Sunday, June 30, 2013

Chillin' in Cameron Highlands

In the past few weeks it has been extremely hot and humid here in Penang and that is one of the reasons I haven't posted here in a while. In the oppressive heat and humidity Kevin and myself and our neighbors, Linda and Cheah, traveled to Cameron Highlands for the weekend. We had purchased a special priced weekend package at Strawberry Park Resort in Cameron Highlands through Groupon.

We headed out of Penang early Friday morning trying to avoid the heavy traffic of a later departure. The way there is definitely not an expressway. The road was a narrow winding two lane road with numerous hair pin turns that easily took the drivers' breath away. The scenery, however, was beautiful. The closer we got to Cameron Highlands the heavier the traffic and the more numerous the traffic jams became. Along the way there where quite a few thatched simply built stands where the hill population of Orang Asli sold honey and other hand made crafts. The Orang Asli are the indigenous people of the Malay peninsula who still live in the area. I was fascinated to see them along the way and wished I could learn more about them, but it was difficult to stop along the roadside.

We got stuck a number of times in traffic jams, which added to the time it took to get to our destination. As you approach the hamlets of Cameron Highlands there are a number of attractions, such as tea plantations, bee farms and places selling strawberries and other produce. The problem is that most of these attractions don't have parking lots and many people park along the side of the road and  some idiots simply leave their cars in the middle of the road and walk to the businesses.

When we got to our destination I was a bit disappointed in seeing that the famous strawberry farms were not actually farms, but giant prefabricated greenhouses where the strawberries were grown in  pots and not directly in the soil. The hillsides are plastered with these obscene looking greenhouses, spoiling an otherwise beautiful green view. Another disappointment was that the small kampongs were really filthy, with piles of garbage and trash lining the roads and businesses. None of us wanted to take a chance to go to the bathroom here and certainly we didn't want to eat here. The closer we got to the Strawberry Park Resort the cleaner the area was. We stopped for lunch in a busy little Chinese section of a small town and had a great lunch.

When we finally reached the resort we were relieved and very happy with what we saw. The resort was set way back in the forest from the road, eliminating any traffic noises. The architecture was reminiscent of Alpine resorts in Switzerland. It was surrounded by greenery and beautiful flowers and landscaped gardens. Once we got into our rooms we were amazed to see very large, clean and moderns rooms, with very nice views. There were no fans or air conditioners, which we later realized were not necessary, if you opened the windows. The best aspect of the resort and entire area was the much cooler temperatures. We dined outside at one of the resorts great restaurants and enjoyed wine and cheese on the balcony. For the first time in five years of living in Malaysia I actually wore a light jacket! On Saturday we did a little sight seeing. We went to a tea plantation and small strawberry farm, but there was such huge traffic jams that we decided to give up and return to the resort, where we could relax and enjoy the cool temperatures. We thought we would buy our strawberries and vegetables on the way home on Sunday morning when there was less traffic. We had a wonderful Thai dinner at the resort on Saturday and a fairly good breakfast on Sunday morning.

On our way home we stopped to buy some strawberries that looked big, red and fantastic as well as some nice tomatoes and some honey corn. We bought everything at one stall so as not to waste time and to avoid traffic jams. The ride home was not as bad as the ride there, and took a bit less time. We arrived in the Penang heat and humidity about 4 hours after we left Cameron Highlands. After being in the breezeless heat for an hour it seemed as if we had never left.

I think everyone should make the trip to Cameron Highlands at least once, to say they have been there. The strawberries were sour and tasted nothing like strawberries. The tomatoes were dry and tasteless, as were the peppers we bought. The corn, however, was great. When we got back and talked to people they all said don't go there for the fruit and vegetables, and definitely not the strawberries.  There also is one other point I would like to make about visiting Cameron Highlands and that is the altitude is about a mile up. I suffer from breathing problems and Linda does also and the increased altitude made it a bit difficult to breathe. Just walking up a small incline caused me to stop and catch my breath. I Googled what effects high altitude, even a small increase, could have on people. I discovered that smokers and those with shortness of breath and COPD will have a good deal of difficulty. The other problems may involve trouble sleeping, excessive intestinal gas ( which was no fun), increased urination and dehydration. My breathing returned to normal on the day we left. My research indicates that most people become acclimated to the altitude in just a few days. Other than those problems and the quality of the produce it was nice to cool off, enjoy some good food and drinks and have somebody wait on me.
Strawberry Park Resort entrance

Tea plantation

Tea Plantation

Tea plantation visitors

One of the many traffic jams while shopping. Notice the hairpin turn.

Mushrooms to grow

Strawberries in pots ( a strawberry farm)

Linda and Kevin at Cameron Highlands Resort.

Linda at high tea at Cameron Higlands Resort

Strawberry Park Resort exterior.

Kevin and myself outside our room.

Linda and Cheah outside their room.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Sunday Road Trip

I had a great day this past Sunday, when I accompanied my friend Trevor on a bit of a road trip across the bridge on the main land. The plan was to explore the area around Kuala Sepetang and then have a seafood lunch. No maps were involved. We didn't need a map or tour guide, as Trevor is quite the history buff when it comes to the history or Malaysia.

We left Penang island about 9:30am and headed across the bridge to the mainland. It was quite strange, that for a Sunday morning, there was very little traffic. We followed the signs for Taiping and went off the main road looking for our destination. The scenary was beautiful along the quiet country  roads,  dotted by beautiful old Malay style houses. Along the way we could see charcoal factories, which after fishing in the main commerce of the area.There was an abundance of greenery as far as the eye could see. We finally came to what could be called the center of town, which in the late morning seemed to be quite sleepy. But when we left this became the hub of village activity. There was a welcoming old sign designating the area as Port Weld, which was the former name of the old fishing village. This is the only remnant of the old Port

We walked around the town area and then investigated a few of the docks along the river's edge. Small groups of women were busy in the small shops, adjacent to the docks, seperating cockles and clam shells, that were apparently ground up and sold as fertilizer and poultry feed. Looking for a parking space we almost made the mistake of parking in what appeared to be a parking lot, but was actually an area for drying shrimp and different varieties of fish. We noticed many food stalls selling some tempting looking noodle dishes, but we were here for the famous seafood. Port Weld was the site of the first railroad in Malaysia, but the rails are long gone and we forgot to look for the ruins of the old station that remain.

Finally it was time to eat and we had to decide upon a restaurant. The first place we visited seemed to have only a few fish and no customers so we decided to look elsewhere. We noticed a red roofed restaurant with a second floor dining area overlooking the river and gave this a further look. It had a beautiful view of the river and the mangrove swamps and was sheltered from the sun. There was also no one else there, but they did have quite an array of seafood. As we were both hungry and the time was getting late, we ordered and ate. We soon realized that we were a bit early for lunch, when suddenly the restaurant became quite busy.

We had streamed fish, small clams known as lala, crab, deep fried squid and of course beer. I must now apologize for forgetting to take photos of the wonderful meal, but I did take some of the surroundings. Everything was absolutely delicious and not a morsel of food was wasted. The service was great and the owner was very attentive, even giving us a complementary dessert. While we were finishing our meal a number of people came up to us and asked where we were from and welcomed us to town. Apparently not too many Westerners come here as tourists. What a shame! We sat and finished our beers admiring the mangroves, the fishing boats unloading their catches and the many boats carrying logs to the charcoal factories. Suddenly the weather changed with a thunderstorm arriving from upriver giving us torrential rains all the way back to Penang.

There are many well publicized tourist attractions around Malaysia, but the best spots are those less traveled, which are only a short road trip or two from Penang. I would strongly advise you to ditch the  high end touristy destinations and look for where the real people of Malaysia live and work. You will discover a lot of history and great people. If you are interested in visiting Kuala Sepetang and haveing a great lunch or dinner, the name of the restaurant is Makanan Laut Kang Kao, located at No. 151-A3 River Side. Tel. No. 05-8581335. There are also guided boat trips down the river and to the mangrove swamps. Happy motoring.