Thursday, April 9, 2015

Spectacular Langkawi

Such gorgeous islands with crystal clear sea water and perfect sandy beaches. Langkawi is an archipelago of 104 beautiful islands located in the Andaman sea, 5 of which remain submerged and can be viewed sometimes during low tide. To get there we flew Malindo Air (recommended by a Twitter chat buddy) from the domestic airport in KL called Subang to the main island Pulau Langkawi (Pulau means Island). The ticket price was around INR 1100 (USD 17.6) return per adult and it was an hour's flight.

The stunning Cenang beach

Langkawi is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its stunning geological landscapes such as the numerous geo-parks, caves, mangroves, islands, limestone rocks and fossils that are millions of years old.

While driving around the island, we would come across such gorgeous random white sandy beaches and would stop for clicks. Nature at it's disgustingly stunning best! ;)

Accommodation you will find plenty on the internet for all ranges but I decided to stay at a backpackers hostel recommended by a blogger. It cost us RM 20 by cab from the airport to the hostel. There are dorms available too but that would have been a bit of a bother for Joy so booked an AC double room instead for RM 80 per night. Rooms were very basic with an attached bathroom with no toiletries, a TV (that we never got time to watch), a fridge, a double bed with a soft mattress, and towels were provided. There was a tiny portico in front of every room where you could lie on the hammock, two chairs with a table overlooking the common garden, and even a clothes rack to dry your clothes. The hostel even had a canteen that was open till 11 pm where you could meet visitors from around the world. Very basic but cost effective for those on a budget.

The canteen at the hostel. We hardly ate here because preferred the local meals in the restaurants nearby but it was a nice place to meet other folks, read, collect maps and other guide books and discuss the various tours. Location was fantastic because the main Pantai Cenang main road was just a 5 minute walk and yet this place was quiet in a secluded lane.

Sunset at Cenang beach. Just a 5 minute walk to all the pubs restaurants on this beach from the hostel.

We hired a car from T-Shoppe which has branches all over to explore the island. It cost us RM 110 per day for a small car and that was really convenient and comfortable. You can hire bikes too at RM 30 but for all the beach destinations we visit, Joy and I still can't stand the sultry weather. Petrol is cheap. Don't remember the exact price but we did fill RM 20 worth of gas and drove around almost 12 hrs a day for 2 days. We must have covered the complete island at least 3 times and directions were very easy as road signs were everywhere and we also carried a map. The roads are nice and there is hardly any traffic. Also, the drivers are very disciplined and maintain distance between cars. Didn't see any bumper to bumper traffic even in Kuah Town.

Now about sightseeing. There are many tours that you can go on. Some tours have a pick up and drop from your hotel. You can shop around or check with the hotel because most have a tour desk.

1) Island hopping tour is the most popular. We paid RM 30 per adult. It is a 4 hr tour. A van arrives to pick up all guests from the hotels and there you are taken to the harbour where the trip begins.

The harbour where the island hopping tour begins

Visitors are first taken by boat to the Pulau Dayang Bunting. Once you reach this island, it is a 10-15 minute walk through a forested path that is steep at times to reach the Pregnant Maiden lake. There are monkeys on the way so it's advisable to keep any edibles and water bottles safely in the bags. Don't try to feed the monkeys as some overzealous tourists did despite numerous signs. They can get aggressive and just wouldn't leave them. The Pregnant Maiden lake is a scenic freshwater lake surrounded by mountains. You can swim here or go on a pedal boat ride.

At the Pregnant Maiden Lake

Next, we were taken on a thrilling fast boat ride crossing several islands, and then the boatman stopped for eagle feeding. It was quite a sight watching the eagles swoop to catch the small dead fish thrown into the water. Langkawi's main symbol is a reddish brown eagle. The word Langkawi has been derived out of two local words. 'Lang' which comes from the word 'helang' meaning Eagle, and the word 'kawi' stands for 'reddish brown'. 

To catch an eagle

This huge majestic structure of a reddish brown eagle at the Eagle Square in Kuah town facing the waters at the Jetty, symbolizes Langkawi's deep connection with the birds.

At the end of the island hopping tour, we were taken to the breathtaking Beras Basah island where visitors can again swim in the clear sea waters for an hour. If not interested in swimming, you can lounge in the shade and just relax.

The beach at Beras Basah

2) The mangrove tour is a 6 hour tour and cost us around RM 85 per person. The tour begins at 9 am. Again, all tourists are picked up from their respective hotels and driven to the gorgeous Tanjung Rhu beach where the tour begins.

This was the Tanjung Rhu beach where we boarded our boats for the mangrove tour

This tour was quite an experience and we got a fantastic guide called Wan who regaled us with anecdotes about all the places we visited on this tour to the Kilim Nature Park. It felt like another world compared to our mundane city lives. Spread over an area of 100 sq km, the Kilim Nature Park comprises well-protected green mangrove forests, isolated white beaches and blue lagoons.

It was fascinating learning about the flora and fauna and the natural inhabitants of the forest. We saw swimming monkeys, various eagles, visited the crocodile cave, the stinky bat cave, and even the fish farms in the open sea. The only disappointment was lunch at one of the fish farms which was included in our tour price. We were served soup, salad, fried rice, and chicken nuggets. Most of us were disappointed because we were looking forward to eating fish at a fish farm and not chicken. So I would advise those interested in a fishy meal that you check with your tour guide at the time of booking.

Hole in the Wall fish farm which also has a restaurant serving amazing sea food. You can book with them separately if you want to dine here and they send a boat to pick you up and drop you back.

Swimming monkeys at the mangroves. It's a really tough life for them in these forests because these forests don't produce any fruits. So these monkeys survive on whatever the land provides or rather  the water so mainly fish. Every living being here is either prey or the predator.

Boat ride through the dense mangroves

The crocodile cave

This was the exit from the stinky bat cave to the mangrove forest. We needed flashlights to view the bats on the roof of the cave. Bats are nocturnal animals

3) My favorite was the Sky Cable. Such fantastic views. Tickets are available at RM 35 per adult but I decided to go for the crystal cable cars that cost RM 85 because there are no queues for that and I love the glass bottomed floors.

You enter the oriental village where there are several shops to pick up souvenirs and then reach the base station from where you can purchase the tickets. From the base station, you continue till the middle station where you can get off in the view points and take pictures and then continue to the top station.

View of the Sky Bridge from the cable car

The sky bridge is still in progress as shown in the picture above. However, it is partially opened and there was a long circuitous hazardous climb on steep broken mountain paths to reach this spot. We had to pay RM 5 and sign a form stating that the state government would not be responsible for any accident that may occur during the trek to the sky bridge. I huffed and puffed along with other tourists to reach the sky bridge but the views were so worth it. It was scary standing on the bridge and they had these glass floors installed in several sections to add to the fear factor.

At the Sky Bridge

However, once the sky bridge is complete, which should be in a  month or so, it should be just a 100 meters walk from the top station.

4) Seven Wells Waterfall is near the sky cable station but that involves a trek like everything else so would advise you to go on this trek another day. We drove down early morning and the place was really empty. You have to hike up the steps carved in the mountain and then there is a sign on the right where you need to get off that path and go to view the waterfall. It's through a forest and it was really eerie as we could hear the sound of the animals in the forest and Joy and I were the only ones on that mountain path. Since there were no rains for over 2 months, the waterfall was just a trickle but the natural beauty of the forest and the pools are still worth it. You also have a view of the cable car station from the waterfall. There was no charge for visiting the waterfalls. We just paid RM 2 for the parking.

Over 2000 steps and you are only halfway there and then the jungle dirt trail begins

Then you have to walk back to the point where you took a detour and continue upwards. It's very very tiring. Every place in Malaysia involved so many steps. :) I thought I was done with hiking after Mount Batur in Bali but I was wrong. It was a grueling trek up for half an hour and we thought we had reached the seven wells once we spied a clearing with pools of water. But the sign there said that was the starting point for seven wells and we were only half way there. Phew!

The view of the stationary cable cars from the waterfall was pretty eerie

We were exhausted but decided to give it a try. The jungle path got narrower, the trees were tall and dense and we couldn't see the sky even though it was around 10 am. There were monkey fights and all kinds of creepy crawlies in the jungle so after a 10 minute hike we decided to head back coz we didn't meet any people on that path. And everywhere there were signs saying the state government wasn't responsible for any casualty. :) The waterfall was tiring but that's the easy part. Not too far but the seven wells seemed to be high on the mountains above and would have loved to see the view from there but oh well maybe another time. We were just not prepared for a trek.

Besides the tours, we loved exploring the beaches, driving through random isolated stretches of road, and visiting restaurants and pubs across the island. The cuisine is a mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian food. In the main street areas, you also get a lot of continental food so there's something for every palette including Arabic and Thai.

Pantai Cenang stretch had so many wonderful places to dine and we explored quite a few. Tomato restaurant was one of my favorites. It had the most delicious buffet of my favorite fishy dishes and didn't cost much around RM 15-25 for 2. Joy and I sure have large appetites for two tiny people and considering the amount we walked, instead of losing weight, we gained a few kilos with all that good food. :D

I also loved the Yellow Beach Cafe and The Cliff (which was a little pricey compared to other places but food was great and fantastic views) overlooking the Cenang beach. I think my favorite pub would have to be Naam OMG at the Cenang Mall. They had live music and the singers who were a husband wife duo were so talented and could sing any genre and in so many languages from Arabic to Korean to popular english numbers and even Bollywood. And to top it he played so many musical instruments beautifully, the trumpet, drums, guitar, but I loved the flute. Every night after dinner and drinks at other places, we would head there just for the music before calling it a night.

Lunch at The Cliff which had fabulous views. Crab fried rice, succulent lamb gravy, and roti

Another reason to visit Langkawi is shopping. There are loads of duty free outlets and most stuff here is much cheaper than in KL. We are not much of shoppers but seeing the prices Joy turned into such a shopaholic that we had to buy a suitcase and pay excess baggage to tow all that back home. So much for duty free. ;)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Kuala Lumpur

Another vacation over, another one to plan through the hot summer days. Don't know when that will be but planning keeps me going. Always feel in a state of limbo after a vacation...the memories stay with you awhile till life seeps in and makes me wake up to my reality. :)

So here are some notes from my trip in case you decide to visit Kuala Lumpur. Will cover Langkawi in the next post.

Let me start with the things I loved about KL.

1) The cuisine was delicious and the prices are fantastic. There's something for everyone. We could have a meal with drinks at a posh restaurant somewhere in Pavilion Mall and spend RM 80 to 150 (RM 1 is around INR 18) per meal or choose to dine in the numerous curry houses or food courts  with their delicious beef, lamb, chicken, fish fries and curries and spend RM 15 to 20.

My personal favorite were the curry houses. The aromas whenever we went by those curry houses always made my stomach growl. :) I am a fishy person so dined on ikan (fish) most meals including breakfast.
My staple breakfast diet was roti sardin which cost just around RM 3.

If Indian folks don't want to try the local cuisine, there are plenty of Indian restaurants around serving vegetarian fare but don't know much about those because Joy and I didn't venture there.

2) The skywalks were so convenient and comfortable for pedestrians to get around. There was a skywalk right next to our hotel which we used to get anywhere and everywhere. We could use the skywalk to get to Pavilion Mall right across the street, to get to the monorail station on the opposite side, and even the train station at KLCC, or to Petronas.

On our way back via the skywalk from KLCC 

There are different exits to reach various buildings and points and there are clearly marked signs everywhere. Petronas was just a 10 minute walk away from our hotel using the skywalk. Bonus was that it's air conditioned so you get some relief from the sultry weather outside.

3) We also found the public transport fantastic;the public buses, trains, or monorail that we used to get around whether it was to visit the mall at KL Sentral or for our sightseeing trips in and around KL. Most of these stations were in a mall or lead to a mall so there were plenty of information desks to ask for information in case you got lost. Will write more about the costs later.

Okay so I found the food delicious, people friendly and nice and very helpful, the transportation was comfortable. Now about things that weren't so comfortable. :)  One was the sultry weather. Second were the filthy public loos whether in the malls, restaurants, and even the domestic terminal Subang Airport.

Let's move on to sightseeing in and around KL:

1) Petronas is a landmark in KL. You can view glimpses of these towers from many parts of the city. We were lucky that we were staying just a 10 minute walk from Petronas and this was the place we headed to once we landed and reached our hotel. We had time to kill before our check-in at 12 noon and since we reached at 8 am made sense to head out. I decided to heed the advice of my Twitter travel chat buddy and instead of paying RM 90 per person to go inside the towers as we've seen too many views from Asian high rise buildings, headed to the park opposite Petronas. The park is so well maintained and it was lovely walking around and getting glimpses of different views of the towers.

The night before our trip ended, we did go back to get night shots. They have a musical show at the fountains in front of the towers every day at 9 pm and it was gorgeous to watch.

There were several visitors sitting near the steps in front of Petronas to watch the show but then you have your back to the towers. I would advise visitors to go to the other side of the park where you can click pictures of the dancing fountains with the Petronas as the backdrop.

2) Next were the Batu Caves. We checked in at the hotel after lunch, took a shower, and decided to head to Batu Caves. The guy at the reception gave us a map with instructions how to get to Batu Caves. Since we were at KLCC, we had to first reach KL Sentral that is the hub of all transportation and then take a train to Batu Caves.

Train to Batu Caves from KL Sentral

A 2 minute walk from our hotel over the skywalk and we were at the closest monorail station Raja Chulhan. Bukit Bintang station is also close by but we found the crowd less at Raja Chulhan and preferred it coz we always found seats. We bought our tickets from the kiosk at around RM 2.40 per person, collected our change and the tokens, and off we went to KL Sentral in 10 minutes. When you exit the monorail station, you are right at the KL Sentral mall. From there, you just need to take a few escalators up and down inside the mall before you reach the KTM Komuter counter where you can purchase tickets for Batu Caves. There is an information desk right at the entrance to the mall in case you are lost or need directions. We purchased return tickets for RM 4 and headed downstairs to catch the train. Didn't have to wait long. The train arrived in 5 minutes. A very inexpensive air conditioned ride to and fro. The last station was Batu Caves so we got off there, exited the train station and the entrance to the Batu Caves is right there.

There were no entry fees for Batu Caves so just had to spend on the transportation to get there. We ignored the monkeys and climbed all those steps to the top cave. There is a temple dedicated to Lord Murugan at the topmost cave and once you reach the top of the steps you find hawkers selling KL memorabilia.

3) The last day of our trip, after we got back from Paradise Langkawi, we visited Genting Highlands. The previous night I met my Twitter friend Carole who is travelling the world and volunteering along the way. She decided to join us and decided to have a vote on where to go next based on the cable car ride. Here's her post:

So dawn breaks and we wake up and off we go on that familiar route. We go to KL Sentral by monorail and hope to catch the Genting Highland Bus from there but when we reached the counter they told us the next bus is in 2 hrs. So we decided to take a cab instead. In the prepaid counter, they asked for RM 90 but Carole mentioned that we should take the red taxi outside coz they are cheaper than the blue ones. We got a red taxi for RM 70 and the driver dropped us off at the cable car station. We decided to take the bus back so that we could experience the bus ride. How do I write about different modes of transport if I don't try the bus? :) So we went to the counter got a round trip cable car ticket for RM 12 per adult and a separate counter for bus tickets from Genting Highland back to KL Sentral at RM 4 per person. Quite a steal.

The cable car ride was fantastic and we could see the clouds ahead. The resort ahead was an imposing structure. Once we reached the resort, we looked around and had lunch before heading back. I didn't find anything impressive about the resort. Just another glitzy grand structure with casinos but I think the trip to Genting is worth it for the cable car ride. The view is awesome.

About the flight, it was my first time travelling Air Asia from Hyd to KL and we had no idea that Air Asia has a no free checked in baggage allowance. You are only allowed 7 kgs as carry on baggage and there is a charge for any baggage that you check in. So an adventure ensued with loads of irate passengers at Hyderabad airport and towards the later part of my vacation a string of tweets back and forth since from India they were asking INR 900 per kg. However, in KL they had a fare package of RM 105 for 20 kgs which worked out to around INR 90 per kg. Still wonder why the excessive difference in baggage rates from 2 countries.

My Twitter friend, Carole was charged baggage fares that were more than the flight fares at Kochi airport so it sure seems Air Asia was pissing off a lot of folks. Once I reached India, they did call me and I gave them feedback on their rude customer service and the unfair baggage rates in India compared to the charges in Malaysia so hoping for the best that they resolve these issues and are more transparent, fair, and customer centric. As I conveyed to them, low cost does not necessarily mean bad customer service. Travelled Malindo in Malaysia and Indigo in India. The customer service for both these low cost airlines in two different countries were fantastic and they do offer 15 kgs free baggage allowance.

To visit Malaysia, you need to get a visa prior to travel. We applied at TT Enterprises and we received our passports with the visa stamp within 7 working days. The visa is valid for one year. However, wish more countries offered Indian citizens visa on arrival.

Langkawi was my favorite part of the Malaysia trip. Such gorgeous islands. Will cover Langkawi in the next post.