Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lovely KL, Temples of Angkor, and Bangkok

Kuala Lumpur.... what a cool city! We just arrived from one week in Borneo, surrounded by nature and animals, and now we were back in a big city. KL is not as big as Singapore by any means - it only has 1,5 million inhabitants - but the city still has the vibe of a large metropolis. The center of town has a new modern part, which is packed with sparkling brand new malls and the highest twin towers in Asia. In the Southern part of town, you can find Chinatown, the park, the national museum, and the biggest mosque of KL. With four days here, we had plenty of time to visit the whole city!

The place we were staying at is about 2 km walking from the twin towers, so in these 4 days we were here, we walked a lot! The first day we probably exaggerated a little bit, as we walked around 10 km I think... Burning some calories in the hot sun, and escape the heat in the air-conditioned malls from time to time :-) Seems like Singapore... ;-). It was very very hot in KL, about 37 degrees. Normally, in the beginning of March, it's still raining season. This means the temperatures are hotter, but you have some showers during the day or at night. However, as in so many countries all over the world, the climate is changing, and it hadn't been raining for days. Result: super hot weather! But these things don't stop us from having fun off course :-). 

We visited two mosques in KL. When we arrived at the first mosque, we were offered a free guided tour. Before we entered, I had to dress appropriately, and wear a long dress with veil. To be honest, I looked a bit like a pink magician in it, so it was pretty funny! We entered the mosque and after a couple of minutes I started feeling the sweat dripping of my back, my neck, my face,... You can imagine, being completely covered up with 37 degrees outside is not an ideal situation! I couldn't really enjoy the moment because it was just too hot for me. The guide kept on explaining very interesting things about Islam, but I left Claudio and headed to the entrance to get rid of my magician outfit. Wow, I really admire Muslim women in Asia who can cover themselves up every day and battle this extreme heat. I could never do it!
                Night out in KL

                                                       Marj the magician ;-)

The next mosque we went to is the biggest in KL. We were disappointed though, because when we arrived only Muslims could enter the mosque. We missed the visiting hours for non-Muslims. To be honest, I thought it was rather discriminatory to exclude tourists with other religions, but hey, what are you going to do? We just saw it from the outside, took some snapshots and left.
Next was a Hindu temple. In these temples, they usually ask you to take off your shoes before you enter. No problem for us. We took off our shoes and went inside the temple. Five minutes later, I see an angry guy kicking ours and some other tourists' shoes. OK?? He told us we couldn't leave the shoes in THAT particular place, but had to put them against another wall. Hm, seems like someone's frustrated. Well, let's say that that day we had enough of religious 'rules'!

So we headed towards the twin towers, which are two beautiful towers in the center of KL. The two building are completely decorated with lights, so at night it's really beautiful to see. Attached to the twin towers, there is a beautiful hyper modern mall (KLCC) where you can shop till you drop. Don't think it's cheaper then Europe though. Brands like Zara, Quicksilver, Topshop, etc. cost the same. But it's nice to walk around in the mall, have a coffee at Starbucks, gaze at the beautiful fountain and light show from your seat, and look at all the people that walk by. Downstairs, you also have a really nice and clean food court, where you eat cheap food (about 4 EUR per plate for a fancy meal). Perfect to save some money! You can also eat for 1 EUR on the street in Chinatown, but with my sensitive stomach I don't really dare to. We always try to eat in clean places, and don't mind spending a tiny bit more rather then eating street food. And still, we had some problems sometimes. Never in Hawai'i or New Zealand, but in Latin America and SEA we did.

Petronas twin towers, KL

After a first long day, we were happy to get back to our wonderful airbnb hostess Burger, a Taiwanese expat living in KL. She was so nice and we had such a comfortable cozy room - with AC luckily! 

The following days we took a slower pace, because after our first intensive day we were pretty tired. We visited the national museum on one day. It was very informative, but compared to the ones of Wellington or Mexico City it was really not that spectacular. We learned a lot about the history of Malaysia though - the occupancy of Portugal and later Great Britain, how Malaysia became a Muslim country, and why you have many Chinese but also Indian people living in Malaysia. To get to the museum, not to forget, we had to cross the railway, the lobby of the Hilton hotel and a highway: not very convenient. If you are planning to go to KL soon, don't worry, they are building a new subway stop at the museum :). Always progressing.... 

We also visited the Lake Gardens park, which is located behind the museum. The park is really beautiful, but it was a pity that also some parts of the park were under construction. We saw a cool  outdoor amphitheater and just hanged there for a while. I felt as if we were the only tourists in the park! All the other Western people were probably in some mall somewhere :D (not that I blame them, they are awesome).

KL center

Our last day in KL we visited the Batu caves, where you can find a huge golden Hindu statue of the god Murugun in front of a cave. The statue is magnificent. It is 42 meters tall and really impressive to see. Behind the statue, you have the caves. You can climb 272 stairs to get inside the cave, where you have a Hindu temple. Off course we went, but after my cave adventure in New Zealand, I'm terrified to go into caves and see huge spiders. Luckily I didn't see any :). However, there were lots of monkeys everywhere that were very aggressive. You cannot keep anything in your hand because they will try to steal it from you. They also fight with each other over food and make wild noises. Crazy monkeys :). The temple inside the cave was not spectacular. The trip to Batu was worth it though because the statue in front of the cave was just beautiful!!

Batu caves

That was our last day in KL! The next morning we took a taxi at 4AM and headed to the airport. We were so tired... But this was the cheapest flight we could get to Siem Reap with AirAsia. The flight was perfect and when we arrived we took a taxi to our hotel. We checked in and our room was so nice! We paid only 12 EUR and had a huge clean room with kingsize bed. After a long nap in our wonderful bed we got up again and went into town. We found an amazing cafe that had sandwiches... finally after all that fried rice! In Cambodia you could find European food like baguettes, cheese, bacon, pancakes, etc. In those 4 days we were day we ate like pigs! 

The reason for coming to Cambodia was to visit the temples of Angkor. We read in our guide that some people take a whole week to explore the temples. We thought it was probably a bit exaggerated, and decided to take a three day pass. The first day, we wanted to visit the Angkor Wat temple. We rented two bikes for 2 USD and drove 9 km's in the burning sun. It was around 40 degrees that day so we were dying :D. When we arrived we were immediately amazed by the beauty of the temple. We practically stayed there the whole first day because the temple is very big and there are so many wonderful carvings and secret hallways to explore. We started wondering: Maybe they were right after all and we will need a whole week?

Angkor Wat

The next day, it was really too hot , and we had to go 14 km's to the next temple, so it was not feasible with the bike. So, we decided to hire a tuk-tuk driver. For 15 dollars you can hire him the whole day and he drops you off at the temple, waits for you, and then brings you to the next one. Siem Reap is filled with tuk-tuk drivers, so when I got out of the hotel I just stopped one and asked for some information. The guy really didn't speak English at all but he was so friendly and sweet, my heart melted. We hired him and he turned out to be great! We visited the Bayon temple, Ta Prohm, and several other temples in the surrounding. It was an amazing day. Driving back in our tuk-tuk, passing the river, seeing children washing cows in the water and cuddling them, ... it was one of the best moments of the trip. I felt so good, the people there were so positive, and there was an incredible vibe in Angkor. I wish we could have stayed there forever.

The people of Cambodia really touched me. If you read about their history, you can just start crying. Long wars with Vietnam; a genocide during the Khmer rouge regime in which more then 1 million people were killed; and currently a dictator in power who is selling Cambodia's beautiful land to foreign (read: Chinese) investors for his own gain. And still... Cambodian people smile, are happy to see you, are hopeful, see opportunities and try to seize them. They have a wonderful spirit which can only be admired. I really feel like I just want to help everybody. We tried to leave lots of tips, buy food and drinks in local stands, we never bargained but just gave the asking price, bought lots of souvenirs. It's not much, but we were trying...

Our super sweet tuk tuk driver!!

The last day, we visited two temples that were further out of town, about 35 km. We hired the same tuk-tuk driver again and had a great day. We were so sad it was already out last day! We wished we could have stayed longer, but we had to head towards Bangkok to catch our next flight to Indonesia. This sucked... :( 

The next day we took the bus to the Thai border where we were screamed at by every border control official. They must really love tourists here... ? We saw a British couple that was freaking out because one of the officials took their passports, wasn't giving it back to them and wasn't explaining anything. I started worrying obviously! But in the end, all went well and we got another stamp on our passports. Fieuw!
The second part of our trip was from the border to Bangkok. We booked a bus ticket, but were put into a van - NOT comfortable at all. All the other passengers were angry about it (including an old Dutch couple who complained the whooooole trip), but you have to get into the van. What else are you going to do? After six long hours later we finally arrived. 

Our first impressions of Bangkok were not that nice. The city is definitely not comparable to KL. There are a lot of poor neighborhoods, rats and cockroaches on the street, people are not as friendly as in Malaysia (they seemed to dislike any kind of tourist), taxi drivers refused to use the meter and try to scam you, ... I think that after being in Singapore and KL, we has different expectations. We did enjoy the food though! We went to local restaurants, pointed at some pictures on the Thai menu and had some delicious meals :). We also had one really fun day where we visited the Wat Pho temple. It was so beautiful and really special! We saw a huge golden Buddha lying down in a temple of 46 meters tall (maybe he was trying to compete with Murugun of the Batu caves? ;) ). The different buildings inside the temple complex were decorated very nicely. There were also cats everywhere, really too cute...

But overall, Bangkok was a bit of a disappointment. We would have loved to stay a bit longer in Cambodia and a bit less long in Thailand. But you cannot know these things in advance unfortunately! The morning of the 20th we took the train to the airport - next destination: Indonesia!

Talk to you soon... :)

Hugs and kisses,
Marj & Claudio

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Planning our South East Asia trip, and exploring Singapore + Malaysia

After our month in New Zealand surrounded by nature, it was time for something else. South East Asia, here we come!

It has been difficult for us to plan our two months in SEA. For South America, Mexico and Hawai'i, we knew which places we wanted to visit. Even though we hadn't booked everything, we had an idea of where to go and how to get there. For New Zealand we hadn't planned anything, but the country is not that big and we decided in advance we mainly wanted to explore the Southern Island. For SEA, we had a blank sheet. We only had a flight booked from Auckland to Singapore the 27th of February, and the next flight the 28th of April from Singapore to London. Two months in SEA... and many countries to choose from.

Our first idea was to visit the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. We had several doubts about the Philippines, because certain areas were affected by the typhoon in November 2013. We did some research and decided to go to Donsol and El Nido. Looking for flights was not that easy though, it was pretty expensive. Even with AirAsia it would cost 75 EUR per person to fly to Manila, and then with a local airline 40 EUR to fly to the island where El Nido is located. This was the cheapest we could find... But hey, YOLO right? So we booked the flights anyway. In the meantime, we started looking for accommodation but hadn't booked anything yet. El Nido was actually pretty expensive and we were having a hard time finding decent budget accommodation. Then, a couple of days later, we receive an email from AirAsia that our flight has been rescheduled - it would leave 4 hours later, and this would mean we would miss our connecting flight! After all this hassle, I saw it as a sign (I believe in stupid things like that). Nothing seemed to be working out for the Philippines, and we decided to cancel our flights and ask for a refund.

So, we had to come up with a new plan!! We basically went to a bookshop, and Claudio started looking at travel guides and pictures of beautiful places in the world. We came across some really nice pictures of the temples in Angkor, Cambodia. We went to the hostel, started googling and researching flights and decided to go for it! So the planning for Asia resulted in:
Arrive in Singapore and stay there for 4 days, fly to Kuching (Borneo, Malaysia) and stay for 6 days. From there a flight to Kuala Lumpur and stay for 4 days, then Siam Reap in Cambodia for 4 days, and from there take a bus to Bangkok to catch a flight to Indonesia, where we will spend around 35 days. Maybe we will do something else in those 35 days in Indonesia, a little detour, but we haven't decided yet. Finally, we booked a flight from Bali back to Singapore, where we will spend our last 4 days before we go home again. We loved Singapore, so we are looking forward to spend some more days there.

The planning of these last two months have actually caused so much stress. Every time you are in a beautiful place, you almost cannot enjoy it because you are thinking about what to do next: which city to go to, which temples or museums to visit, where to sleep, how to get there, how long will it take, ...? You are spending more time on google trying to look up stuff than actually enjoying where you are in that moment. Changing plans didn't help much. But I guess it's our own fault for not researching it better before ;-). 

So, to get back to the fun part of traveling, let's talk about Singapore! We took a direct flight from Auckland to Singapore. I don't know why, but I thought the flight was going to be only 5 hours or so... But it was 11 hours! New Zealand is really so isolated from the rest of the world, it's just crazy. Anyway, we landed and took the subway to our room we rented in a huge apartment complex in the West of the city. We had a good connection to the MRT (subway), so we could explore the whole city easily. With the 7 hours difference from New Zealand, we woke up early every day. It gave us a lot of time to explore the city. The first thing that we noticed going out was the heat: it was 33 degrees and very humid. The air-conditioning in our room also broke down on the first night so it was horrible in the beginning! But luckily we got used to it after a couple of days. Singapore is also packed with huge ultra modern malls, one after the other. So if it gets to hot, you just hop into a mall with ice cold air-conditioning and cool down. But really, I have never seen so many malls in my entire life combined as in Singapore! Truly shopping paradise... In every mall, you also have food courts where you can get a meal for 2 or 3 euro's! In this way, you can save lots of money. 

Besides all these malls, you also have beautiful skyscrapers with amazing architecture. This is in contrast with what we are used to in Belgium or Italy where we are surrounded by ancient buildings from the past. You don't see such innovative architecture in our countries. But Singapore is full of those types of buildings. It feels you stepped into the future. It was absolutely amazing to walk around in the city and being surrounded by all these modern skyscrapers!

 view from Marina Bay
Some innovative architecture

For us, Singapore was the perfect transition from a "Western" country to an "Asian" one, because it is a mix between both worlds.  It is a rich city, with lots of facilities, everybody speaks English, and on top of that it is super safe! This is mainly due to the extreme measures of the government: for example, you get a 500 dollar fine (= 300 EUR) for drinking or eating on the MRT or not crossing the street on the crosswalks! Once I saw a documentary on TV where people referred to the city as SingaBORE, and now I understand it. There are many rules and everybody obeys them blindly. However, this also results in Singapore being a very efficient and safe city. The city functions like a well-oiled machine and you cannot complain about anything. 

To sum up, Singapore is really beautiful and it is definitely worth visiting. It is one of our top 10 favorite cities in the world for sure! Our favorite places were the Marina Bay, and the gardens by the bay. At night there is also a beautiful light show at the gardens but we missed it. Hopefully we can see it when we go back in April!

          Gardens by the bay

After 4 days, we took a bus from Singapore to Johor Bahru in Malaysia (1,5 hour) and from there we took the plane to Kuching, in Malaysian Borneo. 

The Borneo is an island where the northern part is Malaysian and partly Brunei, and the southern part is Indonesian. We only visited the Malaysian part, in the north-west of the island, in the region called Sarawak. We flew to the city Kuching, which would be our base for exploring the area. Kuching was so nice for different reasons. First of all, it was really cheap: our hostel was 11 EUR for a private room, and food in the mall cost less than 1 EUR per plate. We went seriously over-budget in New Zealand, but in this week we managed to recuperate most part of it. Secondly, people were super friendly, it was crazy. In our trip, we haven't met such friendly people as in Sarawak. Everybody smiles, people just say "hey" to you, ask you how you are, introduce themselves. One night, we were at the supermarket, and this guy just started talking to us for 15 minutes, about his life and politics and Malaysia. It was so nice, and something that would never happen in Belgium. I love it! And third, people speak English pretty well. Malaysia used to be a colony of Great Britain, so especially the older generation speaks good English. This makes it easy to communicate with the locals. 

We were happy to be in Kuching, and explore the Sarawak area. Kuching comes from the Malay word Kucing which means "cat", a perfect city for me and Claudio :-). They even had a cat museum there, which we visited off course. The rest of the city had a relaxing vibe, with not too many tourists, and with many beautiful sites.


The highlights of this week were two days: one day we went to the Semenggoh rehabilitation center, where orangutans are living freely in a large jungle area, but are fed daily because they are too weak to survive on their own during certain periods of the year. Before we went to see the feeding at 15h, we had a whole speech about the dangers of the orangutans : no talking, no sudden movements, don't go too close and no touching. We entered the jungle and the feeding started. Everybody was quiet as a mouse. Seconds later we heard noise coming from the trees.... and we spotted the first orangutans  gliding from one tree to another! Soon two others followed, including one mother holding her tiny baby wrapped around her. Sooo cute!  The orangutans went to the feeding place and ate tons of bananas and hanged on the trees, relaxing. You heard  hundreds of silent clicks from camera's, everybody trying to get the perfect picture :-). Seeing the orangutans was definitely an amazing experience, it really took my breath away.

Just chillin' and eating some banana's!
Two days later, we decided to go to Bako national park. We took a bus for 1 hour and arrived in a place where we had to take the boat to the park. The park can only be reached by boat so you have no choice. We paid for the ticket and the guy assured us that there would only be 7 people on the boat. I mean, by now I already know that it is never going to be like that. Who do you think you are trying to fool? :-) :-) So indeed, we ended up sharing our boat with at least 10 more people. The sea was also really rough, and at times to boat really flew through the air and landed back in the sea so hard that I got scared! It was a though ride, but when we finally arrived it was worth it. We arrived on the beach and walked to the park entrance, where we immediately spotted a family of proboscis monkeys, and a bearded pig. We did a hike in the jungle, arrived on a deserted stretch of beach again with some lime stones and rock formations. It was a really nice day... We booked the last boat back at 16h, which left early BTW, and we almost missed it! But we got back safely after our second boat ride of the day. We'll never forget that day!


View from the beach at Bako National Park
This is the end of our Borneo adventure. The next blog post I'll talk about Kuala Lumpur and Angkor in Cambodia. Talk to you all soon!

Ciao :-)

Marj and Claudio