Monday, 20 February 2017

The Bangkok, Penang, Kuala Lumpur Diaries

November 2016
Bangkok, Penang, Kuala Lumpur

It's been 10 years since we first visited Bangkok.  It was our first experience of Asia in 2006 when we did a few days each in Hong Kong and Bangkok and then a week in Koh Samui.  After our first night I think I described it in my travel diary something like "a mad, brain melting, surreal experience".  It was a culture shock at first but one that I liked, the way of life seemed so fascinatingly weird at first but on subsequent trips to similar regions all those sights that were really really weird become more normalised. I never quite recaptured the wonderment of that first clash against my comfort zone but on the upside I think we've become more travel wise, knowing what to expect can help you get more from the overall experience.
Anyway, Bangkok.  10 years have passed and we're staying in a different area than last time with a completely different list of activities we want to try and do so I'm expecting it to seem like we're visiting somewhere completely new.....

31st October 2016
Arrived in BANGKOK

Got to Hotel Trang at night, a bit travel knackered but in need of food so dropped our bags and went straight out to get food and a quick drink.  The well known backpacker tourist area around Khao San Road is ram packed full of bars, food stalls, neon signs and busy full of tourists from all over the world and of all different ages.  Bangkok doesn't attract a particular type of person, it seems to appeal to everyone and have them all mingle together.  Back to the hotel to crash out and start proper in the morning.....
Things I noticed today;
*An array of deep fried insects on 'food' stalls down Khao San Road.  Scorpions, cockroaches, grubs, crickets and so on.  Shame I'm veggie eh?
*Paid too much for the taxi from the airport despite being determined not to get ripped off before we arrived.  they're good at it and they know we're too polite and tired when we first arrive.

1st November.  Bangkok by bicycle
Set off first thing to do a back street cycling tour which avoided the main sightseeing attractions that we'll see anyway and explored the lesser known hidden sights of Bangkok via a maze of narrow side streets.  We biked in a small group through bustling city streets, backstreet communities, small temples, little workshops and weaved through crazy Bangkok traffic.  At one stop I tried my hand at some metal work in a small metal furnace workshop, I thought I did a brilliant job on this metal bowl but one of the workers laughed like I was fucking it up.  Good to do something like this on the first day to help get our bearings.  It's pretty hot to be doing something active, not ridiculously hot but certainly enough for me to be sweating my nuts off after cycling for a few hours!

In the afternoon we visited some very impressive Buddhist temples at Wat Chana Songkhram and Wat Ratchanatdaram.  Huge imposing gold Buddhas dominate the halls of the main temples which are immensely ornate both inside and out.  We then visit Wat Saket temple at the top of Golden Mount Hill topped with a huge gold stupa.  A bit of a climb gives panoramic views across Bangkok, the concrete jungle looks deceivingly quiet and serene from up here!  Tourists mix with monks in orange robes and Buddhist pilgrims all admiring the views and taking photos.
Walked back to the back packer area and booked a Thai cooking class for tomorrow.  Had a relax and a drink whilst comprehensively thrashing Bec at connect 4.

Later on we decided to avoid the tourist bustle of Khao San Rd and went for street food at Thip Samai, an area popular with the locals for it's pát tai.  Here the food was good and really cheap and best of all Bec, for no good reason, snorted some chilli seeds and made her whole face go numb!  Why? Who knows?! But I'm told it was definitely my fault.  Finished the night with a few Changs at the dark and quirky 'Adhere the 13th Blues Bar', a small place, filled with smoke, playing crackly vinyl moody blues records.
Things we discovered today;
*Realised it's much easier to show taxi drivers pictures of landmarks than try to explain where you want to go in English or Thai
*It's not a great idea to snort chilli
*Bec saw a monk smoking in the street, she couldn't get over it and concluded he wasn't a proper monk, his heart wasn't in it and he just liked the image of his orange robes.
*Apparently Bangkok is sinking by about 10cm per year due to excess pumping of groundwater.  that's a lot! and means the city will be completely flooded underwater in 15 years if significant measures are not taken.  So no more cycle tours in 2030, only kayak tours!
*The king died a few weeks ago and the city is in mourning, most people are dressed in black whether young or old, there are images of the king and tributes everywhere we go

2nd November.  The Grand Palace
Resplendent.  A word I doubt I have ever used before in my whole life until now, never really found the need for it.
Went to visit the Grand Palace this morning, it was utterly and supremely resplendent, a true wonder of the world, pisses all over the Taj Mahal!  With the king having recently died mourners have, only since the last couple of days, been allowed to pay respects to his body within the ground of the Grand Palace.  There are huge numbers of people around the palace all dressed black, we thought best to be respectful and so have dressed ourselves in dark clothes with long sleeves and legs covered, not the most comfortable attire in this heat so just as yesterday I'm sweating my nuts off again.  The grounds around the Palace are incredible,  a huge complex of temples, stupas, shrines and statues, everything is so elaborate on such a big scale that it has you wandering around in awe not knowing what to admire next! 

 We leave the palace and head for the Wat Pho temple complex just south of the palace only to find that Bangkok has even more wonders to show off.  Amid another complex of elaborate temples housed itself in an insanely well decorated temple is a maaaassive 46 metre long reclining gold Buddha, Bec was speechless for once, a rare thing, but it was amazing.  A feast of impressive sights this morning which unfortunately can't be depicted anywhere near it's full glory in words or photographs.

We whizzed off by tuk tuk to make it back for a Thai cooking class and spent the afternoon with our Thai chef and a Swedish couple learning to cook authentic Thai dishes and then of course eating them.  My cooking was pretty decent, I should open my own cooking school!  I'd eaten so much I couldn't move properly but our teacher insisted we 'dance it off', and made us do some weird cheesy dances and sing Thai songs.

At night we resisted the easy option of Khao San Road again and walked to find a jazz bar by the river with a live Thai style jazz band.
Things I've noticed today;
+Chang and I still seem to get on great even though we've been apart for 10 years
+There are images of the now deceased king absolutely everywhere we go.  Roadside billboards, temples, shops, bars, everywhere.
+The king is dead, long live the king
+Bec and I went for a foot and leg massage.   We apprached two women but then I felt tricked and conned when a man came mincing over to do mine!  Bec couldn't understand why it would be an issue for me to have a man smoothing his hands on my feet and up my legs.  He did quite a good job though I suppose, I just tried to avoid eye contact when he was rubbing my thighs!

3rd November. Siam.
Off out early morning to do a cycle trip around the ancient Thai capital of Siam and the surrounding area of Ayutthaya.  An hours drive out of Bangkok and then the guide we'd hired took Bec and me on a 40km route biking around the expansive 700 year old site, some of it in ruins but much of it preserved in pretty decent condition.  Temples, stupas, monuments, palace remains and residential structures, all a bit weathered and overgrown in some parts but in good enough condition to depict it's former glory whilst maintaining an eerie mystical ambience.  The area is mostly rural but we passed by villages and stopped to sample some fried food and native fruits growing by the roadside and in peoples gardens.

When back in Bangkok late afternoon we walked to Wat Suthat Thepphaararam, a less visited Buddhist temple but no less impressive than many of the other more tourist filled ones.  A scam artist outside acting as someone official tried to convince us we could not enter right now and he would direct us to another nearby point of interest.  Fortunately we ignored him becauase shortly after we discovered that the alternative nearby point of interest would likely have been an alleyway to get beaten and mugged!  oh well, missed out on that one eh?!  The temple however was magnificent, pristine surroundings, highly decorated building, an enormous bronze Buddha and the chanting of the resident monks ringing around the grounds.

Finished our last night in Bangkok with a veggie curry and then one last Chang beer in a quirky little bar called 'Post Bar', another good find.
Things I noticed today;
+ A fruit I've never tried before, Long Kong, bought from a roadside stall is delicious
+ Whilst cycling through the countryside the food we normally only obtain from packets on shelves at home are here growing wild for free.  Lemongrass, mango, pepper, banana, chilli, kafire lime and so on.....
+ All this spicy food we've been eating makes me poo a lot

Friday 4th November.  Penang.
"The stupidest day in the world"
Okay so having only booked this trip a week before flying out, Penang wouldn't normally have been first choice but it fitted when I booked everything under pressure at the last minute, so there that's my excuses out of the way if this leg of the trip doesn't turn out well.
We needed two flights, Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur then to Penang, but the first flight was delayed by over an hour which meant we only just made the second flight with minutes to spare, but our bags didn't.  So no luggage, okay, a bad start but I'm positive the bags will be sent on to our hotel tomorrow... maybe...hopefully.  We've only got the clothes we've travelled in so maybe we will need to buy some.  Next we find that Penang airport has the least taxis of any airport in the whole world.  Most places I've been to there's too many and they fight over the passengers but not here so we join the big queue.  It's also slashing down with rain and has been apparently for about the past month so this should be perfect for a nice beach break.  After a long long taxi ride in traffic jams we reach our hotel at last but then discover that our room is flooded due to a leak in the bathroom. Bec glumly described today as "the stupidest day in the world".  So we go out for food having a moan about life, but I reckon everything will turn out fine.  A curry in a nearby bar with a few beers and a live band jamming session cobbled together with punters in the bar made things seem a bit better.  After a few beers I was fucking brilliant on the tambourine!
When we got back to the hotel they said they couldn't fix the leak so they upgraded our room to a new one plus a free breakfast voucher.  A bit later our bags showed up delivered from the airport and it stopped raining..... as much.  Things are looking up!  everything is gonna be alright!!!
Things I noticed today;
+ It's raining
+ Beer makes rain seem okay
+ After an amazing four days in Bangkok home and work etc feels like months ago and we've another 10 days away yet. excellent.

Sat 5th November. Batu Ferringhi, Penang.
A quiet relaxing day walking on the beach and relaxing.  Nothing major to report.

Sunday the 6th.  Penang Hill.
Climbing Penang Hill was on our list of things to do but to enhance the experience and avoid the normal tourist way of doing things I found the details of a local walking group who meet up every week on a Sunday morning.  Perfect.  I'd emailed the group leader yesterday and he replied welcoming us to join them at 8am.
We taxi'd to the meeting and became best buddies with our driver Raja.  The 45 minute journey was enough time to discuss the full history and culture of Penang, he either knew everything or was just making it up.
We met the walking group at a Buddhist temple, a group of around twenty, who we soon realised were not so much casual walkers but experienced enthusiastic hikers..... oh dear are we gonna be able to keep up?!  We trekked up steep rugged slippery trails through the rainforest for 4 hours, it was great though and enabled us to walk a route we would never have been able to follow by ourselves without the benefit of local knowledge.  We got talking to some of the group who were mostly very friendly and one of them in particular 'CP' insisted on taking photos for us in all the scenic spots.  As we kept walking up through the forested hills until we were eventually surrounded by a very atmospheric thick white mist in the clouds towards the top of the hill.  There's a cafe at the top and panoramic views today of whiteness as we're in the clouds.

We took the mountain train down to the bottom and with the hike over the group dispersed and CP gave us a lift in his car to Lek Loksi, a Chinese style Buddhist temple, one of the largest in SE Asia.  The temple was impressive by it's sheer size but edging more towards the tacky gaudy style compared to the magnificent Thai temples we visited.  From the top there's a fantastic view across Georgetown.  Two buses to get back to Batu Ferringhi, didn't have a clue what we were doing but fortunately drivers and passers by helped us out.
Funny situation of the day:
+ We turned up at CP Tan's house so he could collect his car to give us a lift to the temple.  His wife also arrived home while we were there looking totally perplexed at why there would be two random English people standing outside her house, his daughter came to the door with an equally bewildered look as if thinking what on earth is he up to this time?!

Monday 7th.  
Rain, spice gardens, Raj, Georgetown.
Rain, rain rain, rain.  It's been raining through the night and still persisting now.  Part of the island has been cut off due to a large tree falling and blocking the only road and causing it to subside.  This means we can't get to some of the places we planned to go to today but decided to visit the spice gardens, pathed botanical gardens with some rare tropical plant species and spice plants and trees such as nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, galangal and so on.  Raja the taxi driver we made friends with drove us down there, it's not too far so we could have walked it but we wimped out because of the rain and the taxi fare was only 10 Ringgits.  When we arrived I tried to pay Raja but he refused to take my money saying "no, no, no,pay me later, you might want to go somewhere else later, pay me then".  Whatever, I'm not messing about.  We were in the gardens for a couple of hours having a good wander about, got soaked in the rain, Bec got bitten by insects all over her legs, and then we a nice lunch in the restaurant.

When we leave Raja had waited all this time for us, hmmm okay, we jump in and see that he's left the meter running and it now reads 125 Ringgits!  He says "It's waiting time, I told you"  I said "I'm not paying, it's up to you if you decided to wait for us".  A heated argument started so I told him to stop the car and let us out, he was still expecting the full fare on the meter but I slapped down 10 Ringgits and we got out and walked while he drove alongside us shouting "Fuck you!  Fuck you!" and eventually sped off.  We had quite a pleasant walk back actually, the rain has just stopped and the sun is coming out!
Got a bus to Georgetown in the evening, the nightlife here we've realised is much better than near our hotel in Batu with more options for decent food and busier more interesting bars.  Trouble is though that once I've had a few beers, music is playing and bars are still busy, it's very difficult to get me to go home.  Actually, bars don't need to still be busy, just still open.

Things I've learnt today;
+ You need to be crystal clear what the deal is with the taxi drivers.  Don't accept any vague ambigious talk!
+ Signs around the hotels say "no outside food and drinks allowed", Bec says I should respect this and pay prices over ten times higher than the mini market shops over the road.  Nope.  When we have bits of free time to hang around and for Bec to sunbath I nip over the road and come back swinging a bag of ice cream, snacks and drinks.

Tues 8th Nov.  GEORGETOWN

Bus to Georgetown first thing.  Did an official city tour from the tourist information centre, it was okay but a bit dull and walking around with 30 tourists all stopping in a crowd on every street to block all the pavements up for everyone else in the city is not really my thing, but although tempted to slope off we stayed until the end of the tour to be polite.
Georgetown is famous for it's street art that decorates many of it's more run down buildings.  Despite the guided tour we've not seen any yet so we acquire ourselves a suitable map and create our own self guided two person tour to locate and photograph all the street art.  This took us several hours and into all corners of the city, down backstreets and alleyways, stopping of at little herbal tea shops and cafes along the way. Found some really great stuff.  Good fun!
Things I noticed today;
+ At the more popular and accessible examples of the street art there's a steady stream of people posing and pouting for photos, what could have been a great photo of a wonderful creation.....ruined.
+ Most people aren't capable of taking a photograph that doesn't have themself in it these days.
+ There's not really any proper pavements in Georgetown, you just have to walk amongst the traffic.
+ With a mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian people and culture and with some British colonial history too there's also a mix of religions.  One street in Georgetown is known as 'harmony street' as it has an Anglican church, a Buddhist temple, an Islamic mosque and a Hindu temple all along the same street.

Wednesday.  Clan Jetties, tea, upside down.

Morning bus out to Georgetown again.  We went to see some of the clan jetties, built originally by Chinese settlers the jetties are lined with old wooden houses on stilts in the water.  We walked along the water front to a few different jetties, some are still lined with normal peoples homes but the main one near the busier tourist area of the city has just become a walkway through gift shops selling various useless tat.  Inevitable I suppose but still a shame.

We go find a tea shop again that we visited yesterday.  1.50 Ringgits for a pot, by far the cheapest around but also the best.  He only does Chinese green tea so no menu and you don't have to ask, just sit down and he brings a fresh pot over.

We then went to the Upside Down Museum, it's not really a museum but a series of rooms set up with furniture and fittings upside down so that when you take photos and rotate them 180 degrees it looks like you're doing crazy stuff on the ceiling.  Quite clever, good fun, bizarre photos, but it's just for the photos really, you wouldn't bother going in without a camera.

On the bus back an old fella wants to talk to me, or rather shout in my ear.  He tells me that British people are stupid because they let the rich keep all the money....."the Queen eats, shits and sleeps and one day she will die like everyone else so why give her all your money? She is not more important!".  I agree with him, he's right, but I say I can't do anything about it.  "Aaah but you can, it's a good thing I met you to tell you this, you are one man but Gandhi was one man and he got the British out of India, you can do it also, YOU ARE ONE MAN, BUT STAND UP AND YOU CAN DO IT!!!"  I agree with his sentiment but he's shouting so loud down my ear that it's sending a shiver through me, the whole bus can hear him, he's definitely got his point across.  I'll think about it, maybe I can change the world.....
things I've noticed today;
+ I've got the shits.  Too much curry?
+ Some of the staff in the upside down museum are really fed up of their job (not all of them (but then maybe some of them are new)).  Taking photos for grinning tourists all day every day must lose it's novelty after a while and some of them really can't be arsed with it anymore.

November 10th.  KUALA LUMPUR.
We leave Penang on a one hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, sounds quick but with travelling to and from airport and all that it's late afternoon by the time we check in to the hotel.  Set off to find a cafe restaurant we read about called Little China which is in a historic old building on the edge of Chinatown not too far from our hotel.  Real nice place, tasty food which is far more creative and palatable than the typical stuff that claims to be authentic Chinese food back in England.  The food is worthwhile if you can tackle the abrupt moody waiter.  They had what looked like an extensive selection of varieties of green tea so I asked him
"I'd like a pot of green tea please, can you recommend a good one?"
"oh, erm, oh right"
"YOU" (points at me)
"erm okay, we can't read Chinese or Malay so I don't know what all these are so maybe is there a jasmine green tea?"
"Jasmine, okay".

It was a nice cuppa to be fair, good choice!
We plan to wander through the night markets around Chinatown but as we set off a savage storm breaks out with bright flashes of lightening, deafening rolls of thunder and biblical floods of rain!  Rebecca is scared but I love it.  We stand in shop doorways and watch, it's so brutal you couldn't really walk in it, umbrellas and raincoats rendered useless in this!  Well, we could try but Bec is too scared. To be fair to her it does feel like the apocalypse is imminent but being as it seems fairly mundane to the locals I predict life will continue as normal in about half an hour or so.

Friday 11th Nov.  

KL Tower and exploring the city.
Set out in the morning to the KL tower with a stroll through the forest park that surrounds it on the way.  We buy some rather pricey tickets to go up to the top.  It was previously the tallest structure in the world at 421 metres but now a mere 7th.  Up at the top it's a little bit cloudy but pretty good visibility across the city and over to the forests and highlands beyond, and there is literally a 360 degree view available as you can walk round the platform in a complete circle.  The 'Skywalk' enables you to walk out over the edge of the building on a glass floor, you know it's safe (well it must be, right?) but it still feels like your balls have gone to visit your stomach when you look down 470 metres through the sheet of glass you're standing on.

Next we go to Medeka Square, Jalan Masjid India and then Chinatown to visit some temples.  Get caught in another storm and have to stop exploring to find shelter for a while but it's still warm so getting a bit wet is okay.

Things I noticed today;
+ People with selfie sticks are so self obsessed they spend more time and attention posing for themself and checking how cool they look in the photos than they actually do taking in their surroundings.
+ Bec got told off in a Hindu temple for doing a stereotypical praying pose in front of a statue.  disrespectful! naughty girl!

Petronas Twin Towers, Theon Hou Temple, Little India.
Went to the Petronas Twin Towers in the morning and wandered around the gardens beneath.  Has a kinda Hong Kong Island feel to the area with a calmness in neat landscaped gardens but surrounded by plenty of huge skyscrapers.  The Petronas Towers are not as tall as the KL Tower, I mean they're only 452m high but they were the tallest in the world between 1998 and 2004 and are still the tallest twin towers in the world today.  Bit of trivia for you there.

Got the monorail down to an area called Brickfields and navigated our way by foot a bit further out to Theon Hou Temple, a large colourful and decorative Chinese temple on a hill area with good views across the city's skyline of tall buildings.

 Inside the temple we used some fortune telling sticks by picking up a bundle and dropping them to stand in a container, if one stick stands up proud from the bundle by itself then you check the number on the stick and take a piece of paper with your fortune from a liitle drawer with the corresponding number beneath.  So according to this my luck doesn't sound great, it reads as this;
    "Not an auspicious year.
    You may have a glorious past but this year is not yours. For the time being save your efforts in any undertaking as they will be wasted and in vain.
    Outing: Wasted effort
    Matrimony: Slim hope of tying the knot
    Change of abode or profession: Not advisable"
I am generally quite lazy so taking this advice won't be too much of a problem.  Becci's fortune is slightly more positive, basically she'll be okay but only if she puts a lot of hard work in.  So Bec needs to knuckle down and I shouldn't bother wasting any effort.  We shouldn't ignore this, we've obviously been given this message for a reason!

Walked to an area called Little India but just as we arrive another one of those apocalyptic storms breaks out, with thunder that loud I think the world really might actually be ending this time!  It was a long storm this time but when we came out of hiding we explored the colourful streets.  shops selling saris, marigold chains for Hindu traditions, insense, roti breads, curry of course and then all the usual tat you get anywhere else.

A little later Bec wanted to see the Petrona Towers and skyscrapers again but by night all lit up so got the rail back over there after dark.  Went to a nice Japanese restaurant on the way, most expensive meal we've had since we've been here at 132 Ringgits but then realised that's only about £25 so not doing too bad.
The iconic towers do look impressive lit up at night and there's plenty of people hanging around chattering, quite a nice atmosphere.  The selfie brigade are out too of course.  We're not totally confident but decide we can find our way to walk back to the hotel.  It all looks totally different at night and we find some of the streets are unlit and quiet.  To add to the worry of getting lost a weird scary looking lad has been following us and jabbering something indicipherable at us, he seems unpredictable and things feel edgy so we do a quick about turn and leg it to retrace our steps back to the towers and jump in a taxi.

Sat 13th Nov.  Kuala Lumpur.  Last Day.

Last day today.  Went to Lake Gardens on west side of city, large landscaped gardens with a lake, aviary, deer park and botanical garden area.  It's a nice green escape from the big concrete noise of the city.  I've been a bit moody today and Bec has quite rightly been getting irritated with me moaning about stuff all the time.  I've had a nice time of course but maybe I've got last day blues and I have to admit I've been moaning;
1. I'm feeling the heat and sweating a lot today, it's getting to me and I can probably blame that on reducing my tolerance levels and causing me to moan about everything else.  Bloody hell it's hot!
2. There's a family fun day in the park today spoiling the peace and quiet.  Yeh yeh I know, miserable git aren't I?! but why do they have to have speakers blasting out so everyone in the whole park has to hear it?!
3. The "free flying bird park" as it's called is a netted off area allowing the birds to fly free..... for about 25 metres.  That's not free, it's just a bigger cage.
4. The deer have a similar area with fences not nets.  A shame for them.
Okay!  I'll shut up now!
Spent the afternoon exploring the city streets stopping occasionally for tea and cakes and then it's the airport at night for the next leg of the journey.  Home.  Normal life continues.....

It's been a decent trip overall.  My dream holiday of travelling through Myanmar didn't quite come off due to various reasons of having to leave the planning until the last minute, and so the flights to here were booked only a few days before and although this wasn't originally our perfect first choice I wouldn't change the experiences we've had. It's been great!

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