Monday, February 24, 2014

Kellie's Castle

Kellie’s Castle is an interesting site to see.  William Kellie Smith, a Scotsman of modest means and large ambition, journeys to the Far East to make his fortune.  During his time there he makes a lot of money, then loses some of it.  He meets a wealthy heiress, marries her, borrows heavily against her impending inheritance to finance his business ventures, and to impress the English gentry that he isn’t just some peat kicking nobody, begins construction on a castle.
It's an ambitious effort on his part to try to convince these inveterate snobs of his worth.  During this major undertaking, his Tamil laborers are thinned drastically by the great Spanish Flu Epidemic, he constructs a temple to placate their gods, heads back to Europe to oversee the purchase of a lift for the tower of the castle, and succumbs to pneumonia in Portugal, leaving the castle only partially finished.  His wife stays quit of Malaysia after salvaging what’s left of her fortune, and somehow the partially finished castle manages to survive the Malaysian climate long enough for the government to turn it into a rather interesting tourist attraction.
It’s a great monument to human folly and if this Scotsman was trying to leave a legacy, he kind of did.  As a Texan might say, "All hat, no cattle".

Click the image for larger picture.
Dude's name was actually Smith.

Temple to placate the angry Spanish flu gods.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Although we would have liked to stay a few more days on Pangkor, Chinese New Year was approaching and we needed to get to Ipoh.  It’s a hellish time for travel here.  People of Chinese ethnicity here are very much tied to their heritage, and the main feature of this holiday is to get together with family.  Last year, when we were here, we were on the road a little too close to the New Year, and a 6 hour bus ride became a 10 hour butt breaker.  Many buses were sold out, so we should have felt fortunate to have gotten tickets, but by the end of that journey our good fortune had lost some of its luster. 
Anyway,departure was the reverse order of our arrival—pink mini bus taxi, ferry ride, then bas terminal.  The terminal in Lumut is a bit bare bones, but has an excellent food court where we gorged ourselves on spicy fish and chicken dishes, washed down by the requisite sweetened lemon iced tea.  We then had to kill about 45 more minutes in slightly sweltering conditions, but there were fans and iced tea so it was a very mild kind of suffering.
 Bas Eksekutif!!
 Bas terminal view
Mild suffering
Our ride was only a couple of hours, and we arrived at a horrid little terminal in the pleasant city of Ipoh.  We were in Ipoh last year which is Malaysia’s second largest city and the home of my college roommate, Kurt and his wife, Teresa.  He has new digs, which we actually had been to last year when they were occupied by a youngish Texan and his couch surfing guests.  It’s a lovely villa on the outskirts of town nestled against jungle and karst mountains.  The owner is Chinese and he raises thoroughbred race horses there.  Kurt is living well.

First item on the agenda that evening was to go to an American owned pizza joint.  The owner is from Chicago and he has wood fired ovens and makes excellent pizza.  He would get rave reviews in Chicago, although I’m not sure about New York.  We then spent the rest of the evening drinking beer and catching up.
Kurt has a good job training English teachers in primary schools, and I got to go with him one morning to observe.  It was very interesting to observe the differences between the Malaysian schools and Chinese schools. 
Malaysia has three major ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, and Indian.  The schools are generally divided up that way, but are not strictly segregated.  The school we visited that day was a Malay school, out in the country near a bird sanctuary and of course, palm oil plantations.
First we met the teachers, who were nervous since he was just beginning to work with them and they hadn't been observed.  There were two Malay women and another woman of Indian heritage.  Kurt chatted them up using his excellent schmoozing skills to put them at ease, then we went off to observe.  Malaysian classrooms are much smaller than Chinese classrooms, and these had only about 20 kids in each.  Chinese class sizes are more along the lines of a university lecture hall, with 60 to 70 kids being the norm.  The girls, if they are Malay, have their heads covered.  There were some Indian kids, too.  All are much more polite than Chinese kids.  We got lots of “Good morning, sir” greetings from them.  At the end of class, the kids would come to say goodbye.  They do this by taking your right hand, then touching the back of it to their forehead while making a slight bow.  Chinese kids basically mob you and try to pick your pocket.
The kids we observed were grades 1 through 3, and were much more advanced than Chinese kids at this age.  This is due mostly to class size, but also can be attributed to having teachers who are more fluent, as well as having once been an English colony.  Large Chinese classes are not very conducive to learning a spoken language.

We had a nice meal with the teachers, which was excellent.  This is the normal fare for teachers there, lucky them!  Then we met the head master.  She was very welcoming and friendly.  I have found that in China, the head masters tended to be more indifferent, and I rarely, if ever saw them.  
As I said, Kurt has a nice job.  That work day was over by 1pm.  He gets a decent salary, a car, and a housing allowance.  He has several schools he works with, so the job does involve some driving.  That particular school is near a golf course, so he usually brings his clubs when he goes there.
The driving part is a little exciting.  They drive on the left side of the road, and some are kind of insane, passing on blind corners and such.  Compared to the drivers in China, however, they are much more competent, and do follow most rules of the road, such as going with the flow of traffic, stopping at red lights, and avoiding driving on the sidewalks.
Because of the Chinese New Year, Kurt had some time off and we hit the links.  This year we went to course that had more of a Third World flair.  It's located in a bird sanctuary, so there was ample nature.  The fairways needed some mowing, and there were some swampy spots.  Out of bounds was dense jungle, complete with monkeys and cobras.  Hit out of bounds and that ball is lost for good.  Monkey toys.  The sand traps had quite a bit of foliage growing in them and the greens were kind of brown.  However, the green fees were only 25 ringgit, about 8 bucks.  Carts are not available, and would only get stuck in the swamps, but the green fees include a pull cart for your clubs.

We did a bit of bird watching along the course which was nigh deserted.  There was one area that had an abundance of monitor lizards, both on land and swimming around.  The Malaysian varieties are pretty darn big and would probably consider a toy poodle a light snack.

While teeing off next to a lake, we heard a screech and saw a hapless waterfowl becoming lunch for a squadron of these creatures.  Cool to watch, even though the bird was not enjoying it so much.  It’s OK to enjoy watching animals suffer if it’s Nature!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pangkor Island is Much Nicer than Sucky Kuala Lumpur

We had a pleasant stay on Pangkor Island.  We stayed in the village of Nipah, which is on the west side.  Nipah has a narrow beach, a main drag that is cluttered with shops and eateries as well as purveyors of nautical adventures.  The latter rent kayaks and jet skis, and will tow you around on some inflatable devices.  They will also take you around in boats to various places.  On Saturday, they were very busy making money off of the moneyed crowds from KL.  

Nipah has a lot of hornbills.  These birds are pretty tame and will come around to be fed.  We also saw monkeys and many other birds, including some kind of sea eagle.  Since we live in a country that likes to eat anything that moves, including all birds, we especially enjoyed the symphony of bird songs.
You can also rent motorbikes and bicycles, but we were content to enjoy whatever was withing walking distance.  The best place we found was the beach just north of Nipah, Coral Bay.  It's a much wider beach and much more peaceful.  The guidebook indicated, correctly, that there is a funky shrine at the north end of the beach and that if you cross the bridge and follow the jungle path you end up at a much more private swimming area.
This was a sweet spot, with rocks and little beachlets.  The water was deeper and quite clear.  We enjoyed several peaceful hours each day there.

 Patterns in the sand made by tiny burrowing crabs.
 Coral Bay

The shrine/temple bears some mention.  There are bizarre concrete statues of all sorts of creatures, from a hermaphrodite mermaid with a mustache to a scary looking Donald Duck with devil eyes to Mickey Rat.  Cartoons as envisioned by Walt Dante.  How this has anything to do with established religion is a mystery to me.   I didn't get a particularly spiritual vibe there, but maybe I just needed more time.

One morning while strolling a back street looking we heard a racket in a tree and a young monkey scrambled down the trunk into the street.  He apparently pissed off some bigger monkeys who sat in the upper branches looking alpha, while he moped on the ground.
 Alpha Monkey
Sad Monkey

Malaysian beaches have a wide variety of people visiting them, from sun baked backpackers to overdressed Malays.  Ethnic Malays are required by law to practice Islam.  I'm not sure how much it is actually practiced but it means women must be covered.  Even at the beach.  In a kayak.

We had bbq by the beach every night, along with different spicy fried rice dishes.  Beer is not served at these eateries since all the owners are Muslim, but lemon iced tea is.  The advantage of being at a resort area like this is the lack of drunken packs of white people that you find in places like Phuket, Thailand.
BBQ Dude and Little Brother

Pangkor is a nice place, far nicer than Kuala Lumpur.  If you avoid the weekends, you have a wonderfully peaceful slice of paradise. In retrospect, I think the best thing a traveler can do is to get off the plane, get to the bus station and head straight for Pangkor.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

KL is Awesome if You Like Big Asian Cities And Shopping

We landed in Kuala Lumpur, or more precisely at LCCT, which is the low cost carrier terminal.  It's a Third World style place stuck out far from anywhere.  It does have a duty free store with an excellent selection of liquor.  Since Malaysia is run by Muslims, alcohol has a big tax, resulting in beer and liquor which costs about double what you pay for anywhere else because it is the will of Allah.  We got a one liter bottle of vodka, which in retrospect was not enough.  You are allowed to bring in one each.  Bad decision making.
To get to Kuala Lumpur, one needs to take a shuttle to the regular airport, which is pretty far away.  From there you can take the city train into Kuala Lumpur.  We opted for a cab, which was expensive, but got us right to our hotel, Hotel Sentral, in the Little India part of town.
Kuala Lumpur, or KL, is a big Asian city.  I live in a big Asian city, so I don't get real excited when I'm in one.  I had booked the hotel for two nights, but was ready to leave after the first night.  Not that the neighborhood was unpleasant, it was OK.  There were lots of good Indian restaurants, and some neat shops, but the area can be pretty much checked out in about 2 hours.  The most interesting thing I noticed were the abundance of blind people.  There were also several places in the neighborhood featuring Blind Massage.  I found out later that there is also a big school and home for the blind nearby.
We did enjoy lounging around in the hotel since we had spent a couple of days traveling preceded by lots of work.  Since I found KL to be mostly uninteresting, I did not feel guilty about ignoring the great shopping Mecca of Malaysia.
After 2 nights we were more than happy to begin the next phase of our trip, Pangkor Island.  In order to get there, we needed to get to the bus station which involved one of the great features of Malaysian travel--getting hosed by taxi drivers.  I'm using the same travel guide that I did last year,  "The Rough Guide to Malaysia".  I believe that the word "rough" is used in the same manner as in "rough draft", since it is appears to be only partially finished, and there is strong evidence that it has been written by people who haven't actually been to many of the places they describe.  For example, I don't think they have actually taken a taxi in Kuala Lumpur, since they claim that the taxis are required to use their meters.  The taxis state this on the door of their vehicles, but don't actually practice this, a fact that the authors would have noticed had they taken the time to ride in a cab.  Instead the cabby tells you that the traffic is bad and quotes you a greatly inflated fare.  If you refuse, and counter offer, they drive away.  After being refused a couple of times, we finally consented to be driven to the bus station through light traffic, for roughly three times the cost of a taxi in China.
We had been to this bus station (bas terminal) last year and it was pretty much the same, except our bas was less late and we only had to endure the fumes in the basement boarding docks for about 20 minutes.  Someone came to tell everyone that our bas was loading from a different dock and we all scurried over to the next dock and embarked.  
Mmmmm, bus fumes!

Malaysian buses are comfy!  The seats are plush, large, recline a lot, and have tons of leg room.  They are also reasonably priced.  We got 2 tickets to Lumut, four hours away, for about a quarter of the price of a taxi from the airport.
Lumut is home of the ferry to Pangkor Island.  The bas ride to Lumut is very pleasant especially if you like palm oil plantations.  These can be found anywhere in Malaysia that is not jungle.  If you have ever been to Iowa, just replace the corn with 30 foot tall palm trees planted in rows.  After about 10 minutes or so of watching palm oil trees out the window the novelty has worn off and you begin to look for an alternative.  The drive to Lumut is 4 hours of this.  Since the seats are so comfy, napping happens.  Palm oil plantations combined with Malaysian bas seats are the Ambien of Malaysia and have none of the nasty side effects.  Insomniacs should try a bus holiday in Malaysia.
Upon arriving in Lumut we found to our surprise that the guide book was correct.  The ferry terminal was across the street from the bas terminal.  Lucky for us the ferry left immediately after we boarded.  We headed to the back deck and enjoyed the air blowing the palm plantation sleep effects from our brains.  

After about half an hour, we pulled into a dock at Pangkor Island.  We disembarked only to find out we had gotten off too early.  The guide book was not correct for long, and had failed to mention the fact that there were two stops.  Fortunately for us one of the crew set us straight and we got back on.
After that the guide book authors got it right.  I think they may have actually gone to Pangkor, but neglected to add the extra ferry stop.  There were pink mini van taxis to take us to the other side to the village of Nipah, just like the book said.  They charge 15 ringgit, just like the book said.  We didn't go everywhere the book related, but everywhere we went was pretty much the way it was described. 
OK, time to quit hammering the guide book.  Pangkor is a pretty nice place.  The only drawback is the weekends.  That's when people from KL brave the gauntlet of palm oil trees and make the drive over.  Nipah is a pretty laid back place.  The main street is lined with tourist shops, barbecue shacks and water sports places decorated with rows of orange life vests.  In fact, life vest orange is the main color scheme of this street.
Beautiful Nipah

We checked into the Budget Beach Resort, which is out of sight of the beach down a quiet side street.  Not a problem.  The main street is on the beach and is noisy, and Budget Beach Resort is quiet.  It consists of closely spaced bungalows with porches.  They have a fridge full of drinks including ice cold beer at a reasonable price (for Malaysia).  The staff is extremely friendly and helpful.  I would stay there again.
We arrived on a Friday and if I was to make a suggestion to anyone going there it would be to avoid the weekends if possible.  That is unless you like jet skis and motorboats buzzing around everywhere.  Fortunately, it's at its worst on Saturday afternoon.  By noon Sunday everyone is heading back to the Big City.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Taking Off From Hong Kong

We are not in China.  We got out.  It's our Spring Festival holiday and we have gone to Malaysia again.  Our journey involved the usual bus trip to Hong Kong, an overnight stay in a mini room hotel, then a cheap Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur.
It's great to get out of China.  The air quality in Zhanjiang this winter has not been good.  Usually the weather here is kind of unsettled, with winds blowing off the South China Sea, keeping the air pretty fresh.  In the winter, there is more stagnation with prevailing winds coming from the inland.  Since there is industry, and a lot more cars, the air has gotten pretty nasty, much worse than when we moved to China five years ago.  
I found a website that shows the air quality index for cities around the world, and found that we were experiencing an "unhealthy" level of pollution.  Compared to other Chinese cities, not too bad, but still enough to explain my runny nose and burning eyes.  Time to close the windows.
When we left on the bus, I was looking forward to getting out of the smog since about half the trip to Hong Kong is through farm land, forest and mountains.   Unfortunately, the air was consistently vile all the way to Hong Kong, regardless of location.  The high pressure over Guangdong province has been there for weeks, so I guess all the industrial flatulence that a Chinese industrial juggernaut can produce has been filling the entire province.
When we took off from Hong Kong it was nice to bid farewell to the yellow air.  The high pressure zone is quite visible.  It's the sky blue area above the thick, yellow miasma that everyone below is suffering in.  I'm hoping that by the time we return in mid February, the spring weather patterns will have returned.

We really want to go!!!

And we are outa here!