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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
On January 14, 1996 we departed New Zealand on a ten-hour Malaysian Airlines flight, noteworthy for delicious food, including salmon and filet mignon. Between meals, we watched an intriguing movie called Usual Suspects.
Arriving at 9:00pm local time, we breezed through immigration with the usual ease only to wait forty minutes for our luggage. Outside, the warm and humid air welcomed us back with the smell of an Asian city. The humidity was like a security blanket we lost three months ago. We were excited to be back in Asia for another fourteen months.
We caught a bus into town and were surprised to find a traffic jam on the highway and in the city at 11:00pm. At the bus station we asked a young man for directions to the guesthouse. He turned out to be an Accounting graduate who was making plans for graduate school in the US. He just returned from visiting a friend at Boston University and has a brother at USC. We exchanged addresses, and were invited to visit when we return. Exhausted after being up for twenty-four hours, we got to bed at midnight hoping the fan would keep the mosquitoes at bay.
Up early the next day, we reacquainted ourselves with squat toilets, then trudged to the terminal to catch a bus south. We were on a mission to the Singapore Airport to surprise Internet friends we had never met in person, had no idea what they looked like, and didn't even know the flight number, just the airline and the date! Once the bus got moving, they cranked up an appropriate movie, Speed, about a bus that is rigged with a bomb which will explode once the driver drops below 50 mph. Five hours later at the border, everyone got off the bus and walked their luggage through immigration and customs control, then reboarded the bus for the final fifteen-minute drive into the city.
Wasting no time, we hopped the next bus to the airport. We were taking a wild guess that our friends would be on the Philippine Airlines flight due in at 6:20pm from Manila. They were on a Round-the-World trip for more than a year, following a route similar to ours, and had also sold all their earthly possessions. The city bus took the scenic route through the traffic-choked neighborhoods, delivering us to the airport five minutes late.
We rushed up to the arrival hall and found it empty, however there was another, unexpected flight arriving at 6:50pm, so we waited patiently. After awhile, we saw a couple come through immigration, the man headed for the conveyor belt and the woman, carrying a stuffed tiger, headed toward the American Express booth. They were the only ones who fit the 'backpacker' profile, so we agreed that they were our only hope. Another fifteen minutes and their luggage came out while we waited behind the glass wall until they cleared customs.
Hurtling through time and space, forty-two hours of buses and planes, our destiny was met when Marc held up a sign with their names on it. Steve pointed to himself and said, "Me?" with a confused look, and Lois knowingly smiled. Marc said, "I'm your driver, welcome to Singapore!" Now it was Steve's turn to ask "Do I know you?" and the response was "Of course you do, I am Marc." Hugs for everyone! This was definitely worth the trouble, and all the letters back and forth to Australia and New Zealand.
We stood around the airport for one and a half hours talking away before hitting the ATM, then catching a bus straight to our favorite spot on Beach Road, Willy's Homestay, a good base in the center of the city. Tony Ong, who was a guest when we met him in August, was now running the place. He had made many improvements, kept it spotless, and had decorated it with Chinese art. He was happier than ever, always explaining Chinese culture to us, showing us card tricks, playing practical jokes, and sharing the gourmet food he cooked!
Lee was also there, smiling as always, and had gained some weight since he was doing his own cooking. Both acquired a bit of gray hair and were looking more distinguished. We checked into a dorm with Steve and Lois, spending many hours sitting on the floor "talking travel" and world issues, when we weren't strolling around Singapore together.
We scoured the Arab District in search of Middle Eastern food, but couldn't even find somebody from the Mideast. We were able to satisfy our craving for Indian food by making frequent stops at the Daewoo Restaurant for mutton biryani and murtabak, a light, fried pancake with a curry dip.
Another RTW rendezvous was fulfilled a few days later when we met Todd, a mutual Internet friend whom Marc and Steve had corresponded with for years. He had been travelling for a year, but in the opposite direction through Europe, the Mideast, Africa, India, Nepal, and Southeast Asia. He was heading to Australia, then home for the Olympics in Atlanta. He had a rough journey in Zaire and Kenya.
We always look forward to visiting our friend Bill, a university teacher with unlimited stories. This summer, he took a sabbatical with a major corporation to help create a training course and develop smartcards. He 'taught' his son the facts of life, but took the easy way out by using a CD-ROM computer program, and at the end asking, "Does that answer about all your questions?"
On our last visit, we had to take a raincheck on the high-seas adventure Dragonboat practice, but this time we were game. The two amateurs, Marc and Karin, were strategically seated side-by-side in the back of the boat so as not to interfere with the timing. The boat was 18m (56 ft) long, seated eighteen side-by-side, and weighed 500kg (1100 lb).
Everyone was given oars, and the captain, who sat behind us beckoned, "Stretch, dua, tiga, puluh, fast start, awas, go." All oars hit the water in unison and we were off and paddling at a steady pace. We passed two bridges, stopped to rest, and as we were catching our breath, the captain announced that we would have to beat the ominous, purple-black raincloud back to shore. The cloud won, despite our efforts, and pelted us with large, warm raindrops. There was some speculation that the recent nuclear tests in French Polynesia were to blame for this sudden, unseasonal downpour.
We quickly recovered after lifting the boat back on shore, and made the best of the afternoon by getting acquainted with the rest of the crew. To top off the day, we had a wonderful dinner with Bill's family, and didn't get home until midnight, but only after we had sacrificed ourselves as subjects for the kids' practical jokes. We suspect that all their guests suffer the same treatment, and we wouldn't have missed it for the world.
On the one occasion when we needed to iron some clothes, there was a man ahead of us with an enormous pile of laundry. He was trying to make amends and get back on his wife's good side by doing the housework -- he was intent on doing all he could to save his marriage. He had done the laundry and was ironing bed sheets plus every item of clothing. It was strange enough to see an Indonesian man doing housework, but this was the first time we'd ever seen anyone iron women's panties! We eventually had to interrupt his routine to save our day since he had quite a collection, and was being very gentle with them!
On the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, we visited our Indian friends who are Bohoras Shi'a Muslim. They had recently returned from their pilgrimage to Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Egypt, and had hours of interesting stories, plus pictures of mosques and tombs they had visited.
At 7:30 in the evening, the men went inside to perform ablutions and pray. Soon after, we reconvened in the kitchen to break the fast with a traditional glass of bigi lassi, a purple milk drink with tiny, jelly-like bubbles and spaghetti-like strings. We were not prepared for the feast that followed, an incredible variety of soups, casseroles, biryani, bread, dips, salad, and desserts.
Muslim hospitality being so generous, we had a hard time convincing them that our appetites were not as big as theirs. It was even harder to imagine that this could go on for a month, but we managed to control ourselves and didn't show up daily at dinner time.
We frequented the Cyberheart Cafe and Oasis Online Internet cafes until we found free access at the library, finishing the Australia dispatch, and exchanging email with friends and family, not knowing when we'd get access again in Asia. The net is very popular in Singapore and is able to support six cafes, but surfing can be difficult with their heavy-handed Big Brother censorship.
On our first visit to Willy's Homestay, we discovered that the atmosphere was good for meeting people, exchanging travel ideas, and sharing food. One of the people who impressed us was Suzanne, an artist who had roamed India and Asia, and had spent a few months learning the Barong Dance in Bali. She travels to her natural rhythm between Bombay, Rajasthan, Delhi, and Mathura, and raves about the beauty of the Yamuna River. She enjoys every aspect of the place and its people, and is one of the few who never has a negative word to say about India except for the "Coca-Cola tourist ghettos." After talking to her, we really looked forward to travelling in India.
One evening, Tony dragged us to the Bugis Junction Mall where some of the hotel guests were selling art. One from Shanghai had a technique where he blows black ink across a sheet of rice paper, then off at an angle to create branches from the main trunk, then dips his fingers in yellow and red paint and makes imprints to create plum blossoms. Others painted inside small bottles with tiny, angled paint-brushes, or painted cards, or sketched portraits.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the food market and went on a buying spree. We bought some young-dow-foo (tofu) fish balls for soup. Tony, who sings all the time, had us singing a slight variation on Eric Clapton's "You Look Young-dow-foo (wonderful) Tonight," on the way home.
We tried to leave, but the Indian food from a restaurant down the block got its revenge again. After we recovered, Tony took us out for a Chinese delicacy, Teow Chew steamed fish with tofu, coriander, ginger, and salty plums. The next day we were delayed by heavy rains.
Our plan was to be in Singapore for five days, but we ended up staying for eighteen, overstaying the fourteen-day visa, thinking it was a thirty-day visa, like they gave us when we flew in the first time. Arriving at the border, we were led to a special counter, names taken down and passports red-stamped with a 'W', and warned not to let this happen again (or else there might be a caning in our future)!
Singapore is a strange place, whether you spend much time there or not. Almost every traveller comes up with the same words to describe it: sterile and robotic. We discovered that having friends there makes a big difference. One of our fascinating realizations was that in the five months that we had been away, all our friends got noticeably heavier, grayer, slower, and more out of shape.
Crossing the border, things changed quickly. It was Ramadan and most of the food stalls were closed during the day, but eventually someone directed us to the top floor of the bus station for Chinese food. We also suffered on a bus showing a Wide World of Wrestling video, but never got the nerve to ask the Malay women what they thought of it. We suspect it's not so violent compared to the martial arts movies that are usually shown on the bus.
Our hotel was a wooden, Neo-Classical Chinese mansion built in 1918, with a small pool inside, a bar in the front, and a batik classroom in the back. Chinese New Year was approaching and the street was decorated with 50cm-diameter (1.25 ft), red, paper lanterns.
Malacca is famous for its historical Dutch churches and buildings from the 1500s, but better described as a garishly-painted tourist trap. Skyscraper development around the perimeter of the small, low-height center has become so rampant that the city reminds us of a donut. The redeeming feature was Little India on the next block from our hotel, where we found excellent food, met nice people, and celebrated the Thaipusam Festival. At night the parents brought their children to be blessed at the mobile shrine.
After checking out, we started walking in the direction of the bus station. We got to the end of the block, where Marc smiled at two men crossing the street, as he always does to see other people's reaction. Both were wearing white, Muslim topis (caps), one had a white scarf wrapped around his neck, which is common in the Mideast, the other man smiled, then surprised us with, "Salaam aleikum." Marc stopped and replied, "Wa aleikum salaam;" the man said: "Oh, are you American? You look Afghani," then told us about his experiences as a Mujahideen in Afghanistan. This was probably the last situation we expected in a Chinese area -- it was like being transported to Afghanistan.
The road to Kuala Lumpur looked like one big construction site of factories and subdevelopment townhouses packed closely together. This country is developing so fast that it's running out of skilled labor and starting to worry about inflation. The city is booming; skyscrapers are shooting up all over the place, one of which is expected to be the tallest building in the world. The pollution is as thick and steamy as Jakarta's, and traffic jams are legendary. This is a common story in capitals, and unfortunately many of the people whom foreigners are most likely to know reside in them, not in the quiet and interesting villages. Our other excuse for stopping here was to obtain visas for Thailand.
Since we expected to be here only a short time, we followed the backpacker crowd into Chinatown for cheap accommodation. It's an unmanageable area of congestion, dirt, and bad odors, and was the first place where we felt unsafe. It took a few days to appreciate our mistake, and we wish we had gone north into the Indian area.
Once, in a cafe, two uninvited men sat at our table, but unusually close to us. When we started grabbing our bags and moving away from them, they got up and left. Another time we were followed through the market. Worse than these nuisances were the bedbugs that literally came out of the woodwork at night.
To be fair, we did meet an Indian man who took us through the bustling Saturday night market in Little India to his favorite restaurant. Next he showed us around the city including Merdeka Square and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (1897), a Moorish-style complex completely lit up with small, white lightbulbs streaming down the sides. It looked like Cinderella's Castle at Disney.
The original plan was to cross from Kuala Lumpur to the east coast of Malaysia, then head north visiting the small villages, and to go diving in the Perhentian Islands, but it was still mid-February and we were receiving continuous reports from other travellers that the weather was bad. So, we headed directly north along the west coast to Kuala Perlis, a sleepy, little border-town. After getting stamped out at immigration, we boarded a wooden boat, with a car engine mounted in the center, for a slow and deafening 35-minute ride along the coast to Thailand.
After visiting Western Malaysia three times, we finally understand why so many backpackers pass through without stopping. It's a fairly conservative country, and too expensive for things you can see nearby in Thailand and Indonesia.
Satun (sah toon) is a rarely used entry point for tourists, and we were a little confused when the boat dropped its eight passengers at a small pier in the middle of the estuary. A friendly Malaysian from Langkawi Island took us under his wing and made sure we got on the songthaew (song-tao), a covered pickup truck with benches, heading into town.
We knew we were instantly lost when we saw that all the signs were in a magnificent, cursive script without English subtitles, in a difficult, tonal language we didn't speak. The immigration office was closed, but our friend led us around back to the officer's house to get stamped in. Next, he helped us exchange the last of our Malaysian ringgit, pointed us to an ATM, then walked us to the bus stop. We had just missed the last bus since we had lost an hour and it was late in the day, so we met his friends, thanked him for his generosity, then found a place to stay for the night.
Our plan to get up the coast and across the border in one day was ambitious, and although we missed the last bus, it all worked out for the better. Instead of spending too much money on a taxi and getting into the next town late at night and exhausted, we were able to drop our bags and see some of this town. The hotel manager was a friendly man from Laos who went out of his way to help us at all hours, something else we weren't expecting!
We also met a lovely Canadian couple who were just leaving after a month in Thailand, glad to show us around and explain the foods at the night market. There was a wide selection of fruits and vegetables to choose from, but we couldn't resist the large succulent barbequed chicken. The Thais were extremely friendly and open, always stopping to see the couple's baby and offering her food.
The next morning we were told that the bus would never make it in time, and we would need to take a taxi, else we would miss the boat. After returning to Asia from New Zealand, we had no more airline tickets, nor any set plans. We decided to stick to our original plan to just sample countries by seeing fewer cities for a longer period of time rather than racing around trying to see the whole country, so we weren't worried whether we caught the boat or not. This meant that we would probably follow the well-worn tourist trail since it has good transport and interesting attractions. We also came to the realization that visiting villages is fun, but can be stressful when you don't speak the language.
We hopped in the back of a colorfully-painted, chrome-laden, 1940s-era bus. Every 500m (1550 ft) we collected more impeccably-dressed ladies and gentlemen to fill the spacious but rusty interior, everyone smiling and talking with each other without being too loud. There was one exception, the silent Buddhist monk, wearing a saffron-orange robe with his head shaved to stubble.
The pleasant breeze coming in the door, soft light of dawn on the rice fields, and the Thai version of Santana (reminiscent of Balinese Gamelan music) made this a morning to remember. Once on the right bus, we weren't quite sure how we'd be able to recognize our destination, being illiterate in the local language. As usual, we told the nearest ten people the name of the town and they welcomed the opportunity to communicate.
Three hours later we arrived at La Ngu (la new) in Southwest Thailand, and the bus conductor made sure we found the songthaew to Pak Bara pier. We noticed two things everywhere: the happy children and the scrawny cows. Being an hour and a half early, things really had worked out for the better. We loaded up on fruits and ordered our first Pad Thai (spicy stir-fried noodles), and chicken-rice seasoned with basil.
Once again, we were off chasing another suggestion by Lee, our friend in Singapore. The 14m (44 ft), double-decked boat navigated down the river and through a small opening in the limestone cliffs, then into open water with dolphins following along and playing in the bow wave. We picked up more passengers at Ko Tarutao, a national park on a large island.
An hour later we anchored to swim and spearfish at Ko Kai, a small, white sand island. When we reached the waters of Ko Adang, the engines were cut and we drifted while four longtails pulled alongside to transport us to the soft, white beaches of Ko Lipe (ko lee pay), a tiny little palm tree island populated by 70 families of Chao Naam (sea gypsies). Longtails are 8m-long (25 ft), canoe-shaped boats with a small car engine balanced on a pivot in the rear, and a 4m-long shaft driving the propeller.
We found a nice bamboo bungalow on stilts, 20m (62 ft) from the beach, with a functional mosquito net and very few scorpions or spiders. No current or waves, just azure-green water for 500m (1550 ft), with other islets and mountainous islands off in the deep blue water. At 11:00pm they turned the generator off and we were submerged in darkness, leaving just the sound of the shoreline, night fishermen's bright fires dotting the horizon, and an abundance of stars, as we were six hours by boat from the mainland.
A group of us rented snorkeling gear and hired a longtail to Ko Rawi for a picnic, and to float around in a few meters of clear water above the coral reef full of anemones and clownfish, butterflies, lionfish, Moorish idols, and a unique, blue Crown-of-Thorns starfish. There was a large, pungent, smoke-belching, fish-canning ship moored nearby, so there weren't any large fish, and we weren't sure that patch of coral would last much longer.
We would have stayed in this paradise much longer, but the food was so bad that we had to flee. You can only eat so much somtam (sohm-tom, shredded, green papaya salad with nuts, spices, and a lime-lemongrass dressing). On top of this, prices had doubled in the last year, and big investors had started to buy up the island.
The storm, which we saw on the horizon the night before we left, blew over the island, leaving the seas choppy. Since we would have been stuck there for three more days if we didn't leave on the only boat, we boarded and looked around for the non-existent but legally-required lifevests. Taking boats in Asia can be very risky in severe conditions, but: it was daylight, the water was warm, there were islands close by, we had inflatable mattresses, and knew how to swim.
This is also how we felt last September when we took the large, steel ferry on the north tip of Sumatra in Indonesia. However, in January 1996, it was overloaded with 377 people as it headed out in rough seas at night. It didn't get far before it capsized and sank immediately. Only forty survived after bobbing all night for twelve hours in shark-infested waters, while the military attempted to rescue them. A ferry and a dive boat had sunk during a storm in Ko Phi Phi (Thailand) the previous week, making us just that much more apprehensive.
The captain detoured off the normal route and headed directly into the wind and waves for four hours. The ride wasn't so rough once we got near the mainland. Returned to La Ngu for a three-hour bus ride north through fields and limestone hills.
Stopped for the night in this small, quiet town. It was Hariraya Puasa, the end of Ramadan. It was also Chinese New Year -- Gong Xi Fa Cai (goong-see-fah-chai), it's the year of the rat! The next morning we wandered through a large market, loading up on bananas for the bus ride.
Tourists and backpackers everywhere in this small city. We met a Finnish couple who gave us the facts: the situation was worse than expected. The affordable beach bungalows to the west of Krabi (krah-bee) were packed during this busy holiday season. Worse, the noisy longtails go by all day and night, which we were all too familiar with after Ko Lipe.
We took their advice and stayed here, opting for day trips to the perfect beaches of Rai Leh West. The caves inland had interesting formations, including stalactites and stalagmites, but the great 'melting wax' limestone cliffs hanging over Phra Nang (prah-nahng) Beach, and the cave shrine full of phallic symbols, was worth the trouble of getting here.
Our room on the sixth floor of the hotel had large windows which we left open so we could enjoy the warm breeze day and night. Every evening, a wonderful night market spreads along the esplanade, with locals out-numbering the tourists. Weekday mornings we woke to the sound of children being shaped into good citizens and soldiers, as they sat in the elementary school yard and repeated after the drill sargeant, then marched into their classroom to the sound of a military drum roll and cymbals.
We visited the Wat Tham Seua (Tiger Cave Temple), climbing a 55m (155 ft) flight of stairs to the ridge, then descending into a bowl full of large trees, surrounded by 100m limestone walls. The monks have small huts at the base of the walls where there are entrances to the shrine caves. Back at the gate, we watched a colony of monkeys play in the fountain and wage territorial wars, then we left as five busloads of tourists arrived.
Like Malaysia, our original plan was to head east to the opposite coast for diving, but this time it wasn't the weather that changed our minds. An interesting phenomenon that we have encountered while travelling is that for a year or two people say a place is untouched, but by the time we get there it is overrun.
The guidebooks described Ko Tao as undeveloped, but from our experiences, and the stories we were hearing, we didn't feel bad about giving it a miss. With it being more expensive and so heavily touristed, plus the fact that we have our beaches waiting for us back home, we decided it would be better to head north into new territories. We were satisfied enough from the great diving in Australia to wait until the Red Sea.
Things went our way again, and we found bus connections wherever we went along the west coast. More limestone cliffs, but the latest fish-farming technology had arrived, leaving 20mx20m (60 sq-ft) ponds sunk 3m (9 ft) deep. This may seem like a great thing to some, but there are quite a few downsides. To us, they are an indicator that the oceans have been over-fished and can no longer provide enough for our increasing needs. Whereas free-range fish used to feed and house themselves, we are using land and food to provide for them.
After nine hours of bus rides, we had reached the east coast and wanted to sleep on a motionless bed. Sex-change operations are popular in Thailand, and we met a katoey (kah-toy) for the first time -- would not have realized it if not for the five-o'clock shadow and large Adam's apple. He/she ran the hotel and was very helpful with Chumphon (choom-ponn) train information.
Luckily, the train was later than we were. Sitting in aisle seats was not enjoyable as there was a constant parade of food and drink vendors bumping into us with their buckets and baskets of stuff, and only got worse at major stops when new vendors board. We bought sweet rice cooked in bamboo tubes.
Halfway into the trip, we ran out of seats and people had to stand for the next three hours. Although the people on board were generally happy, they made no attempts at conversation. The journey crossed through dry rice fields, passing a few prosperous cities, entering central Thailand, then heading east through greener scenery and rice fields. Wooden homes eventually gave way to two-story concrete houses as we arrived at Thonburi Station on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River in the heart of Bangkok at 5:00pm on February 25th.
Many people have been wondering where we are and what we've been doing for the last seven months. We're now in Nepal after travelling through Laos, China, Pakistan, and India. After the postal workers in Beijing said that they threw away all our mail, we decided not to take chances with this anymore and will just stick to email, since we seem to somehow find access every month or so. We also don't know when we'll be in any given city, but have had no problems sticking to the general path planned in the beginning. Another problem we have run into is that our PO Box is even having delivery problems these days.
Marc & Karin
November 5, 1996
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