We spent our Thanksgiving in the Bornean jungle on the banks of the river Kinabatangan. After two days of mucking around in mud up to our knees, with ants in our pants, amidst many monkeys, we're pretty happy to return to (relative) civilization here in Kota Kinabalu. Yesterday we spent the day on a 10-hour bus ride from Sandakan to KK. The scenery was amazing, but as you can imagine it was a long journey. Today we're catching a flight to Sarawak state, the other half of Malaysian Borneo, to couchsurf in Kuching for the last few days of our trip.
At the moment, we're pretty glad to *not* be in Bangkok or Mumbai! Things are pretty mellow in Malaysia (fingers crossed) and we wish safe passage to our fellow travelers in these troubled areas.
We got up early -- really, REALLY early -- for a morning river cruise. While it was moderately pleasant to be skimming along the river in the misty morning, we didn't really see a whole lot. In exchange for getting up at 5am? Sorry, not thick enough.
After brekkie, the day's main event: a 3-hour hike to Oxbow Lake. We donned the abominable boots, slathered on the sunscreen and skeeter cream, and filled up the water bottle. We were mostly in the shade of the forest, but it was still beastly hot and ridiculously humid. Our fearless leader, Jungle Jay, spent a lot of time explaining which plants were poisonous and which were medicinal. We even tasted a few. Yvonne, who turned out to be quite the diva, gave him a hard time at every turn, grumbling about having to taste random plants and complaining about the heat. Mark and I marveled that she would have signed up for two solid days of this... shouldn't she be off in some spa somewhere getting a mud wrap, as opposed to slogging through mud up to her ankles?
Well, as it turned out, she got a bit more mud than she'd bargained for. In one hilarious moment of jungle schadenfreude -- I'm so totally going to hell in a handbasket -- we were crossing a particularly moist meadow. Somehow Jay and the Swedes managed to lithely skirt the huge puddle in the middle, but Yvonne got herself completely stuck. Knee-deep in the muck, she stood mewling and making faces and calling out for *someone* to help rescue her. I was the closest person, but I couldn't resist snapping as many pics as possible. Meanwhile Jay doubled back and pulled her out, but not before she nearly lost a boot to the mire. She was pretty annoyed at me. It was totally worth it.
We made it to Oxbow Lake and back in time for another tastier-than-expected lunch, and then a free afternoon to rinse off the mud and chillax a bit. And then -bam!- another river cruise at 4pm. No rest for the wicked. For the first ten minutes or so, we saw nothing. Despair! Would this be a completely critterless day? But then we were rewarded. First a huge cluster of proboscis monkeys, and then a group of long-tail macaques. Up close and personal! Kickass. It was great fun to watch them do their monkey thang: swinging, chattering, grooming each other. Good stuff. And a nice alternative to a day when our compatriots back home were swarming the malls for Black Friday bargains.
We spent our Thanksgiving in a slightly non-traditional way. After rising early to catch the only bus out of Semporna, and enjoying an uneventful 4.5-hour bus ride through eastern Borneo, we got dumped off at the side of the road next to the Medan Selera Coffeehouse in Bukit Garam. This was the appointed rendezvous spot where the good folks at Nature Lodge Kinabatangan had promised to pick us up. One problem: this might have been the former location of said coffee shop, but it was clearly closed due to construction. And none of the locals hanging around the disheveled strip mall had any idea what we were talking about. So we hung out at the one open restaurant across the street and hoped for the best. Along the way, we picked up a trio of confused-looking Swedes, who'd just gotten off the bus from Kota Kinabalu and had received the same enigmatic instructions from the lodge. Happily, misery (aka confusion plus stultifying heat) loves company. It's always better to be lost with someone else!
Fortunately, the Nature Lodge folks did eventually happen along, and whisked us away for an hourlong journey to the lodge that included off-roading over a bumpy dirt path and then a quick boat ride across the mighty Kinabatangan river. And, finally, we'd arrived!
Nature Lodge Kinabatangan is a pleasant, rustic cluster of buildings along the banks of the river. There's a main lodge that houses the kitchen and open-air dining room, a dorm cabin, shared toilets, and several smaller cabins sprinkled throughout the property. The staff are friendly (like almost all Malays, if you don't count cabbies) and energetic. We'd signed up for the two-day package, which turned out to be a highly-structured series of morning boat rides, midday hikes, and a night walk or two. Normally such precise agendas are not the way we prefer to experience a place, but trekking with professional guides seemed like the best option for wildlife-spotting. So, after a quick moment to freshen up and dump our bags, we trooped back to the boat dock for our first guided boat ride. Our crew consisted of "Jungle Jay," our sprightly and knowledgeable guide; Carolina, Josefin, and Emma, the three jovial 20something Swedes; a sardonic German woman named Yvonne; and a pungent Czech dude called something like Hamze or Janze. (I never did quite catch his name. He'd been traveling for the better part of two years and clearly relished hanging out with wildlife much more than conversation with other people.) We piled into the boat and set off down the mighty, muddy Sungai Kinabatangan.
At first we didn't see anything besides a few other resorts, tastefully set back from the shoreline. But eventually long-tailed macaques and proboscis monkeys availed themselves. Many brown-blob-in-a-tree photos were snapped. Jay proved adept at spotting hornbills and other birds, as well as monkeys and the occasional lizard along the river banks. I have to admit, after three days of diving in the world's most stunning aquarium, and seeing all manner of sea creatures at arm's length, it was a bit anticlimactic to have to pull out a pair of binoculars to see the jungle wildlife. We'd clearly been spoiled.
After another quick break and a surprisingly tasty dinner of fresh fish, it was time for the night hike. We donned some nasty rubber boots -- the jungle equivalent of bowling shoes, bleccch -- and our best long pants/long sleeves garb to discourage leeches. Bug spray, check. Flashlights, check. OK, let's go see some nightlife! Mostly we saw some bigass bugs -- scorpions, enormous grasshoppers, a shaggy caterpillar -- but we also lucked into a tarsier spotting. Feet like a frog, 180-degree turning head like an owl, giant creepy eyes like a space alien, tarsiers are funky little nocturnal primates. They jump between trees to catch bugs and sometimes even birds. We were fortunate enough to surprise one with a high-powered flashlight and it stayed in one place long enough for everyone to snap some great photos. And then, in a flash, it bounced away without touching the ground once. Freaky-deaky.
No leeches spotted on this trip, despite everyone's paranoia. Really, the most disturbing part of the night hike was the hideous slurping sucking sound our boots made in the ever-present jungle slurm. Lovely. The fact that we couldn't see much made it even worse. Plus it was hot and mercilessly humid. By the end of the hourlong hike, we were well ready for bed. 'Twas an interesting alternative to overeating turkey and carbs with some inane football game in the background, I tell ya what. Happy Thanksgiving!
Apa khabar from Semporna, Sabah, on Malaysian Borneo! We're here for a few days to bask in total scubaliciousness and dive at some of the world's top sites. We also decided to go ahead and get our Advanced certifications while we're here (what better place to do it?) which is a fairly simple thing since we've already got our basic Open Water certifications. So far we've done one day of diving (three dives) and it's been absolute heaven. Stay tuned, more to come...
Our time in Kuala Lumpur, or "K-L" as it's known locally, was a series of great travel lessons. We got to meet lots of fellow travelers, had an amazing local dinner, and saw some spectacular sites. But overall, our time in the Malaysian capital left a bad taste in my mouth.
We arrived early on Friday, Nov 21, via the shiny happy Aeroline bus from Penang. As before, it dropped us off a few blocks from KL's main attraction, the Petronas Towers. We stashed our bags at a nearby hotel concierge desk, and trudged over in the blazing midday heat to see about some free tickets to the top of the Towers. Oops, turns out that in order to get one of the allotted free tickets, you have to show up at the crack of dawn. Not the crack of 1:30pm. Oh well. What about Menara KL, the other big tower in town? It didn't seem to be within walking distance, plus we also wanted to check out Batu Caves. So we decided to visit the tourism bureau, located nearby and recommended by the folks at Petronas. Once we finally found the place, we were doubly pleased to find both AC and free internet. The headscarved woman behind the desk cheerfully told us there was a bus heading to the caves in about 20 minutes. Perfect! Just enough time to check some email and cool down a bit.
Hey friends and neighbors, what's that I hear? It must be time for another Travel Lesson Learned the Hard Way! This one can be spun in two versions...
1) Don't bother with tourism bureaus! Indie travelers should find their own way around.
2) Always ask lots of stupid questions, like "exactly where does this bus go, and how many obnoxious tourist stops will there be along the way before we reached our desired destination?"
We should have just taken a bus, or even a cab, straight to the caves. Instead we got loaded into a stifling mini bus with five other people, and schlepped to not one but two shopping stops! First the stupid pewter factor (and wouldn't you love to buy a big heavy useless somethingorother from the lovely gift shop?) and then the only slightly more interesting batik shop (and how 'bout a lovely silk scarf or ten?). ::: sigh ::: By the time we reached Batu Caves, we only had about 45 minutes to explore. Right. Got it. Lessons. Learned.
The caves *were* very cool, and just about worth the headaches to get there. Guarded by an enormous gold statue, 272 steps take pilgrims to the caverns at the top. Two Hindu shrines, tons of monkeys, it's quite a spectacle. Once you reach the top you cross an enormous chamber to get to another opening with sunlight streaming in. There were some Hindu ceremonies taking place, but it was hard to take them seriously with people crawling over each other to snap pics and monkeys running through the proceedings. Monkeys drinking leftover soda from Coke cans. Ah, Western culture rears its ugly head yet again!
We got dropped off back at the tourist bureau, after sitting through about an hour of KL's gnarliest rush hour traffic. It turns out the KL Tower (Menara KL) was within walking distance after all. Armed with several maps and somewhat-explicit instructions from the van driver, we walked about 20 minutes to the base of the tower. Fortunately there's a shuttle to take weary visitors to the tower entrance. It was a pretty well-organized place, with audio headsets and numbered viewing stations to explain the vistas in each direction. Through a murky sunset, we watched the lights come on at the nearby Petronas Towers and across town.
Touristy items crossed off the list, it was time to rendezvous with Ken, our CouchSurfing host for the next two nights. We tried the public phones, but couldn't find one that actually worked. No wireless around. Hmm... we decided to ask if we could use the phone at one of the nicer restaurants at the base of the tower. Scoping out an Indian place that looked decent, we asked if we could make a local call, and fortunately the cheery manager agreed. We called Ken and got his address, which turned out to be a mind-boggling page of complex catenations of words and numbers and more words. Oh boy. He recommended taking the train out to a nearby MRT stop and grabbing a cab from there.
In retrospect, this is really what we should have done. But we were pretty pooped from a day of humid siteseeing, and thought it would be easier to grab a cab out there.
Uh-oh, do you hear that? It's the sound of another Travel Lesson Learned, boys and girls! Strap in for this ride!
We started at the first taxi stand, a respectable-looking kiosk that turned out to be run by the Malaysian version of The Three Stooges. Not only did they have no idea where Ken's place was (despite the reference point of a nearby MRT stop... that only seemed to confuse them more...) but they also wanted to charge us a small fortune to get there! No way, man. The second taxi stand quoted us about a third of the price, and the dispatcher seemed to think it would be no trouble for the driver to find the place. So we paid the dispatcher, got a receipt, and hopped into the next available cab. The driver first took us to the hotel where our bags had been stashed for the day, and while Mark was inside collecting our stuff, I asked if he knew how to get where we needed to go. He waved the receipt in the air and muttered "airport, airport." No, I insisted, we weren't going to the airport, we needed to be taken to a specific address, as agreed upon! I showed him the address, and he snarled something about not knowing where that was. Great. Well *I* sure as hell don't know how to get there! I offered him Ken's phone number to get the directions, and he insisted we'd need to use a pay phone to make the call. Lovely. So we got to see firsthand the legendary surliness of KL cabbies, how delightful.
When Mark got back in the cab, we took off. With no idea of where we were going, or how we'd get to Ken's place from the airport, it was a somewhat tense ride. At some point the cabbie's cell phone rang, so he was totally busted about not having a phone to call for directions. Ha! As we started to get a little closer (maybe?) to Ken's neighborhood, the cabbie pulled over and went into a gas station to get some smokes. Great, now what? When he came back we gave him Ken's number and he got more explicit directions. OK, now we're getting somewhere we want to be! But when we got to the apartment complex, the security guard said we were at the wrong end. Too late, the cantankerous f'er dumped us out on the curb and sped off. We had to walk about another half mile to get to Ken's place. *&#^! I haven't been so furious at a random stranger since... well, maybe never.
We did finally make it to Ken's apartment, about a half hour later, bedraggled and fairly surly ourselves. Ever the gracious host, Ken got us situated in our room and we were able to shower and calm down. He cooked us a fantastic homemade Cantonese dinner, and we got to chat with him a bit. A sociology professor who once worked for an airline and used to live in Europe, Ken also happens to be a great cook and an active participant in the KL couchsurfing scene. We enjoyed a lively conversation and were able to bring this frustrating day to a pleasant close.
The next day, after sleeping late and getting some laundry done, we helped Ken prepare for a couchsurfing dinner party. We were expecting a potluck-style meal where everyone brought a dish of some sort. Instead, it turned into a showcase of Baba-Nyonya cuisine, all cooked by our host! Whew. The party itself was an international melange of about 20 locals and surfers from all over the globe. As usual, we were the only Americans. We got to meet a French-Canadian divemaster living in Vietnam, a funky little British dude who sells lap pools in Thailand, a twitchy German who seemed to hate everything, and many vivacious and friendly Malays.
All in all, our time in KL was pretty challenging. We saw some cool stuff and met some cool people, but I was pretty happy to wrap up our visit to Peninsular Malaysia and cross KL off the list. Next stop: Malaysian Borneo!
A few days later, curiosity got the best of us and we decided to check out the views from Komtar Tower. Looming over Georgetown, the 65-story concrete monstrosity is part of a complex that includes government offices and retail space, as well as an observation deck at the very top. It appeared to be a moderate walk from our hotel, so we decided to maximize the tourist experience and hop into a trishaw.
Ah, trishaws. Myriad versions of these ingenious vehicles can be found all over Southeast Asia; in Malaysia they’re typically powered by a small wiry man on a rear-mounted bicycle, with a padded seat attached in front. Trishaws are often elaborately tricked out with lights, flowers, and sometimes even a sound system. Riding in one is akin to being in a bizarre video game where you’re cruising along slowly and almost at ground level, helplessly flung into hair-raising traffic rushing past you at approximately Mach Two. I imagine this is what it might feel like to roller-skate around the DC Beltway at rush hour.
We managed to flag down a driver and squeezed our big American butts into the seat. “Oh, heavy!” the hapless driver exclaimed, and proceeded to huff and puff his way towards the tower. Fortunately, this part of Penang is pretty flat, and it turned out we only had to travel a few blocks to reach our destination. I was worried that the guy might have a heart attack along the way, but he was truly a pro, and managed to get us there without collision or medical incident. We gave him a big tip in a vain attempt to assuage our Western guilt.
Upon arriving at Komtar Tower, which has an enormous, Byzantine open-air mall at its base, we wandered around for a while, trying to find the way to the observation deck. No signs, no information desk, not even an elevator bank shed any light on what was apparently a very well-kept secret. Instead, a dizzying array of stalls selling the usual cheap clothing and electronics stretched for what seemed like blocks in all directions. Suddenly a man appeared in our path.
“I know you!” Mark said, and by this time we were both grinning. “We recognize you, even though you look different with clothes on!”
Incredibly, it was our old buddy William, fully clothed this time. He grinned back at us. “USA!” he exclaimed. “You came to tower! Good to see you again!” And then, with a bit of humility as he recollected our previous meeting, he added, “I show you my body!”
You did indeed, my odd little Malaysian friend. Now how ‘bout you show us how to get to the top of this joint? And so he did. It turns out we’d blazed right past the ground-floor info desk and elevators. William not only showed us the way, he rode up in the elevators with us and took us straight to the ticket desk at the top floor. Clearly proud to be bringing his own personal tour group up to the observation deck, he showed us some of the town’s salient features, pointed out a few sights, and insisted we have the ticket lady take a picture of the three of us.
Busy man that he was, William bid us adieu, and presumably went back to his activities at the tower’s ground level. We stood by the windows bemused at what a small world it was. Granted, Penang is a pretty small island, but what were the chances of meeting the same random guy a few days later? Just then, he appeared again! This time he was brandishing a small scrap of paper with his name and address, and asked if we would please send him a copy of the photo. He didn’t have email, so we’d need to snail-mail him an actual print. Yes, certainly, no problem, we promised to send a copy when we returned to DC, with a mental note to include the one of him proudly posing shirtless from our first meeting, for full before and after effect.
We continued our Penang sightseeing and moved on to visit other parts of Malaysia, half expecting to see William pop up around any random corner like an Asian leprechaun guiding us to hidden pots of touristy gold. It became a running joke… would William appear on the street in Kuala Lumpur, to take us up the Petronas Towers? Might we see him 50 feet underwater while scuba diving at Sipadan? Perhaps he’d pop out of a longhouse in Sarawak, to show off his prowess with a blowpipe? Shirtless or otherwise, the guy definitely made our Penang excursion a memorable one, thanks to the unexpected, unscripted kindness of strangers.
We've managed to pack a lot into our second week! Here's a quick recap of what we've been up to during week two: the major themes include friends, food, and massage in Thailand, and Chinese temples and lots more food in Penang. We are gonna be like 400lbs each by the time this trip is over!
checking out the sites with Bruce & Anne: Nong Nooch, ladyboy show, in Pattaya, on Soi Cowboy
Chatuchak market, Ancient Siam, floating market
a seriously endless parade of food: exotic fruit plate, buffet lunch at Ma Tuk's, Vietnamese lunch
massages! these two fabulous ladies gave us several two-hour massages, right in our bedroom (life does *not* suck!)
and on to Penang: Khoo Kongsi, biggest incense sticks ever, Kek Lok Si Temple
(for the record we did climb all 7 levels of stairs to the top of that pagoda!)
at the top of Kek Lok Si; street food at Gurney Drive; Sonia slurps up some asam laksa
Travel is all about being open to new experiences and finding adventures in unexpected places. But this is easier said than done, especially when you arrive in a new place all hot and dusty and tired, with your plans slightly off-kilter and your attitude completely askew.
And this was exactly the state we were in as we found ourselves wandering the streets of Georgetown, Penang. We’d just arrived in Malaysia that morning, after spending a pampered week in Bangkok, only to discover that our CouchSurfing host had ditched us. No matter, we quickly found other accommodations, despite the relentless tropical humidity that threatened to melt our brains. After seeing some of the more obvious nearby attractions in Georgetown – Chinese clan houses, mosques, Hindu temples – we took a purposeful “wrong” turn off the main road and strolled into the heart of Penang’s Chinatown district. We passed rows of cramped, no-frills shops, piled high with boxes and stacks of merch on tables, bastions of capitalism that practically screamed out “We got stuff! You want stuff?” No glossy marketing tactics in this neighborhood. This was definitely a no-nonsense part of town.
Halfway through a nondescript block, on a street of no particular distinction, a shirtless man wandered out of his narrow row house, alternately rubbing his eyes and his bare chest as though he’d just awoken from a nap. And in this ponderous heat, who could blame him for copping a mid-afternoon snooze? He looked about as surprised to see us as we were to see him, especially in such a revealing outfit. His eyes flew open, and he rushed into the street to greet us. Not knowing what might happen next, we cautiously stood our ground for his approach.
“Hello!” shouted the little man excitedly. “Where you from?”
“USA.” I replied, allowing the standard beat to pass to see what his response might be. I was prepared to follow up with a thumbs-up, big smile, and “Obama, yay!” (As a side note, it will be so nice to no longer have to do the raspberry/thumbs-down/Bush-yuck routine upon meeting new people in other countries.)
“Oh! USA! Very good! Why you here?” our new friend inquired, scratching his head. Apparently he didn’t encounter too many Americans in these blocks off the tourist circuit.
We proceeded to tell him about our travel plans in Southeast Asia, and he in turn shared a dirty joke about Thailand. It was sufficiently eye-roll-inducing that I’ll not repeat it here, although we did chuckle politely. Now on an enthusiastic roll with how he’d entertained us, he pointed towards what we later learned was Menara Komtar, Penang’s tallest building. He chirped a vaguely suspicious sales pitch about the 360° view of the island, and encouraged us to get there first thing in the morning for a breakfast snack. As a peculiar counterpoint to the entire conversation, the man, who said his name was William, continued rubbing his pancakey pectorals. He seemed to have an endless wellspring of information to impart to us, so it was a bit of a relief when it began to rain and we were afforded a graceful way to bow out of the conversation.
With his permission, we snapped a picture of him posing proudly like a Greek statue gone wrong, said our goodbyes, and promised to consider a trip to the top of Komtar.
We figured that was the end of our encounters with William.
We managed to grab a ridiculously early-morning flight out of BKK -- the upside was that there was absolutely no sign of the hideous soul-numbing Bangkok traffic! -- and we're now in Penang, Malaysia. Since internet access is pretty cheap and abundant around here, we may have a bit more time to post and catch up on previous posts. Pics, too, as there are SOOOOOOO many good ones from our time in Thailand.
In the meantime, we already miss our comfy Bangkok oasis at Ma Tuk's. Upon arriving in Penang, we stopped at the guesthouse that had been arranged for us by a local couchsurfer. (We'd originally planned to surf with him, but I guess he doesn't have space this week.) The place, shall we say, was a little rough around the edges. Particularly after our week in the lap of luxury! So we picked another place around the corner. The Hotel Hong Ping is still sorta in the budget range at roughly $20 a night, but feels much safer and comfier. We're in the main hub of Georgetown, the primary city on Pulau Pinang (Penang Island) and there are tons of restaurants, pubs, and of course internet cafes! We'll probably do a bit of siteseeing this afternoon and will try to book a scuba daytrip to nearby Pulau Payar in the next day or two.
Bangkok, in a nutshell, was awesome. The legendary Thai hospitality was in full swing, as Zoe's family showed us an amazing time. We saw temples, gardens, wildlife... to say nothing of all the food. Traditional Thai meals, Japanese Sukiyaki, Vietnamese, fresh seafood, amazing fruits and satay and other snacks... Mark and I suspect they were trying to fatten us up like two Christmas geese! We joked that we won't need to eat anything the entire rest of the trip. And our "suite" by the pool was absolutely divine. Totally spoiled. We also got to meet up with Bruce & Anne, and check out some of the sites with them. It was wonderful to catch up with what they've been up to in Perth, and give them the lowdown on all the usual suspects at home.
Onward and upward! We'll be in Penang for a few days, then it's on to Kuala Lumpur for some more couchsurfing and a gourmet dinner. What was I saying about not eating anything the rest of this trip...?
We started our last day in Bangkok the same way we started our first one: with 2-hour his & hers Thai massages. Seemed like an appropriate way to end this week of ridiculous self-indulgence.
After our final "just appeared magically outta thin air" brekkie -- sigh, I will miss those! -- a van appeared to take us on a day trip to Samut Prakan. Apparently we'd raved so much about going to Nong Nooch the other day, that Ma Tuk had decided we should visit the crocodile farm, as well as something called the Ancient City, or Ancient Siam. We weren't entirely sure what we were in for. Which is always an interesting place to start from.
We picked up Bruce & Anne at a nearby spot (and by "we" I mean the dude driving the van Ma Tuk had arranged for us), and headed out to Samut Prakan, the small town where the croc farm is located. It turned out to be a mildly interesting stop, but high on the depressing/cheesy scale. There were literally thousands of crocodiles in fetid breeding tanks, with swarms of mozzies lovin' on the foul still water. It was intriguing to see all the different shapes and sizes -- and there's something surreal about crocodiles, especially close-up -- plus there was some educational material on hand so you could feel like you was learnin' and not just gawkin'. The "crocodile wrestling" show was super-campy, and there was a ratty zoo on the other side of the facility. By that point I was just about over seeing animals in cages, so I encouraged our motley crew to push onward towards the next stop.
Ancient Siam was really cool. I'm pathologically unable to resist comparisons with major US attractions, so I'd liken it to Epcot Center but with a much higher level of detail. (Please don't tell The Mouse that I said someone else had more attention to detail... they may send someone out to silence me...) The park is an enormous complex of historical replicas and reconstructions from various points in Thai history, with a beautifully-maintained garden and floating market winding through the center. It's quite impressive, and we could have easily spent the entire day there. As it was, by the time we'd eaten lunch there were only a few hours left before we needed to return the van, so we probably saw about a quarter of the place. But I definitely enjoyed what we were able to see. Wandering around in the striking late afternoon sunlight was the perfect time to see the temples and ruins and gardens in all their glory. Definitely a photographer's paradise!
As we were nearing the end, a call came in from Ma Tuk informing us that the appointed restaurant had experienced some flooding. No worries, we'd had a late lunch and were really only interested in a parting drink with our friends. Khao San Road was recommended -- and what a relief, I'd been worried my card would be revoked if I didn't visit this mandatory stop on the backpacker trail! No need to lose any further sleep, as we headed into the heart of KSR to enjoy a drink at Suzie Bar. The drinks were weak and overpriced, and the service was glacial, but the peoplewatching was rockin'. It was amusing to see how the other half lives... how we *would* have lived for the past week without our fabulous hookup from Zoe. The street was filled with farangs humping dirty backpacks, and vendors trying to sell them stuff. No time to be smug, that'll be us starting tomorrow.
We said goodbye to Bruce & Anne, who were returning to Perth the next day, and headed home to pack. Yuck! Definitely my least favorite part of travel. But we managed to cram everything back into our bags, including some last-minute clothing gifts from Ma Tuk. We went over to the main house, gave Ma Tuk a nice bottle of wine as a token of our deep appreciation, tipped the maids for doing our laundry and bringing us breakfast each day, and said our goodbyes. It's definitely going to be sad to leave this wonderful place, but it's time to move on.
Another mostly-veg day, with a stellar Vietnamese lunch at Winner House, and then a home-cooked dinner with a tableful of traditional regional Thai delicacies. The food itself was phenomenal, but just to kick it up a notch we ate in the party room, an enormous suite with a bar, huge dining table, karaoke area, and of course a metric ton of antiques. We're not worthy!
On to Siam Niramit, the show at the Thai Cultural Centre. It was an *amazing* performance; highest production values I've seen outside of Cirque du Soleil. The show was broken into three acts: history, mythology, and festivals/celebrations. The stage was immense -- there were boats floating by, explosions, flying creatures, rain onstage -- and of course the costumes were phenomenal. Oh, and also elephants, chickens, and a few goats. They did a pretty good job of explaining what was going on, in several different languages. Wrapped around the theater was a replica of an ancient Thai village, something akin to Colonial Willamsburg... thatched huts, women doing traditional craft work, a few snacks to sample, and even a canoe to ride through the center. At 1,500 Baht the tickets weren't cheap, but it was totally worth it.
We managed to miss a huge rainstorm while inside watching the show, so afterwards it was the perfect time to meet up with Bruce (Anne wasn't feeling well) to check out what we lovingly refer to as "The Seedy Underbelly." We'd gotten some recommendations from a friend who used to live in Bangkok, and grabbed a cab to Soi Cowboy. This turned out to be a densely-packed one-block strip of neon-encrusted clubs designed especially to separate bloated pasty farangs from their cash. After hearing stories about the ping-pong shows and other aspects of Bangkok's notorious nightlife scene, I was a bit disappointed at how tame it all was. Probably the combination of a Sunday night plus the whole town being in low-gear out of deference to the Princess. But there wasn't much going on in any of the four strip clubs we checked out. Great people-watching, and interesting to note that most of the girls seemed to be fresh off the bus from Laos. But not nearly as saucy as I was expecting.
Winner House Vietnamese Cuisine
(there are actually several locations but this is the one we ate at)
68/5-6 Lertubon Village Sukhapibal 1 Road Latphrao
Bangkok, Thailand 10310
Tel/Hp : 662-5708923 662-5708567
Lots of activity around the house today, as Ma Tuk and her cadre of helpers got the place ready for "a little lunch party." They set up tables by the pool, and ordered enough food to feed an army. We were summoned down to the main house (cell phones as intercom, that's handy!) to watch some of the funeral proceedings on TV. What a huge affair! On par with Princess Di's funeral, methinks. Gigantic parade down the center of town with the body ensconced in an enormous gold boat that is apparently only used for royal funerals. I don't even know how many thousands of peole were involved in the parade -- several squadrons of monks, some high-ranking generals, plus at least a dozen different military divisions, each with their own distinct uniform and silly hat ensemble. My favorite was the tall blue Marge Simpson-looking hat, but the puffy Beefeaterish hats were a close second. It was tough to follow exactly what was going on, except that the beloved Princess, older sister of the king and doer of great charitable deeds, was being paraded verrrrrrrry slowly through the streets of Bangkok.
Around noon, Bruce & Anne arrived along with an assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. We showed them around the estate -- they were suitably impressed -- and then it was time to eat. The usual ridiculous feast, and everything was insanely delicious. The assorted fruits were particularly lovely... everything from mango and watermelon to jackfruit, dragonfruit, star fruit, and Thai pears. Yum!
We hung out for a bit, and then took a trip out to Chatuchak Market. It was about as frenzied as expected, although not as manic as the flower market, which is still the gold standard for completely loco. Chatuchak is one of Bangkok's biggest markets, pretty touristy, with rows and rows of just about anything for sale you could possibly imagine. Lots of cheap clothing, tacky tchotchkes, crafty goodness, and of course tons of food! It was difficult to even think about eating after the afternoon's feast, but I did buy a Thai iced coffee, which was delicious and served with much aplomb. We picked up a few souvenir items, and eventually found a taxi that would take us back to the house for a reasonable amount of baht. Yes, we are walking dollar signs, I realize that, but do we really need to be raked over the coals EVERY time we get into a cab?
Back at the house, it was time for another meal of the leftovers from lunch. Bruce & Anne were incredulous, like "are you kidding me? we're eating AGAIN??" We just shrugged, knowing it's useless to struggle against the indomitable force of Ma Tuk's hospitality, and dug into another plate full of treats. Life does not suck.
On the advice of Ma Tuk, we set out on a day trip to Pattaya, a town about an hour from Bangkok that's famous for its nightlife and its ladyboy shows. We'd made arrangements the night before with the concierge at Baiyoke Sky (Bruce & Anne's hotel) to hire a van for the day, and got a bilingual list of recommended stops from Ma Tuk. The first clue that this would be a challenging day came when the van showed up an hour early. Yikes! Mai ben rai (the Thai version of "no worries, mon") we quickly scrambled on some clothes and got underway to pick up Bruce & Anne. The second clue should have been when the daytime concierge at Baiyoke Sky asked us which hotel we wanted to be dropped off at. Huh? We showed him the same list we'd presented to the nighttime concierge, explaining that these were the places we wished to see, and could he please make sure the driver understood these instructions? That seemingly taken care of, we grabbed a quick cup of coffee and hit the road.
We were well into catching up with our friends, whom we hadn't seen since they moved from DC to Perth over a year ago, when our borrowed cell phone rang. It was Alex, the night concierge with whom we'd made the original arrangements. Long story short, he thought we'd only wanted the driver to take us to Pattaya and drop us off somewhere. No, we'd like to come back to Bangkok, please and thank you! Not sure how those wires got crossed, but we managed to smooth it all out en route to our first stop. The cost of the van was probably much higher that what Ma Tuk could have arranged for us, but we certainly got our money's worth.
After ensuring that our driver would, in fact, be bringing us back to Bangkok at the end of the day, our first stop was Wat Yansangwararam (and if you think that's a mouthful, you should see it written out in swirly Thai letters!). This enclave of several temple styles plus a lovely garden had very few visitors and little instructional signage, but was a cool place to wander around and snap some pics. At the upper end of the compound sits a neat white chedi with a huge gold altar in the center. It's clearly a very sacred place (no shoes, cover up any exposed limbs, no photos) but the gigantic "Engrish" sign at the entrance made us giggle a bit. If the day we were there was any indicator, they don't get a lot of farang visitors. But, to me, being totally out of place somewhere is a sign of great success. The other noteworthy area was a long hall with exceedingly creepy and very lifelike wax statues of famous monks. You almost expected one of them to blink, and the rest would come alive like something out of a Stephen King novel. Creepalicious!
The next stop was simply listed on the paper as "Nong Nooch Garden," so we were expecting maybe a quick walk through a botanical garden before lunch. Couldn't have been more wrong! We spent the next four hours traipsing around something akin to Thai Disneyland meets Wild Kingdom. The place was enormous. It had a zoo area, several manicured gardens, a skywalk, and two shows. The first, billed as a "Thai Cultural Show," was actually a pleasant surprise and not nearly as cheesy as expected. It had pretty high production values, and provided a sampling of several different Thai dance styles and other cultural snippets. If the fake muay thai fight scene was any indicator, it probably was a pretty campy affair, but it was most entertaining. The "Elephant Show," however, was downright depressing. It was cool to see elephants close-up, but we all agreed that we'd rather see them doing elephant things, not dressed up in ridiculous flouncy costumes playing basketball or dancing with hula hoops. Oh well, at least they seemed to be well fed.
Right then, on to the kathoey (ladyboy) show at the Alcazar Theater! Once again we weren't quite sure what to expect. Thailand, and Pattya in particular, is known for its kathoeys, graceful and convincing transvestites that are not only tolerated but often revered in Thai society. Personally, I was expecting a small cabaret bar/restaurant setup a la Perry's Drag Brunch in Adams Morgan. Oh no, friends and neighbors, this was a full-on Vegas-style production, with elaborate sets, complex lighting design, and incredible costumes. It was hard to believe that some of the performers had (or used to have) penises. There was clearly a lot of plastic surgery in evidence, and some of the transitions were a bit more obvious than others. But it was a fabulous show. And it was pretty impressive how they catered to their audience. The busful of Indian tourists totally ate up the Bollywood number. The Japanese group clapped extra hard for the kimono-and-cherry-blossom act. And the Russians sang along to what was clearly a pop tune from their part of the world. The Belinda Carlyle song and the theme from Dreamgirls were both a bit surreal for me. But they definitely covered their bases!
After the show would have been the ideal time to go out and explore Pattaya's notorious nightlife, but we were concerned about getting the van back in a timely manner, and we figured it was easier to have the driver take us to the restaurant recommended on Ma Tuk's instruction sheet. So we hopped back into the van, but it turned out the place was right next door to the theater. As we sat down, the phone rang. It was Ma Tuk checking in on us, asking how we liked the show and if we'd found the restaurant. And then she asked to speak with the waiter, whose theatrically quizzical look when we handed him the phone was worth the price of admission. He spoke with her for a few minutes, nodding, and then handed the phone back, saying that our dinner had been ordered for us. Bruce & Anne were a bit incredulous at that, but we assured them that this had pretty much been the MO for the week, and it was just better to sit back and let the food be ordered for us. Sure enough, everything was delicious, and we got the "friend" discount because Ma Tuk knew the owners. Sweeeeet.
15 km south of Pattaya City, off Sukhumvit Road
We began this festive holiday with another festive 2-hour massage, and a breakfast featuring the funky custard apple. This bizarre fruit looks like a cross between a grenade and an artichoke on the outside, with a silky white interior and big black watermelon-type seeds at the core. I think it's one of my favorite food finds in Bangkok so far, although it definitely falls into the category of "How did anyone ever figure out that this wacky-lookin-thing might be good to eat???"
After a quick email check, we headed to the nearby market to pick up some goodies for lunch. Not nearly as frenetic as last night's flower market, it was a huge covered farmer's market featuring all manner of fresh fruits & veggies, prepared foods, and a vast array of meats & seafood. We picked out a dizzying combination of satays, salads, sweets, and a few more oddball fruits. By this point Mark and I were starting to get a bit of a handle on the culinary scene -- which skewers of what go with which sauce, and what the hell those freaky merangue tacos are all about -- but there was still a lot to choose from. Fortunately Zoe's cousin Kung knew all the best vendors, and helped us navigate to the right stalls. I almost got some durian, that infamous foul-smelling and nasty-textured fruit that you either love or hate (and most people hate it based solely on the smell), but that will have to wait till another day.
Lunch was the usual insane affair, with a small army of plates and platters and arrangements of exotic snacks. Mark learned an important lesson about how verrrrrrry small peppers can be deceptively cute but wickedly spicy. And after lunch, time to make the krathongs! These small boats made of palm leaves and flowers become offerings to the river goddess, as a means to wash away the past year's transgressions and start anew. Taking the materials purchased at the flower market, and trying not to be complete bumbling idiots, we followed Zoe's example and set about folding palm leaves, arranging orange and pink flowers, and topping our creations off with a candle and three incense sticks. And, voila! Krathongs for the festival. We tested their seaworthiness in the pool, and learned the correct protocol for offering up a prayer to the goddess before setting one's krathong afloat. OK, we're ready for the fest.
There was quite a bit of discussion as to how and where to best enjoy the Loy Krathong festivities, since Zoe & family would be celebrating with a quiet night at home and we two farangs would be on our own. That was understandable, as it struck me as the equivalent of celebrating July Fourth on the DC Mall amidst the huddled masses. After you've been-there-done-that, the noise and the crowds and the heat loses its luster. And, really, we'd been coddled enough; it was time to strike out and see the town on our own. So it was decided that we'd be dropped off in nearby Thonburi, a nearby suburb, which was closer to the house and not quite as frenetic as downtown Bangkok.
Spending Loy Krathong in Thonburi turned out to be a truly authentic experience, as we were the only whiteys at the celebration, which was awesome. We spent the next few hours wandering through a maze of street vendors selling everything from satay to Rubiks Cubes to fried bugs. A huge stage adorned with sparkly blue waves featured several traditional Thai dance performances by spangled schoolkids, as well as an enormous beauty pageant. I have never seen such a colossal quantity of bejeweled gold headdresses, beaded evening gowns, and humungous hairdos all in one place; it was truly stupendous. We also watched several Muay Thai matches between eight-year-old boys, which was a bit shocking to behold but now we can cross that item off the list. Down the block we saw a takraw match, a sport that is somewhere between volleyball and hackeysack, with musical accompaniment. Right. At the riverfront, crowds of people lit their krathongs and set them afloat down the Chao Phraya river. They had a pretty interesting setup where you put your krathong on the edge of a little waterslide that shot the boats down to the water. Most of them flipped over before they hit the river, and the rest floated their way downstream to be collected by village kids.
Overall, it was a splendid way to witness one of the biggest Thai festivals of the year. Much like my experience at the festival in Nebaj, Loy Krathong in Thonburi was bewilderingly alien and yet somehow universally familiar. When people gather to celebrate anything anywhere in the world, you have food & drink, entertainment, sporting events, and the cosmic desire to shake off the daily grind and party with your friends and neighbors. Happy Loy Krathong, everyone!
Haven't had much internet access lately, but I did want to check in quickly from Bangkok. We finally managed to make it out of Singapore (more details to be backfilled shortly) and are hanging out with Zoe and her family, eating our way through Bangkok. Yum!
Today we were supposed to go to Ayutthaya, UNESCO World Heritage site and former capital city of Thailand. But apparently there's been some flooding there lately, so we changed plans and headed out to Chachoengsao. While not exactly off the beaten path, Chachoengsao is a town about an hour from Bangkok that tends not to be on anybody's "Top Ten" list. It does, however, have a beautiful Buddhist temple that's worth visiting.
After breakfast, Ma Tuk, Zoe, Mark and I piled into the van and Pop drove us out towards Chachoengsao. Along the way we stopped for some lunch at a lovely riverside restaurant serving river prawns and other delicious seafood. During lunch we got a crash course in Thai cuisine: how tom yum soup incorporates all three primary flavors (sour, salty, sweet); which noodles are typical in southern dishes; how to make coconut milk and curry paste from scratch like Zoe's grandmother used to do on a regular basis. Lunch was, of course, stunningly delicious and overabundant. The local river prawns were nearly the size of lobsters, and the mango sticky rice was LIKE BUTTAH. Whew.
Next stop was Wat Sothornwararamworaviharn, which is thankfully also known as Wat Hong, an enormous gleaming white and gold Buddhist temple. Inside, a group of two dozen monks sat chanting at the head of the temple. Later on we found out it was a graduation/initiation ceremony for new monks, and family members posed for pictures with the initiates just like at a high school graduation. It was another beautiful day -- say it with me, so much nicer than Singapore! -- and we strolled around the grounds for a while. Next to Wat Hong was a Chinese temple, which we checked out as well. And I finally found out what all the stick-shaking is about! You're supposed to say a prayer and shake the container until one of the wooden sticks falls out. Then you take the stick over to the desk and the attendant pulls out a corresponding paper with your "fortune." Mine said something about having many offspring, so I guess it's not something to be taken too seriously.
That night we took a river cruise along the Chao Phraya. The food was great (of course) and atop the roof deck we got a preview of some of the boats all lit up for Loy Krathong tomorrow. The cruise was a nice way to see Bangkok sparkle at night, including several of the gorgeous suspension bridges that all seem to be named after one of the many King Ramas (the current king is number nine). And as an added bonus, downstairs was a cheesy wedding-singer-ish band doing goofy songs for the kids.
On the way back we stopped at the night flower market. Sheer madness. Crowds and vendors crammed into tight spaces, sometimes spilling out into the street, all vying for bargains and mass quantities of fresh flowers. They set up around 9pm and go till about 9am. It's crowded on any given night, but since this was Loy Krathong eve, it seemed as though all of Bangkok was shoving its way through the market at once. We picked up armloads of fresh flowers and piles of palm leaves to craft our krathongs for the holiday, and tried to get out without being completely mowed down by armies of determined Thai shoppers. Yikes!
It's hard to have a bad day when it starts out with two-hour His & Hers Thai massages. Especially when the masseuses show up in your bedroom. Life does not suck!
Thus began our weeklong adventure in the gravitational pull of Ma Tuk's universe. Maids showed up in the morning with breakfast, which we nibbled in the sitting room/kitchen next to our bedroom. Then the two-hour massages. Then an amazing four-course lunch down at the main house with Zoe and Ma Tuk. Then we got driven downtown to do some siteseeing. Independent travel? Not this week.
Still reeling from our luxurious morning, and clutching a loaner cell phone with Pop the driver's number, we exited the van in the middle of the downtown Bangkok tourist district. The first thing we noticed was the lack of oppressive humidity a la Singapore. The second thing were the hoards of locals dressed in black, paying homage to the king's sister who'd passed away in January. There were pictures of her all over town, and some kind of setup for a big party near the government buildings. They do reverently love their royal family in this country, which is a bewildering thing for an American to process.
The Grand Palace, a sprawling complex of building comprising temples, gardens, and government buildings, is one of the must-see items for anyone who travels to Bangkok. Tucked into the middle of the busy downtown area, the whole complex is a bit Disney-esque and quite surreal. Bright shiny buildings sparkling in the sunshine, throngs of camera-toting tourists... it's hard to know where to start and how to make sense of it all. So we mostly just wandered around and snapped tons of photos. The centerpiece is Wat Phra Kaew, the temple that houses the Emerald Buddha, and the dazzling structures that surround it. The amount of detail packed into a small space is just amazing: a giant gold chedi, temple walls covered in porcelain mosaic, strange pointy architectural accents, miles of murals depicting Thai historical and mythological scenes, juxtapositions of menacing demons and benign buddhas and tranquil gardens. And people everywhere; regular tourists in street clothes alongside saffron-robed monks with digital cameras. Oh, and a model of Angkor Wat in the middle of it all... cuz, y'know, why not?
The grounds of nearby Wat Pho provided a soothing contrast to all that chaos. The main attraction here is the giant gold reclining Buddha, a 150-foot long gold-plated statue with inlaid mother-of-pearl on the soles depicting 108 auspicious scenes from the Buddha's life. Behind the statue are 108 metal pots; worshippers drop one coin in each for blessings. So as you're passing in front of this enormous gold Buddha, you can hear a rhythmic clanging coming from the other side. Wat Pho is also known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage, but since we'd already had two solid hours today, we skipped that part.
Pop eventually came in to fetch us. He seemed anxious to get back, and when we saw the traffic, we knew why! Bangkok traffic is legendary, soul-numbing, and unavoidable. It took us almost an hour to get back to the house.
That evening was a continuation of the cavalcade of culinary capers. First: dinner at a sukiyaki restaurant, where we challenged the concept of "all you can eat." Then, a trip to the cavernous Paragon Mall, which used to be Asia's largest shopping center but has somehow been eclipsed. (I shudder to think of an even bigger mall than this one.) We made a beeline to the high-gloss food court, an endless assembly of snack vendors stretching as far as the eye could see. Zoe and Ja navigated through the various stalls, picking out treats for tomorrow's breakfast. It was hard to know which end was up... the snacks just kept on coming! Armed with fruits, pastries, and completely unrecogizable food items, we headed home. If every day is going to be as jam-packed as this, I'm not sure we're going to last the week!
Today was a travel day of exhaustion, unlike any I've lived through since my Red Umbrella travel day in Costa Rica. We started off with a spot of brekkie, confident in our revised booking on a long-haul bus to Kuala Lumpur. Sam, the Fern Loft manager whom you may recall from such misadventures as yesterday's Oopsie, That Wasn't a Real Reservation After All -- had assured us several times yesterday that we were to catch the bus "right out front!" By the third or fourth time, we asked, "Really? Just right out there on the sidewalk?" I started to feel like an idiot. I tromped out to street level about an hour before the bus was scheduled to arrive, to wait for... something... to show up. Meanwhile, scores of old people disembarked from city buses and made their way painstakingly up the sidewalk to the temple next door, staring suspiciously at the strange farang sitting there looking completely outta place.
The longer I sat, the more nervous I got. Of course Sam wasn't due in till 11am, a good two hours after we were scheduled to depart, so there was nobody around to query as to the status of our transport. Meanwhile, more than an hour had passed, and nothing resembling a long-haul bus had come anywhere nearby. Thanks for nothing, Sam! Before I continue on with our tale, allow me to pause and demarcate two important Travel Lessons Learned:
1) Never trust the Gen Y staff at a hostel to book your travel for you. The owner, perhaps. But only if you've got his cell phone number as a backup.
2) Always get a confirmation number, in writing, as well as a phone number for the transport company. This is not failsafe, as many of them don't bother to answer the phone, but at least you can call them later and demand your reservation fee back.
Right. Seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but not necessarily when you're in the thick of it.
Despairing of ever leaving Singapore, we decided to take matters into our own hands and go down to the bus station and get our own damn tickets our own damn selves. Which is what we should've done in the first place. ::: sigh ::: We got in a cab and headed down to the Harbourfront Centre, where we were to find the Aeroline bus office. Aeroline had been recommended by Ken, our couchsurfing host in KL who was already planning for our visit in two weeks, so we figured it was a solid pick. Finding the office, however, took some doing. The "bus station" was also an enormous cruise ship port. Busload after busload of Asian tourists streamed endlessly through the parking lot, but there was no obvious bus office. After a few wrong turns, Mark found the counter inside a huge warehouse, and meanwhile the 11am to KL pulled up outside, where I was standing guard over our stuff. I did a few quick calculations in my head and determined that this bus was probably our last chance to make our flight to BKK. Typically, Mark was nowhere to be found. He finally reappeared, but sans tickets since the money was with me. I dashed up to the second-floor ticket counter, only to have the nice headscarved lady pleasantly tell me there were no seats left on the bus. What?!?!? You've got to be kidding me. Apparently she was, because when she looked again, two seats had magically appeared. OK, 94 Singapore dollars please. Cash only. Ehm. I only had 70 (which was the price of the nonexistent bus booked by that no-good Sam)... how 'bout some greenbacks? I keep a fistful of USD around for just such purposes. No dice, Singapore dollars only. Somehow I managed to dash downstairs to the exchange desk, back up to the ticket counter, and out to the bus with a handful of seconds to spare before it departed.
Sweaty, frustrated, and exhausted, we flopped into a pair of seats at the back of the bus. And we hadn't even left Singapore yet. Oh, it was definitely gonna be One of Those Days.
After all that, our bus ride to KL was actually quite pleasant. We met several friendly denizens of the bus, including a Filipino restaurant owner who said he wept tears of joy when he heard of Obama's victory, and a Malaysian guy who warned us of the pitfalls of the area's budget airlines. The bus itself was a nice cushy double-decker with meal service, reclining seats, and movies on the big screen. Although I probably could've lived without seeing "Alvin and the Chipmunks," and their version of "Bad Day" will be haunting me for the forseeable future. Even the border crossing between Singapore and Malaysia wasn't all that bad, even though we had to go through twice (once on the Singaporean side and once on the Malaysian side). The one stop, at a Malay rest stop about halfway, was an interesting forshadowing of things to come after our Bangkok sojourn. The place was swarming with flies, peopled with many women in headscarves, and as the only farangs we got lots of stares. I did take the opportunity to pick up some random Malay snacks, though. You just never can get enough fish-flavored chips, is what I always say.
We arrived in KL with plenty of time to catch our Air Asia flight, which was handy because getting to the gate was a whole other adventure. We got detailed directions to the airport from the bus attendant, strapped on our bags, and made our way through the rain to the LRT, Singapore's light rail. We just missed the train to KL Sentral, and by the time the next one appeared, a huge crowd had amassed on the platform. Well, this should be interesting! I guess it is rush hour, after all. We crammed onto the already-full train, as usual the only whiteys aboard, while the locals had a good stare. Fortunately it was only a few stops. After asking a few different places, we found the counter for the KLIA Ekspress, a swanky nonstop train that would take us right to the airport. It was lovely, air-conditioned, with padded seats, and unfortunately it took us to the wrong place! Which leads me to...
Another Important Travel Lesson Learned:
3) Always double-check to see if the low-cost carrier flies from the same terminal as the regular flights. Often it does not! And sometimes the other terminal is nowhere near the main one!
Ah. Right. Thought that whole KLIA Ekspress thing was too easy. So we grabbed a cab for the 30-minute journey to the LCC (as in "Low-Cost Carrier," ah yes! I get it now!) Terminal. To get there by public transport, I think we would've had to catch a bus at KL Sentral. Anyway, we had some time to spare, and it was only a $10 cab ride, so no harm no foul. We checked into our flight to BKK and even had time to grab our first taste of cheap Malay fast food: chicken and mee hoon. A bit greasy, but not bad. We even found a WiFi hotspot, one that actually worked! Things were looking up.
Air Asia has no assigned seating, so people tend to line up at the gate like sheep a good while before the flight is called. Which is a bit silly, because typically you have to walk outside and around the block to get to the plane anyway (or sometimes they send a shuttle bus for you). It didn't matter in this case because the flight wasn't nearly full. What a refreshing change! Air Asia gets top marks in my book. The web site is user-friendly and it's easy as pie to book online. I don't know how they keep the fares so low -- and no fuel surcharges either -- but the experience was consistently pleasant and the flights were on time throughout our entire SE Asia junket. Oh, and they didn't lose our bags once. Remarkable! (And, no, they're not paying me to say this. I'm just so shocked to be so pleased with an airline that I had to share the love.)
We arrived at BKK about two hours later. Finally! Got through immigrations and customs, hit an ATM for some Baht, and found our way to the appointed Starbucks on the third floor to wait for Zoe to show up. Actually, her family got there first: mom Tuk, brother Ja, and son Ben. We chatted with her mom for a bit while Ja went to find Zoe. Ms Thing showed up a short while later, looking all put-together and fabulous, while the two of us were totally bedraggled and scuzzy. Figures! That's OK, we're not here to impress anyone with our fashion sense. (And thank god for that.) We all piled into the minivan -- complete with *driver* -- and headed for home. As expected, the place is absolutely gorgeous, even in the dark. We have a beautiful 5-star suite in a separate building by the pool. Everything is decked out to the max with all manner of antiques. It's a bit insane. Fluffy towels, a stash of bottled water and sodas in the fridge, really nicely-appointed bathroom, great bed with tons of pillows. We didn't have a whole lot of time to take it all in before crashing, but it was a happy ending to a very stressful day.
Ahhhhhh, travel. It tests you. And just when you think you're ready to pack it all in, the travel gods surprise you with a happy ending.
Long story short (you're shocked, I know) we were supposed to leave Singapore today, and travel to Malacca, Malaysia, for a cooking class and some couchsurfing. Sounds like fun, yes? But although the folks at FernLoft had said they'd booked us two bus tickets - OOPS! - it turns out the bus was oversold and we had no way of getting off the island. We tried all morning to remedy this, but as luck would have it, Singapore is not so much a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travel destination. There was just no way to get to Malacca in time for the class. So when Sam, the Fern Loft manager, arrived around 11am, we were just about at our wit's end and had given up on all attempts to leave town that day. I'd tried in vain to book both bus and train tickets online, to no avail, and happily agreed to let him book us two slots on tomorrow's 9am bus to Kuala Lumpur, where we could catch our onward flight to Bangkok. (Savvy readers will no doubt be waving the red flag at this point... Hey! These are the people who screwed up your reservation and prevented you from leaving on time today! You're going to let them try again??? Hellllooooo?!?!?) After about three hours of trying to manage this on our own, we were more than glad to abdicate responsibility.
Friends and neighbors, what's that I smell coming down the pike? Could it be a big fat *Lesson Learned*?? You'll just have to wait till tomorrow's spellbinding entry to find out, because we have more fun pursuits to pursue! Singapore awaits!
The remainder of that hot, humid day was a jaunty blur of splendid Buddhist-Islamic-Hindu temples, tasty eateries of every imaginable ilk, and the wackiest flea market we'd ever seen. Mark and I wandered through Temple Street, Chinatown, Little India, Little Arabia, and some neighborhoods not spec'd out by the likes of Lonely Planet. Singapore has the bad rap of being strict, rigid, orderly, sterile. While this is often true (witness the spotless men's room at the airport), we discovered parts of town with plenty of personality. At a colorful and chaotic ceremony at the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple, we stood in silent awe as scantily-clad priests chanted, musicians squonked out some traditional beats, and the faithful lined up for blessings and dipped into red paint for dots on their foreheads. As the only whiteys in the joint, we stood to the side, tried to make ourselves as unobtrusive as possible, and hoped we weren't disrespecting any particularly angry or wrathful gods. Next door, at Kwan Im Tong Hood Che Buddhist Temple, throngs of worshippers knelt in prayer in the center, burning incense and shaking containers with sticks, or walked clockwise around the perimeter and past the enormous gold altar at the front. On the same street, several other denominations were represented -- church, mosque, and of course the almighty dollar, with myriad shops and vendors providing flowers, incense, and snacks.
On the periphery of Little Arabia, we had a great adventure trying to order lunch at Singapore Zam Zam (which, to be fair, *is* listed in LP, although we didn't discover this till the end of the day), a place with all the ambiance of a busy truckstop diner but with the most gorgeous chicken murtabak you could ever hope for. En route to Little India we passed the hugest, most random flea market. It seemed to stretch on for miles, through a park and neighboring side streets, spilling off sidewalks and into alleyways. For sale was just about everything imaginable... old shoes, dusty ancient electronics, all manner of pirated DVDs, clothing, stuffed animals, odd knickknacks. Super bizarre bazaar.
After a refreshing mango lassi and an even more refreshing shower back at the hostel -- this town is a sauna! -- we recharged with a power nap, and emerged around 11pm. For convenience sake, we headed back down to Clarke Quay, the very touristy French Quarter/Georgetown -ish section by the river packed with bars and restaurants. We took a quick peek at Pyramisa, a purportedly "authentic Arabian and Middle Eastern fusion" bar & restaurant with bellydancers. The place was cavernous, empty, and throbbingly loud. No thanks. Searching for some late-night grub, we finally found a tapas place that happened to be across from one of the many chi-chi nightclubs. It was a great place to grab a front row seat to the ensuing drama, as club kids and ladyboys sashayed by, preening and primping and trying to out-fabulous each other. Our friendly waiter Gary provided color commentary. The highlight of the evening was watching one particularly dramalicious drunk girl get wheeled away in a wheelchair from nearby medically-themed "Clinic" bar. Hello, kitty!
We made it through the gauntlet of flights and timezones with very little drama, albeit very little sleep. Tuesday night was a blur of election celebrations -- people, the state of Virginia went BLUE for the first time in over four decades, can you gimme hallelujiah? -- and last-minute packing and prep. We had to leave at the butt-crack of dawn for our 7am flight on Wednesday, so you can imagine how much fun that was. But we managed to make it on our flight to Chicago, connecting flight to Hong Kong, and layover to Singapore, with nary a hiccup. We even lucked out and sat behind a deadheading flight attendant who kept passing us surreptitious snacks from the depths of the plane's galley. And in a bizarre twist, seated in front of us on the airport shuttle to our hostel in Singapore was a guy named Joel from Arlington, who'd just taken the same series of flights and would be in Southeast Asia for the exact same amount of time as us. If we see him on the flight back I'll have to buy him a drink.
Got in late on Thursday night, checked into Fern Loft Backpackers on East Coast Road, and tried to get some sleep. Unfortunately we only booked one night, and they're full tonight, but David the owner is an extremely friendly and helpful guy and got us a spot at their other location downtown. We grabbed some lunch at a nearby Vietnamese place, and had a lovely conversation with manager Priscilla over a delicious claypot meal. If you're ever in Singapore, definitely seek this place out! Details below. Unfortunately we didn't take the camera with us (blame the jetlag!) so there are no pics of this delightful woman, but she was great fun to chat with. And the food was deeeeeeelish! Not just because it was our first real meal in about three days, either.
David gave us a ride over to Fern Loft River Valley, where they checked us into another nice room and booked our bus ride to Malacca tomorrow. We had some vague notion of wandering around town, but opted for a nap instead. And now, if we can rouse ourselves, it's out for some more of Singapore's legendary chow! We had a brief debate earlier about whether or not there really is any "Singapore" cuisine, but it seems as though the endless choices of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and other Asian fare *is* the native nosh. Multiculturalism is what it's all about in this incredibly neat and orderly town. It's a nice unchallenging place to land and shake off the jetlag for a bit.
Fern Loft Backpacker Hostel, East Coast Road
693A East Coast Road, Singapore 459058
tel: +65 6449 9066
* near the airport and lots of restaurants
* friendly staff, especially the owner
* reasonably-priced, by Singapore standards ($40 for a private room/$14 per dorm bed)
* free internet/wifi, and there's a pub downstairs so it's a pretty social place
Claypot Cuisine 723 East Coast Road, Singapore 459071
Tel: 6444 5546
delicious Vietnamese food, extensive menu (with pictures!); and be sure to seek out Priscilla, the gregarious manager who loves to make everyone feel at home
Fern Loft River Valley 301 River Valley Road, Singapore
* walking distance to Clarke Quay and not far from Orchard Road
* same friendly staff
* a bit pricier than the other location, but roomier and sunnier
Today's photo of the day captures that "oh s**t!" moment where it seems like there's just no way all this STUFF is gonna fit into two packs and two daybags. So much for traveling light... Oh well, we'll cram it all in there somehow...
(By the way, this photo was taken with my spiffy new Nikon D40, which I spent all weekend noodling around with. Many thanks to everyone who's chipped in!)