Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Movie : My Life In Ruins

Watched this on DVD recently, which stars Nia Vardalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

She plays Georgia, a professor of classical history forced to take up a job as a tour guide in Greece, with frustrating outcomes.

It's a light rom-com, nothing heavy and definitely not Oscar material. MLIR opened a few months back in the US to average reviews, and I read that for the UK release on October 2nd (this Friday) it's been retitled to Driving Aphrodite.

MLIR however can boast the accolade of being the first movie in decades to obtain the approval to shoot on location at the Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens, amongst other ancient sites like the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the ancient Olympic games site at Olympia.

I think the sights of the ancient sites (hey it rhymes!) are the highlight of this movie. Expect some old slapstick humour plus some genuinely funny moments.

Anyway, it's a short fun movie which doesn't over promise and under deliver. Nice for a light entertainment on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sole Vacation

Brown selipar is taking a breather from travelling, at least for the next two weeks.

Happy weekend!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

No Sharp Objects, Please

What else can one do while waiting in the departure hall?

Why, immerse oneself in minute scrutiny of confiscated objects, of course.

I can understand why people hand-carry most of these eventually confiscated items : all types of scissors, pen knives, cutters, razor blades. These I don't quite get : forks, butter knives, nails, 4-inch gold nails (!).

But .. a vegetable peeler?

Why on earth would you carry a peeler in your hand luggage? To peel a potato mid-flight? Huh?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Journey to Brunei 3 : A Day in Bandar

I woke up the next morning with an uncomfortable stomach.

Tossed and turned and finally got up at 9:30 am. Decided to check out early and head to town to explore and maybe check out another hotel.

SEAMEO VocTech during the day.

The Mall.

Reached town at around 11:00 am and walked around, it was a pretty quiet Sunday morning, however at the bus terminal there were a lot of people. Oh I forgot to mention, there is a sizeable population of foreign workers here, I could hear Filipino and Indonesian accents. They probably had their day off too and were out and about in town shopping and meeting friends.

Remember? In KK we used to have Jollibee as well, many many years ago.

I decided to visit those landmarks which were within walking distance. Armed with a map, I walked towards the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque.

I must say I found it very pretty, its almost white facade gleaming in the bright sun and the golden dome shining. My immediate thought was, oh imagine how Taj Mahal will make you feel.

I entered the mosque compound and found that it was closed due to the preparation for Eid prayers. There were two or three other tourists in the compound as well. An old man gestured to me to go and have a look, and the caretaker called out that although they are closed, I can have a look inside. So I took off my shoes and went towards the main door. Cool and serene. The main area was smaller and more intimate than I expected, long prayer mats already rolled out, a partition for the muslimin was also up. I noticed an escalator inside too! No pictures were allowed.

Town Padang.

After about 10 more minutes I left the mosque and continued to walk around the big town field, not much to photograph. The buildings are mostly from 50s-60s I think, from British administration years. Later, I debated whether I should take a bus to go and see Kampung Air, then decided not too as the mid day heat was stifling. And according to my map, other places of interest (the museums) are closed on Sundays.

Looking for shelter I saw a CBTL outlet on the corner of a building and settled there with a cold Green Tea Matcha. This was when I had to make a decision.

Remember I had booked my return flight on Air Asia? Well, the flight is on Monday 21st September. Either I stay another night, or I take a flight out on the day. I thought hard, and in the end decided I should go back Sunday as it probably will be very quiet on Raya the next day.

Old cinema in town.

Spent some more time around town - Tamu Kianggeh, Chinese Temple, some other no-name buildings - then later took the bus to the airport. Reached the airport, and luckily managed to get myself a one-way ticket on RBA's flight to BKI.

This was my first experience flying RBA, and I like the fact that after all the necessary announcements and just before take off, they announce, let's pray for this flight to be blessed (something to that effect), then the small TV screen slides down and a doa is recited. Just like other short flights, fruit juices and Fox mints were offered. Oh and they had three newspapers, one of which was the Daily Mail UK which I didn't finish reading during the flight and took back home with me.

So another short weekend trip, I can now tick Brunei by road off my list.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Journey to Brunei 2 : The Arrival

"Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God".

So wrote Kurt Vonnegut.

Arriving Bandar, I knew I had to get to the hostel soon as it was getting dark and beginning to drizzle again. I asked the bus conductor how to get to Gadong, and he told me if I was willing to take the bus the main terminal was nearby.

I hot footed it to the nearest block, only to remember my little problem that I had not a cent of Brunei currency to my name. Oh dear. Shops were closing, and town was winding down for the day, with people getting ready to break fast. I wandered block to block and was relieved to see an open shop with a sign for the money changer.

Alas, too good to be true, the money changer guy had gone home. The shop part - selling general miscellaneous stuff, I was tempted to buy a cute old fashioned Made in China alarm clock - was manned by a man, with his two cute little boys playing quietly inside the shop.

I explained to him my predicament, and I must have been a pitiful sight, so he made a call to his friend (I assume it's the money changer guy) and then - bless him - told me that he'll give me BND40 for RM100 just enough to tide me for the day. He told me to hurry too if I wanted to catch the bus as the services end at 6:30 pm. It was now around 6:05 pm. Profusely thanking him I left the shop and walked to the bus terminal adjacent to the block.

Asked for the bus to Gadong (either no 55 or 01) and jumped on one that was just leaving. Journey took under 15 minutes, and reaching Gadong I now am faced with the challenge of locating the hostel, SEAMEO VocTech. All I know is it's near The Mall. I asked 2 persons and they had no idea. I then noticed a Police Post, and confident that they'll be able to help, sauntered inside to be greeted by a lone officer.

And guess what, he couldn't help me because he did not know! Oh dear. I asked if he knew of any hostels or colleges nearby - nope; if he had a telephone directory; nope. I must have had an "I don't believe this" look on my face as he was clearly embarrassed and kept apologising. Thanking him for his time I proceeded and tried to see if I can trust my instincts. On another block I asked a passerby and she said, yes I was going in the right direction; yeay!

I finally managed to locate the hostel - across the main road five minutes walk from The Mall. Checked in, got my room key and got to the 2nd Floor where my room was. The building was eeriely quiet, although the receptionist had said there were other occupants that night. Heard some TV switched on somewhere along the corridor so I was inclined to trust him. Other than that there was no other sign of life. Creepy night ahead, I thought but quickly shrugged them off.

The room was clean and big, very old though, must be from the 80s. Bed was alright, a small towel was provided. Bathroom fixtures were old too.

I freshened up quickly and went back to the shops area to get some dinner. The buka puasa crowd had subsided a bit so I managed to get a table at one of the restaurants in Centrepoint building. It was almost half past seven now, and when the Raya announcement was made the patrons (mostly youngsters) cheered and whooped when it was confirmed that Aidilfitri will be on Monday.

After dinner I walked over to The Mall, which is their biggest shopping complex, joining the throngs of shoppers doing some last minute shopping. Ended up buying a few pieces of Jibbitz for my nephew, nothing else called my name. Went back to the hostel, showered and read my book, with one eye on the BPL match.

I can hear fireworks booming outside from time to time, the celebration has started early. And don't know what time I fell asleep, as when I woke up the lights and TV were still on :)

Last instalment in Part 3, next post.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Journey to Brunei 1 : On The Road

I went to Brunei for the weekend mainly for one reason.

And that is because I have heard so much about the border crossings if you travel to Brunei by road so I decided I'll need to experience this myself.

Got my one-way bus ticket from Jesselton Express, which has a daily KK-BSB route leaving at 8:00 am from the bus terminal near the library. The bus moved out at 8:15 am, and stopped along the way (Tg Aru railway, Putatan, Kinarut, Sipitang) to pick up other passengers.

The bus. No toilet on board, which I prefer that way cos it could stink sometimes. There are enough stops and public toilets along the way.

I was expecting some kind of discomfort from such a long journey, however it turned out well and I must say I found it more comfortable than a BKI-KUL flight. Does it have something to do with gravity or cabin pressure?

View from Seat No. 01.

Entertainment onboard the bus came by way of movies : first was this foreign language action movie which I did not pay attention to as I started on my Bryson, and later slept for a while. Then a succession of Rowan Atkinson movies followed - Mr Bean's Holiday, Rat Race, and Johnny English - which was really very funny (haha funny) no matter how much I tried not to watch. Then the last movie was Casino Royale, with the hawt Daniel Craig in JB's shoes.

Journey-wise, we reached Sindumin just after 12:00 noon, the first of the immigration checkpoints along the way. From this stop onwards, the driver calls out 'okay, chop passport!' at every checkpoint and everyone comes down from the bus and queue at the counter. At Sindumin, after getting your exit stamp for Sabah, you walk a further 10 metres or so to the Sarawak checkpoint and get your entry stamp into Sarawak. Cool.

Sindumin (where the queue is) and Merapok (left side) checkpoints.

The bus was delayed a good 45 minutes in Sindumin after some foreign passengers were questioned for not having the proper passes. In the end, I think only one of them in the group of four who was let through.

We continued to Lawas and stopped there for half an hour for those who want to have lunch, and also to wait for the parallel BSB-KK bus. Lawas was a bigger town than I expected. When the bus arrived they switched drivers and conductors. It also began to drizzle after lunch and as we entered Brunei territory the rain became heavier for a while before it stopped.

The in-out process continues along the journey and the eight checkpoints are:

Sindumin : exiting Sabah
Merapok : entering Sarawak
Mengkalap : exiting Sarawak
Labu : entering Brunei
Puni : exiting Brunei
Pandaruan : entering Sarawak
Tedungan : exiting Sarawak
Kuala Lurah : entering Brunei

If you are returning to KK by road, make sure you have enough pages on your passport as you will get 16 stamps altogether!

At the ferry crossings in Trusan and Pandaruan, the queue of cars from Limbang and Brunei side was massive, I guessing it must have been at least 2 kilometres long and growing. As it was Raya holidays, the Immigration counters have extended their opening hours up to 11 pm. It was rather amusing that both river crossings are very short, I timed and it was less than 3 minutes per way. Maybe someday both countries can share the investment to build bridges.

After a smooth entry into Brunei (I was busy concentrating on Mr Bond), we finally reached Bandar at about 5:45 p.m, at the bus stop in front of Tamu Kianggeh. Minus the delays here and there, it took us about 8.5 hours. Without the festive traffic and barring any delays, they say it's possible reach Bandar by 4:00 pm.

Air Asia now flies BKI-BWN direct beginning September, providing another option in addition to MAS and RBA. The more the merrier! I had booked my return flight via AK6213, for only RM26.00, but in the end I didn't take this flight :(. Why?

The rest of my Brunei story in the next post.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Exchange Me!

I usually have bits and pieces of foreign currency left after my travels, and because I am not careful enough I have misplaced some of them.

Oh well.

Anyway, call me ignorant, I just found out an interesting fact : that you can use Singapore dollars in Brunei, and vice versa!

This was a result of a Currency Interchangibility Agreement signed in 1967. The BND is managed together with the SGD at a 1:1 ratio, by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. If Malaysia hadn't pulled out of this agreement in 1973, our Ringgit would still be pegged at par with these two currencies, so I read.

For travelling, is it better to get the foreign currency sorted out just before you leave, or to do it well in advance? Does that mean we need to monitor exchange rates?

I'll have to start being diligent and do some homework (and legwork) to find out who's the best money changer in town.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What I Read When I Travel

When packing for a trip, apart from making sure I pack light, I also consider which book to bring to read along the way or whenever I have the time.

I would not know what to do if I did not have a book with me while waiting (especially in airports), I am certainly not one who can sit still and twiddle my thumbs.

Nowadays I choose only one book, as I've made the mistake of bringing along 2 books at one time and that proved a poor decision. Not only it added to the bulk in my bag, I ended up reading only one anyway and left the other untouched.

So, what do I read?

I usually - and consciously, I guess - choose travel-related books; am currently much into Bryson's works as they are vivid, detailed and hilarious at the same time. His writing style is fresh and light, peppered with punchlines where you least expect them, and easily conjures colourful images in my mind of places I've never been.

The books Long Way Round and Long Way Down, by Ewan Mc Gregor and Charley Boorman are great reads; I hope to find the DVD on sale one day. I think all real men should read these books!

And any book from good ol' Tony Bourdain, of course :)

For this weekend's trip I've decided to bring forward Bryson's A Walk In The Woods, which I had earlier reserved for another coming trip.

Will just have to find another book by then.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Short Trip to Sibu

The weekend was spent in another never-been place : Sibu, Sarawak.

Took advantage of the direct flight by Air Asia, which I read recently will be discontinued come late October due to some 'dispute' on rural air routes with MasWings.

Anyway, how did I find Sibu?

It was busier and more crowded than I thought. I guess the locals from nearby towns come to Sibu on weekends for their shopping and outings. The air was rather festive with raya music played from some shops. Weather-wise, it wasn't sunny skies unfortunately, hazier than KK.

View from the 9th floor of the hotel.

Looking at the town map we were told that it may be too far to walk but actually we managed a leisurely walk around town in 45 minutes or so.

The mighty Rajang river certainly is a presence in the town, brown like cold teh tarik. At 640 km, it's Malaysia's longest. Remember our Geography lessons?

Places :
Malaysia's biggest town square is in Sibu. So now we know.

Wisma Sanyan is the tallest building in Sarawak at 28 floors, and houses Parkson Ria and other outlets. It has this funny pink and green neon lights lit up at night, on its uppermost floor I think. Next to it is the biggest town square in Malaysia at 32 acres. Biggest in Malaysia; I certainly did not know that before this.

Live squirming butods for sale at the market.

Sibu Central Market is the state's largest wet market. Clean and airy, and a hive of activity, it was actually very interesting walking through it on a busy Sunday morning and checking out the local produce. Fresh local vegetables are much cheaper here. Duku langsat seems to be sold in every corner, it must be in season, and they were sweet too.

The Methodist Church.

Faithfulness, and The Apostles' Creed.

Hoover Square is a very new building just officially opened last month, part of the Masland Methodist Church. I really like the almost all-white colour scheme and the 'open square' design. I like the way they had these short columns depicting prayers in various languages.

The Swan Statue, the symbol of Sibu. One big one is near the Menara Gerbang and the other one, which is the most popular, is by the riverside next to Li Hua and Kingwood Hotel.

Pasar Malam (Night Market): interesting foodstuff galore aside from the usual baju, bags and miscellaneous stuff for sale. The ones we spent time on sold barbequed meats and fish, skewer stuff, paus, kompias, rice dumplings, pancakes, and kuehs.

The 100 year old Tua Pek Kong near the waterfront.
Food :
Mee Kampua (one of Sibu's signature dishes) was had at Jia Bin Cafe, which I didn't expect to be so centrally located. It's a coffeeshop actually. We had mee kampua twice, and it only cost RM2.40 and RM2.20 respectively. One iced kopi-o and one teh-o cost only RM1.90. I don't think we can find any coffeeshop in KK with this kind of pricing anymore :(

Kompia : I really like this local 'bagel'. Only RM1 for 5 of the plain pieces or RM1 for 3 stuffed pieces. Before leaving, I bought four packets back and they were lovely when I warmed them up and spread some cheese on it. The texture reminds me of that of Auntie Anne's pretzels.

Buah dabai : my first time to try out this fruit. It looks like a big olive. Washed the fruits clean, then dunked them to soak inside hot boiled water for 10-15 minutes. The fruit goes soft and you can slide the skin off easily. I can't quite describe the taste cos it's so mild, but I liked it enough to buy one kg back. The most expensive we saw were sold at RM20 per kg, the cheapest at RM11. Am not sure whether this reflects quality or just the freshness; I think it's the latter.

Special 3-layer iced coffee with gula apong, at Manna Life Cafe, Wisma Sanyan. Yummy!

Midin : this is the local fern/paku (similar to our local ferntips) , slightly crunchy, stir fried with garlic. Sorry, no picture taken before it was devoured. Sibu also has a lot of savoury kuehs which seem to be available at every corner shop, fried fresh. I like the cucurs and what-nots alas I had no more room in my stomach.


Stayed at Tanahmas, 'The Sibu Hotel"; I was pleasantly surprised with the newly renovated room; modern clean design, very comfortable at the same time. Flat screen 32 inch Panasonic TV, eco-toilet, extra pillows, armchair and ottoman, iron, hairdryer, safe, ashtray..it was very complete I thought. They even provide a candle and a matchbox.

No choice for airport transfers, taxi from airport to town is RM35, from town to airport RM30. No buses, well there probably are but the main road is quite a distance from the terminal and the buses don't run on schedules. Within town area, it's very easy to navigate around although it can be quite confusing at first.

Old Sibu buses.

Sibu has A LOT of motorbikes. A LOT. Bike parking aplenty too.

We didn't see the Pandaw River Cruise Ferry berthed at the terminal, maybe it's only back in a few days time. Express boats were aplenty to nearby small towns like Bintangor, Dalat, Kanowit and Kapit.

Oh, one more thing that struck me : at every street and corner in Sibu there is at least a drugstore, or a traditional Chinese drugstore or a pharmacy. On one block alone there were four. I find this very interesting, maybe pharmacy is the preferred profession?

Well, that's the Sibu trip in a nutshell. It may be sometime before a return trip beckons, maybe it'll be more adventurous to take the express boats to other places in the interior.

Thanks to Mr Borneo Falcon for the helpful tips!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cheaper Malaysian Passports

I came across this very interesting headline today, where the minister-in-charge announced that 'infrequent travellers can now opt for an alternative international Malaysian passport'.

This is very good news. Valid for two years, it will now cost only RM100 compared to the minimum RM300 that we have to pay for a 32 page-passport, which I've always thought it was too expensive. The 'savings' can always go towards a nice, little domestic holiday.

I wonder whether there's any qualifying criteria?

And I hope it will be further reduced before my passport needs renewing by end of 2010 :)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

There's Something About Bali

Dreaming of going back to Bali one day soon.

The 'love' part of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love :)

I wish Air Asia would resume its direct flights to the island. I didn't manage to try the direct flights when it was operating last time. Now there's only KK-Jakarta direct, maybe it's worth a try to check it out as a jumping-off point to Bali.

At Tanah Lot on a Sunday morning, May 2007.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Food Trip : Penang

Due to limited time, I decided that I should plan my Penang food trip with military precision.

Rule No. 1 : Do not go to the places we've been before.
Rule No. 2 : No shopping, hence no malls.
Rule No. 3 : If walking is possible, then walk.
Rule No. 4 : No Starbucks.

Outcome : I think B+, at least didn't fail-lah.

Places visited:

Penang Hill for the funicular railway experience. The tram service (RM4 return) was not as I expected (hot, crowded, slow), thankfully the views from atop the hill (about 720m elevation) were nice enough and made up for the shortcomings. Skipped Kek Lok Si and saw the giant Kwan Yin statue from afar behind the scaffoldings as it is still a work-in-progress.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Missed the 11 am guided tour and again missed the one at 3 pm. Duh. So this doesn't count really, we were just outside this beautifully restored blue mansion.

Fort Cornwallis for old stones. Too bad we were a bit late as they close earlier during Ramadhan so we had to be content with just the external features of the fort.

Eastern and Oriental Hotel (E&O) - I love this place for its colonial, old world charm. And a stellar list of past guests too! Charlie Chaplin, Herman Hesse, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles (!), Rudyard Kipling, amongst many other dignitaries and celebs; all of them have stayed here. We wanted to try the English Afternoon Tea (mainly for the roast beef sandwiches) but alas, I didn't think I'd pass the dresscode for 1885, the restaurant that serves the afternoon tea. Rather than push my luck and embarrass myself, I vow : next time.

Foodwise, savoured these:

Char Kuey Teow from the (in)famous Lady with Goggles, Kafe Heng Huat, Lorong Selamat. Verdict : Quite good, though not as great as I expected. It wasn't spicy enough for me. Overhyped, if you ask me.

Orchien at Kafe Heng Huat.

Penang Famous Teochew Cendol at Joo Hooi Cafe, Lebuh Keng Kwee (endorsed by Phua Chu Kang, no less). I also tried the ABC from another stall just across from this cendol stall. Although not as busy as its rival, its ABC was refreshing, light, with just the right amount of sweetness and a hint of pandan in the syrup. I liked it very much.

Rojak Sotong and Buah (originally from Swatow Lane) at New World Park, just next to Tune Hotel. I also tried the Tee Nya Kueh, not bad.

Lor Bak at one of the food Courts on Jalan Macallister.

Fresh homemade baked piang/peahs at Lebuh Kimberley - highlight of this trip. Best discovery.

Duck porridge at Lebuh Kimberley. An acquired taste. Surprisingly very tasty.

Laicikang at Lebuh Kimberley. Refreshingly light without cloying sweetness.

Kuey Teow Thng at Kedai Kopi Kim Lee, Lorong Macallister. A hearty, flavourful bowl was only RM2.50. I was speechless, in disbelief for moments.

Mummy Otak ("Very Top in Penang", "Super Best" - so her business card says). She is a very good salesperson too, I ended up buying 5 packets.

My ultimate favourite drink, fresh ambola juice. Here we call it kedondong - where can I find this in KK?

Didn't manage these:
Ah Leng CKT at Jalan Dato Keramat
Father & Son CKT at Siam Road
Apong Guan, somewhere along Jalan Burma
Pineapple tarts, Guangzhou Bakery and Seng Thor at Lebuh Carnavon
Chicken Chop at Kedai Kopi Hai Onn
Curry Mee at Lorong Seratus Tahun
Nasi Kandar, shops only opened in the evening during Ramadhan

Wanted to try nasi kandar here but they were not open yet.
Others :
For the first time, I saw a Chinese opera live on a street off Jalan Penang where a small stage had been put up. From afar, one could hear the familiar clangings of the cymbals and bells and some high pitched singing from the performers. I think they have these shows during the Ghost Month.

Second hand bookstalls at Chowrasta Market, 1st Floor. Not easy to browse since the books are arranged in such a way that only the seller knows. Tell him what book you want and he will know where it's kept. LP India was selling at RM70. Pricey. Didn't buy anything here.

Transportation :
When I read earlier that the taxi fare costs a whopping RM38 from the airport to Georgetown I was determined to take the bus no matter what. So asking around at the airport we found the bus (Rapid Penang U401) that plies the route at only RM2.70 per way. We also boarded the same bus to go to the airport, from Komtar terminal.

The only time we cabbed it was from town to Penang Hill, as we worried if we would not have enough time in the afternoon; that cost RM25. Going back we took the bus (U204 Ayer Itam) for RM2 to Fort Cornwallis.

Only once I saw the free Hop On Hop Off bus that plies the cultural heritage route, next time must maximise on that. We asked around but no one seems to have reliable information. Maybe we should have tried a Tourist Info Centre.

Stayed at Tune Hotel at 100, Jalan Burmah (they spell it with an 'h') for RM20. Great location, clean room; I had no complaints this time.

I just had to take a picture of the psychedelic purple-green carpet at the airport. Still as scary as I remembered.

As we speak, Air Asia is still having its promo fares; only RM118 return for a direct BKI-PEN flight.

I already know when I'm going there next :)