Friday, 23 May 2008

ONCE: Falling Slowly

This movie is crap to look at but hauntingly, divinely, unsettlingly beautiful to listen to. Lyrics that tear at your heart and melodies from angels. I wanted to hug strangers after it.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Sabah Trip Part Dua (2) : Sandakan

A friend of the family's in KK had sms'd that "KK is not that special.. but Sandakan is great!"

That's all we needed to add it to the itinerary. The Lonely Planet was strangely quiet about it, but I thought "Woo! Finally we'll be seeing something of real Malaysia, not on the tourist route. SWEEET!" And then proceeded to feel very smug about myself.

The big draw for Sandakan is that there's an orang utan sanctuary about 45min drive away in the jungle. Most tour groups just fly their people in at 8am (it's a 30min flight), do the 10am feeding, have lunch, then return to KK. The other big attraction they have is the islands (kind of) nearby which harbour nesting turtles and very much more awesome diving than KK.

Between those two and the superior seafood, I thought we were set to enjoy an undiscovered Malaysian gem of a seaside town.

Turns out I was mostly kinda.. *sigh* well if you must.. WRONG.

Let it be noted what I had read was accurate–the seafood was GREAT. So fresh and really very reasonable.

Also the Orang Utan sanctuary at Sepilok doesn't disappoint. It's well managed and who can get enough of orang utans? Especially the babies!

The thing is, attending a feeding and a seafood lunch takes about.. half a day? Then you're left to contemplate what else there is to do, and you realise FAAARK! You've booked 4 days in a 1-horse town. Which, come to think of it, reminds you of Ipoh 20 years ago, just with more utes. And now that you mention it, many of the buildings look exactly like a building looks when you do nothing to it for more than 2 decades.

Thankfully one thing I didn't cock up was the hotel. Having made a last minute booking, we asked the taxi driver to stop in at various other hotels in town, just to see if we should change. Turns out NAK hotel, one of the first 'proper' hotels in Sandakan, and having gone through a recent renovation, is the only place in town that looks like they actually hired an interior decorator. The hotel's facilities are simple, but the whole thing's been decked out in a nouveau-chinois kind of style, which cheered me no end. And a suite was RM106! That was cheer-inducing as well.

The wonderful Linn at the hotel also hooked us up with a day trip to the Turtle Island of Selingan. It's one of the 3 islands nearby where mama turtles come to lay their eggs. We'd spoken with a few travel agents who said it couldn't be done; it takes an hour and a half to get there, you have to stay overnight etc. I think this is because the island is run by one operator and they only need enough people to fill their chalets. More than that they're not really interested in.

But, we managed to wrangle it, and were happy to see the island, if not the turtles. Turns out though, that we got real lucky! When we noticed a baby come out of the sand in the hatchery, we asked the ranger to help us take a picture (they're kept under watch because eggs left on the beach get stolen and sold by guys holding carrier bags in the street outside Sandakan market). Instead of doing so, he reached in to grab it and asked us to follow. We proceeded over to the beach and let it go! Like some kind of baby turtle freedom fighter. OK so am not up for any awards from Greenpeace yet, but it was such a special experience. I said a prayer for the little guy as he turned into a speck in the blue.

I figure he needs all the help he can get.

New suggested tourism tagline: Sandakan, Not As Bad As You Think. Catchy, huh?

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Sabah Trip Part Satu (1) : KK Diving

Yen came back from SF for Dad's 60th, so we thought we'd go somewhere for a family holiday. Having (sort of) successfully convinced my dad the diving trip I had planned in Sabah was for his birthday, we hurriedly packed after the cake was cleared away and headed off the next day for Kota Kinabalu. Or KK for the Malay-challenged.

KK is in West Malaysia, in Sabah state, which is the top right part of Borneo (how much do I rock at geography!). Now, most people go to KK for Mt Kinabalu, the river safaris, the exotic jungle wildlife and such. Me, I give you two words: cheap diving.

Whilst Sipadan off the west coast of Sabah is a magnet for divers (and sometimes terrorists..), you'll also end up paying resort prices to learn in the shallows, and there's sweet FA for non-divers, so I went with KK where there's a plethora of choice. Also a refreshing lack of 2000m drops!

I had enough trouble getting to this point (the trip initially was for China, don't ask), so I only booked hotels, no activities. Luckily KK is fantastic for the last-minute and unprepared traveller, like moi. They have this lovely place called Wisma Sabah in the little downtown. It's a building housing only travel-related companies. Dive tours, Air Asia, hotel bookings, jungle safaris... whatever you want to do you can ask for details, compare prices, and book in the same floor. How cool is that!

Jennifer at Scuba Paradise was very helpful and we were able to book some Mt Kinabalu/river safari things for mum and dad as well as Open Water PADI diving course for Yen and I. Rm 840 for 3 days instruction from personal dive master, equipment rental, lunch, hotel pickup and certification. W00t!

The first day of training was loooong. The PADI DVD is immensely cheesy and there's 5 modules to go through before a final "exam". It's pretty much high school physics (buoyancy, gases, light, refraction..), safety stuff and using a table to figure out how much nitrogen is in your system. It's brain hurtin stuff though, for a holiday. So, we were really glad to escape at the end and quickly sniffed out the waterfront mamak stalls covering the essential food groups: anything fried, desserts with condensed milk, chicken wings and MSG.

Next morning we took off from the jetty at Sutera Resort, the fancy new one in town. It's just chockers with Korean ladies off on a boat ride to the islands with their matchingly dressed and coiffed man and stilettoes.

I curse my slowness in taking pictures! They were truly breathtaking.

If I were learning in Australia, I'd have studied by myself and spent this part in a pool. Instead, our first stop was the shallows at Sapi Island, ten minutes away. It's much more convenient to go to the island than to find a swimming pool actually!

Pulau Sapi is one of the five islands in the TAR marine park off KK. The snorkelling and diving here isn't going to compare to Sipadan. As we were to see for ourselves, most of the coral has been dynamited, leaving only a few patches here and there of natural coral reef. Still, the water is clear, warm and thick with all kinds of fish, so it's very good for beginners.

At the beginning, as with most things, it's all weird and uncomfortable. The equipment is just a tangled mess of hoses and valves with some really indecipherable gauges thrown in. Then there's the actual diving...

I don't have pix of the dives unfortunately–need a whole underwater setup for that. Besides, I was initially, ..what's the right word.. freaking-the-hell-out. It felt so unsafe to willingly 'drown' and then keep heading down, even when you can't see the bottom. My mental dialogue: "faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrk!!!!"

Mental hysterics over, I realised I'm not going to last long if I keep this up, so I turned it into underwater meditation class: Breathe iiiiin, breathe ooooout. Don't think of anything else.

It's quite good training, cause screwing up the calm breathing=drowning. So on pain of death, you must keep calm.

With each dive and learning exercise, we got more comfortable. I went from holding the instructor's arm in a death grip to being able to navigate away and come back (it did take 2 goes, but no one's perfect!).

On the second day, after a swim test, we were finally certified!

I must say initially, I was hoping for a different instructor. Perhaps tall, tanned and French..dark hair...deep soulful gaze.. just a suggestion! But we got safety-minded, old-hand Jeffrey instead. Which turns out was exactly the person I wanted to be in sight as I was freaking out in the murky depths.

It turns out dive instructors, like winners of the World Cup, can't be picked on their good looks alone. Who knew!

This was even more apparent as we got off the boat triumphantly at the end of the 2nd diving day. Another boat had come racing in behind us and there was a lot of kerfuffle as a British girl was taken off on a stretcher in agonies. She'd managed to step on a stingray...ON THE BEACH! We hadn't even seen any in the water!

As her quite hot tour guide was frantically shouting into his phone in the parking lot, it was a timely reminder that a whole bunch of unexpected stuff can happen at sea, and safety, whilst boring and not as good looking is paramount :p

For more Sabah pix and rapier-like wit click here.

Next: Sabah Trip Part Dua (2) : Sandakan

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Burma Emergency

Just got back from Sabah on Friday. I saw the headlines about the cyclone in Burma in my hotel newspaper, but being in holiday mode, I was in my own dreamland of diving and beaches.

Which makes me feel a right twat now that I really realise that it's really real.

The numbers for deaths in Burma are on their way to making the tsunami seem like a cakewalk. And the options for survivors are to stay and starve or flee to a refugee camp in India, China or Thailand.

I only know that because a friend's aunty is one of those survivors.

Given the global shortage of food, especially rice, I don't know what kind of reception they'll get.

I'm not going to go into the whole situation with the generals, because I'll likely have an aneurism from how fucked it all is. Anyway in times like these, better to have a lot of action rather than a lot of talk.

PLEASE DONATE TO THE RED CROSS. Whilst I read reports of the UN having their cargo interfered with, the Red Crescent (Red Cross's sister society) at least have already got supplies coming in and people on the ground.