The First Five Days
Here is my attempt at describing the latest Pandaw cruise.
Apologies for the grammar in places, some of it was written in real time, other bits in the evening and some next day and the tenses reveal this.
We are not due to travel with Dogster until the end of September, but already we seem to be falling under his influence; more mini dramas in one day than in one week of our normal travels that have now gone on for over 26 years.
We elected to fly Air Asia, well we are not averse to saving money, but the main reason was it was the only airline, or the only combination of airlines, that could get us from Chiang Mai to Kuching in one day. Any other way we would have had to spend a night in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur; neither are favoured destinations.
We made it as far as KL without any real dramas. We booked in on the Web yesterday for both flights. At Chiang Mai that was a waste of time, as we had to join the normal queue anyway, but it was still very quick. We were off on time safely ensconced in seats 1A and 1B and an uneventful flight.
The low cost terminal at KL is a bit of a disaster. They are currently screening everyone for the dreaded flu, which involves filling in a form and then herding everyone together for scanning; if you weren’t suffering from something previously then you would be by the time you got through the screening.
Immigration was very quick for both of us, but overall it was a long process and quite a number of people were turned back. There was no indication of which belt our luggage would be on and naturally, it was on the one that was furthest away.
The Web check in did help in KL, but it would have been a lot better if there had been signs to the baggage drop that was hidden away at one end of the hall.
The departures area is fairly Spartan, the toilets were disgusting and the one ATM machine was out of order. Then came the dreadful announcement, “Air Asia regrets ….”
Eventually our flight was called. There was the normal scrum and when we did get on board out seats had been hijacked by some early arrivals. Clearly the message that Air Asia now allocates seats has not got round. However, they were evicted and we settled down. Then a very agitated former passenger arrived, having discovered that he had lost his Passport. After a thorough search it was found under the Poolsuk’s seat cushion.
The doors were almost closed when a young lad slipped into seat 1C. He almost certainly had no right to it, but I wasn’t going to argue. He was a musician and a nice enough lad despite having his hair in spikes that looked as though they hadn’t been washed for some time. Again not a problem, but every time he turned his head I was in danger of losing an eye unfortunately my right one which is the only one working at the moment, the left having a cataract.
Despite his hair, or maybe because of it, he chatted up the Stewardess in a mixture of English and Malay and appeared to have himself a date for later in the evening.
The flight was a scheduled hour and a half but they turned up the wick and we took less. Air Asia are pledged to pay out if they are more than two hours late and clearly they were determined not to exceed the magic three hours. We landed and the cornering during taxing would have done Mr Button proud, but we made it with two minutes to spare! Curses!
We had another flu form to fill in and then another Immigration inspection, but unlike some reports I have read, we did not have to complete another arrival form.
Fortunately there were plenty of ATMs around. Unfortunately the first I tried announced “Card unreadable” and ejected my card. So I put it in the other way round. It promptly declared “Machine temporary out of Order” and retained my card! Shades of Turkey where my card went down on our first day and we were left to live on our wits for four weeks.
Poolsuk was not having this! She peered at the slot and announced that she could see my card. Luggage was opened, eyelash tweezers produced and with all the skill of a keyhole surgeon she extracted the card! We moved to another ATM which, thoroughly cowered, coughed up some Ringgits.
The taxi was not a problem, a nice ride to the Hilton and from what we could see a nice little town.
The Hilton was very welcoming. Having determined our preferences for beds, the clerk announced that we could have breakfast for an extra payment. Oh no we couldn’t! Breakfast was included in the price, as evidenced by the confirmation. He shook his head in wonder, “How did you get it for such a price?” The marvel of Internet bookings.
The witching hour was approaching and Poolsuk was hungry. Our inevitable rule is never to eat or drink in a hotel if anything else is available. Plenty more was available, a whole street of bars and restaurants. We found one we liked and rolled in. With drinks ordered, Poolsuk pondered the menu at length before ordering a seafood pizza. Ah pizzas were off, it was after midnight. Prawn noodles were produced instead and pronounced more than acceptable. I settled for a Tiger sandwich. That is a pint of Tiger between two other pints.
It is now 1:25 (12:25 at home). Time for bed. Tomorrow, after our complimentary breakfast, we head off to explore Kuching, with Kathie’s report printed out and awarded the status of the Bible.
Just one other small hiccup! Knowing what plugs Pandaw uses I packed all necessary adaptors. The Hilton uses United Kingdom plugs! Oh well I guess we will find an adaptor tomorrow or the hotel will have one.
As I type, another reminder of the Dog, under the glass top of the desk is a notice “Fire Drill every Tuesday at 10:00 a.m.” We will be booked out before then.
So far and it is already mid afternoon, there have been no happenings of the Dogster type. Maybe the purification rite I carried out last night has been successful.
We enjoyed a sleep in and a late breakfast and then around 10:00 went for a walk. We started with the main Cat sculpture; it is unlikely to make the National Gallery, unlikely even to make the Tate Modern. If anything, I was reminded of Tiger Balm Gardens.
The riverfront is a delightful area to walk and was being well used by the local populace, particularly as it is Sunday. We walked down as far as the old Colonial Courthouse where we spent quite a lot of time.
There is a new museum there, very small, devoted to women who have helped develop Sarawak. Having stated the lady’s name and date of birth the next item is “Husband’s name and title”. I wonder if the corresponding museum devoted to men has a similar entry; I suspect not!
Surprisingly two of my country women are featured, more surprisingly I was at University with one of them!
Then we walked through the market area and found ourselves in India Street where in my ignorance I had thought to find an Indian restaurant. No such luck although most things are for sale there. One street vendor tried desperately to sell me Viagra; the price quoted confirmed that they must have been Chinese copies.
We then found another nice old Colonial building which housed the Lebanese Restaurant and we made a note to try it out. Only later did we realise that it was the back of the Courthouse.
Another stroll, a couple of temples and suddenly we were back at the Tua Pek Tong. A quick look at that, sufficient for Poolsuk to pay her respects and we were back at the Hilton by 2:30.
We started out again at 4:00 headed for the Botanical Gardens and the Dewan Suarah observation tower. The tower offers wonderful panoramic views (eat your heart out Eiffel) and we would have liked to have stayed for sunset, but it is in an isolated location and we were on foot.
Accordingly we walked on heading for the Sunday Market. We stopped oat the start of Jalan Nanas to check our navigation and a passing taxi driver stopped and came across to offer advice. He confirmed our position but informed us that the Sunday Market was already closed. So, we decided to walk on to the Magenta for dinner. It was early, but we had skipped lunch.
We arrived just before six and they were still closed but quickly opened for us. For some reason we had both presumed that the food would be Malaysian, so were surprised to be offered mainly Western food. We each ordered a main dish and ordered two side dishes to share. It was far too much food and despite missing lunch we had to admit defeat.
Around 7:30 we started to walk home, taking the long route to and then along the river. When we arrived at the river, although it was barely 8:00, the waterfront was virtually deserted. On reaching the hotel I had intended crossing the road for a couple of beers, but the road was being resealed and there were expanses of soft hot bitumen between us and the bar. Discretion was the better part of valour.
My feet are telling me that I have walked too far today – Poolsuk will have to carry me tomorrow. My camera is telling me that I have two annoying specks on my sensor and I didn’t bring a cleaning set with me. A task for tomorrow. At least I now have the correct plug adaptor.
Once again I found it difficult to sleep. I watched the clock tick away and having decided to get up at 6:30. I woke at 7:45.
The big surprise was that neither my feet nor my legs were aching. Outside the rain lashed down and we decided to spend the morning at museums and to try for the fort and the Astana in the afternoon.
Advice from the Concierge was that the taxi fare to the museum would be between 15 and 20 Ringgits. Our first taxi quoted 10 and Poolsuk was so surprised that she accepted it. It was a very short ride and we were there before ten. It is an interesting little museum, but not worth more than a couple of hours.
Then, despite the rain, we walked into the Botanical Gardens to inspect the rather sorry Hero’s Monument.
Walking back through the museum area we paid a quick visit to the art museum and then continued on to the Riverfront and the Chinese Museum, which was quite interesting but not worth more than thirty minutes.
The rain continued to fall, so it was back to the Hilton for a rest.
Just after three it cleared up and we took a sampan across to Astana, a ride that should have cost 40 sen each, but no change was offered from 1 Ringgit; not that it signified as there was nothing we could have done with 20 sen.
Unfortunately the gardens of the Astana were closed and we were left to walk through the grounds of the new State Parliament, still under construction, to the fort. Just before reaching it we found a memorial and presumably the graves of Brooke’s two English wives.
The fort was under repair but we wandered round and enjoyed some good views. The sign read “Photographs with permission only” but as there was no one but the workmen there we snapped away happily. We then walked down to another pier and took a sampan back to town. The sampans look as though they are being propelled by a single rower standing in the prow and using two long oars. In fact there is a lawn motor engine doing the work. It is started by pulling a rope and stopped by untwisting two wires.
We had a quick look at the shops fronting the riverside and we were back to the hotel by 5:00.
We went across to the Bar we had used on Saturday evening and this time we got our Pizza but also learned that it would be the last as they were closing down at midnight.
We were up at 6:00 and had an early breakfast and at 8:00 we met four of our future cruising companions and headed off to see the Orang-utans.
They were interesting and extremely appealing, although I can’t see how they or their descendents will ever be able to return fully to the wild when they are regularly fed by humans in front of many more humans.
On the way back we stopped at the inevitable tourist trap, in this case a pottery, but there were no sales.
For lunch we wandered down to the Lebanese Restaurant we had noted on Sunday and I had chicken cooked in bamboo. It was quite nice but nothing at all like what I expected. I had thought of something similar to rice cooked in bamboo but this was a soup.
A walk after that confirmed that the Indian Mosque is no more and then we stopped at Standard Chartered Bank to get some money and Poolsuk tried unsuccessfully to change some old one Ringgit coins left over from when we lived in KL for a few months.
We then had a quiet afternoon ahead of our sunset cruise.
The cruise was a great success, most enjoyable and informative. The crew was multi talented; one particular young lady took tickets, distributed food and drinks, collected the plates, danced in three of the “floor shows” and was last sighted doing the washing up. Clearly it was a family affair.
The scenery was very interesting, particularly a view of the Chief Minister’s house; he does not stint himself.
We ate at a very popular restaurant facing the river where the food confirmed my belief that, except for satay, Malaysian cuisine is uninteresting when compared to that of Thailand or China.
We had another early night as an early start is scheduled for Wednesday.
We were up at 6:00 once more after a much better night. Now, on the point of leaving, we have discovered that the best way to sleep is to turn the air conditioning off.
We had no problems with checking out, there were no demands that breakfasts be paid for, not even an enquiry as to whether we had used the mini bar – we must look too canny for that.
Yet another helpful taxi driver got us to the airport and a painless check in. We sailed through security and once seated opposite the boarding gate Poolsuk opened her bag and dragged out a full bottle of water; so much for security.
It is quite a nice little airport, something that I was too tired to appreciate on Saturday evening.
Ah! The Air Asia fitness programme has kicked in. They have moved us from Gate 1 to Gate 9. That doesn’t sound much but it is the best that they could manage as there are only nine gates. Combined with their policy of not using air bridges this comprises their “Keep our passengers fit” campaign.
We are gradually adding to our numbers, another pair of cruise companions have been identified. Like most of us, so far, they are repeat guests.
We are being stalked by teams of nurses, all looking for the dreaded swine flu virus – a particularly nasty name in Islamic Malaysia. Over the past couple of days I have had all of the symptoms, but not at the same time. Like in the hotel, the air conditioning in the airport is vicious, “We have air conditioning for your comfort and you will know it!” It would probably be quite appropriate if I was dressed for a European winter rather than for the tropics.
Apologies to Air Asia, they moved us from gate 1 to an air bridge that they could use to cater for a lady in a wheelchair.
We had a short comfortable flight to Sibu, about twelve of us arrived around the same time and there was a coach there to transfer us to the boat and it was very pleasant to find some familiar faces among the crew.
Lunch followed almost immediately, then there was a welcome dance on the wharf and a short escorted walk around town ending with climbing a seven storey Pagoda built in 1897.
Then, for the first but not the last time, plans started changing and instead of staying moored overnight and heading upstream in the morning, as out itinerary showed, we cast off and headed downstream; mooring around 7:30. We found later that there were three different itineraries in circulation, which didn’t really matter as we followed none of them.
Dinner was Foochow and was perhaps a little ambitious for a new crew on a new boat.
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The First Five Days