Props to Taipei

Can’t have a day in Malaysia without sighting snakes – it is the Chinese year of the legless reptile. True, I could have just looked down, but instead we caught a taxi to the Sarawak Museum. The museum, founded by the white Rajah Brookes, has a number of branches around the city: Chinese, Islamic, Textiles and more. We headed to the oldest, the ethnological branch.

There were stuffed animals (a natural history branch is adjacent, but we didn’t visit), including the snakes, fish and magnificent bird specimens. Upstairs, the rattan weaving skills of the local tribes were astonishing in their fine skills, while the wooden masks range from the scary to the comical.
Across the road is the Abdul Tun Razak (Malaysia’s founding father) Hall, which had gorgeously detailed Chinese ceramics and furniture on display, along with items from the Japanese occupation and the White Rajahs period. I was surprised by how much B and I enjoyed the museum. Alex wanted breakfast.
We walked to the Indian Bazaar part of town for said breakfast, consisting of roti canai and nasi goreng, taken at the Muslim run Bismallah Cafe. Then we walked back to the hotel past the colourful clothing and textile shops, purchasing mobile phone game related clothes for Alex (I’m sure they were all properly licensed products…). B complained that I hadn’t brought her here earlier, but somebody else wanted Chinese, Chinese, Chinese…

Supposedly honeydew melon. More like bubblegum!

We had to race to pack in time for checkout and it was rush hour around the schools when we left by taxi a little after midday. Malaysian schools have two separate classes per day: One in the morning, a second in the afternoon.
The rush turned out to be unnecessary as there was plenty of time to check in and pass through security. Kuching Airport is surprisingly nice and large for a largely regional operation.
Our routing up to Taipei was an interesting one. The first leg was a MASWings (Malaysia Airlines Borneo regional service) ATR72-500 turboprop up to Bintulu in northern Sarawak. 
Another case of Malaysia Airlines stuffing up our seats. I had prebooked us seats in row 7, but our boarding passes read row 1. This was a problem because the first row is an exit seat and not suitable for children. But another passenger kindly swapped to let B and Alex sit in row 2 behind me. And despite being largely full, I and the other passenger got the front rows to ourselves.
The ATR72 interior is quite comfortable and jet like without being too noisy. A cute little screen popped down from above to display safety information and advertising. Did you know that KFC makes a great gift for loved ones or business associates?
We were given a reasonably fresh though sparsely filled egg and lettuce roll and a fruit juice during the flight by the friendly Christine, one of two flight attendants onboard.
One not so great feature of turboprops is handling in turbulence and there were many threatening tropical clouds on this flight with more than a few shakes. We passed over the brown rivers snaking across the Sarawak landscape. Sadly, so much of the deep green jungle was scarred by the tan cracks of logging rows or the spots of palm oil plantations.

This oil is widely used in cooking and as a source of biodiesel. But the monoculture of the plantations is so sterile compared with the rich biodiversity of the jungle. This is more than apparent from the air and even more so on the ground.
Bintulu’s airport terminal was suprisingly large but the exterior was somewhat rundown. Here we encountered the first taste of the Borneo states’ stupid immigration restrictions. We were catching exactly the same flight, same aircraft, same crew, same seats to Kota Kinabalu, all in about 15 minutes time, but we had to leave the aircraft, walk across the tarmac, up some stairs and then all the way to the opposite end of the terminal. There we collected some handwritten boarding passes, passed the wrong way through the immigration checkpoint to get our passports stamped and then reverse the whole procedure.

The flight to Kota Kinabalu was more of the same, except the sandwiches were crab salad filled instead. I found the flights very pleasant and just a tad tropically adventurous. I’m not sure if I spotted Mount Kinabalu, almost 4,100 metres high and the tallest in Malaysia, through the dark clouds that threatened. As we landed at KK airport I saw a bolt of lightning flash.

More Borneo immigration stupidity as we had to again go out through a poorly signposted immigration route past an empty security check – we just walked around the x-ray machine. The airport itself was modern and new, but we walked straight to the boarding gate, this time passing through a security check.
There were two Malaysia Airlines 737-800 parked at the tarmac. One had the old livery, the other the new paint job with a big OneWorld on the side, MAS just gaining membership of the alliance. One probably had the new interior, the other no seatback video. Which would we get?

The new plane! Burgundy leather seats with wide screens in the back. A smiling crew, one who gave Alex a couple of boiled lollies and the very friendly chief purser Qasim who was either gay or not gay in the same way that the famous Malaysian Chef Wan is. 😉

This flight was everything that our previous Malaysia Airlines 747 flights to Europe were not. Even the food was pretty good, a choice between chicken curry or Szechuan fish with noodles. We all loved the cake! It was really nice to fly a full service airline, especially as the view out the window was black most of the way.

B and I both watched The Life of Pi on our screens, kind of appropriate as Ang Lee is Taiwanese. I barely managed to fit it in before landing – lucky I had my own earphones. Alex was wonderfully cheerful, watching Rio then his own video without sound. 

Arriving in a new country is always accompanied by a bit of trepidation, especially when you don’t speak or read the local language. Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport was interesting in design, but looking a little worn around the edges. We passed through immigration, grabbed some brochures from the tourist office, some money from the ATM and bus tickets to the Taipei’s main station.

The route was mostly freeway, the traffic heavy despite being almost 10pm. At 17 degrees outside both B and Alex were feeling cold. I felt quite pleasant in my shorts and t-shirt, especially after Malaysia’s heat and humidity. 
My first impressions of Taipei is that it’s like a cross between Japan, China and Bangkok. Once at Taipei’s Main Station I was lost. I had to call the hotel and ask for directions. Crossing over a walkway we spotted huge numbers of scooters racing below. The air smelled of petrol fumes and rubbish. 

Our hotel, the CityInn II was opposite McDonalds and KFC. It looked very fresh and modern inside, the front desk staff spoke English and the room was well equipped but tiny. No more big luxury hotel rooms on this trip!
B wanted some supper in the famously foody city, but her hotpot restaurant turned out to be shabu-shabu, the KFC was closing and it was McDonalds or nothing. I think Alex appreciated a bit of sadly familiar food (and salad) and I have to admit that it was nice not to use chopsticks or try to slurp noodles, just for once.
When we turned off the lights Alex started crying that he missed his friends and extended family and they missed him. It was so very sad. Hopefully we can cheer him up today with one of the fastest and tallest elevators in the world.
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