From the cool Cameron Highlands we descended to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. KL is a very modern, hectic city with greatly varying districts and incredibly thick, sweaty heat. We quickly found a lovely cheap place to get Indian dosa, and ended up eating there for most of our KL meals.

Our first foray into the city took in Chinatown, which is squeezed around a spine of cheap tourist shopping, and generally left us fairly unimpressed, except for the food and the very interesting Hindu temples. One of these is the starting place for the procession of Thaipussam, a festival where people put large hooks in their bodies and drag heavy objects to nearby Batu caves. Unfortunately, we managed to sleep in and miss the early start required to see the festival, where over a million people gather at the caves.

We enjoyed an almost futuristic monorail ride into the very swish business district of the city, which includes the Petronas towers, not long ago the tallest building in the world and backdrop to part of the greatest cinematic feat of the second millenium, Entrapment. Visiting the walkway between the twin towers is free, but requires sitting through a shoddy 3-d glasses ad for the oil company the towers are named after. Once up, the views are very nice and make the experience worth the effort.

Other highlights of KL include the ultra-clean shopping mall district and the strangely pristine cricket ground with surrounding gardens and world's tallest flagpole. Overall, a pleasant city if you can get to air-conditioning and avoid the worst of the bustle.

Cameron Highlands

After the blistering heat of Penang, we decided to take a journey up into the highlands of central Malaysia, to the Cameron Highlands. Early European settlers made a hill station here, and the "Olde English" feeling still survives, thanks to the Tudor architecture and pretty gardens around the area.

We found ourselves a very pleasant and well-run guesthouse on the top of a hill, with nice flower gardens and excellent facilities for relaxation. We watched movies, played games, and generally relaxed in the delightfully cool climate. We strolled into town a few times, enjoying the architecture, Indian food and peaceful, pretty township. Overall, we didn't do much, but that in itself was the reason we enjoyed it!


After a painless border crossing into Malaysia, our first stop was the bustling island of Penang. We couldn't help but notice the very modern motorways in Malaysia, and the impressively long bridge linking Penang to the mainland. Our first impression was that Malaysia is a very modern country, possibly the most modern we've seen in our travels.

Our second impression is that the sun here is HOT! The air is very warm, and only a little humid, but when the sun is out it really sizzles the skin. Walking around for more than a few minutes carrying our packs is devastatingly hard work.

One interesting aspect of Malaysia is the mixed ethnic groups and religions. There are three primary ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese and Indian. Islam is the primary religion, but there are also healthy doses of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. This means that it is very easy to see diverse places of worship in a small area. Our short walk around Georgetown, the main town in Penang, showed this to be true. We saw a large, impressive mosque, colourful buddhist temples and some rather plain looking churches all on one short street.

One wonderful aspect of the mix of cultures here in Malaysia is the food! Indian stalls are everywhere, and their food is incredibly cheap. Nearly all the food on offer is Southern Indian, which makes a nice contrast to the food we had in Northern India. Chinese food is also prominent, and Malay dishes appear as well. Everywhere we look, there are small restuarants set up on the streets. They provide a wonderful way to try lots of different tasty foods at a very small cost.

We looked in Penang's modern and wonderfully air-conditioned malls, and took the elevator to the top of the tallest building on the island. From here the view was spectacular and we watched the sun set over the beautiful island of Penang.

Krabi Beaches

From the diving paradise of Ko Tao we took a boat/bus/van combination ticket to the island of Koh Lanta on the Western coast of Thailand. The eight hour boat trip was our first overnight sea journey. It was fun but very cramped, with about eighty backpackers wedged like sardines onto communal mattresses.

In Koh Lanta we followed some other backpackers to a cheap resort on the main beach. We found that most of the island consists of large expensive resorts which cater more to holiday-makers than to backpackers. Unimpressed with the atmosphere and expense, we decided to high-tail it after just one night, booking a boat to Railay.

Railay is a series of beaches on the Thai mainland nestled in between jagged limestone cliffs, making it one of the top ten rock climbing places on Earth. The beaches are inaccesible to road vehicles due to the huge cliffs, so long tail boats ferry people around the beaches and back to towns with road access.

We arrived on the main beach at Railay and quickly found ourselves completely out of our price range. The first place we saw didn't offer rooms for less than 10,000 baht, where we were used to paying around 300! After a long trudge in the heat without success, we decided to head to Ton Sai, the beach next to Railay. This beach is only accessible by foot in low tide, and requires a walk over very sharp rocks. Since we were carrying our packs and wearing flip-flops, the walk seemed very treacherous and we were very relieved to arrive safely.

We managed to find a bungalow for a not-too-unreasonable price and relaxed, very tired from our long journey and far too much walking in the tropical heat. The following day we took a dip at the beach, where the water was as warm as a bath thanks to the rocks that are exposed to the sun in low tide.

In the afternoon we joined a snorkeling tour of four of the stunning islands near Railay. This was a wonderful experience, as the sites had generally good visibility and a mind blowing number of fish. We saw schools of literally thousands of small fish, and many varieties of larger fish. We swam into one cave and through another, and swam around small islands looking at beautiful coral and fish along the way.

As the sun was setting we parked on a isolated sand bank between a couple of islands and enjoyed a hearty meal of seafood curry with a few beers. As the sky darkened, we watched bats leave their caves towards the mainland for the night. Then we returned to the boat and had a quick night swim. All of the boat lights were turned off and we plunged into the dark sea. We were astonished to find thousands of luminous green dots surrounding us in the water! These are a variety of microscopic bioluminescent plankton, and they seem to glow when they are disturbed by nearby motion.

The next day we took a boat to Ao Nang, the next beach along from Ton Sai, which is accessible by road and hence far more developed. The beach here was absolutely glorious for swimming, so we spent most of two days in the water perfecting our aquatic gymnastics skills. With our Thai visas running out, we then decided to move south into Malaysia.

Octopus' Garden

From Bangkok we took a cheap overnight bus and a ridiculously freezing boat trip to the northenmost of Southern Thailand's holiday islands, Ko Tao. Ko Tao is famous for scuba diving, as it is surrounded by dive sites with coral reefs and tropical fish, and it is the cheapest place in the world to learn to dive (except for the Maldives). Aside from the diving theme, the island is generally laid back and funky, with lots of resorts and bars on the beach, without being too crowded with tourists.

We managed to land ourselves in a very nice resort with a gorgeous pool for a very reasonable price. After a lot of hard backpacking, we spent our first couple of days just relaxing and dipping in the pool.

After a couple of days we decided that, given how cheap it is here, we might as well learn how to scuba dive. We had not learned many new skills during our travel and this one was very tempting. We did a quick trial session in the pool first, and although is was strange breathing underwater, we didn't feel too awkward. So we signed up for a course and managed to get an instructor just for the two of us, a very friendly Scotsman named Neil.

We did an Open Water course, which allows us to dive down to 18 metres anywhere in the world. During our course we did 4 dives in the ocean near Ko Tao, which was a spectacular experience. We saw all different types of coral, schools of colourful fishes, eels and stingrays. It is amazing just how much is going on in a small space in tropical waters; it's possible to see thousands of fish (of a dozen different varieties) at once! We liked it so much we also did 4 more dives after we finished our course. One problem we encountered was that the seas were occasionally rough and this made our diving boat rock around a little bit more than we were comfortable with! Otherwise, the experience was extremely positive and rewarding.

We spent a few days relaxing on the beaches, which were absolutely lovely. We motorcycled out to one more remote beach which was very quiet and beautifully surrounded by cliffs. The beach near our accomodation was more lively and interesting, with fire-twirlers demonstrating their very impressive skills most nights, and dozens of funky places to have a drink, a meal and watch a movie whilst the sea lapped against the sand in the background.

One day we borrowed some snorkelling gear from the dive shop and swum out a hundred metres from the main beach and we were astounded to see a great deal of interesting fish and coral in water only a couple of metres deep. We saw a group of hundreds of fish of four different varieties frantically buzzing around, eating coral and quickly moving on together. Also, Georgia managed to get a Damsel fish to bite her on the toe, making her scream loudly enough to be easily heard on the beach!

2007 rolled into 2008 whilst we were on Ko Tao, so for New Year's we had a candle lit dinner right on the beach (the waves lapped against the table legs) and then we danced on the beach well into the morning, with fireworks blasting all around. It was a really fun night and great to hear some decent electronic music after hearing nothing but Asian pop for too many months. After ten days, we decided we had better move on or we might get stuck here (our dive instructor came for a short holiday - eight years ago!) Also, the prospect of potentially better weather on the East side of Thailand appealed to us after not once seeing a decent sunset. So, we got a ticket across to Ko Lanta, and left the glorious island of Ko Tao on the night boat.