What a Difference a Day Makes

Alison and I have flown in to Georgetown, the capital of Grand Cayman (and the Cayman Islands), from Jamaica. As with Jamaica this is a revisit, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship snorkelling counts. Three hundred miles and it’s yet another world. Very flat. Pristine. A series of interlinked lagoons, especially in the west. Very American. Plaza after plaza. Lines of car rental shops. Huge neat car parks. Four lane highways. And signposts. Low rise apartment blocks pretending to be traditional Caribbean architecture. Incongruously, chickens run around squawking. They feature right across the island and are useful for hoovering up any scraps of food we drop, whilst we’re picnicking. I’m assuming no foxes here. The only predators are the many vehicles.

Cars stop at pedestrian crossings, if we show the slightest inclination to cross the road. They even stop to let you out at junctions. Best of all, a huge supermarket offering everything we couldn’t find in Jamaica. And just about anything you could want to buy to eat. Beautifully stocked meat and fish sections. At a price. I fill two shopping bags with goodies - for 200 USD.

The Cayman Islands - in a Nutshell

  • The Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory, three islands in the western Caribbean Sea: Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. They are believed to have been uninhabited before the first Welsh settlers came, in the seventeenth century. The smaller islands had been sighted by Columbus, who called them Las Tortugas (turtles) and then Sir Francis Drake landed on Grand Cayman. Early maps refer to them as Los Lagartos, meaning alligators or large lizards, But, by 1530,this had become the Caymanes after the Carib word caimán for the marine crocodile. There must have been a lot of them. The turtles were quickly depleted, as they became the mainstay of the economy, for export and eating.
  • Due to their location, the Cayman Islands are more likely than any other islands in the Caribbean to be hit by hurricanes.
  • There has been vast amounts of immigration over the last few decades - the majority of the population was not born here
  • At one point, the majority of the government revenue came from the sale of postage stamps, primarily to stamp collectors around the world

Georgetown, the Capital of the Cayman Islands

Georgetown (named after George III) is the largest town in the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) and a significant financial hub. There are almost 600 banks and financial institutions here. Twice as many companies as people. Though the first bank (Barclays) did not arrive until 1953. Plate glass office blocks are dotted around the edges of town (which spreads out a surprisingly long way across the island), spilling towards more traditional buildings in the downtown area. Some timber buildings could be correctly described as historical. More adopt the mock wooden Caribbean style, especially those around the cruise port (where every block is a mall). A few are actually made of concrete. This is where you find your Versace, Tiffany, and Gucci nestling alongside native vendors and craftsmen.

Restaurants line the wharf alongside the harbour. In between the boutiques, bars and cafes on the shore side are dainty churches, the parliament building, the site of an old fort (marked by a few cannons) and the island museum.

Cocoplum Apartments

We pick up a rental car and navigate smoothly to our Cocoplum apartment at the bottom of Seven Mile Beach, just north of downtown Georgetown. We have a little heart shaped swimming pool in front of us, sunbeds (screwed down, so sadly, we can’t move them into the shade), and a view out to sea, across a wrecked boat. Glass patio doors lead onto this area. It’s hard to tell when they are closed, so I repeat my trick from Tunisia and walk headlong into the door. This time my glasses come off worse than I do. We also have a resident teeny tiny curly tailed lizard who is not remotely afraid of us. Even so, I have to check he’s not a scorpion, his tail is held so high.

Seven Mile Beach

The wreck, the Gamma, offers interesting snorkelling. It’s not the prettiest section of what doesn’t really qualify as a seven mile beach (in my humble opinion). To start with, it comes in at just under six miles in length. And the land fringing the long crescent disappears entirely at several points along this, the quieter end. We have to make use of the various alleys leading to and from the parallel West Bay Road, when trying to explore north. There’s a thin strip of sand and seawater channels, accessed by stairs cut into the exposed coral. I’ve read that storms have caused some erosion and there’s plenty of construction work along the shore here too.

Reefs more or less encircle Grand Cayman, which is why the islands are renewed for its snorkelling and diving. There are snorkelling spots all along seven mile beach right down to Georgetown, in the harbour and beyond. The one close to the Burger King is known as Cheeseburger Reef

Seven Mile Beach is yet another of those beaches that’s touted as best in the Caribbean, maybe twelfth in the world. It’s lovely, but not that amazing. As I’ve said several times before, these best beach in the world lists are way off. I don’t think the Bahamas counts as the Caribbean, but Anguilla and the BVI certainly do.

Governor's Beach

Another couple of miles further up, Seven Mile Beach widens. Here, it is called Governor’s Beach, imaginatively named, as it’s right in front of the Governor’s House. There are signs in front of a low chain fence, requesting privacy. The Cayman Islands are more British than Great Britain. The governor presides over garden parties wearing one of those big cockaded hats. Even the Christmas decorations feature the flag of St George. It’s been created in wide banded satin ribbon along the wall of one tall block.

Here, the beach could rightfully be called beautiful. The sand is soft and inviting. The sea is a translucent swirl of contrasting blues, warm and shallow. There’s what seems to be the best snorkelling on Seven Mile, a few hundred yards off shore. It’s not fantastic, I hurry to add. More, mostly dead, coral, and there are a few shoals of vibrantly coloured fish. Some of them intrepid specimens, keen to eyeball us snorkellers.

Grand Cayman is an odd shape. The Georgetown area and Seven Mile Beach looks as if it sits on its tail. On the opposite side of the tail to the long stretch of beach are marinas with glitzy malls and restaurants. The most well known is Camana Bay.

Cemetery Beach

At the top of the tail is the North End and West Bay. At West Bay. Cemetery Beach is, you guessed it, adjacent to an old cemetery (they’re all bedecked with artificial flowers here) with a narrowish strip of sand and a peaceful vibe. Shade is provided by casuarina trees . They’re gracefully atmospheric, but the needles make a patchwork on the sand and invade all your clothes and stick to your towels. Here, I meet up with Ron and Anne, who have just come from Negril in Jamaica, where I’m heading next. They live in Lindfield in West Sussex, where I used to have a house. It really is a small world.

Cemetery Beach has another reef, even further off shore. Ron is going to come in with me, but first his equipment all floats away on the swell, and then he discovers that his mask is too small. These are the sort of rolling waves that fill your swimsuit with sand, but you don’t realise until you go to the toilet and it all falls out. There are dots of purple fan coral and even fewer fish. Cayman might be one of the best snorkelling spots in the Caribbean, but it’s not a patch on other parts of the world. If I remember correctly it’s better when you take a boat. Nevertheless, I mustn’t complain. It’s nice to able to snorkel off-shore at all.

North End, Grand Cayman

The North End is more quirky. Bestrewn with less pretentious homes, gentler, more rural and further away from the financial mecca. Though it hasn’t escaped hotels and apartments all together. There are quiet lagoons and a medley of limestone formations. One area named Hell is especially full of dark pinnacles. This is a very polarised population. and Hell is where the less well off tend to live, Unsurprisingly, the locals have capitalised on this with a gift shop and a post office, where you can get Hell postmarks - if you’re so inclined.

The formations meet the coast at Turtle Reef for scenic views, more snorkelling and some cafes. There are gorgeous wind swept beaches all along the North End coast to here and round the edge of Barker National Park, where horses wait patiently for clients to ride them along the sand. There’s a whole line of dune buggies next door. I'm unsure whcih is the safer option.

Circumnavigating Grand Cayman

The key must-do in Grand Cayman is Stingray City and I went there on my last visit. Time to explore the island then. I’ve read that we should allow two hours to circumnavigate Grand Cayman. It takes us about three hours to work our way right round the coast to Rum Point and then Starfish Point, with frequent photo stops. The traffic in Georgetown, both ways, is incredibly heavy, despite the four lane highways and huge roundabouts. Nobody bothers to use the indicators on their expensive shiny land rovers And there are gargantuan American style trucks thundering by. Living with the rich and powerful isn’t always paradise, it seems.

Smith’s Barcadere

Just south of Georgetown is Smith’s Cove, more exotically known as Smith’s Barcadere. Formed from the coral reef, it’s incredibly photogenic. And has really easy (straight off the sand ) fairly decent snorkelling alongside all the reef cliffs. There's even an exciting altercation with an octopus. I had no idea they could camouflage themselves so well against the coral. I would swear this one turned white and then brown, depending on the light. I’ve read that they can change texture too, to match their surroundings.

Spotts Beach

Spotts Beach, on the south road, isn’t actually that easy to spot. We zoom past. It's accessed, like all the beaches, down public right of way footpaths and it's another gorgeous piece of palm backed sand. Though there’s a stiff breeze blowing off the reef in front.

Pedro St James

Further along the south road, Pedro St James, is home to the oldest stone building on Grand Cayman. It’s actually called a castle, though it doesn’t look like one to me. William Eden, an Englishman, used slave labour to build it, in 1780. You can buy tickets to go inside and visit and there’s a swanky gift shop and restaurant attached. We just peer at it from the road.

Bodden Town

Bodden Town, the first island settlement, is the old capital of the Cayman Islands. (The first settlers were Welsh - the islands are thought to have been previously uninhabited.) The place is named after William Bodden, a government leader. It’s now the fasted growing district on Grand Cayman. Perhaps they’ve run out of space in Georgetown. Traditional buildings line the main road. The most notable is the Mission House, intended to depict life as it used to be in the islands, though its origins are murky.

East End, Grand Cayman

The East End is where the real Caribbean begins. Mangrove forest, lakes, low subtropical forest and wild and windy beaches draped with sea weed and facing a vividly turquoise lagoon. There are blowholes in the raised coral. Gun Bay, as it’s name suggests, has cannons lining the road and Colliers Beach is gorgeously picturesque.

Barefoot Beach

Turning the corner to the North Side of Grand Cayman, still more beaches running alongside the road. The sand almost disappears at Barefoot Beach, where the once lofty trees have succumbed to the winds, bending over at almost 90 degrees.

North Side, Grand Cayman – Rum Point and Starfish Point

Rum Point, at the end of a straggling peninsula on a bay opposite Georgetown has still not reopened after Covid. There are major renovations underway and JCBs blocking the path. The area between here, a series of pools and lagoons lined with houses and apartment blocks is known as Cayman Kai.

Right at the tip is Starfish Point. It’s tranquil and exceptionally pretty – shallow waters, white sand and casuarina trees to bask under.

At least, it’s tranquil until all the tour boats turn up to admire the poor cushion starfish dotted, mainly solitary, under the dappled water. Loud music blares and the visitors munch lobster tails (it’s obviously an up market tour), as they splash around, asking if they can pick up the beleaguered echinoderms. Apparently, they want to make bikini tops out of them. The answer is no, they will suffocate out of the ocean. It doesn’t stop the intruders examining the creatures underwater. Some of the starfish beat a hasty retreat. The information boards say that their numbers have decreased rapidly over recent years. I wonder why.

Queen Elizabeth II Royal Botanic Park, Grand Cayman

The Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is advertised as having seven main attractions – the Visitor’s Centre, the Floral (Colour) Garden, an Orchid Boardwalk (the banana orchid is the national flower), a Xerophytic Garden (plants which need little water), a Heritage Garden (sand and a traditional house and yard), a Woodland Trail, and the Children’s Garden. We enjoy a leisurely wander along the mile long woodland trail - rainforest, jagged limestone pools.

Then, through all of the other areas, except the Children’s Garden. The floral garden is indeed bright and attractive, with huge versions of all those plants, marantas, crotons, philodendrons, that we try and grow in pots at home. The two-acre lake, on the edge of a buttonwood swamp is tranquil and a brilliant mirror for the palm trees jutting over it. It’s also home to small Central American turtles called hickatees who paddle over, in the hope of food, give us the once over and then drift off.

But all this is incidental. We’ve come to see the endangered Grand Cayman Blue Iguana. It only lives on this island and the Botanic Gardens run a conservation project. They tell us that 40 of the creatures wander the park and I’m determined to see one. After a quiet start, my wish is granted and several iguanas of various shapes and sizes make themselves known. as does a rare and shy agouti, for five quivering seconds.

It's been a great and contrasting week. Now we’re headed back to Jamaica.

A Very Brief History of Malaysia

  • Malaysia was ruled by various Malay kingdoms, until it became subject to the British Empire, from the eighteenth century on,
  • Malaya was restructured as the Federation of Malaya in 1948 and achieved independence on 31 August 1957.
  • The independent Malaya united with the then British crown colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore, on 16 September 1963, to become Malaysia.
  • In August 1965, Singapore was expelled from the federation and became a separate independent country.
  • The ruling political coalition, Barisan Nasional, has been in power for more than 50 years.

Facts and Factoids

  • Malaysia is a federal connotational monarchy, divided into two regions: Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo's East Malaysia. These are subdivided into thirteen states and three federal territories.
  • Malaysia is a kingdom, but has a unique system where the king is elected every five years from one of the nine existing royal families.
  • The Name Malaysia means 'Land of the Malays', but in fact this is a very diverse population. About half the population is ethnically Malay, with minorities of Chinese, Indians, and indigenous peoples.
  • The country's official language is Malaysian Malay, whilst many people also speak English.
  • The currency of Malaysia is the Ringgit. The word ringgit means "jagged" in Malay, which refers to the jagged edges of Spanish silver dollars that were once used in the region.
  • Malaysia is one of 17 megadiverse countries on Earth. It is estimated that Malaysia contains 20% of the world's animal species. These include the orang utan. They can only be found, in the wild, here and in Indonesia.
  • It's not only the fauna that are diverse. Malaysia is home to the rafflesia, which has the largest flower in the world. It stinks. I can vouch for this - they grew one at Kew Gardens.
  • The Malaysian flag consists of 14 red and white alternating stripes, which represent the 14 states in the country, along with a crescent and 14-point star. The yellow crescent represents Islam, the official religion of the country, while the star symbolises the unity among the states here. It was designed for a competition.
  • Malaysia has numerous traditional (and delicious) foods, but the national dish is Nasi Lemak - fragrant rice which is cooked in coconut milk with pandan leaf.
  • The main exports are are rubber, palm oil, and cocoa. Tea is also grown, in the Cameron Highlands.
  • Malaysians have the highest number of Facebook friends, in the world, on average

What To See in Malaysia?

Malaysia is one of the most developed countries in Asia. A gentle introduction to Asia, a continent where cultural differences can feel overwhelming at first. It's very easy to travel in, most of the signage is in English. and is generally safe. (The FCO advice makes most countries sound highly risky.) As always, look after belongings, there is petty theft, if not much reported violence. Stay aware of the political situation. And note that Islamic insurgents have indulged in kidnappings off the remoter islands of Sabah.

This country is known for its gorgeous beaches, lush forests and historic cities teeming with colonial buildings and ornate temples. Read about my mainland travels here.

Or go to Borneo in search of long houses, stilt villages, coral islands, Mount Kinabalu and the orang utans.

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 café this time, but it still does a buffet. And I can see the Petronas Towers, dominating the skyline, as always, 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. (read about KL and Borneo here) 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, is swathed in haze. This is blamed on the Indonesian forest fires, where they are burning the indigenous trees to plant oil palm oil.

Malacca has a very interesting history. It was first a fishing village and then the location of one of the earliest Malay sultanates. The area was inhabited by Malays and Indians, amongst others and utilised by first the Siamese and then the Chinese, as a trading base. It prospered, in control of major trade routes, especially with Arabia, India and China.

This all changed, when when the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511. Rather than achieving dominion over the network the Portuguese, had instead managed to disrupt it significantly. Malacca changed hands to the Dutch (far more concerned with the east Indies) and then, to the British in 1824, (first by the British East India Company and then as a crown colony). After the dissolution of this crown colony, Malacca (along with Penang) became part of the Malayan Union on 1 April 1946. There are still the remains of the old Portuguese fort to see. The head of state is called the Yang di-Pertua Negeri or Governor, rather than a Sultan. (Great name.)

Exploring Malacca

Malacca City is lovely. More how I had expected China to be. Maybe they are just better at renovating here. The capital of Malacca State is divided by Jonker Street and ornately decorated gates invite us in. Chinatown is also replete with quaint antique shops, merchants’ houses, old craft workshops and a night market.

Then, there are the colourful religious buildings. coexisting peacefully. The seventeenth-century Chinese Cheng Hoon Teng temple has ornate decorations and multiple prayer halls. And the green, three-tiered roof on the eighteenth-century, Kampung Kling Mosque. Not to mention the beautifully decorated trishaws. 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. 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, too. Everything in Malaysia is written in English - most things are very English. It's Asia for beginners. There’s a national day looming 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.

The Cameron Highlands are Malaysia's first real tourist area. The table land is 800-1600 metres above sea level, Named after geologist and explorer, William Cameron the plateau is noted for tea plantations. It's also (relatively) cool and pretty with waterfalls, rivers and lakes.

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. It's Ramadan at the moment, and folk flock round the stalls to buy food treats, after dusk. The newspapers have reported at least one death already from eating like this. 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 for a while and then I spend the rest of the 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, exploring the Mossy Forest. (It's deemed to be the oldest forest in Malaysia -around 200 million years.) 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 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 Story of Jim Thompson

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 his house/museum near Bangkok. An ex-architect, a retired army officer, hotelier, a one-time spy, a silk merchant and a renowned collector of antiques, Time magazine claimed he "almost singlehanded(ly) saved Thailand's vital silk industry from extinction". 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.

Visiting 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 isn’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). I visit the famous BOH plantation for a quick look at the ancient sorting machinery, much to my driver's disgust.

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. This state, part on an island, part on the Malay peninsula, was founded by Captain Francis Light, together, with its capital city of George Town, in 1786. ( His son, William founded Adelaide in Australia). 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, which 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. Light named Georgetown after George III and developed it, as an entrepot, a port for importing and then exporting more or less the same goods. It developed rapidly, but eventually gave way to Singapore, in terms of importance. First impressions are that it is less colourful than Malacca, but I soon realise that’s it’s actually more authentic. It's a really excellent and rewarding place to explore.

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. 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.

Far too many Chinese Temples for me to admire today, beckon. They demonstrate clearly the domination of the Chinese people here. The Goddess of Mercy Temple in Pitt Street, Penang's oldest Tao (and Buddhist) temple (1728), the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Tao Temple, in Armenia Street and the Han Jiang Ancestral Tao Temple, to name just three. One 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. The Khoo Kongsi, with its magnificent gilt decoration, is is the grandest clan temple in the country. It is also. I understand one of the city's major historic attractions My route home takes me past the Christian cemetery. The Chinese name for it is ‘place for people with red hair’

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.

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 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 Batu Ferringhi 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.

Getting to 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, from Penang, 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.

Staying in Langkawi

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.

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 of the macaques 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!

The Road from Brazil to Guyana

Another local bus to visit Guyana - they’re not too uncomfortable - from Venezuela, via Boa Vista in Brazil (which is on a super long road that continues south, all the way to Rio). Over a nifty little river crossover bridge to change us over to driving on the left and then our own chartered bus. We’re supposed to be using local transport, but a bus out here is a bridge too far - to confusingly mix my metaphors.

Iwokrama Rainforest

Then, it’s unpaved roads and even these disappear after a while, as we arrive at the village of Annai, which lies on the edge of the transition zone between the savannah and the Iwokrama Forest Reserve. We just drive through any gaps in the grassland. The village is a mixture of brick and wattle-and-daub cottages, shops, school and church, all thatched with palm fronds and scattered haphazardly around.

Our lodge is a handful of little rondavels up a hillside and a scramble through chickens and flowerbeds to a larger dining room rondavel. The dining room also acts as the stage for local native dancing in the evening – performed in our honour. The children accompanying the dancers are more entertaining, as they loll and romp on the floor, laughing at their costumed parents.

More muddy walks in the rainforest and a trip on the river. Most of the wildlife is in hiding and it’s hard going. My ankle isn’t getting any better.

When it's time to leave we loiter on the edge of the forest (80% of Guyana is covered in rainforest) and our charter bus eventually emerges. The roads are red soil, still unpaved and after much bumping a ferry is involved. It’s another long wait while the bus is perilously edged onto the ‘boat’ – it’s a contraption of wood planks with an engine attached. No roads, no scheduled planes. More ignominious weighing as we embark on light aeroplanes to reach the capital,  Georgetown.

Guyana - in a Nutshell

  • The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle this part of the north coast of South America, but the British seized control in 1796.
  • Guyana became independent in 1966 and this is the only English speaking country and only Commonwealth country in South America.
  • Guyana means 'Land of Many Waters'.

Georgetown, Capital of Guyana

Three nights to visit Georgetown, capital of Guyana.

Georgetown is famous for its colonial architecture, especially the great white wooden cathedral. It’s friendly, relaxing and very Caribbean with a botanical garden to wander round. The latter has ponds, canals, kissing bridges and a bandstand. There’s huge variety of palms to enjoy, as well as a fine collection of tropical flowers: a pond full of lotus in bloom and the immense Victoria Regia Lily, Guyana’s national flower. Surprisingly, there are also manatees lurking below the waterweed, in some overgrown lakes. I can just make out their bulging eyes disturbing the plants as they come up to breathe. It’s a bit creepy - the real life Guyanese  version of the Loch Ness monster.

I’ve decided I should do probably something about my ankle which is now about twice the size of my other, so I take myself off to hospital. It’s the first medical facility we've been near, since I fell on the waterfall in Venezuela over a week ago. I come back in plaster – the doctor says it’s broken, though the X-ray is inconclusive. He insists that the swelling is so bad that it must be ‘something of that nature’. It’s not a very reassuring diagnosis. I’ve got a crutch now, as well. That's not ideal on a pioneering, fairly basic journey.

Our last Georgetown visit is a trip to the vibrant market, complete with huge wooden red-brown clock.

Kaieteur Falls

More weighing, another small aircraft. I’m getting blasé about these now. This time we’re off to Kaieteur Falls. It takes about an hour, the first 10 minutes over cultivated land, and thereafter over the inevitable tropical forest (it covers four fifths of the country)  to a small airstrip at the top of the falls. The pilot does a fly-past first, wobbling the plane over the canyon and right over the edge where the water plummets 226 metres to the boiling pot below. Kaieteur Falls is the world's largest single-drop waterfall by volume. It’s five time higher than Niagara and couldn’t be more different. There's a tiny settlement of three huts, one of which serves as an airport lounge.

This is advertised as an ‘easy walk’, back to the waterfall and I hobble along to the three viewpoints. The first, from the cataracts, gives a face-on view of the falls, stained chestnut brown with tannins. The third viewpoint is right on the very edge of the falls, on a rock platform less than a metre away from the torrent. We are encouraged to inch forward on our bellies if we want to look. I’m opting out - again. There are copses of photogenic giant bromeliads all along the canyon top - minute frogs have set up home in the tiny rain ponds created in the centre of these.

Next stop Suriname

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