Koh Samui, Thailand – Impressions

Koh Samui is the largest of the three popular tourist islands off the east coast of Thailand, the other two being Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. These three islands plus Koh Phi Phi off the west coast make up Thailand’s main party zone.

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While tourism is the primary funding source for the islands, the region’s party reputation seems to attract mainly early twenty somethings, who drink copious amounts of alcohol and do stupid things. This party reputation stems from the monthly Full Moon parties at Haad Rin, a beach at the southern tip of Koh Phangan. 40,000 youngsters invade the beach each month to indulge in a drug and alcohol fuelled party on the beach.

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Our choice to stay at Koh Samui was because it has a somewhat better reputation and a slightly older tourist base. Unfortunately it still serves as a party zone during the week leading up to the Phangan Full Moon parties.

Sickness Strikes Again!
We booked three nights on Koh Samui over christmas as it’s near impossible to get bookings over New Years. After 8 hours of buses, ferries and local transport, we arrived at the hostel on the evening of Christmas Eve. We ate at a fairly popular local restaurant, but what seemed like a fairly standard pork schnitzel would see me throwing up for the better part of the night and on throughout Christmas Day.

It would seem that of the times I’ve been ill on this journey it’s been because of pork. While bacon seems fine, for the rest of the trip I’l be avoiding pork.

Scooters, of course.
With one of our two full days on the island spent in bed, I didn’t have much time to explore. To make the most of our time I hired a scooter and rode up the east coast to see what I could find. The bad weather that had plagued our Thailand visit continued, but thankfully I had a waterproof poncho, so I remained mostly dry.

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At the northern end of the island, I found a pair of temples dedicated to buddha with associated giant statues.

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While the Big Buddha statues were impressive, so were the temples themselves.

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Near these two temples I found an artist’s store where he builds life-sized metal statues of science fictional creatures.

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As the weather began to clear up, I rode south again to find some of the other hidden gems of the island. I stopped at Lamai beach, where the sea comes right up to the front of the resorts.

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I climbed to a lookout over Lamai Beach for a different perspective…

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And then rode to the southern-most tip of the island where I found the Laem So Pagoda.

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Cleaning Station
Throughout Thailand, I’ve seen ‘cleaning stations’ on the street at the front of massage places. These cleaning stations are large fish tanks containing many small fish which suck on your feet, cleaning off dead skin and drawing out toxins. I’ve been intrigued by this and have wanted to give them a try. On my day’s journey, I located a place with a full cleaning pool…

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Normally the fish are fairly small, perhaps 2 centimetres long and very thin. The fish in the pool were larger, perhaps 6-8 centimetres and the sucking sensation takes some getting used to. When a dozen of them suck on one heel it’s a strange feeling. When a hundred suck on each foot at the same time, it takes an effort just to keep your feet in the water. It has to be the weirdest sensation I’ve ever felt.

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Next we head back to Krabi Ao Nang, a more family friendly beach area, for New Years.

The Trail Wanderers

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Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi (pronounced ‘co pee pee’) is a small group of islands off the coast of Phuket in Thailand. While a small time tourist destination in the 90s, since the release of the film “The Beach”, which was partially filmed on the island group’s second largest island, tourism has exploded.

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Koh Phi Phi Don, the largest island, has a pair of limestone ridges with a thin area of beaches connecting them. This strip of sandy isthmus forms a double-sided bay which is completely covered in resorts, housing, bars and hostels. On December 26, 2004, the water in both bays receded before tsunamis flowed in to meet in the middle, completely devastating the island.

Unlike Phuket, where businesses took only months to get back on their feet, it took 6 years to rebuild the base infrastructure, with construction still continuing 10 years later.

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The most popular daytime activity here is visiting the islands and spending time out at sea, snorkelling and diving. While the bad weather that had plagued us up the Malay Peninsula continued, I booked a day out on a boat anyway, to do some snorkelling and check out some of the beaches.

Beaches
The soft golden sand of the isthmus stretch between the pair of limestone ridge-lines giving great views from both beaches.

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Beyond getting out on the water, sitting on the beach is where most people can be found during the day.

Nightlife
The nightlife is one of the major reasons people come Koh Phi Phi and perhaps also its worst aspect. Koh Phi Phi Don is a haven for 18-25 year olds to drink copious amounts of alcohol and act stupidly. Many outlets even sell drinks by the bucket, and I’m not talking about a handful of bottles of beer in a bucket, I’m talking about a bucket of spirits.

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Monkey Beach
While the waters in this part of the world are usually clear and rife with fish, the bad weather had churned it up a little. The best area in the water was just outside Monkey Bay with large areas of spiky sea urchins and fish.

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Monkey Beach is, as the name suggests, a beach where monkeys harass tourists for food. There are plentiful young and some have a tendency to chase the tourists and bite them.

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Bamboo Island
North of the main islands, this island is surrounded by golden sandy beaches. Because the wind was increasing, we kayaked from the boat to the island instead of swam.

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On a sunny day the island would have the mystique of a desert island with nothing more than soft sand, a calm crystal clear ocean, bamboo and, because it’s Thailand, a bar.

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Maya Bay
Renown for being the location where the movie The Beach was filmed, it’s a popular place with people swarming to it every day. While the beach is spectacular, it’s still little more than just a golden sand beach with limestone hills around the mouth of the bay.

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The inland area, as seen on the movie, is not actually on the islands. But around the bay around the beach has crystal clear turquoise waters.

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Overall, Koh Phi Phi was a little disappointing as its main purpose seems to revolve around young adults getting hammered, spending the day recovering on the beach before doing it again the next night. The setting is beautiful and was otherwise only hampered by the rain.

Next we cross the Malay Peninsula to the island of Koh Samui.

The Trail Wanderers

Phuket, Thailand – Impressions

While Phuket is the largest island in Thailand it’s only three-quarters the size of Singapore. Like much of this portion of South-East Asia Phuket grew because of a Tin mining industry supplemented by trade in Rubber.

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In 2004 the island was hit hard by the Boxing Day tsunami which devastated its west-coast beaches and lowlands. Officially some 250 people including tourists were killed, unofficially 1000 illegal Burmese workers were also thought to have been killed. Within 2 months most of the resorts in the area were back in business and within a year little evidence of the tsunami remained.

Sickness Strikes
Our visit to Phuket would begin with sickness. On the bus into Thailand I succumbed to a virus that would see me sleep through our first two days. Whenever I awoke I would be so groggy all I felt like doing was sleeping. After forcing myself to eat, I took some pain killers and seemed to snap out of it. On my first well afternoon we went for a walk and discovered the pretty Wat Suwankiriket.

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Karon Beach
Near where we were staying, Karon Beach is popular with tourists especially couples and families. The area has a strong Eastern European influence and a very popular holiday spot for Russian visitors.

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Patong Beach
Not far from Karon Beach, Patong Beach has amazing golden beaches. The Patong area is popular with singles and those who enjoy partying as it has extensive nightlife in areas such as the famous Bangla Road and the Paradise Complex.

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Sickness Strikes Again
I extended our stay in Phuket to make up for the days I’d lost due to sickness. This was to allow me to see places such as Bangla Road at night, the Giant Buddha, Old Phuket Town and Promthep Cape. But alas, the sickness I’d experienced on the first couple of days struck again. I spent much of the day in bed sleeping it off. I’ll just have to return to the city at another time.

Next we’re off to Koh Phi Phi Islands where I’m hoping to have better luck with my health.

The Trail Wanderers

Langkawi Island, Malaysia – Impressions

Langkawi the Jewel of Kedah, as it’s officially known, is Malaysia’s answer to Bali, albeit a much quieter version. Tourists come to the island because of the amazing beaches and the lack of crowds, giving it a more secluded feel than nearby Penang.

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Langkawi, meaning Island of the Reddish-Brown Eagle, was originally believed to be cursed. A beautiful young woman named Mahsuri was accused of adultery and executed on the island. With her dying breath she brought down a curse of bad luck for seven generations. Her tomb is a popular tourist location, although a village has been built around it and fees charged to enter.

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Palau Langkawi is slightly larger than Penang Island and like its southern sister, the best way to get around it is via scooter. Yay! While more expensive to hire than in Penang they’re still cheap at only NZ$12 per day. A tank of gas will cost just over NZ$2 and will get close to two laps around the entire island.

Beaches
Surrounded with beaches of white sand, Langkawi is definitely a picturesque paradise. Most people stay in the touristy Cenang area, with Pantai Cenang perhaps the beach most similar to Kuta Beach in Bali.

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And within walking distance is another popular beach, Pantai Tangah.

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If you have transport, there are more beaches within reach. Only 30 minutes north is the empty Pantai Kok.

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And another 30 minutes through the mountains to the northern side of the island there’s such beauties as Pantai Tanjung Rhu, right near Scarborough Fish n Chips, the best on the island.

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Waterfalls
Scattered around the island are several waterfalls. While they aren’t spectacularly tall or wide, they’re enjoyed by locals and visitors alike as swimming spots. On our scooters, we stopped by at 7 Wells waterfall…

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… and Durian Perangai Falls.

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Oriental Village

Located at the northern end of Pantai Kok, the oriental village is an open air complex surrounding a small lake. It’s an entertainment zone with many different things to do. For the kids, there’s the water balls, round or tubular…

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The village, while not very oriental looking, has elephant rides, eagle viewing, tiger watching and snake cuddling…

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It’s also home to the Skycab, the cable car that takes people to the top of nearby mountains…

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The panoramic views over most of the island are spectacular. While the ascent can be a little breathtaking, the journey is worth it for the views alone.

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Overall, Langkawi is a perfect place to take a break away from the world. With only 65,000 residents, it’s a very peaceful place with a handful of tourist options and many beaches to relax at.

Next we head north for the craziness of Christmas and New Years in Thailand.

The Trail Wanderers

George Town, Malaysia – Impressions

George Town is a city at the north-eastern corner of the Malaysian island of Penang. Named after the British King George III, the island was leased to a British trade boat captain in exchange for protection from the Burmese and Siamese armies. The captain, however, had no intention of fulfilling the lease and instead set up George Town as a trading port.

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While the island is commonly reached by ferry from the mainland for less than a dollar, it is reachable by road via a pair of bridges. Penang bridge is 13.5km long while the newer Penang 2 bridge is 23.5km. George Town has several long waterfronts adorned with hotels and shipping yards.

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Street Art
Like most other major cities in Malaysia, George Town’s streets are littered with art. In 2012 the city announced a street art project for the annual George Town Festival. Now there are more than 100 pieces on walls across Old City. Some pieces were created by Ernest Zacharevic, the famous Lithuanian artist responsible for other works across Malaysia.

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While some of the art is in the form of murals, often with a cat theme, other pieces use props. One of the more famous pieces includes a bicycle set against a plastered wall with a pair of children painted to look like they’re riding it.

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Since the festival, wrought iron comic designs have also begun appearing around Old City.

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Penang Hill
Penang Hill is the tallest hill on the island and is one of the most popular tourist locations. At 883 metres, it gives amazing views over George Town, the coastline and mainland Malaysia.

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The easiest way to get to the top is by funicular train, a train operated from top and bottom by cable. Near the top the train passes through a brief tunnel, noted as being the steepest train tunnel in the world. While the ascent is fairly sedate with the training chugging up the hill, the descent can be quite exhilarating as it races towards the bottom.

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At the top there is a double story food court, several private restaurants, an owl museum, a mosque and a hindu temple.

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Penang National Park
The smallest national park in Malaysia, Tama Negara Pulau Pínang, is in the very north-west of the island, about 13km by road from George Town. There are several ways to get to the national park, by tour bus, local bus, car or as we did, by scooter. We couldn’t help ourselves, we enjoy riding them.

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While the park is small, it does have several longer trails, the longest being 6km. There are many species of animals in the park, including two different species of monkeys. This cute but cautious girl is a Spectacled Leaf Monkey.

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With rain imminent when we arrived, we decided to only take a short walk to the Canopy Walk, about 20 minutes along the trail. The Canopy Walk stretches for 250m through the tree tops. Unfortunately, when we arrived it was closed. So we walked back through the forest and along the waterfront to the scooters before heading back across the island.

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Fort Cornwallis
As part of the lease for Penang Island, the fort was built to protect the island from pirates, the Siamese and the Burmese, but it never actually saw battle. The grounds of are now used as concert venue.

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The cannon barrels that remain on the walls are sometimes used by locals as a fertility charm. If flowers are left by barrels it’s supposed to help an infertile woman get pregnant. I guess size does matter when it comes to cannons…

Kek Lok Si Temple
On our way to Penang Hill we spied a very large temple at its base. On our final morning in George Town and with a few hours left of our scooter hire, we headed inland to check it out.

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Ken Lok Si, meaning Temple of Supreme Bliss, is said to be the largest buddhist temple in South East Asia. At the temple entrance there are lines of shops, restaurants and a turtle pond, a buddhist tradition. The main Pagoda is built in three distinct architectural styles, the lower third is Chinese, the midsection Thai and the top Burmese.

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On the hill above the temple, up a 100m skylift, is a 30m tall bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.

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Overall, George Town has a modern feel about it and is set up both for locals and tourists alike. The Old Town does have a more closed-in feeling, with thin streets and many hostels and guesthouses.

Next we catch a ferry to Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah.

The Trail Wanderers

Ipoh, Malaysia – Impressions

The third largest city in Malaysia, Ipoh was founded as a tin mining town by the British. The city is generally forgotten by tourists, who head straight from the capital along the major highway to Georgetown on the island of Penang.

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When we were talking about stopping to Ipoh for a few days, people began asking why. Even the hostel owner in Kuala Lumpur questioned our reasoning with a, ‘but there’s nothing there…’ statement. If anything, this was part of the reason we were going.

Limestone Hills
About fifty kilometres outside Ipoh we began to see the limestone hills that are so prominent in the region. Lumps of limestone sticking out of the ground in small groups, scattered at first then more common. Ipoh is surrounded by these limestone hills and they give beauty to a city both in daylight…

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and in the rainy gloom of the monsoon season which, we are told should have ended more than a month ago.

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A Studio Hostel
With Ipoh not being on the tourist circuit, the offerings on popular hostel sites were minimal. But I was able to find a brand new hostel on a site used mainly for booking hotels. I’ve stayed at more than 50 hostels on my travels, but never in a studio hostel. The hostel has only 3 rooms, two of which are bathrooms. There are 8 beds at one end of the main room and several couches, a TV, stereo, fridge, microwave at the other. As we were only the second group to ever stay at the hostel, we had the place to ourselves.

The hostel is in a new building, in an area still under construction. Nearby there are only three supermarkets, three petrol stations and a couple of restaurants, but that was more than enough to make do. Within a year and when more people move to the area, it should thrive.

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City Tours
The lack of tourists means a lack of organised tours, or perhaps the lack of tours means there’s a lack of organised tourists. Either way, the owner of the studio hostel is hoping to establish a market in Ipoh. So to help with the research, he borrowed a car and for a small fee drove us to some of the more prominent features of the town, some even he hadn’t been to.

The Art of Old Town
Malaysia has a famous Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, who has created murals in most of the major cities across the country. Ipoh is no exception and has 8 of his murals scattered around old town. The murals can sometimes be difficult to find but offer tourists the opportunity to explore Old Town while trying to find these works.

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Some of the works take up the entire side of a building, while others are only 2 metres square and are hidden down side alleyways.

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The rest of the tour took us to four prominent Cave Temples in the region…

Perak Tong Cave Temple
Perhaps the most famous of the 30 cave temples in the Ipoh region, Perak Tong is the most accessible because of its closeness to the central city. Its initial cavern is large with many statues and shrines tucked into corners.

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Of all the temples built into limestone hills, Perak is the only one that allows visitors to climb to the very top, where there are several pagodas. While it’s a hot and humid climb up the 450 steps, the most precarious pagoda gives an amazing view out over western Ipoh.

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Sam Poh Tong Temple
After Perak Tong, Sam Poh Tong is the next most popular cave temple in the region. While the cave is fairly small, it boasts an amazing ornamental garden out front.

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But the true secret of Sam Poh Tong is the small tunnel that leads to the temple, hidden in an open-topped central area of the hill.

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In the same central area as the temple there’s a tortoise enclosure containing five different species.

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Gua Kek Look Tong Temple
This is the largest and most spectacular of the Ipoh cave temples. Created from an old tin mine, the entrance is more sedate that then other temples.

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The true magnificence are the massive inner chambers split over two levels, with great stalactites and flowstone.

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On the far side of the double cavern, the cave emerges out onto a peaceful gardens surrounding a pond.

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Dong Hua Dong Temple

This temple is the smallest of the temples we visited. While the caves aren’t large, the climbing design was interesting. Lurking around the temple there are numerous families of monkeys. They have obviously caused strife to the temple, as each of the three cave shrines has mesh covered doors to stop them from terrorising the area.

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With few tourists visiting the area due mainly to the lack of infrastructure, Ipoh is perhaps one of the hidden gems of Malaysia. With its growing popularity, it’s likely not to stay hidden long.

Next, we head north to Georgetown.

The Trail Wanderers