A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: greggers

Macau

China meets Portugal meets Vegas!

sunny 23 °C

After a final lingering lunch date with YOSHINOYA it was all aboard Turbo Jet for the 65km journey to Macau.

Mac-where..? Exactly! If like me, your grasp of world geography is decidedly sketchy Macau is a tiny country situated on the Southeastern coast of China in the Guangdong Province. Turbo Jet (which deserves a mention in its own right) was part plane part boat. It had all the internal characteristics of an airplane - airplane seats, airplane seatbelts, a little fold away tray to use as you pleased & young, attractive ladies working the isles trying to flog you overpriced food, drinks and Marlborough Lights. But it is essentially a ferry and a fast one at that so after just 50 mins I disembarked in a whole new world.

I only had a couple of days in Macau which is all you need really as it only a small place, it has total land area of 27.3 sq km including the peninsula plus Taipa & Coloane islands. The whole country has a distinctively mediterranean feel and rightly so. Jorge Alvares became the first Portuguese to set foot in Southern China in 1513 and his visit was followed by the establishment of a number of Portuguese trading centers in the Pearl River delta. These were eventually consolidated into Macau, which soon wielded, with the permission on the emperor of China, a virtual monopoly on trade between China and Japan and between both nations and Europe. Today it is still a mixture of Chinese and Portuguese cultures harmoniously maintained and developed by its people.

In July 2005, 25 distinct sites in the historical centre of Macau were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. These are largely ancient stone fortresses, churches, Chinese temples and restored colonial villa's all scattered amongst tiny cobbled backstreets named by distinctive Portuguese blue enamel signs. Look to your left and you could be convinced you were in Portugal, to your right and you could be Shanghai.

Ruins of St. Paul Cathedral

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Typical alleyway

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Another World Heritage Site

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I must admit I enjoyed ambling around these sites a whole lot more than I thought I would, infact the whole of Macau is one of those places which just oozes charm. Each street I ventured down had something going on, a group of old men playing cards in a shady corner of the park, old cobblers shops which look like they have been there forever and traditional chinese medicine and teashops. In the next alley there's funky clothes and souvenir shops and everywhere there are people zipping around on scooters, I haven't seen so many scooters since Vietnam. And that to me was what really appealed, a blend of the old and the new, the East meets the West.

The lads gather for a game of cards

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But when the sun goes down on the history and the heritage the neon's soon come out to play. I wasn't aware of this but apparently gambling is illegal in Hong Kong so many people head over to Macau for a weekend of excess in Sin City. Now we aren't talking the strip in Vegas here but Macau is home to some 18 casino's which is rather alot for such a tiny place.

Cheeky school kids
I wanted to take some photo's of an old building but these kids appeared on the way back from school and wanted to be in the photo too

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Usually I'm not much of a gambling man but I'm on my holidays and at this late stage in my trip I figured it was double or quits. Worse case scenario, I lose what very little money I have left and I'm on the next flight back to Heathrow. If I win big, its a quick call to the folks telling them not to expect me home anytime soon. Well.....either of the above happened and how can they when you playing the slots with pocket change..? But it was good fun all the same.

Grand Lisboa Casino
The scene of my flurry on the slots

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And that, I suppose is the beauty of travel, you can rock up in some tiny country you know absolutely nothing about only to discover it is a real gem!

Posted by greggers 03:11 Archived in Macau Comments (0)

Hong Kong

Happy Chinese New Year!

sunny 23 °C

Considering my Round the World ticket kind of "hit the skids" somewhere in the South Pacific between Rarotonga and Tahiti, I decided on Hong Kong as my next destination. I have always quite fancied it and figured why not...when am I next going to be in this neck of the woods?

Arriving fresh from Brunei into Hong Kong was a big-time sensory overload. Massive neon signs hang outside every shop, there is heavy traffic everywhere (of both mechanical & human variety) and plenty of noise 24/7 - but this was what I had come to experience afterall.

Kowloon

I spent my first few days in Kowloon on Chungy's recommendation (Chungy is an old Uni pal and Hong Kong native). So I ventured out with my Chungy cheat sheet and the Lonely Planet tucked under my arm to tackle the walking tour. This took me through the caged bird market, flower market, dodgy knock-off threads market, chopstick market and finally the goldfish market (I kid you not). Then I treated myself to a new hairdo (nothing fancy, just a trim) but the old Chinese guy got abit fizzy with the clippers and now I have a Shaolin Monk crop. He seemed exceptionally proud of his efforts and kept asking me "you like, you like?". I didn't have the heart to tell him it was a trifle shorter than I wanted but on the plus side, it has shaved seconds off my morning beauty routine.

Bright lights of Nathan Rd

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That evening I went down to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade to check out the infamous skyline. It didn't disappoint as the whole of Hong Kong Island is lit up in neon. At 8pm each evening they have a Symphony of the Stars performance which is essentially a light and laser show to orchestral music across the harbor. Yes, it's as cheesy & tacky as it sounds but I loved it nonetheless. I then took a saunter down the Avenue of Stars which pays homage to home grown Hong Kong talent such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

Hong Kong Skyline

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Jet Li - Avenue of the Stars

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The following few days were spent taking in the sights. I queued 3 hours to take a cable car up the Ngong Ping Plateau on the outlying island of Lantau to see the Po Lin Buddhist monastery. The cable car trip takes 25 mins and offers some amazing views of Hog Kong but the main draw card is the Tian Tan Buddha. Measuring 34m high and weighing in at a hefty 202 tonnes its a rather impressive sight. I also covered off the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong Museum of Art and Kowloon Park - incidentally a lovely place to have a relaxing breakfast whilst watching the olde timers doing their morning Tai Chi.

Tian Tan Buddha

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Funky Fountains

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I spent alot of time riding the MTR, Hong Kong's equivalent of London Underground apart from it runs on time, it's ultra speedy, it's squeaky clean, it's dirt cheap and it doesn't stink of piss. It transported me effortlessly across Kowloon to Diamond Hill to see the Chi Lin Nunnery a large Buddhist complex dating back to 1930's. It was a very serene place with lotus ponds, bonsai tree plants and the monks chanting behind big carved screens. With it being Chinese New Year it was absolutely mobbed with locals praying for prosperous 2007 and offering up incense sticks.

Chi Lin Nunnery

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Kowloon Park

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Hong Kong Island

Made a move from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and have been calling Causeway Bay home for the past few days. My first stop on Hong Kong Island was The Peak which is the highest point on the island. I took the tram all the way up to the top of Peak Tower to have a good look at Hong Kong down below. I was relieved to learn that the tower had been specifically designed to withstand winds of up to 270km/h - theoretically more than the maximum velocity of a No. 10 typhoon (apparently). It made for some decent photo's.

The Peak by Day

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The Peak by Night

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I also had an interesting wander through Hong Kong's business centre to marvel the architectural treasures - it is home to 18 skyscrapers no less (the ones which take part in the aforementioned Symphony of the Stars) including Exchange Square the Bank of China Buildings and Government House.

Central - Skyscrapers

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But it was the sheer number of shops which I couldn't get over. I have never seem so many shopping malls, department stores & street vendors ever before. I mean, if anybody from Hong Kong came to visit one of London's main shopping districts like Oxford Street or Covent Garden they would be asking where all the shops were, it's insane! And they are open so late, most of them until around midnight so even late at night you can go and pick up such essentials as the latest Louis Vuitton bag or CD's from HMV. And I suppose with retail being such big business its highly competitive. I went into one gentleman's outfitters for an idle browse and the young lady working there was so friendly and helpful I left 10 mins later having bought a pair of jean, T-Shirts, trainers and jacket - how did that happen..!?

I also made the best discovery in a food outlet called YOSHINOYA. It's like a fast food Japanese style. I became hopelessly addicted, partly because I have been looking for something to fill the massive void Pret A Mange left in my eating habits and also because it is one of the few places in Hong Kong where I understood the menu. So it's been a No. 3 for lunch and a No. 7 for tea for the past 7 days straight. Considering opening a franchise in London, after my water taxi company takes off ofcourse.

Wishing you all a prosperous Year of the Pig!

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Next stop - Macau.

Posted by greggers 03:44 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (1)

Negara Brunei Darussalam

all seasons in one day 31 °C

After travelling through both Sarawak & Sabah it seemed, well, impolite to overlook little Brunei sandwiched in the middle so I managed to find a few days in my hectic globetrotting schedule to drop by.

Negara Brunei Darussalam (or just Brunei to his mates) is one of the smallest countries in the world but also one of the wealthiest thanks to the oil industry. I opted to stay in the capital city of Bangar Seri Begawan (BSB) a compact place home to some 75,000. It's certainly very different to other Asian capital cities with orderly traffic, high standard of living and no real signs of poverty.

So how do you occupy yourself for 3 days in a country where alcohol is virtually unobtainable and nightlife non existent - well you sleep alot! Nah, I hit the cultural trail hard and spent alot of time walking around looking at big gold shiny buildings.

After finding and settling myself into some very satisfactory digs I set off to check out the Mosques. The hotel I was staying in was a few km's outside of the centre and the easiest not to mention quickest way to get around Brunei is by water taxi. There are hundreds of them all zipping back and forth from the water villages and dropping kids off at school. I am considering launching a similar initiative when I get back to London, how cool would it be to have a network of little taxi boats chauffeuring people up and down the Thames - surely it's a winning idea!

Water taxi anyone?

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The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is located in the centre of BSB and stands in its own artificial lagoon. Named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei it is one of the tallest buildings in BSB. I took a trip up to top for an impressive panoramic view of the city. Then I got one of Brunei's cool little purple buses out to the J'ame'Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque. This was built in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Sultans reign in 1992. After being asked to put on a full length robe type thing I was allowed to have a poke around this one as long as I didn't disturb the people praying.

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

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The J'ame'Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque

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I covered off the Brunei Museum, Malay Technology Museum and Royal Regalia Museum on my second day. I'd now consider myself pretty much up to speed on the oil industry, recent technological advancements and all things regal.

On my final day I visited Kampung Ayer which is made up of 28 water villages and houses a total of 30,000 people. This, I would say is the highlight of my trip to Brunei. I got dropped off by water taxi and started to explore the maze of wooden gangplanks connecting brightly painted shacks, shops, schools and workshops. The people were amazingly friendly especially the children and it wasn't long before I was invited in for a cup of tea and a chat about my travels and how I ended up in Brunei (I don't think they get many tourists so I was something of a novelty) Then one guy offered to take me for a cruise round the rest of the village's and up river to see the Proboscis monkeys (I didn't want to tell him I had already seen them at Bako & on the Kinabatangan) and on to the royal palace (Istana Nurul Iman) where the Sultan resides.

Kampung Ayer

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Local family at Kampung Ayer

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Footie Fans - Kampung Ayer

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All in all it was a good three days in Brunei. It's the evenings which are abit quiet as there really isn't anything much to do. The locals just seem to hang around on street corners like they are waiting for something to happen which never actually does.

Next stop - Hong Kong.

Posted by greggers 23:21 Archived in Brunei Comments (2)

Borneo - Sandakan

....finally - the wildlife comes out to play!

sunny 30 °C

Sandakan certainly gets it's fair share of stick for being abit of an unsavory place but I must admit I did quite like it's gritty, down market charm. Having said that, one day was quite long enough hangin' with the local crazies and dodging the little kids who seem only to happy to relieve you of your wallet.

I booked myself on a 3 day river safari on the mighty Sungai Kinabatangan, Sabah's longest river (measuring 560km) held in the highest of regards as "the" location for spotting a multitude of wildlife. Home for the next three days was a quaint little cabin on the riverbank and my fellow wildlife enthusiast, a bus load of SAGA Holidaymakers from North Yorkshire.

Day One

Met our guide Terence, the most portly of Malay guys who fell dead asleep if he sat still for longer than 2 mins. Our first stop en route to the Kinabatangan was Gomantong Cave. This limestone cave is Sabah's most famous source of swiftlets nests used for birds nest soup. No pictures I'm afraid as there was a 30RM charge for your camera, a luxury which, quite frankly I could ill-afford. Essentially very brave men build very dubious looking ladders from bamboo & twine and then use them to climb 18m high to retrieve swiftlets nests. The nests, made from bird spit and feathers are then sold to restaurants who make them into birds nest soup. The soup is regarded as a delicacy to the chinese, believed to enhance a males fertility and provide the ladies with eternal youth.

Checked into camp just after lunch, promptly piled aboard our vessel and set sail to observe the many wonders Kinabatangan had to offer. Well this is where Terence came into his own for he could spot a Rhinoceros hornbill bird a mile off. So it wasn't long before we were feasting our eyes on an assortment of tropical birds (not really my thing) snakes, proboscis monkeys, pig-tailed Macaque monkeys, silver-tailed Macaques - my old Olympus was working over time.

Proboscis Monkeys

Mother & Baby

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An excited male

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Silver-tailed Macaque

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Back at the ranch, dinner was dominated by eager conversation of what tomorrows jungle trek would hold in store for us.

Day 2

Leeches, leeches and more leeches - brown leeches, tiger leeches and hammer head leeches. I was just waiting to be dragged under the surface of the jungle floor by the Great White leech! Luckily I had invested in a pair of leech socks to keep the blighters out of my shoes but we were covered. Non-the-less, Terence took us deep into the jungle cutting our path as we walked to look at alot of Elephant dung. All was not lost though as we cruised back to base camp for another hearty lunch, we spotted wild crocodiles chilling on the banks and more neon colored birds.

Croc

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That afternoon, whilst cruising still, we made the ultimate spot - wild Orang-Utans. Eagle-eyed Terence spied a mother Orang-Utan with it's baby thick in the trees. We pulled over to observe them for a good few minutes before they gracefully swung back deep into the jungle. It was quite a treat to see them in their natural habitat although from a distance.

After all the excitement of the river safari I opted to stop off in Sepilok on our way back to Sandakan for a few days.

Sepilok

Sepilok is home to Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre and our brief but thrilling sighting of seeing Orang-Utans in the wild had only fuelled my interest in "the man of the jungle"

It was once said that an Orang-Utan could swing from tree to tree from one side of Borneo to the other without touching the ground. Sadly this is no longer the case as hunting and habitat destruction (the result of illegal logging and palm olive plantations) are shrinking their natural habitat. This has resulted in an increase in the number of orphaned and injured orang-utans which are brought to Sepilok in order to be rehabilitated to return to forest life.

I learnt that a male Orang-Utan can have an armspan of 2.5m and can weigh up to 144kg. They also have the strength 4 times more powerful than the average human male and if you really piss one off, they have the ability to rip a human in half!

The centre has twice daily feedings which are open to the public just to supplement the younger Orang-Utans with what they can find for themselves. So after hitting the information centre and watching a particularly heart-warming video about the work Sepilok has carried out over the years I hit the viewing platform.

We were lucky this time as 5 or 6 of the younger Orang-Utans made an appearance for feeding and I must admit, at risk of sounding completely soft they are endlessly appealing with their ginger fur and big intelligent eyes. We were treated to quite a show as they wrestled and scrapped like little children would. They are statically 96.4 part human and seeing them close up I was surprised at how human like they are, they all have their own individual personalities, the braver more confident ones making the first move followed by the shyer ones who are quite often hanging onto their buddy. So we watched them drink milk and pour it over their heads, eat banana's, spit it back out and wipe it on their mates back then run off and other such like tomfoolery before they ventured back into the undergrowth.

The Orang-Utans (aren't the best quality)

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My personal favourite

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And so my whistle-stop tour of Borneo comes to a close, was it worth travelling all the way from the South Pacific? ....Abso-bloody-lutey!

Next stop - Brunei.

Posted by greggers 01:29 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Borneo - Kota Kinabalu

....and the 4,095m StairMaster.

overcast 30 °C

So it was across the state line and into Sabah for my next stop - Kota Kinabalu the state capital. I travelled with Yugi, a Japanese guy who was staying at the same hostel as me in Miri and who happened to be on the same flight. Once we'd ditch our packs we headed out on an exploration exercise to see what KK had to offer.

The best way to describe KK is as "a grower". It's much bigger than Kuching and therefore lacks the charm and coziness I had become accustomed to. More a place of function, after a few days kicking back I soon found myself warming to KK and it's wares.

But I was here on a mission - to climb Mount Kinabalu so enough of the jollies and down to business.

Mt. Kinabalu

Set as the centerpiece for the vast 754 sq-km Kinabalu National Park, Mt Kinabalu is the highest mountain between the mighty Himalayas and New Guinea. Standing at 4,095 m it is also the highest mountain in SE Asia. Researches have found that it is still growing at a rate of 5mm a year so I didn't want to hang around too long before I started my climb.

The climb is a two day affair so after a brief stop to pick up some mountain climbing threads (it can get very cold up top) I was good to go.

Day One

After an initial 2 hour drive from KK out to Kinabalu National Park I duly signed my life away under a mountain of paperwork, handed over my Ringitt and was assigned my personal guide. Jennius was a middle-aged local Malay guy with a broad, toothless smile, he was responsible for getting me up to the summit and back down again in one piece.

So off we set for an initial 7km climb to base camp. With Mt. Kinabalu serving as Sabah's main tourist attraction steps have been cut for quite a large chunk (approx 2,500 steps) making it feel more like climbing a massive stairmaster than a mountain. However, the scenery was stunning offering generous panoramic views of the National Park below.

Kinabalu National Park at 3,000m

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As we climbed higher the steps disappeared and the going grew tougher although never quite in the same league of The Pinnacles climb. My relationship with Jennius was also more one of function than anything else. Despite venturing down many an avenue to kick-start a lengthy conversation he was a man of few words and I feared I was destined to a climb of silence. Luckily, we hit a large group of Japanese walkers about an hour in so they provided the entertainment from then on.

Mt. Kinabalu - My little Hut

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We hit base camp after a speedy 2 hours and 50 min's ascent, even Jennius seemed pleased. Lodgings for the night was a tiny little hut set into the mountain side with spectacular views. We agreed to meet again at 3am (I know... how early..?) so we could reach the summit in time for sunrise.

Sunset at Base Camp

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Day Two

Spent most of the night wrapped in multiple blankets in an attempt to shield myself from an early onset of pneumonia. I was settling into my brekkie when Jennius breezes in - what do ya know, Yer Man's a barrel of laughs at 3am. So off we set into the darkness of the the night / early morning and he's chatting, chatting, chatting away. Turns out he's an avid Man U supporter so the conversation is slightly one-sided, he does the talking and I do the agreeing and chip in with the odd throw away comment "I know, I've heard he's a very talented young striker" and other such like pearls of wisdom. The conversation inevitably turns to the World Cup I am pleased to have the opportunity to drop my favorite footie line of all time about the England squad "on paper - we are a very good team"

Mt. Kinabalu summit at 5.30am

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So before you know we have reached the summit. It's 5.30am so there is a quick photo opportunity with the summit sign then a brief wait for sunrise. It is frickin' cold at the top but I am all toasty in my Nike ACG Thermo-fit top and hat / ear muffs combo. Others aren't fairing too well, one young lady rather rationally exclaims that she is "so cold she just wishes she could just die" - suck it up sweetheart!

Sunrise - Mt. Kinabalu

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Sunrise is an all but too brief glimpse of Borneo down below. Unfortunately it's really cloudy so the visibility isn't great but you can't beat the feeling of being 4,095 m high at 6am in the morning and I get some Ok photo's of alot of cloud with abit if mountain chucked in for good measure.

Me with "Donkey's Ears" in the background

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The decent goes without hitch and I arrive down at the bottom by 12.30pm with a very content feeling and a pair of aching knee's.

Back in Kota Kinabalu the whole place has gone Chinese New Year crazy. I treat myself to a proper hotel room for a whole 8 GBP complete with a TV, Tea & Coffee making facilities and my own personal favorite - a phone in the bathroom. I mean who in their right mind is ever going to make a phone call whilst on the Jaxx..?

My plan is to settle down for the evening, rest my weary legs and watch HBO in bed but I can't ignore the parties on the street below so head out to join the festivities. There are big slinky Dragon's and dancing Lion's everywhere. I watch one amazing performance where there are 2 of the two person Lion's balancing on poles which must be about 6-8 ft high doing a whole manner of hair-raising stunts and dances. I tried to film it on my camera I was so impressed but a lady with particularly flyaway hair obscured my view. You'll have to trust me it was hellacool.

Next stop - Sandakan (but shhh... I want to surprise the Orang-Utans)

Posted by greggers 00:10 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

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