29 October 2012

Cameron Highlands

Time flies by when you're enjoying yourself, they say. This was certainly true for us – the first two months of island bliss had come and gone, and it was time to start packing for the first visa run. Destination: Malaysia. So we said bye to our lovely home and the scooter, arranged the plants so that they'd hopefully get some water and still be alive when we return, took a taxi to Thong Sala and soon we were watching Koh Phangan get smaller and smaller behind the Raja ferry. Even though the idea of a short holiday in a new place was nice, it was still comforting to know that in two weeks I'd be back (S a bit later), swinging in the hammock and waging war against ants.

The first pit stop in our Malaysian journey was still in Thailand, as we had to spend a night in Surat Thani. We reached the mainland after an uneventful 2,5 h ferry journey and rode another hour on the bus from Don Sak, where the big Raja ferry docks, before reaching our destination. There isn't much to say about the town – tourists go there in order to go somewhere else. There was a nice night market, though, where we enjoyed a very delicious Pad Thai, some very Asian-tasting super sweet lime drink and a couple of pretty interesting coconut cakes, one of which decided to spill its piping hot innards right on my shirt. Nice.

A random tempel in a transit city

So the following day there was more travelling to do: first a bus ride to Surat Thani airport, then a short flight to Kuala Lumpur followed by more sitting on the bus. First we made our way to KL center and managed to find the Puduraya bus station after some head-scratching. Until now I've never undestood why some people find the subway confusing, but after the signage, or lack of them, in KL, I now know why. Then the task was to find the correct counter on the bus station, which was also more baffling than any building I'd ever been before. Luckily there was a helpful dude to take us to the ticket counter floor. So hey Kuala Lumpur, you'd better improve your game before we return, as the first impression really wasn't all that awesome.

But we managed to get our tickets, got on the bus and were on our way to Tanah Rata in Cameron highlands. The trip took about 4,5 freezing hours (the temperature in any public transport in Asia never ceases to amaze me. Word of advice: you can't pack too many warm clothes/scarves in your carry-on luggage) and we stepped off the bus to a surprisingly busy Tanah Rata main street. We had unknowingly stumbled upon a super high peak weekend as a muslim holiday of some kind was taking place, but we were lucky enough to still find a room (although a more expensive family room) in 8 Mentigi guest house that I'd found in P├Ąde's blog

Our digs

So what's there to do in Cameron highlands? Well, first off, you can puzzle over the weirdness of the place. The temperature is like Finnish summer (the two weeks when it's actually warm ;)) and there are conifers growing peacefully beside the palmtrees:

 The buildings look like you could be somewhere in the Alps:

There's scones and tea to be had in the cafes, so now you'd think you were in England:

But you're still on Malaysian soil. When you get over the strangeness of it all, you can for example go see the views on Gunung Brinchang, the second-highest mountain in Malaysia (2000 m), taste the local strawberries (there're a gazillion farms everywhere), drink the local Boh tea and go see the tea plantations, or hike on some jungle trails. Or gorge yourself on some superbly excellent Indian food (go to a place called Kumar's. You won't regret it and neither will your wallet)

... or have some herb brew and dessert in Dynasty Tang house of dessert.

We decided to do a couple of tours with Cameron Eco Tours, which really paid off, as the tour guide was a biologist and told us loads about the jungle plants. We went to see the views from Gunung Brinchang, visited the mossy forest and took photos of butterflies on a butterfly farm on the first day. Tomorrow there's going to be a visit to the tea and strawberry farms as well as some other activities. Then it's bye bye Cameron highlands, as we're off to Penang (to eat even more ;)).

Hobbit hills or tea plantations?

Kunung Brinchang

Mossy forest

So, to sum up the Camerons: it's nice to breathe some cool mountain air for a change, and the sights are worth seeing. There's enough things to do and stuff to see for a few days, but I wouldn't spend a week here. And I'll be super happy to change my sneakers and long pants to flip flops and a dress again as we reach Penang and the tropical climate again :)

19 October 2012

Trekking Khao Ra

Last weekend we stayed on the island for a change and wanted to go hiking in the mountains (or can you call them mountains? Hills?). No reason to start with the smaller ones, we thought, and chose Khao Ra, the highest peak on Koh Phangan. Well ok, to be fair, it's not so very high, only a bit over 600 metres over sea level. But still, the views would be awesome.

Half-way view

After some research on the Internet we noticed the severe lack of information on how to actually get there. The only info we got was to go to the Phaeng waterfall and hire a guide to take us to the mountain. We didn't really feel like taking a guide, though, and after stumbling upon a forum text from last year from a guy who had done the hike, we drew a crude map, bought 4 1,5 litre bottles of water (just enough) and 2 Snickers bars (would've been nice to have more) and set out to see what we would find.

As all the info on the route was not very helpful, I've decided to give you guys instructions on how to get there. Feel free to skip forward to the actual story if you're not planning to head this way and do the hike any time soon:

So, as we live in Srithanu, here are the instructions on how to get from Srithanu village to the beginning of the path that'll take you up on the mountain:

Take a left (or right, depending where you're coming from) after the Center Pharmacy opposite 7/11. Drive until you reach a T-junction (after passing Agama yoga on the right hand side). Turn right, towards Thong Sala. Continue on the road for quite some time until you pass a lovely garden store on your left, then turn left from the next Y-junction (the right-turn would take you to Thong Sala).

Drive a longish way on a nice and wide road until you reach a T-junction. Turn right, go past the junction towards Koh Phangan hospital on your right, cross the bridge and take the small concrete road left BEFORE you pass the Phaeng waterfall sign on the left side of the road.

Drive until you reach an entrance to a tempel. Don't enter the tempel grounds but turn left. Follow the road until it turns to a dirt road, and then some (until you're sure you've missed the right junction). You will eventually see a sign for Khao Ra Bungalows. Take a right from the sign and drive until the end of the road. You'll see a small family garden and a clearing where you can leave your bike or if you're more adventurous, you can continue driving up the path for a while longer until you loose nerve or the road becomes unfit for a scooter. We left our bike here and continued on foot.

From here on the way is pretty straightforward: just follow the path upwards.

Ok, then for the trek itself. Let me just tell you: it is not as hard as the other text we found lets you think. For one, we never had to climb on our hands and knees and we certainly didn't find the path at all hard to follow. I don't know if they've improved something or added more signs after the writer of the other text had done his trek, but we didn't even find the mentioned four junctions on the path where the other guy said he didn't know where to turn. I think the path had one offshoot to the right at some point, but as it seemed to go down and we wanted to go up, the choice wasn't really that hard.

So, what did we find? In the beginning of the jungle path there was a dam. Obviously the water was very low as the rain season is only starting, but it'd be interesting to visit a second time after it has been raining heavily.

After crossing the dam and following the jungle path for a while, we came onto a small vegetable farm. Very cool to see these as well, as we haven't seen so many farms or gardens at all.

There was a small house before the path entered the jungle proper. The dude has pretty amazing views from up there.

The jungle path made its way to some sweet viewpoints, but it was mainly what is says: a jungle path. Like I said, it wasn't hard to follow at all, and we didn't feel it to be particularly hard to climb. Yes, there were some spots where you had to use your balance, but I don't think you need to have any particular skills to be able to make this climb. Just a bit of tenacity and a lot of water (and something to eat). It's not even very hot in the jungle as it gets nicer and cooler the higher you get. And we were surprised that there were very little bugs/mosquitos/flies. Maybe the situation is different when the rain season really kicks in, but at least now we were left to climb alone.

After reaching the top we could safely say that yes, the climb was worth it. The views over Chaloklum are breathtaking. We happened to have a nice and bright day, but even on an overcast day I'd think the trip is worth making. We met another couple who'd done the hike on top, who told us that there is another viewpoint when you take the other jungle path from the top and turn right when you reach a junction, but the main view was way nicer.

The trek itself up to the top took us about two hours. We kept breaks and didn't rush it. The descent took 1,5 hours with one nice break on a cliff to admire the views. All in all, I really recommend taking the effort and climbing up there. We plan to check out some other mountains (and the waterfalls!) as well, but this was a nice beginning and the first chance to use our hiking boots :)

So here's some more photos from along the way. The butterflies here are simply amazing: there are sooo many different ones in all colours of the rainbow, and some of the are huge! I'm so grateful for my zoom objective <3

The next post will be about more normal things, as I haven't really been writing that much about our daily life here. So stay tuned!

12 October 2012

Koh Tao

As I was turning 30 in October and S also had his birthday, he had booked a surprise trip for us to Koh Tao, the neighboring small island. This was the place where I originally fell in love with Asia five years ago, so it was interesting to see, if it would be anything like I remembered.

...which would be something like this. Tanote Bay, east side of the island

Quess what? It really wasn't. The resort we chose, Sea Shell, was just a small dive shop with some bungalows back then. The room was great though, much bigger than the house we're living in, and with comfy pillows! (which are sooo hard to find here). And the view wasn't too shabby either:

The almost undeveloped stretch between Mae Haad and Sairee Beach was now full of buildings, mainly resorts which had grown, and grown again. There was a whole strech of new bars catering for the diving and drinking tourists, leaving the old Sairee beach road almost deserted, except for the part that's been swallowed by Baan's Diving resort, which had also grown exponentially since our last visit.

Busy Mae Haad where the ferries dock

Lots of shops, Sairee beach

Sairee Hut, the lovely resort we stayed at 5 years ago was unrecognizable with it's new, fancy concrete villas and a completely redone restaurant and pool area (who needs the pool when there's an ocean 10 metres away?). Only one of the old bungalows was left, and it seemed to be used as storage space. The restaurant, like also almost all of the other great seaside spots, was empty in the evening as the westerners preferred the loud bars and pizza buffets (!!) along the new main road.

More new shops in Sairee

So yes, development had certainly happened, and like is so often the case, it had transformed the once beautiful, small, laid-back and quiet place to a holiday island with loud masses of people and services catering for them. It's of course not all bad: where there're tourists, there's money for the locals running the shops and services. There were nice spas, and the pancake carts were still there. And some of the expansions to the resorts were done in good taste. But still, one can't deny that the old vibe is gone. Sad, but inevitable, I guess. I'm just glad that the wheels of progress seem to be turning so much slower on Koh Phangan.

Nice views over Ao Leuk / Hin Ngam Bay

Don't get me wrong: we still enjoyed our time there with all the good food and plenty of massages plus an hour spent sweating in a sauna. We also had an exhilarating (and sometimes downright terrifying, with my driving skills) time with our scooters, exploring some of the view points of the island. But the fact is, that the island is now just another Samui for younger people, and no, I don't think we'll be going back. So let's drink a toast to the old paradise island and leave it to the hands of the diving factories and their customers. We like it here on our island (even more).

The cluster of buildings is Sairee beach

Yes, lots of new tall buildings

No monsoon yet. Reservoir up on the hills was super dry.

Beautiful Tanote Bay

Foot on holiday

Tourists waiting to board Lomprayah

And yes, there were also a lot of Germans here, like also on our island. But come on, maybe they're exaggerating just a little bit with the sticker...? ;)