30 October 2015

Driving in Malaysia

A while ago I posted about driving in Sarawak and the unique frustrations of the passive driving style favoured by the residents of Miri. The driving style here on the Peninsula is a little different.  For a start we have motorways and the towns are heaving with traffic.

Signs are all in Bahasa Malay (of course) but are fairly standard and easy to understand.  Rules of the road are (mostly followed) but while the driving test is enforced standards of driving are pretty poor meaning that they make funny decisions and it can be difficult to anticipate what other drivers will do in any given situation.
Driving In Malaysia Busy Road
Roads are busy ...

Having driven in many countries I can safely say that Malaysian motorways rival the French as being some of the best in the world.  The intercity motorways are excellent, they are tolled and the rates are affordable for occasional use.  Remedial work is organised in such a way that it has the minimum possible impact.  Within KL the roads including the motorways are almost at capacity leading to crazy jams.  Motorway tolls are an expensive addition to the daily cost of living for people who need to use them two or more times a day on their commute.  Nevertheless the surfaces are well maintained, lighting is good, the traffic (outside of KL) is not too dense and there are high quality, clean service stations at regular intervals.  Just be aware when fuelling your car that yellow handles here denote petrol not diesel (not all pumps have diesel and they are black with a metal cover over the pump handle).  The only thing that lets them down is the driving! 

Driving In Malaysia Motorway Service Stop
As well as petrol service stations provide food courts,
bathrooms, prayer rooms, fruit stalls and fast food outlets.
Malaysian motorway driving is a lethal cocktail of passive slowcoaches, bumbling along at 50kph, boy racers who power up behind you as you are passing the passives and try to push you out of the way (similar to German driving) and motorbikes playing games.  Some riders are sensible but I have seen a club or group fooling around trying to nudge each other at very high speeds.  Although people in the front have to be secured by a belt there are no rules about the back and children are often seen playing loose in the car or babies cuddled on their mother’s lap.  I have even seen air mattresses designed to fit across the back seat and foot well so that the children can ‘sleep’ on a journey.  People think I am very strange to insist on restraining our children at all times.   Lane discipline is pretty decent but people do undertake and some even use the hard shoulder to do it. 

Non Motorways

The in city roads, at least in Ipoh, Taiping, Georgetown and the other places we have visited are fairly decent.  One or two suffer from pot holes, particularly in the wet season but the council does seem to try to fill them in (not always very effectively).  There is one pot hole on the way to Master and Miss EE’s school that has now grown so wide that I cannot fit my (broad) wheelbase over it.  I have changed my route for the time being!

While the roads are typically ok the lay out leaves something to be desired.  It is not uncommon for lanes to just peter out with no warning, not necessarily moving from two to one but for the outer lane to just stop, the inner lane become the outer and a new inner lane start up.  Cars end up having to filter into the other lane and it creates log jams. 

Motorbikes and scooters are my biggest bugbear.  There are a lot of them on the roads and they have a tendency to sit in blind spots.  Many people who drive them may have no experience of driving cars and therefore have no concept of how vulnerable they are which leads them to take stupid risks.  The other day I was waiting to turn left.  I had checked my nearside as I positioned the car but as I was waiting a motorbike came in.  I always, always make a final check before turning and did this time but this chap was slap bang in my (rather large) blindspot and I was turning hard left.  I managed to stop the turn with millimetres to spare.  The man saw absolutely nothing wrong with not only trying to undertake but to give me no notification of his presence at all.  I have also had a motorbike undertake me while I was overtaking a car on the Ipoh Bypass.  He squeezed between two cars with millimetres to spare just to speed off at about 40kph over the limit.  The few extra seconds to allow me to complete my overtake would have cost him absolutely nothing. 

Driving In Malaysia motorbikes
There are lots of motorbikes...
Challenging Driving

Malaysia does have a pretty well defined rainy season where heavy downpours lasting up to 3 hours are not uncommon.  The motorways are set up for it with motorbike shelters under bridges or at regular intervals.  Knowing how to drive through water is a pretty essential skill and I have learned how to put a baby in the car and collapse a pushchair while holding an umbrella.

Driving In Malaysia Cows
You can just see a cow on the grass in the bend of the road.
Some roam free and sometimes onto the carriageway.
Other than rain you may have to deal with the odd stray cow or goat.  They tend to be pretty road savvy though and rather more sensible than the aggressive pedestrians that like to launch themselves in front of the car from time to time.  

A little light rain and in all seriousness it does get much worse.
Although a significant proportion of the population do not drink, drunken driving is still a problem in larger towns.  Police in KL do breathalyser tests on those they think are driving erratically and the permitted blood alcohol limits are low.  Mr EE and I come from a generation that were brought up never to drink and drive but some of the older expats do try to get away with it particularly in the smaller towns.  If we are at any expat gatherings we try to be either first away or last!


While malls, stations and commercial centres have enough parking for off peak times it is not unknown for them to appear to be completely over capacity.  We have found the best bet is to go to the roof or the parking as far from the entrance/centre as possible.  People seem to be obsessed with proximity and we have seen tailbacks of cars trying to get onto a covered floor or convenient spot while there are a raft of empty spaces a little further away.  While I would prefer the car to be in the shade or protected from torrential rain I do have an umbrella and can turn on the AC so it is not enough of a problem to make me want to wait. 

Driving In Malaysia Parking Problems
A typical commerical centre.  The Cars on the left are parked
in official bays as are the cars on the far right.  The ones to the right
are just 'hovering' and making life difficult for everyone else.
In commercial centres it is not uncommon to see cars double parked with the drivers mobile telephone details left on the windscreen.  If the person blocked in has to get somewhere in a hurry they better hope that the other driver answers his ‘phone.  It drives me up the wall, not just because of the risk of getting stuck but because it cuts down on manoeuvring and driving space on the road.   In Kazakhstan they had a website dedicated to bad parking (I park like an ass.kz) which was so successful at shaming people that the police used it to issue tickets.  I wonder if there is a similar one for Malaysia, I have never heard of it but it is surely much needed!


Malaysian addresses can be impossible to find.  This is because there is a tendency to name every street in the same area with the same name.  Near our house we have a Jalan Tawas Baru 1, Jalan Tawas Baru 2 etc etc up to about 14.  Next to those roads there is a Lorong Tawas 1, 2 3, etc , Perisarian  Tawas Jaya 1, 2, 3, etc, Perisarian Tawas Permai 1, 2, 3, etc.  Housing developments have snappy names such as Uplands, Uplands II, the Enclave, Enclave II, Lakeview Villas, Lakeview Mansions.  You get the idea… Malaysians just do not seem to like unique or new names.  A few weeks ago we joined Mr EE on a business trip to Seremban as we were going to drive on for a holiday in Malacca.  We noticed that they were building a new town (where the school he was speaking at was located), this town was given the imaginative name of Seremban II. The net effect of this is that directions  can get rather confusing and you could, very easily, end up in the wrong town. 

This was the reason we finally succumbed, after years of relying on maps, to a lazy reliance on a GPS system.  We downloaded an app called Waze which brings us turn by turn to our destination.  It is certainly very handy but I feel like a complete fraud every time I use it as we have managed to live our lives without this for 15 years and I worry about the example we are giving to the children.  

When all is said and done, however, driving here is not at all bad and certainly much better than many other places we have lived and visited.  

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Ersatz Expat

27 October 2015

Niah Caves

Niah National Park Sarawak
Home to early man, Niah is one of the most important archaeological
sites in the world. 
A year ago, while we were living in Miri, we took the opportunity to drive down to Niah, a World Heritage Site comprising some of the longest inhabited caves in this part of the world with settlement dating back to 46,000 years ago.  I had meant to write a post about it at the time but so many other things came up.  I realised, the other day, that the trip was about a year ago so I thought it was the right time to post.
Niah National Park Sarawak
River between the welcome centre and the cave trails.
We drove down while my father was on a visit to meet the new baby, Niah is one of the must see tourist attractions of the area and one that my husband and I had wanted to see for many years.  I had been desperate to go since we arrived but it was not really a suitable venue for late pregnancy due to the heavy walking required and the remote nature of the location so we decided to wait until after the birth. We drove down before we bought our own car so, not having the space to seat 6 we had to take both cars.  
Niah National Park Sarawak
The bush trails look like fun
Niah is about 200km from Miri which makes it a (just about) doable day trip.  The roads, while decent, are single lane and there is a distinct likelihood of getting stuck behind a logging truck or a horrendously passive Sarawakian driver.  There are not many places to stop so if this does happen you have no option but to endure.  Our poor little baby was desperate for a feed on the way home and, stuck in that way, she just had to cope until I could pull over in Miri and sort out a bottle for her. 

Niah National Park Sarawak
But, as we had the children with us we stuck to the managed walkways
Niah National Park Sarawak
There is plenty of wildlife but the larger birds and mammals eluded us.
The caves are well signposted and, on arrival, there is an office where you can purchase tickets and register into the park.  Once that is done you have to get a ferry across the river where the walk to the caves begins. 

Exploring Niah National Park Sarawak
A little slippery when wet the boards still make for an easy walk.
There is a very good museum by the banks of the river which explains the history of the caves and the archaeological importance of the finds there.  From the museum it is about a 3-4km walk through the jungle to the first of the caves.  The walk itself is a delight, in order to keep the path clear the parks authority have put down board walk so the going itself is not strenuous (although the heat was enervating, particularly for Mr EE who was carrying the baby).

Niah National Park Sarawak
The walk gives a good opportunity to see the local vegetation
and landscape.
The walk is interspersed with benches and places to rest should you want to and, close to the caves, there is a stall selling souvenirs and (rather overpriced but very cold) drinks.  Every 500m or so there are boards giving (very good quality) information about the forest and vegetation.

Niah National Park Sarawak
The management take great pains to provide good quality information.
The first cave we came to was called Traders' Cave.  This is really no more than a large abri and rather reminiscent of the Cro Magnon habitations of the Dordogne.  It was used, for many years, as a home for the cave nest harvesters and the remains of their lodges, which were built out of belian (iron) wood can still be seen.  The harvesting still goes on, although it is regulated by the park authorities but the harvesters no longer live in Traders Cave.  

Traders' Cave Niah National Park Sarawak
Traders' Cave -you can see the remains of the lodges (dating from the 70s)
on the left hand side.
A short climb further and we came to the aptly named Great Cave.  It is huge, one of the largest I have ever been in.  To the left hand side there was a large section cordoned off and this is where the archaeological research is still ongoing.  A bit further down and we came to a small shelter where our group took the chance to rest, feed and change the baby and give the older children a bite to eat from the picnic we had carried with us. 

Archaeology Niah National Park Sarawak
The archaeological dig at the main cave.
After that we walked into the cave.  Forewarned we had brought torches and they are absolutely necessary.  Beyond the cave mouth the path is in complete darkness.  The trail undulates, sometimes gently, sometimes rather steeply over mountains of guano.  Here and there poles for the bird nest harvesters hang down from the ceiling.  They were not collecting during the time of our visit but it is still a well used location with the nests being highly prized.  Part of the trail leads out the back of the cave to the painted cave decorated with paintings by the earliest inhabitants of the region.  The other part of the trail loops back towards the archaeological dig at the entrance to the main cave.

Niah National Park Sarawak
The path into the cave - note the bird nest harvesting ladders/ropes
hanging down. 
After that we walked back to the river as the evening came in.  We could hear frogs and monkeys in the trees but saw very little.  The return boats are meant to stop at a certain time but, if you ask nicely, they will wait for you should you want to see dusk in the caves and there is accommodation in the park should you want to stay overnight.

Niah National Park Sarawak
Looking back towards the entrange the people (at the mouth of the cave)
give some idea of scale.
We were advised to see Niah before Mulu as after the spectacular caves there it would be a disappointment.  We do think we did the visit in the right order (we went to Mulu 5 months later).  Niah is rather more rough and ready compared with the very slick and managed environment in Mulu and in that regard it was a little bit more fun.  Although we did run into other people in Niah (mostly school groups) it was positively deserted when compared with Mulu which was heaving with visitors. 
Niah National Park Sarawak
Exploring the cave.
One of the things we were sad about when we left Miri was that we would not get a chance to visit Niah again.  We had been hoping to do some of the trail walks and spend more time in the caves and museum.  It was not to be but we were extremely lucky to have been able to see them at all.

Bats Niah National Park Sarawak
Bats roosting in the ceiling of the cave
Niah does have a bit of a reputation for being a more challenging site to visit than Mulu but I think that is a little unfair.  We were a rather unusual band comprising 2 under 8s, a 6 week old, a healthy and active man with a broken foot rather tired from carrying a baby, a pensioner and a 6 week post-operative new mother.  If we could manage it I think just about everybody could.
The youngest ever visitor?  She slept through the whole thing.

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Ersatz Expat

20 October 2015

The Enchanted Heart - Ipoh's Hidden Tibetan Temple.

Tambun, the suburb of Ipoh in which we live, is famous for two things:  Juicy and sweet pomelos and the Lost World of Tambun theme park. 

This large Temple complex is hidden in the hills behind our home.
Driving to the Pomelo farm a few weeks ago we found a sign for a Tibetan Temple.  We were intrigued, the limestone hills of Malaysia were the last place we ever expected to encounter a Tibetan temple (although there are quite a few in the country).  We enjoyed our visits to some of the other temples in Ipoh.  The children are on half term this week and so a small amount of haze notwithstanding (you can see how it blows out the photographs) we decided to drive over and investigate.  We are so pleased that we did, the temple is an absolute gem, a genuine piece of Shangri-La 10km from the city.

The Temple Entrance
Coming into the temple we passed prayer wheels.  The caretaker kindly took the time to explain their use and meaning to the children before giving us a little bit of background on the origins of the temple.
Walkway to the original temple
It was founded in 1976 by a local man, Ge Li Rinpoche.  The caretaker showed us photographs of the original temple under construction.  The main pagoda, which has 11 floors and stands over 72 meters tall was only completed in 2007. It houses a standing Buddha statue on the 9th floor.   Behind that, on the hillside, is the tallest Buddha statue in Perak.  The founder died in 2013, the temple seems to have been funded almost completely by his fortune and one wonders how long it will be able to continue if it does not find another wealthy supporter.

A dragon in the temple...
The original temple is accessed through a walkway of prayer wheels that pass by ponds filled with very large catfish.  It was extremely peaceful and beautifully designed and maintained.

Viewing the pool
These colourful prayer flags are everywhere.  They are sold on the site.
Returning to the main building we walked past flags and prayer wheels into the base of the pagoda.  From there it was possible to look up all the way to the roof.  Platforms holding statues project into the central open space at all levels.

These dragons guard the statues at the base of the main tower.
The dragons are intricately carved and decorated.

The next floor holds statues representing the years of the zodiac and the next floor up has a giant carousel sized prayer wheel filled with hundreds of miniature Buddha statues.  From a quick look they all seemed unique but there might have been some level of duplication. 

The view to the roof is breathtaking
At this level it was possible to walk around the outside and enjoy some stunning views of the local countryside to the front of the temple and see the pomelo and fruit farms nestled in the hills. 
The view to the back of the temple showed the tall Buddha statue built into the hill above the monastery, the building festooned with multi-coloured prayer flags. 

This may look like a carousel but it is full of tiny Buddhas and topped by a lotus
A small selection of the Buddhas seen through the glare of the covering
A thigh burning hike up to the ninth floor brought us to the 11m gold statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha who, stood under his tree, gazes benevolently over the countryside.  We did not go any higher and the view down was enough to give us vertigo.

Prayer wheels around the outer wall of the tower
We are not Buddhists (CofE for our sins) but found the temple a very special place permeated with a true sense of spirituality that is not necessarily present in all places of worship.  Talking to the caretaker it was obvious that there are still strong feelings of affection and love towards the founder.  We were invited back to the ‘Sunning of the Medicinal Buddha’ celebration in a few weeks’ time when devout worshipers will make their way to the temple to roll out a huge painted banner.  This is, we were told, only the fourth year the ceremony has taken place.

The temple in the surrounding countryside.
We got the impression that the temple is not visited by many tourists (this may account for the spiritual air) and that it is not well known even in Ipoh.  The temple is certainly well hidden, identified only by a few ramshackle signs on the roadside.  From there a single track road winds up to the temple which remains hidden behind the orchards until almost the last minute. 

The tallest Buddha in Perak, nestled in the hill
On the 9th floor of the tower the Buddha stands under his tree
and gazes benevolently at the countryside.
The view down through the centre of the tower.
We are so pleased that we found this hidden gem of a temple.  It certainly deserves to be better known and more visited but I do hope that it does not change as a result.  

There are many statues in the central void
If you are ever in Ipoh this must rank as one of the must see sights.  Drive from Tambun past the police station in the direction of Ampang Baru.  You will see the signs for the temple on your left hand side.  

An unprepossessing sign for a wonderful place.
Incidentally any tips on haze photography gratefully received.  I have experimented with various exposure compensations but I cannot stop the photographs looking washed out and rather flat.  

I have added this to the monthly Expat Life Link Up hosted by Amanda Mulligan from Life with a Double Buggy.  Click on the link to read some of the most interesting expat posts on the web!

Expat Life Linky

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Ersatz Expat

15 October 2015

Limau Assam Boi

Baking may be a bit of a challenge in my current kitchen but there are still plenty of culinary things I can get up to.  I love exploring recipes from the places we live.  This drink (literally lime and sour plum juice) might sound like something your grandmother might make you drink for a cold but it is possibly the very best invention of Malaysian cuisine.  It is an effective thirst quencher and extremely tasty to boot.

It is possible to buy a cordial version of this drink but it is over sweet and far too sugary to be pleasant.  A friend gave me her family recipe so that we can now make it up at home.

It may look unprepossessing but this is the very
best Malaysian recipe we have found/
To make the drink for two adults and two children You need:
  • 6 Kasturi Limes (ordinary small limes will do if you cannot get them)
  • 6 Preserved Sour Plums (Assam Boi)
  • Rock Sugar
  • Ice Cubes
  • A blender

Rock Sugar
First take the sour plums and place them in a bowl, add some rock sugar and cover with boiling water to dissolve the sugar and soften the plums.  Next halve the limes and squeeze out the juice.  When all the juice is extracted remove any remaining pips from the skins and place the lime halves in the blender.  Pour the juice over the skins and top up with a little cold water so that the skins are completely covered.  Blend until smooth. 

Preserved Sour Plums
Strain the lime mixture to extract as much juice as possible and wash out the blender.  Return the juice to the blender, add the ice cubes, spring water and the sugary water the plums were soaking in and blend again so that the ice cubes are broken up into small pieces.

Kasturi Limes
Place two plums in the base of each adult’s glass and one in each child’s glass then top up with the icy lime juice mixture and enjoy.

I am still trying out variations and seeing what works and what doesn't.  I had a particularly tasty version of the drink in Malacca where the restaurant prepared it with palm sugar (known as Gula Melaka here in Malaysia), I have some at home and might try this out for the next batch.  Some friends also use honey instead of sugar to sweeten the drink.

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Ersatz Expat

13 October 2015

Cleaning Cats

Our dogs love water, they throw themselves into any puddle, the sea or lake without hesitation.  Why is it then that they hate being washed?  In the UK Bessie was so bath averse that we just took the dog to the nearest river and threw a stick, this together with the daily brush kept her pretty clean and she only needed a shampoo for special occasions.  In Kazakhstan we had to step up the frequency of proper washes, we accomplished this by putting her in the shower and closing the door leaving just enough access for our hands to wash out the shampoo. Once the water in the tray was deep enough she seemed to think she was in a river and settled down.  

This is fun! 
Not so much...
Here in Malaysia Bess has to go to a groomer every 6 months to get her very thick coat clipped to make the heat manageable for her.  She gets a full salon treatment at the same time and I usually send Perdie for a quick wash and blow dry at the same time.  In between, however, the dogs get washed at home.  Luckily unlike Kazakhstan it is warm year round and I can just hose them down in the drive.  They don’t relish it but they have learned to tolerate it and the obligatory shake dry over the humans apart the process is reasonably painless.    

Haircuts are cool but seriously lacking in style.
I have never had to wash a cat and as Kismet is an indoor kitty we were not expecting to have to do this too often.  Sadly I have had an unexpected and rather unwelcome introduction to the art of cat cleaning.

From the day she arrived this cuddly kitten
has loved the furniture
We have been very lucky with Kismet, ever since she came to stay she has been a model puss and we have not had to deal with any accidents, she took to her litter tray straight away.  I was very surprised, therefore, when I found a trail of matter that should have been in the litter tray smeared over my floor.  Inevitably this happened as I was on my way to bed and on a night when I was on my own, Mr EE being away on a business trip.  I checked the cat and her hindquarters were filthy.  I checked my cat book and it said to clean her with cotton wool.  We don’t have any of that so I tried baby wipes.  Unfortunately the cat kept on running away and did not want to be held down for cleansing.

She sits wherever she likes, why should the
humans get the best view of House of Cards. (NB we
do own a TV but our cable connector is broken)
Tactic 2 involved picking the cat up, hugging her tight and putting her rear end under the tap.  This resulted in a lacerated forearm.  She purred, rubbed her head against me and was generally affectionate enough to tell me that it was not personal but she was adamant that her hindquarters were not to be cleaned by human agency.  I would not have minded this independence in an outdoor cat but she likes to curl up me and on the furniture so she really did need to be clean.  

My lap is a favourite spot - dirty hindquarters are
not an option!
Tactic number 3 involved locking us both in the downstairs loo with oven mitts (I now have to replace them) and deploying a spray hose (the type that are often used in place of loo paper here in South East Asia, they are excellent for cleaning off nappies, washing bathrooms and, it seems, cats).  This seemed the most effective method and would have worked really well if I had a kitty cleaning assistant.  On my own, however, it took quite some time and ended up with me rather more soaked than the cat.
We can't throw a stick to persuade the cat to bathe.
After this I conceded defeat, I had done my best, and I placed the cat in her crate with her litter tray and gave myself a few hours’ sleep before returning to check on her and repeat the process.  I was dreading another trip to the vets (and the inevitable instructions to push pills down the cat for a week)  in the morning but it seems my attentions have paid off and (fingers crossed) she is much better now.  She has even forgiven me the indignities of her treatment and has returned to snoozing on my lap. 

Is this the gear I need to clean the cat?
Mr EE is back shortly so I can bet with some certainty that this problem will not recur in the near future but I need to know how to accomplish the task if the need arises.  Diving gear would be great (when Bessie was a baby she was very wriggly and extremely free with her claws so before we had discovered the river/brush method or the tie up to the gate and hose tactic I used to don wetsuit and diving gloves, hat and mask to bathe her) but all my stuff is in a container  in the UK so this will not work.  In the absence of 7mm of neoprene protection I would, appreciate any hints tips and insights on solo cat cleaning hacks.  

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