A Travellerspoint blog

May 2008

Back to Singapore and Malaysia

Wasting time waiting for camera repair

sunny 30 °C
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After the disaster at Tubbataha, we headed back to Manila, and then flew to Singapore, to hand Alan's brand new camera in for repair, as on top of everything else, it had broken down.

In Singapore, we arrived late at night – so in order to ensure we had a place to sleep, we had booked a room through Hostelworld. This did us no good in the end, as we turned up at the hotel only to have to search the whole place to find the owners – they had not left a key or a note out, even though we had specifically pointed out in the booking that we would arrive at 2 am. When we finally found them, they were rude and angry because we woke them up, and it turned out they did not have the room we had booked, only a dorm was available. When we would not take that, they eventually said we should leave, and we ended up on the street at 2.30. Luckily , Singapore is mostly quite safe, and we caught a taxi to another hotel. They charged by the hour, and were full of prostitutes, but at least it was clean and we got some sleep.

The next day we handed in the camera at the camera shop, to be repaired. They seemed to think it would be covered by the warranty, as it should, since we had not done anything to it beyond normal usage. We then booked a bus ticket to Kuala Lumpur for the next morning, as waiting in Singapore would turn out too expensive.

We arrived back in Kuala Lumpur, and foolishly decided to return to the same hotel, Pondok Lodge, where I got completely eaten by bed bugs last time. We naively thought that they might have dealt with the problem, and when we asked them they indeed said that they had sprayed everything and there were no more bed bugs. Lies. That evening, I was in the bed for half an hour, when the bugs started biting again. We could see them crawling down the walls. Disgusting. So once again, we were on the street at 2 am, after they gave us back the money for the room. We moved to a place next door, Summer’s Guesthouse. The rooms are really small and windowless, but it’s very clean.

While in KL, we went to the Indonesian Embassy to sort out our visas for Indo. We were worried it might be problematic, after the fiasco in Manila. Online, we had only found information about Singapore, where it seems to take several working days. Here, it was a holiday, and so we had to wait a day to hand in the passports. When we did get there, they told us we needed an onward ticket, but that is standard for Indonesia. Once we had that, a copy of the passports and Malaysian visas, and two passport photographs, we could pick up the visa the next day, with no hassle. Apparently, they normally do same day service, but on account of the holiday they were a bit backed up. Next day, we happily returned and collected our passports, now with a 60 day Indonesian visa sticker inside. Excellent. We then went to sort out the Indian visas as well, as we have to get one to go through there on our way to Africa later in the year. Here, there is a five working day approval process first, in which they have to verify your identity with the Indian embassy in your own country. They don’t keep the passports for that, so we set that in motion and headed off for some beach time at Tioman island.

We caught at bus and then a boat, and made it to Tioman. Pulau Tioman is a small island located 32 km off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia in the state of Pahang, and is some 39 km long and 12 km wide. It has eight main villages, the largest and most populous being Kampung Tekek in the north. Yet, the densely forested island is still sparsely inhabited, and mostly covered by jungle. Its the nearest beach escape to KL and Singapore.

We checked into a very simple hut right at the pier on ABC beach – although we later moved a bit down the beach when another hut opened up. It was the school holidays in Malaysia now, so the island was fairly busy. This was not too apparent though, and the place felt relaxed and not at all overrun. We were looking to do some dives, but all the shops wanted $20 US or more per dive, and since there is not much to see we decided to scrap it. So we just relaxed, suntanned a bit on the beach, drank fruit shakes and watched the sun sets.

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This being Malaysia, the island was full of monitor lizards, they were all over. Rummaging through garbage cans, swimming in the small streams, walking down the beach. Some were small, but some were quite large. Always a cool sight.

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On a walk into Tekek village, we also saw trees full of bats – large ones, and right out in the sunlight, just hanging there. Also a very cool sight.

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In many of the trees, there were also somehuge, scary-lloking spiders hanging out.

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Not bad, and we did enjoy it. However, we were both restless from waiting for the camera, and from the fact that we were not supposed to be here at all, but in Indonesia by now. So in the end, we headed back to KL.

Back in KL, we waited for our visa clearance. We just hung out in KL in the meantime, and ate the great food on offer here. Chinese, Indian or Malay (one of the favourite cuisines for both of us), it’s all right there, and then there is so much fresh fruit and juices to choose from for dessert – what more could you ask for?. The real restaurants can easily come up to Western prices, but the street food is unbeatable, and we had mini feasts every day. Alan was especially happy eating the Malay dish beef rendang – and the Chinese duck also went down very well.

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KL is great to me, exactly because of its mixture of different cultures – Indian, Malay and Chinese. Unfortunately, not all its inhabitants seem to fully appreciate this fine mixture – at least, we met one who clearly does not. We were in Chinatown, buying some pirate DVD’s to make the waiting time seem shorter. While we were waiting, a little old Chinese man (Malay Chinese I guess – lived in Malaysia all his life), came up to us to chat, and at first I thought he seemed really nice – asking some standard questions about us etc. He then went on to brag about his grandson, who lives in England, and quoted us exactly how much this grandson earns per year. Great, I thought it was a bit over the top, but a lot of old people can be like that. Then he went on to talk about how KL is great, but there can be many snatch thieves. He then looked at me and said that I did not need to worry about them though. Only if you are dressed nicely will they try to steal from you. Not so subtle insult and I was starting to get slightly annoyed, but none of us said anything, and he just kept on talking. He then said, and I quote: “You can never trust a dark skinned man, they are dangerous people.” I was stunned. I mean, who does he think he is talking to??? Alan then said to him – well, my father is a dark skinned man, and he is very trust worthy in fact. The guy was undeterred – he just said: “Oh, your father is Indian, I am sorry”. Then he went on to talk about how all the Indians came to London in 1947, and how since then, East London has been a horrible place. How when he went to school, you could not throw a piece of paper in the street in London without being fined, and now in East London there is human faeces in the middle of the street. This guy was uncanny – so what, was he indicating that Indian people in East London shit in the streets??? At his point, we had to walk away, and found a different place to wait out the rain. What a depressing encounter – although I decided not to let it take away from my experience of KL in general.

Once the clearance was ready, we went back to finalize the Indian visas. That sorted, and with the news that Alan’s camera was finally ready, we were good to leave Kuala Lumpur and finally head for Indonesia.

On the third of June, after a quick breakfast in KL, we headed off on an early morning bus to Singapore. The bus left at 7 am, took us smoothly through immigration into Singapore. By one in the afternoon, we had some lunch in Singapore, and Alan picked up his camera from the store. Then, we caught a taxi to the ferry port, and bought tickets on a three thirty ferry to Pulau Batam in Indonesia. By 5 pm, we were in Batam, and checked into a hotel. At six we were having dinner in Indonesia. And that is how we did three countries in one day (in 10 hours in fact). Not bad, nice to finally be moving again. The next day, we then caught a flight to Jakarta in Java.

Posted by monkyhands 04:12 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Tubbataha nightmare

Dive live-aboard from hell

storm 29 °C
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We went on a liveaboard diveboat to Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park lies in the middle of the Sulu Sea, around 150km south-east of Puerto Princesa City - capital of the Province of Palawan - the usual jump-off point for visitors and dive boats going to Tubbataha. The reef is composed of two atolls, North and South Reefs. Each reef has a single small islet that protrudes from the water. The atolls are separated by a deep channel 8 kilometers wide.

We did the trip there with a company called Queen Anne divers. The name of the boat is Jinn Sulu. The guy who runs it was a Swiss guy named Urs. He picked us up from the hotel, and took us down to the boat. We loaded all the gear, and met the seven other divers who would be our boat mates for the next seven days, eight nights on board. There were a German couple, two German guys, and three Dutch guys – all great people. We already knew that the boat would be small, as we had seen the pictures on the website – so no surprise there. The living and sleeping conditions were very simple but fine, as this was to be expected. However, I was a bit disappointed with the space set aside for the dive gear and for setting up – there was simply not enough space for the number of divers onboard, and the setting up and taking apart of gear was a cramped and awkward affair. Anyway, we were there for the dive sites, not the boat, so we were ready to make the best of it.

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We then set off for what we were told should be a 16 hour sail, which ended up taking more like 21 hours. Conditions were fairly quiet at set off, but became increasingly rough overnight. I was, of course, sea sick the whole way, as I always am. By lunch time on the 9th, we had made it to the site called Black Rock, which given the conditions, Urs judged to be the most protected mooring. Urs did a briefing, but it was basically just him saying: “Right, it’s a wall dive, you can swim either North or South.” That was it – no description of site, what we could expect to find, and no indication of anyone diving with us to guide the dive. I was quite pissed with that – I mean, sure we were all fairly experienced divers, and we don’t need a babysitter – but none of us have ever dived Tubbataha before, and I rather expected a dive guide to be included in the quite steep price we had paid for the trip. Apparently, this was not the case. Again, we tried to put a positive spin on things and stay optimistic, as we really wanted the trip to work out. We did two dives there on the 9th, and were planning to move again on the 10th to another site. However, as conditions had gotten even worse, and the wind was picking up, we had to stay at Black Rock another day, and so did another three dives here. The diving at Tubbataha is wall diving, with steep coral walls plummeting to dark blue depths. The coral at Black Rock was absolutely beautiful – stunning formations of hard and soft coral. There was also lots of fish life, and we saw some large tuna, schools of jacks, trevally and barracuda, as well as napoleon wrasse, trigger fish and many other kinds. We also spotted lots of turtles, and some white tip reef sharks and nurse sharks. Some of the group also saw black tips, and on one dive we spotted a pair of large marble sting rays.

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As the dive skiff was rather small, and flat bottomed, we had to dive in two groups – the four Germans in one group, and I, Alan and the three Dutch guys in one group. On the third dive on the 10th, we did a lovely drift diving, which yielded some schools of large fish, and even a napoleon wrasse eating a lobster.

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Towards the end we hung out in the current with a small white tip shark. By the time we surfaced, we had drifted to another mooring quite a distance from the boat. We held on to the anchor line of another dive boat moored there, and waited to be picked up. Four of us were at the back, but one Dutch guy was at the front. The waves were not huge, but large enough to bang us around a bit. We all got in the boat, which was rapidly taking in water. When we got round to the front line, it turned out the Dutch guy was caught on the rope with the line from his safety buoy, which had been wrapped thoroughly around his legs by the current. Another Dutch guy and Alan jumped back in, and eventually cut him loose. All back in the boat, with our equipment. But by this time, it was too much for the little skiff, which was taking in wave after wave. It all happened very quickly, and after about two minutes of getting into the boat, it flipped over and we were all thrown out in the water. Luckily I was holding on to my camera at the time, so that was safe. I then had to dive into the water a tiny bit to get at my bcd and cylinder. Alan, with his usual wherewithal, had yelled; “everyone get their gear” just before we went over – but I had reacted too slowly, and my gear was on the other end of the boat. Luckily, it was inflated, and I managed to pull it out from under the boat to use as a flotation device. We treaded water there for a bit, and the nearest dive boat quickly sent their boat out for us. We all got in, but it was the same type of boat, and soon we all had to jump back out. The boat man brought our gear to the dive boat and then two boats picked us up. I, and some of the other guys, lost our fins, because they sink, but other than that, we were all fine, and all the important stuff was saved. By the time they turned the boat over, they even found the weight belts still inside, as they had been tucked in the front.

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This was obviously not a great thing, but it could have been a lot worse, and everything turned out alright. However, I was very miffed with Urs, as it sounded like he was trying to blame us for what happened, which I found quite insulting. If anything he should obviously know better than to load that many divers into the boat in these fairly rough conditions – I believe that’s his job, not ours, to know. Anyway, accidents happen, no point in playing a blame game. After this, I got a bad case of swimmer’s ear on top of it all – and I had to sit out the dives for a day and a half. However, I was not too upset about it, as we were still stuck at Black Rock, and the wind was picking up, causing the visibility to be very low. One of the Dutch guys on the boat was getting quite concerned with the weather, as he was seeing signs that it was getting worse. He asked Urs about the weather forecast – something he did not volunteer any information about during the whole trip. In fact, all information had to be dragged out of him. His response this time was that there were no weather forecasts about Tubbataha, and besides, no one knows what the weather will do. What? We were stunned...

On the 13th, we decided to try for a change of site, and we headed to the north part of the north reef section, the only other part of the reef with some shelter – shelter being an exaggeration at Tubbataha, as it simpy means the reef is breaking the waves a bit, there is no wind protection of any kind. We did one dive there, but Urs was once again irresponsible, and just told us there was no current – which turned out to be false.

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Alan and I managed to make our way back to the boat against the current, but one group got dragged off a bit, and as it was getting dark, it took a while before anyone spotted them – as it was, a fellow diver was the one to see them – Urs did not have any procedure for keeping a look out for divers.

The next day, the 14th, Urs told us in the morning that he had received word that the weather was going to get worse, and so we had to go back. This was received with mixed feelings by us –mostly I think we were all relieved to go back and finish this very unsuccessful trip – but we were also worried, as the boat was quite small – the smallest boat diving Tubbataha I think, and we were unsure exactly how seaworthy it would be in really rough conditions. Urs assured us that it was safe, although it would be an uncomfortable ride – but clearly, our faith in him was rather dim. We then headed off for what would become a 30 hour marathon nightmare of a sail. The boat being slow at best, took absolutely ages to sail in these conditions. The waves got bigger and bigger – 12-15 meters at the worst times. It started raining violently, I mean, really coming down.

And then, the thunder joined in, with lightning striking near the boat several times. At around 2am the moon set and the night was completely black – this was the worst part of the whole trip, as now we could not even see the waves as they were coming at us. All night and most of the next day, we rode up and down in these huge swells – everyone was scared, including us. Some of the guys decided to wear wetsuits and bcd’s as a safety measure, but to be honest, if the boat had gone down I don’t think we would have had much chance. With the waves as huge as they were, and the distance to any land, we would have been in serious trouble. As it were, the boat was tough, and Urs stayed at the wheel the whole 30 hours, steering us safely up and down the waves. We stayed in our tiny cabin the whole way, and had to wedge ourselves in with arms and legs against the walls and ceiling to avoid being thrown around too much. Still, we ended up with bruises on all parts of our bodies from being knocked about. In the end, a on the afternoon of the 15th, we did see land, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

We later heard from other people who had been out at Tubbataha that one boat had lost an engine and that the passengers there had been evacuated to another, larger boat and taken back. One of the Dutch guys had been asking Urs for three days for him to ask another boat to take him on board, and on the very last day, we were all asking to be transferred for safety. Urs just stated that the boat was fully booked – but we learned back in town that he had never radioed them and asked, or they would have taken us onboard. This made us even angrier, as it was as if he was risking our safety just to save face or something. But, we all met up for dinner in Puerto Princesa, and had some beers, and the consensus was to focus on being lucky to be back in one piece and to be safe. We heard that the Superferry, the large ferries that travel between most Philippine islands, had been stopped and evacuated by helicopter, and that a typhoon had passed to the north of Palawan, which was what caused the bad weather. All in all a very humbling experience, and it has certainly taught us to be more critical of any live aboard boat, and especially when going to somewhere as remote and exposed as Tubbataha.

After this ordeal, we headed for Singapore again, via Manila.

Posted by monkyhands 19:10 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Manila to Puerto Princesa

Filipino cities

semi-overcast 30 °C
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After finishing at Stairway, we headed for Manila again. I had booked a room via email at Friendly’s Guesthouse, but it turned out that the booking had been overlooked or forgotten, and at first they claimed to have no rooms. In the end, it sorted itself out though, as other people checked out of the hotel. We had a bunch of practical things to sort out, so we ran back and forth in the city, in order to get it all done. Not as easy as it sounds, because Manila traffic always slows things down. Anyway, in the end we did get our visas renewed, picked up Alan’s dive computer, bought me a new BCD, and booked a flight to Puerto Princesa in Palawan.

Puerto Princesa is the capital of the province of Palawan, which is one of the more remote areas of the Philippines. The island lies off in the westernmost part of the country, sort of floating off by itself – heading for Borneo you could say. Perhaps due to this geographical position, the island is still remote, covered in jungle, and hard to traverse. It is off many travellers radar – although a growing number of tourists come here for the nature, the diving and the superb beaches. Puerto Princesa itself, as a city, is more relaxed than Manila, and feels more like a small town (well, it is a lot smaller I suppose – it has arpund 160.000 inhabitants, against Manila’s over 14 million). Most of the streets have no sidewalks, and are tree lined. Tricycles ply the streets up and down, all day long. The city has more small shops, rather than the large malls of Manila. Little barbers, roast chicken and lechon stalls line the streets. Not exactly pretty, but a lot more charming in my opinion.

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We stayed at a hotel called Moanas, because they had a dive shop on the premises. Needed to do a couple of refresher dives, and test out my new BCD, before heading off for Tubbataha. We did two dives right here in Puerto Princesa bay, and unfortunately they were far from impressive. The first dive had a bit of a current – and the whole group got separated. The divemaster was unable to keep track of anyone, and on top of it all, there was hardly anything to see! Second dive was nicer, in a shallower spot, called Silica I think, with no current at all. The sea floor was covered in soft and hard coral in pretty good condition. However, it was covered in brown silt, and the visibility was very low, which took away from the experience.

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Also, the reef would have to be lucky to last much longer, as the boat we were diving from dropped their anchor right into the reef, crushing coral as the boat pulled on the line. Not great style I must say!

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On the 8th of May, we were picked up at Moana Hotel for a trip on a liveaboard to Tubbataha Reef.

Posted by monkyhands 16:36 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

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