A weekend in Kuala Lumpur

We recently spent a lovely weekend in Kuala Lumpur. We’ve been before but that was before we had the twins. I have to admit that our desire to travel has been quite curtailed by having the twins, especially after visiting the UK earlier this year! However, one of Tom’s friends invited us to their wedding in Kuala Lumpur, so of course we couldn’t miss it.

I think the flights were what we were most apprehensive about. While they were nowhere near as long as if we were going to the UK, they were still about 4 hours each, and we knew that our plane would be smaller and wouldn’t have bassinets this time. In an attempt to create a little bit of room for the twins to roam around we booked seats on the front row, but when we got to the airport we were told that we couldn’t sit on the same row because there weren’t enough oxygen masks per row for the babies, so one of us would have to sit on the row behind. We were pretty dismayed by this, but then they said that they would block out a seat next to each of us. I wasn’t sure if this would actually help, but it was great. I sat on the second row with Isobel and she had a whole seat to herself to sit and play with toys on. I put the table down and she seemed in no risk of falling out the chair. It also helped that the lady sat next to us loved her and had 2 beautiful girls sat nearby who also enjoyed playing with her! I think Tom had a similar experience with Jack. Neither of the babies slept much on the flights but we were expecting that.

On the way back, they didn’t book extra seats for us but there were loads of spare seats around us so we had plenty of room to let the twins roam :)

We had booked rooms in the hotel that the wedding was being held in, the Renaissance Hotel. It’s a pretty nice hotel! (although, between you and me, I think the Traders is a little bit better!) We booked two adjoining rooms so that the twins could sleep in one room in the dark and we could have the other one. I don’t know how you’d cope if you were all in the one room. You’d have to sit quietly in the dark every evening! I guess some people take their babies out in the evening and the babies sleep in the stroller, but ours wouldn’t sleep so I don’t think that would work for us. As it was, we ended up having a lot of room service as we couldn’t go out for dinner once the babies were asleep. The hotel offered a babysitting service, so we thought we might go to one of the hotel restaurants one evening, but when we called up they were fully booked :(

Anyway, there were two things I particularly liked about this hotel: (1) the lovely landscaped outdoor pool (we went twice and the babies loved it!), and (2) the amazing buffet breakfast – yum. I do love hotel breakfasts! It was also a great opportunity to try new breakfast things for the babies – they enjoyed eating omelette and trying a few new fruits!

Here are the babies all ready to go to the pool…

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Because we had been to KL before, we didn’t feel the need to go out too much. I think this made the holiday quite laid back because we could easily work round the babies’ naps and just go out when it suited us. We visited the Petronus Towers and the KLCC park (which was very close to the hotel), Chinatown and Central Market.

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One highlight (other than the wedding itself, which was lovely and included a 9 course Chinese banquet) was the lunch we had in Hutong food court in Lot 10 shopping centre next to the Bukit Bintang monorail station. It’s really stylishly decorated and has great food vendors. We went with a large group and just got loads of yummy food to share! Tom bought the biggest BBQ pork bun I’ve ever seen!

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So all in all, it was a great weekend. I think the babies enjoyed themselves too! As I said last time, KL is a fun place to visit but you don’t need to spend too long there to see the highlights.

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

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Places to visit – Langkawi, Malaysia

Langkawi was the last stop on our 2-week Malaysian holiday earlier this year (if you don’t count our stopover in Kuala Lumpur on the way home). Our primary reason for visiting was to do as little as possible on the beach!

We stayed at the Tropical Resort on Pantai Tengah. The hotel itself wasn’t on the beach but a very short (2 minute) walk down to the beach. It was a complex of 1 storey rooms and some communal areas, all very clean and well maintained. We thought it was very good value for money!

Pantai Tengah and the adjacent Pantai Cenang are the two main beaches on Langkawi and are fairly touristy, although the beach at Pantai Tengah is a lot quieter. It suited what we wanted well: there were lots of shops and restaurants near to the hotel, and Pantai Cenang had a large selection of bars and restaurants on the beach itself which was a lovely way to spend an evening. We took quite a few sunset photos!

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My only complaint about Pantai Tengah was the lack of shade. It was very exposed for most of the day, apart from very early in the morning and our hotel did not provide sun shades. This made it difficult to spend too much time in one go on the beach! We would go for a little while and spend some time in the sea, and then have to go back to the hotel to cool off!

We didn’t do that much while we were in Langkawi as we just wanted to relax, but here are some things we did do:

Cable car and waterfalls

The Langkawi cable car on the north-west side of the island will take you up to the top of Gunung Machinchang, where there are some great views over Langkawi.

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There is also a ‘sky bridge’ up there but it has been closed almost since it was open from what I can gather.

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We went by taxi from Pantai Cenang and it wasn’t that expensive. The cable car is situated in a very strange purpose-built touristy “village” which was pretty much deserted when we went. But the cable car was good fun and we got some fairly decent pictures from the top. Having read reviews online, the best advice is to pick a clear day to go as you’ll be in the clouds otherwise!

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Nearby are the Telaga Tujuh waterfalls, which are about a 15 minute walk from the cable car. Unfortunately, once you get to the bottom, there are a large number of steps up to the top! It’s quite a climb but doesn’t actually take too long. Also, you have two options: you can go all the way to the top, or stop halfway at the base of the waterfall which gives great views of the waterfall itself.

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However, if you continue up to the top, you get to the beautiful pools where you can slide from one pool to the next! The water was cool and this was lots of fun. I think we went at quite a dry time of year (January) but you could still slide between the pools.

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Boat trip

There are lots of reasonably priced boat trips which will take you round some of the outlying islands. Our hotel recommended one that was organised by a nearby agent so we went with that. For the price it was pretty good value! Plus, our boat was a lot less crowded than some of the others so I guess we picked a good company to go with (unfortunately I don’t know the name).

The first stop on the boat trip was to the Island of the Pregnant Maiden (Pulau Dayang Bunting). This island has a large freshwater lake in the middle where you can have a swim or go on a pedal boat. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of the lake but it really was a beautiful spot. There were a lot of monkeys though, and they were trying to grab anything they thought might be food.

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Our next stop was at a bay where they fed sea eagles. It was certainly an impressive sight to see all the sea eagles flying around, although afterwards we heard that they attract the sea eagles by feeding them chicken skin which isn’t nourishing for them and means that they have problems forming eggshells for their offspring.

We finished at a tropical beach on a small island. Unfortunately, our boat was doing the same trip as a number of other boats so whilst we were the first to arrive and enjoy the soft sand and clear sea, it wasn’t long before it was overtaken by a number of other people! It was a nice stopover though, and the beach had lots of shade and some food and drinks vendors.

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Rampant Sailing day trip

This was our ‘splurge’ whilst we stayed in Langkawi as it was pretty expensive, but I have to admit that it was totally worth the money! This day trip aboard a beautiful catamaran promises that there will be no more than 10 of you on the boat (there were 8 the day that we went) and sails around some of the small islands around Langkawi.

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The couple that own the boat are lovely and treated us like royalty the whole day! We were supplied with cold drinks whenever we wanted, and they provided an amazing spread for lunch. The views from the boat were wonderful, and we were never bored as there were activities to do as well – from a jacuzzi-like experience in a net being towed behind the boat, to kayaking, relaxing in hammocks in the water and a stopoff for a jungle trek where Tom saw a monitor lizard!

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So, that finishes my little summary of our Malaysian holiday, which covered Kuala Lumpur, the Cameron Highlands, Penang and Langkawi. We had a great time and would recommend Malaysia to anyone.

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

Places to visit – Georgetown, Penang (Malaysia)

After leaving the Cameron Highlands on our 2-week holiday in Malaysia, we took another bus (and another long 4 hour journey) to Georgetown on the island of Penang.

Georgetown is well known for its history and its food. I think I read somewhere that it used to be one of Malaysia’s most prominent ports, but at some point this changed and the commerce moved elsewhere, leaving Georgetown virtually undeveloped. Today, Georgetown has become a large tourist attraction because of the sheer quantity of historic buildings, and I for one was very glad that it had not had the modernisation of so many cities today!

Here are some things to see in Georgetown:

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

This was a real highlight for us. The blue mansion, which was built by a very wealthy Chinese businessman, has been lovingly restored from a fairly ruinous state by a group of locals and today you can have a tour round it led by a lady who is obviously a key member of that group and is very passionate about it! She was great. The house is beautiful, and you can also stay there if you want a bit of luxury during your time in Georgetown. Tom and I were sorely tempted!

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion Georgetown

Inside Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Penang Peranakan Museum

This was another old mansion house that has been restored and filled with beautiful artefacts. Unlike the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, this is a private home and its contents have been bought to the owner’s taste rather than to be authentic to what the original house would have looked like. Still, there is a free tour round the museum (we were rather startled to be approached by a tour guide and taken on a tour as soon as we entered, we thought he must be looking for payment but he wasn’t!) which was very informative, and it is a beautiful house.

Inside Paranakan Museum Georgetown

Paranakan Museum Georgetown

Khoo Kongsi

This is the largest of the clan houses (kongsi) in Georgetown and is very elaborate with several buildings to look at. If I remember correctly, there are several areas in Georgetown where each clan lived in the houses which surrounded their central clan house and this was their little protected community. The clan house itself looks more like a temple, and contains shrines and ancestral tablets. It has been beautifully preserved and I believe it is still active today.

Khoo Kongsi Georgetown

Inside Khoo Kongsi Georgetown

Street art

Georgetown has some great street art, which we enjoyed spotting!

Armenian Street Art Georgetown

Cintra Street Art Georgetown

Bicycle street art Georgetown

Other sights

Here are some other things that we saw whilst walking around Georgetown. Firstly, St George’s Church:

St Georges Church Georgetown

Cannon on the edge of Fort Cornwallis:

Cannon at Fort Cornwallis Georgetown

The Eastern & Oriental Hotel (the Georgetown equivalent of the Raffles):

Eastern and Oriental Hotel Georgetown

Old Chinese shophouses (which are everywhere):

Chinese shophouses Georgetown

Chinese style temple:

Chinese temple Georgetown

Komtar

The Komtar building is the tallest, and possibly, the ugliest building in Georgetown. For a very small fee you can take the lift to the viewing deck at the top of the building. This was one of the worst tourist attractions I have ever been in! It felt like no-one had been up there for about 30 years and the viewing area you were directed to with signs actually faced the wrong (non-historic) side of Georgetown! Needless to say, we were the only ones there, apart from a very bored-looking lady with a jewellery stand. On our way back to the lift we thought we’d try the other side of the (round) building and came across another viewing gallery which was unlocked but looked totally abandoned. This one actually looked out onto the right side of Georgetown so I got a photo or two (although the windows were a bit grubby) but I’m not actually sure if we were supposed to be in there. It was a pretty funny but awful experience!

View from Komtar Georgetown

Food

Georgetown is a magnet for tourists looking for cheap, great food. It has been called the food capital of Malaysia! We certainly ate well and cheaply while we were there. We visited a couple of the hawker centres for lunch and had a Malaysian or Chinese dish each for less than £2 altogther! We also had some great food in Little India, which lies between Lebuh King and Lebuh Queen.

In the evening, food stalls pop up on many of the streets. We didn’t eat at them, but they did look good!

On our last night we splashed out and went to Bali Hai Seafood Restaurant on Persiaran Gurney (Gurney Drive). It was pretty expensive compared to everywhere else we ate in Georgetown, but the seafood was yummy and they had the widest selection of live seafood to choose from that I have ever seen! (this is only a small portion of it)

Seafood at Bali Hai Restaurant Georgetown

In the evenings we enjoyed a couple of beers in the bars which open out onto Lebuh Chulia, which was a very relaxing way to end a day!

We really liked Georgetown, although it was pretty hot when we were there (January) so it was hard to walk around as much as we’d have liked! Luckily, the historic centre is pretty small so you don’t have to go too far to see most of what is on offer. We didn’t explore the rest of the island or go to the beach on Penang because our next stop was going to be beach-filled Langkawi! But I hear that a lot of visitors do like the beaches here.

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

Places to visit – Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

The Cameron Highlands were the second stop on our 2-week Malaysian holiday earlier this year. The Cameron Highlands are an old British outpost in the hills north-east of Kuala Lumpur, and are known as a beautiful destination for walks, enjoying some of the colonial experience and tea plantations.

We headed there by bus from Kuala Lumpur, where we started out. We bought our bus tickets a couple of days in advance from Pudu Sentral Bus Terminal. The ticket offices are on the second floor. There are a few options for direct buses to the Cameron Highlands but after a little research we decided to go with Unititi Express. We were quite pleased with our choice: although they did run about 30 minutes late, the seats were massive and very comfortable! The cost was very reasonable too, at about the equivalent of £7. The journey takes over 4 hours and isn’t very interesting for the most part, although there are some nice views once you get up into the hills towards the end.

We stayed in Tanah Rata, probably the largest town in the Cameron Highlands, which is where the bus finishes. We stayed in Fathers Guest House, which was quite a backpacker-type place. The rooms were simple, cheap but comfortable and there were lots of areas downstairs to sit and relax and chat to the other guests.

Walks

There are several numbered walks in the Cameron Highlands, our hotel provided us with a rough map and descriptions of them. They range from a simple stroll to some very strenuous all day hikes! I can’t find a good website which describes the trails well, but this one has an overview. I think most hotels will be able to give you good information when you arrive.

On our first afternoon in the Cameron Highlands we wanted to go for a simple walk to explore the area around Tanah Rata, so we headed off on Path No. 4. It was a bit hard to find the start of the walk but once we got going it was pretty flat and straightforward, and took us past this waterfall.

Parit Waterfall Cameron Highlands

We ended up at the golf course between Tanah Rata and Brinchang so we decided to carry on to Brinchang. On our way we went past this mock-tudor style hotel (The Smokehouse Hotel). The gardens were beautiful and it really looked like a scene out of somewhere in Buckinghamshire, UK not Malaysia!

The Smokehouse Hotel Cameron Highlands

On another day we wanted to go for a more substantial walk and headed off on Path No. 10. We really enjoyed this walk but it was one of the more strenuous ones that we’ve done! The first half is steeply uphill for most of the day, to the top of Gunung Jasar. We were rewarded with great views at the top though.

View from Gunung Jasar

And then it was a fairly steep walk back down the other side through a forest with quite a rough trail. I have to admit I slipped a couple of times! The trail finishes at the top of Orang Asli village, the most ‘local’ place we saw in the Cameron Highlands, although it was very quiet so I’m not sure if people are still living there. There is also a massive construction site next door! We actually found it quite difficult to get down from the end of the trail to the road by the construction site! We eventually managed to scramble down some of the slopes. So I don’t know if we went the wrong way?

Tea Plantations

Our hotel had a range of tours that you could go on, which they organised through one of the local companies (I think most hotels do this). We chose to go on a half-day tea plantation tour which also managed to fit in a number of different activities.

There were about 8 of us on our tour. Our guide drove us up into the hills and we stopped off at a viewpoint over a working tea plantation. So beautiful! Our guide told us about how they pick the tea. It used to all be done by hand but now they have machines that move along the lines between the plants, although I don’t see how exactly they work!

Tea plantations Cameron Highlands

The tour continued to an old watchtower with a great view over the hills.

Cameron Highlands hills

Then we went into the forest nearby where our guide told us about various plants which can be used to cure different conditions. He was very knowledgeable.

Cameron Highlands tour guide

He also took us deeper into the forest to the ‘mossy forest’. This was really interesting. The ground was very bouncy as it built up on layers of moss, and many of the trees were covered in moss. It was such an unusual area, and this photo doesn’t do it justice at all.

Mossy forest Cameron Highlands

The tour finished in a butterfly farm. Our guide also showed us a range of reptiles and insects that were housed there, such as leaf frogs and scorpions! I was quite pleased with this picture though :)

Butterfly farm Cameron Highlands

Food

As elsewhere in Malaysia, the available food in the Cameron Highlands was a mix of mainly Indian, Malay and Chinese food (although there was some western food available if wanted!). We had dinner one night at a south Indian restaurant on the main street in Tanah Rata which was very good. There were quite a wide selection of restaurants and bars here to choose from and it’s a nice area to eat with a very relaxed feel.

On our first day after we finished walk No. 4 we headed into Brinchang and had dinner there. There were several steamboat restaurants to choose from, and we were very happy with the one we selected (although I’m sure they’re all good). I don’t know if there is technically any difference but a steamboat seems to be the same thing as a hot pot in Hong Kong, i.e. a bowl full of soup or broth on a burner, which you dip various meats and vegetables in to cook them before eating (fondue-style).

One afternoon we also had afternoon tea at the Cameron Highlands Resort by the golf course. This is a beautiful colonial-style hotel and the afternoon tea was as excellent as you would expect for the setting. And it was also very reasonably priced! I’d recommend a visit for a spot of luxury during your stay in the Cameron Highlands.

So that was our experience in the Cameron Highlands. We found it a very laid back, beautiful area to spend a few days and really enjoyed it there. It was also quite a bit cooler than everywhere else we went in Malaysia so it was a nice respite from the heat!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

Places to visit – Kuala Lumpur

We spent two days/three nights over a weekend in Kuala Lumpur (KL) at the start of a two-week Malaysian holiday in January, in which we travelled up the western side of Malaysia. During that time we also visited the Cameron Highlands, Penang and Langkawi.

We enjoyed our stay in KL but having visited several big Asian cities and living in a big Asian city meant we weren’t overly excited by it. I think we were really keen to get out of the city and see another side of Malaysia! But it was still a great place to visit and I’d recommend it as part of a Malaysian holiday (although maybe not as a destination in itself).

Malaysia is a very multi-ethnic country, and this is particularly apparent in KL. The mix includes ethnic Malaysians, who are mostly Muslim, plus a large number of Chinese and Indians. One thing that I noticed particularly in KL was how I seemed to stand out as I was not covered up like the local women (this despite the fact that I saw some Chinese women wearing very skimpy outfits!). Therefore, whilst it isn’t obligatory, if you are sensitive about such things you might want to wear modest clothing (covering arms and legs) whilst walking around KL.

These are some of the things we saw in Kuala Lumpur:

Chinatown

We were staying near Chinatown (our hotel was very near to Masjid Jamek station) so this was one of the first areas we visited in KL. It’s a bustling, colourful area and definitely worth a visit (especially if you don’t live in a Chinese city!). There is a large market on Jalan Petaling but we were a little disappointed with this as it is full of fake designer goods and not much else. Not our idea of a good market but if that is what you’re looking for, it’s the place to go! However, there are lots of Chinese eateries in the area. We had lunch in the Tang City Food Court on Jalan Hang Lekir which had a range of Chinese and Indian options and was very good value for money.

Away from the market, we enjoyed walking the streets of Chinatown, with its old Chinese style buildings and a mix of small shops.

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There are a few temples in Chinatown. The most interesting was Chan See Shu Yuen Temple, at the end of Jalan Petaling. It was very intricate!

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We also walked past, but didn’t go into, Kuan Ti Temple…

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…and Sri Maha Mariamman Temple

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(we’ve been to quite a few temples and to be honest are a bit templed-out these days!)

On the Sunday evening we ate at Old China Café on Jalan Balai Polis at the southern end of Chinatown, which was not as cheap as you can find elsewhere in KL but the food was excellent and it had a lovely atmosphere. I’d really recommend it for a nice meal out.

Merdeka Square

This open space is a very historical part of KL as it is where Malaysia’s independence was declared in 1957. There are some nice colonial buildings around there, including some that were built by westerners in a Moorish style so they don’t look very western, such as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building:

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There is a large mosque nearby as well, called Masjid Jamek (or Jamek Mosque) which is very intricate but we didn’t go in (although you can).

South of Masjid Jamek (on Jalan Hang Kasturi, before you reach Chinatown) is Central Market. This is a large art deco building filled with small arts and crafts shops. Some are of better quality than others, but it was the best place in KL that we found for buying gifts and we found a few really nice items in here! I’d recommend a visit.

Little India

Little India is centred around the market along Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman, which extends most of the way up this street. It is a colourful area and we enjoyed walking around, although we didn’t buy anything. There are lots of snacks available from vendors here so it might be a good place to visit for lunch or mid-afternoon!

We stopped off for a refreshing drink in the Coliseum Café, which is about halfway up Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. It’s very retro – it looks like it hasn’t been redecorated for the best part of a century! It’s not exactly glamorous, but a nice step back in time so I’d recommend a visit.

Petronas Towers

Formerly the tallest buildings in the world, the two Petronas Towers certainly stand out. They’re very shiny! We wanted to go up the towers, and turned up fairly early in the day on a Sunday (sometime around 10am) but the earliest tickets they had available were for late afternoon so we bought those tickets and came back later on.

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For this tour you get assigned to a group and get given a coloured badge to wear. This means that your group gets a certain amount of time in each area and it’s strictly controlled. This is a bit of a shame for those who like to be a bit more independent but we found that the amount of time you were given was adequate.

The two areas with views are the skybridge and the roof. The views from both were pretty impressive. Here is what you could see from the skybridge:

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And here are some views from the roof:

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The Petronas Towers are part of a development with a large shopping mall underneath and a landscaped park behind with various buildings forming the park boundary including an aquarium and the Traders Hotel. The park itself is quite nice to sit in, and certainly a great place to get a few photos of the towers. It also has a fairly impressive fountain display.

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We went in the aquarium and were happy enough with it, although Tom has been in a lot of aquaria in his time and thought that he had seen better!

Side note: on our last night in Malaysia (en route back to Hong Kong) we stayed in the Traders Hotel for a bit of luxury. We had booked the cheapest room they had which cost about £80 and didn’t include breakfast. However when we arrived we were offered breakfast at about £14 per person (pretty expensive!) or a special offer which included an upgrade to a suite, free breakfast, afternoon tea and cocktails for £34 for both of us! So of course we took it :) The suite was amazing (bigger than our HK flat!) and so was all the free food and drink. They also had a lovely swimming pool on the top floor. So we really liked the Traders!

Bird Park

To kill time between buying our tickets for the Petronas Towers and when we were allowed to go up, we headed for the Lake Gardens which are to the west of the area we were staying in. We walked through the gardens a bit but spent most of our time in the bird park there. The bird park was good fun and also a good size and we spent quite a long time there. Many of the birds are free to roam around and don’t seem to take much notice of all the humans at all! If you want something a little less city-like during your time in KL I’d really recommend the bird park.

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Bukit Bintang

This area is a great place to head for some lively nightlife and a wide range of eating options. We took the monorail to Bukit Bintang station and headed for Jalan Alor, which is a road of Chinese restaurants with loads of tables out on the street. We went on a Saturday night and it was busy (possibly mostly with Chinese tourists) but most of the restaurants had a few tables free so we picked one we liked the look of and had a great range of Chinese food there for a pretty reasonable price.

After dinner we also had a wander up Changkat Bukit Bintang which is the road across the end of Jalan Alor. This road is lined with bars, most of which had outdoor seating too. We didn’t stop for a drink but there was certainly a lot of choice!

As you can see, we managed to fit quite a lot into one weekend in KL! I think you could maybe spend one or two more days there at most and have exhausted everything there was to see, but it was a really interesting city.

Check back next week for the next stage of our Malaysian holiday – the Cameron Highlands!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

Places to visit – Taipei

Taipei is a great place to visit from Hong Kong. It’s pretty quick to get to and has a much more laid back feel. I’ve heard that it’s also a lot nicer than it was 10 years ago! We really liked it and definitely want to go back and see more of Taiwan so I thought I’d share some of the things we did and saw and maybe encourage you to go too?

Another advantage of Taipei is that it’s really easy to get around, and the MTR (subway) extends beyond the borders of the city, making it very easy to get out of the city into the surrounding area. However, this doesn’t extend to the airport which is a long way outside Taipei and takes about an hour by taxi (there isn’t a train or subway) to get from the airport to the centre of the city.

We stayed at Hotel 73 which was very close to Dongmen Station on Xinyi Road. We had no complaints about our hotel room, although we thought that the breakfast (which was included in the price) was fairly average and we had to wait for some time in the lobby before we were seated as there wasn’t enough room for everyone in the restaurant. On our second day we grabbed breakfast elsewhere.

The hotel was in a really nice district: it was right next to a market, and the area on the other side of Xinyi Road was a maze of small boutiques, restaurants and shops. It was a really nice area to walk round and we happily ate at random places there a couple of times. Also the original branch of Din Tai Fung was nearby on Xinyi Road so we went there to taste the ‘original’ food of this Taiwanese restaurant chain which also has several outlets in Hong Kong.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall

Chiang Kai-Shek memorial hall Taipei

This was our first port of call as it was within walking distance of our hotel (but it also has its own MTR station). The memorial hall is situated in some nice gardens, which were lovely to walk around but the weather quickly forced us inside! We went in with almost no knowledge of who Chiang Kai-Shek was and why there was a memorial hall to him, and came out thinking he was a great man who founded modern Taiwan. Unfortunately, there are two sides to every story and whilst he did do great things for Taiwan, he perhaps wasn’t quite as nice as the memorial hall made him out to be! The hall is worth a visit though, even if it is just to see the massive statue of Chiang Kai-Shek.

Chiang Kai-Shek statue

Beitou

This is an area on the north side of the city which is famous for its hot springs. Many of the hotels there have private baths where you can bathe in the waters, but we headed to the outdoor public baths on Zhongshan Road. Once we were able to gain entrance to the public baths (they are only open for fixed sessions every day: 8.30-11.15am, noon-2.45pm, 3.30-6.16pm, 7.00-9.45pm), we had a lovely time there. These baths had 3 hot pools, each progressively hotter than the last (we couldn’t spend much time in the second one and didn’t even attempt the hottest!) and 2 cold pools which were briefly pleasant after spending a while in the hot pools. It was a great place, and obviously pretty full of locals as well as some tourists. The locals seemed pretty friendly and one old guy started chatting to me about where I was from and what I should see while I was in Taipei. There was also a very militant attendant who told you off if you were only partly submerged in the water!

The nearby Di-re Valley (a 5 minute walk) is also worth a visit is the source of most of the hot waters in Beitou. As you can see it was pretty hot and very steamy! There was also quite an unpleasant sulphuric smell but it was a pretty cool sight. Although at 90°C, you probably wouldn’t want to go in…

Di-re valley Beitou

Di-re valley Taipei

Slightly confusingly, to get to this area, take the MTR to Beitou station and then change to the shuttle line to Xinbeitou. It takes a while but I’d really recommend it!

Longshan Temple

Longshan temple

I don’t have much to say about this temple, other than it’s pretty attractive and a popular spot for worshippers and tourists alike. Definitely worth a visit if you like temples!

Longshan temple columns

National Palace Museum

This is pretty much a must-do when visiting Taipei due to its enormous collection of Chinese art. I believe that much of it was brought to Taiwan by people fleeing the civil war in China. It’s a massive museum and you could spend hours in there. There is so much to see, including ceramics, calligraphy and ancient artefacts. I think that we spent a couple of hours looking round and by then we were pretty tired! I’d recommend that you don’t go on a weekend if at all possible, as it gets very busy. As it is, it is never exactly quiet.

The best way to get to the museum is to go to Shilin station and take the exit to the north side of Zhongzhen Road and catch bus 304, 255 or red 30.

Raohe Street Night Market

Raohe night market

This was one of our most fun evenings in Taipei. We had heard that there were lots of snack vendors in the night market so we purposely didn’t have dinner before going but instead bought a range of random snacks (most were good, some were average, none were bad) whilst working our way round the market. There was a really high quality of vendors at the market too. There was some of the usual tourist tat but there were also real craftspeople, selling everything from handbags and animal shaped leather purses to this guy who was creating the most amazing glass works right in front of our eyes!

Glassmaker Raohe night market

A great place to buy presents and maybe a little something or two for yourself ;)

Taipei 101

Again, another must-do when in Taipei. We’ve been in a number of observation decks in tall towers now, and this was definitely one of the best experiences. We turned up at about 10am and it was very busy, and when we bought our tickets we were told that we’d have to wait for about an hour to go up. We decided to kill time by going outside and taking photos of the tower from a nearby park, and when we got back we’d missed our slot! But they let us join the queue straight away instead.

Taipei 101

You were taken up to the top of the tower in groups and each group had a fixed period of time in each area, although the amount of time seemed pretty generous and we never felt rushed. The main observation deck was spacious with lots of information to read and things to look at as well as the view, of course. Luckily, we were blessed with good weather that day.

View from Taipei 101

Tom got very nerdy and enjoyed looking at the massive damper which helps to keep the tower stable and steady in high winds. It has been turned into a bit of a tourist attraction in itself, with a little cartoon version of it!

Taipei 101 damper

You could also go out onto the roof and enjoy the view in the fresh air, which made for better photos.

Hills from Taipei 101

Maokong

This area sits up in the hills to the south-east side of Taipei and is definitely worth a visit if you’d like to get out of the built-up areas. Take the MTR to Taipei Zoo station (we didn’t visit the zoo but apparently it’s quite good) and a couple of minutes walk away is the gondola (cable car) station which will take you up into the hills. We went on a weekend and had to queue for about 45 minutes to get into a gondola so it might be worth picking a less busy time if possible. The gondola ride gives great views across Taipei.

View from Maokong gondola

Maokong is famous for its tea houses, of which there are plenty. We plumped for one that was pretty near the gondola station and were given a little booth with cushions to sit on and the necessary tools for making tea the ‘proper’ Chinese way. Luckily, we had both seen Chinese tea ceremonies before and could just about figure out what we should be doing (although I’m sure that you could get someone to show you if you needed).

Drinking tea

It’s a really nice, quiet area up there and we really enjoyed wandering around (until it got dark) and then had dinner at a restaurant there overlooking the city. Nice!

Maokong tea houses

So those were the highlights of our trip to Taipei. It was a really nice mix of city and relaxing activities. It was easy to get around, all the attractions were either reasonably priced or free and the people were very friendly. My only criticisms as a tourist were that in some areas there wasn’t a lot of written English around (although a lot of people spoke English), and a lot of the restaurants seemed to shut pretty early so don’t leave it too late to go for dinner. However, if you’re looking for somewhere to go for the weekend, I think you could do a lot worse!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

Places to visit – Shanghai

We spent a few days in Shanghai directly after our visit to Beijing (covered in this post) and there was quite a contrast between the two cities! We took the high speed train between the two, which I think cost about £50 and took 4 hours. The whole experience was very smooth, although you got quite an interesting view of China from the train – lots of construction and smog-filled cities!

We stayed with a friend who has a very nice apartment in the French Concession area so I’m afraid I have no accommodation tips for Shanghai. This is a really nice area of Shanghai to live in, quite international in feel, quiet and leafy. Our friend has also lived in Beijing and he says that Shanghai is a nicer place to live but Beijing is a better place to be a tourist. We agree.

It’s not that Shanghai is a bad place to be a tourist – it’s a nice city, but it’s all just too modern. Coming from Beijing where there was so much history and so many interesting things to see, Shanghai felt a little boring by comparison! But in a way that was nice for us as we could relax a little – we were quite tired from rushing around Beijing so much.

So what did we see and do? Having left Beijing fairly early in the morning, we arrived in Shanghai at around lunchtime. We dropped our bags at our friend’s place and had a nice lunch at a bakery nearby. Then, with a few hours in the afternoon to ourselves, we decided to go to the People’s Square (which has its own metro station). The square and nearby People’s Park weren’t that interesting so we went into the Shanghai Museum on the edge of the square. This is a really good museum, full of Chinese art and artefacts. Unfortunately by the time we got there, there was only one hour before the museum shut so we didn’t see it all but it was impressive stuff nonetheless.

On the second day, we made straight for Shanghai’s main attraction – the Bund. It’s basically a long, grand street by the Huangpu river with an esplanade on one side and a line of large colonial buildings on the other. On the other side of the river is the Pudong area which makes up the archetypal Shanghai skyline, so it’s worth a walk down the esplanade just to see this view.

Pudong skyline

Pudong at night

Pudong’s development has been pretty rapid. This blog has a great pair of pictures comparing it in 1990 to 2010.

The Bund itself isn’t that exciting. I think that it’s pretty unusual for China, so if you live in Asia or perhaps somewhere non-European you might find the buildings quite interesting. But they do look like something you see in most European capital cities! However, we did have a drink in one of the hotels one evening, which was a lovely way to experience a bit of old-fashioned glamour!

Shanghai Bund view

Bund building and bull

Bund at night

From the Bund, we headed inland to the Yuyuan Garden (this also has its own metro station, but we walked). This area was very busy! There is a shopping area there which seemed to be a nice recreation of old-style Chinese buildings but was obviously pretty new. One of the buildings housed the Nanxiang Steamed Bread Shop, a xiaolongbao restaurant which had a large queue outside for the takeaway but we went upstairs and were seated pretty quickly (I talked about xiaolongbao in this post). We had several different kinds of xiaolongbao with different meats and flavours – all of them were really nice! I think this was one of Tom’s highlights of Shanghai ;)

After lunch, we headed for the garden itself. To get to the entrance you walk along a zigzag bridge over a lily pond, past the Huxing Ting tea house. The bridge was packed and I was worried that the garden would be too but actually it wasn’t too busy. It was a really nice example of a Chinese style garden and was bigger than I expected as well. I think we probably spent an hour in there! There were lots of beautiful features such as the dragon wall and some pretty lattice work.

Huxing Ting tea houseYuyuan Garden Shanghai

Yuyuan Garden lattice

Yuyuan Garden dragon wall

As we were leaving this area, I noticed a maze of streets with smaller, more local shops. I wish we’d have taken time to explore them – I might have found a bargain or two! The shopping area by the Yuyuan Gardens was very commercial and overpriced. But we wanted to move on and see one more thing that afternoon.

Our final stop for the afternoon was Xintiandi, which is an area of old Chinese buildings that has been smartened up and turned into a pedestrian shopping area with upmarket shops. It was actually a really nice quiet area to sit and have a coffee and watch the world go by, but I don’t think we could afford to go into any of the shops!

In the evening we went for drinks in the Vue Bar at the top of the Hyatt on the Bund. The view was pretty good, but I really wouldn’t recommend the bar! Very busy and overpriced. I think there are many other bars with great views in Shanghai where you would have a better experience.

Bund from above

Pudong from above

On our last day in Shanghai, we headed into Pudong. Tom wanted to visit the Shanghai World Finance Center (at the time the tallest building in Shanghai and apparently possessing the highest observation deck in the world) so we went straight there. This is the building that looks a bit like a bottle opener, with a large square hole in the top. There are observation decks at the bottom and top of the square hole, and you get to spend a bit of time in each. To be honest, it’s not an experience I’d recommend – it’s really expensive, very crowded and busy and you don’t get a lot of time on each deck, whilst you do spend a lot of time queueing for the lifts. Plus, the smog means that you can’t actually see very much from it!

P1040029

Perhaps a better bet would be the observation deck next door in the Jin Mao tower (also a prettier building)? It’s not so high but its observation deck is cheaper, or alternatively you could visit the Cloud Nine bar in the Grand Hyatt (on the floor below the observation deck) and spend your money on a drink instead whilst looking at the view at your leisure. This is the Jin Mao Tower as seen from the World Finance Center.

Jin Mao Tower

Tom got a bit nerdy and took lots of pictures of the building work on the nearby Shanghai Tower. This is complete now (structurally at least) and is the second tallest building in the world!

Shanghai Tower construction

After leaving the World Finance Center we walked over to the area near the Oriental Pearl Tower, which wasn’t that easy to get to – Pudong seems to have been designed for cars not people! We had a bit of a walk around there, toyed with the idea of going to the nearby aquarium, decided we didn’t have the time and went back to our friend’s place. Pudong is definitely a financial area, not a tourist area!

In the afternoon we headed to the airport. We were flying from Shanghai Pudong International Airport, which meant we could get the maglev train there! Unfortunately, the train station for the maglev is in a bit of a random place (not very central) so we had to get a taxi there. I think the original plan was to continue the existing maglev line further into Shanghai but it was too expensive so the line stops very abruptly in mid-air, with houses on the other side of the road! If you decide to take the maglev, see if you can catch one of the trains that hits its top speed of 431 km/h (even if it is just for a few minutes) – the trains only do this at certain times of day. We were lucky that this matched with the time we needed to be at the airport. I can confirm that it is very fast indeed!

Shanghai is a nice city but I would recommend that you don’t need to spend more than a couple of days there to see most of what it has to offer, unless you plan to spend a lot of time sitting around in coffee houses or shopping!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel