrorized by macaques, who have taken over our balcony!

Phnom Penh first became the national capital in 1434 when Ponhea Yat, king of the Khmer empire, moved it from Angkor Thom, which had been captured and destroyed by Siam. A stupa erected behind Phnom Penh’s major temple of Wat Phnom houses the king’s remains.

Positioned at the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, by the 1920’s Phnom Penh was known as the Pearl of Asia, considered to be one of the most beautiful French-built cities in Indochina. Today it is a busy, not unpleasant, city of 2 million people. While there are a few other things of interest around here, such as the Palace and the Russian Market, as well as numerous pubs selling craft beers, our main goal in Phnom Penh is to learn more about the grim events taking place in Cambodia during the civil war.

I see myself like a broken glass. It’s so important that genocide be prevented, because it destroys the strings of humanity, it destroys the family, not just physically but emotionally. Reconciliation is about the responsibility of each of the victims to put all these broken pieces back together. – Youk Cchang (director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia and Killing Fields survivor)

The Cambodian Civil War which officially started in 1968 can only be understood within the wider frame of the Cold War, in specifically the conflict in Vietnam. In 1970 the North Vietnamese Army captured a third of Cambodia in the northeast and started empowering a then small communist guerilla movement called Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. After five years of fighting, the pro-American Republican government was finally defeated when the victorious Khmer Rouge proclaimed the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea in 1975.

The war had caused a refugee crisis in Cambodia. More than 2 million people had fled the countryside to find shelter in Phnom Penh. When the Khmer Rouge took over the city they began what has been described as a death march: the forceful evacuation of the entire city.

Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge would become increasingly xenophobic and paranoid, causing what is known as the Cambodian genocide: the deaths of 2 million people, around 25% of Cambodia’s population.

The prison at S-21

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh chronicles these dark pages of Cambodian history. The site is a former secondary school, which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21). During the regime an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured here, under accusations of political dissent. It is just one of roughly 200 torture and execution centres established by the Khmer Rouge.

An audio guide takes us through the complex of classrooms converted to cells and torture chambers, and rows and rows of victim’s photographs, so many of whom were just children. Recollections from survivors of this time make for a harrowing listening experience as we walk through the former school.

Choeung Ek

Following history we then visit the so-called Killing Field of Choeung Ek, about 10km away from S-21. After prisoners at the detention centres signed their forced confessions, they were brought here to be executed. Although Choeung Ek is one of the best-known locations, this is but one of many, many mass graves scattered throughout the country, some of which have yet to be discovered.

Fragments of bones and clothes still resurface from these mass graves when it rains, but even on a dry day like today some of the remains are visible in the burial pits. A monument was built in the central courtyard to remember the people that lost their lives at Choeung Ek.

I see my mother everywhere. I see my sister everywhere. I see the whole country as my family. When I meet a woman who has lost her child, I treat her like my mother. When I someone who is poor, who lost their siblings, I see my sister. They become my family. – Youk Cchang

Cambodians literally address others, even tourists such as ourselves, as family; brother, sister, aunt, uncle.

Visiting Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek has been informative, and heartbreaking and at times maddening, but I’m glad we went to see it. Seeing how much Cambodia has had to endure and still endures, not in the least because of Western countries, we’re only left with great respect for the people of Cambodia, who have began to put the broken pieces back together.

The Irrawaddys of Mekong River

Kratié, 9-11 January 2020

The travelling distance from Siem Reap in the northwest to Kratié in the east of Cambodia is 400km. We have purchased direct bus tickets the day before and begin our journey at 7AM. Around 1PM we reach Kampong Cham, a small town on the Mekong River about 100km from Kratie. It is here that the bus driver (who suddenly stops understanding English) decides to stop, eject us and our luggage, and turn back the way.

Not to worry though, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from travelling is that things always seem to work out just fine in the end (though often with the help of a good Samaritan).

Today’s good Samaritan is a sweet lady at a nearby drinks stand. After waiting an hour she manages to find us a vehicle heading to Kratié. This van service, operated by a husband and wife, makes stops at most villages along the way to either drop off or pick up packages/passengers. One of the tyres gets punctured along the way, but they’re not stopping. Around 4PM we’re their only remaining passengers, but luckily there are still deliveries to be made all the way to Kratié, where we finally arrive at 5PM.

When we pay the driver, his wife snatches the money out of his hand with a triumphant smile. Although we don’t speak the language, we did notice they’ve been playfully making fun of eachother the entire way, nice couple. The little bit of Khmer we learned in Siem Reap comes in handy to thank them for saving the day: Arkoun, Po! Arkoun, Ming!

Kratié is a medium sized town of 40.000 people on the banks of the Mekong river, the 7th longest river in Asia flowing from the Tibetan Plateau, through China, Myanmar, Laos and then Cambodia into Vietnam. The town sees a bit of tourism for one main reason: a local population of freshwater dolphins called Irrawaddy dolphins.

The Irrawaddy is an oceanic dolphin found near sea coasts and in rivers in parts of the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia. Their appearance is similar to that of a Beluga whale. As they are known to herd fish into a specific area for hunting, in some places fishermen work with the Irrawaddys to drive fish into their nets.

Cambodians believe the Irrawaddys are reincarnations of their ancestors, which has led them to live peacefully alongside one another. All the same, fishing practices involving gill nets and even explosives have led to a steady decline in the dolphin population worldwide. Though Kratié has seen a slight increase in numbers in recent years, the Irrawaddys are sadly still critically endangered.

Tourism in the dolphin habitat about 15km north of Kratié appears to be pretty ethical. There’s only a few boats and kayaks out in the water and engines aren’t being used near the deep pools in the middle of the river where the dolphins congregate. The Irrawaddys are quite shy by nature, so at first it’s hard to spot them, but after a while we see them come up to the surface constantly. When the sun sets on the Mekong, we’re lucky to see a small group of them hunting and one of them make a jump out of the water.

Although unfortunately we don’t spot any dolphins up close, it’s pretty nice to see so many of them swim around. We hope the population will keep growing, because it would be a shame to see these creatures disappear.

Just in front of Kratié, accessible by ferry, lays Koh Trong. We rent bicycles to explore this 6km long island in the middle of the Mekong. It’s a nice place with traditional houses, rice fields and sleepy scenes of cattle grazing quietly underneath the trees. Surprisingly, Koh Trong has no less than 3 temples, and on the far side of the island we find a little floating village just off the sand bank.

Driving around Kratié can be a bit of a challenge; it seems the further away you get from the town the worse the road becomes, but it’s worth the effort. Local children get super excited to see us and we find a small village on the water just north of the dolphin spot where everyone comes to swim.

Our hotel in Kratié is not the best, what with the chorus of roosters outside our window and being locked inside our room for two hours on our last day, so after exhausting all our sightseeing options here we’re happy to move on to the capital Phnom Penh.

Exploring the temples of Angkor

Siem Reap, 5-8 January 2020

The start to our trip around Cambodia couldn’t be better; when we land in Siem Reap around mid-afternoon a tuk-tuk is easily found to drive us to our hotel. Contrary to other countries we’ve visited in Southeast Asia, tuk-tuks in Cambodia are spacious and comfortable and the driver offers us a fair price right away so there’s no need to haggle.

We’re booked in to a hotel/restaurant called The Tiney Fork, where we are greeted by Martin, one of the two owners. Martin immediately makes us feel welcome and we have time to rest up from a day of travelling and get a feel for the town.

Siem Reap has a population of about 140.000. The city has a cosy, well-balanced feel to it. It is touristic, but not to the point where this interferes too much with local life. Colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the old French Quarter and around Old Market on the river Tongle are mixed with wooden and metal shacks and tourist development. Siem Reap’s main attraction is the complex of Angkor, which was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, founded in the 9th century AD.

Our first evening we have dinner at a local eatery to try our first Khmer food: lok lak, which is a beef dish of French and Chinese influence. The local beer is cheap and cheerful at just $0.50 a pint.

The next morning we wake up early and refreshed, ready to start exploring the ancient Angkor temples. Martin and his wife Cheatta help us draw up a plan and we decide to start with the so-called small circuit by tuk-tuk.

Day 1: Small circuit

Han, our driver, first brings us to the ticket office before starting our explorations at Ta Prohm. Originally called Rajavihara, this temple was built in the late 12th century. The trees growing out of its ruins and the jungle surroundings make it one of the most popular temples.

Nearby we stop off at Ta Keo, a temple-mountain likely to be the first to be built entirely out of sandstone by the Khmers around the year 1000. The temple is believed to be dedicated to Shiva, and its central tower reaches a height of 45 meters.

Next we pass under an impressive entrance gate into Ankor Thom (lit: Great City), the last and most enduring capital of the Khmer Empire, and, similar to Ta Prohm, established in the late 12th century. It covers an area of 9 square kilometers. Highlights of Angkor Thom include the ruins of The Baphuon, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, and most importantly The Bayon temple standing at its centre.

The Baphuon (established 11th century)

The Bayon’s most distinct feature is the collection of smiling stone faces on the towers clustered around its central peak. As one of the more richly decorated temples of Angkor, The Bayon is sometimes described as the baroque style of Khmer architecture. In our opinion it is definitely one of the most impressive structures at Angkor!

Got totally photobombed here!

The most famous site is saved for last when we visit Angkor Wat. A few other tourists seem to have the same idea.. Measuring 162 hectares, it’s one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. In fact, these days 97% of Cambodia’s population is said to follow Theravada Buddhism.

Hitting a near sensory overload at this point we’re happy to call it a day and retreat to the hotel to indulge in local draft beers and rice wine infused with bark, sold locally at the market in small plastic bottles.

Day 2: Big circuit

Today we’re back to renting a scooter. Yesterday, Han provided us with the perfect introduction to Angkor, so we’re ready to delve a bit deeper into the action at our own pace.

We make stops at Pre Rup, East Mebon and Ta Som and Neak Pean, each of which offers something unique.

Ta Som, recent addition to the restoration program (WMF)
Neak Pean, temple on the lake.

Before finishing the big circuit at Baksei Chamkrong and Phnom Bakheng, we make a stop off at Preah Khan. This structure was built in the 12th century for king Jayavarman VII to honour his father. It was the centre of organisation, with almost 100.000 officials and servants. Preah Khan has been left largely unrestored, which means numerous trees grow among the ruins.

Not to get ‘templed out’ too much, we decide to mix things up a bit at this point and end the day at APOPO, a Belgian NGO, which trains southern giant pouched rats from Tanzania to detect landmines. These trained Hero-rats can sniff out anything from tuberculosis to narcotics, but the ones here are used to smell up to a trillionth of a gram of TNT. So far they have helped clear out over 45.000 landmines in Cambodia, great stuff!

When we get back to the hotel, Cheatta surprises us with palm wine and Khmer desserts she’s picked up from the market and we spend another another great evening with her and Martin a.k.a. the loveliest hosts in the world.

Day 3: Outlying area

Still feeling the effects of the night before a bit, we drive 40km north to Banteay Srei, another one of the older, 10th century temples, built largely out of red sandstone. The elaborate decorative wall-carvings are a sight to behold.

Driving outside the confines of Siem Reap gives us the chance to see a bit more of the countryside that makes up the larger part of Cambodia. We’re in the middle of the dry season and make regular stops to take in the surroundings.

On the way back we end up taking a wrong turn while trying to find Banteay Samre. After parking our scooter next to the dirt track we stumble into someone’s backyard where we’re given directions to the temple. Not long after we find what must have been the original entrance way to the temple. Then this appears:

Even more rickety than it looks.

All obstacles cleared, we arrive at the temple, where we’re the only visitors today. Banteay Samre is said to show similarities to some northeast Thai monuments. It was restored beautifully by Maurice Glaize during WW2.

To conclude our conquest of Angkor Wat I have one last trick up my sleeve: an arduous climb in the midday heat up to Phnom Bok. If this won’t finally sweat out the last of the palm wine, nothing will. Starting the ascent, I can see Lauren’s mind calculate: “You made me cross a dangerous bridge, now you’re making me climb a mountain..”. But we make it to the top, without any kind of fall-out, and the last temple is glorious(ly ruined), with some spectacular views over the surrounding area. Worth the effort, and this officially concludes our conquest of Angkor!

At its height over a million people lived in Angkor, while London at the same time only housed 50.000. Mind blowing stuff, one of the most amazing things we have seen on our travels!

The next morning we’re sad to have to say goodbye to Martin and Cheatta when we’re leaving for Kratie. Thank you both for an amazing stay, and we hope to see you again, in Siem Reap, Scotland or wherever!

Malaysia: the verdict

Siem Reap, 5 January 2020

Since Penang is only a small island, for a nice change we don’t need to check into an airport hotel before taking leave of Malaysia and travelling on to Cambodia. We’re transitting Kuala Lumpur Airport a third and final time before safely arriving in Siem Reap around mid-day.

Travel stats (Malaysia) By land: 230 km. By water: 120 km. Duration: 10 days.

Travel stats (total) By land: 11,160 km. By water: 535 km. By air: 28,992. Duration: 159 days.

In Malaysia we consumed more than a few beers, yet all of them imported. Tiger, Skol, Carlsberg and Guinness are readily available just about anywhere, as is a white beer version of Kronenbourg. In Langkawi we were pleased to find Hoegaarden at £1 a bottle (duty free), and cans of Tiger and Skol go for about the same at Pantai Cenang’s beach bars. In Penang, prices are more or less double of those found in Langkawi.

Ten days in Malaysia have simply flown by, so let’s present the marks awarded by Lauren.

The people score 8/10. In the short time we were in Malaysia, we’ve only met a few local Malaysians, but they were all very nice, with a special shoutout to Sam in Langkawi, who was a very gracious host and cooked up a mean curry! Since Penang is so multi-cultural, we ended up meeting native Indian people more than anything else, but they were a good laugh too.

The food scores 9/10. My last laksa was a bit of a sloppy mess, which is the only thing keeping Malaysian food from a perfect score. Malay, Chinese, Singaporean, Western and Indian, is there any cuisine Malaysia doesn’t nail?

The transport scores 9/10. We did try to figure out the public bus system at one point, but it was a bit all over the place. Not a problem, however, as taxis are dirt cheap, fast and efficient, and scooter rental is available at low prices everywhere.

Nice and easy this one, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Malaysia has hereby earned itself Lauren’s Certificate of Excellence! Yam Seng!!

Penang: Malaysia’s melting pot

Penang, 31 December 2019 – 4 January 2020

On the final day of the year we take the ferry from Langkawi to Penang. The island of Penang is located just off the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, by the Malacca Strait. Both are connected by the longest oversea bridge in Southeast Asia.

While much of Malaysia draws its culture from its largely Muslim Malay inhabitants, Penang is a giant melting pot of different cultures: Indian, Chinese, Malay, and some remnants of British colonialism (1867-1957).

Just around the corner: Leith Street!

To celebrate the new year we spend our first night bang in the middle of George Town, the capital of Penang. George Town is Malaysia’s second largest city, as well as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The street of our hotel, Campbell street, used to be the red light district filled with Cantonese brothels, but now it is the centre of the Chinese jewellery trade. Just around the corner from us is the area dubbed Little India, which springs to life at dinnertime when the food stalls open for business.

We find a grimey, little bottle shop surrounded by low-budget hostels, which has a pop-up terrace compounding of plastic folding tables and chairs. It turns out to be quite a happening place, popular with locals, expats and tourists; the cheapest boozer in town. We plan to go here for just one drink but end up staying for most of the night chatting away to a group of Indian migrants.

We make it back to our hotel room’s balcony just in time to see the fireworks set off from nearby The Top tower. We’re pretty drunk at this point. Our travels in 2019 have been superb, so kick on 2020!

The next day, with sore heads, we relocate to another hotel a bit further away from George Town near Penang Hill. Once we have a scooter we revisit George Town for the daytime experience.

Famed for its art, architecture and diversity, George Town is a city that feels new and western, while preserving the eastern cultures that originally turned Penang into a world trading centre. It’s pretty hipster, a bit quirky, and quite photogenic. The street art walking tour is to be recommended.

The architecture is a mishmash of old style Chinese mansions, British colonial houses and lots of new development.

Some of the old building are beautifully restored, while others have been reduced to just an empty shell, and skyscrapers and condos pop up everywhere, yet George Town seems to retain plenty charm. By the docks you can visit the old Chinese clan jetties, stilt houses that have been passed on between generations.

Perhaps even more so than its art and architecture, Penang is world-famous for its food culture. Everything we eat here is pure gold. The Chinese and Indian tastes authentic, while Muslim food stalls offering Nasi Kandar are available everywhere. We return to our favourite place two nights in a row, a big tented drinking hall/foodie heaven consisting of over 10 food stalls, where we try more laksa, Singaporean classic koay teow soup, and all the food we miss from China. At night there’s lady boys performaning on a big stage for all the diners’ entertainment.

With much to see (and eat) in George Town, one would almost forget there is a completely different side to Penang. The northern shoreline has about ten public beaches, and the entire westside of the island is almost undeveloped, and designated forest reserved, complete with a national park, turtle breeding centre, butterfly sanctuary, tropical fruit and spice gardens and botanical gardens.

Even though we spent a good few days in Penang it feels like we haven’t yet seen all of it, which has to be a good sign! With that, our time in Malaysia has already come to an end again, now it’s off to Cambodia we go!

Langkawi: Paradise of cheap booze and cheese

Langkawi, Malaysia. 26-30 December 2019

Our journey brings us back to Kuala Lumpur where we fly on to the island of Langkawi, known as the Jewel of Kedah. An archipelago of 99 islands on Malaysia’s west coast bordering Thailand, Langkawi was once a hideout for pirates rampaging in the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. Though these days the pristine beaches of Langkawi draw in a different type of traveller, the rum still flows cheap and plentiful since the island was declared a duty-free zone in 1987.

We’re staying near Pantai Cenang, the island’s most popular beach and tourist area. Fun fact about Langkawi is that their weekend falls on Thursday-Fridays, which throws a bit of a spanner in the works when we first arrive, since some of the places we want to go see are shut. Instead we meet up with a friend of a friend, who owns a backpackers hostel nearby and party the weekend away.

For Lauren’s birthday the mission is simple: Eat cheese, and lots of it. Our quest brings us to a deli selling vintage Gouda with a french bakery nextdoor, and to a buffalo farm in the middle of the island to collect fresh mozzarella.

Langkawi also has it’s very own cheddar manufacturer, so most restaurants are well-supplied. Mac’n’cheese? Check!

One of the cooler places to visit is the Black Sand Beach. No one seems to know what has turned the sand black, since it’s not volcanic. Some say it’s minerals washed down from nearby Mount Raya, others believe it’s iron oxide or even petroleum.

Besides the novelty sand, the ice-cold waters of Black Sand Beach are more than welcome after a hot day of driving around the island.

Like the Philippines, Langkawi has its own island hopping tour, visiting three spots off the southern coast: An island taken over by macaques, a place to spot fishing eagles, and a giant saltwater lake. At a mere £6 a head it’s no wonder the tour is extremely popular, but it’s worth going. Some of the scenery looks identical to the Philippines.

In terms of wildlife there is one animal that stands out: the dusky leaf-monkey. When we visit a waterfall in the north-west of the island we run into a whole group of these strange, googly-eyed little creatures.

Near the airport we find a string of food stalls serving local delicacies and try laksa, a rice-noodle soup with mixed vegetables, chillies and fish, and cendol, a strange but not entirely unpleasant dessert made of coconut milk, rice flour jelly noodles, sweetcorn, kidney beans and syrup. With a runway on one side and a beach on the other, it’s become our favourite place to hang out at sunset and enjoy a good meal.

We’ve enjoyed Langkawi a whole lot, and it’s ticked a lot of boxes: Good food, nice beaches, imported cheese, cheap drinks, great weather and better yet, monkeys that haven’t tried to attack Lauren, which is a first! We’re off to a great start in Malaysia, next up we’re headed south to Penang to celebrate newyears.

Indonesia: the verdict

Medan, North-Sumatra. 25 December

It is Christmas day and we are checked in at an airport hotel before flying on to Malaysia. RedDoorz has pulled out all the stops: one smallish Christmas tree, one banner reading Merry X-mas, and one very disinterested member of staff who makes us wait until check-in time even though the room is already available.

The room actually looks not bad and even has a freestanding bath tub. As we have come to expect of airport hotels however, there’s a slight catch. In this case the tap doesn’t work. At least the hotel hasn’t burned down like the last one.

Utilizing our last rupiahs we put together a Japanese-style Christmas feast: a bucket of KFC. Meri Kurisumasu!

Now that we’ve come to the end of our time in Indonesia, as is our custom, let’s put some digits on the board, starting with the price of a pint.

Indonesia’s beer is Bintang. In Bali we’ve also drank Bali Hai, but Bintang is the clear winner in our opinion, and it is readily available all over the country. The odd thing about beer in Indonesia is that it’s actually cheaper to buy it at restaurants or hotels than to buy it in a shop. We’ve paid as much as 50,000 rupiah for a large bottle (700ml) in shops, and as little as 20,000 rupiah (£1) for the same at our hotel in Tanjung Benoa.

Travel stats (Indonesia) By land: 530 km. By air: 2,309 km. Duration: 14 days.

Travel stats (total) By land: 10,930 km. By water: 415 km. By air: 27,952. Duration: 149 days.

Now finally, what you have all been waiting for, the final scores as given by our honorable house judge Lauren!

The people score 8/10. Friendly, helpful and sweet at times, Indonesians more than pass the mark. With the exception of RedDoorz, the hospitality at hotels and restaurants has been exemplary.

The food scores 8/10. Though Western food may be expensive and underwhelming in Indonesia, even the most touristic spot has Warungs offering tasty and cheap Indonesian dishes. The Nasi Camphur is my all-time favourite, as are the freshly made iced teas and banana fritters desserts. High marks for this one!

The transport scores 5/10. Passable, as booking.com would say, Indonesia is the first place where we were close to being attacked by local Bemo mafia. The public bus service is practically non-existent and taxi’s aren’t always cheap. On a positive note, Bali has Kura-Kura. Cheaper than taxis, and equipped with airco and wifi, these little Japanese turtle buses save the day!

And with that said, I’m happy to announce that Indonesia has earned Lauren’s Certificate of Excellence. Well played!

Bukit Lawang: Hostage Situation!

Bukit Lawang, North-Sumatra. 21-24 December.

After landing in Medan we travel on to Bukit Lawang, home of the Sumatran orangutan (lit. jungle people).

We stay in a small tourist village on the Bahorok River, which is the main access point to Gunung Leuser National Park. The park has a population of around 5,000 orangutans.

The local rehabilitation centre for orangutans was founded in 1973, its purpose to preserve the decreasing population due to hunting, trading and deforestation. The centre closed its doors in 2002 as it had become too crowded with tourism.

Today in Bukit Lawang, the situation has changed much for the better. Although big palm oil and rubber plantations are still a threat to the jungle and wildlife, local rangers have successfully rehabilitated captive apes into the wild. Feeding platforms are no longer needed and thanks to a newly adopted ethical approach to tourism, the population is once again on the rise.

From the airport in Medan we take the local bus halfway to Binjai. From there we plan to take a local van to get us to our destination. In all fairness, the official Bukit Lawang tourism website does explicitly warn tourists not to use the local vans, as the guys running the service are “all drug-addicts who can’t be trusted”. Reviews on TripAdvisor confirm much the same, but for some reason we feel obliged to see for ourselves. Famous last words.

So..

When we eventually find a van that can take us to Bukit Lawang, our bags securely tied on top, and we ourselves crammed inside together with 19 locals, shit hits the fan. Six guys start banging on our window demanding money. We insist we will only pay the driver once we’ve reached our destination. The driver meanwhile shrugs his shoulders, pretending not to notice what’s going on outside the vehicle. Lauren quickly makes friends with the girl sitting next to her, who confirms none of the other passengers have paid upfront and the argument continues for what feels like an eternity.

Some of the guys are getting pretty aggressive now, but we’re not impressed. Realizing he’s not getting anything from us, a fat man comes walking up, points at us and shouts: “You! And you! Get out!” Our reply is synchronous: “Not a chance!” I’m now shouting on the driver to go, before anyone gets the idea of taking our bags down, and some of the locals join our cause. Faced with a whole group of annoyed passengers, the driver finally starts the car and drives away. The biggest smackhead of the bunch chases us down the road for a bit, but only manages to punch the van and we can relax. Lauren’s made a new friend, who is clearly impressed with her courage. The Binjai mafia has learned a valuable lesson today: The most dangerous animal of them all is a lioness from Scotland.

In town we’re collected by Erwin, who walks us to our hotel. He’s very likeable, and when we ask what he does for a living and it turns out he’s one of the rangers, we quickly decide to go trekking with him.

First we rest up a bit at the hotel after a long journey. There is a bat cave not far from the village, a complex of four different caves, each housing unique wildlife: spiders, scorpions, snakes, frogs, stingless blue bees, swallows and both small and large bats. We tunnel through small crevices from cave to cave for a peek into the habitat of some incredible nocturnal creatures.

In the midst of the wet season in Sumatra, the rain never stops coming down at night, but the following morning is bright and sunny when we prepare to go trekking in the jungle. The day couldn’t start off more auspicious with our first orange sighting, high up in the trees on the opposite side of the river that runs by the hotel.

To enhance our chances of a close encounter we’ve booked in for the 2-day trek and spend the night inside the park. It’s almost the season for Durian, aka king of fruits, so perhaps unsurprisingly it doesn’t take long at all to find our first great apes close to the park’s entrance; a mother and her teenage son, who tries to show off his skills to us by swinging dangerously from a branch. The branch breaks off mid-swing and with a thump the ape lands on his back and takes off in a huff, while mum isn’t moved at all. She casually sits munching a piece of fruit through the whole ordeal.

The same day we also spot a big male, and a female with a tiny baby, high up in the trees. Then there’s two types of macaque, a white-handed gibbon and a very chill Thomas leaf monkey.

Haven’t we all been there, Monday morning, on the bus, going to work?

The trek itself at times is pretty challenging, consisting almost exclusively of steep climbs and descents. Finally we reach the campsite by the side of a stream. After a long and taxing day we enjoy an ice-cold, refreshing bath, until we see the giant monitor lizards that had same idea.

At dinner Erwin tells us about Mina, one of the orangutans in the park, who has recently become a grandmother. He has known Mina since she was still in captivity as a pet to one of the villagers. Back then she was already known as aggressive, and ever since she was released into the wild, has become infamous for biting people, our ranger included. As if the lizards roaming free around camp weren’t enough to worry about.

The next morning we wake up with the light and after breakfast set off on the second trek. After a little while we strike lucky again. A full-grown male comes up close to get a good look at us all.

After just about the steepest, most dangerous decline, when we’re just beginning to think our luck’s dried up for today we suddenly hear Erwin shout: “Orangutan!” He’s worried it might be Mina, and leaves all of us scrambling to safety while a dark figure appears overhead. “No worries, it’s Jackie!”, we hear him breathe a sigh of relief. Jackie is meant to be a playful orangutan, so equally relieved, the two of us slow to a halt and look up to see a big orange figure slide down a big tree and jump onto the path beside us.

Relief quickly turns to mild anxiety when Jackie runs straight at us with her giant powerful arms and mild anxiety quickly turns to panic, when the first thing Jackie does is grabbing a firm hold of Lauren’s wrist and dragging her back up the steep incline we descended a moment ago. Once at the top, Erwin tells Lauren to sit down next to her new friend and right there and then a little baby pops its head out from under its mothers hairy arm. How about this for a Christmas card?

Mere seconds after this blissful scene, suddenly we’re in a reallife hostage situation. Jackie refuses to release Lauren and even threatens to bite off one of her fingers. Erwin freaks the fuck out and does not manage to diffuse the situation. He’s threatening a slap but Jackie is unfazed and lands a punch in his gut. Only after enough fruit is piled up for her does she choose to let the hostage go. So now we know how much Lauren is worth: No less than 6 pieces of fruit, thank you very much! 3 rambutons, 1 mandarin, 2 bananas. Jackie quickly gathers up the ransom and bounds up a tree with her baby.

The trek resumes. Just when we’re all fully relaxed again, once again Erwin sounds the alarm. He’s spotted Mina, of course, or rather, Mina has spotted him! No need to tell us twice, we’re already running. Behind us we hear the sounds of branches breaking and Erwin shouting. When we arrive at a clearing we turn around. There’s Erwin coming up on the path, followed by Mina. The thing is with Mina, she can smell fear, and she doesn’t like it if people are impolite. Just the other month, one of the rangers, who, in his panic, threw all his fruit down on the ground for her, got bitten. Erwin knows. Staring death in the eyes, this time he remains in complete control of the situation. Showing no fear, he politely hands her bits of a mandarin, while we safely escape behind him. Erwin kens how to treat a lady.

When we get to the river we’re exhausted but fully satisfied. Trekking over we’re heading back to the village in style: we’re tubing back down river for the perfect end to a memorable two days in the jungle.

It’s Christmas eve, we’ve just finished our first Christmas dinner of mash potatoes and chicken, wonderwall is being performed on guitar by a member of staff and we’re getting to ready to say goodbye to wonderful Bukit Lawang. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Christmas special straight from the Reddoorz airport hotel in Medan!