And so the journey continues… From Koh Tao in Thailand, to Malaysia.
We begin with our first ever couchsurfing experience chez Roy in Butterworth. Roy is a big Malaysian man, in his thirties, who hosts random strangers from around the globe in his home. When I asked him why, he just said because he liked meeting people.
He came to pick us up from the train station, perfectly on time, and took us back to his home in a posh high rise with views of the ocean and Penang Island to the west. It became clear though that this wasn’t his real home – but rather an empty shell used by travellers and Roy to crash in. His real home was with his lovely mum round the corner.
Roy was a policeman in Singapore for 10 years, before moving to New Zealand to work for the American Embassy. For them, he just watched people. For 3 years he roamed the area around the Embassy, watching, having coffee, taking photos and reporting anything suspicious. He liked not having an office, or a routine. Now back at home he seems to be responsible for moving money around when buying and selling computers to send to Africa, although he mostly takes phone calls and watches bank accounts. He is also opening a liquor store near his mum’s. So he didn’t seem short of cash, and was very generous with it. He refused to accept payment for anything, even when Cristian or I shoved notes into his pockets at supermarket tills. Cristian managed to buy a bottle of whisky, and we treated him to a dessert, but everything else he paid for.
Sugar is everywhere. I try, desperately, to find some sugar free veggie snacks – nuts and seeds perhaps, or coconut and soy drinks, or seaweed crisps. There is nothing that is not salted, roasted and coated with sugar. Health foods have yet to arrive in South East Asia, or at least they aren’t available to the masses. As I try to stay flour and sugar free, what do I eat? Curry, every day!
Indian food in Malaysia is by far the best options for veggies. A banana leaf meal costs around 7 MYR, which is less than £1. For this someone comes with a selection of dishes and deposits them onto your leaf. Rice, spinach, beans, daal, pickle. In the non-touristy restaurants you can eat as much as you like. You must eat, of course, with your right hand – four fingers gather the food together, and the thumb is used to push the morsels into your gob. It didn’t take me long to get the hang of it!
Everyone raves about the street food here, but honestly there isn’t much for veggies. Chinese and Malay specialities abound – frog porridge, fish head soup – but they almost always contain meat or fish. We do get to try weird exotic fruits every now and again, and the odd dessert for fun, but otherwise it’s curry all the way.
Malaysia feels very different to Thailand, as we were in prime tourist territory there, living island life. Here, we trekked for hours up the most well-known trail to the mossy forest, and we don’t see a single gringo. No one. It’s eerily quiet, surrounded by mist, moss, and spiders webs that stick to you as you walk the trail.
The Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s answer to the Lake District, is a fun detour from city life but not the epic natural wonderland we had hoped for. On our walk down from the mossy forest, we visit a strawberry farm, where a mental Bangladeshi guy instructs us in a number of photo poses amid the plants. He holds a pair of (unripe) strawberries up to the camera, and gets us to kiss, hug, pretend to shoot the strawberry, hold the strawberry… About 20 photos later we beg for a reprieve.
Tourist prices here seem a bit cheeky – 40 MYR for a kilo of strawberries, so around £7, especially when you consider our hotel only cost 50 MYR for the night! We get a small handful of strawbs, drink a juice, and tip the man (impossible not to after the photos and the sad story about never seeing his family in Bangladesh).
Having shunned the package day tours that seem to be the main way to see the local area, we get a local bus, walk for hours, and then hitch hike back to town. Don’t panic! It feels perfectly safe. Also Cristian strategically carries a stick with him, so if he needs to poke someone’s eye out he can at any time. We didn’t need to poke anyone at any point, so all is well!
And so on to Kuala Lumpur. It seems that we are just not really city people.
I can imagine being a city person – spend the day shopping, filling up with a tea or coffee along the way, see a show, go to a museum, get an informative tour, taxi back to the hotel… But all these things cost money. Money we don’t really feel we can spend. For our every day budget, accommodation and food, we’re trying to keep to about £100 each a week. Flights and diving are our luxuries. And so we wander, watching people shop, eat, and drink, watching people cook, serve and clean. And we drink our water that we filled up at the hotel, and we walk everywhere, (even in the monsoon rain!), and we snack on fresh fruit, and we look at historical buildings but don’t actually go in anywhere. And we think to ourselves… We are beach bungalow people!
And so with high expectations and enthusiasm for beach life, we head to the Philippines. We’ve heard tales of the pristine beaches, laid back lifestyle and friendly people. And we want some of that action for ourselves!
Manila is killer. It’s killer because it’s a big, messy city and our guest house is right in the middle of it all. Kids on the streets follow you: “solicitation for basketball, ma’am, sir, I need a new jersey, please.” There’s three, four, five brothels just up the road. And a sign on reception that says “No sex tourism.”
We wander through the old town, Intramuros, where Spanish colonialists once reigned, and where Chinese tourists in knee high socks play golf in what used to be the surrounding moat. There’s something missing, you’d expect the old town to host a few atmospheric cafės to lounge around in, but there’s barely a few simple shops. The real life in Manila seems to centre itself on the shopping mall – big, air conditioned, clean and safe, locals and tourists flock to them. You could be anywhere really – until you step outside and see locals crouched on the pavement, eating their favourite snack – a seemingly innocuous boiled egg. Look closer and it’s actually a whole unborn duckling, complete with wings, feathers and a beak. They eat the whole thing.
As our flight leaves at 4am the next day, we overnight at the airport, and enter that weird place where too much travelling and not enough time in a soft cosy place can leave you disorientated and weary. We arrive in Puerto Princesa a bit heavy hearted. Our next mission is to get a permit to see the famed underground river – one of UNESCO’s new wonders of nature. We catch a tricycle and explain we want to go to the Coliseum for the permit. He says OK, 20 pesos. What ensues is a tiring match of wills. He tries to take us to a hotel. We decline. A travel agency. We decline. He shows us prices for tours. We decline. Cristian sits there mute, I try to be polite. I explain we’re tired, we just want to go to the Coliseum. When we arrive he doubles agreed price. We give him his 20 pesos and walk away. I’m done! I’m scared he’ll come after us but he doesn’t.
As a tourist, it gets a bit much feeling like a walking sales opportunity. But you also can’t blame the locals for trying, you might be their best opportunity to make some decent money that day. The not-knowing becomes uncomfortable. Not knowing what the right price should be (and so having to ask), not knowing if you can trust the answer, and not knowing how much you should push for a better deal without seeming ungrateful. It’s a fine balance. I’ve learnt that you have to get over your initial awkwardness at being in a new place with new people and just talk to people. Say hello, smile, and ask questions politely. You’ll soon find someone who knows, and who speaks enough English to help.
With our permits, we head to Sabang. We are determined not to pay the tourist premium for an organised tour to the river, and sort things out ourselves. This involves some manoeuvring. You take your permit, and hang around the desk, looking hopeful and available. No one calls you or pays you much attention. So we start to look at people expectantly – err… Can you help? It seems they can, but in their own sweet time. It reminded me of Paris, the waiting to be acknowledged by someone behind the desk, and them enjoying the power imbalance that the desk gave them, knowing they had something you wanted, and knowing they could make you beg for it.
And so we get past the first hurdle, paying for our permits. Next hurdle is the boat transfer. They won’t accept our permit as we are only two, and boats take six. Can you just join us to another group? No. Please, we have a permit? No. We wander round, until we see a friendly Philippino face. Can you help us? They won’t take our permits as we’re only two. Our little angel of a man starts negotiating, gets the help of another woman, and they start fighting our corner. We join the lady’s tour group with the little help of a few extra pesos for the boat man.
All of this game playing somehow takes away from what should be a magical day visiting a natural wonder. I can imagine how awe-inspired I could have felt – chancing upon a beautiful cave, you explore it further in your kayak, marvelling at the huge secret caverns hidden below, akin to the mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings, filled with stalagmites and stalagtites. The tourist experience isn’t quite like that. We get into our ten person canoe, at the back our local guide, at the front a brave tourist holds the light we’ll use in the cave.
The tour is quite surreal, mostly because of the mental delivery of the guide. He directs the lady with the light to the different rock formations:
Left. Left. Up. Up. Slowly. The one. Hot dog. Foot long. Ha ha.
Right. Right. More right. The one. Sexy lady. (Whole whistles). Name Sharon. Nice lady, not big lady. Good lady.
Right more. Up. Up. Up. The one. Look up. Don’t say “wow”. You say “wow”, holy water. Holy water, holy shit! Holy shit, bat’s poop! Bat’s poop, eeew. Eeew. Don’t say wow. (What’s he’s saying here is don’t open your mouth when you look up, because you’ll get bat poo in your mouth.)
Left. Left. Down. Down. Down. Slowly. The one. Poop upside down. Eeew.
And so it continued – rock formations that looked like fruits and vegetables, or people, or Jesus, the last supper, like poo… 45 minutes of identifying funny shapes. I sort of loved him. And also the constant little jokes – making a splashing noise with the paddle, and crying out “Crocodile!” Or pretending to fall out of the boat. Or asking the other passing boats if they had lost anyone. Telling them that we had lost someone. And from what I could glean from the other boats passing by, all the boat men had the same jokes, and the same odd delivery. You wanted to marvel at this wonder of nature, but instead we marvelled at bat poo and rock formations shaped like a lady’s bum. Like I said, a surreal combination.
Leaving our boat man behind, with echoes of “Left. Left. Up. Slowly. The one.” in our ears, we continued to Port Barton. A lazy beach town, this was to be our home for a good while, as we hoped to recreate the happy routine we’d established at Bottle Beach in Thailand – yoga, breakfast, rest, read, main meal, rest, swim, chat, bed.
With accommodation options fairly limited (sorry, fully booked!) we managed to find a cheap room in town, staying in a small room some locals rented out to tourists. Town is two dusty roads that run parallel to the beach front. Apart from the many things that don’t really endear us to the place – grimy bathroom, cockroaches, possible bed bugs, constant noise – our neighbours are just lovely. A German couple, Sandra and Marcel, both social workers, we just love them almost instantly. And a shared bottle of rum later I think they love us too.
And so begins our love affair with the Germans of Port Barton – we meet more at yoga, and as we gently bring the group together, our rum and mango on the beach becomes a nightly occurrence. These Germans like to drink, smoke Malboros, and stay up late. We like to sleep, get up, and do yoga. But somehow we power through. They become obsessed with “shit head”, the card game. Probably because they keep forgetting to pick up, which means drinking a shot. I never forget to pick up.
If we thought we were party people, quietly playing cards and drinking our rum mango, we were unprepared for the Philippino party experience. Karaoke.
Marco, the owner of our accommodation and the local shop and restaurant nearby, invites us to join the local men for a barbecue and a singsong. The welcome shot of rum is rough and warm. It gives us courage to endure the sound system – extremely loud, yet you can’t hear anything clearly, the microphone screeches at regular intervals. Yet the locals are unperturbed – the sing, unabashedly, crooning from the heart, in both English and Tagalog. Cristian turns to me and says – this could be the best night of your life, or the worst. You decide.
Cristian is, of course, the first foreigner to pick up the mic. He is strongly encouraged by the locals. I’m next. It’s Tina Turner of course, Simply the Best. They seem impressed! We get bolder, and I do a Jason Mraz later on. By this time passions are rising high, Marco is gyrating on the table, mic in hand, he rips his top off and swings it round his head. People shout and cheer. He pulls his shorts down and smacks his own arse. Cristian shakes up his bottle of beer and starts spraying it all over Marco. He loves it! It is absolute bedlam.
I’m not sure if it was the best night of my life, but it was mostly certainly eye opening, and fun. The next day Marco has a headache, he appears sheepish. There is no acknowledgment of his mental behaviour the night before. And we’re too polite to say anything either!
By this time we’re getting a bit desperate to move – we love being next dorm to Sandra and Marcel but they leave soon, and we can’t handle the noise, the cockroaches, and the grime anymore. So after a week in town, we manage to manoeuvre ourselves into a homestay with Grandma Salvación at the end of the beach. She is truly our salvation. A toilet that flushes. A shower that is cleaned daily. Her smiling face, laughing at everything we say. She announces her presence, always, with a giggle. It’s a deep, old lady giggle, and we love it.
And here we are, with one week left with Salvación, and we have found our routine. Although it’s much the same as in Bottle Beach – yoga, breakfast, etc. – it feels different. Neither better nor worse. We go to the same restaurant every day, Galayan, for our 50 pesos deal. Pumpkin, rice, a drink, and fruit, all for around 75p. The food here has got a bit boring to be honest – there’s not much for veggies. Veggie curry, veggie pizza, tomato pasta, veggie burger, tomato salad, sometimes lentils… And I try not to have pizza or pasta too often, as when I do I just feel a bit angry, it leaves me craving more white flour. So pumpkin it is!
With Internet here so slow and limited, I start to miss people. I miss the sound of mum and dad’s voices, the feel of a nice hug from Bryony, wanting to know news about these little babies growing in Hannah, and Marie, and Charlotte’s bellies. Worrying about Charlie falling down escalators. Wanting to hear Henry say – Hello chimp! On the quiet days when no one comes to yoga, I sit in mediation and send love and kindness to you all. And I imagine embracing you in a lovely hug. It’s the best I can do for now.
And so I think I’ll leave it there for now, Cristian and I are well, and healthy, and happy. My biggest issue are my mosquito bites, which wake me up in the early hours of the morning, and I fight with myself – don’t scratch them! Argh! We have a net, we have cream, we have spray – they still find me. And they bloody love me. The itching actually fills me with rage! Then I have to remember that if raging mosquito bites are my only worry I really am a very lucky girl.
I send much much love to you all and hope you are all well. Please feel free to send your news too! Sometimes emails may take hours to load but I still try. Once we are in Manila on Wednesday next week I’m sure Internet will be better. Then it’s on to Vietnam for more adventures.
With lots of love and hugs,
Emily and Cristian