After Mikey arrived in Singapore last Monday morning, we proceeded to continue exploring the city together. We wandered Little India and Chinatown, explored to the impressive zoo (we saw polar bears!) and Night Safari (hyenas at night, anyone?), ate tasty roti prata (Casti girls – this is that amazing bread at that place in Mountain View!), learned a lot at the awesome Chinatown Heritage Centre, had drinks at the Raffles’ Bar & Billiards Room so that Mikey could experience it in all its glory, wandered the colonial area and Clarke Quay, had dim sum at the fancy Shangri-La Hotel, and generally enjoyed Singapore. I don’t have much more to say about that city, except that it really is “Asia for beginners,” as it was described to me. It would be a lovely place to live, I think, if it weren’t so hot, but overall it’s culturally interesting and easily accessible (unlike most places in Asia, I’ve found), and less grubby than a lot of other cities here. Definitely a place I recommend visiting, at the least.
Wednesday morning found us on a bus north to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I actually had written out a full thing about our experience in “KL” (as it’s called here), but I don’t have access to it at the moment, so go check out Michal’s blog (see link above) for the details and I’ll give you the rundown here.
Suffice it to say that we got off the bus on the side of the street next to Puduraya, the main bus terminal in KL, only to find ourselves immediately accosted by taxi men and guys offering places to stay. Needless to say, this was not how we wanted to start our experience there. We had no idea where we were, and no ringgit (Malaysian money), so we hadn’t eaten since Singapore, 6 hours before. Finally, we fended off the men and went to a nice hotel across the street, where the concierge happened to have just moved back from 11 years in New York and loved Americans, so he happily pointed us in the right direction for an ATM. After solving that problem, we still only knew a vague direction for the metro. We headed that way, but the signage was essentially nonexistent, and it was pretty much blind luck that we ended up in the right place (we tried to ask some people but it turned out they were tourists too, and just as clueless). We finally stumbled to our hostel – in a nicer part of town, at least – and as soon as we got there, it was like an oasis of calm in the midst of the harsh, dirty city. Seriously, if you ever go to KL, I highly recommend the Travellers Palm Lodge. Suzy, the proprieter, is the sweetest woman ever, and such a mommy. The place is clean and homey, small and calm, so different from the overwhelming city surrounding it.
The best way to describe KL is “harsh.” I have never before felt so unwelcome in a city, for no apparent reason. It felt rather like the city was conspiring against us. It’s dirty and there’s absolutely no signage and I swear that absolutely no urban planning went into it, because if some did, the planner was an idiot. By this I mean that the streets and infrastructure suck. We went to the National Mosque (where we felt unwelcome as Americans, and were prosthelytized to by a converted Canadian) and the Islamic Arts Museum (where the brainwashing and history revision begins, in spite of the beautiful art), and there was no legitimately good way to get there on foot. We took different ways to get there and back, and neither was easy. I felt rather like I was in a Kafka novel at one point, when we were wandering vaguely in the right direction and saw a woman covered head-to-toe in bright blue dart into a passageway; we followed her, glad to see someone else on foot, only to find ourselves pop out in a depression in the middle of a freeway intersection, surrounded by six passages, our blue guide nowhere in sight. We picked a passage purely for its direction, waded through the trash, and turned out to be going the right direction, but there was really no way of knowing that for some time.
In spite of it all, KL managed to worm its way into our hearts, somehow. The Patronus towers really are cool, and, frankly, the KL City Centre (KLCC) is lovely, with a great shopping centre and huge, well-tended park, which we wandered for a while to make ourselves feel better. We ate dinner that second night at CPK, overlooking the park. Yes, California Pizza Kitchen. Sometimes you need something homey. The night before, we had excellent street food in our neighborhood, another fun area. And, again, our hostel was a lovely little oasis from it all. All the same, I can’t tell you the number of people we’ve talked to, from all over, who equally disliked KL. I’m glad we went, so I know I don’t need to go back, but I would love to see more of Malaysia, just not that city.
Friday morning, we hopped on a bus up to Penang, in northern Malaysia. The real reasons for stopping there were so we didn’t have to go all the way to Thailand in one fell swoop, AND because, after falling in love with the Raffles, we decided we had to spend a night at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (the E&O), which was originally started by the Sarkies brothers back in 1885, the same guys who started the Raffles. We decided we could afford one night of luxury, because, let’s face it, it’s infinitely cheaper there than in the states or Europe.
Before we could get to our fabulous hotel, however, things couldn’t just go easily. We decided to walk – the map indicated that it wasn’t far from the bus station to the hotel, and that the city itself was only a few miles wide. Easy, right? Wrong. Turns out the bus station on the map was not the one we got dropped off at, which was quite a few miles outside of town. After wandering along the main highway for a bit, we learned we were going in the wrong direction, so we turned around and headed back the other way, only to find ourselves at a complete loss. We called the hotel to send a cab, but as we were walking up to the assigned meeting place – which, we later learned, was a construction site for fancy residences – a car driving past us stopped and asked where we were going. Turned out the guy was the Project Manager for the residences site, and he was going into town for a meeting, so he offered us a ride. I guess we looked pretty sketchy, these two girls with huge backpacks wandering up to his construction site. We were mildly cautious, but turned out to have nothing to worry about. He was seriously a life-saver. Turns out we were on the opposite side of a very large hill from where we were even supposed to meet our taxi, in any case. This guy drove us all the way in, telling us about the city along the way, pointing out interesting places and telling us about the various festivals going on. Apparently his company had even worked on the E&O, which was amusing. In any case, he deserves serious karma points for helping us out.
That was the thing we found about Penang, which was so different from KL: people were so nice and helpful and friendly. Perhaps that’s because it’s much more of a tourist place, so they’re more amiable towards foreigners, but, whatever the reason, we found it much more pleasant, and liked the people much better. We wished we could have stayed longer than a day, but we were heading to Thailand in the morning.
The E&O was everything we could have wanted. I’ll post pictures when I can, but it was absolutely amazing. The whole hotel was suites, and ours was decorated in a classic colonial style, with huge windows overlooking the water. We were definitely the youngest people in the hotel, which only endeared us more to the staff, most of whom were around our age. There was an amazing, huge, international breakfast in the morning, on which we stuffed ourselves in preparation for the 20-hour train ride ahead of us.
Of course, before we even got on the train, the Malaysian/Thai train system tried to screw us over. We had decided to get up early and head across the the strait to the mainland (where the train station was) to get our train tickets, and then come back to the hotel and enjoy our morning there. When we arrived at the train station around 8:20, we learned that the ticket office goes on break from 7:30-9 am. Lovely. Our cabbie decided to wait with us, so the three of us hung out at the food area and chatted for a while. He was absolutely hilarious! He had decided to take us under his wing and make sure we knew all about Penang and the best way to get back later for the train (“take the ferry, it’s free coming to the mainland”), and he told us the most hilarious stories. Apparently the tourist industry in Penang is not terribly fond of Arabs, though the Arabs seem to be quite fond of coming there and not paying for things… Or accusing the taxi drivers of looking at their wives who are head-to-toe covered in berkas… He had so many funny stories. It was amazing how not-PC they are, but I guess that’s just getting out of the West for you. I was also surprised at the commonplace attitude towards violence as a problem-solver. He was explaining to us how when the Arab guys wouldn’t pay for something, he (or anyone else) pulls out an iron bar! Michal and I couldn’t stop laughing at the image, because, of course, at home that would be considered terribly extreme.
So, in spite of having our morning wasted at the train station, we did have an excellent and informative cultural experience.
The 20-hour train ride to Thailand was, in a word, miserable. We didn’t sleep well at all, and then, in Cha’am, several hours from Bangkok, there was an accident on the tracks and we all had to get on buses for the rest of the trip. Ghetto buses. Not the fancy buses we took in Malaysia. Oh no. Ghetto buses with drivers who raced each other all the way to Bangkok. Suffice it to say that we were not happy campers.
Upon arrival in Bangkok, we found ourselves somewhat shanghaied into buying train tickets to Chiang Mai that night and booking lodging there. Overwhelmed, exhausted, and lost (literally, we had no idea where we were or where to go – we got on the metro and got off somewhere that sounded good), we found some sandwiches at a lovely little place where the most important thing was that we could sit down. Then, we got a call from Mikey’s friend Ta, who lives in Bangkok, and she invited us back to her place to shower and feel human again. Again, another lifesaver. After showering, she decided we’d all go get manicures and pedicures before we had to go get on our train to Chiang Mai. Talk about relaxing! We liked Bangkok much better by that point. We hurried back to the train station, worried about timing, only to find our train delayed by at least an hour. Ah well, welcome to Southeast Asia.
That overnight train ride (12 hours) was slightly better, and we arrived in Chiang Mai slightly more rested than we’d arrived in Bangkok. Ta’s lovely mother had dropped off some Chiang Mai food for us at the hotel, so after we were showered, we ate amazing, amazing local food, and then set off to wander the city. We went downstairs in our hotel to book a “trek” for the next day (that’s the thing to do in Chiang Mai), and then found ourselves also signing up for a river cruise that left just then! We got a nice little introduction to Chiang Mai with that several-hour trip, and then wandered around the small city a bit for the rest of the afternoon and evening. We went book-hunting for a bit – there are tons of used and new bookstores here! – found a lovely little vegetarian place called Aum where we had excellent lassis, and then proceeded on to a wonderful Thai dinner at this place called the House, or Ginger & Kafe (they’re the same), where we spent several lazy hours and also got some fabulous cheese! I miss my cheese.
The next day, Tuesday, we went on our trek! This consisted of an elephant ride (during which we thought we were going to fall off several times – the elephant in front of ours was quite tempermental!), visits to Hmong and other “hill tribe” villages where they mostly tried to sell us stuff, hiking out to a waterfall where we went swimming, more hiking back to the main road (it was beautiful), lunch at a local place (they told us it was snake and money, but, frankly, it all tasted like chicken…), and then rafting down the river on bamboo rafts! Overall, an excellent day and an excellent use of time. It was fun to get out into the country a bit and see something beyond the cities. We also had a great group of people on our trek, so that was fun too. Returning to the city, we wandered for a bit – through the Night Bazaar, which was nothing special – and had khao soi, a traditional Chiang Mai soup/noodle dish. It was great! And we got ours extra spicy, which was awesome. Our waiter was like, are you sure? We just smiled and said we were sure, and it was oh so worth it. Incidentally, the restaurant we went to is now franchising internationally, so if you see a Just Khao Soy, be sure to go! Don’t worry, they make it mild too if you can’t handle the spice. On our way home, we stopped at a rotee stand and had fabulous rotee with honey; this is essentially the same as the roti prata in Singapore, just smaller and with fillings, like a crepe. Absolutely amazing! Wish we could have gone back!
We spent the rest of our time in Chiang Mai, on Wednesday, wandering around the town and going to temples. Frankly, the temples all looked the same after you’d seen a few; that doesn’t mean they’re not beautiful, but since everything’s written in Thai, we had no idea what the significance of any of them was, which made them less interesting than they might have been otherwise. All the same, Chiang Mai is totally worth a visit. We would have loved to have stayed longer – it’s an adorable little city, with tons of good food, and friendly people. It reminded me a bit of a bigger Ubud, only it’s a real city in its own right, so people don’t hassle you much. Indeed, in Thailand in general, there’s much less hassling than in Malaysia or Indonesia, which is so nice. I confess, though, that I’m getting used to it, and it really doesn’t bother me that much anymore. I have no qualms ignoring people and waving them off; haven’t had to be rude yet, but not too worried about if I have to.
Wednesday night, we got on a train back to Bangkok, and got in this morning. We decided to walk – the hostel said it was about 20 minutes from the train station – and ended up missing the turn and ending up near all the government buildings and famous temples. So, it took us nearly an hour and a half to get here. Exhausted and sweaty and gross, no less. But we’re here and there’s free fast internet, and we’re meeting up with Ta tonight, and I can’t wait to take a shower. Tomorrow, we’re off to Cambodia, and this time we’re flying. No more trains or buses! I can’t describe to you enough how tired of them we are. Just imagine cramped and dirty and long, interminably long. And loud. So, after horror stories about the Cambodian buses (they have no trains and bad roads…) and border crossings, we decided to spare ourselves the pain and just fly. Flights are cheap here anyway.
Photos to come, I promise. Maybe tomorrow, since the internet here is good. Keep leaving comments! Love you all.