Sunday, 1 March 2015

Things to Do In Terengganu

The beach near Marang
Day 1 - Thursday
After our long drive north our first full day at Terrapuri was spent mostly lounging around. With few guests overnight breakfast was leisurely, served underneath one of the central buildings. It was raining but every villa has a jar of umbrellas on the verandah so we arrived dry. The trays of food were delivered by two staff, one to hold the umbrella! Nasi Goreng accompanied by smoked chicken sausages, bread fritters and scrambled egg could be followed by toast and marmalade.  Or if you wanted there was a selection of cereals.

Later after an inexpensive if not exactly healthy lunch of squid in batter, a skewer of large prawns also battered and a single steamed fish dumpling between two of us at a local beach cafe Kevin and I explored the coast down as far as Marang by car. Here the various resort ferries depart to the resort islands off the coast - Redang, Kecil and Besar. From a seawall near to the university outward bound centre we watched some smaller boats attempt the local river entrance at low water. It was shallow in the heavy surf breaking across the bar as one ran aground though it was quickly re floated by a crew member who jumped out and pushed it back into the channel!


One of numerous beach eateries along the coast here
Back at Terrapuri all three of us took up sun loungers under sunshades by the pool, alternating lazing around with cooling dips. The pool is gorgeous; leaning on the far end, you've a view of a river inlet with jungle wetlands beyond. We weren't alone, a family from KL were having fun in the pool too. Most of our fellow guests were from KL and spent only a night or two at Terrapuri usually in one of the larger houses that can accommodate four or more.

Another beach cafe provided a tasty tomyam, yet more nasi goreng and lovely stir fried veg served in a yummy ginger and lemongrass sauce for supper. Again inexpensive at 33 ringets (£8) for the three of us, though as everything was freshly prepared, it was quite a wait as they were busy.

Day 2 - Friday
After breakfast Kevin and I decided to hire one of the resorts kayaks for an hour or so's exploration of the wetlands around Terrapuri. These were hefty GRP double man boats but the hotel staff willing carried ours down to the water. There wasn't a buoyancy aid big enough to fit Kevin, his shoulders being much broader than the average Malayan. Similarly the kayak was built for the local market and the seats a cosy fit. Kevin couldn't get in the rear one at all and only just fitted the slightly broader and longer front space so I ended up paddling with my knees bent up. We were told "don't go out into the big river" which was like a red rag to both of us so guess where we headed! The inlet through wetlands was shallow with the tide ebbing gently so for a bit we found ourselves almost punting. The mud was an evil smelling black ooze like Langstone Harbour or Newton Creek in the Solent so we felt at home.

The skipper is just at home in a kayak!
The wetland is mostly made up of a palm with tall upright fronds intermingled with young mangrove trees. We saw little wildlife beyond the odd fish jumping, a squat heron and a brilliant blue kingfisher with a white chest. The inlet twisted and twined its way along the spit towards the "big river" past several cars and fishermen on the bank above us. On the spit to our right the tall coconut palms scattered across the sandy grass like the six pine trees in Winnie the Pooh, were in complete contrast to the wetland on the other side, we poked in and out of the mangroves as we gently paddled along. Out in the big river the outgoing current was strong so we stuck close to the starboard bank, heading upstream along the mangroves for 15 mins or so before turning back. The river was so broad that wakes from returning fishermen in their powerful narrow skiffs or longtails hardly disturbed us as they roared home to the villages up stream. It was a fun expedition but cycling along the spit on a couple of the resort's bicycles may have allowed us to see more wildlife.


Amazing views across Lake Kenyir
An hour or so's drive inland is Lake Kenyir. Apparently the largest man-made lake in SE Asia it was created in 1985 by damming the River Kenyir to drive a power station. The resulting lake contains numerous jungle covered islands which were once hilltops and gives access to areas that were virtually impenetrable previously. The locals haven't been slow to exploit the scenery for tourism with boat trips to any one of the several waterfalls, a herbal garden or to one of the many campsites. It being a holiday weekend the carparks around the main jetty at the north end of the lake was crammed with 4x4s and cars piled  with camping gear, families and cool boxes all waiting for boats to take them out to the campsites or to a houseboat for a couple of nights. Sadly the visitor centre and cafe at the viewpoint above the lake here have seemingly been abandoned to the bats but down at the jetty there are kiosks touting the boat trips and a couple of cafes serving cold fruit juices, fried fish and the ubiquitous nasi goreng.

If you are going that fast at this point it is too late!

Motorway style signs on the lake

Our boat
We and a Malaysian-Chinese family from KL (Mum, Dad and four student children aged 16 - 23) joined forces to book a two hour boat trip encompassing the herb garden and a waterfall walk. It was a fixed price per boat and could seat around a dozen passengers - the father of the other family negotiated our trip for 120 Ringgits (less than a fiver a head in UK terms). Our transport was a broad skiff seating three or four per thwart with a huge outboard engine that enabled the nine of us plus the captain to speed across the water, bow wave rising up on either side. He insisted we all wear buoyancy aids according to "maritime police regulation". They proved a tight fit for our larger European frames, neither Kevin's nor my own would fasten despite having the largest size so they wouldn't have done us much good in an emergency!

Was that a road sign on that distant island?  It seems that with so many islands and inlets huge motorway style signage was required, complete with brown tourist destinations and blue places! The herbal garden was interesting with almost every tree and plant labelled but unfortunately they were mostly in Malay with smattering of Latin or European names I half recognised. Our captain brewed up two revolting and one tasteless "tea" for us all to try using water kept hot in two blackened pots over a wood fire. Medicine is not supposed to taste good but these really were bad and we couldn't really understand what health benefits these local brews were supposed to impart despite our fellow passengers interpreting for us. The massage path was fun to try but proved painful to our soles after just a few metres.

A short distance across the head of the lake we reached the little inlet formed by the river Saok tumbling down a lengthy waterfall. the inlet was crowded with two big houseboats moored and their dozens of occupants swimming or lounging around in the pavilions overlooking the water. Leaving Rhona aboard, the rest of us climbed the path alongside the river to the falls. Quite a few adults and children were having fun bathing in the pools or sliding down the rocks with the water but none of us had brought our swimming gear so we took it in turns to pose for pictures on the rocks instead. Then it was back to the jetty and farewell to our new friends.
Rhona enjoying a sit down

Not impressed with the herbal tea

A massage path

The high water level in the lake meant improvised access

Fun in the waterfall

Photo time

The upper falls

Day 3 - Saturday
Terrapuri's owner also runs a local travel agent Anchorage Tours so various day trips from Terrapuri are on offer. There are two nearby state capitals Kota Bahru to the north in the next state and Kuala Terengganu (KT) an hour or so south. We decided to visit KT. It was good to have someone else driving along the coastal road and our guide offered a bit of a choice on actual activities though having discovered early on that we liked boats our first stop had to be on the way into the city. The island of Duyong is mostly driven over by anyone entering KT from the north as it off-centrally supports the 3km long bridge across the estuary. Its a fairly large island with a resort and a couple of kampungs or fishing villages. Hidden away are three traditional boat yards making wooden fishing boats, though one also claimed to make yachts and its neighbour had a fine example of an almost flat bottomed two masted sailing yacht. From the traditional red canvas sails stored in the shed it looked as if it was junk rigged but what ever the rigging and home comforts it had Kevin and I decided that we wouldn't want to be caught out in a storm on it or attempt making a windward passage as it appeared not to have any form of deep keel or centre board.

Our next stop was the State Museum - a fantastic concrete building created in the style of the regions traditional wooden homes - an impressive edifice that dwarfed our little village homes at Terrapuri. Inside is maze of old fashioned displays - mostly reading but we gathered a little background knowledge of several of the traditional crafts like batik, songket weaving, brass work and boat building. Outside were a collection of old vehicles one used by the city council - a sort of brief history of 20th century transport. Time did not permit us to explore the extensive gardens or find the state collection of Malay houses, it was on to the seriously underwhelming and so called Crystal Mosque.

A gentleman's yacht - tradewind sailing only

Decaying

Terengganu State Museum

The Crystal Mosque

I am not certain what I expected of this building but it looked like a bad bit of 1970's architecture - all bronze reflective glass and white walls though apparently it was built only six or seven years ago. The photo opportunities were predictable - blue skies and fluffy clouds as reflected in the curving surfaces of the domes and minaret towers. The river traffic was more interesting. Terengganu is a strongly Muslim state and our guide I think was a bit put out that we didn't want to stay longer but after the Grand Mosques of Bahrain, Istanbul and Abu Dhabi this one smacked of a blatant attempt at commercialism with its souvenir stalls and its location in a so called Islamic Culture Park. Nonetheless it is Trip Advisor's top attraction in KT!

Lunch was included in our tour fees and was chicken rice at a beach side hawker centre - I'd guess our guide was used to taking Europeans who have a preference for less spicy food. If he had but asked us there were several stalls serving Malay dishes that we'd have liked to have tried. Onward to the best bit of the day for Rhona and I - the craft centre. Another blatantly commercial venue designed to prize money from tourists however we did get to see a little glass blowing, an elderly lady making woven baskets, hats and smaller items from dyed palm fronds and a young lady sketching out a design on a length of white silk prior to dying it. There were other batiks both cotton and silk drying in the craft area. Up a few more steps was a huge hall full of batik for sale - cotton, hand printed, factory printed as well as gorgeous songket fabrics. Songket is a local tradition brought over form India many centuries ago - the cotton or silk fabric is woven with gold or silver threads. It can be heavily ornate like brocade or a lighter design.

Iron batik stamps

Traditional palm weaving

Drawing the design on silk
The halls were a jumble of bright colours, buy a finished garment, a sarong or simply lengths of fabric. Plenty of special offers - ready made sarong tubes were 10 Ringgits or £2 each whilst the absolute bargain was a buy one get one free offer on 4 metre lengths of hand batiked silk for 380 ringgits (around £70). Four metres is long enough to make a sari as the assistant showed me but my intention for a peacock blue with orange orchids length is to make a kaftan, the other slightly less gaudy may become a smart dress or skirt or both.

Chinese New Year being a public holiday even in this predominantly Muslim state the traffic was terrible so our progress around the city from venue to venue was extremely slow. Eventually we made it to the brass workshop but there was little to see apart from one young lad polishing a huge vase one last time with that very British invention Brasso. The owner explained to Kevin that they had been forced to move from their historic site across the road by redevelopment so some temporary buildings currently house their shop and machines. Not ideal with little parking but he hopes to move to a purpose built place "soon". From there we drove very slowly through the Central Market area and Chinatown due to the shear volume of traffic. Deciding we'd done and seen enough for one day it was time to head back to the peace and quiet of Terrapuri and the pool.

Tall palms on a sandy spit

Trying desperately to remain standing for this selfie!
That is Kevin's head in the distance
Once back Rhona headed for a little nap whilst Kevin and I changed  into swmming gear and ventured to the beach. The sea was warm and blue. However we soon realised there was a strong current running parallel to the coast and a shallow sand bar some twenty metres or so off the steeply shelving beach; not a place I would recommend for swimming or surfing if you are not a confident swimmer. The stiff onshore breeze caused by the North East Monsoon meant the breakers on the bar were fairly large even making it over to break again on the beach. Perhaps a nice location to lie on a sunlounger and be exfoliated by the monsoon swept white sand at this time of year as a couple of guests were doing, hence the younger guests were making extensive use of Terrapuri's pool! Sandy and sticky with salt we retreated to that pool via the quirky poolside shower disguised as a mass of devils ivy climbing a wooden pole.

So in summary:
Be prepared to slow down, nothing in this state happens fast and when eating out in Terengganu you need to love fish, spicy foods and not be too bothered about eating healthily!

Things to See:
  • Lake Kenyir is well sign posted as Tasik Kenyir from most places
  • Kuala Terengganu - but go on a week day and not on the Saturday of Chinese New Year
  • Batik Making - we visited the Noor Arfa craft centre
  • The National Museum - I'd guess you could probably spend a whole morning here
  • The beaches - white sand and tall swaying palms but be careful about swimming off them
  • Traditional Malay Houses - what better place to experience these than Terrapuri! 
  • Learn a few words of Malay (Bahasa Meyalu) especially food words as there are few menus only pinned up lists - see below
You can find a few more ideas of places to visit or to shop for local crafts here and here

Our Essential Guide to Bahasa Melayu menus:
  • Nasi - rice
  • Nasi Lemak - coconut rice
  • Mee - noodles
  • Goreng - fried
  • Ikan - fish (Ikan Bilis are anchovies and often seem to appear on menus)
  • Sotong - squid
  • Ayam - chicken
  • Air - water but also may be juice eg Air Limau is lime juice a common refreshing drink
  • Keropok Lekor - a Terengganu fish sausage, roadside stalls selling this always have huge queues


We'll certainly be back as a couple of nights on a houseboat seem like fun and there are still the resorts of Khota Bahru further north to explore as well as the island of Redang.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Chinese New Year Break in Remote Malaysia

A Staghorn Fern
Having rather belatedly managed to book a short holiday in North Eastern Malaysia for Kevin, myself and Rhona, flights back to Singapore proved impossible to find so there was little alternative but to drive the 670 odd kilometres north to the Malaysian state of Terengganu from Singapore. The Wednesday prior to Singapore's Chinese New Year holidays (Thursday 19 & Friday 20 Feb) turned out to be a long day passing acre upon acre of oil palm plantations. There were short respites from the monotonous dark green with a few plantations of rubber trees and at odd times stretches of jungle or glimpse of a beach from the coastal road but mostly it was oil palm.

From just north of Kuatuan a new expressway made the journey faster though an early unexplained detour routed us along with dozens of other cars plus a few coaches off the motorway over a bridge through a toll booth, an immediate  U-turn back through the toll booth and back onto the original expressway where we passed through a third toll. Despite handing over our card at each booth we seemed to be charged a few ringgits just once in all the palaver! Further north the advertised service stations were still under construction so we had to make another detour towards Bukit Besi in search of fuel and loo's; the first garage we reached a couple of kilometres from the expressway offered the latter but had run out of the former though the staff helpfully supplied directions to a rival garage. Back on the expressway it came to a confusing end somewhere to the west of Kuala Terengganu and not as shown on our map, south of the town. However the route north to Maranga and Penarik was reasonably well signposted and we never actually got lost.

Glass net floats by the gate
In fact the only mishap of the day was not of our making; as Kevin slowly pulled onto a roundabout on the outskirts of Kuala Terengganu, an elderly motorcyclist thought he could shoot in front of us taking the shortest route to the next but one exit...our Hyundai nudged him to the ground and we feared the worst as he disappeared under the near side corner of the bumper. Fortunately it all happened so slowly that only his pride was damaged. He apologised profusely, waving Kevin back into the car and the few onlookers away as he brushed himself down...his dusty pinstripe trousers seemingly took the brunt of his short slide along the gutter, peppered with holes but then they may have been like that already!

Eventually as dusk was falling we pulled up outside a sturdy gate. Terrapuri is situated on a long sand spit north of Penarik Beach with a river in one side and tall coconut palms, white sand fringing the South China Sea on the other. Above the outer wall we could see the red roof tiled tops of traditional Malay buildings on stilts with their quirky steep, gently curved gabled ends overhanging the lower end roof. The ancient wooden walls are weathered silver grey. Our first glimpses of Terrapuri were even more stunning than the photos we'd seen online, the welcome was warm and genuine even if the staff probably aren't that used to European expat guests.

Tendrils of morning glory
The first challenge were the steps up to reception, this is not the place to stay if you have limited mobility but we had been warned. Broad but steep wooden stairs lead up to the reception "house" verandah and another flight of even steeper stairs into the house itself. Cold towels, a refreshing drink and diamonds of sweet melon were served as we signed in. Then as darkness fell, we were conducted to our two houses. Rhona chose one with a hand rail as it was easier to climb and ours tucked just inside the inner gate had curved steps that seem to rest lightly on the verandah framework but proved perfectly sturdy.

Terrapuri is the fruit of one man's passion, apparently the owner Alex rescued historic 100 to 250 year old Malay houses from around the region for many years before he found the perfect plot of land to reconstruct them on. The result is laid out along the lines of a traditional Malay palace; four central buildings doing duty as reception, a lounge and for serving meals are surrounded by a shallow "moat" containing a variety of fish and some stands of reeds with stepping stones for access. On the northern side and also towards the rear of the plot more wooden houses each provide guest accommodation. A couple of brick buildings in the old style are home to the kitchen and the spa on the southern side. At the opposite end to the entrance gates is a gorgeous infinity pool overlooking the river. Beside the pool is a water feature made of traditional mill stones, the splashing water both cooling and relaxing. Scattered around are many large pots some containing water lillies, ancient farming equipment, wooden boats, spinning wheels, loom frames, plants, trees and the occasional cat.

The inner "square"
High Rise Dining Room
Breakfast was taken under one of the central houses

Tembakang - our home for our stay
Each unique house with it's Malay name rather than an impersonal number, contributes to the beauty of the place. Inside "Tembakang" (our house) was a single long room about 20 foot long by 10 foot wide. The underside of the clay tiles visible high above in between the wooden rafters. The two set of doors opening onto the verandah are held shut from inside with wooden bars, the floor is a deep gleaming red like a pecan nut shell and the windows though now glazed still retain their intricate wooden lattice work. A pair of big ceiling fans spin lazily stirring the air from the floor based ac unit (looking for all the world like a European radiator). At the far end the bed is draped with white muslin mosquito nets sewn to a canvas square in turn hanging from a wooden frame suspended above the bed; essential equipment so close to the wetlands that line the river banks.  A desk, a single chair, a shelf carrying a brass tray with cups, saucers, kettle and a fridge tucked below it, a glazed cupboard and a small chest complete the furnishings. Every surface has been decorated with frangipane blossoms and a length of dark crimson songket, the locally woven gold threaded brocade runs across the foot of the bed.
Old farming tools hang under some buildings
Water feature by the pool
Water pot
 Stepping down into the room beyond that runs the full length of the rear of our nest we discovered a luxurious bathroom. To the left a pair of square sinks, by the central window a huge wooden bathtub. To the right of that a loo with a view over the wetlands and beyond, a slate shower room the size of many family bathrooms. A towel rail and a couple of oversized coat hooks complete the furnishings. These houses may be historic but their bathrooms have full mod cons including hot running water and an almost dustbin lid sized shower head!

Intricate windows

We opted to eat in for our first evening not being able to face the short drive to the beach cafes of Penarik. The set menu is simple but tasty local food though that first night was served up in a mysterious order that saw savoury and sweet courses arrive together. Odd but the view from the raised dining area over the swimming pool and beyond to the wetlands more than made up for it - even in the darkness it was dramatic.

The long drive was definitely worth the effort and the next few days proved perfectly relaxing and away from it all. We fell a sleep that night to the sound of the ocean breaking on the beach.

PS: There are lots more photos of this gorgeous and historic resort on Terrapuri's website and their facebook page