Cheng Chin Yuen

Saturday, August 20, 2005

KL Reloaded - From the Resort to the Last Resort...

After a good lunch of Ipoh chicken rice and bean sprouts, my Dad dropped us off at Rawang where we took the train back to the birdless bustle of KL. It was a comfortable ride and Malaysia has really come far in its railway system.

We decided to stay near KL Sentral, the main train station where we could catch the train to the airport. Emerging from the station, Karen's sharp eyes spotted a 'Budget Hotel' and we headed for it, immediately abandoning the intial YMCA hostel plan.

Climbing up the dank narrow staircase and pushing aside a squeak grill, we were greeted by a waft of Indian spices, smelly shoes, stale air and a variety of odours that will make a coffeeshop toilet in Singapore look like an aroma theraphy centre. So naturally, we took the room. It was at a fantastic location, near the monorail, train and another LRT line and there was a promising Indian resturant downstairs. For RM$40 with airconditioning, what more could we ask for?

The owner, Mr Jude, had a large gold earring in one ear and red tinted hair. He, like most people in the area was Indian and insisted that we had our photo taken to be displayed on his wall together with the pictures of the other backpackers who seemed to have survived their stay here. Jude is an experienced traveller and is heading up to China to meet his wife (who runs a tea business there) in a couple of days.

Jude advised us to take the train to Nilai and then hop on the connecting bus to the airport instead of the RM$35 per person express train. We did that and it saved us RM$55 for the two of us. That is one day's expenditure in KL including accomodation!! Another nice twist of fate where we were rewarded for our initial bravery. We may decide to take the train up to Laos as Jude says its much cheaper. Its so important to talk to people when we travel!

We tried to get up the Petronas Tower but all 800 tickets were snapped up within 50 minutes of opening time and this was on a friday. So if you want to get up the skybridge, you got to be 'kiasu' and queue up ridiculously early like 5am! What was really idiotic was that we asked a lady at the reception of the mammoth buidling where to get the access tickets and she directed us to the basement, where we went, only to find a notice saying that they have run out of tickets for the day...Aarrgh! Don't these people talk to each other? Why not put the sign on the first floor in the first place?

Well, we can't seem to avoid KLCC. It's airconditioned and we can hang around for hours for free at the food court! We did our blogs for a couple of hours and I went to a travel agency to find out if we needed a visa for Laos (we don't) and checked out some airfares to Vientianne and Bangkok (the prices really motivated us to take a train up). The late afternoon was spent embarassingly in a GV cinema watching Nicole Kidman in 'Bewitched' which turned out to be a really bad show. The saving grace was of course Nicole and that we paid only RM$10 each.

We had plenty of meals at the Restoran Yusoof and Zakhir which was just downstairs. Really fantastic tosai, chapatti, Idli, Mutton curry, teh halia and at even better prices. A good meal with drinks for two came up to RM$5.50! The staff there, after seeing us for the third time developed a liking for us and greeted us with friendly smiles. One of them came up to have a look at my PDA.

'Got phone?'

'No phone, only $65, second hand'

The restaurant was bright, clean and had brazillian coloured mistifiers! Quite a difference from our 'hotel'!

Location of this favourite Indian haunt: Take monorail to the last station called 'KL monorail Sentral' go down the escalator, turn right and it is the SECOND shophouse facing the main road. Happy eating!

I am typing this entry in KL airport awaiting an AirAsia flight to Kota Kinabalu. It's great to be going somewhere totally new and I am eager to climb the great mountain!

Why climb Everest? Someone asked Sir Edmund Hillary.

'Because it is there.'

Our humble abode in KL. RM$40 on weekdays, $10 more on weekends.  Posted by Picasa

Just when you thought the haze is gone. Posted by Picasa clear as it gets. Posted by Picasa

Yet another ridiculous sign. Posted by Picasa

Not quite like Fraser's Hill... Posted by Picasa

Banana Tosai at Restoran Yusoof & Zakhir...Food here is Fantastic! Posted by Picasa

Fraser's Hill – The Bus and The Birder Saga

'To go Fraser's Hill, you take that bus', said the helpful Indian bus conductor on Mega Coach as we reached Kuala Kubu Bahru. 'that bus' was actually a nice name for the ancient Mercedes boneshaker parked in the next bay. Delighted that we made it in time for the connection, we hauled our packs aboard and started taking pictures of this prehistoric vehicle. The wooden floorboards, kitsch red leather seats and sliding windows transported me to the era when my grandfather brought me on a smiliar SBS bus to buy a bunch of bananas from Bukit Merah. I distinctly remember how the poor conductor would cling on to the handrails as he made his way to the passengers as the bus jackhammered on.

This boneshaker, however, had a very complicated dashboard and was spotless. It's new coat of paint gave me some confidence that this relic would summit the 1534m 'hill'. In a couple of minutes, an elderly Indian driver collected RM$3.60 for the two of us, punched a couple of buttons on his yellowed ticketing machine, issued us a ticket, and off we went.

Apart from fact that the entire bus was rattling and our polite driver chose to face his friend as they conversed while simultaneously negotiating the numerous turns and hairpin bends on the 2-way road, we had a very enjoyable ride, admiring in the bamboo vegetation, valley scenery and the streams along the way.

A massive dam that converted part of the lower valley into a large reservoir did spoil the scenery and the many giant blue canverse sheets covering sections of steep slopes along the road served as stark reminders of the dangers of landslides. Some slopes had to be covered with cement to prevent further erosion. This was a real eyesore. Fortunately, the majority of the mountain forest was still intact. One and a half hours later, we arrived at Fraser's Hill and bade farewell to the driver as he continued his daily run to Raub. Besides ferrying passengers, he also delivers packages to the construction workers and newspapers to the shops.

Fraser's Hill is reputed to be a birdwatching paradise, with more species of birds (265 species recorded) in its natural sanctuary than the larger Endau Rompin.

We do get a hint of this was indeed a Birder's mecca from the comprehensive bird charts, calendars, books, photographs and even paintings of resident birds by local artists in many of the shops, eateries and hotels here.

Fraser's Hill has the cool highland climate of Cameron but not the maddening crowds and the accompanying problems of development. Initially, we thought that we would die of boredom after 3 days here (especially since I was done with The Half-blood Prince) but all that changed 5 hours later when my dear folks arrived with a very unique retired Monfort school teacher in tow.

Without Sebastian, our experience would probably be summed up as 'a good chill out with some occasional sightings of nice birds '. But after hearing him say stuff like 'that was a Green Babbet (after only hearing its call)' and 'a Magpie Robin will jerk up its tail after landing but the Fantail would not' and 'the female sunbird is green while the male is more colourful' and 'the worst bird to have near your house is a Cowell(probably misspelled)’, we knew that this dude wasn't normal and this little escapade would be much more than your average nature walk. Here was a Birder with some amazing Birder skills to match! Besides the mandatory basic bird knowledge, he could remember and mimick several bird calls, attract some species of birds with his whistles, spell out their characteristics and traits, and spot birds very very very very quickly in the densest foliage. Sebastian kind of redefines and glorifies the term 'bird-brain'.

Sebastian is also 'pro' enough to tell you that those 'monkeys' are actually Black-faced Macaques and ' that is not a cashew nut tree as they usually grow near the sea' and that 'unique spider' is an 'Andrew Cross Spider'. So with such a friendly, chatty and 'bird-brained' personality as our guide, 3 days was not enough to absorb what Sebastian had to deliver. He was a fantastic teacher in the perfect classroom. The only problem were 2 lazy students who never got up in time for the 7am classes!

These Sebastian sessions were prime examples of how commanding knowledge is when it is well-applied and effectively communicated. It also got me thinking about what areas I would like to be a specialist in by the time I retire and how I would put the knowledge and skills to good use.

My favourite encounter on Fraser’s Hill was not with the birds but with 4 Gibbons (see photos) feeding in a tree full of flowers. These FREE, black, furry and long-armed creatures were quite oblivious to our presence and swung gracefully from branch to branch foraging for their early afternoon lunch. It was really wonderful to see them enjoying their ‘makan’ session in the wild where food was in abundance. Behind them, in another tree were two more hyperactive Macaques.

The next encounter that comes close to sharing this top stop was with a bird. One very small but brave male Sunbird (see photo), no bigger than my fist, perched on our balcony railing barely half a meter from us and inspected us for about half a minute, which felt like an eternity for a bird-human close encounter. He then flew back to the bottlebrush tree to rejoin his mates. Sunbirds are rare in Singapore but really common here and are very vivacious little things which are a joy to observe. We could see his radiant colours so clearly and he kept turning around as if to show off his plumage. That was magical…so magical that I forgot to photograph it.

The best walk we had was the anticlockwise loop of Jalan Girdle. Quite a few of the photos that follow this article were taken along this road. This morning walk does break the stereotype that you only see interesting nature stuff in the forest. The highlight of this walk was a car garage which was inhabited with hundreds of swifts. They were agitated by us peering in and started flying around the smelly garage before zooming out into the open through the slots in the gate. They were so fast you couldn’t get a good look at them! Well they are, after all, the fastest birds in the world. We also saw many fine specimens of plants and flowers along this road. They seem to grow bigger and healthier in this cooler climate. Here’s a short list of the stuff we saw: tall bamboo-like grass(bamboo is a type of grass), leaf bird, trumpet flowers, squirrels, chipmunks, swallows, raptors, babbets, magpie robbins, tailor birds, sunbirds, moths, butterflies, tree ferns, cat’s tail plant, wild orchids, really tall banana trees, drongos, longtails, morning glory, flourishing plant disease and tons of flora and fauna which I cannot name.

How we got to know of this walk was also a pleasant surprise. Coming out from our resort, we decided to take the road instead of some precarious steps cut into the side of the slope and we bumped into this man from Namibia. A friendly ‘Hello’ led to a 20 minute conversation ranging from good walks to take at Fraser’s Hill, problems with his passport (which has only 32 pages and a map showing where Namibia is!), inflation and aid in Africa, travelling in Myanmar, Robert Mungabe to the ridiculously long name of the Namibian President. It was really one of those crazy conversations made in the middle of the resort carpark with all of us standing in a small circle, where one thing just led to another. He recommended the Jalan Girdle walk and a splendid one it was!

There were many ‘banglos’ or bungalows scattered all over Fraser’s Hill including a reasonably large one called ‘Singapore House’. We knew that it was definitely Singapore-owned not because signs seldom lie but distastefully screwed onto the main door of this house was a sign which said ‘PLEASE DO NOT BRING DURIANS INTO THE BUNGALOW’. In typical nanny-state style, our Singapore House was well looked after by a caretaker, a gardener, one friendly brown dog(who kind of showed us around) and his simply bo-chap mate. The caretaker says that we could book the bungalow via the Aloha website which I believe bookings can be made only by civil slaves…er ooops…servants, which makes me REALLY regret leaving the service. Just kidding, of all the jobs I’ve never held in the world, teaching is the best!

Many good hours were spent just listening to my parents and Sebastian (who are from the same era, give and take 5-7 years) expounding on their childhood adventures. One particular gory one was about how Sebastian caught sparrows using chicken cages, de-feathered, fried and ate them. Well, this was probably in the 60s where Kentucky Fried Sparrow was non-existent. Mum shared my grandma’s secret recipe of raw squid preserved with salt, garlic, ginger and chilli. This magic formula is kept for 3 weeks in a jar and then the squid is just eaten like that. Great with porridge she says…Dad told a really funny story of how his false teeth were made by dentistry students while he was studying in Newcastle. He was their guinea pig for 3 years and had to endure their little ‘repairs’ while the professor graded them. Well, the amazing thing is that his dentures lasted till today! Times are a-changing but I like it when Sebastian said that during his time, his toys were all free since they came from his surroundings. My dad backpacked with one small pack. Today, I hop around with a 90 litre Macpac, one laptop bag, one camera bag and a travel guitar (which Karen carries). I am still trying to shed some weight off my load. Hopefully, with all this equipment I can convey clearer stories to my children (and perhaps students) in the future.

On the last evening, the mist decended upon Fraser’s Hill and it was lovely watching the landscape fading and re-appearing as the wind blew the mist along. We celebrated the closure of the trip with a little-better-than-so-so steamboat dinner at a hotel restaurant but as usual, good company and conversation made up for the rest.

Verdict: Fraser’s Hill is very MUCH better than Cameron ESPECIALLY you are in the presence of a Birder! Good food is hard to find especially if you have the Cheng family’s standard for meals. The best grub is the nasi padang stall on the left of The Tavern but it’s only good for lunch where the selection is freshly cooked.

Mr Brave! Posted by Picasa

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Small boys and a small hydrant. Posted by Picasa

Who's Foo? Posted by Picasa

Andrew's Cross Spider! Posted by Picasa

Big Sunglasses... Posted by Picasa

They are everywhere! Posted by Picasa

Now its hard to see the birds. Posted by Picasa

Mosque in the mist. Posted by Picasa

Misty valley. Posted by Picasa

Grumpy Bobbie! Posted by Picasa

Ooops...caught in the act! Posted by Picasa

Gobble gobble gobble!  Posted by Picasa

Monkey Nirvana Posted by Picasa

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Colourful Monday morning! Posted by Picasa

Hong Kong's 'National' Flower Posted by Picasa

Ridges beyond Riches! Posted by Picasa

I spy my 8 little eyes... Posted by Picasa

Imagination is more important than knowledge! AE Posted by Picasa

The Sentinel of The Singapore House on Fraser's Hill  Posted by Picasa