Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Why the moniker "Into the Mirror"?

It has nothing to do with the Korean psychological thriller of the same name nor the book "Into the Mirror: The Life of Master Spy Robert Hanssen" by Lawrence Schiller. I did not watch the movie and has no interest in it at all nor was I even aware of the book by Schiller. I was thinking about what to name my weblog and "Into the Mirror" just popped into my mind. It was only after I have posted two entries to my journal that, out of curiousity, I did a search and found out that my choice of a name was not as unique as I had hoped. Incidentally, the google search also displayed information about how cylindrical mirror lets you see yourself as others see you. Now that is an interesting idea to attribute to the title. The reflection in the mirror, unlike the person before it, has no pretensions, no vanities of youth . Which is more real?

This journal is written to communicate with friends, old and new. It is also about discovering more of myself. Since as a young boy I was smitten by the beauty of nature and felt an affinity with the jungle, mountain, sea and animals. It was time to return to my yearning for travel and adventure while my osteoarthritis was still in the early stages. The choice to retire at the age of 56, after having worked for 36 years as a Medical Laboratory Technologist, 30 of those years in the Institute for Medical Research, was made with delibration. It was fortunate that I married early and my two sons were already working and the house mortgage and all debts fully paid. So with a modest pension I seek to visit as many places as I could afford, with the objective of reconnecting with nature and friends. Most of my excursions were hiking on jungle trails, challenging myself to reach mountain peaks, letting myself bewitched by the wonders of the seas and backpacking to Asian Countries.

Each journey I ventured on, however short, was regarded by me as an adventure in learning. There was so much to marvel at, so much to learn. These mini adventures affected not only the senses but, more significantly, bestowed a spiritual wellness. On a mountain top, looking out as far as the eye could see, my mind absorbed tranquility. Suspending in neutral bouyancy the silence of the underseas sang a melancholic song of the precariousness of life. A breath of air was never so sweet and a mind never so intense as when I surfaced from submergence after being thrown overboard on a white-water rafting trip.

We take so many things for granted such as clean water, fresh air, love from family, friendship, our sources of income and a safe and secured surrounding that when caught in a situation, however temporarily, without these dependencies, how would we react? By taking a journey into lesser known places, walking secluded trails, living with the most basic amenities, I hope to regain a sense of gratitute for all the blessings I have received.

Much of my entries would be mundane, factual rather than lyrical, to provide useful information to those who might be interested to visit the same places with a limited budget. Hopefully, I might be able to attract some comments from a kindred spirit and together we would look "Into the Mirror" and like what we see.

Postscript 24 May 2006

I came across this poem by Ari Fairy from her blog at http://friendfinder.com/blog/3930/post_24047.html

The theme, "in the mirror" has so many facets, and Ari's poem caused me to wonder...

Mirror images, you and I;
Reversal of fortunes,
Can you see the lie?
Harbinger of fate;
That shadow behind me.
The deeds I’ve done for all my life
Choices I’ve made,
some wrong, some right.
Intrinsic pain
Carved over my features;
Years of hiding from the truth.
Destiny’s blame,
Festering blisters of hate;
My soul you ate.
Faces in the mirror
Drifting ‘cross the glass.
Each one holds a memory
Better than the last.
Each a key component
Of the girl I long to be;
The girl whose face resides
In the mirror in front of me.
Can I face the burden
Of the deeds I’ve caused to be?
A silent, staring sentinel
That shadow seems to be.
If covering the glass
Should cause the pain to lift from me,
Does it expiate the traces
Of the true reality?
Can I walk away and know
I’ve been the best that I can be,
Or must I gaze into the mirror
And face eternity?

- Ari fairy

Monday, March 06, 2006

Hiking up Bkt. Larut (Maxwell Hill) Taiping, 18-19 Feb. 06

18 Feb 06 - Day 1

Travelling companions: Lai Teck Chye & his son, Sam, Loke Eng Wah, Tan & Neal.

12pm. Lunch Teochew Porridge at Lighthouse Sea Food, 10 Jln. Cina, Matang Tel:05-8475408/8475649, h/p 012-4030783.
This restaurant serves very delicious fresh seafood, plenty of prawns but pricey, food bill came to about RM100 for 8 of us.

At a nearby kampung was the jetty to take the boat cruise ride along the coastal mangrove forest.

1.00-1.30pm :
Took off from jetty
Boat ride along coastal mangroves
Visited floating fish farm
Visited Kuala Sangga/Kuala Sepetang traditional fishing village

3.00pm: Visited bakau logging
4.00-4.30pm : Back at jetty
5.00pm: Visited Mr. Chua's charcoal factory at Matang
5.30pm: Kuala Sepetang (Port Weld) for Mee Udang at Malay Stall
6.30pm: Cool down in a 'natural' & fresh mountain water catchment fed swimming pool (about 40 minutes journey). Pool is maintained by the caretakers of the Chinese cemetery nearby.
9.00pm: Dinner at Restaurant Bintang Laut.

Matang Mangrove Forest, 40,151 hectares, is the largest single mangrove fully gazetted forest reserve in Peninsular. About 95% is tidal swamp. Commercial thinnings are carried out when crop attains 15 years and 20 years. Rhizophoraceae species provide 140-200 tonnes of greenwood per hectare. Restocked through artificial planting. Rhizophora apiculata & mucrorata are continuously propagated in Matang. Rhizophora trees average girth 115 cm. total height 28m. Matang mangrove forest is the roosting area of Milky Stork (Myceteria cinerea) population. Supports mammals - smooth otter, leopard cat, wild pig, long-tailed macaque and silver langun.

Industry from mangrove: silviculture - since 1930 & poles production

Stayed the night at Neal & Joyce's house, near the Lake Gardens and Bkt. Larut.

19 Feb 06 - Day 2

7.30am - Breakfast Rota Canai & packed Nasi Lemak for lunch.
8.30am - Started trekking from base along jungle trail.
9.05am - reached end of jungle trail, came to paved jeep road at about 2.5km.
11.10am - reached Beringin height 1012m. temp. 20 deg.C. Time taken for ascend : about 2 hrs. 40 mins.

12pm - Lunch
Tulip nursery at Cendana Hut, Sri Kayangan at 1128m.
Did not join Teck Chai & Wah Loke to Telekom Tower, another 3km. distance away.

2.55pm - Started descend, all the way along paved road.
4.35pm - Reached base. Time taken for descend: 1 hr. 40 mins. Total distance : 20km.

This hike could have been more interesting if the jungle trail were to continue all the way to the summit. The jungle trail came to an end at the 2.7km milestone of the jeep road. For the rest of the way to the summit, another 7.3km, the hiking was on hard paved road. Fortunately, it was not too hot because of the shade provided by the tall trees along both sides of the road. There was another trail which lead to G. Hijau, pointed out by Teck Chai and Eng Wah, which is prominently displayed by a signboard when they were hiking to the Telekom Tower.

We enjoyed the 20km. hile, it was a satisfying trek though not very challenging. The trail to G. Hijau is inviting and awaits us on a return trip.

Boat - RM250
Neal's fees -RM150 (reduced rate).
Food & Transport (carpool) - RM475
Per person - RM175

More photos of this excursion can be seen at:

Further info on the Nest - a rustic private bungalow located more then 1000 metres up on Bkt. Larut

Managed by a caretaker/manager.
Cost for accommodation (bedroom dorms and double beds) and meals (including a BBQ) is RM130 per person + RM5 return per person for the jeep ride.
Check in at 4-5pm on Day 1
Check out at 9-10am on Day 3.

Nice to hold a fun getogether in a cool (colder in the night) and enchantingly forested surroundings.

The Nest has got a nice open-on-one-side dining area with a games room, karaoke facilities and hot shower inside.
The view from the Nest of the mountains, countryside and Taiping town is fascinating while the atmosphere up the hill is serene, calm and peaceful - far from the maddening crowd!

Day 1: BBQ on the 1st night and talk grandfather stories
Day 2: Birdwatching, joywalking, tree and plant identification and identifying medicinal plants.
On both nights we can karaoke away to our hearts content.
Day 3: after we come down to the foothill, swim in one of Taipings many waterfall areas.

Trekking up G. Ansi Sat 4 March 06

After meeting our friends (Lok & his neighbout Uncle Aw, the eldest at 64, three young men, friends of Lok, Tan, Lim and his wife, Wan who runs the W&W Adventure company and his assitance Har Chow who brought along her daughter) at the Nilai R&R for breakfast and to pack our lunch we headed for Kuala Pilah. Our party of 14 reached the Hutan Lipur Ulu Bendol, midway along the winding road to Kuala Pilah, which was our starting base for the hike up to G. Ansi. You cannot miss this recreation area as it is well developed with shops, eateries and a big sign-board fronting the main road, plenty of parking space. On weekends the crowds will be there enjoying the cool mountain streams and small lake. Many families will be picnicking under the cool shade of dense foliage.

We started off at 10.10am. Stanley and Mok, MNS Pathfinders SIG veterans, were our guides, Stanley leading and Mok as "sweeper".

The beginning of the trail, parallel to the stream, was an easy walk along a gentle gradient, unlike the steep climb which we did at the base of G. Datuk. It was only after about 35mins trekking that we begun to encounter steeper gradient. I found the trail to be undulating, up and level off, down a bit and up again. There were a couple of steep climbs, made more difficult that these gradients stretched on quite a fair distance. The less fit among us had to stop a few times to get their breaths. When we were nearly at the summit, less than 25 mins. away, we encountered the most difficult part of the trail. These were 2 short stretches of gully, bare of vegetation due to erosion, of soft earth. We managed to scale up the first with the nylon rope already in place. However, the jute rope at the second gully was worn out and snapped. Our leader, Stanley, was the first up and he had to lend his hand to pull me up. We then took our turns to pull up the rest.

We finally reached the summit at 12.45pm so it took us 2hr. 35mins., a good fast pace. The last of our party, Uncle Aw was accompanied by Har Chow, came about 20mins. later and all of us made it to the top.

We took in the view, on one side was the mountain range as far as the eye can see, on the other, Seremban town with many areas stripped bare for development. We had rather a long lunch break with Stanley boiling water to make Chinese tea. So at 2.05pm we (except Wan, Har Chow & daughter who opted to go back by the same trail) begun the descend by a different trail which would lead us to the old logging path and then down to the paved road, a long distance away from where we parked our cars. The beginning of the descend was quite easy, becoming steeper as we approached the logging path. When we (Stanley, Lok, Tan, Lim & missus & me) were nearly at the bottom we stopped for about 20 mins. to wait for our friends, and then another 10mins. for them to rest when they arrived. We reached the K.Pilah road at 4.35pm and then it was a 2.5km walk along the paved road under the hot sun before we reached our cars at 5.10pm.

We headed for Seremban town where Stanley suggested to have dinner at the restaurant famous for its fish head noodles. It is situated after the Istana and the road which passed by the Armed Forces cantonment. The Chinese restaurant deserved its reputation because the fish head noodles and fish-balls was one of a kind, the soup was simply delicious. We complained that the bowl wasn't large enough even though we ordered large. The next time we should ask for "super-large". The rest of the dishes, deep friend chicken with stuffed fish and vegetables were nothing very special.

It was a wonderful dinner among friends, with much merriment and laughter (and though only uncle Aw complained about his painful toes & blisters from wearing a new pair of shoes - novice trekkers should be advised never to do that- I too felt the ache in my knees.)

I enjoyed the trek and found that the trail was indeed more difficult than climbing G. Datuk even though G. Ansi 826m (2710ft) was slightly lower than G. Datuk at 884m (2900ft.) This trail deserves a return visit, this time we do the reverse - start at the trail by the side of the paved road, opposite the drinks stall, and descend down to the stream at the Lipur Hutan recreation area.

Solo backpacking on Phuket Island 21-25 Feb. 06

Phuket Trip 21-25 Feb 06 (5d/4n)

Phuket is the largest island in Thailand (540 sq. km) with a population of about 280,000 (compare with Penang Island 293 sq.km. population 1.3 million).

Day 1 Tue 21 Feb
Departed KLIA by AirAsia at 12.45pm and arrived Phuket, local time 1.00pm. The flight was actually one hour fifteen minutes but Phuket time zone is one hour earlier than K.L.

The first thing which I did was to pick up the free tourist maps at the Phuket International Airport. Not very useful, as I found out later for directions, but they do highlight the popular areas to visit.

Took about an hour to reach Karon Plaza where I stayed at the Pineapple Guest House, run by an English man Steve and his Thai wife Lek. I was backpacking solo so opted to stay as cheaply (and as comfortably) as I could.

The weather was very hot, temp. above 35 deg.C, it hadn't been raining for several days.

Walked along the streets & beach of Karon which is located between the famous Patong area and Kata beach. Things here are certainly not cheap. Even a 1L. bottled mineral water at the local provision shop costs 18 baht. There are many eateries, all catering for tourists, on average 200 baht for set lunch/dinner. Ala carte prices are similar to K.L. Bkt. Bintang's. A sea food dish is at least 180 baht. Local "Chang" beer is 35 baht for a small bottle, the only thing "cheap".

The cost of living in Phuket is inflated because of the large presence of foreigners (mostly Germans, Swiss, Swedes), they formed more than 95% of the tourists. I noticed a small number of Japanese and met only 2 couples of Malaysians.

Found a few shops where local Thais eat, "chap fang" and noodles cost 60 baht (road-side stalls charge 40 baht). The Thais seemed to eat very little, didn't notice any obese Thais. The noodles they put in a bowl was so meagre that I had to order another round (reminds me of my Cambodia trip). Lipton tea (the only kind they serve) was 20 baht. I think the Thais, like the Kelantanese Malays, consume too much sugar. A popular snack is pancake like our roti canai (but smaller) with extra fillings of bananas or desiccated coconut, done with margarine and topped up with condensed milk AND sugar (price 25 baht).

After lunch, I rented a Honda motorbike to begin my tour. Only an intrepid traveller would venture on a motorbike because the roads are narrow and winds up and down steep gradients because Phuket is an hilly island. The crash helmet I was given was a cheap plastic contraption, like those yellow ones worn by our construction workers. Most locals don't seem to wear crash helmets and it is common to see 3 or 4 on a motorbike. However, thank goodness, the car drivers don't drive as fast as they do in K.L. Even then I witnessed two accidents involving motorbikes and cars on consecutive days, fortunately, no fatalities.

For a solo backpacker to tour Phuket, renting a motorbike is the cheapest option, only 150 baht a day. Transport here is even more expensive than in Bangkok because a cartel (as told by Steve) runs the tuk-tuks and tourist mini-buses and vans. The prices are fixed and exorbitant. I asked a tuk-tuk driver how much to get to Phuket town, about 18km. from Karon, and the reply was 400 baht, no negotiation.

Visited the famous Patong Beach, the "happening place" which is crowded with tourists and jammed with traffic. I did some research and purposely avoided staying here because the place is so noisy. The streets fronting the beach are packed with souvenir shops and small eateries. My choice to stay at Karon was a wise one.

Day 2 Wed 22 Feb
After breakfast, I continued my motorbike tour to Phuket town. This is just a typical Thai town, not very different from Hadyai or Songkla, only a bigger town with more streets.

From Phuket town I headed for the Marine Biological Center Aquarium at the end of Sakdidet Road, Makham Bay, Panwa Cape (extreme south-east region of Phuket). Entrance fee was 100 baht. Typical marine aquarium, I think ours at Berjaya Times Square is far bigger and more interesting.

Next stop to Kata Noi & Kata Main Beach. The resorts here are classy, certainly 4 & 5-stars. However, the beach here is much the same as that at Karon, but much cleaner than our beaches at Langkawi & Redang.

Returned to Karon Plaza and visited the Sunrise Scuba Diving shop. I had wanted to make a day trip to dive at the King Cruiser wreck, Shark Point and Koh Doc Mai. My plan went awry because the dive operators did not accept credit cards, only cash. Later I found out that all the shops, except the 4 & 5-star hotels, refuse to accept credit cards. This put me in a quandary as I only have enough US currency for accommodation & transport. Fortunately, I could still exchange Malaysian ringgit for Thai Baht to pay for food.

So I had to scale down to snorkelling and canoeing for the next couple of days.

Day 3 Thur 23 Feb
Paid 1000 baht for a full day snorkelling trip at Khai islands (inclusive of 2-way transfer by van, bottled mineral water, lunch, snorkelling gear, speed-boat fare & tour-guide).

At 8.10am the van came to pick up passengers, finally arrived at Sinsangrat pier at 9.15am. There were twenty of us with passengers from two other vans. The party was mainly Swiss people with another young Malay couple. We selected and checked out the snorkelling equipment. The gear that was stated in the brochure were mask, snorkel and life-jacket, and sure enough we were asked to pay 100 baht for the use of fins. I thought this was a rip-off and refused to pay. So I snorkelled without fins, it wasn't so bad if you were a fairly good swimmer.

The first island we stopped at was Khai Nui, arriving there about 10am. It was only a small island without a beach so the boat anchored off-shore. There was a nice healthy coral reef, predominantly table and staghorn corals (Acropora genus) and many small fishes, mostly butterfly, angel, damsel, fusiliers, sweetlips and wrasses.

An hour later we departed for Khai Nai Island and landed on the beach. There was scanty vegetation here and if you required shade you had to fork out another 100 baht for a deck-chair and umbrella. The corals near the beach were broken (I suspected by the boat anchors) and you had to swim further out to sea to observe any living corals and fishes. The beach was clean with fine white sand. Not a good place for snorkelling, swimming and relaxing was about all you could enjoy.

At 1.20pm we were taken to Yao Yai island for lunch. The restaurant was a wooden building up on a small hill, quite quaint and rustic. The food (4 different dishes: fresh fish, chicken curry, mixed vegetables, tom-yam soap with prawns) was tasty and just sufficient for the people at my table. When we were about to leave I noticed that on the next table there was plenty of food left. I sat at the wrong table.

The next stop was at Khai Nok island, arriving there at about 3.10pm. This island was even worse for snorkelling than Khai Nai and the water was silty. The only good thing was the clean beach but the sand was too hot to walk bare-feet. I didn't want to pay 100 baht for the deck-chair so spent my time walking around the island snapping photos and had a swim until the sky grew dark and threatening at about 4pm.

The boatman and guide quickly rounded us up before the storm broke. On the way back the rain poured down and the sea became choppy. It lasted only about half an hour much to the relief of those soaking wet and cold. I couldn't help feeling smug because I kept warm and dry; due to previous experience on speed-boats I had come prepared with a disposable poncho.

Reached the pier at 5.15pm. Another disappointment was that we were not given enough time to have a shower with only one bathroom. So most of us got back to the vans with only a change of clothes, our bodies caked with salt. Somehow I felt that 1000 baht was not quite well spent.

Day 4 Fri 24 Feb
A full day canoeing trip to Panak, Hong and James Bond Island cost 1600 baht.

I was the first to be picked up by the minibus at 8.15am. The rest of the passengers in the van were ladies. Another 2 vans came later, the sixteen of us together were escorted to the double-decker boat at the Ao Po Jetty at 9.15am. We headed first for James Bond Island and the boat cruise was calm with beautiful weather and a cool sea breeze. As we approached the group of islands the scenery was enchanting. On the way we had buffet lunch on the upper deck. The lower deck was where the inflated canoes were kept, the kitchen and crew room. The food was well-cooked and tasty, again just barely sufficient for the guests, the only thing left plentiful were the cut pineapples.

We landed at the small jetty on James Bond Island at about 12.30pm and embarked for a walking tour. The interesting rock formation and the view from the low hill provided many memories to treasure. However, the natural ambience of nature's charm was spoilt by the presence of numerous souvenir shops on the only bay. You could cover the small island in half an hour but that would not do justice to the beautiful scenery. It was at times like these that I wished I could fly over the hill tops and dived down to the emerald waters.

We spent just about an hour before we embarked again to Panak and Hong Island. The two islands are situated near to each other. Of the two, Hong Island is bigger and more interesting with its numerous caves. Actually Hong Island is not a single island but made up of numerous limestone formations standing like pinnacles scattered about.

We boarded our canoes, some accommodating three, others four persons. Our canoes went around the islands and into the caves. The tide has to be right otherwise the entrances and exits could not be penetrated. As it was we came when the tide was rather low so the waters were shallow. There was only one canoeist to a canoe and he doubled as a guide. The rest were just lazy passengers soaking up the view. At times the canoeist had to push the canoe because the water was just too shallow (or we were too heavy!)

It was pitch dark inside the cave, the torchlight given one to a canoe was low in power and was only sufficient to light up the canoe in front. The smell was unmistakable guano (bat droppings) but it was too dark to see any bats. The passages through the caves were short and soon we were out and continued our tours around the islands.

Our last place to visit was Naka Island at 3.25pm, another small island with a clean sandy beach though the water was not as clear as I expected. At least there was more vegetation on this island and you could take a nap under the trees. It was time to relax and watch the girls go by in their bikinis.

Less than an hour later and we went on board for the trip back to the jetty which we arrived at about 5pm. It was a calm and uneventful journey. I sat on the front deck and wistfully said goodbye to the beautiful sea and islands.

I enjoyed this trip better than the snorkelling yesterday. The tours around the islands and the caves gave ample opportunities for a shutterbug like me to record his memories for posterity.

Day 5 Sat 25 Feb

Just when I seemed to have arrived it was time to leave. Took my time waking up, no need to rush for breakfast this morning. Leisurely packed my things ready to be picked up by Steve in his car for the airport at 11.15am. I wondered whether there was still time for a traditional Thai massage so at 9.00am I went looking for one which in my opinion gave a better service. Traditional Thai massage parlours were found on every street at Karon, often 2 or even three of them not very far apart. The rate of 200 baht per hour seemed to be fixed. I found the massage parlour with uniformed staff, at least they looked quite professional, but it would open for business at 10am. It was cutting too close to my departure time and I still had to pack my wet stuff hanging out to dry in the bathroom so I decided to go without the massage.

Arrived at the airport at 12.15pm and found a huge crowd waiting to enter the departure hall. The congestion was caused by the security clearance with only one X-ray machine at the door. Steve gave me a tip to enter through the arrival gate instead. Sure enough there was no crowd, I quickly cleared security, took the lift to the floor above which was the departure hall and beat the crowd to the AirAsia counter.

Happily clutching my boarding pass I proceeded to pass through the departure gate but I was politely refused entry because I hadn't paid my departure tax. The counter was conveniently placed next to the gate and also an ATM machine with a queue of customers who, like me, had apparently forgotten this farewell tax and ran out of Thai baht. As for me, the 200 baht for the massage went to pay for the tax. So all ended well for me.

One final note: for those senior citizens who are above 55 years, the cheapest and most comfortable transport to the KLIA is by the KLIA Transit Rail because of senior citizens discount. You pay only RM20 instead of RM35 by using the KLIA Express Rail, the latter does not offer any discounts to senior citizens. Though the Transit Rail makes 3 stops - Bandar Tasik Selatan, Putrajaya & Cyberjaya and Salak Tinggi - the journey only takes 8 extra minutes.

The KLIA Transit ticket counter at KLIA is found on the floor below the domestic departure level. There is an escalator leading directly to it with a prominent sign-board at the passage-way towards the domestic departure hall.

Breakdown of Expenses
4 nights stay at guest-house : RM140
2-way Airport transfer (special rate by Steve) : RM100 (Minibus rate RM20 one way)
1 day motorbike rental RM 15
2 day trips, excursions RM260
Aquarium entrance fees RM 10
Airport departure tax RM 20
Return KLIA Transit fare (senior citizen discount) RM 40
Food & miscellaneous (bottled water, petrol, etc) RM285 (can be reduced by eating roadside "chap fang" & noodles)

Total RM870

RM - Malaysian Ringgit, RM3.8 = USD1.0