SE Asia

Trips:

- continental Malaysia (west coast) and Singapore, October and November 2013

- Malaysia (Sarawak, Tioman) and Singapore, July 2010

- Sumatra, continental Malaysia (west coast) and Singapore, July 2009

[scroll down for earlier reports]

Malaysia and Singapore, Oct and Nov 2013

This time we visited Malaysia and Singapore on our way to Nepal, as the cheapest connection was a special offer flight to Singapore and Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu. That gave us 4 days on the way there and 11 days on the way back.

Route: Singapore – Muar – Kuala Lumpur + Kuala Lumpur LCCT airport – Langkawi – Penang – Taiping (incl. Kuala Kangsar) – Singapore.

Singapore

We stayed in Geylang again (MRT Aljunied). We booked hotel via http://www.booking.com/ and our choice this time was New Happy Hotel (http://www.newhappyhotel.com.sg/), at S$ 65 for double room (AC, ensuite, wi-fi), very small but clean and comfortable enough. The surroundings are great for good and cheap food, durians and a beer at a street eatery. As there are lots of budget hotels in the area, it slowly becomes backpacker haunt no. 1 in Singapore.

Getting to Muar – we took a city bus from Queen Str. bus station near Lavender MRT across the Causeway to Larkin bus station in Johor Bahru. From Johor Bahru we took a bus by Mayang Sari company, 16,70 RM, ca. 2-2,5 hrs. Buses are frequent, we just took the first available without bothering to check the timetable.

Muar

We stayed in Hotel Kingdom on Jalan Sisi, a basic old-style Chinese hotel. 40 RM for a double (AC, ensuite, no wi-fi), a bit run down but OK for one night.  Muar is not a place of particular interest but a pleasant place to stay a night, have a walk among shophouses and on the waterfront and some food in one of the foodcourts.

Muar – Kuala Lumpur – bus, 17,60 RM, ca. 3 hrs. Again, we just arrived at the station and soon were leaving on the first bus available. The bus dropped us at Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, a giant new bus station on the outskirts, from where we took a suburban train to KL Sentral.

Kuala Lumpur

Hotel Winsin (http://www.winsinchinatownhotel.com.my/) in Chinatown, again booked via http://www.booking.com/, 88 RM for a quite comfortable double room (AC, ensuite, wi-fi). Just opposite there was a moneychanger offering fabulous rates for euros, just a fraction of percentage point below interbank rates.

Getting to LCCT – we took a bus from the parking at the KL Sentral station. There are two companies, one for 10 RM, another for 8 RM, departures every 15 – 30 min. Took ca. 1 hr to LCCT.

On our way back we slept at the LCCT at Tunes Hotel, within easy walking distance of the terminal. Booked via http://www.tunehotels.com/ well in advance and we got a very small room for ca. 120 RM per night including AC. It gets more expensive for late bookings. There is a 7/11 shop (open 24 hrs) and an Indian fast food restaurant at the hotel.

Langkawi

We stayed in Rainbow Langkawi GH in Pantai Cenang (http://rainbowlangkawi.yolasite.com/). High-season price was 80 RM for a large double room (ensuite and AC) with a balcony. Wi-fi worked only in the bar and reception area. Quite nice and laid-back, a short walk of maybe 5 minutes to the beach, within walking distance of many restaurants and shops.

Altogether we had mixed feelings about Langkawi. It was nice to chill out for a few days but it was very touristy and crowded, far cry from a secluded tropical paradise. The beach was not so great for swimming, sea a bit muddy at some places. It was also much more expensive than anywhere in the mainland Malaysia, in particular restaurants. Another drawback was the total lack of public transport – the only transport available were expensive taxis (from Pantai Cenang 30 RM one way to the Langkawi cable car, 40 RM to the Crocodile Park, 30 RM to Kuah, 17 RM to the airport). That makes it even more attractive to rent a motorbike, but beware – every evening we saw police controls quite obviously targeting foreign-looking motorbike riders. Finally, there is some safety problem – a thief on motorbike tried to snatch my wife’s bag on a side street from Rainbow GH inland, the only such incident we had during our 3 visits to Malaysia. Luckily he did not succeed but we were too astonished to take note of his license plate. Other tourists later told us that they had some property stolen from balcony at front of their hotel room.

Langkawi Cable Car (30 RM) was incredibly crowded. Luckily, the tickets are sold for a specific hour, so we bought our tickets, went for a walk up Telaga Tujuh waterfall (ca. 1 km by road from the cable car entrance, and then ca. 30 minutes up) and were back in ca. 2 hrs right for our entry time. Sadly, the Skywalk was closed for repairs until further notice and it didn’t seem like it would open any time soon.

Langkawi – Penang – by ferry, 3,5 hrs. Ferries leave from Kuah. It’s either 64 RM for the ferry + 30 RM for a taxi from Pantai Cenang to Kuah or 84 RM per person for a package consisting of the ferry ticket and drop-off by car. It needs to be booked at least a day in advance. The ferry cabin was not very good  for views (tinted windows) but there was a small upper deck.

Penang

So far from our experience Georgetown is the city no. 1 in Malaysia. Great and inexpensive street food, many interesting sights and vibrant culture. Our discovery this time were Clan Jetties on the waterfront – a bit touristy during the day but very climatic after dark. We stayed in Kim Sun Hotel on Lebuh Campbell (parallel to Lebuh Chulia), 68 RM for double room with bathroom, AC and wi-fi, a bit basic but clean and very conveniently located for wandering around the city.

Butterworth – Taiping (Kamunting) – by bus, a bit more than 1 hr, 8,50 RM. From Kamunting it was 30 minutes or so by city bus to downtown Taiping.

Taiping – we stayed at Peking Hotel, a few steps from the city bus station, a climatic if somewhat rundown heritage building. 65 RM for a large double, ensuite, AC and wi-fi. Rooms upstairs are much nicer than at the ground floor.

From Taiping we made a half day trip to Kuala Kangsar, by local bus, ca. 4 RM, less than 1 hr.

Taiping (Kamunting) – Singapore – Initially we wanted to travel by train (http://www.ktmb.com.my/), but we gave up when we found out that we would arrive at 10 p.m. at Woodlands station which seems to be in the middle of nowhere – a bus ride and then long MRT ride to our accommodation, which we would probably reach around midnight. Finally we went by bus (ca. 9,5 hrs, 65 RM, only two buses in the late morning, 10.30 and 11.00 a.m., more overnight). The bus dropped us at much more convenient Golden Mile Complex. short walk from MRT Lavender.

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Malaysia, July 2010 (mostly Sarawak)

route: Singapore – Kuching – Sibu – Kapit – Belaga – Niah – Miri – Johor Bahru – Pulau Tioman – Mersing – Singapore

Time: 20 days

Singapore:

a good budget place to sleep – Hotel 81, a chain of budget hotels. Most are in Geylang district, near Aljunied MTR station, quite close to the airport. In theory it’s a red light district but definitely a Singapore sort of red light district… We found the area actually quite nice – safe, with a lot of great food, durian stalls (starting from S$ 2 per fruit) and some nice architecture too. The brothels are rather discreet, and none of their trade actually reaches hotels of the Hotel81 chain.

Best to book via http://www.booking.com/, at S$ 55 per double with bathroom and AC (very clean) it was cheaper than via their own website http://www.hotel81.sg/.

Changing money – best rates were offered by moneychangers in Little India. Airport rates were relatively decent as well.

Singapore-Kuching – we took a flight by Air Asia (http://www.airasia.com/). Other options include Tiger Airways or taking a flight from the Johor Bahru airport, which might be cheaper but is definitely farther away than Singapore.

Kuching:

sleeping: we stayed at Furama Lodging House (http://www.furamalodge.com/), 70 RM for a small double (AC and bathroom) or 90 RM for a much larger one. Better to book by e-mail. Very convenient location at the Jalan Green Hill, impeccably clean, friendly staff, cheap and reliable laundry service.

Orchid Pension just next door may be an alternative for shoestring travelers – at 45 RM per double, less clean.

Changing money – best rates are offered by Mohamed Yahya and Sons in the underground part of Sarawak Plaza. Much better than anywhere else in downtown Kuching and else in Sarawak except Miri.

Taxi prices in Kuching: airport 26 RM, jetty 20 RM.

A tip for beer drinkers – Chinese beer in Kuching and elsewhere in Sarawak is way cheaper than in continental Malaysia, starting from 7-8 RM for a 0,6 l bottle. Decent options are Tsingtao and Pearl River. Tiger beer is available mostly in 0,3 l cans, starting for 5 RM.

Trips from Kuching:

Semenggoh – an organized trip to the orangutan feeding at 9 am (entry included) costs 35 RM per person, to be booked at several hostels the evening before. Otherwise there’s a public bus from the local bus station at 7.30 or so, but it would require walking the last 2-3 kms to the feeding site. Hiking trails around the Semenggoh reserve were closed and visitors were asked to leave the area after the feeding.

Jong’s Crocodile Farm (http://www.jongscrocodile.com/) near Siburan – best reached by public bus towards Serian, alight just after Siburan and walk for 1-2 kms along a side road (signposted). Crocodile feedings at 11 am and 3 pm every day. Entry 16 RM. Avoid the photo exhibition if you are faint-hearted – there are some very graphic pictures of victims of crocodile attacks.

Santubong – shuttle bus for 10 RM. Hiking trails start at the Green Paradise Cafe (1 RM entry fee) where a makeshift map is distributed. After the hike it was great to have a swim in the sea at the Damai Beach Resort – entry and use of beach facilities for day guests for 3 RM.

Muara Tebas – an interesting and picturesque Chinese temple complex and some nice seafood places at a village near the Bako peninsula. We reached it by hiring the whole minivan for 30 RM, went back for 10 RM per person.

Bako Nat’l Park – transport: Petrajaya bus to Bako village for 3 RM per person, then a boat for 47.50 RM per load of up to 6 persons. It’s best to book accommodation in the park HQ in advance, as it fills up quickly – either on http://www.sarawakforestry.com/htm/snp-np-bako.html or after arrival in Kuching at the Sarawak Forestry office in the old court building in the centre. Even if booking by internet is rejected it is still worth to ask again at the office – in our case they found a room for us 4 days in advance. Budget options (standard for all Sarawak national parks) include doubles for 52.50 RM or dorms for 14 RM per person or 42 RM per whole room (4 beds). Both options are very comfortable and dorm rooms have en-suite bathrooms (contrary to what some information on the web says). There’s a canteen with simple cheap food and drinks at the park HQ.

It’s definitely worth to stay overnight or even 2 nights in Bako. It’s easiest to see the proboscis monkeys early in the morning near the park HQ. The rangers organize an evening guided jungle walk (10 RM per person) showing a lot interesting details, very interesting if you have little jungle experience.

from Kuching up the Rejang river

Kuching-Sibu – ferryboat at 8.30 am, 5 hrs, 45 RM. There is an upper deck with open views.

Sibu – Riverview Hotel just near the jetty, 35 RM per dbl (quite basic but with bathroom and AC). There’s also a great food joint nearby – Hai Bing Seafood.

From Sibu upriver there are only rocket-style speedboats with no open decks. Sometimes the crew would let you to sit on the roof but it seemed a bit risky – the boats were travelling up to 80 kms per hour.

Sibu-Kapit – frequent boats, 2 hrs, 20 RM. Deep-freeze AC, no open doors on our boat.

Kapit – New Rejang Inn, 60 RM for a nice double (bathroom and AC)

A permit is technically needed for travel upriver from Kapit but nobody checked it and barely anybody bothers about it. It is issued by the Resident’s office in an administrative building a short minibus ride out of central Kapit.

Kapit-Belaga – boat at 9 a.m., 5 or 6 hrs (as far as I remember), 35 RM. This was definitely the best part of the Rejang trip – with extremely picturesque jungle views, beautiful rapids and several longhouses along the river. The boat doors were left open, allowing for a quite wide view.

Belaga – Sing Soon Huat, 35 RM for double with bathroom and AC, basic.

Belaga to Niah Caves

Belaga – junction on the Bintulu-Miri road, 50 RM per person in a jeep, 7.30 a.m., took ca. 4 hrs (it operates daily as shared taxi between Belaga and Bintulu). The driver needs to be contacted on the previous evening, we asked for a contact at our hotel.

Belaga junction – Niah junction – a Bintulu-Miri bus (very frequent), 10 RM

Niah junction – Niah park HQ – taxi for 25 RM. For a ride back a park ranger arranged a cab for us for 30 RM. It’s quite advisable to go straight to the park HQ as it’s a few kms behind Niah village and park accomodation is quite nice (no cheap doubles, only dorms for 42 RM per whole room, very comfortable). No troubles getting a room on arrival, it didn’t seem very busy.

A walk from the park HQ to the Niah Caves and back took us 4 hrs. Boats are available to cross the Niah river back to the HQ until 7.30 p.m. – we barely made in it time from the caves when we watched the evening bat migration. In case of being late it’s better not to swim in the river – Niah village was the site of the last deadly crocodile attack on a human in Sarawak in 2001.

Niah junction – Miri – bus, 2 hrs, 12 RM.

Miri

Sleeping: Brooke Inn on Jalan Brooke, 50 RM for a decent double (bathroom and AC), very friendly staff.

Trip to Miri Crocodile Farm (http://www.miricrocodilefarm.com/) near Kuala Baram – by bus to Kuala Baram from the local bus station. Entry 12 RM. No feedings on weekdays, a bit less interesting than Jong’s farm near Kuching but nice to see nevertheless.

Taxi to the airport – 20 RM.

Miri – Johor Bahru – a flight by Air Asia

Johor Bahru

Airport shuttle bus (8 RM per person) passes near the Tune Hotel and the very friendly driver made absolutely no fuss to drop us there, even if it was not an official stop.

Tune Hotel at Danga Bay (http://www.tunehotels.com/) – a business class hotel, booked on their webpage for 25 RM per double (AC included). Very friendly and helpful staff, free internet in the lobby. Highly recommended. A taxi from Tune to Larkin bus was some 10-15 RM.

Johor Bahru – Mersing – bus, 2,5 hrs, ca. 10 RM

Mersing – Pulau Tioman – ferryboat 35 RM + 5 RM park entry fee. The ferry serves several places on the west coast of Tioman, tell the crew where you want to alight.

Tioman

We stayed at Panuba Inn (prices and other info here http://www.panubainn.com/). Nice place on its own small bay, a short jungle trek (10 minutes along a quite strenuous path) away from Air Batang.

Very good info on Tioman is available here: http://tezzasthaiinfo.blogspot.com/2007/07/gorgeous-tioman-island.html

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Sumatra and continental Malaysia, July 2009

Route: Singapore – Padang airport – Bukittinggi – Maninjau – B.Tinggi – Danau Toba – Berastagi – Medan – Bukit Lawang – Medan – Penang – Ipoh – Pulau Pangkor – Kuala Lumpur – Melaka – Singapore

Timing: 14 days in Sumatra, 13 days in Malaysia, 2 nights in Singapore

SINGAPORE

It turned out to be much less sterile and dull as conventional wisdom says. From our very limited experience (2 afternoons) we can say that Kampung Glam, Little India and Chinatown are quite lively and all of them could be a nice first glimpse of Asia.

[Update July 2010 - another place to explore is Geylang and its durian stalls. Contrary to its reputation as red lights district it's not dangerous at all and most business going around there is fully respectable. No worries to sleep in a hotel there as well (see another update below).]

Accomodation – we slept in Cozy Corner Guesthouse (http://www.cozycornerguest.com/). Booked via e-mail, 40 S$ for double with AC, shared bathroom. Very basic (rooms much worse that pics on their website), but OK for one night. Great location for Kampung Glam, Little India and street food. A short walk from Bugis MRT station – ca. 30 minutes ride by MRT from the airport, 1,60 S$ +1 S$ refundable deposit (no free tickets at the airport contrary to what the LP says).

[Update July 2010 - see also http://www.hotel81.sg/ for another idea on cheap place to sleep in Singapore. It's a decent hotel chain, offering comfortable doubles with bathroom. When booked via http://www.booking.com/, a double room was 55 S$, much better quality than Cozy Corner.].

Prices in S’pore: quite good meals in street eateries started from 3 to 5 S$, beer from 5,5 – 6 S$ per large Tiger.

Singapore to Padang (Sumatra) – Tiger Airways, from Changi Budget Terminal. Cost 44 S$ per person (one way), booked a month ahead on their website. Took one hour.

SUMATRA

Some general info:

Food price – 10K – 25K per dish at a simple restaurant

Beer – 20-25 K for a large Bintang (drinkable). Available in traveller cafes in Muslim areas or virtually everywhere in Christian-dominated places like Danau Toba.

Accomodation – 50 K –  125K per acceptable double (ensuite bathroom) in the budget range

Internet – from 3-4K per hour to 15 K in touristy places

Laundry – between 25K and 50K per a big load

Mosquitoes: they were there and they did bite, in every place we visited, even in spite of our daily use of repellents. We took Malarone as malaria prophylaxis.

On arrival at Padang airport we bought our visas on arrival – 25 US$ for a 30 days visa. It’s also possible to get a 10 days visa for 10 $. We haven’t been asked for the return or onward ticket, although it seems to be officially required. There’s a moneychanger just behind the exit but his rates were poor (13.500 Rp. per 1 euro, while www.xe.com/ucc was showing ca. 14.400).

From Padang Airport we took a cab directly to Bukittinggi for 222K Rp. (fixed price from the airport counter). Took about 2 hrs along a busy road.

Bukittinggi

We went to Kartini hotel we knew from some favourable recommendations (according to other tourists, 115 K for a comfortable double) but it was full, so we finished in Orchid Hotel just across the street. We paid 100K Rp. for an average double with bathroom (hot water). There are some cheaper rooms without hot water. It was quite noisy from the neighbouring mosque but tales about getting a ‘blast’ from the muezzin were exaggerated. Generally I don’t recommend them – the manager seemed friendly but he overcharged us 50K per person for the Merapi climb. He first promised that we could have a rest after the climb even after the check-out time but then, probably realising that there’s no more money to be made on us, he insisted that we leave after a shower.

Bukittinggi was quite chilly in the evenings (alt. ca. 900 mts), so there’s no need for AC.

Changing money – there are several moneychangers on Jalan Ahmad Yani but they mostly don’t display exchange rates, so it’s the matter of going around and asking them (waiting till the lady comes from the neighbouring shop etc.). Rates are poor, the best what we could get after some haggling was 13.850 per euro. Only big denomination banknotes in very good condition are accepted for the going rate. We also asked at some banks but they either wouldn’t change foreign currency at all or would accept only US dollars.

Sights – Bukittinggi in itself is nice to stroll around but there’s nothing particularly interesting. We found the large labyrinthine bazaar to be the most interesting place in the town and a good place for some shopping. Generally the best about Bukittinggi lies in the surroudings – climbing Gunung Merapi was an awesome experience, chilling out on Lake Maninjau a bit less so…

Climbing Gunung Merapi

We arranged a guide via Orchid Hotel and paid 300K per person. Later other guys who were on the same trek with us told us that they paid 250K via other places, so Orchid is best avoided. The price included transport to and from the trailhead, some food (a little, it’s better to take some snacks additionally) and coffee prepared by our guide in the morning. We took 3 bottles of water for 2 persons and it was just about enough. A headlight was absolutely necessary.

The trip started at about 10.30 p.m. by going with a minibus to the trailhead near the ranger station above the village of Kota Baru. We started walking around midnight, first along a dirt road across some fields, then across a bamboo bridge and from there steep uphill along a rough and slipperry path (would be really tricky after a rain). It was pretty well trodden and even marked, in daylight finding the path by oneself wouldn’t be difficult. Sadly, the amount of rubbish on and around the path was incredible. We passed a lot of locals camping on the trail. At around 4 a.m. we stopped for a little sleep just below the tree line and ascended to the crater rim just with first hints of daylight. Then we sat for a while on the top and observed the surrounding landscape gradually getting first touchs of the rising sun – an incredibly fascinating spectacle. There was a very good view of Singarak lake and surrounding hills below, some shrouded in mist, as well as the Singgalang volcano just across, catching the shade of Merapi on the moist air on its slopes.

We were back at the ranger station at about 11 a.m. and in Bukittinggi at noon. After a shower we were kicked out of the hotel (in contradiction to the previous promises of the owner), so we decided not to stay another night in B. Tinggi and went to Maninjau.

First we took an opelet from Jalan Ahmad Yani to Aur Kuning bus terminal. The bus station in Bukittinggi is a hopelessly Third World kind of place – chaotic, confusing, dirty, full of touts and with occassional scam artists – as we have seen later that’s a description that suits the public transport in Sumatra in general. First we bought our tickets for the next trip to Parapat and then we located the Maninjau bus.

Maninjau

The trip of ca. 40 km costed 13K, took 2 hrs in very cramped conditions and involved two additional lengthy waits – one at the station till the bus gets full and another at the crossroads to change into another bus.

We made the mistake to trust the guidebooks and went 5 km or so further than the Maninjau village to Bayur, expecting a kind of tropical paradise. It looked idyllic indeed but as we checked both accomodation options there (Lili’s and Batu C) it turned out that they both offered only basic cottages at the lakeside, without even a proper shower. The nearest place to eat was 5 kms away in Maninjau and they did not even sell bottled water, coffee or tea. Quite a bad news, as we were hungry and exhausted after the Merapi hike.

We walked back towards Maninjau and finally found a much nicer place at 44 Cafe and Homestay – a couple of basic cottages (with bathroom shared between two rooms) and a simple restaurant at the lake. Accomodation costed 30K per room, the hosts were friendly and served great food with chilled beer. Water in the lake was not enticing – a bit greenish, with a lot of algae and some snails. At the end of our stay I saw two locals shitting to the lake under nearby trees, so even if I come back to Sumatra I won’t definitely swim in Maninjau.

Another drawback was the road from Maninjau to Bayur and beyond – narrow and full of racing cars and motorbikes. We thought about renting bicycles but gave up, we are not that suicidal. The part from Maninjau in the opposite direction was much more peaceful but doing a trip round the lake would definitely require negotiating some heavy traffic.

From Maninjau to Parapat

From Maninjau back to B.Tinggi there’s no bus schedule, so one must simply wait at the roadside and flag the bus down. Before any appeared, a minibus stopped and took us for 20 K per person.

Going from B.Tinggi to Parapat and eventually to Medan is the tricky part, as it requires travelling the Transsumatran Highway, ca. 300 km of very bad road in anything from 14 to 30 hrs. We had tickets but it turned out that departure times and even which bus belongs to which company are very relative in Sumatra. We had previously booked our tickets to Parapat for 155K/per person, departure at 2 p.m. (of course Mister, AC, very clean, executive class) at the second or third office just at the entrance to the station, recognizable by a huge portrait of Saddam Hussein on the wall. When we arrived, some other passengers pointed to a dilapidated-looking bus and told us that it was the only one to Parapat/Medan, departing at 2.30. We boarded it with our luggage and I went to ‘our’ ticket office to confirm it. In the ticket office I was told that it was not the right bus, but our bus was coming from Jakarta, late, uncomfortable and full (story no. 1) or had completely broken down (story no. 2, 10 minutes later). However, we could stay on the bus which we boarded if we pay 60K more. This I flatly refused and went back to the bus. The office guy followed me and finally I gave him 20K. On the bus we met a sympathetic Russian couple who actually had tickets for the day before but their bus had not materialized, so they had been just told to come the next day.

At 3.30 p.m. we finally departed and the bus surprisingly turned out to be not so bad – AC worked, the seats were reclining and we actually had quite a good sleep. We reached Parapat at 7 a.m., so the ride took 15,5 hrs.

BTW, for those reading Russian – the website of our Russian travel companions:http://indostan.ru/ Loads of travel information on SW Asia.

Lake Toba

In Parapat the bus dropped us at the main transit road (close to the ‘bus station’). We took an opelet (2K) to the jetty and then, after a short wait, the ferryboat to Tuk Tuk on the Samosir Island (7K, 45 min.). The ferryboat goes around the peninsula and drops passengers at the places of their choice. We followed the advice of a German couple and went to Lekjon Cottages, close to Anju Cottages. It turned out to be a good choice – we paid 50 K for a really comfortable large room with bathroom (hot water) and a big balcony with lake view. They also have a restaurant with quite good food.

Toba was much better for swimming than Maninjau, with much cleaner water, but that’s definitely not the place to learn swimming – it gets very deep just at the shore. We also rented bicycles (20K per day) for a trip to nearby villages of Ambarita and  Tomok – quite enjoyable as there was not much traffic on the road.

Internet was quite expensive in Tuk Tuk, the cheapest place was Bagus in the ‘centre’ (10K/hour, but overpriced food).

Danau Toba – Berastagi

It seemed to be logistically difficult but turned out to be really simple and one of few bus/minibus trips in Sumatra with nobody trying to overcharge us. First we caught the ferry directly from our hotel to Parapat (7K, less than 1 h). In Parapat directly at the jetty there was a minibus to Pematang Siantar (9K, 1h 10 min). In P.Siantar we quickly changed to another pretty crowded minibus to Kebanjahe (16K, 3h 15 min). Quite unforgettable experience to observe the driver’s assistant climbing to the roof of a speeding minibus on a winded road with the wad of banknotes in his hand :) A job well done – he has covered the luggage on the roof just before rain, with the driver not even slowing down. From Kebanjahe it was another 30 min with an opelet to Berastagi (3K). We just told the drivers/assistants in each minibus that we wanted to continue to Berastagi and they just showed us the next vehicle.

Berastagi

We stayed at Wisma Sibayak at the lower end of the main street (with a big cabbage monument). Paid 100 K for an OK double with bathroom (no hot water) and balcony. There are also cheaper rooms with shared bathroom and a restaurant (beer available). The managers of the place are really helpful as regards travel information. They have also prepared a makeshift map for climbing the Sibayak volcano – available for free and really helpful.

In Berastagi we found one of the best places to eat we came across in Sumatra – Rumah Makan Famili Baru, a Muslim restaurant (no beer) at the upper end of the main road, just at the monument of war veterans. Our tip: fried sweetwater fish on a banana leaf (‘nila bakar’) for 25K.

We asked at the travel office at Losmen Sibayak for ferry tickets from Medan to Penang – they quoted 183 RM converted into rupiyah at a rip-off rate, turned out double the price in Medan.

Climbing Sibayak volcano

We decided to go by ourselves and with the help of the Wisma Sibayak map and some route descriptions from their guestbook it turned out to be pretty simple. We also asked at Wisma Sibayak for prices for hiring a guide for Sibayak and Sinabung volcanoes – it was 250K per day.

We first walked to an opelet parking and entrance fee checkpoint in a cafe at the trailhead (40 min walk, also accessible with an opelet). Most of the remaining track was an asphalt road along a long forest covered hill (apparently old caldera), first uphill, then quite a long part downhill and finally some curves sharp uphill. On this part there’s one possibility to go in the false direction – on the downhill part another asphalt road branches out to the right (with a makeshift wooden shelter at the crossroads) and starts to descend sharply into a valley with fields. That’s the wrong way, stay on the road going straight ahead. The asphalt road finishes with a parking and some empty water pools (1,5 – 2 hrs from the trailhead). A few steps before the pools climb uphill to the left on a piece of barren eroded ground and find a well-trodden path in the forest. Contrary to some older route descriptions there are no more bamboo steps on this spot. After ca. 10-20 meters the forest path turns into a wide concrete-covered one. If there’s no concrete, you are on a wrong path, so walk back to the road and look for another one.  The concrete path goes directly to the crater which is about 30 minutes away.

The crater and the views around were way less spectacular than Merapi but there were much more sulphurous fumes rising from the volcano.

We walked down taking another path from a pass on the crater rim (on our right side as we arrived), just below a peak with antennae. The path down is well visible and wide, with some traces of concrete steps. Again, if you walk down and don’t see any concrete steps for ca. 100 meters, go back to the crater rim and look for the right path. The path passes through some nice forest with giant ferns and bamboo and took us less than 2 hrs to reach hot springs in Semangat Gunung. There was no opelet from the springs, so we walked all the way (ca. 1 h) to the main Berastagi-Medan road and flagged down a bus there.

Berastagi-Medan (Pinang Baris bus station) – small bus, 8K, 2 hrs.

Medan (Pinang Baris) - Bukit Lawang – minibus, 3 hrs

There are some scammers who apparently set up a ‘partnership’ with the drivers of Bukit Lawang minibuses. They demanded 50.000 Rp. for the ride (should cost 10-12K) and the driver told us to pay them. After some haggling we finally paid 25 K but heard from other tourists that they paid 50 K, so it was not a one-time scam.

Bukit Lawang

BL was the only place we visited in Sumatra where finding accommodation was a bit complicated. We met a ‘friendly local’ on the bus and he stuck to us as we were looking for accommodation, talking to anybody we asked about rooms. As a result everybody in the guesthouses upstream answered us they were full. Perhaps they were indeed (it was Saturday afternoon after all) but I have strong suspicions that we were considered ‘prey’ of our ‘friendly local’ and so the local arrangement is to let him lead us to his place and pocket the commission… Friends of us who visited Bukit Lawang some years ago, when it was almost deserted, had exactly the same problem.

We stopped for a meal at Sam’s Bungalow, near the end of the path, our ‘friendly local’ all the time sitting at the neighboring table. Then we went downstream and finally got rid of our unwanted acquaintance having to say him in a few soldierly words what we think of his company. Afterwards we found a room in Wisma Leuser Sibayak, downstream just across the river, directly at the suspension bridge – 50 K for an average room with bathroom and fan (the place was friendly but not so great for views). The next day we went to the morning orangutan feeding and asked for a room at Jungle Inn again – this time they had one for 50 K (with bathroom and a small balcony, most basic of their rooms but still quite comfortable and climatic). They have also more expensive rooms for up to 350 K. Next door, Sam’s Bungalow is a pretty similar place and has better food (in my opinion). Both places offer nice view across the river, we have observed the semi-domesticated orangutans hanging around at the feeding station directly from their terraces.

Jungle trek: We had a very good experience with our guide to the jungle, even if we did just a one-day trek (in fact about 5 hrs). We did not choose any of the guys approaching us in the village (sometimes seemed pretty murky) but went to the orangutan feeding at the national park entrance the day before (entry 20K). We just spoke to one of the park rangers who guided us the next day. He turned out to be a very knowledgeable and environmentally conscient guy, with more than 10 years experience of working with the orangutans, a degree in ecology and reasonable English skills, in addition he was quite good at sharing his knowledge with us. He even picked up trash left over by other guides. If anybody has deep interest in nature and would like to do some more serious treks, IMHO a park ranger as a guide would be the best choice. For those planning a visit to Bukit Lawang, I can send you his contact details via e-mail (meczko [at] poczta.onet.pl) or you can do the same thing like we – go to the orangutan feeding and speak directly to one of the rangers.

The ‘standard’ 1 or 2 days jungle trek is nice but you don’t experience really wild jungle. It’s simply a walk around some paths quite close to the village and meeting the semi-domesticated orangutans (reintroduced to the jungle) which still hang out close to humans. We met other groups of tourists virtually every half an hour or so and when we finally saw the orangutans there were about 20 people around. So it’s more similar to an interactive zoo – quite interesting but not a real wildlife experience. Some of the guides (not our guy, though) and also some tourists behaved quite irresponsibly – they shouted in ‘ape-like’ way trying to lure the apes (effectively rather scaring them) and fed the orangutans, putting them to risk of contracting diseases from humans. Our guide told us that a large majority of baby orangutans born in Bukit Lawang actually die from human-borne diseases. Because of heavy tourism serious conservation efforts have been moved elsewhere.

There is a fixed price for the jungle treks – 25 euros per person per day, which is quite high compared to general level of prices and earnings in Indonesia.

Bukit Lawang to Medan – minibus, 2,5 hrs, 15K (haggled down from 25K)

Medan

A becak ride between Pinang Baris station and city centre (to Mesjid Raya or Jalan Pemuda) costed us 25 – 30K (down from initial 50K).

We decided to sleep two nights in Medan and experience a big Indonesian city. It was quite interesting but I wouldn’t call it enjoyable – a kind of Third World urban planning nightmare, totally hostile to pedestrians, with intense chaotic traffic and a general rule that a richer driver with a better car has absolute priority. Pedestrians are obviously at the very bottom of the hierarchy. The narrow pavements were usually occupied by parking cars and motorbikes and sometimes by stalls, without leaving even a narrow passage. In the evening the center seemed pretty deserted – presumably barely anybody walks here, anybody just takes a bus, becak or drives. One of the curiosities was Sun Plaza – a big glitzy shopping mall, looking like in any rich country, with a huge parking and barely an entrance from the street for pedestrians.

Accommodation: we went first to UKM hotel just across the street from Mesjid Raya but it was full, so we went a few steps further into the back lane to Wisma Yuli. The room seemed OK at the first glance (125K for a double with AC and bathroom) but it turned out later that their water supply looked suspicious (greenish water, definitely not from the city grid) and they needed to switch the water pump to get the water running. Next morning we went to Pondok Angel Wisata on the opposite side of Jalan SM Raya (the same side as Mesjid Raya) and it was a much better choice, with a clean double for 120K (with bathroom and AC). They have a restaurant and there’s another ‘traveller cafe’, Corner Cafe Raya, almost next door.

In Medan we got the best rate for changing euros – 14.070, from a moneychanger at Jalan SM Raya, opposite Angel Wisata. When starting a Sumatra trip here it’s a good idea to change money for the whole trip.

In addition to struggling trying to walk across the city (distances are not so big after all), we made a trip to the crocodile farm (‘taman buaya’) on the Asam Kumbang outskirts a bit further that Pinang Baris, in fact not far from the bus terminal. A return becak ride including waiting time costed us 100K (probably overcharged). Entry was 5K. There are literally hundreds of crocs, mostly Crocodylus porosus, some as long as 5m. Some are kept in a big natural-looking pond, a good place to make pictures of scary crocodile-infested muddy waters of Sumatra :) Other ones were in quite small concrete enclosures.

Medan to Penang ferry:

Contrary to what the website says (http://www.langkawi-ferry.com/schedule.html) we were charged 140 RM per person for the ferry ticket (additional 30 RM of ‘fuel surcharge’), converted into rupiyah at a honest rate + 35K departure tax. We bought our tickets at King’s on Jalan Pemuda (http://www.langkawi-ferry.com/contact.html) a few days before, but the ferry was quite empty, so probably a day before would be enough. Bus transport from the office to Belawan jetty was included in the ticket. In fact we needlessly came to the office on Jalan Pemuda, as there was another travel office served by the same bus a few steps from our hotel on SM Raya. We were told to come to the office at 8.30 a.m. at the latest, but the bus arrived at about 10 a.m. and the boat first departed at noon.

Taking the ferry turned out to be not a good idea – we hoped for some views, but instead were locked into an iron can with obscured and dirty windows, deep-freeze AC and no access to the upper board. Flying seems a better idea and it can be cheaper even if booked shortly in advance (see http://www.airasia.com/).

[UPDATE Sept. 2010 - from some posts on the internet it seems that the ferry service has been suspended and flying is now the only direct way of travelling between Medan and Penang.]

MALAYSIA

Malaysia turned out to be the positive surprise of our trip. Perhaps less ‘exotic’ than Sumatra but more diverse, with an interesting mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures. People were really extremely friendly, in a gentle unassuming way. No question of trying to extract money, they were just happy to have a chat, explain us the way or the symbols at a temple, give us a lift when we walked along an empty road etc. In addition Malaysia is a very easy country to travel – English is widely spoken, prices are only slightly higher than in Indonesia, public transport is efficient and comfortable. Usually it was enough just to show up at the bus station to depart in a comfortable bus within a few minutes. Most bus companies are private but prices are regulated by the state – in general it was ca. 30% more than prices indicated by our LP guide published in 2007.

Some practical details:

Food– anything from 3 to 10 RM per dish at a foodcourt or a simple restaurant and a great choice of Chinese, Indian and Malay food.

Beer – heavily taxed and expensive, from 11.5-12 RM for a large Tiger, in simple restaurants often cheaper than in shops (14.50 RM in 7/11). A new Malaysian brand called Jaz was available even for 10 RM per 0,6 l but after having tried it we decided to stick to Tiger.

Accommodation – in the budget range 30 – 70 RM per double with private bathroom and AC

Internet – 3-6 RM per hour

Laundry – 4-5 RM per kg or 10 RM per one washing machine

Mosquitoes: we got bitten a few times, in most places we visited, even in spite of our use of repellents. According to travel advisories, risk of malaria is negligible in continental Malaysia, so we only finished our prophylaxis pills as prescribed for Sumatra and did not continue to take them.

Penang

We went to the budget hotels neighbourhood on Lebuh Chulia. Several places were either full or had only non AC rooms. Finally we found a room in Oasis (previously called Swiss Inn) – quite basic and a bit grotty but OK for the price, 35 RM with private bathroom and AC.

There are lots of moneychangers around Lebuh Chulia. In contrast to Indonesian practice they display exchange rates but it’s possible to get a few sen more if you ask (we got 5 RM per euro in a place with displayed rate 4,95).

Moving around Penang on public buses is quite easy, even if there are no schedules at the bus stops and bus numbers are completely different from those indicated by LP guide. Most buses depart from the station at Komtar high rise building and almost everybody around is happy to explain if there is some confusion. We went to Kek Lok Si temple on bus no. 204 (1,50 RM) and later started to walk from there to Penang Hill cable car (not that far, seems to be a ca. 20 minutes walk) but were quickly given a lift by a local guy. From the top of Penang Hill we started to walk down towards the botanical gardens but again were quickly given a lift by another kind driver. A short walk below the botanical gardens (not particularly inspiring) there are two interesting Hindu temples (as we heard, a centre of local Thaipusam celebrations in January/February). Then we walked further to the Burmese and Thai Buddhist temples, situated on the opposite sides of a small lane near Jalan Burma. Both were already closed but the guard at the Thai one opened the gate for us.

We also visited the Snake Temple in Bayan Lepas near the airport (by bus no. 401 from Komtar). In addition to the numerous green vipers in the temple, there’s a small but interesting snake exhibition (5 RM) and it was quite interesting to have a chat with the owner (she told us she is around only on weekends).

Penang – Ipoh

We decided to take a ferryboat to Butterworth instead of a city bus to Penang bus station. Ferries depart very frequently and are free of charge in this direction. Butterworth bus station is just at the jetty and despite travelling on Sunday we found a bus to Ipoh immediately. It took 2,5 hrs of a comfortable trip, for 18 RM.

Ipoh

We took a bus from the long distance bus station at Medan Gopeng to city center for 1,10 RM. Stayed at New Caspian Hotel for 60 RM for a very comfortable and clean double (AC and private bathroom).

Ipoh is a bit off the tourist track and it was quite enjoyable. Old town was quite deserted and we found the new part much more interesting. We visited all three cave temples around Ipoh in one day by city buses (from city bus station) without hurrying.

Perak Tong – a short ride by a bus to Kuala Kangsar, 1,50 RM

Sam Poh Tong – bus no. 66, a bit behind Medan Gopeng bus station, directly at the end of the built-up area on Ipoh outskirts.

Kek Look Tong (definitely worth visiting, not less interesting than the previous ones) – quite as described in LP. Road signs pointing to the temple indicate some other names but are quite obvious to decipher as pointing to a Buddhist temple. Ca. 30 minutes walk from Sam Poh Tong, first a short unpleasant part along a busy road, then across a quiet residential district.

Ipoh – Lumut – Pulau Pangkor

Short distance bus from the Perak Roadways station just across the street from the city bus station in Ipoh, 8,40 RM, ca. 2 hrs. The Lumut bus station is a few steps from the jetty, ferryboat to Pangkor Town costed 10 RM (return) and took 30 min. From Pangkor Town we took a pink minibus taxi to Teluk Nipah for 12 RM per whole car (fixed rate).

Pulau Pangkor

In Teluk Nipah prices go down very quickly with distance from the seaside, starting from ca. 90-100 RM per double on the main street on the waterfront. Some 50 meters inland we found a very nice cottage for 50 RM (weekday price, private bathroom, AC and small terrace) at Sunset View Chalet, in a rose garden. That’s a perfect place for birdwatchers, as the owner is crazy about birds, knows a lot about them and is eager to share this passion with his guests. Every day at 6.30 p.m. he feeds the hornbills of the common sort (quite numerous) and he also showed us giant hornbills on a nearby tree.

Teluk Nipah was perhaps not a spectacular place but nice enough to spend 2 lazy days – nice sandy beach, quite clear water, acceptable food and nice nature – a lot of birds, some monkeys and monitor lizards. We planned a bicycle ride around the island but gave up after seeing the really dilapidated bicycles on offer (15 RM per day), which seemed likely to break down after a few kilometers.

Pulau Pangkor-Lumut-Kuala Lumpur

After taking a cab (12 RM) to the jetty and a ferry to Lumut we took a Transnasional bus to Kuala Lumpur’s Puduraya bus station (24,40 RM, ca. 4 hrs). Puduraya is a short walk from Chinatown, where we stayed in Grocer’s Inn on Jalan Sultan (http://www.grocersinn.com.my/, 50 RM for a very basic double with AC, shared but very clean bathrooms, a space to chill out on the roof). It was OK for one night but for longer stay I’d rather suggest looking for some better place.

The next morning we went to Batu Caves (by city bus from near Chinatown, just as described in LP guide) and were back by early afternoon to take a bus to Melaka.

Puduraya may seem confusing but the ticketing system is quite simple – there are many ticket booths of several companies but they all sell tickets for the same buses, charging the same, regulated prices and then settle the bill between themselves. Just go to any window displaying your destination, they will check the nearest departure by CB radio and sell you the ticket. Avoid the ticket sellers touting their business around the station, even if by any standards they operate in pretty innocent way. We made the mistake to buy a ticket from one such girl. As it turned out she sold us tickets for a non-existing bus and overcharged us by 2 RM. To our great surprise it was a mistake rather than a scam – we located her easily, she reimbursed us the money and we bought the right ticket at the nearest booth.

KL-Melaka ride took 2 hrs by Mayang Hari bus company, 13.20 RM.

Melaka

The main bus station Melaka Sentral is located out of the city, so we took city bus no. 17 (1 RM) which passes through the center (at front of the Christ Church), between the Mahkota and Dataran Pahlawan shopping malls to the budget accommodation area on Jalan Melaka Raya and continues towards the crossroads leading to Medan Portugis on the other side of the city. For the ride back to the bus station, the 17’s route is a bit different – along a highway south of the Melaka Raya neighbourhood towards the seaside (a few steps from the hostels) and then along the Western end of Chinatown.

Accommodation – the hostels listed in LP had only non AC rooms available, so we checked some of the neighbouring hotels and stayed at Mesra Norhayati at Jalan Melaka Raya 1, recognizable by a sign with a ferryboat. An average double with AC and private bathroom was 55 RM. Little English was spoken but after our previous stay in Indonesia we managed to communicate in Bahasa Malaysia :)

Melaka-Singapore

There are buses every one hour (4,5 hrs, 24 RM), crossing the border at Woodlands Checkpoint (main causeway) and arriving to Kallang Bahru bus stand near Lavender MRT station. The ride in opposite direction costs about double the price – twenty something S$. Kallang Bahru is actually not a bus station but a parking with a few ticket booths. There’s no left luggage facility there, so we had to go to the airport to leave our stuff (ca. 8 S$ per 2 backpacks) and then back for an afternoon stroll and some food in Chinatown.

[Update Sep. 2010 - it seems that left luggage facility is also offered by Inn Crowd hostel in Little India (http://www.the-inncrowd.com/storage.htm), at much cheaper rates than the airport facility.]

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