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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
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Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

A couple of fruits... one nice, one nasty

Written by Martin Pitwood. Uploaded 16 August 2006.

Malaysia, Country 22, Diary entry 16th-22nd June 2006, Total distance in Malaysia: 2294km

Crossing the border from Thailand was smooth except for one little thing... due to an exceptional bit of bureaucracy you need to pay a highway toll before you can even clear immigration. It's technically illegal to trade the Malaysian ringgit outside of Malaysia so I'm not sure why it was such a surprise to them that I had no cash to pay the toll, but I had to weave my way between the customs officers to double back to a big duty-free complex in no-man's-land to use an ATM there which gave me some ringgits. Anyway all was sorted, the customs officers were so surprised to see me back that nobody thought to search the car and once I found the right guy to stamp my carnet I was away and into country number 22 of the trip. Still travelling apart from Alex, Maz and Max who were still enjoying the diving in Koh Tao, I had two reasons to go on ahead of them: one was that I was about to overstay my welcome in Thailand (you can stay up to 30 days per visit without a visa, and it was my 30th day since entering from Cambodia) but the other, much more importantly, was the arrival of my next (and final?) co-pilot: Lara, my Zimbabwean friend who now lives in Vermont, making her journey of 12 time zones the furthest anyone could ever come from anywhere to visit me. I am still really amazed she wanted to make the journey!

There was not such a dramatic change in the scenery on crossing the border as there are when crossing to or from Thailand's other neighbours, here is another country not short of a penny or two to spend on the road system, the cleanliness of the towns, and at a personal level the houses and cars. The only big change is that the Malay language uses the same alphabet as us so the road signs are easy to read even if I later discovered that a general lack of signposts meant this didn't make it any easier to find one's way around.

My first stop was the island of Penang where after the short ferry ride from the mainland I had no particular plans other than to choose a place to stay for when Lara arrived. This done, I had a quick walk around the Chinatown district of the island's main town Georgetown. Faced with a bewildering array of street stalls all offering foods similar to, but not quite the same as, anything I'd seen in either Thailand or China I played it safe and went for a bowl of noodle soup. I'll take the phrasebook with me next time I go out to eat because some of the things on offer just look a little too suspicious.

Lara's train was due to arrive at Butterworth, just across from Penang on the mainland at 5:55am. By another great bit of planning the ferries don't start running until 6am so I had to take a 30km detour to use the bridge, meaning I had to wake up at a time which even now gives me the shudders if I think about it. Arrived at the train station and guess what? Delay... one hour, one and a half hours, eventually just over two hours later at 8:10am the train arrived and Lara emerged, looking remarkably good for someone who had been travelling for over 48 hours! The delay was caused by the train hitting a water buffalo and traces of blood were still visible on the front of the train, which was pretty gross, but I guess if she was going to hit a water buffalo on this trip I was glad it was over with in the train leaving me free to aim for my usual targets of chickens, turkeys and ducks.

Selection of sweet and stinky fruitsWe had a coffee to revive us both, which turned out to be an extended break because the rain had turned torrential but that was fine as we had about 18 months' worth of stuff to catch up on, and then set off on a tour around the island. The stops for the northern beaches were short and sweet, again dodging the downpours, and we headed into the hills and found ourselves driving under nets strung across the roads. A closer look at the trees revealed the huge spiky durian fruits hanging from the branches - good idea to put the nets as you would NOT want to be hit by one of these! Further down the road the nets were replaced by strings tied around each fruit, and finally we came to a big sign advertising a tropical fruit farm. We turned in to see what we could sample.

Lara modelling a mangosteenThe fruit farm had literally hundreds of different varieties of fruit as it is largely used as a research centre rather than a business, so this gave us the ideal opportunity to sample a wide range of different fruits. Priority number one, though, was to finally taste the durian, whose odour had been taunting me all through Thailand. The view over the Penang forestsActually "odour" is too nice a word - "stench" describes it better. The smell is so foul that it has been banned from many hotels and all of Singapore's public transport system because of the offence it causes to other customers! We just had to try it.

On cracking one open we found the texture very soft and slimy like an over-ripe banana and the smell intensifies, which meant neither of us was at all looking forward to tasting it, but we had to... and we can both categorically state that it is the most disgusting thing we have ever tasted. The closest we can come to describing it is like rotten garlic and it made me gag, but the local tourists were wolfing it down like it were ice cream on a hot day and just laughing at us!

Opening Pandora's BoxFortunately they had other things for us to try - the giant jack fruit, green and knobbly on the outside and growing up to about the size of a medicine ball, on the inside it breaks easily into chewy yellow chunks. I had already tried one in Cambodia and not enjoyed it, thinking it tasted exactly like Juicy Fruit chewing gum, but this one seemed to have a more subtle and less sickly-sweet taste. It was nice, but I couldn't eat too much. Proof I tried oneAnyway I had to save myself for the mangosteens, which look like a purple tennis ball on the outside but the thick flesh conceals a tart-sweet creamy white flesh inside which is simply delicious. Lara instantly promoted it to number one all time fruit, which was previously occupied by fruits of her youth growing in the family garden in Harare. A big moment then, for a new pretender to overtake such heritage. Apparently Queen Victoria once offered a reward for anyone who could transport a mangosteen to the UK while still edible - I can understand why, so can anyone in the UK please let me know if you can buy them there? Thanks!

Kek Lok Si templeWe were stuck with the strange durian-eating people and the nasty smell until the rain subsided enough to run the couple of metres to the car, then we continued around the island through the rain storms to the Kek Lok Si temple but unfortunately we arrived just as it was closing for the night (discovered only after the parking attendant had charged us, thanks!). It looked interesting so we decided to go back the next day.

Back in Georgetown we had a late siesta to recharge our batteries and then went out to explore. Still the rain was falling heavily so armed with umbrellas and waterproofs we walked to Chinatown and had some food, to a bar to have a beer (all the bars have televisions so we could not avoid the football but we found one where it was a little more low-key) and then finally to crash out.

The next day we returned to the Kek Lok Si temple and it was a fascinating view of a temple under construction. Incense lamps at Kek Lok SiThere are many temple buildings making up the complex - it is in fact the largest Buddhist temple complex in Malaysia - and some have very large golden fat laughing Buddhas (actually this was the first time I'd seen a fat Buddha in a temple instead of the more common stoned looking ones), some have intricately carved wooden Buddhas and some have the more traditional Thai-style Buddhas. It was Lara's first Asian temple experience and that made it all the more interesting for me, to see with new eyes some of the intricate detail that otherwise I might have missed.

The temple complex is located on the side of a hill and taking a little cable lift thing to the upper level we arrived at the brand shiny new statue of Avalokitesvara, the Goddess of Mercy also known as Kuan Yin, at 30m high the tallest bronze statue of her in the world, they claim, and under construction is a large roof to go on top. A big statue of AvalokitesvaraBuild-your-own-temple kitCurrently there are incredibly ornately carved pillars being constructed around the statue; they are building them by stacking pre-carved rings on top of each other. It looks rather like one of those toys where you can turn the wheels to put a policeman's head on an ostrich's body or whatever. We thought it would be fun to come and turn some while they weren't looking. We looked around the remainder of the building, one of which was called the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas, meaning that Lara now only has to see another million or so and she'll catch me up.

Wood carved buddhas and stone carved pillarsWe returned to Georgetown and looked for food. According to all I'd read, Penang is considered a gourmet's delight and a culinary mecca, so we were very surprised when we actually found it pretty hard to find good restaurants. The street food is fantastic in the evenings but in the early afternoon of a Sunday we had quite some trouble finding anything that looked appetising but eventually we settled for an Indian curry which was OK but no more. A few more Buddhas ticked off the listWe then drove to the old colonial district and after a quick stop in the shade to deplete our stocks of mangoes, rambutans and mangosteens, we went for a wander around Fort Cornwallis, built by Sir Francis Light as protection for Penang which at the time was Britain's main trading post for spices in the far east. It's strange once again to be in a former British colony and the style of buildings both in the fort and nearby (the town hall, the clock tower etc.) is obviously British colonial, in contrast to the French colonial stuff we'd seen in Laos and Cambodia. Fort CornwallisNo Trespassing!We looked around the fort for a while and learned a lot about the history of Penang and Malaysia but the dark clouds were threatening rain (we'd been lucky so far that day) so we headed back to the hotel. Lara was still suffering a bit from the jet lag and I'll take any excuse for a siesta (in other words I'm permanently knackered) so we were both happy for a little snooze.

In the evening we went out to a little hawker market area for food, and had some superb chicken satay sticks followed by a typical noodle dish with little dumplings and sliced pork. In Thailand I'd found the street food to be of exceptional quality because they cook everything fresh and nothing sits around, you can see what they're doing with the food etc. and many of my best dining experiences were at street stalls. Cannon overlooking the sea at Fort CornwallisTakeaway order of fruit juiceIf the stalls in Penang are representative of the rest of Malaysia, well the diet will have to wait AGAIN and those concerned about me need not worry too much about whether I'm eating enough. Lara was most amused by the fruit juices served in little plastic bags; it's nice having a newbie along to remind me of the weird things I don't notice any more :)

The next day we drove a few hours across to the east coast and parked up in a little fishing town to install ourselves on a little beach in the Perhentian Islands. These islands are about 25km offshore and we got there in around half an hour by way of a little bumboat with two 200hp V6 engines on the back. It was quite a bone-jarring ride but very exciting! The islands are beautiful tropical islands with white sandy beaches and turquoise water - exactly what Lara was hoping to see and I was rather happy with the idea too. We snorkelled straight away and saw little Nemos and other colourful fish and even a small reef shark so we were both really excited about the diving so we booked up for the next morning.

Me on the boat to the Perhentian IslandsWe booked up with Watercolours Diving who are attached to the accommodation we'd chosen and we were lucky with our choice. The first dive was the wreck of a sugar ship which was heading to Singapore for repairs but failed to make it. Sometimes us BS-AC-trained divers can be a little scornful of PADI-trained dive guides but our dive guide Emma was excellent, very knowledgeable about the different fish species and she helped a lot when at the start of the dive Lara was a bit nervous, gulping her air and unable to clear her ears. Lara on the Perhentian beachHer last diving experience was many years ago and having only done a quick refresher session before this trip, she was a little apprehensive and I was tasked with making sure she didn't die. I was particularly willing to take on this task as I have met her mother and the consequences of not looking after her daughter would be pretty bad news for me (hello mum!). Fortunately after reaching the wreck which was only about 8m below the surface (18m to the sea bed) everything seemed to be going well but as it was a bit murky and with the superstructure of the wreck sticking out all over the place (the wreck is on its side) we both thought it a good idea to stay close together, but saying that she must have calmed down a lot because at the end of the dive she had more air left than I did! Apart from the wreck itself the highlights were a large shoal of yellowtail barracuda (very cool cucumbers), a couple of blue-spotted stingrays and a really huge porcupinefish who lives near the mast of the wreck. He is so big that a remora (sucker fish) has attached itself to him, something I'd never seen before except on sharks or large rays.

A beautiful beachThe second dive was to a local reef called Batu Layer and the visibility was much better and the dive shallower. The reef itself was very healthy and it's clear that there are far fewer divers in these islands than places such as Koh Tao. In fact there were no other divers apart from us on any of the dives. With these idyllic conditions we managed a really long dive looking at the beautiful array of fish life (titan triggerfish, blue ringed angel fish, orange spotted trevally, barracuda, clown fish, bannerfish, boxfish, grouper...) and during this dive Lara was totally relaxed and was getting really into the idea of the underwater world.

Our evenings consisted of a bit of walking along the beach (just around the headland was another beach with a stunning sunset view), eating good food and occasionally waking up in the middle of the night to watch the next in the series of England's dismal World Cup performances - that bit was only me, Lara being (a) sensible and (b) Zimbabwean couldn't care less about the football and slept through.

Still work to be done though!We decided to do only the afternoon dive the next day and we went to Batu Tabir which was quite a long boat ride from the resort and with slightly choppy seas in a simple dugout boat, we were all glad to get underwater. It was well worth it though with the standard stuff for the region: blue spotted rays, yellowtail barracuda, blue ringed angelfish, moorish idols, boxfish and of course plenty of Nemos again hiding in the anemones carpeting the beautiful and healthy coral. The highlight though was a black tipped reef shark which decided to check us out thoroughly and circled us for about ten minutes - fantastic! We like sharks :)

After a little post-dive siesta I took my laptop to the beach to catch up on diary writing while Lara went for a wander, the customary sunset and food then to bed.

Proof Lara dived! Or dove, if you're American like her!We planned to leave the island the following day but having been really pleased with the diving we opted to do just one more early-morning dive before we had to catch the speedboat back to the mainland. This time the site was Tokong Laut (Temple of the Sea) and was probably the best reef in terms of the condition of the coral - it was breathtakingly colourful there and there was also plenty of life: lots of little bamboo sharks hiding under the rocks, more blue spotted rays, another black tipped reef shark, moray eels, great barracuda etc. etc. but the highlight - a hawksbill turtle swam along and settled on the bottom just in front of us allowing us to get a good look and the photographers got some excellent photos. Turtles are definitely the coolest creatures in the sea.

We arrived back on the island and cleaned off our kit just in time for the boneshaker boat back to the mainland. This time the boat seemed a little slower (I think the boat only had twin 150hp's) but the sea was a little more choppy than the way out so we had the delight of a local girl succumbing to the motions and chundering into a plastic bag helpfully offered by another passenger. We arrived back at the mainland and stocked up on food for the night at a local market where fortunately Lara didn't see the conditions the meat was stored in otherwise she'd never have eaten it. Our plan was to head south towards the Taman Negara National Park (a tautology because taman negara is Malay for national park) but we knew we wouldn't make it in that one afternoon so we planned to bush camp somewhere along the way - got to give Lara the full experience!

Our camp site for the nightThe road took us through typical Malay countryside, which we were now starting to realise is all pretty much the same - palm trees as far as the eye can see. It took us some time to work out what the fruits were - they are reddish-brown fruits about the size of plums but coming in much larger bunches, more like the size of a bunch of bananas. We regularly saw big piles of these bunches waiting at the side of the road to be collected, and often also saw trucks laden with these fruits. I'd already seen them with Charbel in southern Thailand but had assumed they were some strange species of date but finally I worked out what they were... the fruits are pressed to make palm oil, used mainly for cooking but research is underway to see if it could be used as fuel - sounds like a nice green idea to me. Big relief at mystery solved.

Most of the plantation owners are obviously concerned about the security of their precious palm oil trees as the tracks leading into the forests were all closed off by barriers but eventually we came across a track with the barrier raised so we dived inside and hid behind a few trees to make camp. Everything in there was damp so no campfire was possible, and then the rain started as we were attempting to cook - not very pleasant. As head chef I was responsible for making sure the food neither burned nor killed us, while Lara fetched some fallen palm branches to spread around the car to stop the place turning into a mudbath, an idea which had some success. We still got covered in mud but at least we weren't slipping and sliding all over the place. The chicken curry was good, when it was finally ready, and everything cleared up and put away we erected the roof tent and retired early with our books, to fall asleep to the sound of rain on canvas.

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Comment from Lara
Martin is too kind - when he says we decided to stay close together on the first dive - he actually means that I clutched his hand like it was the last thing between me and death and refused to let go until I was safely bobbing around on the surface!!! Poor hand was all scrunched up after the 50-odd minute dive!!! Had a blast though - the diving was amazing and I'm still alive! (Mum says "thanks!")
16 Aug 2006 @ 19:22:33

Comment from Butet
he is here in my office for join us in underwater flag raising and we argue about how good is Durian is "the food of the king" hope this will be continue in next generation

good luck
17 Aug 2006 @ 01:21:02

Comment from The Father and Mother
We saw those "reddish-brown fruits about the size of plums " in Cambodia too and wondered whether they might be dates. I had subsequently worked out that they must be for palm oil as, according to the pictures on the box, dates only seem to grow in places where camels live. Sorry I didn't share this revelation. It was good to read about your visit to Penang it being our first stop after leaving you in Bangkok.
18 Aug 2006 @ 09:07:45