South East Asia: Reflections On Six Months of Travel

Sunrise Over the South China Sea

After six months of travelling throughout South East Asia, we’ve come to the end of this leg of our journey. Where better to reflect on our experiences, and what we’ve learned, than relaxing in the heat of sun-kissed Perth for Christmas and the New Year before we set off again. 

First here are the crude numbers: 7 countries; 24,000+ miles; 50 hotels; 25 flights; 1000+ mosquito bites (Sam thinks that’s a conservative estimate!); 5 haircuts; 20 blogs; 100,000+ Chinese tourists (there may be some South Koreans in that estimate); 28 books read; 1000+ photos; and no arrests!

 Here are brief thoughts on each country we’ve visited 


To quote Frank S “if I can make it there…. I can make it anywhere”. Manic Vietnam is probably the best place to start a trip in S/E Asia –  it’s a complete shock to European sensibilities, especially the omnipresent motorbikes. But once you’ve adjusted to and embraced the mayhem, everywhere else will feel serene (except Phnom Penh and Jakarta). Sitting cheek by jowl with the vibrancy are gorgeous beaches, stunning scenery, a truly fascinating ancient and modern history, and welcoming people. For some reason Vietnam will always be a personal favourite for us, the wild child of S/E Asia, the tearaway younger sibling China can’t tame. Long may that continue. 

You need hands…Ba Na Hills


We only saw two cities in Laos and one of those was the dull capital Vientiane. So we have a lot more to see and learn about Laos. However, Luang Prabang was one of the stars of our journey, a beautiful town wedged between two great roaring rivers, with picturesque buildings and a calming atmosphere. We visited Luang Prabang out of season, which was probably a good thing as we hear it can be a bit overwhelmed at other times. We definitely need to return to Laos.

The Mighty Mekong flowing beside Luang Prabang


Like Laos we only managed two cities and again didn’t like the capital at all, but you have to go to learn first hand about the Killing Fields. Siem Reap on the other hand was another gem and not solely due to being the base for Angkor Wat explorations. It’s a lovely town and the people in Cambodia are incredibly friendly and warm. Of course Angkor Wat is astonishing – the range and beauty of the temples are unique, the crown jewels among the treasures of S/E Asia. It’s a must see and make sure you give it enough time. We spent five days exploring the temples and could have taken longer still.


Writing a blog on the experience of the Killing Fields was difficult: trying to find the right words and images to express anger and outrage alongside respect and humility.   Without question this was the most bewildering and upsetting experience of our trip so far. The sight of the tree where children were murdered will never leave us, nor should it. 



Good old Thailand – same same but different for us as we revisited some familiar haunts, but also discovered  new treats. In and around Bangkok has so much to offer, but the real surprises for us were the inexplicably low-profile ruins and temples at Sukothai, the jaw-dropping limestone karst scenery at Khao Sok National Park, and beach life at Krabi, all of which left us re-appraising our favourite Thai places. We also endured one night in the worst hotel of our trip, monkey-ridden Lopburi. Don’t go!

Ruins at Sukothai


Having briefly visited KL before we didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the country and were delighted with what we discovered. Multi-cultural, relaxed, great food and architecture. Plus you have the joy of the Peninsula (with another city highlight for us – GeorgeTown); and Malaysian Borneo which kind of feels like another country, but because it’s Malaysia is very accessible and manageable for travellers. Fantastic street art can be found in nearly every town and city. The wildlife and jungle is something else again. We’ve still got the central highlands and the east coast peninsula to explore, so we will definitely be returning. It’s a very relaxed place…..



We came to Singapore with a bit of a cynical “will it be clinical” mindset and left it starry-eyed. What an island! Take Hong Kong, stir in some Manhattan and add a dash of  Vegas with some great ethnic neighbourhoods and colonial charm thrown in. It’s not cheap but you can spend judiciously and have a great time. Soooo many highlights here but Gardens by the Bay is just remarkable. Anywhere that makes you wander around smiling like a wide-eyed kid has got to be great. 

Gardens by the Bay


We’ve visited three of the main islands (Sumatra, Java and Bali) and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of how to capture the essence of this country. I’m not sure the people do either. Maybe that’s its secret: the diversity of beliefs, peoples, languages, and the vast archipelago itself. It’s got it all, wild beauty, dense jungle, Borobudur, volcanic lakes, Balinese beaches and the most hospitable hosts. It has a horrible health and safety track record that can fray the nerves somewhat. Nevertheless it’s a really enigmatic place that has been fascinating to experience, and we didn’t make it to Komodo so we will be back to explore more.

Lake Toba

Mekong River

Okay it’s not a country but for several months it was a feature of our journey seeing it rolling alongside four of the countries we visited. From the deep red mud saturated delta in Can Tho, Vietnam to the bulging fast-flowing river crashing alongside Luang-Prabang, witnessing and boating along this mighty river fulfilled a lifetimes ambition. 

Dawn on the Floating Market on the Mekong, Can Tho

So, what have we learnt?

It would be easy to gush about all of wonderful experiences we have had – and there have been plenty. But we’ve always tried to balance the superlatives with some of the day to day realities of travelling in this region. Here are some random thoughts, compliments and complaints.

S/E Asians – the world’s friendliest people?

After you grow accustomed to the friendliness of the people of S/E Asia it is easy to take it for granted, but it’s such a warm welcome you get everywhere in this part of the world. Some of it is pure generosity, some of it is inquisitiveness, and at other times it’s amusement, but it’s always with goodwill and a smile on the face. Admittedly as travellers we encounter a lot of people in the service industry whose job it is to be welcoming – but just consider that proposition for a moment and apply it to London or Paris! 


Life’s a Beach

I’m not sure we are ever going to be able to hobble back onto the pebbled beach at home in Brighton and Hove after this trip. Talk about being spoilt!  The choice seems to be as endless as some of the stretches of beaches. Soft clean sand, warm crystal clear waters, and the sun beating down in what was often allegedly “rainy season”.  Having said that, it does pay to check whether you need to be on east or west coast of Thailand to avoid monsoon. The only cloud on this idyllic horizon? Litter. As the blog from Mui Ne (What a Waste) illustrated – when it’s bad, it’s appalling. Someone is making a lot of money from tourism and not re-investing in basic infrastructure. That needs to change.

Beautiful Quy Nhon

Travelling not Holidaying

A corollary to our beach time has been the understanding that we are travelling and not on holiday, which in turn means not feeling guilty about having downtime. Doing nothing is not only fine, it’s essential to avoid total exhaustion. Sleeping well and eating as healthily as we can has also been key to our wellbeing. We haven’t over-planned things, rarely booking flights or accommodation more than 3 weeks ahead. Occasionally that has left us nervously wondering where we will be sleeping next week, but wifi has improved out of all recognition here and its been very easy to get online, understand and sort visa’s and book hotels, flights etc with the minimum of fuss.

Borneo Sunset

Back-Packing or Flash-Packing?

When we meet people on our travels and tell them our plans they often say something along the lines of “how wonderful, backpacking through South-East Asia”. We haven’t corrected this assumption because it makes us sound very adventurous and hardy. However, backpacking we are not! The idea of spending one minute let alone a night in a hostel sharing the same bathroom and oxygen with a bunch of hairy arsed flatulent 20 somethings is totally out of the question! We are “mature” travellers and need some level of comfort and privacy. It turns out that as with everything in life there is a label for us – we are “flash-packers”.  And with the incredibly affordable cost of living in South-East Asia and a reasonable but not over-indulgent budget, it’s possible to lead a very comfortable “flash-pack” life here.  Back-packer or Flash-packer?

Travelling light

Japanese Occupation WWII and its Legacy

As we’ve worked our way through countries and cities, reading about their history the common thread of the impact of Japanese occupation has surfaced frequently. In some cases at high profile sites such as Kanchanburi, but also at the lesser known: the Sandakan Death Marches that was an act of mass murder. It’s made us realise how little we know about the WWII Pacific theatre of conflict. Inevitably what little we do know tends to focus on Allied forces, but time and again we discovered the brutality and terrible losses the indigenous populations suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialism. Their departure created vacuums that nationalists tried to fill, but not before dreadful, misguided campaigns by the French, British, Dutch and USA caused further suffering and enmity. Seeing the work of COPE in Laos supporting victims of land mines was for us one of the most eye-opening experiences of this legacy, the effects of which continues today.


One Road, One Belt…..a big cheque book and a lot of debt.

Anyone who has (inexplicably) read a lot of our blogs will have noticed a recurrent theme: an antipathy towards China and Chinese tourists. This isn’t borne out of some irrational jingoistic prejudice. More a case of speaking as we find. It’s no secret that many third world countries have welcomed Chinese investment with open arms – why wouldn’t they? The problem is that many of these projects are destroying the environment and further harming endangered species, for example the Threat to Orang-Utans in Sumatra and the damming of the Mekong in Laos that will change the nature of the River downstream forever: Impact of Dams on the Mekong River. In addition to the environmental harm the Dam collapse in Laos in July killed 39 people and left thousands homeless. What is more, China’s huge One Road, One Belt project seems to have a canny knack of channelling its benefits back to the homeland.

Having invested so much in South East Asia it’s little wonder that the new Chinese middle classes who are now holidaying abroad in their millions treat it as if they own it – they kinda do!  Their graceless behaviour neatly leads us onto another gripe….

All Hail Insta-Culture!

Now we have no problem with Instagram, in fact if you go to  #samjohntravelogue on Instagram (shameless plug) you will find a thriving collection of some of our favourite travel images. There are no selfies. You won’t see a picture of Sam blocking out a perfect sunset or a gorgeous ancient temple with a vacant smile and two fingers in the air. Worse still you will not see a picture of one of us sitting crossed legged in a meditation pose in front of an image of Bhudda while out of shot hundreds of irritated sweating tourists mill around waiting to do the same. It seems to be a growing problem:  Instagram Snappers Hogging NZ Beauty Spot

“When you think you’ve gone too far…go farther”

Democracy – it’s so overrated

There is no denying that there are some dubious political practices and situations in this part of the world where there have been abuses of power. Men who were once freedom fighters have slipped easily into the role of dictators, holding onto power despite shocking levels of inequality and grinding poverty. It would be easy to point to a lack of true democracy in some countries. However, the recent pantomime performance of western-style democracy in the UK, USA, and Australia does leave you wondering who, if anyone, is getting it right.

We didn’t have any particular desire to visit Myanmar but would not do so on principal given the genocide that has taken place there over the past two years. It’s also been disturbing to see a serious shift towards some rabid homophobia – particularly in parts of Indonesia – in order to win votes. 

Books, Books, Glorious Books.

One of the unexpected joys of our trip has been having time to read and enjoy books in a way that we could never do when working. Biographies, crime thrillers, philosophy,  and spy novels have all been devoured. It’s interesting to see the path that we’ve followed in selecting books, where one novel has led us on to another.  Sam has been much more eclectic in her tastes, currently devouring Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming”, while I’ve become obsessed with George Smiley, enjoying the time we have to read every Le Carre book he appears in. 


What started out as a bit of an informal diary so that a few family and friends can keep track of us has turned into a monster! I’m a slave to it, constantly trying to source interesting stories, perspectives, and appropriate photos. It’s been great fun and it’s a brilliant way to keep track of what we’ve done. Comments and likes from readers is such a pleasant surprise. There have been times when I’ve got really frustrated with the limits of my vocabulary, and on one dreadful occasion I somehow lost nearly all of a blog I’d been writing for an hour or two. I crash out a rough copy then Sam patiently polishes it, correcting grammar, carefully editing and occasionally pointing out that “this paragraph makes absolutely no sense at all”. 

Working From Home

Jungle Wildlife

Last and most certainly not least we come to what we both agree is the highlight of our journey so far – wonderful wild animals. The sheer majestic beauty of lumbering Asian Elephants frolicking in rivers. Fireflies mysteriously lighting up a pitch black sky. Tree vipers lurking above our heads; Monitor Lizards scampering by our feet; Monkeys galore from the cute Dusky Leaf Monkey, ubiquitous long tailed macaques, and the downright bizarre Proboscis Monkey. Gibbons hollering and swinging through treetops. Sun and Moon Bears in their sanctuaries protected from poachers.


The highlight of the highlight? The moment after hours of trekking through the jungle we looked up and saw wild Orang-Utans just a few metres above us in the trees. It was overwhelming and very emotional.

Orangutan Mother and Child


Finally, we would like to say a bug thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read our thoughts, and send so much generous feedback. It really is appreciated and we look forward to resuming our musings in 2019 with blogs from our travels in Australia.

In the meantime Happy New Year and All The Best for 2019.

Sam & John xx




Borneo – It’s Wild Man!

Hello Handsome!

Borneo was never really on our itinerary, it seemed too remote and to be completely honest we didn’t know much about the island and the peculiar boundaries between Malaysia in the north, Indonesia in the south, with Brunei adding a very small punctuation on the north coast.

However, Borneo does have a certain mystique about it. What is more we don’t know anyone who has been there, so it would give us marvellous bragging rights. Sam and I have rehearsed the ways in which in future conversations in company, regardless of the subject matter, we could interject with the line “yesss, that reminds me of our time in Borneo…

Of course it would be churlish to say that was our sole motivation…but it is an added bonus. The real reason for our visit was the prospect of seeing the Old Man of the Jungle again. Experiencing Orang-Utans in the wild in Sumatra had whetted our appetite and the chance to see more in Borneo was irresistible. Plus it’s the only place to see the Cyrano De Bergerac of the ape world in the wild: the Proboscis Monkey. 

Old Lady of the Jungle

First stop was Kuching, the capital of Sarawak province, in north west  Borneo. Kuching has a real charm to it. Unlike other parts of Malaysian Borneo it didn’t suffer from too much Allied bombing during the Japanese occupation in WWII and as a result it has retained much of its colonial  architecture. In fact it reminded us of one of our favourite destinations so far (also in Malaysia) George Town in Penang.

Old Kuching

And as with every town we’ve visited in Malaysia, street art thrives and brightens up the streetscape with vibrant colours and images:

Kuching is obsessed with cats!

Food options are plentiful, and we had some of the best meals of our journey here in upbeat atmospheric bars and restaurants, one of which was the original Courthouse, converted into a really cool eatery. 

Running through the centre of town is the Sarawak River with a backdrop of mountains in the distance that further adds to the beauty of the city. Almost as remarkable is the local Parliament which is a real statement building – quite what the statement is, wasn’t clear to us, but subtle it is not. See if you can spot it in the photo below…

Now that is what I call a Town Hall!

But as much as we like the city, the real draw is the fun in the jungle. We had read about a fabulous kayaking trip down the Semadang River which we duly booked. As it’s low season we were the only visitors and had the guide to ourselves. After a bit of a dodgy start on quite a rapid section we got into our “stride” and quietly paddled downstream with the current, enjoying the sights and sounds of dense jungle from river level. It was a beautiful experience. 

Although you can do this as a Kayaking novice, the tuition we received on the distinctly un-jungle  like River Adur in Sussex before we set off on our trip certainly paid off. Just look at this technique….


It was time for another haircut to follow the excellent ones in Vietnam, Loas and Thailand. I wandered into Kuching’s Chinatown area and came across a very small barbers shop.  The rather elderly hairdresser had a dashing hairstyle so I thought I was in safe hands. After some rudimentary sign language he went to work. I should have known better as the only English word he knew was “short”…and that is what I got. On reflection I should have found the barber who cut his Barnet! 

On returning to the hotel I checked my collection of hats!

From Kuching we made the short hop eastward by air to Kota Kinabalu further up the coast, although we very nearly refused to board the plane for obvious reasons. I’m pleased to report that it performs better than the team…..and stayed up for longer.

Like a lot of the developments on the north coast of Borneo, KK is a strip wedged between the sea and the jungle. It only ever takes a short walk to be back in the encroaching overgrowth with the soundtrack of cicadas as we found when we took the Heritage Trail around KK and looked down on the City from a hilltop.

Concrete Jungle v Jungle Jungle

We’ve had some wonderful day trips on our travels, usually as a result of careful planning and thorough reading. But we finally came a cropper in KK when, due to tiredness and hunger, we lazily booked a tour from our Hotel without doing some proper research. On paper it looked good: a visit to see Proboscis Monkeys and Fireflies, having first stopped in to see KK’s picturesque Mosque by a lake. We were assured numbers would be low, due to it being rainy season, and we wouldn’t spend ages on the coach collecting other passengers. Things started to go a bit pear-shaped when we shot past the Mosque without so much as a glance towards it. We picked up a nice group of Filipinos and headed for a short lunch stop of 20 minutes. An hour or so later Sam & I found ourselves picking large chunks of chicken out of our veggie fried rice, wondering when the journey would resume. We eventually got to our destination where we were joined by a couple of dozen Chinese tourists and then crammed onto a boat to go in search of the Monkeys. As we weaved around other boats on the river it was noticeable that we were the only boat of passengers not wearing life jackets. The search was fruitless – not surprising given the number of outboard motors roaring up and down the river chasing any sign of movement in the jungle and the noise of all the tourists on our boat. We did briefly see a distant Proboscis Monkey shape on a tree, but it didn’t really feel like a proper sighting. At least a Sea-Otter prevented the boat trip being a complete washout.


The time taken searching in vain for Monkeys meant that we had a headlong dash to see the “magical sunset” alongside several other coach loads, just arriving in time to see the sun slip away.

The lady on the right is almost certainly taking a selfie!

It was pleasant enough, but our spirits were getting lower by the minute as we were herded back onto the coach and taken back to the river for dinner, which resembled a school canteen with everyone pushing and shoving to get to the food. After another prolonged period of time-wasting, we began our 45 minute trip to see the  fireflies. The seats on our boat were too low to see out, so we were told to put our feet on the seats and sit on the hard back of the seats. Not only was this intensely uncomfortable, but being a good foot taller than most of the other passengers, my head was rammed onto the roof of our boat. Crammed onto a boat with a bunch of screaming Chinese tourists wasn’t quite how we planned to witness the remarkable phenomenon of watching fireflies lighting up the pitch-black like a sea of magical moving Christmas lights. Worse still our guide encouraged them to scream louder (the Chinese tourists that is, not the fireflies). After just 20 minutes we headed back to the quay. Normally we would have complained about being sold short on time, but on this occasion it was a blessed relief. The final insult on a fairly disastrous day was an interminable meandering two hour coach drive back, where we dropped off just about every other passenger before reaching our hotel. On our travels we have developed a stoic outlook to life and we agreed that rather than be irritated and let it fester we would learn from the experience and never book that sort of trip again. A decision that paid dividends a week later.

From KK we decided to treat ourselves to a couple of days on the beautiful Manukan Island, just 20 minutes by boat. Our trip over was delayed by an hour but we were handsomely compensated with a wonderful room upgrade, taking a Villa on the hill overlooking one of the secluded beaches.

The View From Our Villa Balcony

The island gets quite busy with day trippers until mid-afternoon when the last boat back to KK departs the pier and you have the Island to just yourself and the handful of other hotel guests. 

The Pier at Manukan island

The beaches are stunning and the waters full of fascinating life, including the largest Sea-Urchins we’ve ever seen. Apparently Reef Sharks are common as well but we didn’t encounter any while snorkelling, but  we did come across a family of Clown Fish, with their beautiful distinctive markings.

Clowning Around

Manukan also boasts “Sunset Point” where you can get an uninterrupted view of the sun going down over the South China Sea. It was a 1.5km walk along a good path through the jungle and was really worth the effort, revealing wonderful changing colours and shades. The walk back afterwards was more of a challenge, as this had to be done in the pitch black with just a torch to guide us safely along the pathway.

With it being Wet Season the Island was sparsely populated and in the evening the restaurant  was very quiet. As soon as we arrived a musical trio spotted us and were quickly at our table side singing to us. Normally we find this a bit cringey, but these guys were great, asking us where we were from before launching into a tribute to The Beatles. In fact, they were a bit of a Jukebox, name a band or singer & they always seemed to have it covered! On our second night at the restaurant, having cornered us again and in deference to our nationality they announced that they would now play a song by Pink Floyd. “This will be interesting” I said to Sam, but they proceeded to fire off an unexpectedly fine acoustic version of “Wish You Were Here”. Possibly not the most romantic of tunes to serenade us with, but enjoyable nonetheless. 

The Stunning Colours of Manukan Island: A View From the Pier

Onward our journey across Borneo went, to east coast and the fascinating town of Sandakan where we enjoyed two very different but hugely satisfying days. Sandakan itself is not an especially pretty town having been thoroughly bombed by the Allies during the tail end of Japanese occupation. In fact it was the WWII history of the town that led us to discover more about the Sandakan Death Marches and visit the Sandakan Memorial Park that commemorates fallen Allies and civilian victims. The Sandakan Death Marches have been overshadowed by other Japanese atrocities such as the Death Railway on the River Kwai and Changi Prison in Singapore. However, it’s a story that really deserves more awareness and the Memorial Park is a fine monument to the tragic events that took so many lives. 

Looking Serene: The Site of the Sandakan WWII POW Camp

Allied Prisoners of War were moved to Sandakan to construct an airstrip for the Japanese Army. Living in squalid conditions and as defeat loomed the Japanese forced the 2,500+ malnourished, sick and dying prisoners on a number of forced marches: 140 miles through the Borneo jungle. Of the 1,793 Australian and 641 British prisoners only six survived. 

In Remembrance of Sandakan Death Marches

There is an excellent App that acts as a guide to the site, detailing conditions, escape attempts, the torture of prisoners and the Death Marches themselves. Regardless of whether you visit Sandakan you can download an App from the usual places and learn more about this shocking episode – search for “Sandakan Memorial Park”. It’s well worth listening to and looking at the images provided with the App. Having recently visited Kanchanaburi it made us realise how little we know about the conflict in the Pacific in WWII and given us an appetite to learn more.

We popped by the beautiful colonial house of the American author Agnes Keith who wrote a few books about her life in Borneo, including her years as a prisoner detained by the Japanese on an island with fellow civilians. The house was gorgeous and judging by the photos on display retained many original features and furniture.

Agnes Keith’s House

After wandering around the house we strolled across to the garden and treated ourselves to an English Afternoon Tea that included rather splendid scones with cream and jam!

Tea for Two

Most tourists to Sandakan use it as a base to visit the jungle and three local sanctuaries that protect endangered species: Orang-Utans, Proboscis Monkeys, and Sun Bears. After our problems in KK we planned this much more carefully and were rewarded with one of the best days of our trip. 

A Close Encounter: Orang-Utans can get very close at Sepilok

As the natural habitat of Orang-Utans has been lost to the growth in the cultivation of palm oil, the Sepilok Sanctuary has been protecting and nurturing for decades, including orphaned Orang-Utans who can enjoy the safety of a nursery area before joining the adolescents and adults in the neighbouring jungle.  We watched them as they played and frolicked, looking full of joy, curiosity……and bananas!


What is wonderful about the Sanctuary is that other than the nursery area there are no boundaries, no fences. There is a feeding time and if Orang-Utans turn up that is lovely to see, but it’s not guaranteed, and if none arrive, well that is just fine, they are out there in the jungle looking after themselves.

Loving the Banana Feet Look

They are truly majestic creatures and it’s been an unforgettable honour to see firsthand in Borneo and in Sumatra.

The Old Man of the Jungle

It’s a similar story a few miles up the road where the Proboscis Monkeys face the same threats – particularly from Palm Oil. Having failed miserably to see some in KK we were lucky enough to see an Alpha Male and his harem right in front of us….and what a sight he is……

Well Hello There…

Apparently male Proboscis Monkeys are permanently erect, although we did see some evidence from the fellow above to question. I imagine it would be hugely inconvenient swinging through the trees having to constantly watch out for branches that might damage your manhood! 

Male on the Left, Female on the Right

We were very close to these bizarre monkeys – the largest Monkey species and the only one that boasts two stomachs to deal with the poisonous vegetation they can eat. And as for that nose – it’s truly mesmerising ….although the other male protuberance does tend to distract you from it!

Sun Bears are the smallest of the Bear species and their sanctuary, although in a large area of jungle, does have fencing, more for their own protection than anything.

Sun Bear – love the Batman logo!

Poachers have been a particular problem for Sun Bears and we saw one that had rough markings around its belly that was probably caused by being chained.

Snuffling Sun Bears

It was a sad sight on a such a fabulous creature. But as with the other sanctuaries there is a real sense of optimism that work is being done not only to protect these marvellous animals, but to see them thrive in their natural environments. As we’ve said before in the blogs, you really do run out of superlatives to try to properly describe the pure joy and exhilaration you feel seeing unadulterated beauty.

 The final word on Borneo must go to the jungle, always there, ever present with its wild sounds and lush shades of green. It’s both a beautiful and intimidating presence constantly reminding you that its the boss in Borneo. I think it’s that sense of the untamed that makes Borneo feel so special and makes its protection more important than ever. If you get the chance, go, you wont regret it and you will never forget it.

Next: Bali – Our Final Stop After Six Months of Travelling Through S/E Asia.

Marvellous Malaysia on The Straits of Malacca

Dusky Leaf Monkeys

As part of our travels Sam and I agreed to look out for a spot, where at some point in the future, we might want to stay for a month or two, away from the English winter. We’ve seen many beautiful places but nowhere with the right balance of things to do, see, experience and enjoy for an extended period…..until we came to George Town on Penang Island, sitting on the north-west coast of Malaysia. On entering Malaysia you get a three-month visa free of charge – a great start – then you meet the wonderful multi-cultural people, eat the fabulous food, and of course bask in the tropical climate.

Tucked at the top of the Straits of Malacca, Penang had an important strategic position in the development of trade in the 1700 – 1800’s, which saw colonial powers impose themselves along the Straits – British in Penang and the Dutch in Malacca. Both cities now enjoy UNESCO Heritage site status largely due to the incredibly well preserved and diverse architecture of their respective old towns.

George Town Dispensary 1923

However, the architectural heritage is not limited to colonial style buildings. One of the most striking features of Penang and to some extent Malaysia, is the evidence of its multi-cultural history and presence. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the “Street of Harmony” where in the space of a mile you can walk from the Anglican Church of St George’s,


to the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Temple, which contains remarkable stories about the warring Chinese Clans in the 1840’s…


on to Sri Mahamariamman Hindu temple,


and to Kapitan Keling Mosque in the space of half a mile.


The history is fascinating. Captain Francis Light is credited with the development of George Town (hence the colonial name) in 1786, serving the interests of the British East India Company. Through some typically duplicitous colonial dealings he secured a lease on the land. If ever there was an example of history being written by the victorious it can be found on his monument in St George’s.


Judging by the reaction we got when we asked a local guide about the veracity of the epitaph it would probably be labelled “fake news” these days!

One of the endearing features of George Town is the plethora of ramshackle trading stores adorned with vintage signage. I particularly liked this one with the old Raleigh sign (Robin Hood included)…


..and ancient seemingly decrepit workshops that still showed signs of activity, although quite what they produce…well, who knows..”housing materials” apparently.

Truly a Man Cave!

Complementing the architecture is a wonderful array of street art. Tracking these down becomes something of an adventure in itself with unexpected delights popping up all over town. There are three particular popular ones which use real bikes to make the art even more remarkable.

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However, this is just the tip of the iceberg and George Town has rightly become famous for its burgeoning street art scene. Here is selection of some of our favourites..

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More Monkey Business

As well as the pleasures of George Town, Penang Island has lots of other attractions, including Penang Hills, where the temperature drops and a lush tropical forest sits towering above the town. We jumped on a bus and enjoyed a ride through the Island for a few pence before reaching the Hills. A swift cable car journey up and before we knew it we found ourselves gazing at beautiful and striking Dusky Leaf Monkeys. They look unreal and you find yourself staring at them in amazement. By monkey standards they are shy, so we were delighted to see them and their striking features close up.


We took a guided tour through the jungle high across a walkway and were able to view the jungle close up, with the sound of cicadas (and mimicking Drongo birds) for a soundtrack.

Jungle Walkway

Our guide spotted something quite unique, a crab that lives in the foliage in the mountains – the Highland Vampire Crab. I don’t know what you think, but a creature called a Vampire Crab isn’t ideal! Here is a picture of one modelled rather bravely by Sam….


It wasn’t all trekking and animal spotting. I had time for a jungle canopy swing. Turn the volume up to get the full Cicada soundtrack at 10 secs…..

Before we finished our visit on a canopy walkway looking down the jungle treetops

Sam on top of the Jungle Canopy

Malaysian Nom Nom

Whether you go away for a long trip or a long weekend you can’t help wondering if you are going to be okay on the food front in a foreign land. The scales we occasionally come across in our hotel rooms provide an unambiguous answer and are a testament to the fact that we are having absolutely no difficulty filling our faces. With a small handful of exceptions, the food has been excellent, and George Town with its multi-cultural offerings tops the list for cuisine. Penang is known as the food capital of Malaysia and rightly so. The Little India neighbourhood was full of lovely restaurants with great veggie dishes. We also indulged in a lot of pancake eating having discovered a superb place on the Street of Harmony serving up the best pancakes we have ever eaten – and as pancake/crepe aficionados that is high praise. Their speciality one included beansprouts and sultanas – an odd mix but it was delicious. Here is a sample of their wonderful wares..


Penang and George Town have made a really great impression on us and it’s definitely a place we want to return to. We scratched the surface on our visit and there is a lot more to see on this wonderful Malaysian Island. Getting on the ferry across the Straits of Malacca, to get the train south to Kuala Lumpur, we felt excited but a bit sad to leave. Sam caught me looking like a wistful traveller on the ferry looking back at Penang.

Wherever I lay my hat..

Kuala Lumpur

We visited KL as recently as three years ago, and enjoyed seeing the main sites such as the Petronas Towers and the Batu Caves on that trip. So we took the opportunity to have a bit of a relax and have some down time. That didn’t stop us popping up the KL Tower for some great views of the city and to test our nerve by walking in the glass sky box that is appended to the Tower. Given the popularity of the sky box you queue for at least 20 minutes and then you are allowed a maximum of two minutes in the box before you are asked to leave and let the next group in.  Most people abused this rule, staying in there for far longer until a burly Malaysian security man insisted they leave. When our turn came we gingerly stepped out onto the glass, looked down very briefly, adopted suitable poses for pics and after about 40 seconds I suggested to Sam that we had seen all we needed to see and should really leave and let the next people in the queue have their moment.

KL Tower Sky Box

We also visited a few night markets, enjoying the food and atmosphere, but not so much the rain. I don’t know what it is about KL but it rains more regularly than any place we have ever been to, with every day delivering huge downpours with violent thunder and lightning.



We continued our journey down the west coast on Malaysia’s excellent railway system – the best we have experienced so far. Clean, comfortable and punctual, the ideal way to see the countryside unfolding. Malacca is another interesting town with an important trading history that was primarily developed by the Dutch and Portuguese, with a bit of British interference at some point. Although not quite as interesting as George Town (to us at least) it has its charm including the pink Christ Church dating from 1753.


…and a great riverside walk where there is more evidence of the Malaysian enthusiasm for street art and murals.


The town is also famed for its colourful street market on Jonker Walk which gets jam-packed at the weekend and is perfect for people watching from the respite of a bar stool.

Herbs, spices & all sorts on a Jonker Walk stall

The Malacca Tourist Board won’t thank us for saying this, but two of our abiding memories from the town are firstly the bizarre and quite frankly horrendous pimped up “rickshaws” that cycle about the town decorated with venerable historical characters such as Hello Kitty and Pokemon while pumping out deafening cheesy music. We were told that they are one of the local traditions. Well quite frankly they are an abomination to a town claiming heritage status. Your Honour, I present “Exhibit A” for the prosecution….

Get Lost Kitty!

Secondly, we found our way into what looked like a British Pub – our suspicions confirmed when we looked at the menu and my eyes immediately alighted on the words “Branston Pickle” while Sam spotted “Pie and Mash”. Absence really can make the heart grow fonder when it comes to HP sauce, Branston Pickle and mashed potato with gravy! We both love South East Asian food and didn’t really think we were hankering after any food from home. That is until we saw the menu and scoffed down our meals in record time. We were two very happy campers after that meal…..until we ran into some more of the blasted rickshaw contraptions again!

Home Comforts


Up Next:

From Malacca we took another train south to head into our sixth country – Singapore. However, we will be returning to Malaysia in November when we go to Borneo in search of more jungle wildlife. In the meantime, there is a lot of travelling to be done including the next stages in our adventure which are going to present us with a real contrast: spotless Singapore, followed by the wild Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java.