Saturday, January 30, 2010

Great Ocean Road, Australia

The Great Ocean Road, a windy, scenic, coastal road near Melbourne, is similar to California’s coastal Highway 1. Actually, with its numerous rock formations, curvaceous coast and blue-green water, I think the Great Ocean Road is more stunning than its California counterpart.

Four other CouchSurfers and I rented an SUV to explore the Great Ocean Road in two days. We started in Torquay (nearest to Melbourne) and drove all the way to Port Campbell before heading back. My favorite view of the Great Ocean Road meandering along the coast was at Teddy’s Lookout.

We camped at Cape Otway, the southernmost point of the area. Near our campsite were coastal trails that led to scenic, rocky beaches. Also, there were several koalas in the trees in Cape Otway, resting and eating, as usual. We also saw two koalas near the road at night while driving back.

Parts of the Great Ocean Road are a bit inland, giving us the opportunity to observe lush hills and valleys and cattle. Some areas reminded me of the European countryside.

The most stunning part of the Great Ocean Road had to be The Twelve Apostles and the area nearby. The Twelve Apostles are six (used to be twelve) rock formations in the ocean. Together with the adjacent undulating coast, it makes for great photographs and priceless memories. We were luckily able to witness the sunset and the changing colors of the clouds at The Twelve Apostles. Visiting nature’s gifts, like those along the Great Ocean Road, reminds me of how beautiful the world is and how we need to safeguard these natural treasures for future generations.

Australian Open 2010

They say that there can be four seasons in a day in Melbourne and this was clearly exhibited during the Australian Open (tennis tournament). On several days, there was a persistent overcast and chill, reminding me of wintry weather (I thought heading to the Southern hemisphere would save me from winter). However, many people, including me, got sun-burnt on those days. At least it wasn’t scorching hot during the tournament, though!

The reason I chose to come to Melbourne in mid-January, in the middle of the Australian summer, was to watch the Australian Open, one of four Grand Slam tennis tournaments (the other three being the French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open). Ever since I was a child, it had been my dream to attend a Grand Slam tournament. I was going to watch the French Open in Paris last May but did not get a chance as all the tickets were sold out by the time I got to the venue. Thus, I bought my five-day grounds pass for the Aussie Open months ahead of the competition.

I watched tennis for five straight days (the second to sixth days as it was raining on the first day), spending about 7-12 hours a day at Melbourne Park, the venue. With my grounds pass, I could roam around more than a dozen courts, giving me complete flexibility. In actuality, though, one can only enter the courts during players’ rest time and many of the seats in the three outside stadiums fill up early in the day. I watched first to third round matches. I was lucky in that I watched all the matches that I wanted to. My favorite player to watch is the French male player Gael Monfils, slipping and sliding on the court as if it were clay! I also got to watch Venus and Serena Williams play doubles.

One thing about watching live tennis--it is much more interesting than watching TV tennis! The time seems to go by much faster during live matches as one can catch up on scores from the other courts or simply observe the audience during players’ breaks. The atmosphere in the courts in outstanding! Some countries have cheering squads that resemble fans at football matches (e.g., Sweden, Croatia, Serbia and Chile--I’ll never forget those fans!). Other fans waved flags, wore their nation’s colors, painted their favorite players’ names on themselves or simply yelled!

Outside of tennis, there were vendor stalls and food booths in the area. I especially enjoyed the big screens that broadcasted live matches from the two main courts, along with score updates. Overall, the Aussie Open had great atmosphere and I want to come back in the future.

Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne, Australia’s “second city” has a European vibe to it. The city is composed of charming neighborhoods filled with Victorian architecture, curbside cafes and shady parks. Because of all this, I adore Melbourne more than Sydney, which I found rather bland and modern.

Melbourne’s heart is Federation Square, with its modern museums and giant TV screen. I like the atmosphere of this central location; in fact, I watched some Australian Open tennis on the giant screen.

My highlight in the city had to be celebrating Australia Day. The government did a great job of planning a day of free events for the public. This began with a People’s Parade down Swanston Street. The festivities also included an acrobatics show by the Australian Air Force, a guitar concert, birthday cake cutting and vintage car exhibition. The grand finale was a spectacular fireworks show over Federation Square and the Yarra River. Happy birthday, Australia!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Farewell to Southeast Asia

It was with great sadness when I boarded my plane out of Kuala Lumpur after traveling for seven weeks in Southeast Asia. This is a region that I was never quite interested in visiting. Growing up in Hong Kong, I always felt that Southeast Asia was boring, backwards, dirty and quite similar to Hong Kong. I have since learned that one cannot judge a place unless one has visited it.

I have grown fond of Southeast Asia, despite the long and uncomfortable bus rides, the air pollution, the loudness and the dirty bathrooms. This is region with warm people, delicious food, beautiful temples, lush jungles, pristine beaches and diverse wildlife. If one takes the time to explore, Southeast Asia can be a very relaxing place to stay or live.

My favorite country is clearly Malaysia, with Singapore in second. Of all the countries I have traveled to so far, I have never felt as comfortable as I did in Malaysia. Malaysia felt like home the moment I arrived (especially Penang). The Chinese there were extremely friendly and the CouchSurfers and I were like old friends, fighting for the restaurant bill at times! (This is a Chinese “custom.”) Every dish that I tried was delicious. In fact, I was always planning what to eat next! In addition to the familiar Chinese culture, I also appreciate the cultural diversity and harmony in Malaysia. I believe the Malays and Indians add “spice” to life, through their festivals, customs and food. Because of this, Malaysian food is my favorite in Southeast Asia. Lastly, I like the fact that Malaysia has historical cities, rainforests, mountains, beaches and wildlife. There is so much to do in this compact country! Furthermore, there is little hassling and overcharging of foreigners.

Thus, I am certain that I will be back in Malaysia and in Singapore. One visit is definitely not enough!


I decided to visit Singapore for one day since I was in the area. I was not excited about visiting the city state at first because people have told me it is similar to Hong Kong and that there is “nothing to see.”

In fact, I admit that Singapore is one of my favorite cities in Asia! I like the city more than Hong Kong for several reasons. First, Singapore is more multicultural, with is Chinese, Malay and Indian populations. The people are also friendlier and willing to help tourists. They also speak much softer than Hong Kong people in restaurants! Even though Singapore is denser than Hong Kong, I found it to be less crowded. There were fewer highrises and more green space. It also has better signage than Hong Kong. The biggest difference though is that Singapore is better at preserving historical structures. There are many British colonial and shophouse architecture there. Singapore is creative enough to convert many of the old shophouses to atmospheric restaurants, cafes and bars, such as the ones by the Singapore River.

Singapore is almost culturally identical to Malaysia due to the fact that they used to be the same country. The city has its Indian, Malay and Chinese neighborhoods. My favorite neighborhood is the Peranakan (Chinese who came to Malaysia hundreds of years ago) one of Katong. There, many colorful and ornate mansions line the streets, each one with a unique story about the neighborhood.

I was surprised at the number of British colonial structures that are still standing. Most of the major museums are housed in these elegant mansions. One church has been converted into a dining area in order to save it from demolition!

I was very impressed at the amount of cultural offerings in Singapore. The Esplanade Theatre by the Bay is an impressive oval-shaped complex with music, theatre and art. There are free concerts on weekend evenings by the waterfront, with a view of the skyline. Also by the water, but the Singapore River, are rows of old shophouses-turned-into-restaurants. This is a great way to preserve the historical buildings, letting the public enjoy it.

Kuching, Malaysia

Kuching is the capital of Sarawak state in Malaysia. This was my last stop in Borneo.

Kuching means “cat” and the city has several cat statues and a Cat Museum to prove this. Despite a pouring day (it rained non-stop as January is apparently monsoon season), I managed to savor the architectural highlights of the city. Kuching has its share of religious diversity, as demonstrated by its mosques, churches, Hindu temple and Sikh temple. Moreover, there are the ubiquitous Chinese shophouses, with its porches or “covered sidewalks.” My favorite building is the newly built state legislative assembly, perched on the banks of the Sarawak River. The building has an eight-sided golden roof, a typical Islamic design element.

Perhaps most surprising to me was the wealth of British colonial architecture still intact. Many of the columns and white facades were visible in several buildings, such as the Old Court House, the General Post Office, Astana (governor’s residence), Fort Margerita, Square Tower, Sarawak Museum and ironically, the present-day Islamic Museum (with its courtyards).

As for food, Kuching is famous for its Sarawak laksa and kolo mee. The former is soup noodles in a curry broth with shrimp, chicken and eggs. The latter is dried ramen-like noodles with barbequed pork. As usual in Malaysia, I found the food to be scrumptious!

Miri & Niah Caves, Malaysia

I only spent one day in Brunei (I don’t even drink that much and found the place boring). The next day, I crossed back into Malaysia, this time into the state of Sarawak. I headed to the nearest city, Miri.

Miri is a city on the coast of Sarawak. Most people use the city as a base to explore the numerous national parks nearby, such as the UNESCO listed Gunung Mulu National Park with its caves and limestone formations. I originally chose to visit this area in order to see the indigenous people’s longhouses, but decided against that because it was too touristy and fake. Instead, I went to Niah Caves National Park.

It was quite an adventure getting to and from Niah Caves. First, I took a bus from Miri that dropped me off at Niah Junction, by the highway. I stored my bag with the bus ticket office and then attempted to find a ride to Niah Caves. Luckily, a waiter at the food court saw that I was Chinese and helped me in securing a ride.

Niah Caves is a complex of several caverns with prehistoric drawings and graves. Many people used to collect birds’ nest (a Chinese delicacy) and bat droppings (for fertilizer) there. My highlight was walking through the eerie cave in almost-complete darkness. I could hear the bats and water dripping. Another highlight was trekking through rainforest in order to reach the caves. It was then that I understood why these flora constitute the “rainforest” as it was a soaking day!

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Bandar Seri Begawan is perhaps Asia’s quietest capital city. There is practically nobody walking down its few streets and cars do not honk. I spent a day in the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, mainly as a transfer point between the Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Culturally, Brunei is very similar to Malaysia. However, religion plays a more central role in people’s lives as seen by the ubiquitous golden-domed mosques. The grandest of these is probably the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, overlooking an artificial lagoon and containing Mughal architectural elements. Another example of the country’s strict adherence to Islam is the complete absence of alcohol and cigarettes. These items are allowed to be brought into the country on a limited basis. (I was surprised at the stringent hand search of everyone’s luggage for alcohol and drugs.)

My highlight of visiting Brunei was meeting up with local Cser Chee Khiong. He showed me around and answered the many questions I had about his “mysterious” country. Because of its oil wealth, Brunei is able to subsidize many of life’s necessities, including gasoline, utilities, rice, other foods, tertiary education and healthcare. Moreover, there is no income tax!

Chee Khiong also took me to two grand but wasteful structures in Brunei--the Empire Hotel and the Jerudong Amusement Park. The Empire Hotel is the world’s most expensive hotel, costing $1 billion to build. The hotel is struggling to recuperate its costs, probably because of its many gold decorations. The story is similar for Jerudong Amusement Park, which has limited operating hours due to its financial bleeding.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah. I used the city as a base to explore the nature surrounding the city.

Upon arrival at the city’s lost cost airline terminal (it seems that Air Asia always flies to the less convenient terminal), I was told that there is no schedule for the airport bus or minivan. I would probably have to wait at least 30 minutes. Luckily, a local man guided me to the nearest town, a 15-minute walk away, to catch the more frequent bus. I always feel very grateful for the locals who show me the way, for without them, I would be hopelessly lost! By the way, it is always more fun and exciting to figure out public transportation in less developed countries (especially from the airport) as one gets to observe locals that way. Taking a taxi would be too easy and too expensive!

Close to the city is Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. The area around the Kinabalu is filled with mountains and valleys, very pristine indeed. This again is not what I would expect if someone mentioned “Malaysia.”

I spent a day snorkeling by Manukan island, part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a 20-minute ferry from Kota Kinabalu. This was my first visit to a beach in Southeast Asia, as I had been “beached out” after Australia! While my visit was a nice getaway from the city, I was not too impressed with this national park. Despite observing some coral and schools of colorful fish, I was disappointed with the amount of garbage floating in the sea. I was snorkeling through plastic bags at some moments! I wonder where the RM10 admission fee is going towards…

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sungai Kinabatangan, Malaysia

The Sungai (river) Kinabatangan is one of Borneo’s best regions to witness wildlife. The Kinabatangan is also located in the state of Sabah in Borneo.

The highlight of my visit there were the river cruises. I went on a late afternoon one and an early morning one. During the trips, I watched numerous proboscis monkeys swing and jump fearlessly through the jungle. These creatures are can be spotted by their white tails and their “hideous” faces. I also spotted several crocodiles and several species of birds, notably the eagle, hornbill and kingfisher. On the morning cruise, I was able to witness an orangutan in the wild!

I also went on a night hike. However, I only spotted a few moths and blue birds, not quite exciting as the river cruises.

Sepilok Orangutan Research Centre, Malaysia

The Sepilok Orangutan Research Centre is one of four orangutan sanctuaries in the world. It is located in the east side of Borneo (which is the eastern part of Malaysia), in the state of Sabah. I came to witness these orange “cousins” of ours.

It was fascinating to watch the orangutans, especially during their feeding time. Seeing the orangutans climb and swing along ropes reminded me of children playing in a playground. These creatures were fearless! I was also entertained by them fighting over bananas.

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

The Cameron Highlands is a mainly tea-producing area in the hills of central peninsular Malaysia. This area is substantially cooler than the rest of west Malaysia due to its altitude.

I felt like I was in Europe the moment I arrived in the town of Tanah Rata. The area is a hill town retreat, with flowers (especially roses), strawberries, honey, butterflies and plenty of fruits. This was not the hot and crowded Malaysia I had envisioned! My highlight was walking along trails that overlooked tea plantations, with its neat paths carved between manicured tea leaves. It was like a scene from paradise!

It was also in the Cameron Highlands where I first tried to hitchhike, along with Jessie and Johnny, two British travelers I met there. We actually hitched twice--first with a Malaysian with a truck and the second time with two Iranian students. It is actually difficult to hitchhike in Malaysia, the people are friendly, but distrustful at the same time.

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, an island in northwest Malaysia, is renowned for its beaches, food and old architecture. I arrived in Georgetown, the main city, on New Year’s Day and stayed for a few days.

Despite the heat and humidity, I immediately developed an affinity for Penang; in fact, I felt like I had arrived home the moment I entered Malaysia. The people there were extremely friendly, treating me like an old friend when they found out that I was from Hong Kong. Two of my favorites, food and architecture, were splendidly displayed in Penang.

In my opinion, Malaysian food is the best food in Southeast Asia and nowhere is this more apparent than in Penang. The variety of food, due to Malaysia’s diverse population of Chinese, Malays and Indians, means that one can never get tired of the food. With CS traveler Eva and CS local Kelley, I sampled almost everything that Penang and Malaysia are renowned for. This included nasi kandar (Indian curry with rice), tea tarek (“pulled tea” or milk tea), roti canai (flaky Indian bread with curry), wonton noodles (fried noodles with chicken and pork, served with a small bowl of wontons in soup), cendol (dessert of beans, milk, syrup and ice), ais kacang (dessert of beans, jellies, milk, syrup, corn), hokkien mee (curry soup noodles with chicken, prawns and eggs), char kway teow (fried thick noodles with eggs, prawns and cockles), assam laksa (the Penang dish; curry soup noodles with tamarind, giving it a hot and sour taste), satay (skewers with peanut sauce), rojak (veggie and fruit salad with shrimp paste and peanuts).

The architecture in Penang is just as diverse as its food, with Chinese temples, Hindu temples and mosques. The old quarter of Georgetown consists of government buildings with British colonial style and Straits Chinese shophouses with a five-foot porch area on the ground floor, thus forming colonnaded sidewalks. My favorite building is the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, an ornate home belonging to a rich Chinese merchant in the early 20th century. The home is decorated with both Eastern and Western influences, creating an eclectic piece of artwork.