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Bangkok on 80 Ringgit…..

5 Feb

I’m not sure that this is the most interesting post on the journey so far. Certainly, the pictures haven’t been as great, there are no beautiful sunsets… and yet it has certainly been some of the most eventful and stressful moments of the trip so far.

So, the visitors I was waiting for on the hostel desk didn’t turn up, so although I didn’t see as much of Penang as I thought (the Lifting Buddha, the Sleeping Buddha and so on) I did at least get to have a good night’s sleep having earned my keep on the front desk. And the staff had a great New Year, so everyone is happy.

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DSCF0503Staff and guests!

I have 80 ringgit in my wallet, which is around £32, the effect of attrition due to the first class seats I have had to take getting this far. Can I make it, having already paid the RM45 that the minibus cost? We will see.

A walk across town in the early morning, watching Georgetown wake up..And so back on the ferry. A brief moment of panic as I realise that I have managed to get lost going from the ferry to the railway station (I can’t remember that escalator being there) so I scrape my way onto the minibus with minutes to spare. 90 minutes later we’re on the border. Leaving Malaysia is easy enough (although someone had to give me the one ringgit needed to stamp the passport) – the minibus driver collects the passports, and pays the fees, and then we present them at the desk before leaving the country.

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It’s entering Thailand that is more difficult. Immigration is a heaving mass of humanity trying to enter the country from buses and minibuses. Everyone’s pressing forward and there’s no such thing as a queue in here. Two hours later, my back aches and finally I have the necessary documents!

Another hour or so, and the bus arrives into Hat Yai. At which point, Plan D, the current working plan (involving driving by minbus into Hat Yai and getting the overnight sleeper to Bangkok) falls apart. The bus driver has taken me to the bus station instead.

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Well, at least I know that I can get to Bangkok by bus, so Plan E emerges. Having changed money and paid the fare, I still have enough for a plate of noodles and something to drink at this hawker stall.

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Yippee! I feel strangely relaxed – the stress of the last week trying to work out how to get to Bangkok just melts away. It’s been an adventure.. but it has been frustrating and hard work.

So, another night on a bus. Not this bus, which is a VIP bus…

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but this bus, which isn’t.

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Look pretty similar to me! Having watched the Thai karaoke and a strange game show involving flying comedians, I watch ‘The Expendables’ in Thai – the dubbing doesn’t really help Arnie, Bruce, Sly and Dolph sound particularly butch or menacing.

And 7am sees us arrive at Bangkok Bus station – at which point I realise that plan E isn’t actually complete, and I had relaxed too early. I need to get from the bus station into town. At which point, I realise that I have been a wee bit too preoccupied in the big picture of getting to Bangkok, and not looking at the smaller picture of ‘where am I staying?’.

I don’t have a lot to go on – and so it’s with some relief that someone offers to phone directory enquiries, and we finally have an address. Now how do I get there, armed with 45 baht by this time.. or the equivalent of around £1.So taxi is out, minibus is out, even the motorcycle taxi (with my rucksack? Really?) and it’s down to the local bus. Two problems here – the first is the traffic, and the bus is hardly moving. The second… well, I think their approach to ‘which bus’ is to put me on one that goes round most of the city and hope that it goes somewhere close. After a while, I decide that walking is definitely the best option. After a while, a tuk-tuk driver hails me (I haven’t quite got over this reversal of normal taxi-punter interactions and we settle on 10 baht for a ride to the hotel.

Finally… and I can relax and wait for Lisa to arrive: it’ll be odd to have some company on the trip for a while.

And meanwhile, here’s a cookbook I discovered in Penang….

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Pearl of the Orient – Penang

3 Feb

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And so after some street hawker food that demonstrates that i must speak more clearly (I think they managed to hear ‘tofu’ as ‘seafood’ judging by the abundance of shrimp and octopus and the distinct lack of fermented bean curd)… and a bit more of an exploration of Kuala Lumpur’s Lunar New Year celebrations, it’s onto the train.

Kuala Lumpur (15)Kuala Lumpur (14)

Kuala Lumpur (6)Kuala Lumpur (5)

(magic colour changing sculpture)

I’m not sure that the choice of movie is entirely suitable – showing ‘Unstoppable’ on a train is in the same vein as showing Die Hard 2 to people on an aircraft or Speed on a bus journey – but what’s more fun is the subtitles – obviously created by someone with access to a dictionary but no actual understanding of English – the words are English.. and if you put them together in the right order they sound like the dialogue… but they don’t actually make any sense.

And the train rocks through the night, speeding towards an early morning arrival into Butterworth…I’m a bit concerned that I have missed my stop, because I can’t see any station signs, and it’s past 5am. No need to fear, really, because Butterworth is the end of the line.

The ferry across to Georgetown on the island of Penang is a bargain at RM1.20 return.. around 25p.. although I note that devaluation has hit their process hard – the boarding gate still takes two 50 SIN pieces (RM0.5) so rather than replace it they now have a ‘man in charge of the shillings’ to change your RM1 note into old fangled change.

Georgetown seafront (48)Georgetown seafront (39)

 

I’ve got to say, it’s quite an active harbour area with lots of boats silhouetted in the morning sunrise. Quite an active ferry, too, with hundreds of women in traditional dress and hijab and dozens of men on buzzy little motorbikes exiting the ferry like bees leaving the hive in search of pollen.

But I should back track a bit.  I started this bit of the trip as ‘Plan B’:

Plan A was to fly from Sydney to Bangkok – scuppered when Qantas changed all their flight details, thus leaving me in Singapore without ongoing connection planned

Plan B was to fly to Singapore (check) take the train to Kuala Lumpur (check) and then the day train to Butterworth/Penang – but that was fully booked due to New Year (I found when I got to the station)

(Plan B also suffered from planning error when I asked the travel agency to move my flight to 28th Feb rather than 28th January. I realised this at around 24 hours notice. Doh!)

Plan C was to take the overnight train from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth/Penang (check) , stay on Penang (check), and then take the overnight train from Butterworth to Bangkok – but that was fully booked due to New Year ( I found at 7am this morning, having taken the perfectly reasonable precaution of waiting at the station until the ticket office opened just in case.

So, plan D is to take a minibus from Butterworth to Hat Yai and then catch a train/take a bus to Bangkok. I hope there is one free….

So this is what it looks like now. Probably.

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When I get to the hostel, I find my room mate, Silvana, from Kuala Lumpur, is already there. I’m not sure if I am surprised or not. We’re not sure who is stalking who – I booked the hostel first, but she got there first..

Silvana

Anyway, I took a pleasant enough wander round East Georgetown taking a look at the hawker stands, a glass of prosperity fizz from McDonalds, a stroll by the sea…

McDonalds Prosperity Fizz

After dinner, four of us go up to the Kek Lok Si temple. This traditional buddhist temple is lit with what looks like a billion lights for New Year.. pity the poor monks who have to put them up (apparently quite acrobatic and a little heart stopping to watch). Anyone who decorates their house for Christmas should take a look at how it’s REALLY done. Thousands and thousands of paper lanterns, all sorts of lighting across the entire temple.. really breathtaking.

Penang_Kek-Lok-Si_Temple_5Kek Lok Si Temple (28)Kek Lok Si Temple (25)Kek Lok Si Temple (8)

The business of being a temple carries on, of course, but at New Year lots of families do what we do – come and see the lights, stay to see the firework celebrations unfold in the town below, and then make New Year prayers and offerings at any of a dozen shrines in the temple.

Kek Lok Si Temple (23)

The Chinese believe that the sound of firecrackers and the colour red frighten the Nian, an ancient chinese monster… they also leave food outside to appease it and stop it eating their children. So hence the practice of releasing firecrackers in the streets, and of sending lucky red envelopes with money in (an even number, but never $4, $40 or $400 which would be unlucky)

A fabulous firework display including some of the biggest (and loudest) fireworks I have ever seen… and more firecrackers than I have ever experienced. Apparently there is a huge black market trade in firecrackers imported from Thailand.

The Chinese also have some prohibitions around working at New Year – so our hostel owners can’t sweep the floor or do laundry. They are also going to a family dinner today, so I offer to man the front desk in return for a night’s accommodation (or at least a chair in the corner).

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In transit…..on the set of ‘Entrapment’

1 Feb

So, having worked out that my travel agent has got me on a flight to Singapore, and I need to be in Bangkok… I decided that the easiest way to get there would be to take the train. That might have been a mistake…

Anyway, a late flight dumped me at Changi airport in Singapore.. unable to sleep on any of the available chairs, I sat and worked all night at the coffee shop, and then got the train into Singapore itself first thing in the morning.

Changi Airport (1)Changi Airport (2)

It’s already hot (I remember going for a run before daybreak just to avoid the heat when I first went to Singapore) and the walk to the international train station is a hike. All they have left are first class seats (which isn’t as expensive as it sounds – it cost me around £35) and isn’t as luxurious as it sounds (the seats are starting to look a bit tatty). But a pleasant and uneventful trip up country including the stop for Malaysian immigration got me to Kuala Lumpur. The route is full of window views that sometimes resemble a Birmingham back street, and sometimes equatorial jungle – with the occasional golf course as a surprise..and unlike the Australian train’s leisurely dawdle across country, this one rattles and rocks along, threatening at every curve to leap off the rails.

Singapore to KL (17) - CopySingapore to KL (4)

KL is a crazy city, a combination of old and new. The Times Square mall outside the hostel is simply huge, with a theme park and full size rollercoaster indoors. At the KL Convention Centre Mall it’s like walking into an English city centre mall, with Marks & Spencer, TopShop, La Senza and more..and of course, like Singapore, it uses UK power sockets (causing maximum confusion to my new German friend who has got used to the Australian ones while she’s been in Melbourne)

Times Square (1)Times Square (6)Times Square (5)Times Square (2)

 

But it’s coming up to Chinese New Year, and everything is decorated for the season with lanterns for good luck, giant chinese coins and huge (and vaguely scary) rabbits that remind me of something out of Donnie Darko. (It’s the Year of the Rabbit in 2011).

Walk round KL (4)

After a day sat in (of all places) Krispy Kreme (they had a power outlet) I have an outline of my next book/workshop/product set – and an idea of another one too. Good days work.

Krispy Kreme

So time for a walk round this cybercity full of technology and McDonalds, pirate DVDs and smartphones alongside the street vendors. Chinatown at Petaling St is a huge market full of knock off Gucci and Prada.. in fact, I wouldn’t like to fancy my chances of buying anything that was genuine manufacturer’s original in the entire city. Again, the place is decorated for the Lunar new Year, and shops stock all sorts of decorations and gifts for the festive season.Chinatown (2)Chinatown (5)

There are some wonderful temples too, with incredibly detailed artwork…

Chinatown (1)

…and I spent a wonderful hour lost in thought and meditation in Guan Yin temple – full of cheerful Buddhas, incense and a very out of place LED display for the Buddha’s halo. Effective, but distinctly anachronistic.

Maharaja Leia Temple (7)Maharaja Leia Temple (2)

And the Petronas twin towers are a wonderful blend of modernist and art deco.. although no longer the talles building in the world, they are still the tallest twin towers (pop quiz… what is the tallest mountain in the world?)

Petronas Twin Towers (7)Petronas Twin Towers (6)

Because it’s the Lunar New Year, the trains are really busy – and so are the hostels. But I have managed to book myself onto an overnight sleeper and into a hostel in Georgetown, Penang..

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And finally, another wander round the mall… I spend a few minutes visualising my book on the shelves of Borders and check the list of spiritual places to visit in the world – realising that the majority outside of Europe and the Middle East are on the list for this year..

So just time for some food from a street hawker, and onto the train……

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