Friday, July 14, 2006

Beautiful islands

Malaysia’s position in the tropics means that it is both hot and humid all year round. There is no bad time to visit – the monsoon season is between October and January but heavy rain can prove to be a welcome relief! The rest of the year sees endless days of sunshine with temperatures averaging 28 – 30 Degrees Celsius.

Just off the coast it is possible to see an array of beautiful islands which make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Exploring the coral reefs and marine life in this underwater world is fascinating and day trips here can be easily arranged - most islands are less than 45 minutes away by boat. Once you arrive you will be amazed at how clear the water is and just how many different fish you can see. There are also many wonderful beaches to be explored on the islands!

Facing inland, it’s possible to see the peaks of Mount Kinabalu in the distance. This is another of Sabah’s main attractions and the views from the top at Sun rise more than make up for the two day climb. Afterwards you can soak your aching muscles at Poring where the sulphur hot springs provide a therapeutic bath.

Throughout the whole of Sabah you will find many local "Tamu", meaning market - the variety of fruit, vegetables, plants and handcrafted items on sale at cheap prices has to be seen to be believed! Some of the exotic fruits that you may come across include Rambutan, Mangosteen, Belimbing (or star fruit) and last but not least, the Durian. This green spiky fruit is famous throughout Asia due to its pungent smell - but don't be put off by this as it is actually something of a delicacy(!).

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Sipadan Supreme Diving

Bill Boakes and Nicolla Briggs, two UK nationals with backgrounds in printing and retail decided that, with few ties in the UK, it was time to 'see the world.' Already with a deep love of diving, they decided that a holiday in south-east Asia sounded ideal. Although they had initially only planned to transit through Malaysia en route for Thailand, visits to west coast Islands of Langkawi and Pangkor convinced them there was something 'special' about this country. However, it was trips to the east coast and Perhentian in particular, where they unearthed a conflation of well-priced dive sites and the ambience of the Islands that led them to believe they had found their 'spiritual home.' This was only enhanced by subsequent trips to Sabah and the diving paradise centred on Sipadan Island.

With time in Malaysia for us coming towards its close, we decided to conclude our fantastic holiday with a visit to East Malaysia to sample the dive possibilities there. Widely recognised as one of the world's top five dive sites, the designation of Sipadan Island as a Marine Park at the beginning of 2005 has meant that anyone wishing to dive here was forced to reconsider their accommodation possibilities. While scouring the net, we uncovered the unusual option of basing ourselves on a now converted oil-rig platform Sea Venture situated just off the Island of Mabul.
Our time in Tawau was all to brief but after a comfortable night in a hotel, we were met promptly at 06.30 the next morning for our transfer to the rig. Although the rig is only 1km from the island of Mabul, it looms large on the horizon. If you have ever wondered how you actually board an oil rig, it's simple, you hop on a platform that sits slightly under the surface of the water and ascend 'lift style'. What a fantastic way to board this stationary vessel and what an even better way in reverse to begin your dives on their 'in-house' reef!
As you might imagine for a home originally designed for oil-rig workers, things are a little on the basic and cramped side but we found everything adequate for our needs; with the terrific plus side that the food was fantastic. But we were here to dive and with unlimited dives available, that is exactly what we did!
This was a big contrast to the accessibility and straightforwardness of Perhentian. Sipadan is actually a mushroom shaped atoll rising seven hundred meters from the deep sea floor. It is this contrast that creates both the technicality of the dives and the environment for the plethora of marine life that you are likely to see.
Sipadan may not be the best arena for beginners to learn their craft: there are many more suited sites for that in Malaysia; but if you are comfortable with your skill levels, then this is definitely the place to test them. Currents can be quite strong and the amazing visibility demands careful checking of gauges and the speed of descents. As a dive experience, it is hard to imagine anything better.
Everything that we had ever hoped to see in this part of the world seemed to be here - in abundance. Whether it was swirls of almost menacing Barracuda, or the eerie silhouette of sharks gracefully passing overhead, there were so many moments that had you wanting to shout with exaltation. Only to realise the impossibility of any sort of shouting at forty meters plus! For Nudibrank (brightly coloured reef worm) freaks like me, this was as good as it gets. The only problem, keeping an eye on available camera memory as well as dive gauges! An underwater housing for your digital camera is highly recommended.
Far too quickly our two night/three day experience reached its close. But both Nicky and I knew that this, along with so many of our underwater experiences in Malaysia, had been memorable enough to guarantee our return. Soon!!
Dos and Don'ts

When visiting Malaysia, visitors should observe local customs and practices. Some common courtesies and customs are as follows:

* Although handshakes are generally acceptable for both men and women, some Muslim ladies may acknowledge introductions to gentlemen by merely nodding and smiling. A handshake should only be initiated by ladies. The traditional greeting or salam resembles a handshake with both hands but without the grasp. The man offers both hands, lightly touches his friends outstretched hands, and then brings his hands to his chest to mean, "I greet you from my heart". The visitor should reciprocate the salam.

* It is polite to call before visiting a home.

* Shoes must always be removed when entering a Malaysian home.

* Drinks are generally offered to guests. It is polite to accept.

* The right hand is always used when eating with one's hand or giving and receiving objects.

* The right forefinger is not used to point at places, objects or persons. Instead, the thumb of the right hand with four fingers folded under is the preferred usage.

* Shoes must be removed when entering places of worship such as mosques and temples.

* Some mosques provide robes and scarves for female visitors. Taking photographs at places of worship is usually permitted but always ask permission beforehand.

* Toasting is not a common practice in Malaysia. The country's large Muslim population does not drink alcohol.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A Land of Fascinanting

In the heart of Asia lies a land of many cultures, wonders and attractions. It's a bubbling, bustling melting pot of races and religions where Malays, Indians, Chinese and many other people live together in peace and harmony. It is also a land of fascinating extremes, where towering skyscrapers look down upon primitive longhouses. Blessed with natural wonders galore, it is perfect for a memorable eco-holiday. With some of the best beaches and diving spots in the world, it is ideal for island getaways. Experience Asia in Malaysia.

Geography of Malaysia
Malaysia is a federation of 13 states in Southeast Asia, formed in 1957. The country consists of two geographical regions divided by the South China Sea:

West Malaysia(or Peninsular Malaysia) on the Malay Peninsula shares a land border on the north with Thailand and is connected by the Johor-Singapore Causeway and the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link to the south with Singapore. It consists of the 11 states Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Penang, Selangor, and Terengganu, and the two federal territories of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur.

East Malaysia occupies the northern part of the island of Borneo, bordering Indonesia and the Sultanate of Brunei. It consists of the federal territory of Labuan islands and the states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Transportation – Getting to Malaysia
Set in the heart of Southeast Asia, Malaysia is easily accessible from most parts of the world by air, surface and sea links. Over 45 international airlines fly into the country while national carrier Malaysia Airlines has a global network that spans six continents and a national network that covers more than 36 local destinations. AirAsia, Malaysia's budget airline also services certain domestic and regional routes.

By Air
Most visitors arrive by air at one of the six international airports in Malaysia. The main gateway is the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) at Sepang in the state of Selangor. The rest of the country, including Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territory of Labuan in East Malaysia, is well serviced by 14 domestic airports and airstrips.

Located about 50km from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur (KL), the fully computerised, state-of the-art KLIA is among the most modern airports in the world. KLIA is a four-runway airport facility capable of handling an initial 25 million passengers per annum with facilities for expansion to 45 million passengers per annum.

Incorporated into the airport's design is an automated shuttle system which links the satellite building, where passengers disembark, to the airport terminal building, where immigration and customs clearances take place. With a connection time of a mere two minutes, this fully automated baggage and passenger clearance system is especially efficient.

Within the airport terminal building, there are rest, recreation, dining, and duty-free shopping facilities. The fitness centre at the Hotel Airside Transit even comes with a well-equipped gym, steam room and sauna. Just a mere 5-minute walk from the airport is the luxurious 5-star Pan Pacific Hotel.

From KLIA, KL is a short 28-minute journey away on the comfortable KLIA Ekspres, a high-speed rail service. By road, visitors may travel via the ELITE highway or the North-South Expressway. The North-South Expressway also links the main towns on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Car rental, bus, coach, taxi, limousine and rail services into Kuala Lumpur and neighbouring towns are widely available at the airport.

By Sea
Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia are easily accessible via sea ports. Located just outside the capital city of Kuala Lumpur (KL) on the west coast of the Peninsular, Port Klang is Malaysia’s largest modern sea port. With excellent harbourage, it is also a major shipping and cargo terminal. Other major sea ports are located on the islands of Penang and Langkawi, in the north of the Peninsular; at Johor to the south; at Kuantan on the East Coast; and at Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.

Westport on Pulau Indah
Already serviced by North Port and South Port, Port Klang is now serviced by the new international harbour city – Westport located on the island of Pulau Indah. A free trade zone, Pulau Indah is currently being developed as an industrial, commercial, residential, recreational and tourism hub with a marina and resorts.

Stretching over 11km, with a natural depth of 14-18 metres, Westport is designed to be a high-tech regional port. It has a container terminal, large warehouse area and commercial centre. Star Cruise Terminal - the largest cruise ship terminal in the Asia-Pacific region – is also situated here. Star Cruise is a major international leisure cruise line that calls at Penang, Port Klang, Malacca and Langkawi.

FerryLink operates a vehicular ferry service from Changi Point in Singapore to Tanjung Belungkor on the southern coastline of the Peninsular. Tanjung Belungkor is the gateway to the popular beach resort of Desaru. There are four daily trips on weekdays and eight daily trips on weekends.

By Road and Rail
Located 48km north of Alor Star in the northern state of Kedah, Bukit Kayu Hitam is the main entry point into Malaysia for visitors from Thailand. The North-South Expressway links Bukit Kayu Hitam to Kuala Lumpur – 490km away. Near the Malaysian immigration and customs post are restaurants, shops, car parks and a duty-free shopping complex.

Situated on the main rail route with a daily train service from Bangkok, Padang Besar – in Malaysia's northernmost state of Perlis – is another entry point. Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) or Malayan Railway provides an international express from Butterworth to Haadyai in Thailand, and regular services from Padang Besar to Singapore via Kuala Lumpur.

The exclusive Eastern and Oriental Express also romances the route from Bangkok to Singapore via Kuala Lumpur. Covering the entire length of the Peninsular – over 2,000 km, this two-day journey has frequent stops at scenic locations.

For visitors entering from the Singapore, Johor Bahru is the main southern entry point. The North-South Expressway links Johor Bahru with Kuala Lumpur – 220km to the north. A rail and road causeway connects Johor Bahru to Singapore. Immigration and customs checkpoints are based at the entrance to the Causeway. A second bridge links Tanjung Kupang – 30km south-west of Johor Bahru – to Tuas in Singapore.