A Travellerspoint blog

The slow train to Bangkok

semi-overcast 30 °C
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The title "the slow train to Bangkok" is an understatement. It took us 2 nights and 2 days to reach our destination from Kuala Lumpur - but it was a lovely way to travel. First, we got an overnight train to Butterworth in Malaysia. This was a very civilised experience. As we set off, a nice little man came round to take our dinner order (we were only in the 2nd class sleeper) Then, after feeding us, they turned our seats into beds (complete with proper pillows and sheets). They stopped short of tucking us in for the night, and Lisab was in her bed before Andyb could say "night, night, dear".

The next morning, we were woken bright and early (by the nice little man), so we didn't miss our stop. As Butterworth is not all that, we decided to catch the ferry over to spend the morning in Georgetown, Penang, as our onward train to Bangkok didn't leave until 14:30. Georgetown was pleasant enough, but we were disappointed that Khoo Kongsi (a traditional Chinese Clan house) was closed on Sundays (until further notice - just our luck!) We did go to Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, which was 2nd on the "to do list". This was built by a Cantonese businessman who was quite smart when it came to trading with the British. It was a nice enough renovated house, but best of all was the VERY animated guide who showed us around; she was rather like a headmistress keeping her unruly brats in check.

The second (overnight) train was just as much fun as the first - though on the second day we were several hours late, and they only thought to feed us breakfast. We realised that it was a slow train, when we saw several people sauntering past the carriage window, as we (even more slowly) trundled up the track. Still, we whiled away the hours watching the camp Thai "Frank Spencer lookalikee" waiter, who seemed to take a shine to Andyb. This was because he was in his element, serving Andrew beer (he appeared to love waiting on people - just as well given his choice of career).

We finally arrived in Bangkok, and liked our first impressions. The transport system is fabulous - with the underground and skytrains. We can't imagine what it would have been like trying to travel around Bangkok before they arrived. We heard the underground had only been open around 12 months. We spent many an hour, travelling too and from the dentist (in Siam Square) on the Skytrain. We don't usually have a masochistic streak, but dental work here is much cheaper (and just as good) as England.

We did have time to fit in the Grand Palace (amongst the tooth extraction/filling commitments). This is classed as the holiest site in the country. It also houses the Emerald Buddah - which is surprisingly small - but is the most sacred buddah image in the country. He was dressed in his rainy season costume when we saw him (his others being cool season and hot season costumes). Some of the complex, which dates back to 1785, was closed due to the King's sister lying in state (she's been there for nearly a year now, so it's almost time for her funeral). The Thai's seem to hold a genuine affection for the Royal family, particularly for the King. Some even wear yellow (the King's colour) on a Monday (the day of his birth). They also stand up in the cinema, to show respect for the monarchy, when footage of the king's life is shown; this happens just before the main feature film starts. We can't imagine the British standing up for Lizzie.

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Grand Palace

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Guardians watching over the Grand Palace

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Another guardian

We spent an afternoon on happy pant road (or Khao San Road as it's formally known). This was FULL of backpackers (of the clown pant and tooth pick in beard variety). We had quite a jolly time having a few beers and watching the sites from a roadside bar. It is a backpackers haven, full of hostels, and although we enjoyed it for a few hours, we were very glad we were staying in the quieter district of Sukhumvit.

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Happy Pant Road

Overall, we didn't do that much in Bangkok (though we stayed for a week). However, we found that even though it's a busy place, it's not too hectic, and it's a great place to sort out your teeth and Chinese visa!

Posted by bruntonal 23:34 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Bako National Park

semi-overcast 30 °C
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Bako national park was established back in 1957 (same year that Malaysia became an independent country) and covers an area of about 2,700 hectares. It is quite a small area for a national park (and is one of Sarawak's smallest) yet it contains almost every type of vegetation found in Borneo. There is one trail within the park (which takes roughly 3 hours to complete) where you can see 5 out of the 7 different ecosystems that are contained within the park.

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These are the deadly (to ants) pitcher plants. Inside, they contain a lethal (yet attractive to insects) acid. The poor insects hop in, then get eaten alive as they slowly dissolve in the liquid. They grow in dense forest, usually where there are fallen leaves.

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Mangrove forest

Baco is probably one of the best places in Sarawak to experience wildlife, which is why we decided to spend three days here. It is home to some rather scary animals (such as snakes and the unruly macaque monkeys, not forgetting the carnivorous plants!), but also some lovely ones (such as the proboscis monkeys and comical crabs).

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This is the sight that greeted us at Bako national park. It is a Bornean bearded pig. We saw 5 of these trotting in and out of the vegetation.

Having had previous experience of the macaque monkeys we knew about their stealing habits. But on arrival we were forewarned that the ones in the park are particularly bold and are constantly on the rob, so we should lock all doors, windows and ensure all food is locked away. However, we weren't prepared for the day that one scally macaque did a smash 'n' grab of Andrew's foodplate at the restaurant and nicked his fish. The cheek of it!

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And they look so innocent and cute....

The snakes in the park, although potentially dangerous (though not lethal to humans) were very docile. During the 3 days we were there, they didn't change position. Could they have been plastic?

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These are both types of wagler's pit viper. We also saw a whip snake a couple of times, but in true whip snake style, they were too quick to photograph, or to even say "there goes a whip sn.." before it's buggered off.

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We found the hermit crabs very funny, with their borrowed shells. They're all roaming the beach (when the tide is out) in some really odd outfits.

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Cocky crab - "come down here and say that"! (were sure it was saying that to us). We think this is some type of fiddler crab. It just has one huge pincer - they were all like this - it's not a disabled one.

We were quite fascinated by the mudskippers, which leap about the shoreline and are very quick (though wouldn't win a race with a whip snake)

Other than the (frankly annoying) macaques, there are some nice monkeys to be found within Baco. One type is the silver leaf monkeys (or silvered langurs) which are quite shy, sleepy and spend most of their day sitting up a tree doing not very much.

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Silver leaf monkey

We were really pleased to get to see the proboscis monkeys in their natural habitat. They were quite high up in the canopy, and we could see them clearly leaping from tree to tree. These monkeys are endemic to Borneo and are considered an endangered species. They are mostly arboreal, and spend their time eating young shoots, leaves and sour fruits (they are unable to eat sweet fruits as this causes gas in their stomach and they are in danger of exploding!) One lucky male has a harem of around 12 females. He differs from the female physically; not only is he larger and has a pot pelly, he's also the one with the funny looking, huge pendulous nose (the bigger the better to attract all those females into his harem).

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Proboscis monkey

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Different view of the same proboscis monkey

If it wasn't for the mosquitoes, we could have tried a nocturnal walk, where we could have spied such delights as a slow loris, western tarsier, mouse deer, flying lemur, pangolin, palm civet and different kinds of bats. But we'd already been eaten alive in the daytime, so we'll watch these from the comfort of our settee, on the telly, with David Attenborough for company (the BBC have been into the Baco national park several times to film).

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Bako at sunset.

Posted by bruntonal 05:31 Archived in Malaysia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The Iban tribe

a visit to the longhouse

semi-overcast 29 °C
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It took us around 5 hours, from Kuching, to reach the Iban's long house. This entailed a pleasant journey by van through the Borneo countryside and included a stop off at a pepper garden, to see how pepper is produced. The pepper plant is essentially a vine that requires a central stake for support. All 3 types of pepper (black, white and red) are produced from the same vine, but they are processed in different ways. The berries are picked when ripe and are laid out in the sun for a few weeks to produce black pepper. From the same harvest, other berries are rinsed or soaked in water for up to 2 weeks to remove the outer husk, revealing the white corns inside, and subsequently dried to produce white pepper corns. Only the best (heaviest) berries are reserved to produce the red pepper corns. This process occurs by boiling the berries for a couple of days - and this "dyes" the berries red - before they are dried.

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Black pepper drying out in the Malay sunshine

We then changed van for longboat and had an agreeable half hour moseying up the river to our "home" for 2 nights. Lisab (being an unsociable type) was a little wary of spending so long in the company of people with whom she couldn't readily communicate - though we both were interested in seeing how the Ibans really live - and felt this couldn't be achieved by a one day tour. We had booked our tour with Borneo Adventures, which had promised an "authentic" stay in a longhouse; this would include being the only tourist guests in the longhouse at the time of our visit.

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The longhouse that was our home for 2 nights

As we arrived, we were greeted by the chief and his wife, and given a drink of rice wine. We were then left by our guide to "mingle" with the members of the longhouse. This particular longhouse is inhabited by 34 families, and although they have their own spaces (to cook, sleep & sometimes watch satellite telly!), people are often found relaxing or (if they are older women) working on their handicrafts, on the communal ruai - a roofed verandah. This runs the length of the longhouse. It was a little awkward at first - they often spoke minimal English; we only know the word for toilet (tandas) and closed (tutup) in Malay - so there was alot of nodding and smiling going on. Added to this, the Ibans were at the end of celebrating the harvest festival, which had started on the 31t May. Some of the (younger) male members of the community were a little piddled by our 4pm arrival. But most seemed genuinely interested in our visit and families would often invite us into their house for a glass of rice wine or rice whiskey (Lisa often fancied a cup of tea, but was given short shrift if she mumured the t-word).

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The communal ruai

The boys (who weren't drunk) playing Iban football

Later on in the evening, we were given a formal welcome by the chief, and a welcome dance was performed by two younger Ibans. Part of the welcome involved ritual humilation of the Bruntons as we were invited to take to the dance floor and attempt to copy their dance moves. This was when Lisa cursed herself for refusing the rice wine earlier in the day. We then presented our gifts to the longhouse (pencils and colouring books for the kids).

Unfortuately no coverage of the Brunton's dancing, but here is the male part of the welcome dance.

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After the dancing... You'd think the Bruntons would be embarrassed by the silly hats and sillier grins on their faces. But they are far more red faced because of the state of their shirts - bought in a hurry - to keep out the mozzies.

The older Iban community make their living from working on the oil palm planations, rubber planations and making handicrafts to sell to visiting tourists. The optimum time for collecting the rubber sap is around 4am, so they have to get up early in this job. The sap is collected by scoring the tree and letting the sap drip into the pots. The sap is collected from dozens of trees, mixed with a chemical, then poured into a tray and left to dry for a full day. It is then rolled through a mangle to produce a thiner sheet of latex which is aproximately 1.5m by 0.5m and sold for a few English pounds. A number of people work to collect the rubber, yet they are only able to produce one sheet of latex per day.

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A rubber tree that has been tapped to drain the sap

The Ibans are one of three different tribes in Borneo that used to practice the custom of head hunting. Thankfully the practice is now ceased (at least in Malaysian Borneo - our guide told us the practice still occurs in tribes in Indonesian Borneo - though he could have been kidding us). There were 3 reasons why the Iban tribe collected skulls - to gain land, to gain pride, or to gain a fair maiden's hand in marriage. When the community grew too large for their land to supply them with enough forest to hunt and collect food, they would politely ask a neighbouring tribe for extra land. If the request was refused, they would then attack the village at dawn, after a full night of rituals. The land seekers would cut off all the heads of the males within the attacked village. They would celebrate their success in another ritual, whereby each warrior would mix together the brains and blood of the particular men they'd killed with rice wine and drink the mixture. This was thought to give the warriors increased power, as they took the strength and soul of the dead warrior. The women from the village would become slaves for a period of 2 and a half years (being made to cook, clean etc) before being integrated into the community. The more heads a warrior gained, the more pride and esteem he could command within his community. Successful warriors were deemed to be powerful and were therefore respected by their tribe and others. When a warrior wanted a wife, he would visit a longhouse and peruse the women - to see if anyone took his fancy. He would woo his chosen one with a short courtship, before suggesting marriage. The woman would accept marriage ONLY if she fancied him, AND on the proviso that he bring her the head of the most respected warrior he could kill. Often, one woman could be courting several eager warriors, and the first one back with the best head won! Lisab says "what's wrong with a diamond ring?"

Primary school for the young Ibans is about a 40 minute boat ride away, but for the secondary school kids, they leave the longhouse and board at a hostel for a few weeks to go to school near Kuching. We spoke to one family where 2 daughters were visiting for the festival - they were married and now lived in Kuching and KL. It seems that the younger Ibans are getting a taste of different cultures and are moving out of the longhouse tradition. Because it was festival time a number of families were visiting, so it was hard to get a true sense of how many younger Ibans are staying at the longhouse full time.

The second day was spent in the jungle. We first had a walk through the forest; all the while our guides were picking fruits from the trees (such as limes, mangosteens and chillies) to let us try them. It also involved trudging through the river, up to our knees in water. We then stopped for them to make us a delicious bamboo lunch. This involved them hacking down bits of trees to make a barbeque and to get fire wood, cutting bamboo to provide makeshift cooking utensils, and cutting fresh banana leaves to cook the rice in etc. It was great watching their survival skills in action; we felt like we were living through an episode of Ray Mears.

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One of our guides for the day made us these sticks after Andyb fell down an embankment and Lisab slipped onto her arse on the path. And we were the ones wearing proper hiking boots....

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Preparing our gormet lunch

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When Andyb's chicken went on the bbq

This video shows the man using a kris to cut the bamboo

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The dogs at the long house

The last day, after breakfast and before we said farewell, we were treated to a blow pipe demonstration. They were also going to throw in a cock fight for free but the vegetarian declined the invitation. The blow pipe was a weapon that they used to kill animals and other warriors - they would dip the dart in poison (from a tree) shooting it into their prey. Muchas fun was had by both Bruntons attempting to hit the target (competitive wife was on top form).

Blow pipe demonstration

Both of us thought the longhouse trip was interesting rather than enjoyable. Our guide had purposely left us on our own to engage with the longhouse inhabitants (or at least that's how he justified his long disappearances), which was ok to an extent, but there's only so much nodding and smiling we could do. When he was there and interpreting for us, it was much more interesting - particularly when a couple were asking for his help (the man's ex-wife had put a black magic curse on his new wife - they were clearly terrified at the potential consequences of it). But we certainly felt that we'd got an insight into how the Iban's live in the 21st Century.

Posted by bruntonal 04:31 Archived in Malaysia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Semenggoh Nature Reserve

The Orang-utan Sanctuary

overcast 28 °C
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Did you know that the word orang-utan means man of the forest in Malay? Or that the scientific name given to orang-utans is pongo pygmaeus? (they must smell up close). These are just some of the facts that you can find out if you visit (as we did) the nature reserve at Semenggoh, near Kuching in Malaysian Borneo. You also get the chance to see some of the 22 semi-wild orang-utans that are "housed" within the reserve. The aim of the wildlife centre is to rehabillitate the orang-utans and eventually set them out into the wild. However, the orang-utans have often been kept as pets for a number of years before being confiscated and brought here, so they lack survival skills. The nature reserve is made up of a few hundred hectares of Dipterocarp Forest (ones that contain several types of fruiting trees) and so the orang-utans are free to roam the area for their food. They also get fed twice during the day. We went to see an afternoon troughing session and were lucky enough to see around 8 orang-utans - which included a few mums and babies, as well as the dominant male (no, not Andyb); Ritchie.

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A picture of the big man. Ritchie now weighs a humungous 110kgs (2 Lisab's). He is now around 18 years old, and has obvious flanges (cheek pads). These start to grow when the male orang-utan reaches about 10-15 years, but only if there are no other dominant males around. Apparently, the bigger the cheeks, the more success he'll have with the ladies, as females are attracted to big 'uns. For their size, orang-utans are strong. It is said that (fully grown) male orang-utans have the strength of six men. We don't know how this "fact" was arrived at. We don't know if there was a fight between six Malay men and one orang-utan (because Malay men are quite small on the whole and this could skew the figures).

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Mum and her "baby" which we think is about 2 years old. The infants stay with their mum until they are about 5 years, when mum chucks them out of the nest to breed again - aww.

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Learning the ropes.

These are a few videos of the orang-utans showing off their tree climbing and swinging skills!

We had really enjoyed seeing the orang-utans at the Singapore zoo - but we much preferred seeing them here in their more natural environment. Because the orang-utans have a large area to roam, it felt special to see them arrive for a spot of fruit; not all of them turn up at feeding time. We were also very glad that we didn't listen to the man at the National Sarawak Museum who told us that we shouldn't bother to visit the orang-utans that afternoon because it was going to thunder and they don't like thunder, so they hide, and we wouldn't see them. We should instead join him and two other American tourists for a visit to another wild life sanctuary where for a bargain 160 ringitts (27 pounds) we were guaranteed to see a few animals (including orang-utans) in cages. Needless to say, it didn't thunder and we saw lots!

Posted by bruntonal 03:17 Archived in Malaysia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

And the winner is.......

Thank you to the many (three) entrants in the "spot the diff - hair - ence" competition. Welldone to Gran (Vera) for being the only person to correctly identify that the hairdresser had put in too many grey highlights on the left side of Andrew's head. Heather's answer of there being too much gel on one side, was a game, but incorrect guess. The $25 hair experience doesn't run to any finishing products being used - thus, sorry Heather, your name didn't go into the hat - better luck next time! Unfortunately, we had to disqualify Margaret Wharton's entry as she didn't follow rule competitions - Margaret sent an email instead of a blog message. The judge ruled the entry void (though her guess of "she made a right bloody mess" didn't qualify as a correct answer and would therefore not have altered the outcome of the competition, the judge commented).

Vera is being sent (via bog standard post) a $15 hair voucher, to use at her convenience (within a 8 day period from date of dispatch - get that flight booked quickly!) The competition promoters (in conjunction with dodgyhairdoos.com) suggest a flat top may be rather flattering on her - and look forward to the ensuing photo's.

Posted by bruntonal 23:53 Comments (0)

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