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The Malay Key Adventure. Lessons on the fluidity of travel.

The Malay Key Adventure. Lessons on the fluidity of travel.

Mona Resort
Mona ‘resort’ (it’s super basic but beautiful) which Gayle found off AirBnB. Super friendly Sam showed us into our simple but clean room and bathroom minutes from the beach. The place has its own little quiet beach set in front of lush forest home to many monkeys as well as basic beach toilets and showers and a little food hut that dishes out amazing local food. Nothing was a problem for the staff be it breakfast on the beach at 2pm or leaving before actually paying (we paid online the following day). Really a case of service with a genuine smile that comes from the heart.

On the evening of the second day in Malaysia we decided to stop by Pentai Chenang to get some culture appropriate clothing (our shorts and tank tops were attracting far too much male attention) and book our crossing to Thailand for the following day. The plan was to cross over to Koh Lipe by ferry and then onwards to the much quieter Koh Tarutau. One of the first stops was a travel agent of sorts (he also sold drinks and clothes like any self-respecting bazaar should:) The round, jolly-faced man manning the place asked where we hailed from (in less kingly English) and whether citizens of the republic of Malta needed a visa to enter Thailand “cause the travellers themselves usually know”. During one of my more organised and prepared moments I had called the Thai consulate in Malta to check about my Thai visa situation (Gayle being a UK citizen means she does not need one) and was assured I could either apply for a 30 day visa at the consulate or get a 15 day one inn crossing a land border. What they neglected to mention however was the little detail that not all Thai ports are equipped to do this and that Koh Lipe was not kitted out with immigration facilities so travel there would only be possible with a visa in hand. Internet searches, phone calls to friends and questions did not fully clear our next course of action so we decided to pause that particular mission and go look for some supplies and other travel agents along the way.

The possibility of Thailand being off the cards began to sneakily make its way into our collective brains and the whole beach hut on a beach idea possibly flying out of the window. I must admit the idea ruffled me a little even though realistically there were 1001 places to go in the vicinity if Thailand did end up being impenetrable by little me.

Adobe Photoshop flip flops
Adobe Photoshop flip flops. I really enjoyed the random relationship between brand and product. Facebook, Yahoo and Instagram flip flops together with Red Bull and Monster t-shirts were also available.

Pentai Chenang is a somewhat like Bugibba in Malta (touristy sea-side place with a million flashing LEDs and rows and rows of tourist-oriented bars, beach things and clothes. We ambled from shop to shop looking for flip flops and cover-ups while being highly amused at the dodgy branding attempts. Facebook, Yahoo and (drum roll) Adobe PhotoShop flip flops stood beside Red Bull and Monster t-shirts and Billabong shorts carrying a Helly Hanson logo print. There is definitely a deep love for brands only it’s applied highly randomly and with no consideration of what the brand actually stands for. I really found this disassociation of brand name and product interesting as it seems that an aspect of branding supersedes the meaning usually behind the name and just keeps a recognisable logo probably with the expectation that buyers will enjoy sporting it just because it is well known.

We went round several touristy shops, tried some things on, walked around little market stalls and generally took it easy until about 11pm when we needed to get something out of our rental car. I dived into the massive tote bag I was carrying and felt around for a key. Nothing. Hardly a surprise when my bag had absolutely no small compartments and had 1,234 items all entangled together making retrieving anything next to impossible (much to Gayle’s lack of amusement). I dived in again, this time taking out things and checking each item carefully for the missing key. Nothing. Having ‘lost’ my keys in my bag a million times (several times going back home to get them only to find them in my bag), I did not give up and found a table where I could lay all my things out flat and go through everything. Still nothing and the onset of panic begins.

The car key is missing.

We are in Chentai Penang at about midnight, miles from our accommodation, with no phone and no idea where our car key is. Thinking it might have fallen along the way, we asked the shops that were still open whether they found a car key but most had already closed and we had no luck with those which were. Little waves of panic mixed in with grumpiness took over Greta. I was craving our little room up near the beach away from the tourist hub we were in and was really worried that someone would steal our car.

Langkawi cable cars
Amazingly magical forest visible from the cable car viewpoints. Moving from viewpoint to the next right above the giant trees was a powerful experience with a shrill sound from cicadas echoing around the whole forest and a feeling of ancient tree power reminiscent of the Ents in Lord of the Rings. You really do imagine colonies of ancient tree people whispering in the depths of the forest.

Being the intrepid traveller that she is, Gayle quickly flowed into a plan of action – find a room to spend the night in, ask around for key in the morning and head to airport to get a replacement key if we needed one. It would be an adventure, she said. I on the other hand could not stop thinking about the potential problems and was not a particularly happy puppy.

We looked around for rooms and went into a little road with a guest house sign. We got to a little booth with a sign saying Omar and a number, only Omar seemed to have called it a night already. Having no phone we asked two passers-by if we could use their phone to call Omar but Omar was full for the night.  One of the passers-by however said his brother had a budget motel round the corner and he could ask there about vacancies. Surely enough we followed him for about 100 m and got to a little door with a staircase. The motel was indeed a budget one – bunk beds with dodgy looking pillow cases, paper thin doors and shared toilets. It was however relatively clean, cheap and came with a friendly owner. We took it (with me resisting the urge to sleep on the roof of the car to baby sit it, cause I obviously look threatening enough to dissuade would-be car-jackers).

Staying there for only one night meant paying up front and we soon found out we did not have enough cash. We took the room key with us, asked for directions and headed out to the closest ATM. On the way we stopped at a mini market to buy water and soap, thanking the gods profusely for extra late opening hours. The guy at the shop was super nice and let us use his phone to call the car rental company. As we kind of expected no one picked up.

Realising we hadn’t eaten we stopped at a place called Tomato, teeming with locals and promising several veggie friendly dishes. Score. On our way in I had a mini moment of elation when I thought the guy who had rented us the car was sitting on one of the tables there. Clearly a case of wishful thinking (the guy looked VERY puzzled at my burst of emotion when asking him whether he rented out cars at the airport).

One tosai (flat bread with curry dip) and a missing roti pesang (banana in pastry, very yummy but which sadly never turned up as they had run out of banana and we only got to know this ages later) later we were walking further up the road and got to the shopping centre housing no less than 5 ATMs. All out of order. Whilst there and in the presence of soap we decided to take advantage of the very clean and unusually luxurious bathrooms (marble fare with normal non squatting toilets, big automated basins, soap and hand dryers. We left feeling much cleaner and with renewed spirits.

At this point I could just about see the funny side of the situation what with my unexpected need for a Thailand visa, our missing car key, our rickety room and our highly random bathroom visit. It was actually hilarious.

The sheets at the budget motel in Pentai Chenang.
The sheets at the budget motel in Pentai Chenang. The room might have been basic but it definitely did have fun sheets.

We walked back to our room hoping that the owner would let us off with paying half the room rate since we could not find an ATM that worked (which he thankfully did). Sleeping in the room was amusing – we laid a sarong on the questionable sheets, kept our belongings close by and firmly locked the door. I am happy to report we made it safely to the next morning.

Geothermal Spa in Langkawi
We stopped at this pulic geothermal spa in Lankawi which had hot pools for relaxing foot soaks and not-so-relaxing (but apparently great for you) wet and dry reflexology walks.

Morning brought light, a much welcome shower and furtive hopes on my part that the car would still be there. Trust, trust, trust, it will all be ok. Not easy in practice. Worry is funny really, it manages to rob you the enjoyment of the present by focusing on what possibly can go wrong in the future. Not very helpful unfortunately.

Gayle was as bright as a button and offered to go around the shops asking for the key while I went to the ATM to get our room fare (I was really happy I could avoid the whole drama about whether the car was still there). I waited in the queue for a bit and eventually saw an elated-looking bright neon t shirt in the distance. Gayle. WITH THE CAR KEY! I sincerely could not believe it! One of the shops had actually found the key, kept it, and apparently did not steal the car. Wow! At that moment I could really see how worry had robbed me from enjoying a completely amazing, unique experience and had me stuck in my head figuring out solutions to non-existing problems. How much better would it have been if I had managed to enjoy the new way things were suddenly unfolding and embrace the fluidity fully? Human beans sure like to complicate matters sometimes.

Key Triumph
A triumphant and very florescent Murphs waving the long awaited car key. It was a joyful reunion.

A Singapore New Year

Arriving in Singapore early morning after a 12 hour flight from Amsterdam, we landed into Singapore Airport which conveniently has an MRT station on the bottom floor. Moving around with a big rucksack on your back and a small one on the front is an interesting experience at the best of times, let alone when trying to navigate Singaporean ticket machines, MRT stations and crowded trains with very disciplined occupants frowning at the disorder you bring to their world.

MRT station in Singapore
An MRT station in Singapore. Stations have nice and orderly sliding doors which open up only when the train doors align.

Tickets for the MRT come out of cash-only ticketing machines that dispense paper tickets which can be topped up and used up to 6 times. The problem is that topping up is done one journey at a time instead of just putting in a balance which is consumed as you go. The one-journey top up means that missing an exit check-out or going out at the wrong exit means getting caught mid-way with gates flashing big red card malfunction error signs and having to explain journey mishaps to semi English-speaking ticketing staff in the hope they will let you through.

Anyway, I digress. About 20 minutes on the MRT (during which everyone looked grumpy and very authoritarian regime-affected), took us into Bugis station with rucksacks in tow and out into the middle of a main road supposedly taking us straight to our hotel. Heavy rucksack, jet lag, lack of sleep and no vague idea which direction we were supposed to be going led to us flagging down a taxi and the taxi driver consulting his big fat Singapore version of the AtoZ to find our hotel. Turns out J8 is a new kid on the block, hence the delay in finding it.

J8 was new, very clean and tidy (if a bit clinical) and made us pay $10 for each hour of early check in. The prospect of a breakfast, shower and bed were far too good to refuse. The Superior Queen room (grade higher than the windowless standard double) sported a naturey wall paper which helped delay the onset of cabin fever and just about enough room to one side for our two mammoth rucksacks. The promised window was actually tiny but let in just enough natural light to feel alive.

We had read a little about outdoor New Year celebrations in the Marina Bay area so we headed out in the general direction after some more MRT adventuring, this time in the company of decidedly more cheerful Asian teens. At around 8 when we arrived, the bay area was busyish but not madly so and decked out with little stalls selling food, drink and many flashing head gear items which Singaporeans took to with vengeance. As we walked along the shore the crowd got decidedly thicker until we got to a place where everyone crowded with an air of expectation and we stopped and joined in the anticipation. Seemingly in reward of that, big water cannons shot jets of water in front of us making up a water screen for projected images and videos making up amazing visuals with the backdrop of lit up sky scrapers and the beautiful marina.

Water Screen
Images projected on the water screen. Totally spectacular.
Dense crowds enjoying the lights and fireworks at Marina Bay.
Dense crowds enjoying the lights and fireworks at Marina Bay.

Feeling the call of hunger we began phase one of many Asian hope-it’s-vegetarian-but-god-knows-what’s-actually-in-it adventures. Phase one was actually kind to us as we managed to get salad, falafel and soup without meaty surprises. In the hour or so we waited for food the crowd around the marina had upped the ante to level Asian crazy with throngs of Indians, Indonesians, Japanese, Chinese and the odd non-Asian of every age, shape and size conceivable congregated around the firework watching vantage point.

Spectacular fireworks erupted at midnight, filling the sky with colour and light to much ooo and aaaaa from the crowd which was almost as entertaining as the fireworks themselves. Eight minutes later the end of the fireworks brought a frenzy to move out of the area and we somehow managed to stand still while a diverse multicultural crowd made up of three-generation families, android phone flashing teens (Apple has no chance at market domination here it seems), tiny toddlers in prams creating gaps in the crowd and wandering tourists swept by like a sea of monsters pushing past.

Once the crowds had cleared we enjoyed a walk /skip/jumpathon along the marina (much to the amusement of onlookers who seem to not be initiated into the joys of bouncy skipping to ring in the new year) which ended in a square-like bit with a German DJ and hundreds and hundreds of Asian men dancing in the most joyously crazy way ever. They danced in twos, created circles of fandom around ones, jumped, sang and seemed to be as fascinated by us (two European girls in a sea of Asian guys) just as much as we were with their antics. Much mutual photography took place.

DJ and dancing
German DJ, Asian men and music make for a wonderfully weird celebration.

After a last song, cries of one more song and one more last song ended we swam out with the crowd and were handed a black box of surprises on our way out. The box randomly contained a mini hot dog and three creamy cakes which ended a crazily wonderful New Year’s eve in a completely fitting manner.

Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the Bay which we visited on New Year’s Day – a mix of local plants, trees and flowers mixed in with massive Avatar-like lit trees, stone sculptures, a river, bridges and indoor conservatories.

 

View from the Gardens bridge
View from the Gardens bridge
Chinatown
Dazzling Chinatown with its 1001 stalls of lanterns and every red Chinese item imaginable, fortune cats and unrecognisable foods. We later had an amazing and hopefully veggie dinner of beans and chilli, starfruit root and capsicum and some other green whose name I do not recall but which I can vouch for when it comes to yumminess. Journey back to the hotel was a hilarious collection of card failures, wrong entries, gate jumping and ticket man sweet talking to let us through safely.
Asian drinks
Juice from every fruit, veg and alien species imaginable. Grocery shopping is an experience full of surprise and wonder.
Leek and egg pancake
A very yummy leek and egg pancake obtained outside an MRT station. Interestingly all stations, trains and taxis prohibit eating and drinking.

 

 

Rucksacks and the joys of packing

My little travel journal suggested laying all your clothes and money out prior to travelling to then half the clothes and double the money. After about 5 min of traveling I can most definitely say the guy is onto a good thing.

With me being a 5 foot something small little person one would think it impossible for me to fill a 65 l rucksack with my clothes but I found I had special skills in this department. Carrying my full to bursting rucksack for a solid 15 min or so, my resolve to take the advice of travel journal man was as strong as ever, removing all kinds of everything save the bare minimum. I’m not sure I managed the full 50% if i’m honest but it definitely looks a lot less like I have a big yellow bus suspended to my back with straps.

Today’s itinerary includes a car ride to Luton, flight to Amsterdam and an eve of city exploring, early morning flight to Singapore and a couple of days wondering before flying to Malaysia. Very much a case of three seasons in just over three days…

 

Goodbye Corinthia and hello travel

Corinthia Hotels head office has been my work home for almost five years now and it’s been such a journey. I’ve learnt so much about hospitality, giving a top notch service, booking systems, brand guidelines and enforcing them, online and offline campaigns and so much more. It’s a little mind blowing to think about the countless people I had the pleasure of working with, my own development over the years and also the huge leaps the company has covered in this time. I can definitely say I’m both proud and grateful.

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Lovely Smarty during the last moving out run which included my clothes stand. Thank God for retractable roofs.

Corinthia goodbye has been absolutely wonderful, with a farewell do which I shared with two fellow nest fleers and a cosy Christmas do on my last day. Having made so many great connections over the years I made deliciously moreish (though healthy) brownies (recipe here) and took them into work along with personalised notes for everyone where I got to share lots of appreciation and also ways of keeping in touch.

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Me and the lovely Matthew during the farewell do.

 

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Farewell speeching

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The nest leavers all together

Now for the first time in almost 15 years I find myself as the owner of my own time with no formal time structure to fit into. Being still on the plane to the first destination, the reality of that has not yet quite hit me but I am definitely extremely excited about this new chapter.

I got quite emotional yesterday thinking about leaving so many great friends and amazing landscapes behind but such a large part of me is really yearning for new experiences, new discoveries and the freedom to piece together my own way of doing things rather than fit into a pre-existing structure.

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Gorgeous Valletta on my last day on the island for a couple of months

First stopover is Brighton for Christmas markets, crisp air and the promise of wonderful down time after weeks of rushing about madly like a headless chicken to finish preps off. I sincerely can’t wait.

Until next time xxxx