Friday, 27 June 2008

Singapore, Singapore

Hello from Singapore... In Kuala Lumpur I did a spot of sightseeing and a lot of shopping! I bought some warm clothes in preparation for Australia's winter, plus a pair of sneakers as the soles of my ballet pumps have peeled away after three months' of hardcore walking in countries without pavements. My big toe is poking out of the left shoe so it's time to say goodbye... Apart from shopping I went up Merdaka tower "the 4th highest tower in the world", and took loads of pictures of the city as the sun set, and wandered around Little India, Chinatown and the colonial district. I met up with Azmir, who is a friend of a friend, for a tasty Malay lunch, had a good chat and evaluated KL and life after Warwick... Good thing I found plenty to do because I had to clear out of my hostel for a day because they were fumigating the rooms! They claimed that all KL hostels underwent fumigation regularly, but I'm not so sure.. Interestingly I didn't see any bugs until after the alleged fumigation! They probably fumigated them out of hiding...

In Melaka I bumped into the Aussie family I crossed the border with! I was tempted to run and hide to avoid another recitation of South-East Asia's currencies, but I braved them and they were rather sweet, bubbling with recommendations of what to see. Melaka was overrun with tourists, many of whom were Dutch - they obviously feel they still own the place! ;-) and had some good sights, including the Stadthuys and the museums in it; a ruined cathedral on a hill; the Sultanate Palace; Chinatown; but I was disappointed that there was so much traffic, even through the nice old bits. In Malaysia everyone has a car, as opposed to Vietnam for example, where everyone has a motorbike - I really don't know which is worse! I think I was hoping Melaka would be more like Luang Prabang in Laos, but it lacks Luang Prabang's character and peacefulness. Apparently a lot of Singaporeans come to Melaka for the weekend - that's when everything is open, and they have the nightmarket along Jonker Street (which has loads of arty shops and some boutiques). It was quite fun, with loads of weird food, including fried egg ice cream, which is a deep-fried egg 'pocket' filled with ice cream - I watched a Malaysian girl eat it and she looked torn between disgust and bemusement and giggled a lot! Other delicacies included hot dog waffle (a hot dog sausage in a waffle), Cupcorn (a cup of sweetcorn), Magic Ice (flavoured ice lolly, including Durian flavour, which is an absolutely rank-smelling fruit considered a real treat in South-East Asia), pineapple tarts (Melaka is number one for these, which have a pineapple jam topping and I've been eating since my scuba dive, when they had them on the boat), radish cake (a white spongy mass which is fried and cut into squares), and rice balls (made of ground rice/rice powder, taste like knoedel), which I ate with wonton soup (yum). I saw two stalls selling rock hard caramel-stuff, which they had to chisel off a block (!); it really would have made any dentist weep to see it. There were also live bands, mostly headed by large sweaty American guys, whose repertoire was limited to old-school rock covers, but fun to watch (I liked the Bob Dylan covers at least). Also fun to watch were the elderly Chinese men sitting on plastic chairs and smoking and watching the bands with impassive faces - you'd think they weren't that bothered but I think they were actually loving it! My suspicions that Asians have inherently bad taste in music were finally confirmed when I saw Modern Talking CDs for sale (cringe-worthy German band that should be taken outside and shot).
I stayed in the Eastern Heritage Guesthouse which the American girl in the Cameron Highlands had said was ok. The building was a stunning old Chinese-style house with slightly shabby rooms and open-air bathrooms on what could be a great balcony looking out over the rooftops - I found myself looking at it and making restoration plans, which makes me think I might have the dreaded Hendry-house-'fixing' gene! Aaah! Luckily I will never have enough money to buy a house, ha ha...

My border crossing to Singapore was another interesting one... the Malaysian border check was easy and we zipped through no-man's land, then to the Singaporean check-point. As the bus driver handed me my backpack he said I had twenty minutes and after that the bus was leaving, so if I missed it I'd have to wait for the next one. I went in and there were huge crowds waiting, and the only queue that was moving was the Singapore-passport queue, the 'all other passports' queues were jammed. After a while they turned one of the SP-passport queues into an all-passports checkpoint so I slipped over and the queue started moving. Ahead of me I saw one other Westerner who was on the same bus as me and noticed he had an arrival/departure card, which I didn't, so I went over and asked him where he got it, and he said he'd been given it with the bus ticket in Melaka. Obviously they'd forgotten to give me one... So I had to get out of the queue and find one and fill it in, then back into the queue, through the check point and through customs, and of course the bus had gone when I got out. About five others from my bus had also missed it (mostly Malaysians and Singaporeans on holiday, no backpackers at all), including the Australian guy from the queue. They were all rather confused and worried - I was the only one who'd been told what to do if we missed the bus so I told them another one would be along soon and we waited... The Australian turned out to be from Melbourne, now living in Perth, and was a retired hippie who'd done the trip I did in the 70's, when he said his bus in Laos was shot at... this time round he was just on holiday to Singapore (which he hated) and had popped up to Melaka for a couple of days. He also said that lots of Malaysians commute across the border every day to work in Singapore for higher wages, so I dread to think what the border would have been like on a weekday in the morning or evening!
When we got to Singapore I checked into Bugis Backpackers, which is a nice enough place in a good location between Little India and the Colonial district/city centre. The mixed dorm is noisy (which I'll have to get used to for Australia) but clean and the bathrooms are decent (last time I saw a cockroach in my bathroom was in Songkhla so I'm hoping that was the last!). A poor little Korean guy was asking me how he can phone his parents from here - obviously I look like a seasoned backpacker; I think it's my scruffy look. Makeup? can't remember what that is... same goes for sleek hair or wrinkle-free clothes or having clean feet :-)
This is the most expensive capital I've been to in South-East Asia. There are loads of hip Asian teenagers (they all smoke! this might be what happens if you ban chewing gum?!) and glamorous girls and sophisticated women running around (always shopping...there's a real spend, spend, spend mentality here) and the malls and subway are crowded. The malls are extremely disorienting! You can walk into one and wander about aimlessly and suddenly you've crossed into the adjacent one without knowing it and are in a completely different street because they're so big! Lots of Western clothes at Western prices... and fun food courts where you can eat pretty much anything. If I'd come here straight from the UK I would probably not be enthusiastic about it but after everywhere else it's civilised and nice and easy to get round. True it lacks character and is basically a big shopping center, but the river front is quite nice, and the Asian Civilisations Museum I went to yesterday kept me occupied for over four hours - it was really good and had loads of interactive displays. I suspect they plundered every other museum in South-East Asia because they have all the best artifacts from the countries I've been to... maybe that explains why all other museums so far have been a bit mediocre! However they also know how to display the items properly and write informative blurbs. I think the other countries just aren't quite as slick and up to scratch on Western-style museum culture, but on the other hand they make up for it by having beautiful things like temples and old buildings to stumble across on the street (for free! take that, Singapore). I also went to Raffles Hotel and had a Singapore Sling (cliché, I know, but it had to be done) and am checking out the Botanic Gardens today. Tomorrow I'm going to the art gallery here and hope it's as good as the museum. Then it's off to the airport (nice and easy on the MRT/underground) and next stop Oz...

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Greetings from Malaysia! This is a very multicultural place (with exciting food) with a British influence which can be seen in the architecture and the language... e.g. taxi is teksi, bus is bas, and restaurant is restoran! Most people on the east coast speak English quite well, so it's easy to ask for directions or arrange transport and so on. Some of them stare, but a lot of them (especially here in KL) are not bothered - which I prefer!
I had a relatively easy border crossing from Thailand in a minibus with an Australian family who were from Cairns and doing a long South-East Asian trip with a 6- and a 9-year old. Slightly unconventional... I got to sit next to the boy, who recited lots of Australian birds (with sound effects) and the South-East Asian currencies. It was a fun three hours... On the upside the dad was able to give me loads of tips on where to go on the east coast of Australia, as they travelled up and down it in a campervan.
I had arranged to meet my Finnish friend Pia (who also did art history at Warwick) in Penang in the afternoon. Unfortunately neither of us realised there's a one-hour time difference from Thailand, so she had to wait an hour! Great start... but actually finding each other once I arrived was relatively painless thanks to our mobile phones. She's in Penang for two months with her boyfriend (from Oz/South Africa) who works for Accenture and regularly works abroad. They're staying in a rather nice appartment complex (pool, gym, sauna..) and have a hire car, so Pia drives Garron to work and picks him up at the end of the day so she has the car to get about in during the day. We spent two days touring the island and taking in the sights, e.g. a waterfall, Penang Hill (by cablecar), a butterfly farm, the botanics (with monkeys), and Georgetown's museum, colonial district, Little India, Chinatown, and a great tour around a gorgeous mansion built by a Chinese businessman, Cheong Fatt Tze, and recently restored to its former glory. We had a great Chinese guide - she was really charismatic and funny, and went into details about Chinese culture, explaining chi, feng shui and yin/yang, and how they were applied to the house. We also went to the night market in Batu Feringgi (the area in which P & G live) and even though Garron thought it would be a brilliant idea if I bought a huge wooden parrot for about 500 pounds on M&D's credit card, I resisted.
I stayed two days with them, then got the ferry across to Butterworth (main transport hub in the area). Before Pia dropped me off we popped into a Tesco Lotus to see what it was like. The fresh veg and fruit section was nice because it was set out like in a market here, without being packaged, and everything looked fresh and tasty. Lots of meat, fish, noodles, rice (at prices that locals surely couldn't afford) but also international products like cereal and peanut butter.
From Butterworth I'd hoped to get to a place called Bukit Merah, where there's an orang-utan sanctuary, but my plans were soon dashed at the bus station, where I was told it was really only accessible by car. So I went straight to the Cameron Highlands (unfortunately with a drunk Malaysian next to me who kept flicking scrunched up pieces of paper with his phone number into my book - sooooo mature) and arrived as it was getting dark, so checked into the first place I saw. It was a cheapie hotel with a symbol pointing to Mekka on the ceiling, and I was woken at 6am by the prayer call, uuugh.. I moved to a place called the Cameronian Inn which had a really helpful American girl working there. She'd backpacked around Malaysia herself so was able to give me some tips for KL and Melaka. I also booked a tour with that guesthouse on the first day (with a nice group of Dutch ppl), which got me around BOH tea plantation (Best of Highlands tea - founded by a Scottish entrepreneur, and the fourth generation is running it now), a bee farm, a butterfly farm, the local market, a rose/flower farm and a strawberry farm (most of which were interesting, and no entry fee). The Cameron Highlands are very beautiful - rolling green hills, clear blue skies, and winding roads. The temperature is pretty constant at 23 degrees, so it's the only place in Malaysia they grow strawberries (they're pretty expensive).
In the evening I wandered around town looking for a place to eat and found a German-Swiss restaurant called "Schwaebing Haus" - thought it was funny so went in, and found the chef in the kitchen (he was also the waiter and everything else), who was of course Malaysian, kneading something that looked like it might turn into Spaetzle at some point if he was very lucky. He very enthusiastically sat me down opposite his only other guest - funnily enough one of the three German guys who had been on the minibus from Ko Pha Ngan and Surat Thani! Even funnier was that he turned out to be from Reutlingen near Stuttgart. So we had a nice chat over Zuericher Geschnetzeltes and Bratwurst (quite authentic actually). The next day I met up with him (Christoph) at his hostel, where we teamed up with three other guys to go on one of the hikes (there are specific trails you can take, which are clearly mapped). The others were from nr Cambridge, South Wales, and Newcastle, and had all met in the hostel. It was a good trek - partly through forest on a road, but also through the jungle, clambering over muddy tree roots (which was fun!!) all the way up to Gunung Brinchang, the highest point in the area (2031m), from where we should have had a spectacualr view but it was misty! Looked very atmospheric though and nice and cool for walking. Then down the hill on the other side through the tea plantations, which was really scenic, and stopped for cake and tea there (they all had a couple of cakes each!). They were all too proud to ask for breaks in the jungle, but seemed extraordinarily relieved when we took one! I went, "Gosh, this is hard work!" and Matt went, "Oh, well, do you want to stop for a minute?" and then everyone quickly agreed that would be a fantastic idea. We must have walked at least 25km, and we felt we really deserved dinner that night, which we had in an Indian place (yummy roti, which is like Naan just flakier) with a Californian and a Polish guy as well. I don't think I'll ever be able to say again that I went out for dinner with six guys! They certainly brought me up to scratch on politics, football, American TV series, and the commonly consumed alocoholic concoctions in Poland! After that we sat around a bonfire that they have at one of the hostels every night. Most backpackers end up there as most hostels want silence after 10.30pm and there's only one (overpriced) bar in town, so there was a good crowd.
Next day I got a bus to Kuala Lumpur, which the American girl at the hostel had warned me would take me along a very windy road (she had counted 400 bends). Someone had thrown up on the seat next to mine, so I thought I was probably in for a bad journey, but the road was actually not too bad (Laos was worse) and the smell was bearable too. You can get used to anything!
Once in KL I found myself a hostel (which is really noisy but also busy which is good) and today is my first proper day sightseeing - I'm now in Chinatown to check out the markets and Merdaka square (the colonical district) and later KL tower, which has better views than the Petronas towers (which I'll see tomorrow). My friend Rachel has put me in touch with her friend Azmir, who lives here (and I met briefly at Warwick), so we're going to meet for lunch or dinner. I'll be off to Melaka on Wednesday or Thursday, and in Singapore at the end of the week, and blog again before I get to Australia (where internet prices will leap up, I'm sure!).

Friday, 13 June 2008

Songkhla, Thailand

This is going to be a long entry, so I hope you're sitting comfortably!

I had a great time in Pattaya, staying with David (whom my parents and aunt know from Hong Kong days) for almost a week. He and his partner were lovely hosts and spoiled me rotten! It was interesting to get a taste of ex-pat life and really nice to kick back in a beautiful house and not have to organise transport, accomodation or meals for a while. David showed me around Jom Tien and Pattaya, took me to his exercise class (I could hardly keep up!), hosted a dinner party (charming company - I was told I should be an actress, I think it was a compliment) and got to join them at a friend's birthday party after which I was kidnapped by a charming Australian who introduced me to Pattaya's 'Walking Street' with all its bars and slightly seedy clubs. Earlier during the week I also saw an amusing transvestitie show which had a largely Chinese tourist audience (lots of kids!). Definitely a bit different from the sights I'd been taking in up until then and good fun!

After Pattaya I travelled down to Thailand's Southwestern Gulf Coast. First I stayed on Ko Tao, which is popular with divers (and those who want to become divers) - I think after Cairns it issues the highest number of diving certificates, for a fraction of the price. It's a small island (21 sq km) and easy to walk around. I stayed a week and was really lucky with the weather. There were one or two thunderstorms late at night but plenty of sun during the day. First I stayed in Chalok bay which is where I picked my scuba dive school - the "Scuba Shack", which wasn't as flashy as some of the dive shops around, which specialised in attracting hungover 18-year old gap yearers and went out with big groups. Scuba Shack had a really nice (if completely mad) international bunch of dive masters and dive instructors, incl. an American, Brit, Swede, German and Frenchman. Getting instructions in your mother tongue is what you want when you're doing something as technical as scuba! I was assigned the German instructor, Dirk, who was very calm and disciplined (i.e. German..) and did a one-day introductory dive with him for about 30 pounds. The day before I tried on all the gear (feeling like a spaceman) and he lent me an SSI book - which I devoured because I know I'm rubbish at technical things. It was definitely good to read up on the technicalities beforehand, as there are a million emergency procedures and all these laws of Physics which apply, but don't always make sense - like having to deflate your BC (Buoyancy Compensator, which is the big black jacket your air tank is attached to) when you ascend, even though your BC makes you float so you'd think it should be inflated - but you have to take the water pressure into account and the fact that your wetsuit decompresses as you rise, etc. etc. I was pretty confused at first as you can imagine! The first dive went well though - I was the only one doing an intro, everyone else was doing fun dives, so I got a private lesson which was great. We went out on the dive shop's boat at about noon, and went diving at a site called Japanese Gardens - very popular with first-timers, so there were almost more divers than fish! It was what felt like quite a short dive but Dirk said I was doing well so I got to swim around on my own after we'd done all the emergency exercises, practised achieving neutral buoyancy by breathing the right way, forcing water out of the mask when it filled up underwater, using the 'octopus' (the back-up mouthpiece), as well as 'equalising' as you go down to adjust to the water pressure (basically this entails squeezing your nose and gulping a lot).
It was very weird actually and as everyone tells you beforehand you feel conscious of every breath you take, and communicating with handsigns is a bit bizarre as well (the sign for 'rabbit fish' is particularly amusing). I really enjoyed it though and only had a little mishap at the end as we were ascending, when I got my mouthpiece full of water and pressed the 'purge' button (which will expel the water if you do it right) without closing my mouth - so the water got blasted into my throat and I couldn't take a breath and panicked. Dirk saw what happened and got me my octopus and I got a watery breath out of that, and then our ascension was a bit speedier than it was supposed to be! Still, it didn't put me off and I took another two dives later in the week. I got one of the American instructors that time, and he said it would be an introductory-style dive as well, but he didn't actually let me swim around by myself but held my arm throughout. In a way it was good because he pointed out loads of cool fish to me (we were at a different site called White Rock) and we were diving with two English guys who were a lot more experienced, so I'm glad I got a bit more attention. We saw angelfish, clownfish (like Nemo), two stingrays (under a rock, they looked very sweet and non-threatening), a big triggerfish, rabbitfish, a moray eel, a striped sea snake, Christmas-tree worms, soft and hard coral, and I got to hold a sea cucumber! (Actually one of the English guys was kicking it about on his flipper so he could get a photo of it on his underwater camera, so the dive instructor freaked out and took it away from him, then let me hold it while he told him off!). Then we got back on the boat and went to the second site (if you're Open Water qualified and pay for a fun dive you get two dives with a break on the boat in between, which you spend eating cookies and fruit and sunbathing on the deck). As I'd paid half the introductory-dive price and was a novice I wasn't entitled to a second dive but I got lucky and the instructor said he'd be happy to take me down to this site too, since I didn't "kick about too much" (though I wasn't allowed to tell anyone). We were on the lookout for a big turtle that they kept seeing on that site, but sadly it was hiding that day. I got to sit on the seabed while one of the boys practised emergency ascensions and air sharing with the instructor; then we swam about looking at coral and fish. We were down for about 45 minutes each time - I was so tired that night!
There was a pretty bay called Shark Bay near where I was staying, so I spent a couple of days swimming and reading on the beach. The water was so shallow you had to wade for 100m before you were in it up to your chest! Very clear and the sand was gorgeous white too. Apparently sharks actually came into the bay, often in the evenings, but I didn't see any. Probably a good thing.
After that I moved to Sai Ree beach on the other side of the island, which was much busier with lots of boutiques (selling GAP and Abercrombie clothes made in Cambodia at about 60% of what you'd pay in the US) and restaurants and bars. Good fun, and I watched a couple of films in the beach bars in the evenings, which satisfied a craving.
Interestingly there were quite a lot of Burmese people working in the restaurants and resorts on the island, including the first place I stayed in. The woman there said she and her husband both worked in Thailand while their mothers raised their daughters in Burma. She only went back to Burma a couple of times a year and had once been away for three years. When she went back she didn't recognise her eldest daughter because she'd grown up so much.

Then I got the ferry to Ko Pha Ngan, where it proceeded to rain for two days! The island was definitely popular with the party crowd, with buckets of alcohol for sale everywhere. But it was quite tame in the evenings, I suppose because it was out-of-season. On the third day the sun finally came out again and I inspected the beach at Hat Rin Nok where I was staying. This infamous strip of sand plays host to the Fullmoon party once a month. I went to the Halfmoonparty on the third night - it's held in a kind of open-air bar with a sandy dance area, not on the beach but inland. There were a lot of taxi drivers with Halfmoon Party posters on standby to ferry revellers to the party, so I shared a taxi with some rowdy Dutch girls and three Israelis (who were so fascinated by how fast the taxidriver went and how reckless he was - I can hardly remember what it's like to be driven by a sane, safe driver). It was still quite quiet when I got there at about 10.30 or so, and really picked up at 1am (though when I was getting the taxi to get to the ferry at 6am the next morning there were a lot of people about who'd obviously just left the party!). A lot of people there looked like they'd never dream of going to a rave at home and were just curious, others really went in for the whole glow-paint and flashing devil's horns thing!

The next day I had a classic Asian-style journey. I got a ferry from Ko Pha Ngan and then a bus to Surat Thani, were I was sold an aircon minibus ticket to Hat Yai, and they said the bus would come at 11.30. It was about quarter past so I sat down to wait but as soon as I'd taken my backpack off the lady who'd sold me the ticket came over and said I could go. So I went outisde and there was a guy on a motorbike waiting. I asked where the bus was and she said "You get on the motorbike" - which I politely refused to do. I must have looked convinced because they gave up and the motorbike drove off without me and I waited another 5 mins. Then another guy came up and waved at me and said I should follow him. I looked for the lady who sold me the ticket to check it was ok to go with him, and she confirmed I should go. So I got in his flashy red car (!) and he drove me 5 mins into town and dropped me off at a street corner. There some other bloke wandered up and said I should follow him. He walked me to a travel agency. The lady there took my receipt but didn't give me a ticket and said the bus would be here at 12.00. I'd been expecting a lift to the bus station, so I said "So the bus comes here?"and she said "Yes! you wait here". So I sat down again and waited for a minute. Then the bloke came back and she said I should follow him again. We walked around the corner to another travel agency. By now I was feeling a little bit had, especially as I no longer had a receipt or ticket. At the next agency they said I should sit down. I asked when the bus was coming. One guy said 12.30, no, maybe 1 o' clock. It was now 11:45. I said they'd sold me an 11.30 bus ticket. They said they didn't know why I'd been told 11:30. I asked where the bus station was. They said the next bus at the bus station would be at three o' clock. I asked again where it was, regardless of when the bus would apparently be coming, but they just shrugged. So I walked out to check what street we were on to see if I could locate it on my map. A minivan pulled up just then and three German guys got out who I'd met in the taxi that morning on Ko Pha Ngan, on the way to the pier . I started talking to them and they said they were going to Pattani but had paid for return tickets to Bangkok and also had no receipts now. They were told to unload their luggage and we sat around and mused about Asian organisaton. One minute later we were told to load all the luggage back into the minivan and to get in. By now I felt a bit like a sheep. Then the driver got in, got the motor running, the air-con on (and the doors open..) and got out and left us to stew for a couple more minutes. Some more people got in and we set off before one o clock! Four hours later he made us all get off, get our luggage, and sent us across a busy dual carriageway towards a different mini-van (no explanation). Half- way across the road in the middle of busy traffic the driver of the other minivan asked me where I was going, and started shouting across to the other driver. We all stood in the middle of the road and had a cosy chat about who should be going where, then established that two Thai guys and I shouldn't be changing minivans and had to go back and load our luggage again while the Germans finished crossing the road. Five minutes later I was at the minibus stop in Hat Yai... miraculoulsy enough! I stayed there long enough to buy a bus ticket to get to Malaysia on Monday, but wasn't particularly enamoured with it. The British consulate website strongly advised against travelling in this area because of terrorist activity, which might be why I was the only white tourist (plus a hundred Chinese) in the area. I did see military police about, and they were doing bag searches at the malls, as some shops and bars were bombed there in 2005. Most of the violence is not aimed at tourists though, and happens in the villages. Anyone who chatted to me in restaurants or the guesthouse was very nice, but they all assumed I was working in Hat Yai, or I'd have no reason to be there. They were also astounded that I was alone, and sometimes a bit protective, e.g. a restaurant owner told me I should be getting back to the guesthouse (at 10pm) because I shouldn't be out and about so late. And while two taxidrivers were trying to rip me off a lady intervened and flagged down another taxi for me and got him to take me to the bus station at the local price (not the +50% tourist price) - which left quite an impression. You wouldn't get that kind of treatment (the positive kind, not the rip-off taxi drivers) in Bangkok.

I'm now in Songkhla, which is a slightly sleepy beach town with some pretty parks and suburban sprawl. It's nicer than Hat Yai - I'm still getting a lot of attention but in a fun(-ish) way, mostly young people shouting 'Hello!' as they drive past on their motorbikes, or kids daring each other to talk to me when I walk past. I was walking along a street today when an old man called out to me and started gesturing wildly. Eventually I figured out that what I thought of as the 'time-out' sign from basketball meant (in this context) that the street was a dead-end and I should turn around. So the people are kind, if absolutely baffled as to what I'm doing here! Being stared at as if I have three heads will definitely prepare me for Malaysia I reckon... I will be in Penang from tomorrow for a couple of days and then have two weeks to get down to Singapore before flying to Australia on the 1st July. I'm planning to stop off in the Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, possibly Taman Negara rainforest, and Melaka, but may change my plans as I go... watch this space.