Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kuala Lumpur

We planned to take a day-time bus from Melaka to the east coast of Malaysia but apparently there isn't a day-time bus anymore (picture a man at a ticket counter waving and yelling "all finished"). So, we decided to take the two-hour bus ride to Kuala Lumpur (KL) and take the night bus from there.

Getting to the bus station in Melaka was somewhat of an ordeal. The public bus that ran near our guest house wouldn't stop for us even though we tried waving it down, but a taxi did (hmmm...coincidence?). The taxi driver drove like a mad-man, honking and passing everyone on both the right and the left. We didn't say that we were in a hurry but he sure drove like we were. (I guess more preparation for the Amazing Race...)

The bus ride to KL was uneventful and our first impressions of the city were that it is super busy and congested and a bit smelly. Similar to Singapore there are malls and markets everywhere, as well as plentiful food stalls. We stowed our bags at the bus station after buying our tickets (and paying a tip to some guy who helped us with our tickets) and did a walking tour of the downtown area.

KL has two main landmarks, the Petronas Towers and the Menara Tower (or KL Tower) so we decided to check out both of them. Here we are in front of the Petronas towers:

The towers, completed in 1998 were the tallest buildings in the world until 2004, although they are still the tallest twin buildings in the world at over 1,400 feet tall. They're an impressive sight. Interestingly, although not at all surprising, the five lowest levels of the towers are a mega-mall of three connected malls. I mean wouldn't it be great to get your Prada purse and Tiffany accessories at the towers?

Shopping is huge here. We thought Singapore had a lot of malls, but I think KL has it beat. There was even an IT Mall of all electronic stores, including one store devoted entirely to Windows Smart Phones.

Now we're off to catch our night bus to the east coast. Our guide book says Internet is sparse and costly there, but I find that hard to believe, as so far Malaysia seems to have more wifi than New Zealand or Australia ever did (hence this extra post today :-)

Here's the full set of pictures that we took cruising around the city today:
Kuala Lumpur

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Melaka, Malaysia

Originally we had a flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur that would have given us five days in Singapore, but after three days, as delightful as they were, we traveled on into Malaysia. We took a bus to the Malaysian border town of Johor Bahru and then caught another bus to the town of Melaka (sometimes spelled Malacca). The border crossing was a breeze; the bus waits for everyone to disembark and go through both Singapore and Malaysian customs before going to the bus station in the center of town. Of course we didn't know the bus would wait so we almost missed it. We were wandering around when the driver yelled at us to get back on.

We had to fight a slew of hagglers trying to sell us stuff when we got off at the bus station, but eventually we found an ATM, got some Malaysian cash (ringgits) and bought a bus ticket to Melaka. We could have booked a bus from Singapore all the way to Melaka, but it would have cost us $22 Singapore dollars ($15 US) each. Instead, the bus to the border was $2 Singapore ($1.50 US) and the Malaysian bus was only 19 ringgits ($5.50 US) each. That works out to be less than half price! Every dollar counts when you're on a budget.

There were only three of us on the bus to Melaka, which would probably under normal conditions take two hours, but instead took four because we stopped every 45 minutes so the driver could have a smoke (lots of smoking here). We also stopped once for food, where we got to try our first Malaysian food. Malaysian food is essentially noodles in various forms; they eat noodles at all meals here. With eggs, with meat, with vegetables, sometimes all three, sometimes as soup, sometimes like pasta. So far we haven't been disappointed. The sauces are spicy, but very tasty. We also saw our first squat toilets (hole in ground with no toilet paper, just water to clean yourself up with) and ubiquitous prayer rooms. Malaysia is an Islamic country (70% of women wear head scarves, but no burquas) and there are public prayer rooms everywhere.

Melaka is a cute town with a long history. Europeans (Portuguese, Dutch and English) used the port as a trading center and the Chinese also ruled here for a time. This church, for example dates from the 1500s:
From Melaka

Melaka is also a very multicultural city. There is a sizeable Chinese population with a large Chinatown. It's also quite modern. There are a couple new malls, including two movie theaters. One of the days while here we saw Sherlock Holmes for only 7 ringgits ($2 USD)! The movie had two sets of subtitles: Chinese and Malay. The movie was a great way to escape from the heat. It's super hot and humid here and we're sweating constantly. Luckily, it's safe to drink the water (and ice) here and there are fruit juice vendors everywhere. At least once a day we stop for cold juice (lime is our favorite), which cost between 1.5 and 2 ringgits (40 or 50 cents). For lunch one day we had lime juices and they cost 3.5 ringgits and I was mad that they overcharged us, but then realized I was mad about roughly 50 cents. A rip-off is still a rip-off, however.

Apart from the movie, we've been mainly walking around, seeing the various sights, and eating. The food, as mentioned, is quite good, and very cheap. Our most expensive meal was at a really awesome satay place where you cook your satays at your table in a personal vat of peanut sauce oil. We stuffed ourselves, including coconut drinks and appetizers and the total bill was 29 ringgits ($8.50 US). Other stuff is cheap as well. Our hostel, with a private room is costing us 25 ringgits ($7.50 US) per night, including free breakfast, coffee or tea and wifi. It's a great deal.
From Melaka

From here we were supposed to go to Kuala Lumpur and couchsurf with some people there. In fact our plans were to leave this morning, but last night we got an e-mail from our couchsurfer saying something came up and she couldn't host us. So instead we stayed another night at this hostel and will tomorrow head over to the East Coast of Malaysia, to the town of Kuala Terrangganu where we hope to then go to the Perhentian Islands. They're supposed to be incredibly beautiful. It's about a nine hour bus ride, and then an hour and half ferry, although we won't be able to take the ferry until the next day. Internet is also supposedly sparse on the islands so check our Spot page for updates of our location if you don't see any newer posts.

Here are the rest of the pictures from Melaka:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Singapore - The Mall City

We kicked off the Asia part of our trip by spending a few days in Singapore. We flew direct from Christchurch to Singapore on Singapore Airlines. It was a fairly uneventful 10 hour flight and customs was a breeze; the customs officer didn't ask any questions before stamping our passports. Of course it was probably so easy because you'd have to be crazy to try anything illegal here. The customs card clearly states that drug trafficking merits the death penalty and I vaguely remembered the American who was caned for defacing public property a few years ago. According to our guide book, it is illegal to chew gum and there are fines for not flushing public toilets. And as we saw on the subway from the airport, it's also illegal to transport durians on the train:

We had no problem abiding by this rule, as durian is an acquired taste (and smell) that we have not acquired yet.

We arranged to stay with a Japanese couchsurfer named Kuni. He works for a travel agency and is a prolific traveler (as well as very busy couchsurfer). He lives in the Little India portion of Singapore which is very central and his condo/studio apartment was very nice with great views of the city:

Even though he has only the one room, he hosted us for three nights and two other American for one of the nights we were there. Additionally, the first night we arrived, he took us over to his friend's apartment where we met some other locals who were also hosting their own couchsurfers. Singapore is a very multi-cultural city; at this party there were people from Singapore, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Panama and the USA and those were just the people that currently live in Singapore. The couchsurfers were one woman from Switzerland and three of us from the USA. We had a great time at the party. We drank several different kinds of sake and we did a "stair climb" up 29 flights of stairs in celebration of one of the couchsurfer's 29th birthday. Here we are lined up before our climb:

Singapore has been a great start to Asia. We found a medical clinic where we received all our inoculations that are recommended for the region and we got our first taste of good, cheap Asian food. The food here is outstanding. There would be no reason to ever cook for yourself here as around every corner is a food court/food mall where you can find any style of food you want for around $3 or $4 US per person. Of course, Singapore also caters to wealthy people so there are fancy places as well, but you can find very good food for little money. Here is a typical looking food court:

Speaking of eating in restaurants, we'd like to give a public thank you to Jaimee's friends Becca and Evan who surprised us with an e-mailed gift certificate to the restaurant Blue Ginger. Apparently Becca found the restaurant on-line and got us a gift certificate to the restaurant. We went there for lunch today and it was excellent. It was such a nice surprise and a very nice restaurant. (Hint: you can find our upcoming locations on our calendar page, but we'll be in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok in the coming weeks :-)

Originally we'd planned on staying here until Saturday, which is when we have a connecting flight on to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. However, we've actually toured around enough that we're moving on tomorrow. We're going to take the bus tomorrow to the town of Melaka on the west coast of Malaysia. We've also booked a room at a guest house there based on the recommendation of one of the American couchsurfers we met. It's going to cost us $7 per night for both of us to stay there. We are definitely glad to be in Asia.

We called Singapore the Mall City because it really is block-to-block full of shopping malls. There are high-end malls selling Prada and Gucci to huge street malls in Chinatown or Little India. We did our fair share of browsing but as we're trying to travel light did not buy anything. But, the energy of Singapore is infectious. Most of the malls are open until really late which is a contrast to New Zealand where even in the touristy sections everything shuts down around 6PM.

Here are the pictures from our short stay in Singapore.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Good-bye New Zealand

Today we leave New Zealand and fly to Singapore. We've spent 65 nights in New Zealand and enjoyed it immensely so it is with a twinge of sadness that we're leaving. However, we're excited to be heading to Singapore and starting our Southeast Asia swing of the trip.

As we mentioned before when we came back to Christchurch from Stewart Island we stayed with couchsurfing superstar Sue. We can't say enough good things about her. She's super generous and hospitable and we were lucky enough to stay with her while she hosted several other people so as a bonus we met some other cool travelers. We already mentioned the couple from Alaska who are biking all around New Zealand, but last night Sue hosted a couple from England who are also on an around-the-world trip. They went from England through Russia, Mongolia, China and now New Zealand and are heading to Australia next. We felt like seasoned travelers because we were able to give them some advice on where to visit in Australia.

Speaking of travel tips, if you ever come to Christchurch, visit during the World Buskers Festival. We spent two days viewing all the performances. And despite the crappy weather we saw all sorts of performers from all over the world. We also caught a late-night comedy show and a night-time fire show.

Here's Mario, Queen of the Circus on top of the World's Strongest Woman:

David from Duo Hoops balancing a bike from the audience on his chin:

And it wouldn't be street theater unless there was a guy on a giant unicycle juggling fire:

The Buskers Festival was a great end to our New Zealand trip and we left Sue with her saying she would come visit us in the US. A note to Aunt Betsy and Uncle Neil: we promised Sue and her daughter Loren cross-country ski lessons so you are forewarned!

Now we're going to catch the bus to the airport where we have a 10 hour flight awaiting us. We'll attempt to check-in with our Spot, but since we know Singapore has weird rules about stuff we might not want to draw attention to ourselves with a big orange GPS.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Stewart Island

After our wonderful week WWOOFing with Ellen and Colin we headed to Stewart Island for a couple nights. It was a bit of an ordeal to get there, as Colin dropped us off in Winton where we caught a bus into Invercargill, then a different bus to Bluff and then an hour ferry to the island. The ferry crossing was pretty rough, but relatively short so we got to Stewart Island mid-morning on Wednesday.

The main town of Oban is a sleepy little village with one main hotel, a small grocery store, a couple of backpacker hostels and a fish and chip shop. After checking into the hostel we wandered down to the library; we love visiting public libraries as there is usually free Internet and the one in Oban didn't disappoint, except that it is only open four hours a week! We felt lucky to be there during one of their four open hours!

Supposedly summer is the peak tourist season but the town didn't seem very overwhelmed with tourists, although the cold, rainy weather might have contributed to the lack of people. We had one full day on the island so we decided that rain or shine we'd go for a hike. Although it rained overnight and was overcast when we started, the weather turned out beautiful. We hiked the beginning of the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand's Great Walks. The trail begins with a walk under a huge chain which represents Steward Island as the anchor of the country.

The full walk is a 36km (22mi) loop with huts along the way. We hiked the portion of it out to Maori Beach. Even though we didn't start that early (9am) we had the beach to ourselves.

Of course, this is a New Zealand beach so we didn't swim, and the sand flies were terrible, but it was quite pretty.

On the way back to took "the long way" back to town and walked around Horseshoe Point where we watched the fog rolling in for the afternoon.

The next day we took the ferry back to Bluff (a much calmer ride), the connector bus to Invercargill and then a long-distance bus up to Christchurch where we are now. We're back staying with Sue and her family where we couchsurfed before. Although Sue only signed up for couchsurfing mid-December she's really jumped on it. She's hosting us, another couple from Alaska and a man from Spain - all at the same time! Sue took us out dancing last night and today we might go pick blueberries with her (although not at Blueberry Bliss - she did stop in there the day we left but doesn't like the picking there because she claims the bushes are really picked over) . We're in Christchurch through Monday. We hope to check out the Busker Festival, although the weather is not cooperating; it's overcast, raining and actually pretty cold (53F).

Here's the link to the full set of Stewart Island pictures:
Stewart Island

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Willing Weeders on Organic Farms

First of all, apologies for the lack of posts this past week. We've been WWOOFing at a place with yet again weak Internet. They had some sort of cellular/usb connection that only worked with their desktop computer so we couldn't connect to upload any pictures. What is it with WWOOFers and poor Internet? If only they'd list that on their profile...

Anyway, after the wonderful few days at Blueberry Bliss we took the bus to Invercargill where our next hosts Colin and Ellen picked us up. Colin and Ellen run a stud sheep farm on about 10 acres with large gardens. Both being around 70 years old they use WWOOFers to do general tasks around the house and garden. Which for us meant weeding!

We also trimmed their hedges and roses and moved some dirt around to fill in some holes to make the mowing easier.

On Saturday we knocked off work early and they took us to the A & P Show (Agricultural and Produce) which was like a County or State Fair back home. It was fun going through the fair with Colin since he'd lived in the town for ages and knew everyone (he introduced us as his "good friends from America"). He even took us to an old-fashioned private club above the grandstands where we had shots of whiskey while looking down over the proceedings in the fair.

The highlight of the fair was the sheep shearing competition. Up to five shearers would be on stage and shear a pre-determined number of sheep per round. Colin loved the competition, and when it came time for the finals he was quite amazed at the line-up. He said, "I reckon you'll never see a line-up of sheep shearers like that again." I reckon he's probably right.

Especially entertaining about the sheep shearing was the commentary by the announcer. He would give a blow by blow account of what was happening. (Example: "Donny Fagan is working around the chin. Look at his form as he goes down the leg.") Also funny was that each shearer had a separate judge who watched over the shearing, because as Colin made clear to us, "it's a test of both speed and quality."

In between rounds of shearing there was also a competition of the wool handlers, the person responsible for clearing the wool away as the sheep are sheared. Who knew competitive sheep shearing was a team effort?

We had a wonderful stay at their house. They treated us like family and we felt very comfortable with them. Most nights we would sit outside on the patio and have a wonderful dinner with great conversation. We feel like we've become good friends with Colin and Ellen and will miss them when we leave.

Now we're off to Stewart Island for a couple nights. We're not sure what we're going to do down there but we come back to the mainland on Friday and head to Christchurch. We've already arranged to stay with Sue again, our previous couchsurfer. Then it's off to Singapore on Monday where through couchsurfing we've arranged to stay with a Japanese man who lives there. Should be interesting...

Here's the full set of pictures from our stay in Winton:

WWOOFing in Winton

Sunday, January 10, 2010

WWOOFing with Blueberries

From our couchsurfing host in Christchurch we got picked up by our WWOOFing hosts. Don picked us up on his way home from his job as an accountant in the city. He took us back to their farm, a five acre blueberry orchard. We had asked them to host because after the bad experience at our last WWOOFing stint we liked what Don and Wendy said at the end of their description in our WWOOFing guide: "Family home where visitors are treated as family members." That sounded exactly like what we had in mind when we first signed up for WWOOFing.

The first thing we did after getting settled in their house was flush birds out of their blueberry orchard. They have a net covering the bushes to keep the birds off, but sometimes birds sneak in through various holes and we marched down the aisles making noises with pots and pans pushing the birds toward one end that Don had temporarily opened. Here's a shot of the orchard with the net on top:

We felt right at home at Blueberry Bliss. Their 21 year old son was also at home on his break from University and we were treated just like family. I enjoyed talking with Don about economics and he even let me borrow a book called Around the World in 80 Trades about a Irish guy who travels around the world trading items from one place to the next. Having the two subjects of travel and economics it was a sure hit with me.

Jaimee was also quite popular with Wendy and her sister, mother and aunt. Whenever she took out her crochet projects, the women would swoon around her admiring her creations (Jaimee's crafts are amazing):

So far the work has been about 95% weeding, but we don't mind at all. We work our four hours and then have the rest of the day off to do whatever. They have bikes for us to borrow and they're also on the bus line into Christchurch. We're really enjoying ourselves and actually wouldn't have minded staying longer. But, we've already arranged for another WWOOFing stay in Invercargill, down in the South of the South Island. We go down there on Wednesday morning.

We've taken some pictures of our stay so far. We'll try to take some more before we leave.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


After our tour of the West Coast of the South Island we took the train across the island to Christchurch. This train trip, called the TranzAlpine is considered one of the "world's great train journeys" or so say the brochures. It was beautiful. The ride went up and over the Southern Alps mountain range and crossed through 18 tunnels, including one that is 8.5 km (5 miles) long - so long that the tunnel has its own air filtration system. We had nice weather for the entire five hour trip.

Once in Christchurch our couchsurfing host Sue came to the train station to pick us up. She even held up a sign that said Asa/Jaimee so she could find us easily. Sue's awesome. She lives about 15 minutes outside Christchurch with her two kids, aged 19 and 17 as well as two other "flat mates". It was a full house, but there was plenty of room and we had fun hanging out with Sue's family. She even took us mountain bike riding on a nearby track where we did a 15km (9 miles) loop.

Christchurch is a very nice city, and as it turns out a sister city of Seattle. (Links from the Seattle side, and Christchurch side.) We like Christchuch much better than Auckland, which is saying a lot since we liked Auckland quite a bit when we visited in November. Christchurch is very outdoor orientated, very laid back and very clean (yes Michelle, I just described something as clean again :-) There also seems to be a pretty vibrant arts and cafe culture with lots of outdoor cafes and restaurants. We even found an excellent vegetarian restaurant for amazing veggie burgers.

From here we're off to WWOOF on a blueberry farm. They have a website with some information about their operation. We'll be there until next Wednesday when we head to the south of the South Island to do even more WWOOFing at a sheep farm. Then, we'll come back to Christchurch on the 23rd to stay with Sue again. We fly out to Singapore on Monday the 25th but we wanted to come back early to Christchurch 1) to visit Sue and her family again since we're having such a good time, and 2) to check out the World Buskers Festival 2010. The festival includes street performers, comedy shows, musical acts, most of it for free. It actually sounds a lot like the Fringe Festival of Edinburgh which Jaimee and I enjoyed very much when we went to Scotland in 2008.

Finally, here are all our photos from Christchurch.


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Instructions on how to comment

I thought since we are still waiting for the rain to stop and have time to kill, I'd post some quick instructions on how comment on the blog. A few people have mentioned to us that they've tried but couldn't figure it out...

We have been receiving nice e-mails from people so don't feel obligated to comment, but if you want, here are the instructions.

If you're on the main blog address, each post has a comment link on the bottom. Click the circled area as shown below:

This brings up the comment page (or if you're already on an individual blog post page, you'll be here already). Type your comment in the provided box, and then most people will want to go to the "Comment as" drop down box and select Anonymous from the list:

Of course, don't forget to say who you are so we know who left the comment. (You can use the other choices on this list if you want, but if you're using these you probably don't need any instructions.) Then select Post Comment. This will bring up a "Word Verification" step:

Type the "word" in the box and select Post Comment again. Simple!

Thanks for reading and keep the e-mails (but not the police) coming!

Waiting out the rain

It is pouring down buckets of rain right now so we're waiting it out at our hostel in Fox Glacier along the West Coast of the South Island. After escaping from Jack's we rented a car in Westport for a tour of the South Island. It's been really fun and we've seen a ton. We won't recount every step of the way, but you can browse through the pictures here:

South Island Roadtrip Part I

One of the highlights for sure was our visit to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. As we mentioned briefly in our New Year's post, we spent two nights at the New Zealand Alpine Club lodge over New Year's. It was windy and cloudy over the mountains for most of our visit, but on the morning we left, Mount Cook was visible:

It's an amazing sight, and then as we were driving away we stopped for more pictures at a viewpoint:

We went to Queenstown for a night, and wow was it packed with tourists. All the hostels were full so we ended up renting a tent for the night and camping at a campground in town. We can't believe how they pack people into the campgrounds here. It's pretty standard to put caravans and tents right next to one another. And it's not cheap! It would have been nice to get out in the backcountry here but we don't really have the right equipment (i.e., no stove, tent) and to stay in a hut costs about 50% more than staying in a hostel.

We're enjoying the West Coast as it's less touristy and when it's not raining (about half the time) the views and walks are great. We also had fun picking up hitchhikers yesterday. We gave a Swiss kid a ride (he was a former UN soldier in Africa) and then we drove these two teenagers across the island. They were doing what they called the "amusing race" where two teams of two were racing around the island only by hitchhiking. Ah, what crazy stuff the NZ youth do! We thought it was funny that they even stopped with us and walked down to a waterfall along the way:

We'll be back in Westport by Tuesday to return the car, then we're taking the TranzAlpine train across the island to Christchurch. It's supposed to be super scenic, and although we've already driven the road across, the train follows a different route.

And, in other news, we've booked our tickets out of New Zealand. We have been watching fares from New Zealand to Southeast Asia and the tickets we bought seem like a good deal. We're flying out of Christchurch on the South Island so we don't have to travel back to Auckland which is good. We fly to Singapore for five nights on January 25, then on to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia on the 30th. You can check our finance and calendar pages for more details. We've already sent out some couchsurfing requests for both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. It actually looks like there are some cool hosts in both places.

Given that we have three more weeks in New Zealand we're going to try and WWOOF one more time before we leave. We have some leads on farms in the south. But if that doesn't work out, we're enjoying being tourists.
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