Khao San Road

Bangkok: Arriving back in Bangkok and after the last rip off fest by most cabbies I am not looking forward to really being here. Although I am staying in a different place with different people and I have some different things on the itinerary – I am open. We arrive in the synonymous back packer area of Bangkok, a street running parallel to the infamous Khao San Road. In the day time KS is like any other street; vendors on the kurbside, traffic and lots of tourists. We walk with a local guide to the riverside and have a tour of the canals before disembarking at the dock near the reclining buddha. Wat Pho is one of four large reclinging Buddha’s in Thailand; it stretches out in its hall for over 50m and is gold. On the soles of his feet are etched symbols of life in paua shell and along one side are 180 pots where you deposit non-denominational coins for good luck. Each pot means something different so you can either put one coin in each pot or select certain pots for more coins for more luck. I choose the 180 option not knowing what thry mean, hope this has me covered.

After our tour of the complex we all decide to head to the MBK – a mega shopping mall set across seven floors and air coniditioned. I head out after a visit to the food court with one of the other ladies and we only get through three floors before our time is up and we must head home. I do however get that handbag I have been after and revel in my purchase. We go back to the hotel and get ready for dinner – our final night out together.

Dinner is at a nice restaurant overlooking the river so I take the opportunity to have a Pina Colada and try a lychee breezer – good choices. After dinner we head to Khao San Road. KS has been transformed into a crazy strip of street bars, hawkers, stalls and hundreds of tourists and locals. It is amazingly busy so we stop off for our first bucket on the sidewalk. A bucket is the equivalent of six standard drinks in, as it states, a bucket (a spade and bucket kind of bucket). I decide to share one with a friend and we have a Sansom – which is Thai whiskey, red bull and coca cola. Packed with ice it is actually pretty good. The night speeds up after this with another bar and our final resting spot at a local pub that is playing live music; but not before we sample some of the local tucker of meal worms and crickets. We dance, play pool and drink some more. The atmosphere here is fantastic and is my kind of place. I do however decide it is time to turn in, afterall I do turn into a pumpkin after midnight, and after having an awesome night think it is best to end on a high. So I walk the busy street (one block) back to my hotel room and crash at midnight. I am sure the many pictures will not do it justice. It has been an great day but I am so sleeping in tomorrow!

Koh Samui

Koh Samui: After catching a local bus, a ferry and a mini van, we finally arrive in Koh Samui, Thailand. I love Samui. I have been here before. All I am looking forward to is R&R. I have been here for three days and in that time I have been to the Marine Park and fetched myself a decent tan, been shopping at Chaweng, had a mega sundae ice cream, had a massage, went swimming, snorkelling, had a foot scrub, manicure and pedicure and plenty of sleep. Did I mention I love Koh Samui…

Penang

We arrive across the water from Penang. Penang is an island but it is not your average expected tropical version. It is a high rise paradise and full of tourist places and a huge mall. It is far from the paradise you expect from an island. As I was not feeling too well from the home stay at our retreat I went straight to my room and to sleep. Only waking later to venture out and get a vege pizza and returning back to the hotel to sleep. I miss out on the walking tour in the morning and after a restless night sleep of fever I think I have come through to the good side of it and look forward to dinner tonight. I meet the rest of the gang at a local cafe and have spaghetti bolognaise for lunch only to realise it is made of chicken mince – I really need red meat as am a little aneamic and haven’t had beef in over a week. Give me the cow!!!! Muslim countries mixed in with Hindu’s and Indians make for interesting cuisine but it is to the detriment of my health. Am really looking for to moving on to Thailand tomorrow.

It is one of the girls birthday’s today and we are going to go for Indian food. I doubt I will be able to get beef but you never know your luck in the big city. So this afternoon I will spend in the mall in the air conditioning. So sorry to say if you ask me what Penang is really like, I have no idea as my time here has been mostly spent in the hotel room. Here’s hoping I can pick up a bargain in the mall…

Suka Suka Island Retreat

After KL we take a bus to another twon and then are mini-bused to a small jetty in the middle of a village in the middle of seemingly no and where. We take a boat to a small island in a dam system called Suka Suka. The island itself is not more than 8 acres and is shadowed by mountains of rainforest. It contains self-contained huts and a communal area with games. The family who runs it has been there for years and is frequented by Intrepid travellers once or twice a week (depending on season). We have two nights here and as there is not much to do I take the opportunity to get stuck into one of my books. It is peaceful here. The grass is green, the only sounds are those of geckos, frogs and crickets, and the water lapping against the bank.

We take a small tour of one of the nearby villages and a lengthy walk through the rainforest to a waterfall. Am happy to say that I had no leeches attach to me but you could see them everywhere along the way – disgusting little yukkies. I hate leeches. Whilst walking you could hear gibbons in the background and at the waterfall we saw a snake making his merry way through the water. A hot but rewarding advernture.

All the food on the island is provided by our hosts, Aziz, Ashia and Azam their son. They are a muslim family and provided us with some traditional Malaysian cuisine. On our last night we sat down on the floor of their house and ate a traditional meal with only our fingers. Unfortunately something did not agree with me on this ocassion and I ended up waking in the night to a churning tummy and fever. Happy to say two days later I am on the mend but am really wanting western food. The experience here was really nice and I hope that we could all be so lucky to find our own little piece of paradise.

Kuala Lumpur (KL)

KL as it is commonly known as is a vibrant and cultural city (as is most of Malasia) but it is a busy and fast city. We arrive in the afternoon and walk about 10 minutes along a busy road to our hotel. We are located half a block away from the night markets and a few minutes walk to the craft markets (which is air conditioned (bonus). We take a walking tour to oriente us with the surrounds and then I spend the rest of the afternoon cruising the markets. We all meet for a train ride out to one of the local Malls. This place (KLCC) is amazing; it is the biggest mall I have ever been in. It stretches over 1km in length and have seven floors. It is clean and westernised and houses some of the world’s top brands. Apparently by the year 2010 the KL government wishes to have the city completely westernised.

We are in KL for two nights and I have not been bored here once. I have seen the imfamous Petronas Towers (pics coming soon), the Menara tower (like Sydney’s Centrepoint Tower) which has a viewing platform 276 metres above the skyline, I see a movie for $3.50, visit the Aquarium, the Islamic Arts Museum and National Mosque – unfortunately we couldn’t go inside as it was the day for sacrifices.

Malaysia is made up of 60% Muslims. I learnt a lot about this culture and its history and feel a little more informed about why they do some of the things they do. Like women covering up and multiple wives, it is all relative and relates back to the time of Muhammed their prophet which is similar to the link for Christianity with Moses and the burning bush. All very interesting. KL is great for a cultural education.

Melaka (also Malacca)

After we have a quick and untroubled entry across the border in to Malaysia we arrive three hours later in Melaka. Melaka is a an old trading port. Everyone has tried to conquer it in the past and everyone has left their mark (and their culture). As mentioned earlier I have no concept of Malaysia so am surprised to find that it is such a multicultural place. Having been influenced by the Dutch, Portuguese, French, British, Chinese, Arabians, and India you can imagine the contrast of not only people but architecture. There is Buddhist temple across the street from a Chinese one dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy which is down the street from a Dutch post office. It’s crazy.

We take a walking tour and then a trishaw ride when our guides are funny and informative. We learn about the spice trade from centuries ago from our 11 year veteran guide Kamil and sample some of the herbs from his garden that he has picked for us. I really liked this particular inclusion in our trip and hope that our next port is as friendly as this one. Keep in mind we have been reminded five tomes today to be careful of bag snatchers here.

Singapore (island, city and country)

(I have so much to say about Singapore so have tried to cram it all in but if you have something pressing I suggest you either read fast or miss it)…

I decide to take a private transfer to the airport instead of the public bus but am still surprised when my driver rocks up in a flashy sedan and a suit. He does not speak English so our 50 minute car ride our to the airport is done in silence. It is a good reflection time for me anyway as I come to realize that Hanoi and Vietnam in general is such a crazy place and I wonder what my next port of Singapore will be like. My driver is a bit crazy though so in between my fleeting thoughts of the grim reaper (imagine being in a rocket ship at full throttle in an asteroid field) I imagine that Singapore will be much more ordered and fashionable.

My flight is seamless and I sit next to nice Malay girl and her mum returning from a holiday. Changi Airport is sterile and more ordered than I could have dreamed of and when I get through immigration with no troubles at all (no visa required) I exchange my money without hassle, book a night’s accommodation at the lady with an electronic booking system of available rooms, then get my $9 shuttle into town. Even the drive in is picturesque and I am well impressed by the level of service have received so far. As I am joining a tour my gap hotel for one night is a little less than desirable but it is located close to the connection hotel tomorrow and it is located in Little India. Me not having any clue about Singapore could have easily mistaken myself for being in India itself.

Singapore is split quite predominantly into ethic groups. I am not sure if this is on purpose but it seems to work. I take a walk around and have a great butter chicken and naan for dinner. I head to my dads recommended activity – the cable car to Sentosa Island – and have a car to myself. The development on Sentosa is astounding something like 20 hectares of construction all happening at the same time. I head back after an very expensive ice cream and visit the 7-Eleven for some water and breakfast and find a sim card for my phone. All very easy. Although more expensive than anywhere I have been so far in Asia I do like Singapore. I have the best night’s sleep I have had in weeks and I get up in the morning, change hotels then head to the Singapore zoo.

I spend over five hours in the zoo and have seen some animals there that I have never eve heard of. I saw the white tigers pacing up and down their wall and was thinking that he really wants to eat me – only to be told later that a cleaner got into their pen last week and was teasing them with a broom, so he ate him! What would possess anyone in their right mind to get into a pen with an animal twice the size of you with teeth is beyond me. The zoo is 28 hectares of lush gardens and they have a free-space orangutan section where the orangutan’s hang above your head anywhere they like all day, it is the most unique and live experience in a zoo I have had; it is a great concept. My favourite thing apart from the above would have to be the free flight sanctuary where you walk into a caged atrium and are surrounded by hundreds of giant butterflies. As you walk through this enclosure you realize that you have so much to look at because under a tree there is a bird feeding or above your head there is a lima asleep on a branch so close that you can touch his tail. I loved the tranquility of this enclosure and would highly recommend a visit to this zoo any day. I take a taxi back to my hotel and finally meet my next tour group.

There are nine of us in total so most of us head out into Little India – surrounded by hundreds of Indian men (its Sunday and their day off so they come into town to transfer their money to their relatives and watch Bollywood movies in the street). Our local joint does have cutlery but not much crockery and we eat our dinner off banana leaves – I hope they are not recycled. Interesting but not sure I would do it again. We head home for a late night turn in and prepare for our trip tomorrow across the border into Malaysia.

Finished projects cause itchy feet…

I have had such a jam packed three weeks with working at Blue Dragon that I have decided to take a trip. My little tour will take me to the ever modern Singapore, up through Malaysia visiting Melaka, Penang and then into Thailand via Koh Samui starting 6 December. I think the thing I am looking forward to the most is getting into a pair of swimmer and wasting away the day on Koh Samui somewhere. As I know nothing about Malaysia this means I have no expectations so it will be a whole new kettle of fish.

Excursion – Long Bien

Hanoi: Last Thursday one of my students, Hanh, invited me to visit her house and her mother. Not having any expectation made this journey n unforgettable experience. We walked a few blocks to catch the bus – full of locals – where you pay after you board and a man comes around to collect your money – who knows why he doesn’t collect it on the way past him? We alight and then walk about 1km to her house. If you were walking past this area on any other day I would walk straight past it as it is filled with rubbish and smell and looks like those places which you could deem quite happily as unsafe. But sure enough we walk under Long Bien Bridge. The bridge is the longest across the Red River located just on the Hanoi outskirts. It is full of locals. So happy to say I stood out like a sore thumb and was thankful to have my own little trusty local with me.

As we walk under the bridge we approach one of Hanh’s neighbours – an 84 year old woman taking her daily walk. She cannot speak any English but is happy to see that Hanh has brought such a colourful friend home. We walk along the river bank which is littered with rubbish and scavaging chickens and up a very leafy park to what looks like the room of a shed. This is the home of Hanh and her mother. There is a wardrobe in the corner, a day bed which they both sleep on and boxes of fruit – their daily trade. I will speak more about this experience in detail because my words don’t do it much justice but for people who have very little they showered me with as much fruit as I could eat and bought rice and fancy meat loaf for our lunch. We sat around for three hours shooting the breeze with Hanh translating between her mother and I.

I am truly touched by this experience and I really feel for them. They are such beautiful people with such ordinary circumstances and whilst I understand that this is normal in a third world (developing) country, it breaks my heart. I hope that I can help Hanh earn her way into college to become a tour guide as she truly deserves a decent break in her life. When she is not learning English with me (three half days a week) she is selling fruit to survive as her mother is ill most of the time. It is a hard life and one that I have had the privilege to have insight into.

Maylene, art-house films and egg shells

Hanoi: Today is Tuesday. I have had a bout of the flu or somethng for the past couple of days but that isn’t holding me back from anything I am doing currently. I have been at the centre every weekday and on the weekend I took a laquer class with a new friend.

Last Thursday I headed to a familiar restaurant that served western food. When I walked in I followed another lady up the stairs who was also dining on her own. We found this quite amusing (as did the staff) and we got to talking, then we ate dinner together (pygmy ribs – yum!). The company is so good that after our dinner we go and see a very strange but quirky art-house type film that Maylene had planned on seeing at a flea-box cinema down a back alley. Me and You and Everyone Else is a strange but interesting movie dealing with many rites of passage and adult themes. Funny but weird and highly recommended. LOL

Maylene is an older lady; an American from California; she is here on holiday from Pakistan where her husband is currently working. Whilst there is unrest there she is actually not permitted into the country for her safety so she has decided to stay in Hanoi for three weeks to take some laquer courses. Accepting the invite to join her on Saturday to a laquer class we share a cab there together… And thank-goodness because I would never have found this place by myself. The place is run by an old Vietnamese lady who does not speak a lot of English, which is fine because it makes for a more interesting activity. She shows me how to do each step as I go and mixes all her own paint and laquer. Mrs Thu – I like her a lot; skilled with not a lot of talk. She allows me to go about my creations at my own pace. I decide to do egg shells on two small jewelry boxes; one for me to keep all my Asian keepsakes in and another as a gift. It is a very calming and satisfying activity and people come and go from the workshop as they are at different levels of their projects (most of them are European). Maylene is an amazing artist. She paints the human form with such reality it is beautiful. I hope that she will be able to achieve her goal of exhibiting these works as she is very talented. I have to go back and finish off my little creations tomorrow and hopefully I can take them home. Who knows, this may be a new hobby I can get used to.