Kuala Lumpur, Capital of Malaysia

I am pleased to report that I am back in pampered hotel land from Indonesia. My hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, only has a five kitchen cafe this time, but it still does a buffet. And I can see the Petronas Towers from my window. Though I’m not sure how sensitive it is of the Malaysians to refer to them as the tallest twin towers still in existence.

KL has definitely changed since I was here last - ten years ago. many more skyscrapers and when I venture out I might mistake this for the UK, or possibly the USA. The busy mall opposite is very up market - Chopard, Tod’s - although there are also McDonalds and M & S. It’s five minutes’ walk, but the hotel runs a buggy service there. In Malaysia, the people don’t like walking and they love shopping. The guide tells me they select hotels based on their proximity to the malls. He also tells me they are thinking about building drive-in mosques, where you don’t even have to get out of your car. I’m not sure if that was a joke or not.

Malacca, Malaysia

It is still de rigueur, however, to shorten city names in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur is KL and Joha Baru JB and so on. I’m off to Malacca today, which they can’t shorten, but they do spell it Melaka. I think it will be a gentle jaunt through some rural scenes and I can take photos. The road is a three-lane highway, indistinguishable from the M1 most of the way (except for the palm trees and the lack of road works). After two hours the driver says he will take me the last stretch in to town by the country route, which turns out to be a two-lane highway. The weather pattern is currently sunshine in the morning and rain in mid-afternoon I’m informed. What countryside there is swathed in haze. This is blamed on the Indonesian forest fires.

Malacca itself is lovely. More how I had expected China to be. Maybe they are just better at renovating here. Colourful temples, quaint shops, merchants’ houses and old craft workshops. Singapore in miniature, but probably with more character. Back in my room I’m passing on dinner tonight. I’m still full of buffet from yesterday.

Cameron Highlands

It’s all very easy here. Everything in Malaysia is written in English - most things are very English, Asia for beginners. There’s a national day looming here soon – August 31st and the flags are coming out. Why don’t we have one? The flag of Malaysia looks to be an Islamic version of the stars and stripes.

I am driven into the Cameron Highlands. It’s a very posh little SUV but even this has hardly any leg room. Everything is made for tiny people - Lilliputian. More motorways complete with English style service areas including Dunkin Donuts and KFC. Though a bit of Asian bazaar does creep in, with some tourist tat and some very glittery versions of Claire's Accessories. The last part of the route today is indeed rural and winds continually and nauseatingly for over an hour up into the clouds. Tea plantations so velvety green they are begging to be stroked. And little towns straggling the backs of ridges with timbered architecture that could almost be Scottish, except that the effect is more Super 8 Motel. It’s parky enough to be Scotland, a bit of a shock to the system.

I wander into the nearest town. Strawberry farms are the order of the day: Healthy Strawberries, Biggest Red Strawberries, all sorts of strawberry confections, as well as the golf course and the Ramadan market. The newspapers have reported at least one death already from eating off these stalls. The other hot news is that Golden Churn butter has been deemed to be non Halal and Muslims are ordered not to eat it. It contains pig’s DNA.

The Epitome of Colonial England

The hotel is ‘the epitome of colonial England’, all wood panelling, afternoon tea and log fires. There's a delightful dining room, the windows festooned with strings of white lights. It’s a shame my bedroom hasn’t got a log fire too. Though it has got a huge four poster bed, so it’s quite cosy.

The staff here all call me Miss Susan. Very deferential - I think. It’s the first time this trip I’ve actually stopped and done nothing, or very little anyway. I read in bed this morning and then I spend the whole morning in the spa. As tea and strawberries are the local specialties they feature heavily. I am supposed to have a relaxing tea bath. (Another first.) It looks great, with rose petals and chrysanthemums floating on the water. There is a tray resting over the bath that contains sugar scrub for my body, tea scrub for my face, lime slices for my elbows and knees and a tea bag for my eyes). There are even headphones to wear, if you like repetitive plastic music. Then I have a brilliant body scrub and a very long massage. Well, after that I am really good for nothing.

Jim Thompson Mystery Walk

However, I crawl out to do the Jim Thompson mystery walk later on in the afternoon. I should have learned by now that in Asia the word walk is synonymous with sliding down narrow, muddy rainforest tracks whilst simultaneously trying to avoid being garrotted by tree roots growing across the path. There is only me and a guide. To add to the enjoyment it starts to rain and he issues us with plastic ponchos. So there we are like two pixies tottering around. The terrain necessitates him holding my hand quite a lot.

The secondary forest here too is being eroded as the wood is deemed useless and all the rare orchids superfluous. The land is being developed for palm oil or apartments. A giant oak tree has fallen across our path and the guide suggests a long detour. I demur as I don’t want to prolong the excitement (especially the hand holding) and we hack our way through. Then I collect a leech, which is another first. The little bugger takes more than a sample test tube’s worth. The blood’s still trickling down my leg. The guide also tells me a very long and complicated story about Jim Thompson. I have only previously associated him with restaurants that sell Thai food and a house near Bangkok. However, it seems he disappeared from the bungalow up the road here one afternoon in 1967 and never came back. The story involved communists, hordes of local witnesses, assassinations and the CIA and was far more involved than the one I have just perused on Wikipedia. Quite exciting though.

The Tea Plantations of Malaysia

Yesterdays’ exertions and massage certainly had an effect. I slept for over eleven hours last night. When I finally emerge from breakfast I get a taxi to take me up the mountain, through the tea plantations. The driver is a happy little soul. Ignoring the extra £12 he has extorted from me for going up the mountain he complains all the way about the state of the road (it wasn’t great, but might have qualified as an A road in Indonesia). Then he goes on to say that it is a waste of money going up the mountain anyway as it is always cloudy. (It is a bit cloudy but I do get a view). Next, he starts on the tea pickers’ rickety wooden houses, saying how dirty and horrible they are. He says he used to be a tea picker and it was awful work. (It’s mostly mechanised round here now). I wonder if he makes much money taxi driving, as he obviously didn’t want this commission, even though he is being paid by the hour.

“You go back to hotel now? Good.”

Nevertheless, the plantations are stunning. (Far more picturesque than any I have seen in India, Sri Lanka or China).

It is raining again this afternoon, so I have no choice. I have to head back to the spa.

Penang

I pulled this morning. A retired Aussie cattle rancher who has had some kind of stroke asked me to go out for the day with him. His wife is ill in bed and wasn’t consulted. But I have to leave for Penang. It's an uneventful drive to the island, over (what was) the longest bridge in Asia (13.5 km). Driving reminds me that I forgot to mention the incursion of Tesco. The stores are everywhere - all sizes. The locals seem very proud of them.

E and O Hotel, Penang

I was really looking forward to this hotel in Georgetown and it has lived up to its promise. It’s even more colonial than the last one, marble, palm trees and white shutters. A four page cocktail list. I decide it looks like a smaller version of Raffles in Singapore. Then I find out that it was built by the same people - the Sarkies brothers - so not really surprising. The E and O Hotel boasts it has an Otis lift that is one of the oldest operating in Asia. I am not as impressed by this information as the hotel intended. I have been stuck in lifts before.

My room is palatial. I have a sitting room with orchids, a bedroom and a huge bathroom with two sinks. There’s even a duck to float in my bath and brass switches, one of which is the call button for the butler. I’m terrified I’ll press it by mistake. The window looks out over the sea and the swimming pool. It’s good to be back in the balmy heat of the lowlands, but it is pretty humid. I open my window and within 30 seconds all the mirrors have steamed up. (Not, I regretfully hasten to say, because there is any action going on). The service is assiduous, if not obsequious. Though I still grapple with some hotel customs. Here are my questions:

  • Why is there always a telephone next to the toilet? Is that where people finalise business deals or is it where most emergencies happen? (Valiantly trying to avoid any bad taste puns here.)
  • I have expounded before on the need to fold points into the end of the toilet roll. Why? I’d rather my tissue was untouched by human hand thanks.
  • Why do they always call at six pm to turn down the bed? Isn’t that when everyone has a shower before dinner? And why do they have to turn down the bed anyway? I can think of a lot of things I’d rather have help with than getting into bed.
  • Why does the person who calls to service the room always ring when you are on the toilet? And why do they not hear you shout please leave my room till later?
  • Then there’s air conditioning, though that’s not limited to hotels. Why is it always set so you feel as if you’re sitting in a refrigerator? We’re always getting nagged to lower the thermostat a degree or two at home. If they increased all the air conditioning settings worldwide by 10 degrees it would crack global warming instantly.

Breakfast is absolutely sumptuous, on the veranda, with the boats sailing by. You’re probably sick of me going on about food by now. This dining room has juice made to order from every fruit imaginable. I eat some sushi – and I’m still contemplating the chicken curry and the also made to order Asian soups and stir fries. Maybe tomorrow.

Georgetown, Penang

Then I ‘do’ Georgetown. First impressions are that it is less colourful than Malacca, but I soon realise that’s it’s actually more authentic. Like Singapore there are Little India and Chinatown. It isn’t too obviously touristy, with all the locals going about their business. Little India, for example, is full of saree shops, curry stalls and Hindu temple offerings for sale and I wander down Harmony Street where there are temples, mosques and churches of all persuasions coexisting happily together. Then past all the British colonial buildings and the fort. Tricycle rickshaws are stationed on all the street corners. The more competitive drivers have smothered theirs with artificial flowers. One even has spinning windmills and an inbuilt music system.

It also seems that there are even more celebrations going on or imminent. The newspapers and shops are full of them. Not only is it National Independence Day this month (Merdeka), it is Malaysia Day next month, when Sabah and Sarawak joined the union. (Singapore did too, but we won’t mention that.) It’s Ramadan the whole of this month and Eidhilfutr (spelled every way you can think of in the papers) or Hari Raya the whole of next month of course. And for the Chinese it’s the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts for a month. They have to leave out a lot of food to feed all the family ancestors, so there are banquets and food of all kinds in the temples. The Chinese temple also has a sign ‘It is forbidden to roll the granite ball in the lion’s mouth’. I hadn’t even thought about doing that until I saw the notice. My route home takes me past the Christian cemetery. The Chinese name for it is ‘place for people with red hair’

Back at base I lounge by the swimming pool. A little man asks me if I want a foot massage and it seems churlish to refuse.

North of Penang

I have resolved to lodge a stiff complaint with the hotel management. My duck will only float on its side. Now I shall have to seek some other amusement.

Management turn out to be otherwise engaged today. They are filming the final of Asian MasterChef here and there are cameras and film crew (who all look about 16) everywhere. They are posing little groups of Asian beauties on all the staircases. The bar is full of slightly older Chinese men talking about Nigella Lawson as if they know her intimately. I haven’t seen her yet. We have to take a very circuitous route to breakfast. Then a very arduous day. I take the hotel shuttle bus up to the sister hotel in the north of the island and sunbathe by the pool there. I stroll on the beach, but there are jelly fish warning signs and no-one (unsurprisingly) is in the water. Then I come back and sunbathe by the pool here.

Langkawi Island, Malaysia

Off to Langkawi Island today, for my last four sleeps. I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone by. I am flying, instead of taking the ferry, because the travel agent told me to. I've been told the sea can be uncomfortably rough here, so hopefully this is the best option. It is chaotic at the airport as they are building a new terminal. I can see why as I am waiting for my flight; it is raining (despite the rule about it only being allowed to rain in the afternoon) and water is dripping through the roof onto my head.

Maybe the flying wasn’t such a great decision. We take off. The illumination on the seat belt sign pings off and the stewardess throws us a packet of peanuts. Immediately afterwards they announce it is time to land. Great, short flight I think. But we don’t land, because there is bad weather in Langkawi. there is even more illegal rain there too, which isn’t great either for the plane or for my holiday prospects. We circle for a while and I start to worry about us running out of fuel. That is obviously on the captain’s mind too as we then fly back to Penang. We wait half an hour and then take off yet again. Everything is played out in rewind, but this time we actually arrive.

The resort is very different to my last hotels in Malaysia, but a perfect place to finish. It’s ultra-modern: big white umbrellas and infinity pools. The view is gorgeous, a string of little islands across the bay. It’s really pretty at night with the swimming pools and trees all lit up, very romantic..... And there are about 20 really posh little villas. The hotel calls them ultra-luxurious. They have their own swimming pool, massage area and staff quarters. My room is lovely. There is a huge TV set into half a wall (honestly). It's a shame there’s nothing on except bad Australian movies or the fighting in Libya. Anyway, back to the hotel and cocktails. There’s a martini bar and a mojito bar. What’s more there’s a free martini every night. This must be what heaven’s like. It’s just a shame that it’s still bucketing down and the forecast for the next four days says heavy rain. So much for my relaxing last few days on the beach.

Around Langkawi

More excitement: thunderstorms all night and a power cut this morning. I’m also covered in incredibly itchy sand fly bites. So much for a tropical paradise. there is still a sprinkle of rain this morning, so I saunter into town. It’s a duty free island and to be honest some of it looks like the hypermarket area near Calais. There are heaps of fake clothes and handbags. I am quite excited by the bags until I realise that they aren’t even copy designs. Similar items are labelled Jimmy Choo, Mulberry, and so on. Even if I had wanted to make a purchase it would have been difficult. Ramadan seems to be taking a toll on the shop assistants. Most of them are asleep under the counters.

The highlight for me is watching a troop of monkeys make a raid on a deserted bar. They swarm across the trees and slide down the telegraph poles much faster than firemen. Then they turn over all the bins and even remove half full glasses of juice (or cocktails?). Perching out of reach they scoop the liquid out with their paws. Many are mothers with babies who crawl out from their fur beds and sit on their mum’s backs to watch the fun and beg a bite or two. When it is all over they return via the telegraph poles, the mothers stuffing the babies back into their furry stomachs before they vault up into the trees.

The rain holds off enough for more sunbathing and then the hotel lays on unlimited free cocktails and canapés to make up for the power cut. So I don’t need to buy any dinner. And I have a very nice half hour’s flirtation with a much too young Dutch hotel manager. He is avoiding having to speak to other hotel guests and I have had too much to drink on an empty stomach.

 I shall close my diary, do my packing and watch the rain!

Lovina, Bali

We catch the ferry from Jave to Bali today, the land of curly roofs.  Now I’m in Lovina and am a little worried because I don’t remember much of it from when I was here 10 years ago. I’m not sure if it’s changed out of all recognition or if it’s just that I spent quite a lot of time trying out the bars on my last visit. But I don’t even really recognise them. The black volcanic sand beach, though, is still the same.

Snorkelling on some really excellent reefs. Myriads of coral scattered with Fox's Glacier Fruit fish, gorgeous sandy beaches and iridescent blue water.

It’s been nice to escape the group. Though I’ve just remembered that I’m supposed to be having a fish barbeque with them on the beach.....

Besakih, The Biggest Temple in Bali

Then onto to Besakih, the biggest temple in Bali, which has hundreds of smaller temples within it. Each of the houses also has its own intricate shrine, so the whole countryside is littered with curlicues and carvings. Shimmering green lakes and skirted statues galore.

Klungkung Palace

The Klungkung kingdom was considered to be the highest and most important of the nine kingdoms of Bali from the late 17th century to 1908. This palace was destroyed by the Dutch but enough of the carved arches, painted roofs and floating pavilions remains to appreciate the amazing craftsmanship,

Candidasa, Bali Fishing Village

The route that passes all these beautiful temples with thatched wedding-cake towers. has taken us from Lovina in the north to the fishing village of Candidasa on the south coast, climbing over volcanoes on the way.

Tenganan

No muezzin, a beautiful balmy sea breeze and a ten o’clock start, gorgeous. Tenganan - an immaculately manicured Bali village with sales pitches for weaving included in our tour as soon as the guide thinks he can get away with it.

Terta Empul

Terta Empul temple I do remember from before. There are tanks with scores of fountains and the locals come to bathe and generally have fun.

Gunung Talwi

Then another temple, this time with hot springs and some royal tombs at the bottom of some even more amazing rice terraces.

Pura Pendataran

There are several celebrations going on at the moment here too. The temples are full of men and women weaving and conjuring up baskets full of offerings, like pig’s heads and coconuts. The temple grounds at Pura Pendataran resemble giant school fetes with harvest festival going on at the same time.

There’s also of course National Day looming and the flags are still multiplying. They are now appearing on all the cars too. We only get this in England when we are playing in the World Cup.

The people are incredibly friendly and seem very gentle but there is another side to them too. There are rows of cockerels in baskets all along the waysides. They are being sold ready for the regular bloody bouts of cock fighting. And the tourist routes at the temples are all cunningly contrived so you have to weave your way through endless stalls when you exit and it’s quite hard to get out unscathed and without being assaulted by women waving sarongs. I am very tempted to treat them as if they are toreadors. But local names are easy to remember. There are only four Christian names, one for the eldest, one for the second born and so on. If a family has more than four children they start again with the first name.

The food in Bali is more varied and many places have a good stab at western style food. Chicken Gordon Blue is noteworthy on several menus. I’ve also noticed lots of western style advertising hoardings. Most of them seem to be promoting cigarettes. Apache seems popular. The guide says the people like the Red Indians.

Goa Gajah and Yeh Puleh, Bali

My last day in Bali is to be spent in and around Ubud. This I also remember. It’s just like Glastonbury - health food shops, reflexology and palm readings. The hotel is the same one I stayed at last time, nestled in the paddy fields. We visit a school where ceremony fever seems to have taken over and the teachers have given up. Some boys are conducting an interesting experiment with matches in one corner of a classroom.

Goa Gajah cave - more intricate carvings.

Then Yeh Puleh. Another festive temple, with a school attached. Ceremony fever seems to have taken over and the teachers have given up. Some boys are conducting an interesting experiment with matches in one corner of a classroom. more tombs and rice terraces presided over by delightful guardians.

Ubud, Bali

There’s even more ceremony fever right in Ubud town. There’s to be a big cremation soon and the locals are building all kinds of artefacts at the palace in readiness. There’s a huge bull that will hold the casket. There is also a very tall totem pole affair from which the body will be launched. It appears that it will travel down a long garlanded roller coaster until it enters the bull. We can’t work out how the body is going to get up the totem pole to begin with, but it’s wide enough to fit a hoist inside. It’s all fascinating.

Denpasar Airport, Bali

I say my farewells to the odd ball group and head to the airport. The mad lady has disappeared. Ian is desperate to get home for some decent food (he signed off the tour as soon as it hit Ubud, saying he couldn’t stand any more temples) and Jim is staying on to ‘get some action’.

The road to Denpasar airport takes me through Kuta, the Aussie version of Benidorm. Indonesia has continued to offer more that is curious and unusual than almost anywhere else I have travelled.

Malaysia next

Yogyakarta, Java

Yet another early start to catch a plane to Java, (I will get some sleep one day). Well, two planes, from Sumatra via Jakarta to Yogyakarta. I am a bit apprehensive as the Indonesian national carrier, Garuda, has been banned from Heathrow for years. However, the flights are fine. Though I was complaining about the lack of even a drink on board, until I remembered that it was Ramadan.

Prambanan

We have time to visit the big Hindu temple complex at Prambanan (still being reconstructed). It has a restaurant that serves food other than fried noodles. And the hotel for the next two nights is lovely. Real food and a swimming pool. We are in Java now.

Borodupur, Java

Despite my lovely hotel I have had yet another dodgy attempt at sleep. This time something was banging in the bathroom all night. The relentless pace has not let up. We have been whisked off to a batik shop, another silversmith’s (ouch!).  Naturally we are encouraged to go to the shops where our tour leaders get the most commission and they are always described as being ‘really, really fantastic’.

Then another sultan’s palace (though the Dutch allowed this sultan to stay around and he still lives there) and another temple complex. This time it is the famous Buddhist temple at Borodupur and definitely worth visiting. It is presided over by the most active volcano in the world (another Merapi). Today it just smokes quietly and eludes our efforts to take a decent photo by hiding in cloud most of the time. There was a big eruption in 2010 and the bulldozers are still out clearing the lava from the main street of the town and the riverbed.

A lovely meal at a great restaurant next to the hotel. Proud of myself for sticking to Indonesian and not being tempted to have steak. The cheesecake is a different story.

Absolutely not allowed to sleep. Knocking in bathroom cured, but up at six yet again for another long day on the road. The traffic is solid. I have discovered what the extra man on the bus is for. He waves his arm out of the window, palm upwards to indicate that the bus is going to overtake in a particularly dangerous spot, despite the fact that there is no room between the vehicles in front to pull in. After the driver has forced his way in the gesture turns into a thumbs up.

The bus isn’t exactly speedy. The wheels are out of alignment and every time we do get up enough speed to overtake it begins to judder alarmingly and we have to fall back again behind the endless line of trucks.

Solo, Java

Surakarta is also known as Solo. The eighteenth-century Keraton Kasunanan here was another royal family residence and today is a museum of heirlooms, while Mangkunegaran Palace has an elaborately painted pavilion. Most of the sightseeing in these involves oohing and aahing over the assortment of gifts that the sultan has received. Quaintly, some of these are gold and silver chastity belts for both sexes. The male contraption looks especially lethal, with various spikes protruding.

We have lunch at another Padang. This is a bit like tapas - lots of small dishes but they put them all out on the table and you pay for what you eat. Not a noodle in sight.

Java has much more traffic and urbanisation. The roofs are also different again, much squatter and far less elaborate. Perhaps they are fertile enough already down here. We are stopped by the police for an imaginary traffic infringement. The guide tells us that Indonesia is not nearly as corrupt as it used to be.

Sukharno's Old Palace

We are staying in one of President Sukharno’s old residences tonight. (There were six of them). It's all Dutch colonial, carved teak and garuda birds. Nevertheless, there is a cockroach waiting to greet me in my outside bathroom with mandi. I scoop it up and flush it down the toilet. I don’t want to tread on that in the dark. They are impossible to kill by squashing. Now I’m wondering if it’s safe to sit on the loo.

Malang

Yet another early start, yet another long day in the bus. Although it is a new (well different) bus, the malingerer having been retired. It is becoming increasingly clear that the itinerary is a creative fiction. Twenty minutes at another Hindu temple complex, and an hour in Malang. The bird market contains a whole assortment of wild life, some of it definitely not of the avian variety, crammed into rows of wooden cages toppling into a narrow road. There are puppies and, more surprisingly, mongooses. ‘Visiting the Dutch colonial buildings’ turns out to be an ice cream in an old café. Otherwise we motor on relentlessly. I was going to say speed but that is definitely not the right word. Not even a lunch break is permitted and I have to beg for a toilet stop.

Endless rice terraces, with all stages of the growing cycle in evidence. Harvesting, threshing, tilling, harrowing, and ploughing (with hefty buffalo). The countryside is becoming increasingly bedecked with bunting and banners, mainly in scarlet and white. The guide explains that there are a several celebrations going on in August. It is Independence Day on August 17th and it is also Ramadan of course.

Many shops and restaurants remain closed during the day because of the latter. Although there seems to be a lot of cooking taking place, so that the people have nice things to eat when sunset comes and they break their fast. Most of the goodies seem to be very sweet, involving lashings of palm sugar and coconut. It’s a bit like celebrating the end of Lent with an Easter party every day for a month. Then there is Eidh, which is a very big party to celebrate the end of all the small parties. Some of the rules also seem to be open to various interpretation. If you travel a long way you can eat during the day, but are expected to extend your fast by another day.

Mount Ijen

A much too early start for the group to brave the volcanic slopes of Mount Ijen - superb views across a turquoise lake accompanied by steam from countless fumaroles and the stench of sulphur, which is collected and bagged up here. It's also made into numerous souvenirs.

Kalibaru

In Kalibaru there are umpteen shops selling metal spires for mosques.

My diet today has been disgraceful. I have had coca cola, ice cream, dates, chocolate and sweets.

Now we catch the ferry to Bali.

Medan, Sumatra

Joined my group in Medan, Sumatra, flying in from Shanghai. The tour leader is an Indonesian called Eddy. He’s not very steady and certainly is never ready and he’s not really a leader either. There are four staff on the bus. Eddy, a driver, a backup driver, who holds the microphone cable for Eddy and a boy to keep the bus clean (though I haven’t seen him do anything yet). He stands up the whole way.

Who wants to be a millionaire?  Move to Indonesia - Eddy lent me some cash as the ATM wouldn’t work and I now owe him a million rupiah. We go to see a small and pretty boring mosque and a more interesting, but very small sultan’s palace, with one room that was open, in Medan.

Orang Utans

Then we set off in awful traffic to see the orang-utans. At this point one of the party announced that she had left her luggage in her hotel room as she thought we were staying in the same place again tonight.  So we had to go back and get it amidst ever increasing traffic. Well at last the bar is set pretty high for any acts of doziness that I might commit in future.

The orang-utans came and performed for us at Bukit Lawang, which was fulfilling. Then we found a bar on the riverside that served up a whole variety of different cocktails. That was also fulfilling.

This is more the Asia that I know. Endless little booths, contents spilling out onto dirty pavements that have open sewer manholes all down the middle; roads jam-packed with a fascinating melange of strange vehicles, people and animals. We’ve already been pestered by half of Sumatra wanting tips for helping us up steps when we didn’t need help ...

More familiar Asia. Still hot, but not absolutely roasting. Palm clad volcanoes, paddy fields and masses of exotic fruit, both growing and being sold from the stalls. Eddy has made us eat rambutans and mangosteens today. Both delicious, but lethal to clothing.

The journey takes forever, partly because the Sumatra traffic is so awful and partly because the road is so awful. Miles of palm oil plantations and the accompanying mills. One article in a conservation centre says that the production and burning of this bio-oil actually consumes three times as much carbon dioxide as diesel. This is because they clear the old established forest to plant the palm oil.

Berastagi

We stop for a swim in some hot springs. Then to Berasatgi or Brastagi, depending on which sign you believe. It’s a thousand meters up aBerastagi nd a little chilly for Indonesia. We scramble into Karo Batak houses with thatched trapezium shaped roofs veering awkwardly into the sky and then join a village celebration. As one does. Lots of swaying dancers, elaborate costumes and wonderfully contrived hats. A dressed-to-the-nines couple sitting on thrones and piles of presents. A while afterwards when we are discussing the nuptials one of the group suddenly says, “O was that a wedding?” We are obviously a bunch of intellectuals. We are spared the wedding feast. Two local delicacies are fried fruit bat and the partially digested grass from the stomach of a cow,

Back at our hotel I find that my expensive six week supply of shampoo has leaked all over my doomed sponge bag. I wash my hair with what I can scoop out. This wash is going to have to last a long time.

Dinner is a medley of Indonesian fare in a little local cafe. Most of the group opt out and go to the Chinese down the road, on the grounds that the food is too spicy.

Samosir

Through more of market garden Sumatra to Samosir, a volcanic island in the centre of gigantic crater Lake Toba. On the way we visit a Batak king’s house. This one has a long room for all the wives and their children and a small boxy room for him. He gets the guard to summon the lucky wife and the guard then takes up position in a horizontal cubicle underneath. If the sultan has taken some potion the guard might get to summon another wife later on.

There is always some entertainment being played out on the roadside. The Karo peoples who inhabit these areas are mostly Christian, so the children are in school on Friday. There are plenty of churches, but they play safe by incorporating various animalistic deities into the ornate church steeples.

A suckling pig banquet tonight. Not so long ago in these parts it could have been long pig.

A Boat Trip on Lake Toba

A boat trip round the pretty island and a swim in the lake. We are accompanied by four musicians who don’t let up for the whole day, except to try and plug their CD. I am up the back of the boat where I can’t hear too much of what sounds like cats’ wailing. More Batak houses, but this time complete with a meeting place to try offenders and a stone block to decapitate those who are judged to have  transgressed. After they were executed (the head was thrown into the sea), they were eaten. The last reported punishment of this type was in 1819. A ‘cultural show’ is laid on for us, with dancing round a buffalo - I try and behave myself in case they reintroduce the old laws.

Marilyn, a scatty, retired New Yorker has spent the whole trip losing things or wandering around looking bemused. She bought an Indonesian sunhat today (which she lost three times). Whenever you try and take a picture there she is in the background. It'll be like playing 'Where’s Wally?' when I get back.

Lunch is getting depressingly familiar. The anglicized Indonesian sateh is elusive. You can choose either fried noodles, or noodle soup or fried rice. I abstained from all three today. The inevitable stomach upset is threatening. And the excitement generated by the extensive drinks menu at our first stop has dwindled. Not a cocktail in sight, although avocado juice with chocolate is going down well with the group. They are less keen on Pocari Sweat, an electrolyte drink that seems popular amongst the locals. However, everything is incredibly cheap in Sumatra and the silly money is going a very long way. I’ve been here nearly a week and I’ve only spent about £70. (And that’s eating in ‘upmarket’ restaurants.) It makes my Shanghai banquet appear to be the height of extravagance.

Sumatra - The Road to Bukit Tinggi Part 1

Woken much too early by a huge row in the next room. Two women in the group don’t seem to be getting on terribly well. Some very unladylike words are exchanged. Then a long day on the road, with just brief stops. Well, they were intended to be brief, but we are competing with a Belgian tour bus that seems to get to every place just before us. The road is so bad (partly because of landslides and partly because of disrepair) that we even have to walk at times. It’s almost impossible to overtake and the journey is excruciatingly slow.

Fortunately, there is plenty to look at when I am not dozing. The mountains and paddy fields are becoming increasingly beautiful. It is Sunday today so the Christians are out walking out in their church finery. The Muslims are gathered in their hundreds in the rivers, washing in preparation for Ramadan tomorrow. The houses along the way vary in both decoration and opulence. There are numerous tin shacks, but even the majority of these have incongruous great satellite dishes. The buses are colourful and the vehicle of choice for families and taxis, appears to be a motor bike with some sort of sidecar attached. These also vary in decoration and opulence, but many are elaborately painted. The poorer families make do without a sidecar. We count mother, father and four children on one bike.

We are clearly moving into a more strongly Moslem area. I have been provided with a prayer mat in my hotel room.

Sumatra - The Road to Bukit Tinggi Part 2

Woken up at 5.30 a.m. by Eddy - an unasked for early morning call. A scheduled even longer journey day that is extended by another four hours because of a lorry accident. It’s quite good fun watching all the traffic trying to squeeze through the small gap left between the two injured lorries. One has a broken axle and the other is overturned, hanging half over a ravine. It seems easier just to push it over, but no, the police blow whistles to absolutely no end. The passengers and drivers mill around, many just squat on the road and the little coffee shops do a roaring trade. Eddy eventually commandeers a local bus to take us the rest of the way, with the luggage to follow in our own bus - when it can. This seems a good idea except that three of our party have misunderstood his instruction to walk up the hill and wait for the bus. They are eventually found three kilometres up the road and still walking.

The local bus is amusing. The owners instruct me to sit in the front with them and they giggle all the time as we hurtle along. The driver is texting with one hand and trying to put on a pornographic DVD for the delectation of the rest of the group in the back. I manage to persuade him that this is not appropriate.  We eventually receive the news that our bus has made it through the gap and we have to disembark and wait another 20 minutes for it to catch up, as Eddy won’t fork out any more for the extra bus than he has to. We arrive in Bukit Tinggi (wonderful name) at ten o’clock, shattered. It was too dark to see the Equator signs properly, as we crossed over, and the Islamic Heroes’ Museum was certainly closed. We did manage to get to the Islamic boarding school earlier, but that was also empty, because of Ramadan. Hundreds of teeny beach huts for the students’ accommodation-most of them pretty decrepit and empty inside, other than the insects and the remnants of their last lunch.

Despite all this time travelling we are still not even half way down Sumatra.

Bukit Tinggi

Yet another early awakening. This time it’s the muezzin at 4.30 signalling the Ramadan prayers. As they also woke me at 10.30 last night when I was trying to get an early night I am extremely sleep deprived now and grumpy. My room is next to the mosque and we are here for three nights.

I have also discovered why they have covers over the drains in the bathrooms. If you don’t put them back the cockroaches creep out during the night. The hotels all have western style toilets with flush cisterns. However, most of the other toilets are squat style with mandi tanks adjacent. You just dip in the plastic ladle and wash it all down after you. Even the western toilets in the towns of Sumatra have mandis, which makes for a pretty wet seat. The locals tend to squat, even on the western toilets. You can tell by the footprints.

Back on the bus for a tour of the Minangkabau homelands. The seats on the bus are incredibly small. The spacing makes Ryanair look generous. Fortunately, I quite often get one to myself. We stop in a little craft village and I spend more than I have laid out on food this week buying the lovely filigree work. We take a guided walk through the rainforest that seems more like a route march down a steep slippery track, and through rice farms, to a lake that we can’t see because it is too hazy. Another admirer in the fields tells me that he thinks I am nice. Because I look like an Indian in a Bollywood movie.

What have I seen today? There are lots of cats in Sumatra. Some of them are in reasonable condition but many have been born with short, fat tails. And the architecture has changed. The roofs are more ornate. Many are multi gabled, like Thai temples, with concave sides, and are very pretty. They are supposed to represent buffalo horns, symbolising fertility. So great attention is often paid to the roof of even the meanest shops and houses. Though many of the mosques have tin roofs.   I have even seen a minaret shop or two. Much is closed because of Ramadan and most of the locals are not eating, drinking, smoking or having sex between dawn and dusk.

Then an exploration of Bukit Tinggi itself. It sits on the edge of a pretty canyon, which we view from the Panorama Park. Then we venture into town itself. East meets west meets Spanish colonial. A square, complete with clock tower, horses and carts, KFC, giant tiger statues and a Muslim market. This area is shown on the map as ‘Up market’. Further south is ‘Down market’.

Mount Merapi

The highlight of the day is the eruption of Mount Merapi, one of two volcanoes which sit either side of the town. It poursout ash for several hours, darkening the sky and covering the streets and cars with a grey flaky layer. I’m getting quite blasé about volcanic eruptions after last year in Costa Rica and now this.

More touring in the bus. Eddy is hot on his schedule. Even more stunning rice terraces, the local king’s palace (still being rebuilt after it got struck by lightning) and a monkey on a chain that had been trained to climb up palms and throw down the ripe coconuts. He looked very unhappy and we feel very sorry for some of the animals here. We have seen birds in tiny cages, a beautiful owl with its wings clipped severely so it cannot fly at all and fruit bats, also in cages, as they are fried and eaten as a cure for asthma.

Now I'm flying - to Yogyakarta in Java

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