Southeast Asia Travelogue
- Submitted by: Evelyn C. Leeper
- Submission Date: 09th Feb 2005
October 4, 1990: Though the log starts with October 4, 1990
(my parents' 47th anniversary, coincidentally), the planning for
this trip started over a year earlier. In fact, it actually started
as a trip to Bhutan and Sikkim, but eventually mutated to the
present plan: Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. And the
dramatis personae also fluctuated, ending up with five of us, all
from Bell Labs: Steve Goldsmith, Binayak Banerjee, Barbara Iskowitz,
Mark, and me.
So here we were, several thousand feet in the air, winging our
way toward Hong Kong. By much searching we got our plane tickets
(New York to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Bangkok, and Singapore to New
York) for US$1225 each and we hope to do the whole trip for under
US$2500 per person for three weeks.
October 5, 1990: At some point it became October 5 (whenever
we crossed the International Date Line). The whole New York to
Tokyo flight was in daylight, but we each managed to get a few
hours' sleep. At 131/2 hours, this is my longest flight ever--when
we went to Tokyo last time (1982) it was with a change in Los
We spent the two-hour layover in Tokyo in a rather boring
waiting lounge, planning our time in Hong Kong: how to get to the
hotel, what to do in the New Territories, and how to deal with the
varied wildlife in the stairwells of the Chungking Mansions.
We arrived in Hong Kong pretty much on time, about 9:30 PM.
Coming in to Kai Tak Airport is not the nerve-wracking experience
the books claim, or maybe we came in on a different approach because
it was night.
After collecting our luggage and clearing customs, we changed a
small amount of money and caught the A1 airbus which stops at
Chungking Mansions. While we were waiting in line for the bus a
woman came over and asked if we were looking for a guest house. I
guess people with backpacks in line for the bus to Chungking
Mansions look like good prospects for guest houses.
When we arrived at Chungking Mansions, there were more touts
for guest houses. I suppose I should explain what Chungking
Mansions are. They were originally built as apartment blocks, but
converted into guest houses, three or four to a floor. Though the
halls and stairwells are pretty grubby, our guest house (the Peking
Guest House) was quite clean. Sheets were provided but not towels
or soap (actually a day later, they asked if we wanted towels, so
this must have been an oversight); luckily we had brought our own.
The shower was the sort that had a heater for the hot water that had
to be turned on manually.
We wrote in our logs a bit and then, after the air-conditioning
cooled off the room a bit, went to sleep. The combination of jet
lag and an extremely firm mattress and pillow made me wake up a
couple of times, but I did get about five hours of sleep.
October 6, 1990: Though people had thought they would sleep
late, it didn't work out that way. Binayak, Barbara, Mark, and I
went out for a walk at 7:30 AM. (Steve was temporarily at another
guest house and couldn't be reached. We had managed to make
reservations by having a friend who spoke Cantonese call up the
Peking Guest House from the United States, but there turned out to
be one night that they were short a room and so arranged for Steve
to stay about two floors up.) Since Barbara and Binayak wanted
coffee, we ended up at McDonald's. How embarrassing!
AT 9 AM we met Steve back at the guest house and went out for
dim sum breakfast. The first thing we learned was that in general
it's faster to walk down the stairs than to wait for the elevator
(which will probably arrive full anyway). After all, it's only
The first recommendation we had for breakfast (from a
guidebook) was the Capital Restaurant, right in the Chungking
Mansions. True to Luck of Leeper, it had closed down. But Binayak
had a second choice lined up, the Ocean Centre Restaurant. Since it
was down by the Star Ferry Pier and the office of the Hong Kong
Tourist Association, we stopped there first to pick up maps and
brochures, and then by the water itself to take pictures of the
harbor and Hong Kong Island.
Finally we got to the restaurant. It looked pretty fancy, and
was in a fancy mall. As we picked dish after dish, I had visions of
a huge bill arriving at the end. But what the heck--we could
splurge on one meal. So we had several kinds of dumplings, congee,
a couple of desserts--nothing you couldn't get in New York, but good
anyway. And when the bill arrived, it was about HK$36 (US$4.50) a
person! (That sounded cheap by American standards, but in
retrospect, for Southeast Asia it was pretty high. Everything's
After that extravagance, we went to a bank to change more money
(having changed only minimally at the airport). We then decided to
book a half-day city tour--the HKTA had suggested booking at one of
the hotel tour desks, so we went to the Hyatt Regency across the
street from where we were staying and signed up for a tour of Hong
Since this wasn't scheduled to start for another couple of
hours we filled in the time at the Kowloon Gardens just up Nathan
Road. This is a park something like Central Park with attractions
like a sculpture garden, a turtle pond, an aviary, etc. Except for
the people who kept trying to pin fake flowers on Mark (in return
for money, no doubt), it was a nice place to relax.
At 2 PM we were picked up at the Hyatt Regency for our tour.
(Well, actually it was 2:10 PM.) The tour guide came through and
asked (to verify) if we were staying at the Hyatt. No, we said, but
that's the right drop-off point. But where were we staying?
Chungking Mansions. Oh; but you booked at the Hyatt? I got the
impression she thought the Hyatt shouldn't let such riff-raff in.
Our first stop was at the Aberdeen Fishing Village, where
people have lived on boats for generations. However, by the end of
next year, all the boats will be gone, the people moved to public
housing, and the harbor filled in to create more land. Given the
amount of water being constantly pumped out of some of the boats, it
might not be so terrible an idea. On the other hand, what will
become of the Jumbo floating restaurant? So since this was
disappearing we decided to take the 'optional' sampan ride (at HK$50
each, or about US$6.50). This price seemed a bit steep, as the
whole tour was HK$120. And it bothered me how everyone (myself
included) frequently treated these people's lifestyle as a photo
opportunity rather than someone's life. So I compromised and took
pictures of general views, rather than snapshots of people brushing
Our next stop was a jewelry factory. This had been mentioned
as a footnote in the tour brochure and Repulse Bay as a major
attraction, but the time devoted to the two was exactly reversed.
Nothing of interest happened here except Mark's camera slipped off
the strap and fell onto the floor, breaking the plastic over the
flash. Not an auspicious start to the trip, though so far Barbara
and I forgot our AT&T Calling Cards (though we remembered the code
for USA Direct), Steve forgot his swimsuit, contact lenses, and
toothbrush, and Binayak misplaced his key to his luggage lock and
can't quite remember his Visa PIN. Luckily we have enough
redundancy that we'll manage.
Needless to say, the 'factory' was almost empty (with the
excuse that it was Saturday) but the showroom was full of stuff.
Next stop was Repulse Bay, but not a stop as implied in the
brochure. No, it was more like, 'On our right is Repulse Bay. Next
we see....' In fact, the guide probably spent more time saying
negative things about China than about some of the sights.
Our next stop was another shopping opportunity, this time at
Stanley Market. (Mark calls these 'K.O.s'--kick-back
opportunities.) Last time we were here we bought a thermometer;
this time we bought two silk scarves as gifts. We're not big
shoppers. The guide offered to show people where they could get
fake Rolexes, as if it were difficult. But we found it impossible
to walk down Nathan Road without being offered them. She also
quoted a price about three times what they are in New York. But
then again, it's possible the Hong Kong police are trying harder to
crack down on this counterfeiting than the New York police.
Our last stop was at the top of Victoria Peak, though not by
tram, but by bus. The sky was a bit hazy for a really good view,
but the skyline was still impressive. And the haze produced a very
photogenic sunset on the other side of the parking lot as well.
We napped for about an hour after getting back to the hotel,
then went to the Temple Street night market about 8 PM. This is
basically a giant flea market set up in the street, with so much
stuff that only a narrow path down the center remains, with booths
separated by racks of hanging goods on either side.
We were really hungry at this point but couldn't agree on a
place to eat. One restaurant looked good, but wanted to put us
inside in a 'VIP room' (translation: higher prices, worse food).
Another gave us a menu and then seemed to be out of everything
interesting. Finally we settled on the Tong Tai seafood restaurant.
Now I know you're thinking Red Lobster, but it wasn't like that. We
sat outside and picked what we wanted from the fresh (translation:
still wiggling) assortment. We had shrimp and crayfish, both stir-
fried in their shells with seasoned salt (messy to eat), crab in a
sauce with scallions and a *lot* of ginger slices, steamed
periwinkles, and a dish of greens. All this and sodas came to about
HK$60 (US$7.20) a person (and the portions were quite substantial).
One problem in traveling in a group, even of just five, is that
restaurants become complicated. You need a bigger table and if
there are no menus, it's harder to find five things other people are
eating to point at and ask for.
After dinner we all split up. Mark and I wandered around a bit
and eventually went back to the hotel, our final sight of the market
being a man slicing and cooking octopus.
October 7, 1990: Today we toured the New Territories. In case
you didn't realize it, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, which is what
most people think of when they think of Hong Kong, is only a small
part of the colony. Most of the land is the New Territories--in
fact, about 98%. This is mostly rural farming areas, with some
industry. We had planned out our itinerary, including what buses to
take, etc., from the Lonely Planet Guide and other books. So after
a quick breakfast, we began.
We started by taking the Metro from Tsim Sha Tsui, the stop
near our guest house, to Tsuen Wan. This normally would cost
HK$4.60 (US$0.55), but we bought a card for HK$20 (US$2.40) because
we also planned on returning via the Kowloon-Canton Railway and
could use it there. (It turned out we could have saved HK$9.60--
US$1.25--by buying the individual tickets, but we didn't know that
at the time. We ended up using most of the card anyway, though.)
You use the card by inserting it in the turnstile when you enter the
station. Your entrance point is encoded on the magnetic back. When
you leave at the other end, you insert the card again and the fare
is calculated and deducted from the remaining value on the card,
which is also encoded.
At Tsuen Wan we walked about three blocks from the station to
the Sam Tung Uk Museum, a reconstructed (or perhaps repaired is a
better word) walled village which was actually inhabited up to ten
years ago. Then arrangements were made to relocate the people who
lived there (their idea or someone else's, one wonders) and turn it
into a museum. Of course, it turned out that no one in Hong Kong
had any old furnishings or equipment, so many of the displays had to
be imported from China.
After this, we wanted to go to the Cheuk Lam Sin Yuen
monastery, supposedly just a short walk from the MTR station. The
problem was we couldn't manage to walk in that direction, which was
on the *other* side of the tracks and a highway. We probably spent
a half-hour in the heat looking for a way across before we decided
to give up and take minibus #81. Then it took another twenty
minutes of walking and asking (generally of people who spoke no
English) to find the minibus stop. There was a huge crowd there in
what seemed to be more than one line, unlike other minibus stops,
which were mostly empty, and we soon decided that this wasn't
working. We probably should have decided this sooner, but because
this was our first stop we were reluctant to give up our plans. If
we couldn't even get this far, what would the rest of the trip be
Of course, even after deciding to proceed we had to find the
right bus stop. Eventually, after much trial and error and asking,
we did, and caught the bus for Tuen Mun (HK$4.10--US$.50).
This was a double-decker bus and at Binayak's suggestion we sat
on top--in the front seats, in fact. I guess the wind blowing in
through the front windows bothered most people enough so they
wouldn't sit there, but we found it refreshing after our hot walk.
The road follows the southern shore of Hong Kong, heading west, and
we got to see some beautiful scenery along the way.
One problem, though, is that the drivers speak no English, the
stops are not well-marked (even in Chinese), and in general it's
hard to know when to get off. This time we asked another Westerner
where to catch the LRT (Light Rail Train) and he said we had just
missed the stop!
Getting off at the next stop we couldn't walk back along the
road we came on because it was a highway. So we headed back more or
less parallel to the road. As we were cursing our fate, we came to
what looked like a warehouse. We started to walk around it, but
Binayak looked in and said, 'Let's cut through the market.' This
turned out to be very interesting and, of course, totally
unexpected. Full of vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, and even live
animals (chickens mostly), it was quite unlike the tourist markets
of Stanley and Temple Street. I claimed afterward that the people
in the market probably wondered where the five 'gringos' came from,
this being somewhat off the beaten track for tourists, but Mark
thought it probably wasn't that unusual.
Since, however, we were not in the market for a chicken, we
kept going and eventually, by dint of asking and trial and error,
spotted a train/tram and so found the station.
Our next stop was the Mui Fat Monastery. This was easy to
find, as its classic Chinese roof rose above the more modern
buildings in the area. The main temple door was flanked by sculpted
dragons; a multi-tusked elephant statue stood nearby. Inside were
over 13,00 carved images of Buddha, covering the walls and almost
every surface. The ceiling was painted with scenes from Buddha's
life (I think). Though dozens of tourists were wandering through,
the monks continued their chanting, totally ignoring us. We
appeared to be the only non-Chinese tourists there, but no one
seemed to stare. But it seemed a popular stopping point, as there
were several tour buses parked outside.
We decided to try to find lunch in the town we were in.
Walking down the main street gave us a choice of three restaurants.
Picking one that looked good (based on what people were eating), we
went in and sat down. The owner spoke a little English and by that
and pointing to other dishes, we ended up with fried squid, greens
of some sort, and roast pork, along with rice and beverages, all for
about HK$20 (US$2.50) a person. And delicious!
Next back onto the LRT to Yuen Long. The LRT uses ticket
vending machines and the honor system, though signs say that tickets
may be checked. Still, our two rides cost HK$2 and HK$2.50 (US$0.25
and US$0.35), so we were hardly going to try to cheat.
This part of the New Territories was less scenic, with several
automobile graveyards dotting the landscape. At Yuen Long we
changed to a bus to Kam Tin, site of two walled villages (well, more
than two, actually, but only two that welcome visitors). The first
one we visited was Shui Tau, the 'non-touristy' one, though even
here we ran into a (Chinese) tour group. The walled villages were
initially built to protect the inhabitants from raiders and bandits.
These days they are maintained more out of tradition than necessity.
Within its walls Shui Tau had been modernized to a certain extent,
though I saw what seemed to be a public water faucet, so maybe not
all the houses have running water. Still, nearby were some fairly
fancy houses which I'm sure had plumbing et al.
Shui Tau is about a kilometer from the main road; Kat Hing Wai
is right on the road. But Kat Hing Wai is the 'touristy' one.
Admission is charged (HK$1 or US$0.12) and old women in traditional
Hakka dress try to sell you tourist junk or get you to pay for them
to pose for pictures (HK$2 each). In addition, it's clear you're
supposed to stay just on the main street rather than wander down the
more interesting side streets. It's a bit of a no-win situation: in
Shui Tau we felt like intruders, but here we felt it was very
artificial and commercial. (I had visions of these old women going
home and taking off their black pyjamas and hats and putting on
something by Halston.) Umberto Eco, in TRAVELS IN HYPERREALITY,
talks about how artificial reality (copies, reproductions, etc.)
often appeal to us more than the real thing. This may be especially
true of reality involving people, and the Sam Tung Uk Museum, being
the most artificial, made us the least uncomfortable.
Anyway, after this ancient walled village we walked down the
street to an air-conditioned supermarket and bought some sodas to
drink. The temperature was probably around 85 degrees Fahrenheit
all day and we did a lot of walking, so we really needed to
replenish our fluids.
By now it was after 3 PM, and we decided that the lateness of
the hour, combined with the heat and our exhaustion, meant that we
should skip the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas in Shatin. (The fact that
there was a climb of over 400 steps to get to it also figured in our
decision.) So we caught the bus (#77K) for Sheung Shui, from where
we would take the Kowloon-Canton Railway straight back to Kowloon.
Of course, we still had to figure out where to get off the bus,
and in the end Binayak resorted to doing train imitations for the
bus driver, which luckily he understood, and he pointed us in the
right direction when we got off. We walked a few blocks and saw a
building with the KCR icon on it. Success!
(I was assuming we will have less trouble in Thailand, as we
have a Thai phrasebook with the words for train, etc. But the only
Chinese phrasebook I have or could find is for Mandarin--basically
useless here. As it turned out, the tonality of Thai made the
phrasebook not very useful, though we could at least point to the
words in Thai rather than pronounce them.)
So for HK$28 (US$3.50) (plus HK$20 for lunch each) we had a
tour of the New Territories. We could have bought one for HK$250,
but after the last tour, that was not an option to us. The scenery
and countryside are the same whether you're on a public bus or a
tour bus (the top deck of a public bus is probably even better) and
if we didn't get all the explanations of everything, we had the fun
of discovering it ourselves. We didn't see everything we had hoped
to, but we did see a museum, a monastery, two walled villages, a
market, and several towns. (Come to think of it, we missed only one
monastery and one temple, the latter by our choice.) It's not as
easy to get around on your own here as it was in Europe, but I think
After returning to the hotel and resting up a while we went out
for dinner. After several false leads (guidebooks are pretty much
useless in regards to restaurants, we've concluded), we went to a
Shanghai-style restaurant near our guest house, the Wu Kong. Dinner
was light: drunken chicken, braised eggplant, some seafood that I
can't remember, and chicken and abalone soup. With beverages, this
came to HK$85 per person (US$10), high by comparison to the non-
tourist places, but reasonable in comparison to what one pays in the
October 8, 1990: We got up early to go to a dim sum restaurant
where the patrons bring their birds. (Actually, we've been getting
up early without needing an excuse--jet lag is sufficient.) Upon
arriving at the restaurant we discovered (surprise!) it was out of
business. (We did see a couple of people walking their birds. They
do this by carrying the cages rather than putting their canaries on
little leashes.) So we ended up picking a restaurant at random for
breakfast. Barbara had some rolls sort of like Passover sponge
cake, and the rest of us had egg noodle--noodle soup lie ramen with
two fried eggs on top. This is eaten with a fork, even by the
Chinese. Odd to us, perhaps, but filling and only HK$8 (US$1) with
tea. There is much to be said for the look-and-point method of
Returning to our hotel via the MTR, we found ourselves in rush
hour traffic. We could barely jam ourselves onto the train--luckily
we were going only one stop. (More than five people would have made
this trip much harder--think about trying to get a group of ten on a
single train at rush hour.)
Next errand was Thai Airlines to book our flights to Bangkok
and Chiang Mai. We had hoped for an early flight, but ended up on
the 3 PM Tuesday flight, ending up in Chiang Mai about 7 PM. Since
we had bought the first part already, we only had to pay for the
second leg (US$59 each). (This brings our airfare total to $1284
each.) All this took about an hour, with five people and four
credit cards to check.
Then we all split up to do our own things. Mark and I took the
Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island to see Tiger Balm Gardens (now
named Aw Boon Haw Gardens, though no one seems to know it by that
name). We had missed this last time and Mark's parents had said
they thought we'd like it. But first we had to find bus 11 and true
to form, it took about a half hour of walking around in the heat.
Eventually, Mark asked a hotel doorman who directed us to the
Central Bus Terminus where we found the bus (the driver recognized
the phrase 'Tiger Balm Gardens' but not 'Aw Boon Haw Gardens').
Tiger Balm Gardens (to use its popular name) was built by
Mr. Aw Boon Haw, the inventor of Tiger Balm, a sort of all-purpose
curative something like Ben-Gay. The gardens are mostly plaster
statuary from Chinese mythology and legend. There is also a series
of panels depicting the ten hells awaiting sinners (shades of Dante)
(no pun intended). Mark noted that one of the hells was for the
purveyors of false medicine. I particularly liked 'The Pig and the
Rabbit' statues, based on a fairy tale about a pig and a rabbit who
fell in love, got married, and lived happily ever after, proving
that marriages are predestined. I particularly disliked the fact
that it was built more vertically than horizontally--I could have
done without all the climbing. But after hearing so much about the
place, I was glad to have seen it, even if the paint on the plaster
was chipped and peeling in spots.
Of course, since this is a tourist attraction, there were the
usual hawkers, including one woman who was selling a pack of post
cards for 'a dollar,' but when Mark offered her a Hong Kong dollar,
it turned out she meant a United States dollar. This hardly seemed
reasonable, but I guess she figures Americans can't deal with the
concept of Hong Kong dollars. We didn't buy the cards.
We left at the same time as two Canadians who had arrived with
us and rode the top of the double-decker with them. They were just
finishing four weeks in Singapore and Indonesia and recommended the
YMCA in Singapore.
On arriving back at the Bus Terminus, we took the Star Ferry
back to Kowloon. Then, since we enjoyed the ride and the view, we
decided to do it again, this time on the lower deck instead of the
upper (HK$1 instead of HK$1.20). This gave us a chance to 'peer
into the engine,' as one book said, but also a different view from a
One difficulty in getting around in Hong Kong is that all the
buses, MTR, etc., require exact change (or rather, don't make
change--you can always pay the extra if you have to round up).
There are ways around this. On buses, if you're in a group, you can
pay for multiples of the fare (e.g., if the fare is HK$1.20 each,
Mark and I could drop in a HK$2 coin and two 20-cent pieces). Of
course, since we never knew what the bus fare was until the bus
arrived--they're all different--this required quick arithmetic for a
group of five. The LRT ticket machines gave change, but the MTR
ones merely leave a credit toward the next purchase in that machine.
So in a group you can benefit; an individual either has to buy a
second ticket for future use or give the next person along a bonus.
(Sort of like finding a parking meter with time on it, I guess.)
Returning to Kowloon, we ran some errands: changed money,
bought film, etc. Then we went to the Museum of History in Kowloon
Park, a rather small museum showing some of the items excavated from
around Hong Kong. It also had an exhibition of traditional
children's clothing, including an explanation of the various animals
and symbols seen on them (to bring fortune, to protect from evil
spirits, and so on).
We returned to the hotel about 5 PM. I washed my hair and then
fell asleep. When I woke up at 7:15 PM for dinner I felt chilled
and groggy. Luckily, it turned out to be from sleeping on wet hair
in an air-conditioned room rather than anything lasting.
Dinner was at the Golden City Chiu Chow Restaurant to sample
yet another cuisine. We had soyed goose, fried pigeon, cuttlefish,
and turtle soup. Throughout the meal we got the impression that
they were trying to rush us out, so we lingered over the soup (the
last course) for quite a while. But even after they had brought the
traditional small cups of Iron Buddha tea to close the meal, they
wouldn't bring the bill until it was asked for. It was interesting
to try these dishes, but I didn't actually like most of them--the
goose was very fatty (well, goose is, so it isn't the restaurant's
fault), the pigeon gamey, and the turtle in the soup difficult to
eat, being still attached to something resembling bones, though I
thought turtles didn't have bones. On the whole, I think the four
of us were dissatisfied with the Golden City Chiu Chow Restaurant
and recommend against it if you're ever in Hong Kong. (Barbara
wasn't hungry and hadn't joined us.)
October 9, 1990: Binayak had to go to pick up his Malaysian
visa (and recover his passport), and Barbara decided to pass on dim
sum, so Steve, Mark, and I went back to the Ocean Centre Restaurant.
The selection wasn't quite as varied as it had been on Saturday, but
quite acceptable. At first we seemed to get a cool reception, but
toward the end of the meal, the manager even came over to chat for a
few minutes. I think the fact that we tried almost everything--
including the chicken feet--and ate it all redeemed us somewhat from
being 'just American tourists.'
After breakfast we walked along the Promenade (where we had
walked the previous night to see the Hong Kong skyline by night).
Looking at the skyline got us to talking about 1997 and what would
happen then. The Chinese say they won't change Hong Kong, but they
also said that about Shanghai. Britain's decision to return Hong
Kong Island and Kowloon (which had been ceded to them rather than
just leased) in addition to the New Territories (which had only been
leased) is a problem. On the one hand, it keeps Hong Kong together
and the feeling was that neither part was self-sufficient and could
survive without the other. On the other hand, residents (citizens)
of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, who thought they were British
subjects forever, are now being told they will be Chinese citizens
and that they cannot even emigrate to other British countries or
Walking up along the water we found ourselves back in Ya Ma
Tai, where we had gone to the night market a few nights ago. And
even during the day there's a market going, but a very different
sort of market. The daytime one has food and household goods for
real people, not jeans and electronics for tourists. And even the
foods were non-tourist: flattened-out chicken, dried fish of all
sorts (which you could smell down the block), live chickens and
pigeons, live crabs, live frogs, live snakes. They definitely
believe in freshness here. You could watch them kill and gut the
frogs or skin the snakes after beheading them. For some reason,
this doesn't draw a whole lot of tourists the way the night market
Walking back to Nathan Road just emphasized the contrast.
Nathan Road is full of electronics shops and guys trying to sell you
fake Rolexes. They do this by flashing you a photo of some watches
and saying, 'Copy watch?' Next time I come I'm going to bring a
photo of some Casios and flash it back at them, saying, 'Real
We returned to the hotel and settled out bill, HK$1040 (US$125)
for four nights. Not bad for a downtown hotel, though we were
certainly not in a Hilton- or Sheraton-level facility. In fact, the
entrance, lift, and hallway were all fairly sleazy, even though the
guest house itself was quite clean. This sleazy look, combined with
the line of non-yuppie types waiting for the lift (it couldn't
handle peak loads well) would probably turn most people off it, even
considering the price.
Around 11:15 AM Binayak returned, having gotten his visa and
passport. They had asked him yesterday to leave it overnight; since
he had an afternoon flight they told him he had time in the morning
to get it. When he got there, they still hadn't done anything with
it and only when he asked for his passport and the clerk's name did
it get processed--on the spot. So why couldn't they have done this
when he went in yesterday? Who knows?
We left the hotel and took the airbus to the airport. When we
arrived, a woman in front of us asked me if this stop was for the
international departures. I thought a second and said, 'What other
kind are there?' (Yes, there could be service to parts of the New
Territories, I suppose, but why would people take an airbus from
Kowloon to use it?)
We changed our remaining Hong Kong dollars into Thai baht.
Now, when you change from one currency to another in the country of
the first currency you always get some odd change back because they
can't give you coins outside of the country of issue. (Well, if the
countries share a land border and you change in a border town this
doesn't always hold.) So I changed our money, handed the odd Hong
Kong dollars to Steve to add to his money to change, and so on.
We arrived in Bangkok on time, and made our transfer, only to
discover our original flight to Chiang Mai had been canceled and we
were on the next flight (an hour later). So we wouldn't get in
until after 8 PM.
On arriving we had to fill out new arrival cards--the ones they
gave us on the plane weren't in duplicate. While this was going on,
our luggage arrived--most of it. Mine was missing. We cleared
immigration and customs and I went off with a staff member to see
what was what with my suitcase (which of course I could have carried
on, but why bother, right?). Good news--they found my suitcase!
Bad news--they found it in Phuket! (Phuket is south of Bangkok;
Chiang Mai is north.) But they said it should arrive the next day
and to call back in the morning.
We then started calling hotels to find rooms, since at 9 PM all
the service desks in the airport are closed (including the money
changer--good thing we changed in Hong Kong). The first place we
called seemed to have doubled their rates from what the Lonely
Planet and Southeast Asia Handbook said. The second, however, had
rooms at only a slightly higher rate (10% or so).
All this time taxi drivers kept hanging around us, asking if we
needed a ride. Now we asked how much it would be to the Montri
Hotel (like we had a choice!) and started to barter over the 100-
baht fare. Hey, wait a minute--that's only US$4 for the five of us!
So we got into the taxi (no easy thing--I had to ride on Mark's lap
the whole way), got to the hotel, and checked in.
It was still early and we were awake, so we all went out
walking to the night market nearby. I figured if I saw a blouse
cheap I would pick it up so I'd have a change of clothes, but
couldn't find anything I liked. We did see a lot of handicrafts
from the hill tribes, some nice, some just tourist stuff. We didn't
buy anything but we did do a lot of browsing.
October 10, 1990: Breakfast was at the hotel 'coffee shop'
(actually a separate restaurant). This place served both Western
and Asian food so everyone could get what they wanted. Mark had
rice with squid; I had rice porridge with chicken. This came to 90B
(US$3.60) for the two of us, including beverages.
After breakfast I called the airport from our room (5B versus
1B at a public phone, but what the heck). My luggage was there. I
asked if it could be delivered to our hotel, but they said, no, I
had to clear customs with it. I decided to go out around noon
rather than spend the time when it was cooler.
We walked through town to the tourist office, changing money on
the way. In Thailand, travelers cheques get a better rate, but
there's a 5B handling fee and a 3B duty tax per cheque. Nothing
major, but useful to know when deciding what denominations to get.
The stores open during the day once again sold a different sort
of stuff than the night market, though Chiang Mai is so full of
tourists it might be Torremolinos East. (Mark says Tijuana, but
people don't stay over in Tijuana.) Student travelers, hippies, all
sorts come here because it's so cheap. But after trekking a while,
what then? Barbara has a friend thinking of retiring to Chiang
Mai--it seems like you would get bored very quickly here.
We reached the tourist office somewhat enervated by the heat.
The office had little useful information, but we looked through some
of the brochures and decided to take a city and temple tour in the
afternoon. After resting up a bit we took a seelor (a small pick-up
truck with two benches along the sides of the back and a cover over
the back) back to the hotel for 6B (US$0.25), up from the 5B quoted
in the guidebooks. Inflation everywhere!
Mark and I left the others to make the tour arrangements and
took a seelor to the airport after negotiating a 70B round-trip
fare. So off we went, bouncing along in the back of a truck whose
shock absorbers obviously hadn't been changed since 1964. But it
was fun--we got to see a lot of the city out the back of the truck
and the breeze made it comfortable temperature-wise.
At the airport I got my bag. Customs inspection consisted of
someone coming over and sort of feeling the sides of the bag. (I
suggested to Mark that perhaps my AT&T T-shirt gave me some
respectability, but he seemed unconvinced.) Then back to the hotel
to meet the others for lunch.
After changing into fresh clothes, I felt much better. For
lunch we went to Thanam, across the street from the hotel and
recommended by the Lonely Planet. (Amazingly, it was open--most of
the guidebook recommendations turned out to be not there anymore.)
The food was excellent: fried pork with basil, fried chicken with
chilis, sweet and green chicken curry, dried (or maybe fried) fish
with a very spicy sauce, and a vegetable dish, all for 45B (US$1.80)
a person. In order to keep from going crazy, we are splitting the
cost of all meals equally. For most meals we're eating family-style
anyway so it doesn't really matter.
After lunch was our city tour. Our guide Jaeb spoke English,
but not fluently and her accent was often hard to understand. We
began with Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai's oldest temple (built in
1296). (Wats are temples, or rather the entire temple complex.
Bots are the actual buildings in which Buddha images are kept.) I
won't try to relate all the details of temple architecture or
symbology (for example, what the various postures, or mudras, of the
Buddha statues represent), but will say a few things. One thing I
noticed is that people come into the temples throughout the day. It
doesn't appear that there is a regular 'service,' but rather that
individuals determine when they worship. So though we were coming
in randomly, this didn't seem to bother anyone.
Our next stop, Wat Pra Sing, is the principal monastery in
Chiang Mai and home of a 1500-year-old Buddha statue, though there
is some dispute over its authenticity and it is known that the head
was replaced in 1922. After that was Wat Chedi Leung. A chedi is
steeper than a pyramid but not as steep as a spire, with a niche or
niches on the outside for Buddha images. Chedi Leung is the largest
in Chiang Mai. It was partially destroyed in an earthquake in 1545,
but is currently being restored. Around the back were two Buddha
images, one reclining, one in the mudra for dispelling fear. While
we were looking at these, a large rock from the chedi came down a
chute used by the workmen and bounced out in such a way that it
almost hit Steve. This did little to dispel our fear, and at that
point we decided to leave. Our last stop was supposed to be Wat
Chet Yot, but we went to Wat Suan Don instead. The former is the
most important wat in Chiang Mai, but somewhat further out. Wat
Suan Don is large, but 'otherwise uninteresting,' according to the
book. Unfortunately, we hadn't memorized the itinerary, so we
didn't notice the substitution at the time.
What we did notice was that it was now only 3:30 PM and Jaeb
was saying, 'Okay, now back to the hotel.' This tour was supposed
to go from 1:30 PM to 5 PM, so this was a *major* difference in
time. The one thing we hadn't seen that we remembered was on the
itinerary was the market. We pulled out the brochures and pointed
this out. Then she wanted just to drop us off at the market and
have us find our own way back to the hotel. We wouldn't let this
one fly either, and eventually she resigned herself to taking us
through the market.
I can understand why guides want to avoid taking groups through
markets. In the crowds and confusion it's easy to lose someone and
difficult to find them. And you might say that a guide through a
market is unnecessary. Perhaps, but there were many things we
couldn't identify (fruits, food, and other things) that she could,
although for some we ended up using the Thai phrasebook we had in
reverse: she would find the Thai for the particular fruit and then
read the English.
We bought some cookies and fruit at the market, and Mark had
bought some classical Thai music tapes at Wat Suan Don, but didn't
do any real shopping--buying a live chicken wasn't high on our list
of things to do, I guess. After an hour we made our way back to the
bus in the market's parking lot.
The parking lot was jammed. Cars and trucks were parked in all
the spaces *and* blocking many of them, including ours. The ones
blocking had been left in neutral and S.O.P. seemed to be just to
push them aside. Unfortunately, the one blocking us had its
steering wheel slightly turned and couldn't be moved backward
without scraping another truck. But forward *it* was blocked.
After about fifteen minutes of shuffling cars around and maneuvering
through tight places, we did manage to get out. This must be the
norm--there seemed to be an attendant whose job it was to direct
these vehicular ballets.
*Then* we went back to the hotel. After a bit of a rest-up we
went out walking, looking for a restaurant recommended by the Lonely
Planet. A long walk later, enlivened only by watching a group of
Thais playing Thai volleyball (which is played with the feet rather
than the hands and is pretty amazing to watch), we arrived at the
spot, but the restaurant was no more. Since we were a ways out from
signs of life at this point, we caught a seelor back to an area with
more activity and, after much discussion, settled on the Lai Thai
Guest House restaurant for dinner.
At dinner (which included a spicy sausage salad that *everyone*
agreed was incredibly hot), we discussed some of the problems we had
been encountering. One was that we were taking longer to do things
(like travel) than we had thought and needed to simplify our trip.
Another was that we needed to distribute the tasks more, with
everyone taking turns at asking directions, making phone calls, etc.
And we agreed that we had to get more organized--for example, we
needed to make train reservations to leave at some point.
We also wanted to go on a one-day trek but *not* with the tour
company we had used for the afternoon tour. Barbara noticed that
the Lai Thai had a tour desk, so we went over and looked at what
they had. There was a one-day trek that sounded ideal and people
wanted to sign up for it right then, until I pointed out that until
we knew which train we were taking, and which day, we didn't know
for sure we could make it. We tried calling the train booking
number but got no answer--no surprise, as it was about 8 PM. In the
process, I lost 5B but learned how the phones work--you pick up the
receiver, get a dial tone, drop your coin in, and dial. If the
other party doesn't answer, you hang up and your coin is returned.
If they do answer, you press the button to release the coin from its
holding area. I thought the button (labeled in Thai) was a coin
return button, though as soon as I hit it, I realized my mistake.
Well, it's a cheap lesson at US$0.20.
October 11, 1990: After breakfast (muesli seemed to be the
order of the day), we called the train station. There were only two
berths left on the next night's special express, our train of
choice. We asked about the rapid and he said four berths. Just as
we were deciding whether to split into two groups, he said no, there
were five. We reserved them and agreed to come in by 1 PM to pay
We had originally labeled this a 'do-your-own-thing' day, but
we all ended up deciding to go to the handicrafts villages,
especially since we were all going to the train station, which was
on the way. We negotiated a seelor for 100B (US$4) to take us out
and back, stopping where we wanted.
First stop was the train station. We found the advance booking
office. Luckily Barbara had gotten the name of the person she spoke
to, since no one else seemed to speak English. (We could have asked
the driver to translate--maybe.) We got our tickets (four uppers at
345B each--US$13.80--and one lower at 355B--US$14.20). Three of the
uppers were together and the other two berths were outlyers so we
decided for safety, Barbara and I and one of the guys would take the
three together. We decided to sort out the details later, however,
and proceeded east of Chiang Mai towards Bor Sang.
Since a seelor is a pickup truck with semi-open sides we got to
see a lot of the city and surrounding area as we bumped along. The
air pollution and noise pollution are incredible (as Barbara asked,
'I wonder if anyone here has a catalytic converter?'). (Of course,
when we got to Bangkok, it made Chiang Mai seem clean and quiet by
We had asked to go to the cotton- and silk-weaving village,
Sankampang, but instead ended up at a silk factory and Sankampang
Kilns (right next to each other). This was okay, as we did get to
see how silk was made in the former (Mark and I had seen this in
China, but the others hadn't) and how celadon was made. The shops
were over-priced, though, and our total purchases consisted of a
picture frame in silk that Barbara got for a friend.
Next we went to Bor Sang, the umbrella village. The seelor
stopped in the parking lot of a large factory and store where we
watched the various stages of umbrella making and painting. The
painters would paint a flower or butterfly on your camera case or
shoes as a souvenir if you wanted. After seeing all this, we
decided to walk down the main street in Bor Sang. It was mostly
tourist shops, but kind of fun to walk through. Barbara saw a
couple of items she wanted, including a painted carved fish that
would have been perfect for her beach house, but couldn't get them
at the price she wanted to pay.
After about a half an hour we walked back to the seelor and
decided to return to Chiang Mai rather than do any more shopping.
WE walked back to the Thanam for lunch but--surprise!--it was
closed. We must have just gotten in under the wire yesterday. So
we ate at J.J.'s (the hotel coffee shop) instead.
After lunch we went back to the Lai Thai and booked our trek.
Then Mark and I went in search of three red roofs we had seen from
our hotel window. These turned out to be Wat Pan Tao, a temple
across the street from the USAIA (United States of America
Information Agency). The bot was closed but the outside and
surrounding grounds were quiet and peaceful--at least until a samlor
driver pedaled in and tried to sell us a tour. (A samlor is a
three-wheeled passenger vehicle like a trishaw or rickshaw,
propelled by pedaling--basically an overgrown tricycle.) He used
all sorts of ploys--he used to be a monk (true of many people in
Thailand), we shouldn't walk fast (away from him) in a temple (we
were walking steadily, but not fast), etc. We just said no, we had
to meet friends, but he didn't seem to believe us.
We returned to the hotel and went out about 5 PM to the night
market. Mark got a small statue of Ganesha, and we bought film, but
didn't really find anything else. Barbara and Steve bought
bedspreads, which involved measuring. Luckily Barbara had a tape
measure, because the vendors were very eager to please. 'Is this
king-size?' 'Yes, king-size.' 'I don't know; it looks more like
queen-size.' 'Yes, yes, queen-size.'
After poking around for a couple of hours, we went to the
Riverside for dinner. (Actually, it was another restaurant next to
the Riverside, but all the help wore Riverside shirts.) Then we
returned to the hotel, picking up water for the trek on the way.
October 12, 1990: We rose early, packed our bags, and checked
out, leaving our bags at the hotel for the day. After breakfast, we
returned to the hotel where we were met at 8:30 AM by Noy, our
guide. Now in the recommendation book at the Lai Tai, a couple of
women had written that Noy was 'huge' and 'big.' Noy was about 5'4'
tall--I don't think they were referring to his height.
We rode in a truck somewhat like a seelor, only newer and
slightly larger. It took us an hour and a half to get to our first
stop (not counting stops to pick up lunches and candy). This was a
waterfall, but to get to it you had to climb down a steep, muddy
path. (Some, such as Mark and Barbara, opted to *slide* down.) The
path looked as though it had been in better condition at one time
but recent rains had caused it to deteriorate. Whether the falls
were worth the effort is not clear; we're not talking Angel Falls
We then returned to the truck and rode some more. This area
was definitely more isolated than the area closer to Chiang Mai.
The latter had towns we passed through, with shops and such. Here
the villages consisted of just a few shacks by the road. There were
rice paddies too, but mostly forest. Even here, though, the hand of
civilization is felt: at one point we had to negotiate under a
downed power line.
We also gave a lift to an old man with betel-stained teeth. He
spoke no English (and perhaps no Thai) so we couldn't really talk to
him but we did find out through sign language that he had hurt his
knee and been to have it treated.
One way to see more of the scenery as we passed was to ride
standing on the rear step of the truck holding on to the roof
ladder, so we took turns doing that when we were traveling on
unpaved roads. (On paved roads, the truck's speed was a bit too
high for that.)
From our next stop we walked to a Karen village. The Karen are
one of the hill tribes in the area. These hill tribes had all been
semi-nomadic but now the government has settled them in permanent
locations and, with increasing contact with the modern world (e.g.,
us), they are gradually losing their old ways of life. This
village, for example, had electricity and a television set.
The walk to the village was much easier than the walk to the
waterfall. We went through rice fields which the Karen cultivate.
The government is trying to get the hill tribes to stop growing
opium, though I'm sure the more isolated ones still do. So now the
tribes grow other cash crops instead.
The hardest part of getting to the village was the bridge over
the river. Have you seen ROMANCING THE STONE? Well, it wasn't
quite that bad, but it was close. The bridge consisted of four
bamboo poles laid across supporting cables. Bamboo is very springy
and the horizontal cable was too high to reach to hold on to. Noy
was able to take us across one at a time (except Binayak, whose
sense of balance was good enough that he could do it on his own--
plus he could reach the horizontal cable).
This village had about seventy people living in it, but because
it was mid-day, most were out working in the fields or elsewhere.
We did get to meet three or four women, about a dozen children, and
two old men--including the same one we gave the ride to earlier!
The village consisted of a couple dozen huts on stilts. Under
the huts were kept the livestock: mostly pigs and chickens, but a
few cattle. The cattle are the thin, humpback cattle of India
rather than what we see in the United States. (Even the cattle
crossing signs on the highways here show a different silhouette for
the cow.) Only the pigs seemed fat, probably because they are the
Noy told us about the Karen, but our inability to communicate,
combined with not even knowing where to begin, made the whole
situation a bit uncomfortable. They appeared happy enough to see
us, or at any rate not unhappy, but the situation just seemed a bit
After this we drove to the rafting starting point. The rafts
consisted of bamboo poles tied together with pieces of old inner
tubes. There was a raised frame to sit on, but every time we went
through white water we got soaked anyway. Because of this we
couldn't bring our cameras--I recommend either a waterproof or a
disposable camera if you intend to try this.
After half an hour of drifting/racing down the Maewang River we
arrived at the elephant riding camp. We could tell because there
was an elephant being washed in the river.
We had lunch in the camp. It was a cold box lunch, not very
good but by being selective one could get an acceptable meal. I had
the hard-boiled egg and the fruit, skipping the fried chicken
drumstick and what looked like a bologna sandwich. While we were
eating, a baby elephant came over and snuffled at Mark. So Mark fed
it a piece of orange. Just like the book said, it *is* like feeding
a warm, wet vacuum cleaner. Unfortunately, none of us had our
cameras ready, so there is no picture of this event.
During lunch, we talked a bit more with Noy. We asked him what
he did in his spare time, when he wasn't trekking, and he said he
played in a heavy metal band. This seemed so incongruous to hear
from a guide sitting in an elephant camp, yet I'm sure he found
nothing inconsistent in it.
Next was a one-hour elephant ride. For this we rode in howdahs
on the elephants (two people to an elephant) rather than on the
elephant directly. It started out pleasant enough, but we seemed to
have a recalcitrant elephant and the drivers took to throwing rocks
at its hind legs to get it to move. Towards the end they were also
hitting it on the head with the flat end of a steel pick or pricking
it behind the ears with the pointed end. I realize elephants are
very large and have thick skins and all, but it still seemed like
unnecessary cruelty, and may have been making the elephant more
difficult. (At one point it started off into the brush off the
trail. Luckily the drivers managed to stop it and call it back--
none were actually on it at the time.) The other two elephants
didn't seem to be mistreated as much, so I would like to believe
that we just had a particularly ill-tempered driver. (I keep
telling myself that the elephant's lack of reaction to the hammering
must indicate that it wasn't feeling much from it--I wonder if
That aside, the ride was enjoyable. Yes, I know that sounds
like, 'But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the
play?' but the scenery was gorgeous--hills covered with forests,
streams, and no signs of civilization except a rare glimpse of a
town far off in the distance. Though the trail was muddy and steep
in spots, the elephants were very sure-footed--the size of their
feet gave them a lot of traction. I'm sure there are those who
would say this was all very touristy and artificial, but there was
something exciting about realizing you're riding an elephant through
a jungle in Thailand!
We were dropped off at an elephant stop (there was a
dismounting platform in a clearing) and hiked another twenty minutes
uphill to the Meo (Hmong) village. Again, many of the villagers
weren't there but there were quite a few children (some playing Thai
volleyball). We distributed candy to everyone (not just the
children). I'm not entirely pleased with this sort of largesse--I'm
sure there are things that would be more useful and less harmful--
but it's hard to buck the system and I suppose if the villagers
expect candy they wouldn't be happy with soap or toothpaste (what
one book suggests).
This village had no electricity, and water came from a spring.
But someone was playing a transistor radio in one of the houses.
The houses here were not on stilts--with no large cattle, there was
no need for a large livestock area. There were pigs and chickens
running around and even cats and dogs.
Noy said he had last been to this village four or five months
ago. Yet his company runs these tours/treks every day, or at least
every day people sign up, so the village had to be visited several
times a week. And we saw a few other tourists from another trek
also. The whole scene seemed uncomfortably like going to a zoo to
gawk at the animals. But not speaking a common language made
communication difficult and the culture gap was so wide it was hard
to think of what to ask or say. And given we were there only about
a half hour, I suppose one shouldn't expect a major cultural
A forty-minute hike down into the valley and then up again
brought us, exhausted, to the truck. The ride back managed to coat
us with dust, so when we got to the hotel we really needed to use
their shower rooms. (Even without the dust we would have needed
them.) The hotel provides (for a small fee) shower facilities for
guests who have checked out earlier in the day and then gone
Refreshed and in dry shoes--mine had gotten soaked on the
raft--we ate dinner at J.J.'s, then caught a seelor for the train
station. Most seelors store the spare tire above the cab. This
one, into which we had to put all our luggage, stored it on the
floor in the passenger area.
The Chiang Mai train station is pretty small, but it still had
multiple tracks and we had to find someone to tell us which track
was ours. This was accomplished (show ticket, point to tracks, look
puzzled, get answer '4') and we settled in to wait for the train.
It arrived, but there didn't appear to be a car #2, our car. (The
cars are not numbered sequentially so you have to check each one.)
I went to a uniformed guard, showed our tickets, pointed to the car
number on the ticket, pointed to the train, and shook my head. He
motioned that more cars would be hooked on and, sure enough, our car
trundled up in a few minutes.
The sleeper car looked just like the one in SOME LIKE IT HOT,
except this one also had rotating fans on the ceiling. We had
thought the berths would be in compartments of four each, but they
were just placed along both sides of the car. I heaved my suitcase
into the upper berth and climbed up after it. The lower berths seem
to get all the head room; I couldn't sit up in the berth. So I
stretched out and watched the passing parade of people getting on.
We had heard much about securing our luggage on the train, but
it seemed as if everyone else felt perfectly comfortable leaving
their large parcels right in the aisle. This was good, because
there was no way Barbara could have gotten her suitcase into her
The berths all had thin foam mattresses with clean sheets, a
small pillow, and a thin blanket. At first it seemed hot in the
car, and no one wanted to close their curtains because that would
block the breeze from the fan, but after the train got moving it
cooled off such that the blanket was, if not welcome, at least not
One of the other tourists in the car saw we had an English-
language paper and wanted to know what it said. He had heard a
rumor that we were at war. We tried to get something on the
shortwave, but couldn't inside the train. Oh, well, not much we
could do about it anyway.
October 13, 1990: We all slept very well; we were very tired,
but the ride also seemed much smoother than our sleeper ride in
Britain. In the morning, Mark bought a sweet bean bun from someone
in one of the stations selling them. We arrived in Bangkok about 11
The Bangkok train station is bigger than Chiang Mai's, but
still manageable. We had picked out a few possible guest houses
from the Lonely Planet book, but some were full and others didn't
answer the phone. Finally the Central Guest House said they had
rooms, so we piled all our luggage and ourselves into a (very
crowded) taxi and went there.
The Central Guest House turned out to be a fairly slummy-
looking place with a clientele to match in an alley off Khao San
Road. We took one look and pretty much knew this was not for us,
but Mark, Steve, and Binayak went to look at the rooms just in case
they were better than we expected. They weren't, and we resolved to
It was now about noon and the temperature was in the 90s. We
decided to have lunch at the Grand Guest House (it was there and
fairly large) and then Barbara and I would stay with all the luggage
and have coffee while the other three went in search of a reasonable
hotel. After about a half hour they returned. There were rooms at
the Royal Hotel for about 1000B (US$40) a night--well above the
rumored 80B-a-night rooms, but we had now discovered what they were
like. Maybe we're getting old, but a clean room in a real hotel
with our own bathroom and air conditioning sounded pretty good right
We got to the hotel via taxi. The guys had brought one back
with them to bring all the luggage. We were a few blocks away, and
on the other side of a truly amazing intersection I would not have
wanted to try to cross with all our stuff.
After checking in and showering, we went out in search of an
ATM where Steve could get money. In Chiang Mai they all said either
his card was damaged or that they weren't on his network. Here it
worked. We were going to change money at the window but the guy
went on his break just as we got there, so we decided to wait until
we found an open window.
Then we walked to the Tourist Agency where we collected a large
amount of material. The hardest part of this trip was crossing the
street--the traffic in Bangkok is really astonishing. Walking back
to the hotel we stopped at the New World Centre, a giant department
store ten stories high. The top floor is an amusement arcade; the
ninth floor is a food court with all sorts of stands selling all
sorts of food. You buy tickets at a booth and then pay for the food
with those, meaning only one central location has to make change,
etc. The food was more or less similar to what we had eaten other
places, except for the ice cream. Barbara's sundae looked as if it
had whipped cream and a cherry on it, but the 'whipped cream' was
popcorn and the 'cherry' a tiny scoop of red Jello. Mark's
chocolate ice milk had corn kernels (cooked) around it.
All the drinks here are served with ice, but the ice seems to
be made with purified water, so we haven't been too worried about it
and it hasn't seemed to have bothered us.
After dinner, we returned to the hotel and went down to the
bar, where we heard some fairly mediocre Thai singers. Barbara,
Steve, and Binayak are planning to go to a jazz club, but we'll
October 14, 1990: After breakfast we walked through an area of
Banglamphoo along the river. Banglamphoo is the area in Bangkok
where we are staying, full of inexpensive guest houses and hotels,
and also close to the main tourist attractions. As a result, it's
also full of students and left-over hippies and street vendors
selling everything from silver jewelry to food. So much food!
Roasted corn, various meats on a stick, things like look like little
tacos, buns, ...--you can eat very well without ever entering a
restaurant. You just graze. Along the back streets we were now on
there were no T-shirt or bootleg cassette vendors, but there were
still lots of food vendors. Not just here, but everywhere in
Thailand people seem to be in a very mercantile frame of mind--shops
and street vendors abound, even in very poor areas.
We had planned on walking to the Grand Palace, but couldn't
manage to find the way and the heat, even at 10 AM, was getting to
us. So we took a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorized open vehicle
(something like a samlor with a motor, though in a samlor the driver
sits in back and in a tuk-tuk he sits in front). This one was not
designed for five passengers but with me sitting on the floor we
managed to fit.
Immediately upon arriving at the Grand Palace we were
approached by a guide wanting to give us a tour. We expected this
(from the guidebooks) and since the Grand Palace is a large complex
of buildings we negotiated a price of 300B (US$12) for the five of
us for a one-hour tour.
The first place he took us was the Coin and Regalia Museum.
While the books say this is certainly worth a look, it became clear
that our guide was devoting an inordinate amount of time to this,
the one air-conditioned building. So we firmly suggested that we
move on to the real area of interest.
After getting in to the Palace (actually Wat Pra Keo, the
temple area adjoining the Palace), the guide took us around to some
of the buildings--no one could have time for all of them in a single
tour anyway. We saw the Golden Chedi and the Mondop (library), but
from the outside, since they were closed to the public. We spent
more time examining the Ramakien murals (the Thai version of the
Ramayana). Unfortunately, the explanatory texts provided by King
Chulalongkorn (Rama V) are in Thai, so we couldn't follow the story
too well. But we were able to appreciate some of the story told on
these extensive murals.
The highlight of Wat Pra Keo is the Temple of the Emerald
Buddha. This is a misnomer, as the statue is actually made of jade
rather than emerald. Because it's still a real temple where people
come to worship it was quite crowded. In front, people were
lighting incense and leaving offerings of flowers and fruit,
undisturbed by the fact that a custodian was removing old flower
offerings and throwing them out. I'm not sure what else to expect,
of course, and I suppose it makes sense that the offering of the
flowers (or whatever) is the important part, not what eventually
happens to the physical substance of them. I do know that one of
the books says that flowers brought as an offering have to be
purchased especially for that purpose and the offerer is now allowed
to smell the scent beforehand because that would detract from them
as an offering.
The guidebooks talk about the perfect lines of the Emerald
Buddha, but even with binoculars it was difficult to distinguish
detail. Better, I guess, to say that the entire grouping of the
Emerald Buddha, surrounding statuary and decoration, and temple
itself makes a very impressive sight, certainly on a par with the
major religious monuments of the world.
After the temple area we saw the palace area, which showed more
Western influence in its style than the temple. By comparison, this
was a rather mundane section. We left the Palace about 11:45 AM.
The books said it closed at noon, yet people were still arriving.
Well, the books have been wrong before. I think having the guide
was useful, though if we were only two we might have thought the
cost high. He claimed the going rate was 100B (US$4) per person and
he was giving us a discount, but I suspect the per-person rates are
highly flexible--it's the same time to a guide for one person or
ten. They did hand out illustrated guidebooks with our admission
tickets and in cooler weather we might have tried a do-it-yourself
from the books.
From the Palace, we walked down the street to the National
Museum. Air conditioning! In the 90 8o 9+ heat it was wonderful.
After about an hour looking at various artifacts of the different
kings, we looked at the floor plan again. We had seen only one of
the twenty-two exhibit halls!
Some re-grouping was necessary. Binayak and Barbara decided to
do something other than the museum (something silly like lunch, I
think :-) ) and Mark, Steve, and I decided on a large subset of the
remaining halls to see. These included such varied subjects as
elephant howdahs, musical instruments, theatre puppets, and pre-Thai
sculpture. In the latter hall was a ten-foot-high stone lingam to
which I commented, 'Impressive.' (Look it up. What am I--a
Only the first hall was air-conditioned. By the time we were
done we were very hot. Luckily our hotel was right across the park
from the museum (about two city blocks). The hardest part of
getting there was crossing the streets. There are signals, but you
could bake waiting for them to change so people just look for a gap
and run for it.
We all re-grouped and tried calling the booking agent for train
tickets, but as this was Sunday, we were told their computer was not
connected to the main one and we would have to try again Monday.
By now (5 PM) it was a bit cooler (2 PM to 4 PM seem to be the
killer hours), so we decided to go out to the weekend market by the
Northern Bus terminal. We were thoroughly decadent tourists by this
point so we took a taxi; 150B (US$6) split five ways is more than a
bus but still cheap and finding the *right* bus and getting all of
us on it at once seemed impossible.
The market was in an area which had permanent booths and such-
-nothing like real buildings, but concrete walkways, roofs, and
dividing walls. In these booths, all sorts of vendors set up shop.
There were a lot of clothing vendors, of course, selling an enormous
variety of counterfeit T-shirts. (We saw some which said 'Cololado
State University.') I didn't buy any because 1) most were not at
all representative of Thailand, 2) they came in only one size--
large, and 3) they tend to run. For the latter, my evidence is one
data point: Barbara bought a purple top in Chiang Mai that turned
everything she was wearing purple.
In addition to clothing there were areas dedicated to plants,
to housewares, to pet supplies, and to all sorts of other odds and
ends. There were also food vendors, both of the grocery sort and
the restaurant type. We wandered into one of the latter looking for
dinner, but couldn't tell what they were serving. Attempts to
communicate didn't work too well; they spoke no English and we spoke
no Thai. Then another customer (or one of the staff--we weren't
sure) came over to see what was going on. She was carrying her
plate and the food looked good, so we pointed to that and signaled
'Three!' Success! We're still not sure if it was beef or pork, but
it was good. With sodas (Coke, Pepsi, and Sprite are cross-lingual
names), it cost us 18B (US$0.72) for dinner!
We walked around a bit more, then Mark and Steve decided they
wanted squid on a stick, which we had seen being cooked at the
entrance to the market. We couldn't find any anywhere else, so we
returned there. The squid, dipped in hot sauce, was 3B ($US0.12)
for a skewer of three squid. Sodas were also 3B, but since this was
take-away food and the bottles were the deposit kind, they served
the sodas in a small plastic bag with a straw. My bottle opener
came in handy here--the woman selling sodas had broken hers and was
trying to find another vendor who had one when I pulled mine out.
When the time came to leave we flagged down a taxi, but
couldn't make our destination understood. Even showing the hotel's
card didn't help. We tried another one. This one seemed to
understand. We had thought of taking two taxis, but no one wanted
to chance finding another taxi driver this far out of the tourist
area who would understand them, so we all piled in. It turned our
the driver understood Banglamphoo rather than the hotel name, but at
least we got within a few blocks rather than ten miles away.
After we got back I suggested we create a common money fund for
things we split evenly, such as taxis and meals. (I had read about
other people doing this on their travels.) This saves having to
collect small amounts from people many times a day. We each threw
in 200B and appointed Steve the keeper of the common fund. This
turned out to work out very well, with only a few minor difficulties
if people thought that items split evenly shouldn't be (sometimes
this happened with meals, for example).
October 15, 1990: Today Steve, Mark, and I went on an all-day
tour of Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was the former capital, but when it
was sacked by the Burmese in 1763, the capital was moved to Bangkok.
(Though Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country to avoid being
under control of one European country or another during its history,
it was regularly invaded by the Burmese and the Cambodians, usually
in alternate centuries.) The full-day tour offered by the hotel at
550B (US$22) (including lunch) seemed to cover most of what we
wanted to see and we decided that we would rather have a guide than
do it on our own.
This, it turned out, was a wise decision since Ayutthaya is
spread out over a large area. Just getting very place to place
would have occupied most of our effort and we probably wouldn't have
been able to see as much. (This is in contrast to the New
Territories, where the getting around was part of the experience;
here the getting around was of minimal interest compared with the
On our bus were an Australian family and a New Mexico couple.
The former were in Bangkok for their fourth time in fifteen years
and were on their way ti the floating market tour, which they've
taken each time. According to the books, however, the floating
market in Bangkok is only for tourists these days--one claims it
hires little old Thai ladies to pretend to shop there! (Everything
I said about Umberto Eco's TRAVELS IN HYPERREALITY comes flooding
back here.) The real floating market is quite a ways up-river and
we haven't the time to get to it. The Australian woman also said
that English was far more common in Malaysia than in Thailand. This
was a relief as we had been expecting it the other way around. In
any case, Malaysian is written with the Roman alphabet and is *not*
a tonal language, so our phrasebook for that might be more useful
than our Thai phrasebook.
After dropping the Australians off, it was an hour and a half
to Ayutthaya. The day was overcast and a bit cooler than previous
Our first stop was Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, a large, partially
ruined complex often featured in pictures for its long rows of
Buddha statues. The topless structures remaining reminded me of
Chichen Itza, and especially of El Caracol. But the ruins in
Ayutthaya were never actually deserted the way Chichen Itza was.
Even now, throughout the grounds are small signs with sayings of
Buddha (e.g., 'Contentment is the greatest wealth.'). You know that
the signs in English were not left over from before the sacking!
More likely they are put up and maintained by the monks who live in
the monastery adjoining the ruins.
The main structure here is a giant chedi up which one can
climb. We did this, but when we got to the top I got very dizzy and
had to sit down and rest. It wasn't vertigo--in fact, it came upon
me in a room at the top which didn't even open onto anything that
would show its height--but a combination of too much heat and not
enough food at breakfast (I've never been a big breakfast eater).
While the others walked around the top, I sat and regained my
strength and thought that here was another good reason for not doing
this on our own.
After descending (slowly) and seeing the remaining area, we
returned to the mini-van by way of the vendors, where I bought a can
of Sponsor, an 'electrolyte beverage.' They also had Gatorade, but
even in my weakened state I opted for the more exotic.
This first stop seemed somewhat empty, but gradually more
people (in tour buses) started arriving. I guess we just got there
early. It must be a popular tourist spot though--there were lots of
vendors around. Everyone has to make a living, of course, but one
of the annoyances of travel is the persistence of the vendors around
famous sights. Binayak says this doesn't bother him, but I think
it's quite possible that we, as obvious Westerners, are approached
more than he is. On the other hand, people wanting to strike up
conversations seem to find him more approachable, again because he
looks less foreign than we do.
Our next stop, after a fair amount of driving, was Trai Rata
Nayok, a more recent temple with a giant Buddha statue reaching
almost to the ceiling. It was as though the builders of the temple
wanted to conserve materials and so made the building just large
For a change of pace, we next saw a reclining Buddha. All the
Buddha statues in Ayutthaya seem to be either reclining or in the
'calling the earth' mudra; I suppose this is representative of the
period or of the area. This Buddha statue was in a very pastoral
setting. In fact, one book claims that sometimes cattle are grazing
in front of it, but we didn't see that.
Next was Viharn Pra Mongkol Bopit, with another large Buddha
statue. In fact, this one is the largest in Thailand, but again it
is housed in a temple just barely high enough. We arrived as they
were changing the robes on the statue. Not all statues have robes,
but people can gain merit by making a contribution to dress the
statue in saffron robes for some period of time. The statue was so
large the attendants needed to use ropes to haul the robes on and
In walking around the temple I saw someone putting out an
offering. Normally people bring small offerings: a few flowers or
something like that. This one was more elaborate and had fruit,
pastries, soy milk, and two cans of Pepsi! There is something
incongruous about that, no matter how you look at it.
Our last stop before lunch was Wat Pra Ram, Ayutthaya's oldest
temple. Built in 1369, this is in the Cambodian or Khmer style with
a prang surmounting the main structure. (A prang is somewhat like a
chedi, only not tapered. There is a lot more that can be said about
Buddhist temple architecture but, as I said, I won't do it here.)
This wat, unlike the others, is abandoned and gives one more the
feeling of a lost civilization than the others. This is, of course,
an erroneous feeling; unlike the ancient ruins of the Americas or
other places, these don't represent a civilization that collapsed
but are merely an earlier stage of the current culture.
One thing that struck me in the temple was the universality of
ritual and sacrifice. All cultures seem to have them, though
perhaps 'offering' is a better word than 'sacrifice.' I'm sure many
people have already observed this and analyzed it, but I just noted
something compelling in all this, something that pulls the onlooker
in. Even in Scandinavia, there was something magnetic about hearing
about Viking rituals and religion. I suppose that us how many cults
get their followers--the draw of the ritual overcomes the rational
Lunch was at a floating restaurant. Well, semi-floating--it
had part on land but some tables were on a boat moored there. We
ate on the boat and watched the river traffic go by. We had
expected a fairly mediocre lunch as part of this tour, but it was
actually pretty good. Food hasn't been a problem on this trip--
we've liked everything.
After lunch came the Bang Pa-In Palace, built by Rama V in an
odd mixture of European, Thai, and Chinese styles. It's not of
great historical interest, I suppose, but with its trees and ponds
it makes a nice place to relax after walking around Ayutthaya in the
heat. If it had been ten degrees cooler I would have regretted not
seeing more ruins. As it was, I was not greatly upset.
Rama V, by the way, is Chulalongkorn, best know to Americans as
the son of the King in THE KING AND I. Rama IV is Yul Brynner, so
to speak (or Rex Harrison if you prefer the stage version). THE
KING AND I is not popular in Thailand. I gather that the only
accurate part of it is that Rama IV did enlist an English teacher
for his children. Chulalongkorn's incorporation of Western
architecture and art into Ba Pa-In can probably be attributed to the
influence of this teacher. His adoption of Western ways and his
introduction of them into Thailand is probably one reason why
Thailand was not colonized the way its more 'backward' (at least by
ethnocentric European standards) neighbors were.
We returned to Bangkok, hitting more rush-hour traffic. There
was a brief stop at a lapidary, but no one was interested enough to
get out. (I had almost thought we had gotten a tour without a
scheduled shopping opportunity. This one was ill-planned by the
tour company, though--as the last stop and within a few minutes of
our hotel, it was something we could all plead exhaustion or the
lateness of the hour on. That would have been difficult earlier in
Upon our return we ascertained that Barbara and Binayak had
been successful in getting us tickets for the sleeper to Trang at
542B each (US$22). Dinner was at the Grand Guest House, where we
had lunch the first day. (We tried for a vegetarian restaurant
mentioned in one of the books, but it was no longer in business. No
big surprise, I guess--this seems to be a trend on this trip.)
Afterwards we strolled around and did some more shopping. I
wanted to get a cotton shirt but all they had were large ones. Even
knowing they'd probably shrink didn't encourage me--with my luck
they'd shrink crooked.
October 16, 1990: Breakfast was muesli with fruit and yogurt.
This has been breakfast for at least one of us every morning--I've
nicknamed this the 'Magical Muesli Tour' of Southeast Asia. After
breakfast we went to the GPO where people wrapped up and shipped
home all the stuff they had bought (Mark and I slipped our three
books into Binayak's package). The weather, which had cooperated up
to this point, turned on us and decided to rain. After a quick stop
at a bank to change money or get cash advances (do-able in a bank
without a PIN), we returned to the hotel, checked out and splurged
on *two* taxis to take our luggage to the railway station. The taxi
driver we had many Buddhist medallions on his dashboard, sort of the
equivalent of a plastic Jesus. We figured that with Bangkok
traffic, he probably needed all the help he could get.
We checked our luggage in the Left Luggage at the station (20B,
or US$0.80, per bag) and headed for Wat Trimit and the Golden
Buddha. After asking directions a couple of times we found it, five
and a half tons worth. At one point it had been covered with
plaster to conceal it, but that did the job so well that everyone
forgot it was gold underneath. Only when they went to move it in
the 1950s and a piece of the covering chipped off did they realize
what it was. It seems that the most popular Buddha statues, at
least with the tourists, are those with the most intrinsic value
rather than those of historical significance or great artistry.
We walked over to Chinatown for lunch. Here we had an okay
meal in a Chinese restaurant, but not as good as the other meals
we've been having. One of the waitresses spoke a little English,
but our attempts to request chopsticks from another (in both English
and Mandarin) failed until I picked up the fork and the spoon, held
them upside down, and used their handles as chopsticks. Suddenly
recognition dawned on her face and she returned with five pairs of
We then split up, with Barbara and Steve going off to the zoo,
and Binayak, Mark, and I walking through Chinatown to the river to
take the Chao Phraya Express to the Royal Barges. The Chao Phraya
Express is a ferry service that runs up and down the Chao Phraya
River and costs between 3B and 7B (US$0.12 and US$0.28) depending on
distance--an even bigger bargain than the Hong Kong Star Ferry!
We got off a few stops upriver but discovered we had gotten off
on the wrong side of the khlong, or side river/canal feeding into
the main river. So we took a ferry across the khlong--there are no
bridges--and walked to the Royal Barge Museum.
I suspect hardly anyone comes to the Barge Museum via land.
After getting to the right neighborhood, which is accessible only by
boat, you walk along concrete walkways laid between houses on
stilts. This is definitely one of the less developed areas of
Bangkok, looking strangely like the pictures one sees of Appalachian
towns and cabins--though the mosque we passed was certainly not
Appalachian. During this walk, we did get to see something Bangkok
is known for: a live sex show. Okay, so it was only two dogs by the
pathway, but what do you want for free? So much for the sex and sin
capital of Asia!
On arriving at the museum, our suspicions were confirmed.
There were no tickets at our entrance and the attendant had to go to
the entrance by the pier to get three to sell us. Yet there were
other people walking around, so they must have arrived by water.
The Royal Barges are ornately carved and decorated boats used
for state occasions; many of them are over a hundred years old.
They are kept in something like a submarine pen, covered to protect
the decorations from the elements, with the boats raised out of the
water to help preserve them. The dimness of the pen made it hard to
appreciate the full effect of the decorations, but there were the
usual postcards to help one.
At the dock were some long-tailed boats offering khlong tours.
(Long-tailed boats are so called because they have their motor, or
at least their propeller, at the end of a very long rudder extending
out from the back of the boat.) They seemed to have a standard
one-and-a-half hour tour but we negotiated a one-hour tour for a
lower price (300B, or US$12, for the three of us). The tour
(cruise, actually--the boatman hardly knew enough English to give us
a tour) took us up one khlong, then across a connecting waterway and
back down another khlong, finally crossing the river and ending up
at the Grand Palace.
Life on the khlong is pretty much like people picture life on a
Louisiana bayou in that everything focuses on the water. The only
way to get to the houses on the khlongs is by water, so mailboxes
and newspaper delivery boxes are on the water so that deliveries can
be made without the delivery person getting out of the boat. (You
might think the people living here are terribly poor, but with so
many subscribing to daily papers this can't be the case.)
However, the sanitation level is fairly low. People put raw
sewage into the khlong, but they also use it for washing. (One
presumes they either boil their drinking water, use rain water, or
buy bottled water.)
Everyone was very friendly, waving to us as we passed by, not
seeming to feel we were intruding. In general people in Thailand
are very friendly and want to talk to us. Our 'New York paranoia'
often makes us distrustful of this when we probably shouldn't be and
we miss out on good experiences because of it (plus we probably seem
Anyway, going down a khlong is definitely something I would
recommend to people visiting Bangkok. It provides a clear contrast
to the hub-bub and chaos of the rest of the city.
Arriving at the Grand Palace pier, we tried to decided what to
do next. It was too late to see Jim Thompson's House (he revived
the silk industry in Thailand), and we had already walked around
this area, so we opted for taking the Chao Phraya Express up-river
to Notanburi and then back to the pier near the train station, just
watching the river traffic and banks.
We started about 4:15 PM. At 5 PM we were still headed up-
river, and our plan was to be back at the Hualampong Train Station
at 5:30 PM for our 6:30 PM train. We got off at the next stop, just
missing a down-river boat. The next one was due twenty minutes
later. Okay, this is bad, we thought, but down-river will be much
faster than up-river, right?
Wrong! We got the world's worst boat driver. It took him two
or three passes each time he had to dock and other boats frequently
beat him to the pier and we had to wait for them to finish.
Unfortunately, we had no choice--slow as he was, anything else was
5:45 PM, 5:50 PM, ... we finally docked at our pier at 6 PM.
We had maneuvered ourselves to the back of the boat and were the
first ones off. We came running off the pier. Binayak grabbed a
tuk-tuk driver (figuratively) and said, 'Train station. Hualampong.
How much?' 'Fifty baht.' 'Done!' And three farangs (foreigners)
leaped into the tuk-tuk.
Having seen us tear off the pier and not even attempt to
bargain for a trip to the train station, this guy didn't have to be
a rocket scientist to figure out we probably had a train to catch
and were late. (He probably knew exactly when all the trains leave
also.) And it became obvious within one block that if it was
physically possible he would get us there on time. After two blocks
it became clear that even if it were physically *impossible* he
would get us there. He changed lanes constantly to move faster--
both lanes in our direction, the center dividing lane, and at least
one of the lanes in the opposite direction! He didn't run the one
red light but did almost run down two pedestrians. Amazingly, we
got to the train station, in one piece, at 6:10 PM, after a thrill
ride comparable to something at Great Adventure.
As we had predicted, Barbara and Steve were having fits. (They
claimed they didn't go into panic mode until 6:08 PM.) While I paid
the 'Tuk-Tuk from Hell' 60B (considering that the real price for
that distance would normally be 30B or 40B and that one rarely tips
tuk-tuk drivers, this was not a bad tip--and he seemed very happy),
Binayak and Mark verified that Steve had gotten our luggage out of
Left Luggage (luckily he had the receipt rather than one of us). In
the rush, Barbara lost hold of one end of the bungee cord she was
tying down her luggage with and the plastic hook whacked her in the
In spite of all these mishaps we made the train--Steve and
Barbara already knew which track it was on and luckily our car was
the closest to the station, not the furthest.
The sleeper cars in this train were newer and had luggage racks
and permanent ladders instead of the hook-on kind that the previous
sleeper did. Because we left at 6:30 PM the berths were not yet
made up. Someone came around to take dinner orders but Binayak said
we would eat in the restaurant car instead.
About 7:30 PM we walked down to the restaurant car, at the
other end of the train (twelve cars). This gave us a chance to see
what all the other classes of travel were like. We had air-
conditioned second-class berths. The non-air-conditioned second-
class berths were basically the same. Second-class seats were
similar to airplane seats but with more leg room. Third class was
definitely several notches below second class: it was much darker
(smaller bulbs or fewer bulbs) with padded bench seats instead of
recliners. Since this was an overnight trip, people were trying to
sleep in these, either by stretching their legs out into the aisle
or by sleeping on the floor *under* the seats on large pieces of
cardboard or paper. It did *not* look comfortable.
The 'restaurant car' turned out to be just a kitchen and enough
seats for the train crew to eat at. It was not the white tablecloth
and gleaming silver you see in the movies. So we returned to our
seats and ordered from there.
However, because we had ordered late it took a long time for
the food to arrive. It was 9 PM by the time we were all served. By
the time we were finished, the porter to pull down the berths was
nowhere to be seen. Everyone we asked kept saying, 'Five minutes,'
but by 10 PM we decided to go look for him. He was in the
restaurant car, apparently waiting for us, since there was much
laughter when we arrived. Upon returning to the car, we discovered
that someone else with a berth key had let down the berths and was
not happy with the porter for keeping us waiting.
The ride from Bangkok to Trang was not as smooth as the ride
from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. The track seemed rougher and there were
more starts and stops, including one massive lurch when they
attached more cars at a much higher speed than they should have. As
a result, none of us slept quite as well either.
October 17, 1990: In the daylight you can see the track pass
under the toilet. (Just thought you'd want to know.)
The scenery gets even more tropical as we head south, with more
rice paddies and palm trees. We arrived in Trang a little after 10
AM. Attempts to call hotels in Krabi proved futile (and expensive,
at US$2 each), so we decided to get to Krabi and try from there.
Binayak had said we would take share taxis, which would be more
comfortable and faster than a bus. However, none of these creatures
seemed to exist. What there *was* was a bus, non-air-conditioned,
which went to Phuket by way of Krabi. Having no choice we could
see, we climbed on for the two-and-a-half hour, 30B (US$1.20) ride.
In Thailand, bandits sometimes stop and rob tourist buses. We
had no fear they would stop this one. It wasn't quite as poor as
the bus in ROMANCING THE STONE (and the man who walked past it with
the goats *didn't* get on), but it would have been a sorry take for
a highway robbery. We were, of course, the only foreigners on this
bus; one Thai who wanted to practice his English engaged Binayak and
Barbara in conversation for almost the whole trip. This was
relatively easy--though there were two seats on either side of the
aisle, the numbering (and the conductor) made it clear that there
were supposed to be three people in them.
With the windows open, it was very windy, but not too hot. I
put a bandana on my head, which other people on the bus found
amusing. In spite of all the problems, this was a good part of the
trip--we weren't isolated from people on a special bus and if most
of our interactions consisted of smiles and telling the conductor
that the payment was for the 'five farangs' (which got a laugh from
him), that was okay too.
Food service, by the way, consisted of vendors selling chicken
and rice wrapped in banana leaves and soda in a bag at Trang. It
wasn't until Krabi that the bus stopped long enough for people to
get off for a rest break or some food. Actually, the bus doesn't
stop in Krabi, but at a bus terminus five kilometers out where hotel
touts swarm all over you when you get off. We called a couple of
places and decided to try the one whose number had changed, with its
more expensive neighbor that we *could* reach as a backup. These
were also outside Krabi at Ao Nang, so we first took a seelor (here
called a mini-bus) into town for 5B (US$0.20) each, then changed to
another mini-bus headed for Ao Nang and the Ao Nang Villa. This was
about twenty kilometers out of town, so cost 15B (US$0.60) each for
the half-hour ride. (We seem to be spending a lot of time riding in
the backs of trucks.) On our way out we met a Swiss couple who were
staying at the Ao Nang Villa and said it was nice and had empty
rooms. At 500B (US$20) a night for an air-conditioned bungalow on
the beach, it sounded perfect.
Well, as Steve described it, it's just another damn tropical
paradise. Our bungalows were just a short walk from the shell-and-
sand beach. The water was warm and both the water and the beach
were clean. There were maybe two dozen people on the entire stretch
Since we hadn't really had lunch, we ate an early dinner, then
walked along the beach at sunset. After three days in Bangkok and a
long trip on what Barbara dubbed the 'chicken bus' (even though we
pointed out there were no chickens on the bus), this was a welcome
change of pace.
October 18, 1990: Mark and I woke up early, so we went for a
morning swim. This is the sort of thing you see in travel
brochures: empty beach, perfect weather, warm water, beautiful
islands in the background, .... If I could actually swim it would
have been perfect.
After breakfast on the terrace, we went back to the beach with
the others. The perfection was wearing off-the sun was very hot,
there was no natural shade, and the beach mats we bought we so
over-dyed that Mark looked like a shark victim after lying for
fifteen minutes on the red and yellow pattern.
After a couple of hours of this, we had lunch: chicken on
coconut curry for me, and something not translated from the Thai for
Mark. The waiter tried to talk him out of it by suggesting
something else. Mark agreed, but they were out of this, so he went
back to his original choice, which turned out sliced cucumber with a
bowl of paste (dip?) made from garlic, onions, and chili.
This exhausted us so much that we took a nap. (Actually, it
was the heat, up around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.) We had a power
failure about 3 PM which lasted until dusk--just when we opened the
windows to get a breeze the air conditioning came back on.
At 6 PM we took the mini-bus into Krabi and went to Ka Tung for
dinner. This was recommended by the Lonely Planet and was open! We
had combination seafood in hot pot, some sort of bivalve shellfish,
soured squid salad, a vegetable dish, and soup. The 'manager' (who
turned out to be the owner's retired brother) looked somewhat
askance at us when we came in, but after we ate everything (we
haven't left food on the table yet), he decided we were okay and
came over to talk. We were the first patrons he had from New Jersey
(he said) so now he probably thinks all New Jersey people are big
eaters who love Thai food.
We walked around the market a bit, but it was mostly for
locals: housewares, clothing (often used), etc. At 9 PM things
started to close up and we started to look for a mini-bus. The
first one we stopped said 300B (US$12) to Ao Nang Villa! What
happened to 15B per person? Eventually someone came along who
explained it. Mini-bus service ends at 6 PM. (We must have caught
the last one.) After that, only private taxis run and they charge a
lot more. This person offered us a ride in an air-conditioned
mini-van for 250B and, not having much choice, we took that.
Compared to Thai prices this is high, yet in Amsterdam we paid that
for a ride less than one-fifth the length and thought it reasonable.
Everything is relative, I guess.
At least at that hour the electioneering trucks were gone.
They were in the midst of an election campaign and trucks with
loudspeakers were driving around spouting campaign promises (we
assume--it's all in Thai, of course). The posters for the various
candidates show what their ballot line looks like. The numbers are
represented both in Thai numerals and in dots (for the illiterate).
October 19, 1990: We had booked a tour of Phang Nga through
the same company who sold us the taxi ride last night--they happened
to be the one that our hotel was affiliated with (at least to the
extent that they sold their tours). So we took the 8 AM mini-bus
into Krabi, where we got a mini-van with a few other people for a
ninety-minute ride to where the tour proper began. Two of the other
people were women from the Netherlands, so we talked to them about
our recent trip there. There was also scenery and villages to see,
but after several days of train and bus riding, the scenery fails to
At about 10:30 AM we got on a boat similar to the one we rode
on the khlong and began by cruising through a mangrove swamp. This
looked more the way people picture a Louisiana bayou than a
Louisiana bayou does. Of course, the boat motor scared away any
wildlife that might have been there. (Even on our rafting trip we
didn't see any crocodiles or other interesting animals.) We rode
through a stalactite cave. The guide also talked about stalagmites
but we didn't see any. I guess that go together in people's mind,
like flotsam and jetsam (which I never could keep straight).
After some more swamp we headed out to sea to see Nail Rock and
James Bond Island. As we rode, it got darker and then started
raining. We beached on James Bond Island and everyone got out of
the boat (which was covered, but still didn't provide much
protection from the rain). There was a cave--mostly full of people
from other boats getting out of the rain--and we ran for it. The
plan was apparently to have us walk around the island, take pictures
of Nail Rock, and buy trinkets from the souvenir vendors. The rain
put a bit of a dent in this plan, so the vendors were walking among
the tourists carrying samples of their wares. Also for sale were
opportunities to photograph your companions with a falcon or a
monkey, and food. Mark got some dried cuttlefish which had been
pressed in something like a clothes wringer and we all had some of
This island is called James Bond Island because one of the
James Bond films (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN) was filmed here.
Nail Rock is just next to it, a rock whose top (a hundred feet or so
above the water level) is wider than its 'base' at water level. It
looks more like a spike or a wedge than a nail, but I guess to
someone it looked nail-like.
After about fifteen minutes climbing over other tourists, we
returned to the boat. Now thoroughly drenched, and with a cold
breeze blowing in yet more rain, we returned towards land, stopping
at Ko Panyi, a 'Muslim fishing village,' for lunch. At one time
this was a real fishing village built on stilts above the water
around another picturesque island, but now the main industry is
definitely tourism, with several restaurants catering to tours such
as ours and dozens of shops selling T-shirts and all the other usual
souvenirs. As one walks back from the shops through the village,
signs (in English) point to the mosque and other points of interest.
At least the rain eased up a bit here, but soon after we left
it caught up with us again, making the remainder of the boat ride
fairly miserable. On returning to the dock, I bought a T-shirt for
Mark, who had a cold and was now sitting in a totally wet shirt.
Having about thirty seconds in which to do this, I didn't even
bargain, but paid the outrageous sum of 120B (US$4.80) when I knew I
could have bargained it down to 100B. At least it's made in
Singapore--I figure it's less likely to shrink or run than some of
the local products.
After a short drive we got to Wat Tham Seua (Tiger Cave
Monastery), set in a natural amphitheatre of caves and trees. A
large reclining Buddha is inside the main cave, where a monk was
blessing worshipers who had come here. I guess caves are considered
outdoors rather than indoors, since we didn't have to remove our
shoes to enter, something one normally does when entering a Buddhist
temple where there is a statue of Buddha. Of more interest to many
of the tourists than the temple were the monkeys around the cave
entrance who begged for peanuts (for sale at a kiosk there). There
were also bats--no one was feeding them.
By now the rain had completely stopped so Mark changed into his
T-shirt and felt somewhat better. Our next stop was at a waterfall,
or rather a series of waterfalls, somewhat artificial, that couldn't
compare to the one in Chiang Mai. There were vendors, however, and
this gave people a chance to buy more food. Our eating habits on
this trip may best be described as 'grazing' (as I have already
labeled it)--we walk along buying food from street vendors. Squid
on a stick here, grilled chicken there--pretty soon you're full and
you've never sat down for a meal.
We returned to Krabi by way of a rubber plantation. All along
the road we had been seeing what looked like dozens of bath mats
hanging on clothes lines at various houses. These were raw rubber
being prepared for shipment. Other people found the dripping of
rubber from the trees interesting (as they had found the unreeling
of silk thread from the cocoons in Chiang Mai), but we had seen this
in Peru and it had lost some of its magic.
The scenery in this area is dominated by limestone karsts.
When we were in China, they claimed that only Guilin and Yugoslavia
had these karst formations, but that clearly isn't true. Maybe they
meant only these two had as extensive formations.
We got back to Krabi about 5 PM and, having learned our lesson
from the previous day, were on the 5:30 PM mini-bus back to Ao Nang
after booking our tickets to Penang through the same company that
did the tour. (They seem to do everything.) Our plans to visit
Kota Bharu on the east coast of Western (Peninsular) Malaysia and
then take the jungle railway to Kuala Lumpur had to be scrapped--
there was no reasonable way to get to Kota Bharu from Krabi. In
fact, there weren't too many ways to get anywhere from Krabi. We
settled for taking an air-conditioned mini-van to Penang for 330B
(US$13.20) each, discounted from 350B because we were buying five.
On the mini-bus back to Ao Nang we met a German couple. They
used to be a West German couple. We talked about their change in
status--it turned out that they were in Berlin the day the Wall was
torn down. When the news started to spread that it was happening,
people didn't believe it at first. He was very happy it had
happened, and that Germany was united again, but agreed that the
reunification would be a difficult process. He was only two months
old when the Wall was built--though he knew the exact date--but I
actually remember seeing it on the news. Seeing it torn down was
much better. I remember seeing an episode of *TRUE in which someone
smuggles his girlfriend out of East Germany in a steamer truck and
is ultimately helped by an (East) German train conductor who
explains: 'I am a German. Not an East German or a West German, just
a German.' Now it's true.
For our last night in Thailand we splurged and had fresh
grilled fish with a bottle of wine. The bill for the five of us was
900B (US$36), but it seemed high by comparison to what we were used
to paying. As I said before, everything is relative.
October 20, 1990: We were up early to catch the first mini-bus
at 6:30 AM in order to be in Krabi by 7 AM for our mini-van. Steve
was up even earlier, as he wanted to place a phone call to a friend
whose birthday it was, but the clerk overslept and he didn't have
The 'air conditioning' consisted of a trickle of slightly
cooler air from the ceiling vents of the van. Luckily, combined
with tinted windows (de rigueur on all vehicles here, it seems),
this was sufficient.
We stopped at 9 AM at a gas station in Trang for a rest stop
and picked up breakfast, since the hotel restaurant hadn't been open
when we left. Breakfast was buns with pork inside and sticky rice
with chicken wrapped in a banana leaf. We also bought a bunch of
By 11 AM we were in Hat Yai. Here we had an hour for lunch and
to change vans. What they do is run one van to Hat Yai in the
morning and return it to Krabi in the afternoon. Another van comes
from Penang in the morning and returns in the afternoon. Since Hat
Yai also has a semi-major airport, this maximizes the number of
passengers while minimizing the company's expense--no one is away
from home overnight.
Hat Yai has little to recommend it as a tourist spot, though to
Malaysians it's a popular destination because of the sex and sin
available there that is heavily curtailed in Malaysia, a strict
Muslim country. In Hat Yai we saw our first open gutters/sewers of
the trip--ditches two feet deep and a foot wide which had some
concrete slabs covering them and connecting the street to the
sidewalk, but not many. After seeing the rain later, we understood
why storm drains every hundred feet or so would not be sufficient.
We left Hat Yai about 12:30 PM, heading for the Malaysian
border. It seemed as though every bridge in Thailand were under
construction, at least on the road we were on, though no other parts
of the road were being worked on. I got the feeling the repaired
bridge might not be a major improvement over the original bridge
We crossed the border at two points. First we went through
exit procedures in Thailand, consisting of having the driver take
all our passports in to be stamped while we waited outside. Then we
drove a ways further and got to Malaysia, where we went through
entry procedures, including an X-ray scan of our luggage like you
get at an airport. And finally there was a checkpoint where they
looked inside the van to make sure we weren't carrying any
contraband. The only problem in all this was that we didn't move
along quickly enough in the customs check. I thought the official
was waving us down to the next checker, but he was really waving us
While we were waiting for everyone on the mini-van to finish,
one of the other passengers offered to get us a cold drink out of
the machine there (which took only Malaysian money, and we had none
yet). Though the books warn about accepting drinks from strangers,
we figured a can of soda from a machine was safe enough that we
could risk it, and since there was a long ride ahead, we accepted
and got to talking to him. His name was Tee and he was from
Singapore (though originally from Malaysia). He had come up just
for a short period of time and after a few hours in Penang, he was
returning to Singapore by overnight bus.
We stopped at a small town just past the border and changed our
bahts into ringgits (Malaysian units of currency, which everyone
calls dollars--they probably were originally named that and then
changed, and they still use the dollar sign to represent them).
We've taken to calling the various units of currency 'PMUs,' for
'peculiar monetary units,' a term used by someone in Mark's
department to talk about the money someplace in the Caribbean. He'd
have reall problems here--there are three different one-baht coins
and three different five-baht coins in circulation in Thailand, they
are all different sizes (including one size for a one-baht which is
almost identical to one of the five-baht sizes), and not all of them
have Arabic numerals on them. In fact, there's an old one-baht that
doesn't have Thai numerals either! A handful of change here is real
challenge. In Malaysia there are two versions of each coin, but the
size are the same and they are labeled in Arabic numerals and in
English. It's sort of like how in the United States we have regular
quarters and Bicentennial quarters, or wheat cents and Lincoln
Memorial cents, and that doesn't confuse people. For that matter,
before we complain about other countries' coins, we ought to look at
ours. There isn't an Arabic numeral to be found. They say 'one
cent,' 'five cents,' 'one dime' (what does that mean to a
foreigner?!), and 'quarter dollar.' The latter, by the way, is
uniquely American; every place else seems to have coins in units of
one, five, ten, twenty, and fifty.
In addition to changing money, we changed our watches. In
order to keep bot Western Malaysia and Eastern Malaysia on the same
time, Malaysia is an hour later than Thailand.
The roads in Malaysia are much better than the roads in
Thailand, the vehicles traveling on them are fancier (no seelors to
ply their trade here), and in general the country seems more
prosperous, judging by the general appearance of the towns we passed
We arrived in Butterworth about 5 PM. Butterworth is the town
on the mainland across the straits from Penang. Penang is the whole
island; the actual town we were going to was Georgetown, directly
across from Butterworth. To get there we took the ferry. There is
a bridge from the mainland to the island, but it goes from south of
Butterworth to south of Georgetown *and* costs more than the ferry.
As if to test our seaworthiness, however, they filled the tank of
the van and this for some reason involved rocking the van from side
to side while it was being filled. Maybe there was some blockage in
the line to the tank or something.
Then we took the ferry, which involved a bit of a wait as there
were a lot of cars ahead of us. We got into Georgetown about 6 PM
and got dropped off on Chulia Street (Lebuh Chulia).
Once again the first order of business was to find a hotel.
(One problem with unstructured travel such as we were doing is the
amount of time spent on the mechanics of traveling: finding hotels,
making train reservations, storing luggage.) Here at least we had a
reasonable idea of where we wanted to go: the Cathay Hotel,
described by the guidebooks as having a lot of 'romantic charm.' We
were only a few blocks away and the heat had subsided somewhat so we
Georgetown has the sort of architecture one envisions in South
Seas ports--the second stories of the buildings overhang the
sidewalk supported by arches and have louvered shutters on the
windows. All this is extremely practical as well as picturesque--
the covered sidewalks let you walk around even when it's pouring
rain and the louvers let the breeze in while keeping the sun out.
The Cathay Hotel is an older hotel (built in the late 1800s,
I'd guess), painted in blue and yellow pastels. It looks as though
at one time it was quite grand, though at present the interior could
use a paint job, the hardwood floors are in desperate need of
refinishing, and the plumbing is, well, quirky. I loved it. The
rooms are about 15' by 20' with 10-foot-high ceilings--absolutely
enormous. The beds turned out to be foam mattresses about six
inches thick on boards and there was no hot water, but these didn't
really bother me. More annoying was the lack of an elevator (or
lift, as it's called her)--high ceilings also mean more steps.
Still at M$45 (US$18) a night, it was wonderful.
After a quick shower and change we went out for dinner with
Tee, who had helped us find the hotel and was a bit at loose ends
before his 10 PM bus. We started walking down Lebuh Penang looking
for dinner. Food was everywhere! On side streets there were
clusters of hawkers' stands. We chose one group, sat down at the
common tables set up in the street, and then sent Tee, Binayak, and
Mark to order from the different stands. I can't remember
everything we ate, but we did have laksa (the local white noodles)
in various forms, fish ball soup, and a half a duck. Part way
through dinner it started to rain and we managed to move under an
awning. This was good, as the rain turned into a downpour complete
with thunder and lightning. But, as seems typical, it stopped after
an hour or so.
After dinner Tee left for his bus. We had gotten a lot of
interesting information from him during dinner about the current
election campaign in Malaysia (posters and banners are everywhere--
the election is tomorrow) and had told him about politics in the
United States in return. He found our idea of strikes odd--in
Malaysia you need to get a permit from the government to strike! No
permit, no strike. (Seems to defeat the intent of a strike, doesn't
We walked over to the telephone office and 'phoned home,'
calling family or friends. Steve called his friend whose birthday
it was and we all sang 'Happy Birthday' into the phone--strange!
October 21, 1990: We had a strange night--there was a family
of some sort of animal living in the attic (?) above our room and
all night we were awakened by scrabbling noises. Actually, given
the amount of noise, it may be a whole society rather than just a
family! We hope it was cats, but who knows? We also have geckos in
the hotel, but they're good--they eat the bugs.
Breakfast was murtabak--sort of an Indian/Pakistani pancake--in
a restaurant near the hotel. Then we walked to the Komtar Building
(the tallest in Georgetown) to find an ATM where Steve could get
money. Today was election day (and Sunday), so almost everything
was closed. Luckily ATMs don't close and we were also able to get
train tickets for tomorrow night. (I was a bit worried that the
advance booking office would be closed.)
After completing all this minutiae, we walked over to Fort
Cornwallis from the ferry terminal where the railway booking office
was. It was *very* hot and the fort turned out to be not very
interesting. Rather than walk any more in the heat we took trishaws
to Khoo Kongsi, a clan house which has the reputation of being the
most ornate building in Malaysia and possibly in Southeast Asia.
Its precursor was even more ornate but burned down, which was taken
as an omen to tone it down a bit. It must have been really amazing!
Much of the decoration here was under the porch roof in shade and,
as the porch was blocked off, it was difficult to see. What we
could see was elaborate enough, not just carvings, but also plaster
figures and paintings.
Because of the heat, we decided to go back to the hotel and
rest, but first we made a stop at the (closed) Sri Mariammam Temple,
whose roof decorations rivaled those of Khoo Kongsi. A trapezoidal
structure over the entrance was covered with brightly painted
plaster statues of the pantheon of Hindu gods--and it's a *big*
pantheon. With binoculars some detail could be made out--perhaps if
the figures were more familiar I could have picked them out without
binoculars. About the only one I really recognized was Ganesha, who
has an elephant's trunk instead of a nose and is the god of wisdom.
We stayed in the air-conditioned hotel rooms until about 4 PM,
when we ventured out again, walking down Muntri and Stewart Streets,
which were purported to have the best examples of Penang shop house
architecture. Certainly the shops here seemed to have done their
renovations more in the style of the original, retaining the tiled
fronts and porches and the carved doors. Other areas have not, and
the plaster fronts mildew so quickly here that the building gets a
very run-down appearance in short order, whereas the tile, though
undoubtedly more expensive, doesn't mildew.
We walked past the Kapitan Kling Mosque (not open to non-
Muslims) and the temple again and ended up at the Dawood Restaurant
across the street from the temple for dinner. Here for some reason
they kept offering us fried chicken, which we kept refusing,
ordering things like chicken capitan, chicken curry, roasted chicken
livers, duck summah, and chicken biranyi. With the last it finally
became clear what was going on--the waiter asked us into the kitchen
to see it, so Binayak went, but something he said made it clear that
we knew what chicken biranyi was, so the waiter said it wasn't
necessary for us to go see. He must have thought we didn't know
what we were ordering. Well, perhaps sometimes we didn't, but we
always ate it and enjoyed it anyway. By the end we had ordered
basically the top half of the menu (including the fried chicken) and
enjoyed it all.
We had planned to go to the top of Penang Hill to see the
sunset, but the rain that started put an end to that idea. So we
went back to the Komtar Building. The stores on the first four
floors were now open, so we spent some time browsing and then got
some ice cream in one of the restaurants. Most of the restaurants
here, even fast food places such as White Castle, have signs up
saying the food they serve is halal (the Muslim equivalent of
October 22, 1990: Breakfast was noodles fried with pork,
shrimp, and clams--for some reason you don't much see clams in
Oriental food in the United States. The coffee here is also
unusual--you can get it black, or with milk *and* sugar, but not
just one of the two. That's because they use sweetened condensed
milk. They pour a half-inch in the bottom of the cup, then add the
coffee. It looks black when it arrives because the two parts don't
mix until you stir them.
After breakfast, Steve, Mark, and I took a taxi to the
Botanical Gardens. (I think this is just a fancy name for 'park,'
although some of the trees were labeled.) We spent most of our time
there feeding the monkeys. First we had to chase away a group of
obnoxious kids who wanted to throw rocks at the monkeys. Then we
had to be on guard against the monkeys themselves, who would sneak
up on you and grab the whole bag of peanuts when you weren't
looking. Crime everywhere you go! We also saw a scorpion and a
snake, which we did *not* try to feed. There was a walk through
forest/jungle that reminded us of the trek in Chiang Mai, though
much less strenuous.
Eventually the heat got to us and we decided to proceed to
Penang Hill, since it is supposed to be 5 degrees cooler at the top
(830 meters, or 2700 feet, up) than at the base. (The book didn't
say whether that was Fahrenheit or Centigrade.) We took another
taxi, through residential areas and suburbs. These parts looked
less run-down and more modern than Georgetown, but lacked the
'pirate town' feel that made Georgetown appealing. Of course, many
people see neither, but end up in the resort area, Batu Ferringhi
('Foreigners' Rock'--Star Trek fans take note!). On the funicular
on the way up we met a couple from England--he had been in the RAF
and had been sent to Penang in September 1945 when it still wasn't
clear whether the Japanese here would surrender or fight. (They
surrendered--he still has the newspaper announcing this.) This was
a sort of memorial trip for him--they had also visited the River
Kwai (now spelled Kwae) near Bangkok. The River Kwae is actually a
popular day trip from Bangkok and all the tour companies seem to run
one, but we had no time. I suppose we have a tendency to prefer
ancient sites to modern, but also there us in the back of our minds
(mine anyway) that the structures, as in Ayutthaya, may be
destroyed, but a location, as the River Kwae, will always be there.
This isn't true, of course--ask the Nubians.
It *was* cooler at the top, and there was also a very welcome
breeze. Some haze made the view less spectacular than it might have
been, but it was still a nice panoramic view of Georgetown,
At the top of Penang Hill was a mosque and a temple, but these
were not on the sort of grand scale one sees lower down. There were
also some military emplacements. And, as one might have expected,
there were vendors. One pointed to his wares and said, 'Genuine
imitation watches.' Resisting the impulse to say, 'Didn't I meet
you in Hong Kong?' I pointed to my watch and said, 'Genuine watch.'
He looked at it and replied, 'Yeah, Casio,' but he smiled as well.
Returning down the funicular (a two-stage operation, as they
couldn't build one mechanism strong enough to go the whole way from
the bottom to the top), we returned to Georgetown and the Penang
Museum. The museum's collection wasn't extensive (though it had a
nice weapons collection), but it had one major feature going for
it--much of it was air-conditioned. This seems to have been the
hottest day so far, or maybe we're just losing steam. At any rate,
after the museum we took trishaws to the Komtar Building, where we
knew we could eat lunch in air-conditioned comfort. I feel a little
funny riding in a trishaw--riding in a vehicle powered by human
muscle seems too much like using slave labor. It isn't, of course,
but still.... Binayak says that the old trishaws where someone
stood between two poles in front of the rider and pulled by running
were degrading, but the newer ones, which are more like tricycles
and are driven by pedaling, are less so. In any case, trishaws are
more plentiful than taxis here, and everyone seems to use them--we
saw women with their bags of groceries in them--so to some extent
it's a question of 'When in Rome, ....'
Once again, by 4 PM it had cooled off enough that we could
venture out. We started back toward the hotel via Rope Walk,
described in the guidebooks as a street full of junk shops which
often contained hidden treasures. As with many other guidebook
statements, this one seemed to have become inoperative. The closest
thing to junk shops seemed to be used auto parts shops and I doubted
I would find anything wonderful in them. Just as Fourth Avenue in
New York used to be known for used book stores and now has hardly
any, so time has apparently changed Rope Walk.
We did find some interesting shops around the corner and bought
a hand puppet as a souvenir. You've probably seen these--they have
painted wooden heads and are held by a stick through the costume
while two other sticks operate the hands and arms from below, rather
than from a framework above as with Western puppets.
We also found a whole string of used bookstores (maybe they all
moved here from Fourth Avenue). And what did I find in one of them
but a copy of a Mycroft Holmes novel I had been looking for for at
least five years! (Sherlock Holmes fans will recognize that THE
NOTCHED HAIRPIN is far and away the most difficult of the three
Heard pastiches to find.) This was truly an unexpected surprise, so
I guess I found my hidden treasure after all.
We walked back to the hotel, where we had kept one room for the
day at half-price, and rested until everyone showed up. (Steve had
gone to the Post Office after Komtar. Binayak and Barbara had
rented a motor scooter to see the rest of the island, but we had
later seen them in a trishaw near the used book stores. You just
can't get away from some people!)
For dinner we went to a restaurant serving chicken rice, a
local dish. The chicken is poached and then served cold (well,
cool) with rice which has been cooked in the broth, and cucumbers.
Binayak had been saying for two days how he was definitely going to
have chicken rice. He took two bites and said, 'I don't like
chicken rice.' The rest of us were of varying opinions; I thought
it was a nice light meal and a change from having everything fried.
Back in the room we decided to eat Steve's pomelo for dessert
as he didn't want to have to carry it any more. A pomelo is a fruit
something like a grapefruit only not as sour or juicy. It starts
out about the size of a soccer ball, but after you peel it, it's
about the size of a baseball. We then checked out and walked to the
nearest taxi stand, about three blocks away. During the day you can
flag down taxis but at night you pretty much have to go to a taxi
We took the taxi to the ferry, then the ferry across to
Butterworth where, after some initial confusion, we found the train
station. The others checked their luggage and went back to the
shopping mall in the ferry station, but Mark and I decided to stay
and read and write in our logs, since shopping malls here are like
shopping malls back home.
The sleeper car we got was older than those in Thailand. The
upper berths were more cramped and (just our luck) the fan next to
ours was broken (it was blowing but not rotating, so we could take
turns getting a breeze by pivoting it by hand). We asked a
conductor is he could fix it, but his reply was that he wasn't an
engineer. It was extremely hot all night and none of us slept very
well. The people in the lower berths had windows but if they left
them open it was very noisy, so they weren't too much better off.
October 23, 1990: Well, we arrived after a fairly
uncomfortable night to more bad news. The 'newly renovated' Station
Hotel (as described in one guidebook) was again closed for
renovation. So much for the idea of staying at the train station
and not having to schlep luggage around. We ended up at the Hotel
Puduraya instead, at the Puduraya Bus Terminal. This was M$80
(about US$32) a night, considerably more than the Cathay Hotel, but
then this was the big city. We were probably also overcharged in
the taxi at M$5 for a ride that I think should have been M$2, but we
didn't realize that at the time and US$2 still sounded cheap.
After checking in, Steve, Mark, and I had breakfast at an
Indian/Pakistani restaurant across the street while Binayak and
Barbara ate at the hotel buffet instead. Ours was cheaper. After
breakfast, we had to go back to the train station to book our
tickets out (we had gotten in so early that the advance booking
windows weren't open). We walked back since we had no luggage to
carry and, except for some problems crossing the major roads (there
were pedestrian overpasses, but we couldn't always find them), we
managed to find our way back. On the way we met the conductor from
the train the night before who asked us how the fan was!
After our previous night's experience we decided we wanted air
conditioning. But our choices were limited to first class air-
conditioned berths or second-class air-conditioned seats. Sitting
up all night, even in a reclining seat, was no one's idea of a good
time, so we asked for five first-class berths. First problem: there
were only three left, all uppers and all for men. (Because first
class is divided into cabins with an upper and a lower berth, if a
man has reserved the lower, they will sell the upper only to another
man.) The men decided to be chivalrous and not take the first class
and leave Barbara and me to fend for ourselves. So we asked for
second class non-air-conditioned, as many lower berths as possible
and the rest uppers. The clerk initially said she had one lower,
but by the time she punched it into the computer, even that was gone
and we ended up with five uppers. We hope the fan works!
The National Museum was just a short ways down the 'street,'
but the street being a four-lane divided highway made getting there
a bit tricky. We did, however, make our way there eventually. The
museum had three major halls (as far as I could tell): one on
ethnography, one on natural history, and one on sports in Malaysia.
There were also several smaller exhibits scattered around, but a
large area was taken up by a special exhibit on death customs. The
rest of the museum was free, but this exhibit had a M$3 (US$1.20)
admission fee. (Why can't the Metropolitan Museum of Art follow
this pricing structure? :-)).
The special exhibit started out with customs surrounding death,
funerals, and burials in Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia,
but as you walked through it expanded to cover this topic around the
world. With several hours to devote to this exhibit alone, we might
have done it justice; as it was, we tended to skim over the sections
with which we were the most familiar (Egyptian, Viking, etc.) and
spend more time on the less familiar areas. Well, okay, we did
spend a fair amount of time looking at the stills from old mummy
movies in the Egyptian section. While the exhibit was fascinating,
it's a bit off the topic of this already bloated travelogue, so I
will leave you to research death customs on your own.
The ethnography section showed the usual exhibits of costumes
and furniture. It also had a display of shadow puppets. It seems
that even in as narrow a field as shadow puppets, there are
variants. Some are strictly silhouettes, but others are translucent
or semi-transparent and show up in colors rather than strictly black
and white. One wonders if the two camps have the same debates that
proponents of color movies have with proponents of black and white
movies. The silhouettes are a more minimalist approach--perhaps
Philip Glass should score the plays.
The natural history exhibit was the usual set of dioramas of
stuffed animals. Given our limited time, and even more limited
interest in sports, we skipped the sports exhibit.
We rejoined the others and took a taxi (actually two taxis--the
police in Malaysia are much stricter about the allowable number of
passengers in a vehicle and also about front-seat passengers wearing
seat belts than the police in Thailand) to the Central Market. This
used to be a farmers' market and was going to be torn down when
people decided it was a landmark because of its 'neo-Egyptian'
exterior (I have no idea what that means--it didn't look Egyptian to
me). So it was renovated and turned into a shopping mart
concentrating mostly on handicrafts and other tourist-appeal items.
We ate lunch in the food court upstairs, then split up to do a
little shopping. We got a few odds and ends: a plaque with a verse
from the Koran, a couple of carved wooden statuettes, and a T-shirt.
(I hope these countries' economies aren't counting on Mark and me to
keep them running.)
We then walked back to the hotel for our afternoon siesta.
While we were resting, it decided to rain--hard. When it finally
stopped we went out to the taxi stand to go to an artists' center
recommended by one of the brochures. For some reason, none of the
taxis would take us. Then someone came over and offered to take the
five of us in a mini-van. This sounded a bit suspicious but
everyone else was willing to try it. I did suggest that if we
couldn't get a taxi out there, we might have trouble getting one
back, but Barbara said it was only a couple of miles and we could
walk back if we had to.
Well, first of all, there was no mini-van. There was a car.
We insisted on two cars. Eventually another car materialized. They
were in fact taxis, a somewhat reassuring development. After
starting out we discovered why no taxi at the stand would take us.
It was rush hour and the streets leading to our destination were
bumper-to-bumper with cars. To make matters worse, on the way it
started to rain again.
So we got dropped off at this center in the pouring rain and
the taxis drove off. True to Luck of Leeper, we had arrived after
the workshop area had closed and before the restaurant opened--a
couple of hours before. The center was basically deserted. It was
not the thriving artists' hangout that had been described.
A couple of taxis came by to drop off staff, but wouldn't take
us back to the center of town because of the traffic. We waited
until the rain stopped and then started walking. Here arose a
conflict. Some of us felt that we should walk back towards where we
wanted to go and look for taxis or buses in that direction. Others
thought we should head toward an area of less traffic in the hopes
of finding a taxi more willing to drive into town. I was in the
former group--why walk from one uninteresting area to another
uninteresting area? Eventually we prevailed and began walking.
We had thought of taking a bus and even stopped at a bus stop
to wait for one. But the first one to come by was so packed already
that we scratched this idea and ended up walking all the way back to
the Chinatown night market. I find walking in cities interesting
and rather enjoyed it. At least it didn't rain any more.
We passed a book store and naturally went in. Barbara got some
cookbooks and Mark got an illustrated version of PILGRIMAGE TO THE
WEST. It's heavy, but there's only one more city to carry the
suitcase to. We then started looking for a place to have dinner.
We hadn't gone more than a half block when a boy at most fourteen
years old came out from a restaurant, pushed menus into our hands,
and said, 'Eat here. You don't like, I pay.' Well, the menu looked
reasonable and we had a guarantee (of sorts), so we decided to give
it a try. We sat at a table in the street and got a chance to watch
this kid's marketing skills while we ate. He nailed everyone
walking by, and almost everyone stopped and ate here if there was a
table free at that moment. The service was a bit slow--not
surprising considering the number of customers--but the food
compensated: chicken in clay pot, cuttlefish in oyster sauce, chili
beef, a noodle dish, and greens. One doesn't see much pork here
(the Muslim population wouldn't eat it or at any restaurant that
serves it) but seafood is popular. Here halal differs from kosher,
or rather the inverses, haram and treif, differ. Seafood
(shellfish) is treif but not haram; that is, it is not forbidden to
Muslims, but merely discouraged. (Obviously this can vary from sect
(The Islamic nature of the country is noticeable in many ways.
One is that the hotel rooms all have arrows pointing toward Mecca
for prayer purposes. Of course, here they point west instead of
east. In our room, in fact, it points in the wrong direction--I
have this feeling they removed the ceiling tile it's on to do some
work and then put it back wrong.)
After dinner we walked around the market. This market bore a
remarkable resemblance to all the other markets we had seen. The
only new feature was a number of vendors selling Indian and Tibetan
artifacts, including tantric necklaces and prayer wheels. We bought
one of the latter, which the vendor claimed was made from bone but I
suspect is plastic. It's hardly a typical souvenir for Malaysia, an
Islamic country, but it's something different at least.
October 24, 1990: We started to go out for breakfast but then
decided that with as many food stands in the bus station as there
were, we might as well just eat there. We got soup with noodles for
breakfast (except Barbara, who went to the hotel restaurant, her
stomach not being up to soup for breakfast). Even with juice and
coffee, this came to only M$2.50 (US$1) each.
Again, we kept one room for the day at half-price and checked
out of the others before leaving for our day's travels. We all
decided to go to the Batu Caves north of the city, which the Lonely
Planet said could be gotten to be a bus from the bus station. When
we asked at the information desk, though, the answer was that there
was no bus from the bus station that went there. A taxi tour who
overheard us insisted that there were no buses to the Batu Caves,
and he would take us there for M$5 each. This seemed unlikely, and
further enquiry at the window elicited the information that there
was a bus that went there which left from a bus stop about two
Figuring which bus went to the Batu Caves was easy--it had a
sign in the front window that said 'Batu Caves.' We verified this
with the driver as well so he would know where we wanted to get off
in case we couldn't figure it out. An in fact he did let us know
when we reached the stop, since the caves were accessible from a
side road and not immediately obvious. This cost, not M$5 (US$2)
each, but 50 sen each, so a round trip would be M$1 (US$0.40) each.
True, it probably took a little longer, but in exchange we got to
see more of the towns between Kuala Lumpur and the caves.
The Batu Caves are limestone caves, the largest of which is
inconveniently placed at the top of a 272-step staircase. Before
the staircase was built, it was even more inconvenient, of course.
Some of the books mentioned a cable car up, but that had been
removed at some point, so there was nothing to do but climb up.
There were monkeys here also, and since I had some leftover peanuts
with me, we had the opportunity to feed them. This made the climb
easier as we made frequent stops.
When we got to the top we discovered that even caves can be
under construction--the section containing most of the statues was
cordoned off. In addition to their geologic interest, the Batu
Caves are also a Hindu temple. Perhaps they waited until after
Diwali to do the construction work. At any rate, although the
natural appeal of the caves was largely unaffected, only one shrine
remained accessible in this part. Behind the large 'Cathedral Cave'
(as it's called) is another area which opens up to the sky.
However, the walls are so high that access through here would be
even more difficult than the stairs.
We descended the stairs and went to two more caves, described
as an 'art gallery' and 'museum.' I couldn't really tell what made
one an 'art gallery' and one a 'museum'--they were both filled with
very brightly painted plaster statues representing various scenes
and beings from Hindu mythology. As with the Sri Mariammam Temple,
if I knew more about the mythology I would have appreciated this
more. Even so, I found it fascinating, particularly the imagination
given to the beings which were half-human, half-animal (human torso
with a pig's head, for example). It struck me that here was a
wealth of resource materials for costumers to use at science fiction
convention masquerades, yet all too often they stay in the same
We had seen a public mini-bus pull up to the caves themselves
earlier, so we waited there a bit, but eventually decided we would
have better luck on the main road. We waited quite a while at the
bus stop across the road from where we had gotten off, and were
beginning to wonder if the bus came this way, when we saw the bus
come along on the original side. We decided not to wait any longer,
but to just get on that one on the theory that it would eventually
get back to Kuala Lumpur (we did verify this with the driver, of
course). This resulted in a slightly longer bus ride, as we rode
out into several smaller towns (kampungs) before looping back and
returning to Kuala Lumpur. Again, this was a plus rather than a
minus--some people pay a lot of money for sightseeing buses.
The bus returned to its stop right near the Central Market, so
we walked back over there to eat and do a bit more shopping (well,
some people did more shopping). We had a difficult time deciding
where to eat--eventually Steve's desire for a White Castle hamburger
decided us. Yes, they even have White Castle in Malaysia. No, it's
not at all the same. I think the one thing we all agreed on (even
Steve) was that we *don't* recommend White Castle in Kuala Lumpur.
After lunch, Mark, Steve, and I decided to go to the Masjid
Negara (the National Mosque), a very modern-looking structure with a
73-meter (240-foot) minaret. This is especially notable since it is
across the street from the railway station, which was built in the
Moorish style with arches, minarets, and cupolas, and now looks more
like a mosque than the mosque itself. Though I had worn my most
conservative clothes (long pants and long sleeves), the female
attendant at the mosque gave me a robe to wear over them--I guess
cargo pants aren't quite conservative enough. The robe certainly
covered everything, with about six inches extra at the hem. With
the large head scarf, I was definitely well-covered. We walked
through most of the mosque, though the prayer area was off-limits to
non-Muslims. (This didn't stop some American tourists from
wandering in, of course. Some people either can't read or won't.
The women had been given robes, which they then hiked up about a
foot off the floor, defeating the purpose.) One thing that I didn't
see here that I had seen at other mosques was the warning that
menstruating women were not allowed. I'm not sure why the omission,
unless the prohibition really applies only to the prayer area and
the exclusion of all non-Muslims from there was thought to cover
that. Though the mosque was not Moorish, it had some of the same
characteristics. The central part was open, with few walls. This
was surrounding by a large area which had a roof supported by
arches, but also no walls. The result was that breezes could flow
through, but the 'porch' area kept the weather out of the actual
After the Masjid Negara, we walked down the block to the
National Art Gallery. This was full of modern art, though with a
definite Malaysian influence. I still can't claim to have found it
fascinating--I don't think I know how to appreciate modern art.
Here we ran into Binayak and Barbara, and when we were all done we
took a couple of taxis back to the hotel and rested a while. Just
as yesterday, it started to rain and when the time came to check
out, it was still raining. We had some time before our train, but
decided to call for a taxi anyway. The hotel clerk tried to call;
the line was busy. For the next hour, the line remained busy every
time he tried. We considered going to the taxi stand (in the rain)
but it had a long line of people and few taxis were pulling up.
Finally, we went down to the level of the bus station where the
long-distance taxis were and after much negotiation got two taxis to
take us back to the train station (at a higher than usual price, of
course--but then it was definitely seller's market).
We checked our bags at the station, then went and got dinner in
one of the station restaurants; I had chicken rice. We walked
around a bit, then reclaimed our bags and boarded our train.
Our worst fears were *not* realized. In fact, this was
probably the best sleeper car we had. First of all, it was a
permanent sleeper car--the others had upper berths that folded up so
they could serve as regular cars with seats during the day. The
fact that this didn't meant that the upper berths could have a lot
more head room because they could be set lower in the wall than a
hung berth. And the upper berths had windows--not big windows like
the lower berths had, but small ones (about six inches high and a
foot wide) that would let the breeze in as the train moved. In
fact, I found myself cold in the middle of the night and put on a
long-sleeved shirt and my long pants! (Except for the first sleeper
in Thailand, no sleepers came with blankets.) Oh, yes, the fans
worked also. The other nice thing was that there was a section in
each compartment for luggage so people didn't have to sleep with
their luggage in their berths.
While we were getting settled, a family came on. I don't know
where they were from, but they spoke no English and no Malaysian and
seemed to be totally confused about where their berths where. They
tried to settle in on one berth and the person who had the ticket
came along and tried to tell them it wasn't theirs. He showed them
his ticket with the berth number and kept asked where theirs was. I
think they said that someone else had their ticket, but we couldn't
be sure. Eventually one of their party came back and told them they
needed to move to another car (I think--at least that's what
October 25, 1990: We woke up fairly early, and the train was
running late, so we had a fair amount of time to kill. I walked
down the car to where the others were and found Binayak talking to a
Buddhist monk in Bengali! The monk (whose name I have forgotten)
also spoke English, though occasionally when someone wasn't clear,
he and Binayak would switch to Bengali to clarify it. He had been a
monk for two years and was traveling to Singapore to work in a
Buddhist youth center there. He had been living in Bangkok though
he originally came from Bangladesh. He said one thing he liked
about being a monk (or perhaps one reason he became a monk) was the
simplicity of the life: with his shaved head he didn't have to worry
about taking care of his hair, he never had to decide what clothes
to wear, and he didn't have to worry about a lot of belongings to
take care of.
We got to what I think was Johore Bahru. Various immigration
officials came through and signed the entry stamps in everyone's
passports, but somehow they missed mine. It wasn't as if I was
hiding; I was sitting right there in my berth. At any rate, when I
found a conductor and said this, he got very worried and hustled me
off the train and into the station to get my passport signed. I
kept worrying that the train would leave without me, but he was
worried that the person who could sign my passport would leave, and
she was on her way out when we caught up with her. After she signed
it I got back on the train at the closest car just in case, and got
to walk back through several third-class cars--I don't think they
use deodorizer in the toilets in the third-class cars.
The train started up right about when I got back to our car.
We traveled a bit more and then crossed into Singapore via the
causeway. Then there was more travel through countryside until we
got to the city of Singapore. At the railway station we had to go
through immigration and customs. There was a long line for
immigration. When I got through I checked my passport and
discovered they had given my Barbara's (who was in back of me in
line) by mistake. I tried to go back to straighten it out, but that
same mysterious family was in the way again. Barbara was trying to
get her suitcase through and they insisted on standing in her way
rather than standing aside to let her through, plus the little kids
kept also trying to push back through the line the wrong way.
Eventually she communicated to the man in the booth that she would
take my passport and we would swap them ourselves and she managed to
force her way through.
Customs confiscated a copy of ASIA WEEK from Binayak. (His was
the only luggage they went through.) We had bought this magazine in
Malaysia and even saw it for sale in the train station in Singapore,
but it was a 'controlled' magazine--each issue needed to be approved
by the government before it could be sold or brought in. It seems
that ASIA WEEK once printed something negative about the Prime
Minister of Singapore and this was a form of revenge. Singapore is
not exactly a bastion of freedom. In addition to controls over the
press, there are all sorts of restrictions. Littering carries a
S$500 (US$300) fine, many offenses are punishable by caning, and
Barbara later saw a sign that mandated a S$1000 (US$600) fine for
not flushing a public toilet! The monk we had been talking to said
that people say Singapore is 'fine for fine' because almost
everything you do has a fine attached to it!
We changed money at the railway station and bought a phonecard.
Binayak had read that the latter was necessary to make phone calls,
but it turned out that there were a lot of coin phones still around.
We called several places looking for rooms, but the YMCA was full,
other places didn't answer, and half the time we couldn't hear what
the person on the other end was saying (never mind hearing a pin
drop!). Eventually we found a place that had rooms, the Bencoolen
Hotel. So we got into two taxis (I'm sure there would have been a
fine if we tried to get all of us into one) and went there. This
involved more Singapore-style regulations--in order to keep traffic
in the central business district down during rush hours, cars
(including taxis) need a daily license to be in that district
between 7:30 AM and 10:15 AM (unless they have four people in them).
The custom/rule is that the first taxi passengers of the day who
want to go into the CBD pay for the license, another M$5 (US$2).
Mark and I were in one taxi, and the other three in another, so they
had four people (counting the driver) and we had only three. (Luck
When we got to the hotel we found out why they had free rooms.
They were remodeling and there was hammering and drilling all day.
Still, we don't spend much time in the rooms during the day, so we
decided to take it anyway. (They also tried to show us better, and
more expensive, rooms than the price they had quoted on the phone.
That didn't work either.)
The first thing I did (after taking out the wet laundry I had
packed so that it could dry) was to call the airline to reconfirm
our flight home. I was a bit worried, as it was only 48 hours
before the flight rather than 72, but there was no problem and I was
able to reconfirm all five tickets.
After we settled in and freshened up, we went out and looked
for lunch. We ended up eating at a food court nearby, then changed
money at a bank. After we had changed money and paid off the people
whom we owed money, and threw in some money for the common fund,
Mark and I had to change money again! This wouldn't have been so
bad but there was only one clerk because it was lunch time and she
was not exactly greased lightning. Steve tried using the ATM but
once again it wouldn't give him money (he kept expecting them to eat
his card as well). At this point we realized we had a lot of extra
travelers cheques and suggested we just lend him the money. (It
worked out well--what we lent him was exactly equal to our share of
the limos to and from Kennedy Airport which he had charged.)
We walked toward Orchard Road, the main shopping street in
Singapore. The first thing of interest we passed was a synagogue,
the first one we had seen on this trip. It was exceedingly
unpretentious--were it not for the Star of David on it, it would
look like all the other buildings on the street. Part way toward
Orchard Road it started to rain, hard of course, and we took shelter
under a movie theater awning. After about a half hour the rain
started to die down and we proceeded from awning to awning to
Orchard Road and Plaza Singapura.
Plaza Singapura is a big shopping mall. It turns out that much
of Orchard Road is occupied by shopping malls, which I would think
would make browsing a bit more difficult. After all, once you go
into one mall and walk all over it, you're less likely to go into
the next one, and the next one, and so on. We wandered around this
mall a while. I looked for a Brian Aldiss collection (FOREIGN
BODIES) that had been published in Singapore a few years ago, but
had no success. Then the five of us went into Swensen's for ice
cream. Barbara had enormous problems ordering hers; here they don't
seem to allow people to choose what flavors of ice cream are in
Then we took the MTR (Metro) to Chinatown, where Mark, Steve,
and I walked around for a while. Everywhere we walked were rules
posted: no pitching tents, no littering, no dogs, etc. Chinatown
used to have a lot of street markets, but that must have offended
the Singaporean quest for rules and order, and they have been
replaced by shopping centers. Unfortunately, the shopping centers
seem to emphasize T-shirts and souvenirs, and only secondarily the
sorts of products one expects to find in a real street market.
There were no live snakes or frogs here, that's for sure.
We went to another Sri Mariammam Temple. This one was open and
we got to go inside. The ceiling here was covered with brightly
painted scenes, much like the Buddhist monastery in the New
Territories. There was a bulletin board describing a recent
festival which included fire-walking. Two other tourists were
reading it, so I asked them if they knew how it was done. They
didn't, so I explained. It's like an oven: you can put your hands
in a 350 8o 9 oven and not burn them. Why? Because air is a poor
conductor of heat. The fire-walking works the same way. The coals
are very porous and when you walk across them you are basically
walking on a very thin layer of hot air. The coals need to be
carefully prepared to eliminate any foreign objects which might be
good heat conductors, and to form a nice, even bed. (Much of this
information comes from Martin Gardner's latest book on hoaxes and
Leo Frankowski's RADIANT WARRIOR.)
Outside the temple were various fortune tellers, including one
who advertised 'computerized palm readings.' Given that the output
of computers is only as good as their input data, I don't think I'd
put great faith in this.
While we were walking around, Steve bought some items to make a
Halloween costume. He has a Halloween party to go to the day we get
back, so he's going directly from our place (where his car is).
This seems to me like pushing it, but it turns out his cats are
being watched by the person who's giving the party, so it's a way to
pick them up as well.
We ended up at Elizabeth Walk, a promenade along the water that
has a view of the Merlion, the statue that represents Singapore.
(Well, it's better than the Mannekin Pis!) And who should we meet
there but Binayak and Barbara? We talked about having dinner
together and made tentative plans to meet at the hotel at 8 PM.
However, Steve wasn't feeling well so we decided to stop and
get something on the way back to the hotel so he could make an early
night of it. We ate at the Dragon Court Restaurant in Raffles
Place: braised black mushrooms with vegetables, pan-fried steak, and
seafood in chili sauce. It was good, and a nice change: the
restaurant had real tablecloths and dishes, and waitresses who kept
refilling your teacups and water glasses (yes, water glasses!) as
they got even a little empty. We had decided we wanted to eat in a
real restaurant for our last night (well, almost) and were happy
with our choice.
After dinner we took the MTR back to the hotel. While we were
waiting we tried doing the math puzzles on the walls to keep the
passengers occupied while they were waiting for trains. One set
consisted of sequences of numbers: they gave you five numbers in a
sequence and you were supposed to supply the next. The only three
that I can remember were:
1, 2, 3, 5, 8
5, 7, 10, 15, 24
37, 41, 43, 47, 51
(Answers are at the end of the travelogue.) This was pointed out by
Mark as an example of why the Singaporeans may well end up ahead of
us. You don't see this sort of thing in New York subways--you see
October 26, 1990: We packed and then went to the coffee shop
in the Strand Hotel next door for breakfast. After breakfast, Mark,
Steve, and I walked up to Little India. This had been less
renovated than Chinatown and so there were still lots of small shops
and no shopping malls. It also smelled more interesting than
Chinatown, with spice shops competing with restaurants to perfume
the air. We passed yet another temple--as with the wats and, for
that matter, with churches, all the ones in a given area start to
look alike after a while. We walked to the Gandhi Memorial, but it
was closed. It looked more like a study center than anything else-
-I can't envision Gandhi wanting anything elaborate.
From here were walked over to Arab Street which, as the name
implies, is the center of the Arab section. (Singapore resembles
New York in its proliferation of ethnic neighborhoods.) Near Arab
Street was the Sultan Mosque. Though the main section was closed to
non-Muslims, there was a balcony that was open which gave us a
better view of the front pulpit and the qibla. We also spent some
time trying to figure out the prayer schedule. There were six times
listed: Subuh (0528), Syuruk (0646), Zohor (1250), Asar (1608),
Maghrib (1851), and Isyak (2002). Since I thought there were only
five prayers per day, I was somewhat confused. While we were
standing there, an attendant came over and asked us if we knew
anything about Islam. We said we did and asked about the six times.
He said (if I understood him correctly) that the first time marked
the start of a period when one wasn't supposed to pray. If this is
so, it's almost as if it came from the old folk belief that the
period before dawn was the most dangerous as regards demons and so
perhaps prayers during this time could be twisted by them.
We started back toward the hotel but then it started to rain.
We took refuge under an awning. A woman came over and started
talking to us. She was in Singapore as part of some traveling she
was doing as part of a religious group she belonged to, though she
also insisted that when you saw the Light, you realized all places
were inside you. (Well, it saves on air fare.) She talked to us
quite a while about the Light and what it meant, though I can't say
she was trying very hard to convert us or sign us up for anything.
It did give us a way to pass the time while it was raining. (Every
time it lightning flashed, she would hold her hands together in
prayer and say, 'Thank you, God.')
It got later and later and eventually we decided we had to get
a taxi back to the hotel, so we said goodbye to the woman and moved
up the street to an area where we could see the oncoming cars
better. Just as we had given up hope that an empty taxi would come
along and were looking up the phone number for the taxis, a taxi
*did* come along and we flagged it down and returned to the
Bencoolen, where we packed and checked out.
After checking our bags, we went to the Noodle Garden
Restaurant for lunch. Mark had braised duck and sea cucumber in
clay pot and I had abalone & noodles (abalone is very expensive in
the United States and no more than other seafood here, so I figured
I might as well enjoy it while I could).
After lunch we took a double-decker bus to Sentosa, a sort of
amusement park area of Singapore. We were worried that we wouldn't
be able to figure out where to get off the bus, but since the bus
terminus is right across from the cable-car station to Sentosa, this
wasn't a problem. This is a real cable-car that hangs from a wire
above water, not just a car pulled by a cable.
Sentosa is just like American amusement parks: everything costs
extra. It cost money to ride the cable car, more money as admission
to Sentosa, and more money still for most of the attractions on
Sentosa (which is an island). The nature walk was free, and we took
that--after spending a lot of time in cities it was nice to get out
among some trees. Mark pointed out the nature walk area looked a
lot like the jungle you see in the movie KING KONG, but we never did
see any giant apes.
Steve wanted to see the butterfly garden, and was willing to
pay the admission charge, but when on top of that they had a camera
surcharge for bringing a camera it, he got irritated and decided to
pass the whole thing up. (The surcharge does seem a bit ridiculous,
given how much you have to spend just to get in, what with the
transportation, the Sentosa admission , *and* the basic Butterfly
Garden admission.) So instead we rode the monorail around (free) to
see some of the rest of the island. This makes nineteen different
modes of transportation we have used on this trip: plane, regular
bus, double-decker bus, taxi, truck, mini-van, metro, tram/light
railway, train, ferry, river boat, long-tailed boat, raft,
funicular, cable car, monorail, tuk-tuk, trishaw, and elephant.
Sentosa is touristy! That's all one can say. I mean, they
have a 'Lost Civilization' section with fake stone monuments and
all. And a Fort Sentosa section with fake soldiers in fake
So we returned to the mainland, going to the other end of the
cable car run (Mt. Faber) to get the view of Singapore from there.
At this point Steve decided he hadn't tried any portrait shots yet
so had Barbara and I pose against the background there. First he
said to smile and look happy. Then he said he wanted to try a
different expression. 'Look sensual.' Even at my best I have
difficulty looking sensual (I'm no Kathleen Turner), and I was hot,
dirty, and tired. I said that I didn't do sensual well, so he
settled for serious. Serious I can do.
We rode the bus back and had dinner at the Emerald Mall
Sidewalk Cafe-Restaurant on Orchard Street: baked prawns in salt and
pepper for me, and chili crabs for Mark. These both arrived in the
shell and were extremely messy to eat. I can say, however, that
Elvis is alive and well and living in Singapore--at least that's the
impression you would get listening to the singer here. We sat
around and had one of those terribly meaningful conversations about
relationships like one sees in the movies, with just about as little
agreement or effect on changing each other's minds.
At 8 PM we went to see the Lion City Revue, a song-and-dance
show that is supposed to represent the variety of ethnic influences
on Singapore's culture. This used to be at the Raffles Hotel, but
since that is undergoing renovation, it has moved to another
location temporarily. Though it was favorably reviewed in a couple
of places, Mark and I found most of it just average or below
average, the low point being when the performers had a couple of the
audience members (including a very drunk Japanese tourist) come on
stage to join them in the dances. This is precisely the sort of
thing that James Michener railed against in IBERIA vis-a-vis
flamenco dancing, and while it was slightly less obnoxious here, the
dances being of a less serious nature in general than flamenco, it
didn't really add to the show. The best part were the Chinese
dances, done by two women who seemed to take some pride in their
work, while the other seemed content to just get by. It helped pass
the time, but was hardly the educational cultural experience Mark
and I had hoped for. Barbara thinks we intellectualize too much,
but I did think that compared to some cultural shows we had seen
(notably in Cuzco and some in China) this was very disappointing,
just as the Hong Kong city tour was disappointing where compared to
good city tours.
After the show we took a taxi to Changi Airport where we asked
if there were any day rooms available. I had earlier called and
verified that they had day rooms. What I hadn't asked was whether
we could get to them. We couldn't. They were in the boarding
lounge. We couldn't get into the boarding lounge without boarding
passes. They wouldn't be issuing boarding passes for our flight
until two and a half hours before the flight: 4:30 AM. It was not
10 PM. This was not good. Was there an airport hotel? No, but
there was one not too far from the airport. It was full. Taking a
taxi back into the city (a half-hour ride) seemed not worth it,
especially since we would have to find a hotel (which we had had
problems doing yesterday) and still would get only a few hours
sleep. We decided to tough it out at the airport, and maybe end up
sleeping on the floor (so I pulled out the beach mats, just in
October 27, 1990: Well, it wasn't as bad as all that. The
cafeteria was open 24 hours a day, so we checked our suitcases
(making sure to use the baggage check that was open from 5 AM until
4 AM, rather than the one open only from 7 AM to 11 PM), and settled
into the cafeteria. We snacked a bit, and talked a bit, and
eventually when the crowds thinned out about 1 AM, I stretched out
on one of the cushioned benches and took a two-hour nap. I think
everyone napped a bit, though in shifts so people had other people
to talk to.
One reason the cafeteria stays open seems to be that students
come to the airport to study. Barbara asked one of them why, and he
said it was because it was too quiet at home. Whether he meant that
he had to be too quiet if he stayed up all night, or whether the
quiet made him fall asleep wasn't clear, but there were a fair
number of students there on a Friday night and there even seemed to
be a section of the cafeteria set aside for them.
At 5 AM we got our bags and checked in for our 6:55 AM flight.
Binayak took longer and they almost forgot to return his green card.
(He says it always takes longer to check in and they always give him
a harder time than United States citizens. We made sure they
realized he was with us, so that he didn't appear to be traveling
alone, which would have made him even more a target of suspicion.)
The flight back was nothing exciting. For lunch on the way to
Narita we had a bento box (mataguchi) containing some cold pork, a
chicken roll, a couple of pieces of egg omelet (the sort you get
with sushi), three rice balls, oshinko (pickled vegetables), green
noodles, and a shrimp ball. It was the best plane meal we had this
trip. The flight attendant was very surprised when five non-
Japanese all in the same row ordered the bento box--I suspect it
isn't very popular with Westerners. (We didn't even know it was a
bento box--we just knew that anything named 'mataguchi' had to be
better than the airline food we did know.)
We landed early in Narita, so had even more time to kill in the
transit lounge. I've been to this airport four times and I still
haven't seen anything of Japan except an airport hotel. We bought
some snacks and ended up with yet more PMUs--some of our change was
The flight to New York was long and the air was very dry and we
were all pretty miserable. However, toward the end we got a little
more excitement. As we were circling Kennedy, a man in a uniform
came along and asked Binayak to get his carry-on stuff and accompany
him. We landed and Binayak was not back. I asked one flight
attendant what this was all about; he denied any knowledge of it and
said that the people in front didn't recognize Binayak's name. I
asked another, making sure that she knew we were all traveling
together. She said she didn't know anything about it either. I
decided it was time to do what I do best--get cranky. 'You mean you
just let people in uniform wander through the plane and take
passengers off without knowing who they are?' This got results.
Binayak had indeed been on the list of people called up, but they
were all off the plane and we should meet him in the terminal. We
got in and there was a huge line for non-United-States citizens,
while we got waved through. It turned out Binayak wasn't in that
either, since when they people called forward (mostly aliens without
visas) had gotten off the plane they lost track of him and he just
walked through the resident alien line, which was very short.
Our luggage was a while coming off. Ours seemed to be at the
end and mine was the last of all, making think that this was Chiang
Mai all over again and my suitcase (which I had checked) was in
Phuket. It wasn't, though, and eventually showed up. We piled all
the luggage on the cart that Barbara had gotten and headed for
Customs. We handed all four forms to the Customs official (Mark and
I get to share one). He waved us through. Then he looked at
Binayak. 'Where's your luggage?' We all gestured towards the big
pile on the cart and said, 'In there.' He looked at the cart,
looked at us, and decided either that if Binayak were traveling with
us he was okay or that he didn't want to have five people all moving
luggage and hanging around him so he could check one person's
luggage. So he waved us all through. (Someone at work claims the
reason Customs gives Indians a hard time is not that they think
they're smuggling drugs or anything like that, but that they think
they're bringing in fruits and vegetables. Still, it can't help but
Our limo (van) was there and we returned to Chez Leeper. When
I got in I told the driver that if we all fell asleep he should wake
someone up at the Raritan toll plaza for directions and sure enough,
we all did fall asleep, though we woke up in time to give him
directions after all. When we got back, Steve changed into his
costume and headed out for his party. Barbara discovered she had
forgotten her camera in the limo, and called the company to have
them page the driver. He came back about a half-hour later with it.
(Well, if she had to forget it, New Jersey was probably the best
And now I suppose I should make some final comments. I think
we probably didn't get as much out of Malaysia and Singapore as we
might have because by the time we got there we were getting a bit
tired. We also found ourselves with less time there than we had
originally planned because it took longer to get from place to
place. In Hong Kong, the New Territories were more interesting than
Hong Kong and Kowloon, which makes me think that getting out of the
big cities in Malaysia would have been nice. The friendliest
country was probably Thailand--maybe because it has no history of
colonialism which might generate resentment of Westerners. Not that
people were hostile anywhere, but in the other places they seemed
more involved in internal issues. This is understandable: Hong Kong
is looking at 1997, Malaysia was in the midst of national elections,
and Singapore is busy turning itself into the city of the future.
These are all laudable, of course--I'm merely saying from a selfish
perspective that we found Thailand the most receptive. I would
certainly recommend any of these countries to people traveling. I
would also recommend spending more time in any of them than we did.
As one travel guide sums up travel in this part of the world: 'More
time, less luggage.' I would have liked to get to Macau. I would
have liked to have seen the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. I
would have like to have seen Eastern Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah).
I would have liked to have gotten to Sukothai in Thailand, and maybe
gone over into Laos. Oh, well, maybe next time....
Well, at the beginning I said we wanted to do this for under
US$2500 each. For Mark and me the cost came out to be:
Plane - 2610
Other Transportation - 276
Tours - 233
Lodging - 496
Film and Developing - 273
Food - 321
Souvenirs - 117
Miscellaneous - 325
TOTAL - 4651
or US$2325 each. Of course, we didn't buy much, but our film costs
help make up for it.
Oh, and the answer to the math quizzes were 13, 41, and I don't
know the last one. Sorry!
T H E E N D