Monday, June 29, 2009

HOME SWEET HOME

1. Just got back home at 9 pm this evening. It was an experience of a life time of 64 days - departed Singapore 27 Apr and back 29 June, completed part 1 of the Asean on Wheels journey in my Pajero with my old friend Sunny Loo, chalked up 14 440 kms, traversed through Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and briefly ventured into Tachileik, Myanmar, and completed 11 border crossings. The Pajero held up very well throughout. Many high moments, thoroughly enjoyable and educational. Still, I am happy to be home, in familiar Singapore. The journey ended at my home in Springleaf Garden but we celebrated over whisky at Sunny's home.

2. Still to complete the blog for the Malaysia leg. Will consider a couple of summary blogs. It will be quite an adjustment to make, to get back to the routine at home. Also, will start researching for Asean on Wheels part 2, through the remaining ASEAN countries of Indonesia, Brunei and Philippine. Not sure about Myanmar though.

3. Thank you all for following our blogs and our journey. Hope you have enjoyed reading them and found something useful in them. Most important of all, thank you for your encouragement and support. They kept our spirits up, especially during trying moments.

Neo Chian
29 June 2009


MALAYSIA

1. Leaving Changlon checkpoint (25 June, Day 60), we travelled south along North-South Highway, E1 towards Georgetown and then turned east along Route 76 on East-West Highway towards Kota Bahru. The E-W highway was built in the 70s to link Kota Bahru to the west. It was also a move to flush out the communists by cutting their area of ops into 2 halves and enabling security operations to be effectively carried out along the highway. Winding up and down the forest-covered mountains, it was not possible to achieve high travel speed even though the road was very good except for some stretches which were under repair.

2. Very soon, we realised that we could only reach Kota Bahru after dark, possibly after 10. At dusk, the road brought us to Tasik Temenggor (a big artificial lake formed by damming of the rivers for a hydropower project) and the long bridge spanning over to Pulau Banding and we were expecting to see some beautiful scenery. The scenery was captivating. We were even more delighted to see Belum Rainforest Resort after crossing the bridge. On the near bank, there was a resort under construction and an army camp. We decided to detour to see the resort. Neatly tucked into the forest and tastefully designed with the use of natural materials, we loved it and we unanimously agreed that we should spend the night here and continue the journey to Kota Bahru the next day. We checked in at 180 Ringgits a night. The resort marketed itself as an eco-tourism destination, a gateway to nature. Activities here could include trekking, boat tour to see Orang Asli village, fishing, bamboo rafting, canoeing etc. Opened in July 08, some sections were still work in progress. With 80 rooms, it has the ability to host small and medium sized groups. Took an early morning walk along the bridge the next morning (26 June, Day 61). Across the calm water, the mountains were still covered with mist. After breakfast, we decided to try bamboo rafting. As we were expected to get wet, we did not bring our cameras. Essentially, they were rafts made of 5-6 10 metre long bamboos tied together, and splitting ourselves into 2 rafts, we rowed with oars that were really bamboos sliced into halves. I supposed this was about survival skills, making use of natural materials that were readily available in the jungles to perform a particular function. Slowly and steadily we rowed to the far bank and back; 2 hrs of good exercise and fun. And of course, we jumped into the water and had a dip.

3. We were on the road again at 12 pm. Had a late lunch along the way, we pressed ahead to Kota Bahru. Reached there at about 4 pm but were surprised to find the town unusually quiet. We then realised that it was Friday, and its a weekend here in Kelantan. We decided to press on and find a beach resort along the beach of Trengganu to spend the night. We were in for a shock. The better hotels that we checked were fully booked out. In our 60 days of travel, this was the first time that we were faced with this tight hotel situation. Our method of travel was clearly not suited for such a situation. We kept moving in the direction of Kuantan and tried our luck with the hotels. We checked out Tg Jara, a resort I stayed 20 years ago, and was quoted US$350 a night. They must have upgraded and now charged rates that we could hardly afford. We moved on. By 10, we were getting very anxious. At about 11, we found Holiday Villas at Cherating, which looked fairly good at night. It was also fully booked less one apartment with 2 rooms. We took it at 500 Ringgits (i.e. 250 Ringgits per room) but was disappointed with the state of maintenance. We had to use our body weight to close or open the door to the apartment. It was hard to sleep with the aircons making clicking noise the whole night. Toilet bowls were dirty when we arrived. At breakfast the next day, I could see groups of people in police uniforms and on the beach groups of people wearing University of Malaya T-shirt. It looked like Tourism Malaysia's cuti-cuti (domestic tourism) programme was yielding fruits.

4. After breakfast (27 June, Day 62), we checked out to try our luck at Kuantan Hyatt Regency which Sunny and his family stayed 20 years ago. It was also packed and only Club Rooms were available. We checked in for about 580 Ringgits a night. We extended the stay by another day with a seaview, which was not an issue as many had checked out on Sunday. In the carpark, we saw many Singapore cars. A mere 4-5 hours from Singapore, it remains a popular destination with Singaporeans. When our kids were young, we used to take them to Kuantan too, mostly during their June school holidays, for a number of years. We loved the beach and the pools at the hotel. Sunny said that Hyatt had added a new wing and another pool.

5. Woke up at about 6 am (28 June, Day 63) to see sunrise. Sun started to appear at the horizon at 7.10, though there was already light at the beach from 6+. We were not alone as there were many others who also rose early to see sunrise, quite a few of them with cameras in hand ready to take pictures. Beside Hyatt Regency, we could see the former Merlin Hotel been abandoned. On one side were a 2-3 blocks of half-completed buildings which clearly had been there for quite a while. We stayed in Merlin more than 20 years ago. Strolling outside the hotel later in the day, we could see more restaurants and shops and the area was crowded with locals, possibly because it was a weekend. At the end of the bay, there is now a boardwalk erected above the rocks linking the beach in the other bay. I could see that more locals were turning up at Tg Chempedak to enjoy themselves at one end of the bay, without affecting the privacy of the beach at Hyatt.

6. The 2 days at Hyatt Regency Kuantan was really just lazing around - went into town for some local food, had 2 sessions of massage at a spa near the hotel, getting wet in the pool and in the sea, some sun-tanning, and catching up with blogs. We had to pay for internet connection but we were happy to pay as quality was good.

7. Monday morning, 29 June (Day 64), we checked out at about 11 am and taking the coastal road, we headed for Singapore. Along the way, we stopped for durian break. Durians were excellent. They now called them 101, for the very good durians. I still thought D24 was the best but was told that I was out of date. After Pekan, we saw some beautiful beaches not far from the road, as the road hugs the coastline travelling south. There were groups of people at the beaches, next to their cars. We were tempted to make a stop. Vacillating over where to stop for a late lunch, we decided to stop at a beach north of Kuala Rompin and cooked ourselves maggie mee for lunch at the beach instead. All agreed that it would be fun. We took turns to cook. Must say that maggie mee never tasted so good. The ladies picked sea shells while I took a dip in the sea. After packing up, we were on the road again at about 3.30, after spending 2 hrs at the beach.

8. Travelling south, we passed Endau, Mersing and Kota Tinggi as we got nearer to Johore Bahru (JB). It was raining and it disrupted our plan to stop for a break and to buy durians. Traffic was heavy in Ulu Tiram, as we approached JB. In our GPS, we were glad to see the map of Singapore appearing for the first time in the last 60 days or so, with the chequered flag set for my house in Springleaf Garden. We decided to have dinner at Taman Sentosa in JB before heading home. We arrived at the JB immigration at about 8.30 and we were done at the Singapore immigration/customs before 8.45. Taking Seletar Expressway, we were home by 9 pm.

9. Home sweet home.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

TO SADAO, AND MALAYSIA

1. After Ayuthaya, we were into the last leg of the Asean on Wheels (Indochina countries) journey. Departing Ayuthaya on 19 June, Day 54, we had to be in Phuket 21 June, Day 56 in order to pick up our wives at Phuket airport the following day. After a 2 days break in Phuket, we planned to stay a night in Krabi or Hatyai and at Kota Bahru and then travel south along the east coast of peninsula Malaysia. In all my years, I had not travelled beyond Dungun in Trengganu. The last time I was in Dungun was some 20 years ago when my family of 5 stayed at Tg Jara resort to watch turtles lay eggs. We hoped to stay 2 nights in Kuantan before heading home. We should be on target to reach home before end June (ie 30 June, Day 65).

2. On the way south, we planned to play golf at Rose Garden Golf Club before heading further south. Sunny played there some years ago and like the course. I last played there about 20 years ago when, as a brigade commander, I was in Thailand to supervise a battalion exercise in Kanchanaburi and on the way out stayed a night near the course before boarding the plane home. I liked the many different coloured roses at the course and the flawless condition of the course. At that time, it was graded one of the best courses in Asia. We reached it late morning, but the 72 holes course was closed for a tournament. With 72 holes, we never expected there would be problem playing.

3. We decided to head south and shoot for Hua Hin. With about 100 km to go, we reckoned that we could reach there in time for a golf game in the afternoon. And we did, reaching there at about 2 pm. After paying the green fees and rushing to the ATM at nearby market to get some cash for the caddy fees we were quickly at the tee box ready for the game. With buggy, we were confident we could finish by 6 pm, before dark. Royal Hua Hin is the first golf course in Thailand. I last played there in 94 when I attended the small arms shooting competition hosted by Thailand in Hua Hin. Interestingly, one has to cross a railway track to get to the club house. Next to it there is a beautiful railway station. I played pretty badly, losing to Sunny by 2 holes.

4. After washing up at the club house and some scouting we checked into Fresh Inn Hotel, opposite Hilton, at 900 bahts a night. The last time we were in Hua Hin it was packed, really because it was a Labour Day long weekend. We avoided it and stayed at Cha-am instead. This time round, it was not so bad. There were some tourists but the crowd was thin. Walking the lanes after dinner, we saw that many restaurants were pitifully quiet. After breakfast the following morning, we took a stroll along the beach. It was about 10 and locals started to arrive at the beach, but the deck chairs were mostly empty. Saw a woman harvesting oysters. It was hard work. What she took many minutes to gather, we finished the oyster omelette in a few mouthfuls.

5. After leaving Hua Hin, we travelled south along Highway 4. At Chumporn, we decided to continue along 4 and head for Ranong, a route we did not take earlier when we were on the way up. After Chumporn, Highway 4 narrows to one lane either way, still very good road, winding initially as the road goes up and down the mountains. For a 30-40 km stretch, the road hugs a river that separates Thailand and Myanmar. Outside Ranong, we decided to take a break and head for the coast. We spent a few minutes at a seafood restaurant along the coast looking to the hills of Myanmar. We could see 4 temples on the hill slopes. The view reminded me of Raffles Marina on the western end of Singapore, looking to the Straits of Johore and the hills of Johore. There is a border crossing at Ranong, probably for locals only. We also saw a port. Passing through Ranong at about 5, we decided to move on as the hotels there did not appeal to us. We reckoned we could get a good hotel at good rate at Khao Lak. After some hard driving by Sunny, we got to Khao Lak at about 8 pm and checked into Chong Fa Resort for 1600 bahts. Its a beautiful boutique hotel, about 40 rooms, next the beach. Other than us, 2 other rooms were occupied. After breakfast the next day, Sunny went fishing while I took a dip at the pool. As internet service was poor, we decided to check out before lunch and move to Phuket.

6. At about 100 km away, we arrived at Phuket in early afternoon and dropped into Blue Lagoon Golf Club to check up the rate for a golf game there. At more than 3000 bahts a head for green fee, club rentals etc, even for weekdays, we decided to give golf there a miss. As we have to pick up the wives at the airport the next day, we decided to scout for hotels in Nai Yang beach. Its a buzzy beach, but we could not find a hotel that fit our requirements. They were either not appealing or too costly. We next proceeded to Nai Thon beach. After checking out a couple of hotels there, we were very happy to settle for Naithonburi Resort for 1500 bahts. Its a 222 room resort with a good size pool. We enjoyed having a water massage standing under the water sprouted out by the 5 elephants around the pool. Including breakfast, it was really good value for money. More importantly, we found the staff there very friendly, very service oriented. Whatever problems we had, they were attended to very promptly. In particular, we were grateful to Mrs Nong, the front desk manager, who helped make our stay there an unforgetable experience. Here, you see Sunny relaxing over a Whisky at the bar in the hotel.

7. We spent a good part of next morning, 22 June (Day 57), sorting out our luggage boxes and putting 3 up on the roof rack of the car in order to make space for the 2 wives on the back seat. Its packed, but we were happy with the outcome. At 12, we left the hotel but thats after Sunny told Mrs Nong that we might be back the day after with our wives. After doing a "tour" of Laguna and giving up trying to get into the golf course there, we had a quick lunch nearby and then went to the airport to pick up our wives, Gemma and Li Hoon. We got there at 2.15, about just in time to greet them as they came out of the arrival hall.

8. Leaving the airport, we headed south for Mangosteen Resort which is located at the southern end of Phuket island. Our wives had booked a 2 night stay there. Its a small boutique hotel, quite tastefully designed, resort style, with a small nice pool to relax, and rooms spread out over a small hill. However, it is quite a distance from the beach. Unfortunately, no internet in the room, contrary to our expectation. That night, we drove to Patong Beach for dinner. Patong beach was more developed than ever, more hotels and more shops, huge tourism capacity. As internet was important to us, we decided to check out of Mangosteen and returned to Naithonburi Resort, as we needed to catch up on our blogs. On the way there, by strong demand, we stopped at Premium Outlets for some retail therapy.

9. At Phuket, it was more eating, esp durians, more massage, more blogging and generally more relaxing. We had a good open air massage at Nai Yang beach for 200 bahts each by experienced elderly ladies. We bought a couple of durians at Nai Yang beach open market and ate them in the car park of the hotel that was good enough to last beyond normal dinner time. Sunny is an expert in buying durians. The next day, 24 June (Day 59), we took a few pictures at Nai Thon beach before leaving for Hatyai. As it was SW monsoon period, the waves were strong, making it unsuitable for swimming in the sea.

10. After lunch at Krabi, we arrived at Hatyai (on the way, we saw an elephant taking a ride in a truck) at about 5+ pm and after checking up a couple of hotels, checked into Regency Hotel for 920 bahts for a deluxe room. At 26 storeys, it is one of the highest in Hatyai. That night, we had dinner at the street stalls outside the hotel. Cheng Tng was especially good, 50 bahts a bowl. We wished we had bought a couple of packets, put them in the fridge for consumption the following day. The street outside the hotel was already alive when we went out for breakfast the next day. Roadside stalls were already selling their goods. We had pork ribs soup while a moustached cowboy tried to sell us bird toys. video

11. After another massage and a bowl of bird nest soup we left for Sadao. Its 25 June, Day 60. On the way, we gave the car a good wash up. It was sparkling clean when we reached Sadao. After lunch at Sadao, we proceeded to clear immigration and customs. Very very smooth. On the car customs form, I signed off and the completed form taken away. Our Carnet was stamped and endorsed, and counterfoil kept by Thai Customs. We were all clear to leave Thailand. Immigration on the Malaysian was a breeze. Soon, we were on the road along the East-West Highway to Kota Bahru.

12. Originally, we were hoping to cross into Malaysia at Sg Kolok, as it was a more direct way to Kota Bahru. But, given the renewed unrest in the Patani/Yala area, we decided to change our plan to go by Sadao instead.