Sunday, 26 January 2014

Destination: Perlis, Malaysia (Part 3: Exploring the Caves... and a Secret Garden)

Location: Gua Kelam

Gua Kelam literally means The Dark Caves (or The Cave of Darkness, as written on one signboard in the area). Gua Kelam is further north, and you will be driving through remote territories. I didn’t encounter many cars on the way there. With no help from the GPS, I just followed the signboard that says Kaki Bukit, the town where Gua Kelam is situated. As long as I can still see the signboard or the mile stones that stated “Gua Kelam”, I know I’m on the right track.
Historically, the area used to have tin mines, and there were remote villages separated from each other by limestone hills. Gua Kelam, which is a natural cave believed to be formed by the stream underneath, were discovered connecting the separated towns. Boardwalks were then build inside the caves, and Gua Kelam functioned as the main route for villagers, apart from being used to transport tin ores.
Entrance fee is just RM 1, and you can enjoy all the fascinating geological formations inside the million-years old cave. Coloured lights added more dramatic effects on the formations. Here are oh-so-many pictures I took inside the cave (I particularly enjoy appreciating the beauty of cave interiors, FYI). Sorry some pictures are a bit shaky!

This one: do you see a hawk or a tortoise head with its mouth wide open?

And this one - what do you see?
Halfway through the cave, I came across a group of local men holding plastic buckets underneath a few stalactites. Obviously, they were collecting the water dripping from the stalactites. Curious, I asked them what they were up to. According to the men, it is believed that the water can heal victims of black magic. Intriguing, huh?
These two men are collecting cave waters to sell to traditional healers.

FOOT NOTE: Traditionally, the Malays believed that some people use black magic to cause devastation to the lives of others, typically their rivals or enemies. If they succeeded, the victim usually succumbed to a mysterious illness in which the conventional doctor will never be able to diagnose. For example, the victim might claim that they got the fever because they felt so cold, but when checked by a doctor, the victim’s body temperature is actually normal. Other ‘symptoms’ usually mentioned when somebody is hit by black magic is that they will start to cough and vomit blood (which can sometimes contain sharp items like small knives or daggers too). Back to the men in the caves, they were claiming that water sourced from a cave can heal victims of black magic.
I then left the men and continued my walk. I found many more interesting formations, one of it shaped like a traditional Malay drum called gendang (according to my eyes). Another formation resembled the Pamukkale hot water pools in Turkey, but of a smaller scale. Interestingly, when I look close enough at the surface of the structure, I realized that it actually glitters.
This formation looks like the Malaysian 'gendang'.

I think this one has a resemblance to the Pamukkale hot springs.

This formation seems to sparkle and glitter in the dark.

A close-up of the glittering and sparkling surface.. I tried my best to capture it!

Finally I arrived at an opening, which meant that I have arrived at the other side of Gua Kelam. I saw the signboard stating “Secret Garden, Gua Kelam”. Lush greenery met my eyes. Rolling limestone hills. And crystal clear waters. Everything is unpolluted, though the gardens are not 100% natural. No need to say more, just look at these pictures and it will tell you how beautiful the place is:

This staircase (pictured on right) leads to another cave which must be explored with a guide.

Failing to resist the clear waters, I carefully tiptoed to the edge of the pool to dip my feet. Unfortunately, the rocks by the banks were very slippery that I fell down into the (luckily) shallow water. I got my underside thumped on the slippery rocks first, and my right ankle hit the hard pebbles underwater. Ouch!
I strolled around the area for quite a distance and realized that in order to get back to my car, I have to cross through the cave once again because the two sides of the caves are separated after all. And so my Gua Kelam exploration ended with a bruised ankle and a soiled t-shirt.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Destination: Perlis, Malaysia (Part 2: The Story of an 'Unfruitful' Trip)

Location: Taman Anggur Perlis & Harumanis Mango Plantation

As soon as I arrived at Perlis' capital city Arau, I quickly rent a car to drive through the northern state. For me, driving through Perlis is easy! Apart from the signboards, the state is also small enough that you WILL find your way somehow.
My first destination was the grape plantations (Taman Anggur Perlis) which I visited just a month ago. Now that I’m driving myself, I got the opportunity to test my memory in recalling the road to that place. So how to reach Taman Anggur Perlis? It’s easy: just follow the signboard to the Snake and Reptile Farm (Taman Ular), or any signboard leading to Batu Pahat. When the Harumanis Mango Plantation is in sight (at your right), stop following the Snake Farm signboard. Just go straight on; the grape plantation is just ahead, on your left.

The panorama around the grape plantation is absolutely gorgeous, with rolling hills and lush greeneries.
Unfortunately, I was not in luck because the grapes on the trees are not yet available for picking. If you are lucky you can experience harvesting some grapes here, at a certain price.

Oh, look at those beautiful grapes! And why, oh why, are you not available for harvest when I came? Sigh..
So I took to the wheel again and stopped at the Harumanis Mango Plantation, only to discover that the Harumanis mango was not in season! There were no fruits on the trees at all...according to one of the men at the plantation office, the Harumanis mango is available in May every year. Okay, so here I am, at the mango plantation, and it’s January. Double unlucky!
Frustrated, I drove further north to my next planned destination, Gua Kelam.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Destination: Perlis, Malaysia (Part 1: The Journey to the North)

Introduction to the Malaysian Intercity Train

It was 9 o’clock in the night. I clutched my train ticket firmly as I browsed through low-priced books on sale at the bookshop at Level 2 of the Kuala Lumpur Sentral train station. In a few minutes, I would be boarding the KTM Intercity train for the first time in my life!
I had experience travelling on the trains operated by KTM before, but only on the trains within Kuala Lumpur. This time around, I’m heading hundreds of miles northwards: to Perlis, the smallest state in Malaysia.
The only Perlis-bound train is the Senandung Langkawi, which began from the KL Sentral station and continues up to Hat Yai in Thailand. On the way, it would be making stops at no less than 10 stations, and one of them being the Arau station in Perlis. That’s my destination.
My train left the platform at 9.30 p.m, and what more to do in the more than 11 hours journey than to have a good sleep? It’s good that KTM scheduled such long-distance journey in the night, and that there are sleeper coaches available.
I took the Class Two sleeper coach, where rows of double-decker bunk beds line both sides of the train, each one separated with a curtain. I climbed to my bed – I’ve gotten myself the lower berth – threw my backpack to one corner, pulled the curtains together, and made myself comfortable on the small personal space.
This is me, smiling happily at my bunk before the journey began.
There is a small nightlight available for those who wanted to read while the curtains are drawn. If you don’t mind reading with the curtains open for everyone to see how you doing, then the lights from the aisle is always on all night long.
The length of the bed is just nice for me. A pillow and a thin blanket are also available. And I like the fact that lower beds got a bigger window than the upper beds. Though I cannot see much in the night, but I knew there would be some nice views when the sun rises...
The train approaching a station. View from my berth.
Okay, maybe this is nothing like the private rooms of the First Class coach which also comes with its very own lavatories. For one thing, I had to walk to the end of the car for the shared lavatory. Then, we passengers must always be careful not to leave our precious belongings unattended at our beds. Well, the curtains cannot be locked like a room, right?
And so I slept with my precious belongings wrapped securely in my arms, and with the blanket covering me from top to toe. My backpack would be fine near my feet, though. I have no objections about having to sleep this way. Afterall, I saved almost RM50.00 by not getting the First Class coach. Imagine how big the price difference between a First Class coach and a Second Class one! As for the toilets, err...I tried my best not to visit it until I arrived at my destination.
Sometime into the journey, I began to realise some discomforts that I unfortunately have to endure for a few more hours. I’ve read in several blogs before, warning people against getting the beds nearest the exit doors if you are travelling on the Second Class coach. It has been recommended that the beds at the middle of the car are the best choice. Now that I’ve gotten the bed near the exit, I learnt my lesson.
For one thing, there must have been insomniac people on board the train: there seemed to be people who walked from coach to coach, all night long! The door that connects each coach to another, opened and slammed shut from time to time. Oh the sound of the door slamming shut! It kept me waking up every time I managed to doze off!
Later I learned that my coach is actually situated at the middle of the whole train, and those people from the other cars had no choice but to walk through the coach I’m sleeping in to get to the cafeteria. Honestly speaking, within one hour of leaving the KL Sentral station, two cafeteria workers actually walked the whole train, pushing their cart full of available food for sale so that passengers don’t really need to walk all the way to the cafeteria...
Then, my other pet peeve: smokers. Some passengers just can’t get through the night without a puff or two. They usually smoked at the small space between the coaches, but the smell of their smokes were excruciating – at least for me – when it managed to get through the door which opened and shut from time to time.
However, come to think of it – these smokers actually stand at the space in between coaches? When I walked through it to get to the next car, I can actually see the tracks below. It is not a hallway at the first place. There are gaps and openings here and there, and these people actually find a spot to stand and smoke while the train is moving. Talk about perseverance!
My advice: the beds near the exits would be fine for night persons who usually stayed up late into the night, and for smokers or those who can tolerate the smell.
Though I did not really sleep well, but I did dozed off a few times. Well, we wouldn’t get that much sleep when on board the plane, too, right? So I pushed all the discomforts to the back of my mind and looked forward to the destination ahead. This is part and parcel of travelling afterall! The experience is the most important and most valuable thing you can obtain from travels like this.
I finally lost track of time and dozed off again. I dreamt of looking out the window and see the train travelling through Penang. It was wonderful, as that island up north looked exceptionally beautiful in the dream. Then I woke up suddenly to hear an officer making an announcement about our arrival in Penang. Coincidence?
As the train made its stop, I suddenly saw people looking down on me. Oops! All this while I forgot to draw the window curtains shut! People were standing on the platform, waiting to get inside the train, and this one groggy passenger had forgotten to pull the curtains. I was quite embarrassed and quickly pulled the curtains together. Will pull it back when the sun rises in a few hours.
When the train made a stop at Sungai Petani station, I took a peek through the curtains and saw people and vehicles crowding a large area with one huge building in the centre. I guess that must be the morning wet market, and people rose early to look for the freshest produce.
It was already past 6.00 a.m at that time, and I could see blue and purple streaks in the sky. Aha, the sun is rising! I sat cross-legged and drew the curtains apart, my faithful camera on my lap. Good picture opportunities will be plentiful – the rolling Kedah countryside against the rising sun!
I snapped a few pictures of the sleepy homes near the railway track. Such quaint homes, being lit by the street lamps which had not yet turned off as the morning sun took over the task of lighting the area. I saw a few men passing the homes on their motorcycles – maybe intending a trip to the wet market, or maybe they just came back from performing their prayers at the mosque.
The sun begins to rise in Kedah.

The train pass through quaint villages as the sun rises.
Meanwhile, the train continue to chug down the tracks leading to Perlis. People on board got fewer and fewer as each one got off at various stations along the way.
Almost towards 9.00 a.m, I finally arrived at Arau station. When I was there, the station was like, having some sort of renovation works so it’s possible that if I go there again next time, it will never look the same again.