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Southeast Asia Travelogue

  • Submitted by: Mark R. Leeper
  • Submission Date: 09th Feb 2005

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
look racist.)

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!


October 4, 1990: Where should I start? I guess it would be a good
idea if you, as a reader, knew with whom you were traveling. There is
me, Mark Leeper, frustrated mathematician and film and science fiction
fan. There's Evelyn, my wife and even more frustrating than the math
career. Steve Goldsmith used to be Evelyn's supervisor. He recently
moved to another project because he, no doubt, found working with Evelyn
frustrating. Then there is Binayak Banerjee. He used to be Evelyn's
office mate but he got frustrated and left the project. Finally there
is Barbara Iskowitz. As far as I can tell Evelyn has not yet frustrated
Barbara, but the trip is young. Barbara works in the local bell Labs
Product Center and that is connected to Evelyn's area. Barbara and
Binayak are good friends and often swap cats.
Actually this whole trip came out of Binayak's comment that he
thought Americans travel wrong and that they need to have the whole way
prepared for them when they travel, that they need to have a hotel
reservation for every hotel before they leave the United States. Also
he claimed it is more expensive to travel that way. His sort of travel
is more flexible. 'Fine,' I said. 'Let's try a trip your way. Where
shall we go?' Originally we were planning on going to Bhutan, Sikkim,
and Nepal. We did a fair amount of planning on that trip before we
learned that Bhutan was going through a period of anti-foreigner policy.
Nepal also was having internal problems. So we had a style of travel
but no place to travel in that style. I think it was I who suggested
Southeast Asia since my parents had gone there and enjoyed it and also
suggested it was very inexpensive, especially Malaysia. Eventually we
decided on Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. Of course,
this requires considerably more planning. Binayak, Evelyn, and I were
the original group. Steve wanted to come. He wanted to bring two more
people, but they canceled. Barbara and Sameer Siddiqui also thought
they wanted to come but then said no, they wouldn't. They were each
sort of on again, off again. I offhandedly called them Schroedinger's
members. This was after the Schroedinger's Cat thought experiment in
which it is indeterminate whether the cat is alive or not until the
experiment ends, you look at the cat, and in the terminology of the
physics 'the wave form collapses.' I am not sure what that means, but I
said we would only know if they were coming when we sat on the plane,
looked around to see if they were with us, and the wave form collapses.
Sameer eventually decided he did not think he could afford even so
inexpensive a trip. We expect to do twenty-four days for roughly $2400
a person. I have to say that the greatest share of the planning was
done by Evelyn and Binayak who are out two fastest readers so could
assimilate information the most quickly. Ironically it was Binayak who
was least anxious that we plan in advance. He did not want to spoil the
spontaneity. There was some friction between Binayak and me since I
wanted to get people thinking in advance what sites they wanted to
visit. To Binayak's way of thinking this endangered the spontaneity.
Finally I was able to point to a book Binayak likes, Asia Through the
Back Door, that recommends you do have a very complete plan before you
travel--just don't believe it all. It is like at work you set up a
schedule for when a task will be done. You don't believe every
milestone but you have a better idea of how you are allocating your time
and have a better appreciation for what effect slippage has on the
overall plan. We finally compromised. Less than two weeks before the
trip we made up an itinerary, at least of cities. And even that
required a few changes of plans.
Speaking of plans, this will be my first opportunity to see if my
jet lag cure works going west. Generally the night before I travel east
I stay up all night. Then I sleep on the plane. At least going east
this is good for jet lag. Our first morning in Amsterdam I felt pretty
fresh. Dale and Jo, our traveling companions, were still very bleary-
eyed. I admit I did doze a couple of times last night, but I got under
a half hour of sleep in all. I have dozed several times on the plane
(but I am getting a little ahead of myself). I stayed up almost all
night and was ready to leave by 7:30 AM. The limo was scheduled to
arrive by 8 AM. Steve showed up at 7:40 and I would have felt more
comfortable if Binayak and Barbara had also. At about 7:50 AM the limo
was there but still no B&B. They showed up about 8:10. That seemed to
be cutting things a bit close. It seems the three guys are each
bringing suitcases that double as backpacks. Actually Steve's is a
backpack, pure and simple. My backpack/suitcase is set up to be used
with a handle or a strap or as a backpack. It is borrowed from Dale
Skran, and it seems like the right sort of idea, particularly for a trip
like this. Evelyn has a nylon suitcase with a strap which will make
things a little more difficult. Barbara has more traditional suitcases.
This will give us an opportunity to compare. I slept what I thought was
only a little in the limo, but it must have been more than I thought
since I was surprised when we got to Kennedy.
We checked some of our bags and went to sit in the cafeteria. I
was not hungry but the others got food. I walked around a little. I
reflected that I was happy to be going to countries where I expected the
locals probably knew the local currency. This is not the case in the
United States, of course. Education is starting to fail in the United
States even in such basics as understanding our own currency. There was
a big sign up in the cafeteria that said if you bought an entree, you
could get a salad for just '.99 cents.' This was in an international
terminal. I pity the poor foreign traveler trying to figure out our
money when so many Americans say '.99 cents' when they mean '99 cents'
or '$.99.' I would imagine some wonder if there is a hundredth-of-a-
cent coin. God help us if '.99 cents' becomes an irregular but accepted
expression of '99 cents.' It is like saying this coat costs $5 when it
really costs $500 'and you should know we meant hundreds.'
We must have boarded about 11:30 AM. No sooner did Barbara step on
the plane than the wave form collapsed in front of everybody. It could
have been embarrassing, but I seemed to be the only person who noticed.
We were supposed to have contiguous seats in row 52, but there are
only three seats on each side of the plane in row 52. B&B are off to
the right. I can just see them around the back of the kitchen. Steve,
Evelyn, and I are on this side. We started taxiing about 12:15 PM and
took off about 12:30 PM which now becomes 12:30 AM Hong Kong time.
Unless I miss my calculation they are twelve hours ahead so you turn AM
to PM (or vice versa). So we left home about 8 PM on October 4 and will
be landing about 9:30 PM October 5. The air part of our travel is about
211/2 hours (including three hours in Narita, a suburb of Tokyo, which
does not have its own international airport). At this instant we have
remaining only sixteen hours and eleven minutes of that twenty hours.
Oh, boy!
Another disadvantage of sitting this far back in the plane is that
at meal times you get whatever nobody else wanted. They had chicken,
beef, or green lasagna. Guess which one we had? Well, I guess it was
healthier to eat vegetarian. The audio program is not too bad, but I
suppose any audio program will wear think on a really long flight.
Still, the fact that they have two classical stations is nice.
Unfortunately there is no electrical jack for Walkman earphones. Plane
earphones always irritate the insides of my ears.
Well, they've started the first of their three movies, Bird on a
Wire. I saw that just a few weeks ago coming back from Europe. Well,
on one channel it's dubbed into Japanese. That's fun to listen to. On
the English channel you can just barely turn the sound up enough to
hear. At least beside the kitchen you don't see it projected; you see
it on a television monitor above head level.
I have been making goo-goo faces and waving at a cute little
Japanese boy in a nearby seat. He must be about two. He just came over
to say hello and to wipe a slobbery hand on my pants.
The film turned out to be a triple feature. The second film was
The Secret Life of Ian Fleming. It was an okay World War II spy story
with touches of where Fleming got ideas he used in James Bond stories.
In fact a big piece of the story is very much like Casino Royale. One
rather suspects it played a little fast and loose with the truth. The
third film was The Pink Panther. It put me to sleep. It is the best of
the Inspector Clouseau films but the series does not do very much for
me. Blake Edwards's slapstick comedies with Peter Sellers usually seem
forced. One exception is The Party, which I still find very funny.
October 5, 1990: I have been napping off and on, walking around
the cabin occasionally, drinking lots of orange juice. (Supposedly
drinking fluids helps fight jet lag. Orange juice also helps against
colds for me.) I read Evelyn's Holland and Belgium log and passed it on
to B&B.
Lunch was chicken pot pie, fresh melon, and banana bread. At about
2:45 PM we landed in Narita for the layover. Binayak said he thought we
might be able to get a quick tour and be back in time for our next
flight. 'Oh, sure!' I thought to myself. 'Sure, if you can arrange it.
But we have to be back well in time for our flight,' I said. I figured
that was effectively saying, 'No.'
Well, not only are there no such tours, they herd you into a sort
of quarantine 'waiting area.' There are a few small stores--perhaps
stands is a better word and you can't really leave it. This was a break
from the plane, but it isn't much of one. I had a grapefruit soda,
wrote some in my log, and slept a little. Evelyn and Binayak started
planning the trip to the New Territories for Sunday. I tried to get in
but couldn't get close enough to the book they were reading, The Hong
Kong Survival Guide. Instead I pulled out the Southeast Asia Handbook
which is also a very good reference. At least that way I could take
some part.
After a short snooze when that discussion was over they called our
plane for the last leg, short compared to the 131/2 flight we'd been on
(I think that was the longest single flight I'd ever been on). This one
would be only about 41/2 hours. Actually things were very disorganized
in the way crowds were handled. They took three queues for this plane
and made one mob out of it.
But eventually we were all on and they started counting luggage or
something. I started experimenting with the air nozzle. I like cool
air and I used to point the nozzle directly at the top of my head. Of
course that is a bit like Chinese water torture and it makes you crazy
really quick. Now I point it at my lap.
We finally took off about 5:30 PM Hong Kong time. I put on
earphones and once again they really irritated my ears. I actually
looked at what was irritating. There is a white foam cylinder over a
gray plastic tube. As often happens when they press plastic and have a
little too much plastic it leaves a rough edge where the plastic sprayed
out of the mold and hardened. It leaves little sharp spurs. The spring
action of the headphones pushes the spurs past the foam right up against
your ear.
Dinner was fish, but not very good fish. The movie was Back to the
Future III. I read rather than watching the movie. We landed about
9:50 PM. The crowd control for Customs was much like it was when we
arrived in Hong Kong eight years ago. There are something like twenty
queues and people rush into them. Now people are coming from jumbo jets
all the time. People who have found themselves in a slow line are
line-switching to bet on what they think will be a faster line. Spouses
are picking different lines to see who gets to the front first so they
can let the other spouse in. In general you have chaos. There is more
chaos at the carousel. Then the actual Customs check is just a wave-
through. We got out, exchanged enough money to pay for the room, then
grabbed a bus to the Peking Guest House, part of the Chungking Mansions.
I wasn't sure what it meant that our hotel was part of another building.
The bus has a pre-recorded message telling you what hotels you were
getting to so the driver didn't really need to know English but he knew
enough so that when we got to our hotel he could call out the name.
What we could see from the bus made Hong Kong look a lot like
Manhattan, but it was after 11 PM and a lot of stores were still open.
When we got off the bus a Mr. Ng was waiting for us. The Chungking
Mansions is a sort of dingy building in the downtown of Hong Kong. Many
of the floors are just like big apartments a floor big. They will have
living space for the proprietor's family and four or five spartan rooms
for guests. The room is about 71/2 feet by 12 feet with an adjoining
shower stall that has shower facilities, a sink, and a toilet. There
are two beds, one about 21/2 feet wide, one 31/2 feet wide, with about a
foot and a half corridor between them. At the foot of the narrow bed is
an inexpensive Formica-covered cabinet. At the foot of the wider bed is
a television facing the cabinet. There are two folding chairs so you
can watch the television. There is a floor lamp with no bulbs. The
walls are done in off-white, glossy lunchroom tiles with fluorescent
lighting. There is an air conditioner and a ceiling fan. The mattress
is three inches thick and very firm. This goes for US$34 a night in the
heart of Hong Kong. The value isn't great, but it is okay. The place
is clean. At about twelve minutes after midnight a baby started crying,
but was quickly quieted. Last time we were in Hong Kong we were
pampered at the Shangri-La, which was really fancy and probably very
expensive. This time we are going spartan and saving.
The hotel is, incidentally, listed in all the tour books. It is a
good place to stay is you want to meet an international clientele.
October 6, 1990: I woke up about 6:15 AM without any trace of jet
lag; unless I really zonk out later I will declare my formula a success.
We started planning the day. At about 7:30 we found a note from Binayak
saying that he and Barbara were up and inviting us to walk about 7:30
AM. We were ready about five minutes later and had to find them.
Barbara's room was very little bigger than a double bed and a bit of
floor space.
We wanted to leave a note for Steve whom they did not have a room
for last night and had a room for him about four floors up. The
proprietor, still in his underwear, took us up to his brother's hotel.
We couldn't get in so we left him a note and the proprietor--still in
his underwear--took us down to the street level. There are two
elevators, both slow. One goes only to odd floors, the other goes only
to even ones. The group decided when they were walking that they really
needed COFFEE and RIGHT THEN. I will swear you to secrecy on where we
went. I won't even tell you but the place was red and had two big
yellow arches and we could have gone there at home.
The streets of Kowloon--we are actually in Kowloon, not Hong Kong-
-look a lot like Manhattan. They will be more densely packed with more
signs, but that is pretty much like what they look like. Then suddenly
you see a big marble mosque. This is melting pot, like New York, but
the mix of nationalities is different. And this area certainly leans
more to the fantastic and wondrous. After this coffee we returned to
the hotel. Steve had shown up and went out again. We waited for about
ten minutes and he returned. We went out, stopped by a tourist agency
to pick up info, then went on for dim sum breakfast. Steve had never
had dim sum before. The building was sort of posh and I was expecting a
big bill. With tip it came to about US$5 a person. We were all pretty
much amazed.
Then back to Nathan Road (where our hotel is) and environs to find
a place to change money. We did that, changed money, and found a place
to buy a city tour. Lots of little things followed: returning to drop
things off at the hotel, going out to a very tight little grocery one
flight down from Nathan Road. Most of the group bought cans of soda. I
bought a bottle that I could take on the city tour and take hits off of.
Walking on crowded streets one thing stands out. You find a lot of
people trying to sell you a watch. Fake Rolexes seem to be the most
Our next locale was Kowloon Park. This was just a walk-through,
but it was worth seeing. It is broken into areas. There is a sculpture
garden; there is a children's playground complete with a maze. There is
a turtle and fish pool. There are gardens with Chinese architecture;
There are sleeping Chinese hobos. There is a bird garden. But for a
city park it was very nice.
About 1:30 PM we went to where we were to pick up the city tour.
We were being picked up from a sort of combination hotel and fancy
shopping center where we'd booked the tour. It's the kind of place
where everybody has kicked into the Hong Kong Merchants Association. If
you are a member, you supposedly fork over a certain amount of money and
agree to a code of ethics to be a part of the merchants association. I
think the code of ethics includes 'Never give a sucker an even break'
and 'Never steer a customer to a non-member store.' Anyway, if you
belong you have an official sticker in the window. It is a big red
circle and in the center a picture of a Chinese junk. This is so you
can tell the world you are officially a 'junk shop.' Generally the
sorts of stores that sport the sticker have leather goods, jewelry, etc.
Nothing I would want to buy. A couple have tried to sell me suits. The
code of ethics does not include restrictions against standing in your
doorway and making a pest of yourself to passersby. Anyway, most of the
stores in this expensive mall had junk stickers and very little to
interest me. One rather supposes used book stores do not generally
join. We waited in a sort of fancy sitting right in the shopping
center. It was clean and had Chinese statues of men riding dragons and
the like. Very impressive. Of course you couldn't have something like
that in the malls in the United States. The first day people would be
spilling Orange Julius on your fancy chairs and putting out cigarette
butts on your statues.
But looking around the streets I see again that whether Americans
are thought to be boorish or not they have created a cuisine that is
popular the world over. I am speaking, of course, of American junk
food. You look in the streets and you see signs like 'The Spaghetti
House--Home of American Pizza,' 'The American Cafe,' and the ever-
popular McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And lest you say it is
just Americans who are going to these places I will point out that
McDonalds is doing pretty well in Moscow where their prices are two or
three times the United States price and in a really strapped economy
people are lining up to buy their product. Like many Americans I used
to feel guilty about exporting junk food to the world. But if they
really like it, who am I to tell them 'no'? I've never heard of someone
Chinese saying it's too bad there are so many Chinese restaurants in the
United States. I love Chinese food but much of it really is not all
that healthy. Do Chinese worry about the cholesterol Americans get from
Beijing Duck? We're not talking really healthy stuff in either case. I
prefer to avoid McDonalds both at home an abroad, but if the world
really wants it, I don't think Americans should feel guilty about it.
If McDonalds does well in the Soviet Union they must be making someone
Anyway so the bus picked us up for our city tour. We'd had a city
tour when we came here with Travelworld in 1982. This was sort of a
test of the contention that you can get the same sort of service if you
just buy a city tour yourself. In fact it was a mild failure in my
estimation. The thing is with a whole tour from an outfit like
Travelworld there is end-to-end accountability. You've paid them a
large sum of money and they want you to do it again real soon. They
want you to finish the tour happy. When you buy a stand-alone one-shot
city tour by its very nature you are unlikely to represent much chance
at return business. Now in Edinburgh the city controlled the city tours
and they were really fine, as Evelyn points out. The city tour for Hong
Kong was pretty bad. The first and best item was the Aberdeen fishing
village. They told you a couple of paragraphs of information, then you
could either take a junk ride and see the colony closer at a fee of just
HK$50 (about US$6.45) or you could sit waiting for the people to get
back from the junk ride. The second stop was to see a jewelry factory
and actually get a chance to buy their jewelry. (Surprise! Surprise!
Surprise!) The next stop was Stanley Market. And the final site was
Victoria Peak (and souvenir stand). Each stop was a real K.O. (that's a
kickback opportunity). We were also supposed to see Repulse Bay, but it
was a sort of 'If you look quick out of the right window' sort of thing.
Well, I should say something about the sites. The Aberdeen boat
people are the Tankas. These are refugees from Fukian Province in China
who came to Hong Kong but were not allowed to come on land. Instead
they could harbor off Hong Kong Island in Aberdeen. At times up to
40,000 of them lived their entire lives on boats, most never knowing
what it is like to walk on land. They were ethnically different from
anyone else in Hong Kong. They had their own religions, holidays, and
rituals. Now with times becoming more enlightened Hong Kong authorities
are going to get rid of the sampans and try to assimilate the boat
people. Our guide, ever-sensitive to the plight of the less fortunate,
told those of us who took the sampan to go around the boats, 'Look quick
and you may see one taking a bath.' Well, at 3-ish in the afternoon
most of what you see is people working: maintaining fishing boats,
working on nets, etc. We saw one boat that had several hundred squid
drying in the sun. Some of the boats were fancy, some only very simple
sampans. Steve said that on one hand he thought we were intruding into
the lives of the boat people voyeuristically, but on the other hand,
that is what photo-journalism is all about. As we were getting off the
sampan a photographer took our pictures for souvenirs. As long as he
had B&B posed, I also took their picture. I tend to steal pictures
other people are photographing? How else can I learn?
Jewelry is the fourth biggest industry in Hong Kong. Third is
tourism. Second is electronics. Number one is fashions. Our next stop
was a jewelry 'factory' to see jewelry being made. We didn't see much
being made because it was Saturday afternoon and they were off having a
good time some place. I was somewhat distracted because the strap of my
camera decided to let go and the camera fell on the hard floor, breaking
the lens over the flash. First day of the trip and I am having serious
camera doubts. Does it still work? Does the flash? Well, it turns out
it is mostly okay though the flash may not be lighting right. I took a
flash picture and will have my first roll developed here. Surprise of
surprises, the factory jewelry store was fully open. Evelyn, Steve, and
I were off to the side talking about the camera when a salesman came
along and ... asked us to go over and get a drink. They had a soda
dispenser with very cold soda which they dispensed in eight-ounce
glasses. That is a little underhanded since we were all hot and
dehydrated and they knew we would be abysmally grateful. I grudgingly
admit it tasted about as good as anything I'd had all week. And right
there were some Chinese carvings in ivory, very small. I told a
saleswoman that the style was much like Japanese netsukes (NETS-kees).
She said she had never heard of netsukes. The next shelf actually had a
collection of Japanese netsukes and I was about to point them out to the
saleswoman when she said, 'Those are Japanese net-SU-kees.' I would
have told her that the 'u' is just very lightly aspirated or silent, but
I wasn't entirely sure of my facts so just remained silent. They did
have a nice set. I don't know if they were authentic, and there were
some rather tasteless erotic ones mixed in. I just don't know if those
are authentic themes or not. Netsukes are small ivory carvings maybe an
inch and a quarter high. Rather than put pockets in traditional
Japanese clothing they would take a small box roughly the size of a
cigarette case (called 'inro') and tie it by a string to their belts.
At the other end of the string was a small weight which over time became
carved more and more ornately. These toggles became netsuke. They are
on all sorts of subjects: demons, animals, peasant life, and perhaps
even erotic, though if so this is the first time I've seen them. The
best I ever remember seeing was a small puppy looking with true
amazement at a horsefly that had landed on its back.
Next stop was Stanley Village with the famous Stanley Market.
Fashions are supposedly bargains there, but we had half an hour to shop
(too much for my tastes). I got two scarves for people back home. We
looked for something for our souvenir table, but found little.
Finally we hit Victoria Peak, 1305 feet. Going up by bus is
considerably less interesting than the funicular railway. The view at
the top has been hazy both times we have seen it. On the way back the
photographer offered us the photo he'd taken getting off the boat at
Aberdeen. He had cut it in a circle and glued it to the center of a
souvenir plate of Hong Kong. It was a little off-center. I let him
keep it.
We dropped off some pictures to be developed near our hotel to be
sure my camera was still working. We got back to the hotel about 7 PM;
I wrote in my log while most of the others napped. At 8:25 PM or so we
got together again, picked up our pictures (my camera seems fine), and
headed out for the night market. This is much like a cheaper version of
Stanley Market and it runs till midnight or so. Restaurants come out
and serve on the street.
It was unclear what we wanted to eat and how. Binayak was for the
point-to-order scheme. I think Barbara wanted to order off a menu. We
went in one place that could not serve us outside but wanted to put us
in their 'VIP room' inside. It was not very clean-looking and much of
what we tried to order was not on the menu so we left and went to a
pointing sort of place. Even there we could not all agree what we want.
I guess this place bothered me a little in that they kept the fish you
could order on a table and they kept dumping on these things that looked
like centipedes. It turned out these were scampi and they kept trying
to crawl away. (Did I say they were fresh?) I think Binayak wanted to
order entirely by himself. I thought the shrimp would be the easiest to
divide up and eat. Binayak eventually relented. The shrimp, as it
turned out, were the easiest to eat and went the fastest. We also got
the scampi (which may have been a relative of the crayfish though they
looked more like lobster tails with heads). Their shells had sharp
points on them so you had to be careful opening them. Even then it was
pretty tough. We also got crab in ginger sauce and periwinkles. These
were in tightly closed shells a half to three-quarters of an inch wide.
At first they were hard to open, but we got the hang of it. The most
common comment was, boy, what would people at home think if they could
see what we were eating.
Also we planned the next day's trip to the New Territories. Also
the first day turned out to be more expensive than any of us had planned
and there was some concern over having enough money. Thailand and
Malaysia are reportedly cheaper but things are pretty high in Hong Kong.
Maybe not compared to home--I bought myself a battery-driven hand-held
fan for HK$5, bargained down from HK$7. That includes two AA batteries
and it cost about US$0.65. Thinking about it now I should have gotten
three. We need the batteries. I am kind of sorry I didn't get a hand-
held sewing machine for what would have been about US$5. I can't
imagine it's real quality, but I am willing to gamble for that price.
We were, however, strapped for cash. Evelyn and I walked home after.
We went to sleep about 12:30 AM. We did not sleep at all well and at
3:30 AM I woke up. After trying to sleep I decided to try to catch up
on my log. I must be waxing too verbose. I am almost a tenth of the
way through my logbooks I brought and have covered only the trip and my
first day.
October 7, 1990: Well, today we head out to visit the New
Territories. We decided there wasn't time for dim sum so we headed for
a restaurant recommended in the guide book. This must always be a
mistake. We found a sign for the restaurant but the restaurant itself
was not there. I am very reticent to tell you where the group decided
to have breakfast. It wasn't my idea. The place was red and had two
yellow arches.
We took the train to the New Territories. This works by a stored-
value magnetic card which costs a fixed fee and then deducts the cost of
train rides. I'd seen the technology before, but it was new to Steve.
Our first stop was the folk museum at Sam Tung Uk. This was a village
of Hakka people who were resettled to planned communities and instead of
their village being knocked down, it was restored to an earlier state
and became a museum of their former life style. You see clothes, farm
implements, and furniture, all in buildings that were in the original
symmetric village. You can walk only a few inches or feet into any room
before a rope stops you but you can see into the rooms. Most
interesting to me was the room of recordings of the Cantonese opera.
Chinese opera is an art form vastly unlike just about any other sort of
performing art in the world. It is very unapproachable by Westerners,
at least I find it so. As a result I have taken it on as a challenge to
learn more about it and to learn to appreciate it. I have heard two or
three, mostly of the Beijing style; Cantonese is different, but I do not
yet know the differences. (One of the marvelous things about writing
and publishing a trip log is that unanswered questions tend to get
answered.) In any case, I have seen one Beijing opera about the
Monkey-King Sun Wu Kong causing Chaos in Heaven by disrupting all the
old gods. The story comes from the old Buddhist novel Pilgrimage to the
West. It has become a more popular opera since the current Chinese
government has cast itself in the role of iconoclast, disrupting old
religious values.
I have heard another opera that I do not remember well, but it is
about how the citizens of a besieged village co-operated in some sort of
deception--I don't remember what--to defeat the invading army.
I have read the story of other Chinese operas including the famous
'White Snake' in which the religious forces are again portrayed as bad.
A devil or a witch turned herself from her natural form as a snake into
a woman to woo a human. They get along well until a religious person
decides this love is unnatural and he is going to break it up to the
point of bringing floods to drown the lovers. It is sort of 'The Little
Mermaid' with a twist.
In any case I already had some interest in the Hakka people. There
was for a while a Chinese restaurant called Hakka Villa. My Chinese
office mate told me it was an odd name because Hakka was not a Chinese
name. I looked through my histories of China and did find references to
the Hakka centuries ago. Later I heard from my parents that they had
seen something about the Hakka (probably this same museum) in their
The next item was the Chuk Lam Sim Yuen, or so we thought. It
really turned out to be a sort of 'you can't get there from here' sort
of situation. For about an hour and a half we tried various sets of
instructions, all incomplete, on how to get there. One set did suggest
taking a bus and a sub-adventure turned out to be just figuring out how
to cross a busy highway to get there. We found an underpass finally but
then the line for the bus was a city block long and after about a ten-
minute wait we decided that approach wouldn't work. This was a very
frazzling period in a hot sun. I still claim it was also one of the
more interesting things we did since we really saw a broad segment of
people in the New Territories. In this part of the world, if you look
around you, you will find enough of interest that no time is really
wasted. You see a spectrum of people from stylishly dressed people
carrying video cassettes (and Walkmans--I have never seen so many people
with Walkmans in their ears!) to old women carrying bags of lentils (or
some such) in two baskets at either end of a long bamboo pole. That has
a much more traditional look. Then there was the woman sitting near a
street slicing a carrot that must have been three inches in diameter.
It was a fairly interesting time, though I admit exaggerating its
interest just a bit to try and make people feel better about the
We decided to go on to the Mui Fat Monastery. We grabbed a
double-decker bus and Binayak suggested we go up to the top level. The
front windows are open and locals almost never sit in the seat right in
front because of the wind problem. After standing around in the
parching sun--it was really hot--it was a powerful blast of cold air. I
opened the window further and soaked in the cool refreshing air. I
loved it. In about four minutes the view went from big city to hillside
next to a big bay with hills sticking out and ships. Just beautiful.
It turned out we screwed up our instructions again and went one bus stop
far. It was the luckiest accident of the trip so far. We ended up
having to walk through a street market with a big indoors farmers'
market. Binayak suggested we cut through the farmers' market and
suddenly we weren't in Kansas any more. Huge arrays of vegetables, rows
of hanging mean. One place sold big fish heads. Ducks and chickens in
cages squawking and complaining (as well they might considering their
situation). One stand had what I think were chicken livers laid out in
a row. We were still talking about it over dinner. Then outside was a
street market, but not one with a lot of plastic tourist goods. It was
household goods and local clothes and roasted chestnuts, that sort of
thing. We were the only Westerners, though they get enough that we
didn't get any stares.
A policeman, whom somebody suggested would probably not speak
English, turned out to speak it reasonably well and gave us directions
to the LRT line. It was a long walk in a hot sun but we got there.
This appears to be a tram but Binayak insisted it was really a train.
It was only one car, so I am not sure what the distinction is. You buy
your tickets from a vending machine that has fifteen buttons. They are
broken into adult, student, and child, and have a button for each of
five regions. You press the button and it tells you in a liquid crystal
display window how much to insert. You do and you hear a printer inside
printing your ticket. Then it drops down to a window.
We took the train to the Mui Fat Monastery, or at least the tram
line running through the town it was in. We stopped at a small store
for soda. You really need a constant input of water when walking around
in what must be 95o heat. That first sip of soda is a pleasure sex
doesn't even approach. I know this isn't like Saudi Arabia, but it is
amazing how fast your body absorbs fluids and puts them out as sweat. I
got a Schweppes Pineapple-Grapefruit, but in the future I may stick to
distilled water. The sugar gets too cloying after a while. We sat in
front of the monastery replenishing fluids.
The temple building itself cost HK$60 million. It is three stories
high with Chinese architecture and dragons curled over the front. There
are statues out front of the Imperial Foo Lions, the male with his paw
on the orb, the female with her paw on the cub. Originally they
represented the Emperor and Empress of China. Flanking them are two
statues of six-tusked elephants. Inside, the walls are decorated with
pictures of Buddhas. On the second floor is a lunch room. At the top
floor is the real temple room with three huge statues of Buddhas, twenty
or thirty feet high. In front, priests (monks?) chant and try to ignore
the steady stream of tourists (many from tour buses). Around the back
there is another Buddha in front of which prefect pieces of fruit are
placed. They were apples and oranges. There are several other shrines.
From there we walked around the grounds for a little while. They
make the place like a little campus complete with schoolrooms and a
laboratory. I said that they were looking for the perfect gong to chant
to in the laboratory. It was a Bell Laboratory.
Well, after some of our members made powder room stops at less than
perfect restrooms, as one might expect, we returned to a line of small
markets and restaurants. We chose one where it looked like somebody was
eating what looked like fried squid. We tried it. At first we had
trouble communicating. We had no Chinese. The proprietor had very
little English. We asked if the dish we'd seen was squid. He didn't
know the word and asked if we wanted sweet and sour pork. I tried
writing squid in Chinese. I think the hook at the top of the fish
radical did not have all three strokes and the ink radical looked more
like an English script 't'. He didn't recognize the word. Evelyn
showed him the words in the phrase book in Chinese ideogram. He said,
'Lamb?' Finally he said yes, that was what it was. Then he brought out
a large plate of fried squid. He suggested, 'Roast pork?' Sounded
good. It was. It was served with peanuts. Binayak suggested it was
'kung pao.' I told him I didn't think so since 'kung pao' to me means
not just peanuts but peppers. It was good anyway. We were very pleased
with the meal and it came to about US$3 per person (actually less--I
think it was HK$20 each).
After lunch we walked back along the same street. Barbara bought a
pomelo at a fruit stand. It was expensive, about HK$20.
Next we took a tram to a bus to two old walled cities, Shui Tau and
Kam Tin. The first of the two was the more authentic or at least less
touristy. It was a long walk in the heat. There wasn't really a lot to
see. It was some fairly rural houses from the 18th Century behind a
wall. I almost felt we were intruding. The second walled village was
more touristy. We were flocked with old women in black wearing the same
hat, a sort of a straw disk with a circle missing in the center and a
black veil under it. They made something of a fuss over me since they
apparently had never seen opaque wraparound sunglasses. These things
fit all the way over my regular glasses. They were given to me by a
traveling companion in Africa. The women were anxious to have us buy
their souvenirs and to pose for us--at a nominal price. I think I later
heard that Steve had bargained about six of them to a total of HK$2.
That's about US$0.26.
After, we walked down the street to a modern grocery and bought
more soda and distilled water. It is an odd sensation to have been
bloated with soda just a short time before and to be this thirsty this
soon. In the future I think I will try to cut down on soda and drink
more distilled water. I feel like I am just filtering all the sugar out
of the soda. What you really need is not soda but what you are losing,
which is water. This could turn out to be expensive. Luckily you can
get by without buying water. If you add four drops of iodine per liter
to clear tap water, shake well, and wait a half-hour, it is safe to
drink. The flavor is a little like band-aids and things like mercury
aren't fixed by iodine but it is still a good way to make tap water
safe. There are probably places (like Hong Kong) where the water really
will come safe to drink, but the safest policy is to assume all water
really needs to be treated.
After this there was a long but uneventful trip back to the hotel
by bus, tram, and mostly on foot. All the walking is pretty painful on
the feet. In fact, I think I am going to get myself pads to cushion my
feet. (Well, that sentence is dishonest. I am writing this two days
later and have already done so.) Perhaps the worst part of the trip
home is getting to the room. Something more should be said about the
Chungking Mansions. It is an economic structure like I have not seen in
the United States. It is on a piece of prime real estate. Nathan Road
is to Kowloon what Fifth Avenue is to New York. In New York you have to
be very rich to own real estate on Fifth Avenue. Not so here. There
are lots of people just barely getting by who jointly own and mostly
reside here. Mr. Ng owns a large apartment which has been turned into a
guest house. That means his part of the house is a tiny room about 71/2
feet square and a tiny kitchen that is common area usually. Even that
he has rented out right now. There is a guy sleeping there. His wife
and baby live there also. His brother lives the same way/ Our room is
really what would be the master bedroom. Steve's, Barbara's, and
Binayak's rooms are smaller than ours. With the exception of tiny ants
in the shower stall the place is kept operating theater clean. You can
watch the overhead fan by looking down and seeing it reflected in the
tile floor. The place is not fancy but what is here is somebody's
prized possession and it is supremely maintained. Walk into the
corridor and you could be in a Turkish prison. Filth. Cockroaches.
Leaking pipes. Some of the stairwells in some of the towers reputedly
have rats. Garbage often carelessly thrown around. This is neutral
territory and nobody cares for it. There is often a ten-minute wait for
the elevator going up or down. At the base there is usually a long line
of people waiting of an interesting international mix. Some you
wouldn't want to meet, however. Some clear their nose and spit in
corners. The hell with not passing judgement on different cultures with
different customs, there are people in the halls of this building who
are nauseatingly disgusting. The juxtapositioning of this 'hotel' as
well-maintained as it is, and the hallway just a few feet away is
amazing. What a contrast! I suspect that China, or at least people
from the mainland, have the concept of a nice house but not of a nice
Binayak wanted to try Chiu Chow cuisine. No, that's not fair. He
just suggested it; I think we all wanted to try it. Anyway we had to
find the place. There was a sign on a nearby block but no sign of the
restaurant. We asked at a local store and they thought the restaurant
was over in the next block. There was a lot of searching. It took
about an hour, I think, but we found the restaurant, and it was full.
We went instead to a Shanghai cuisine restaurant nearby. We wanted to
try that cuisine also. We had squid in a hot sauce, eggplant in a
hotter sauce, drunken chicken, and abalone soup. Shanghai cuisine is
much like the food we had in mainland China. Chicken cut, bones and
all, as if it were a loaf of bread. The restaurant was moderately
unfriendly. When we ordered soda and beer they picked up the teacups.
Well, we wanted tea with the meal. Every other table, even with drinks,
had tea. The bar drinks like soda were expensive. We asked the waiter
why they picked up the teacups and he said to make more room. However,
we asked the waitress for tea and she brought back the cups. I watched
a sort of mini-comedy that took place behind our table. I think I was
the only one who saw it. A young waiter was given a baby's milk bottle,
clearly to warm it. He kept looking at it quizzically and asking other
people how to warm it (I assume). Finally he went over to the bar, got
an ice bucket, filled it from the tea machine, and dropped the milk
bottle in. He carried that off to unknown parts. A few minutes later
he brought the ice bucket back to the bar with a satisfied look on his
October 8, 1990: Breakfast was another disappointment. There is a
bird market nearby and the guide books said that there was a restaurant
where bird owners hung up their birds and had breakfast. The birds
socialize with each other. We found the place but it was closed.
Instead we tried a restaurant a few doors down. They knew no English.
I pointed to a dish and four of us had it. It was like a bowl of
Japanese ramen with two fried eggs on top. The whole breakfast for five
people (four noodle dishes, Barbara had pastries) cost HK$40. That is
about US%.17, including tip.
From there we returned to our hotel and Barbara cut the pomelo she
had bought the day before. It is much like a grapefruit and tastes a
little sweeter. Binayak claims it was the ancestor of all modern citrus
From there Evelyn and I set out for the Star Ferry to Hong Kong
Island. There after some hassle we found the bus to Tiger Balm Garden.
Aw Boon Haw was a sort of razzle-dazzle man who built an empire selling
a liniment-like ointment medicine called Tiger Balm. He built behind
his house his own park (later opened to the public) filled with garish
statues from Buddhist lore. Many mythical characters are rendered in
brightly colored cement with considerably more enthusiasm than either
imagination or taste. Most are larger than the people visiting them.
There is a whole structure of cement mountains with an intricate network
of cave paths. In all there must be miles of pathways and steps. You
visit dragons and phoenixes, and humanoid animals, and statues of wise
Buddhists and foolish generals. There is also a priceless collection of
jade that we didn't know about and missed. Then there are scenes from
the ten hells that look like scenes out of Dante's Inferno. One is the
hell for sellers of false medicines. In this hell the inventor of
China's 'Absorbine, Jr.' might have had a special interest. Presiding
over the whole sorry affair under a palatial canopy is a bronze statue
of Aw Boon Haw, successful businessman, devout Buddhist, paragon of
human wisdom, megalomaniac, and laughing stock. And a spirit very much
akin to many we find in America.
On the way back we talked to another couple who had been traveling
in Singapore and Indonesia, and were finishing in Hong Kong. I asked
them what was the one thing they wished they'd known a month before.
'If a town looks at first like a hell-hole, don't stay. It won't get
any better.' They also had had some interesting adventures I will leave
to Evelyn to relate. We returned to the hotel with a minor diversion by
crossing on the Star Ferry three times. Once we went first class, twice
we went economy. You get a very nice view of Hong Kong from the Star
Ferry. If you go economy, it costs about US$0.13 to cross. First class
is about three cents more.
On the way we saw them selling in a store 'Rice Paddy Dolls: Short
Grains'--plush cushion-faced dolls who were supposedly recent immigrants
from the PRC. Each came with its own passport. The line between homage
and parody is thin.
The afternoon was somewhat wasted, I think. We wanted to see the
historical museum in Kowloon Park. It was very small and only mildly
interesting. It had one exhibit on the history of Hong Kong and another
on art motifs in children's clothing and toys. We also stocked up for
Thailand and shopped a little. We made a reservation at the restaurant
we could not get into the previous night, the Golden City.
We went back to the hotel to write but we each fell asleep. We
have been waking up early, unintentionally, and writing in our logs (a
constant battle to keep up to date when we travel). We woke up at 7 PM,
when we'd agreed to meet the others for dinner. They'd come knocking.
Barbara had a big lunch but the rest of us went, little knowing that we
would be taking part in the Battle of the Turtle Soup.
We got to the restaurant and they started to put us upstairs.
Steve and Binayak followed somebody up. We thought we should tell them
that we'd had a reservation. So I did and they said in that case they'd
serve us down on the lower level. The hostess used a walkie-talkie
called the waitress leading Steve and Binayak upstairs and told her to
bring them back down. Steve said it was nicer upstairs, but we ate in
the lower and more hectic section. Very quickly the waitress brought us
menus and little cups of Iron Buddha Tea. We ordered dishes mostly with
an eye toward trying different animals. We had goose, pigeon,
cuttlefish, and turtle soup. While we were reading the menu the
waitress had picked up the Iron Buddha teacups. I hadn't even gotten a
chance to taste mine. The portions were small and we almost had to
fight the waitress to keep her from taking them away as soon as you
could possibly interpret them as being almost finished. She took away
the pigeon when there was still a piece of meat on the plate. Steve
asked if we thought we were getting the 'bum's rush,' which, of course,
we were. Then came the last course, the turtle soup, which came only
about twenty minutes or less after we first sat down. The waitress came
and distributed the small servings, not even distributing everything
from the serving tureen before taking it away.
The natural and most efficient way to drink a fluid is to put the
source to your lips and drink it that way, but of course in a nice
restaurant that simply isn't done. Using a spoon takes a lot longer.
Also, it is very hard to get all the soup out of a bowl with a spoon.
At some point you start getting diminishing returns in the amount you
are able to pick up. To really thoroughly eat soup from a bowl is a
long and time-consuming process, particularly if you want to savor every
spoonful. I suddenly decided this soup was good enough to savor every
spoonful. The others finished their soup while I was only about one-
quarter done and appreciating the smooth texture of the broth. The
waitress took their bowls away when they were not quite finished. Steve
reassured me that I should take my time. While I was still enjoying the
texture of the meat, the waitress decided to see if she could rush me
out and asked if I was finished. 'No, I'm still working on it,' I said,
stating the obvious.
I was trying to appreciate the subtle interplay of the flavor of
the broth and the meat when the waitress decided to embarrass me by
removing every item from the table but my soup. She went to grab for
the dish the pigeon had been on but stopped herself mid-grab when she
saw that I was now gnawing on a bone from the pigeon. I went back and
forth between the pigeon and the soup, trying where I could. Truly each
dish brought out nuances of flavor I had not noticed in the other.
Finally the restaurant capitulated and brought out glasses of tea
for each of us and another tray of little cups of Iron Buddha tea. At
least I think it was a capitulation. It might have been just a new
strategy. It was at this point that I began to notice that I was
becoming nauseated by the very thought of turtle soup. I set aside the
nearly empty bowl of soup--as empty as if I had picked up the bowl and
drunk it. I drank my tea and asked for the bill. They brought it very
quickly. On the way out I resisted the temptation to make a reservation
for the following night, just to see their reaction. The whole meal
took about seventy minutes.
We went back to the hotel to pick up Barbara and then walked
around, ending up down at the Star Ferry where there is a nice walkway.
Then the group stopped for a snack at .... No, I'm sorry. I refuse to
tell you where they stopped. I had a chocolate shake.
October 9, 1990: Well, things had been a little adventuresome till
now. Hong Kong is, after all, reasonably exotic for us New Jersey-ites.
But Hong Kong in general is reasonably tame. It was a preparation for
what was to come. The real adventure starts with Thailand. And this
was the day it was starting. We were interested in dim sum breakfast
and so was Steve, so the three of us went to the same place we went the
first day in Hong Kong. The selection was not as good as it had been on
a weekend day but we managed to get what we wanted.
After breakfast we went back to the promenade where we'd been the
night before. We looked over water to Hong Kong Island; we shot
pictures of the water traffic. One little boat seemed almost on the
verge of capsizing every time a large boat came by, though I assume the
man standing in it and guiding it knew what he was doing. Several of
the boats seemed to have whole families on board, including pets. One
dog angrily barked at other boats in the hopes that they wouldn't
realize there was no possible way we could be a threat. The dog was
ignored. After a while we decided just to walk in a more or less random
direction and ended in a Chinese neighborhood in which we were the only
big-noses. (On our trip to mainland China we'd referred to Westerners
as 'round-eyes.' Since Westerners sometimes refer to Chinese as
'slant-eyes,' we figured that if they had a similar term for us, it
would also refer to the differences in the shape of our eyes. I later
heard they did pick out a physical feature but it wasn't the eyes.
Chinese think Westerners have large noses.)
There were meat shops with the strong smell of hanging meat. There
were herbal shops. There were street hawkers selling things as familiar
as underwear or as unfamiliar as frogs. We'd see a sort of writhing
stringbag and inside would be a pile of frogs. Buyers could choose to
have their live frog 'cleaned' as you'd clean a fish. One scene quite
grisly by our standards was the snake merchant. He had a basket of live
snakes. If you wanted one he would flay it and leave it whipping around
in a box until it died. This has sort of put me off eating snakes.
From there it was the Metro back to our neighborhood, then to the
grocery to pick up some final goods and to our hotel to settle the bill
and to grab a bus for the airport. There is nothing particularly
remarkable to report about leaving Hong Kong or Thai Airlines except
that I thought the orange juice was particularly good. The meals were
okay and made better by a chili sauce you could get to put on them. The
Thais seem to love spicy food and you can easily get something spicy at
every meal. We were laid over for an hour or so at Bangkok getting a
flight to Chiang Mai. (As an ironic omen the airport at Bangkok had
background music from West Side Story and the actual piece of music was
'I Like To Be in America.') Things were pretty uninteresting until we
got to Chiang Mai. Then they started to pick up. Coming off the plane,
those who'd come from outside the country were sent to Customs. There
they had all our luggage. Evelyn, who always carries on her suitcase,
checked it this once and, guess what, they lost it. Clearing Customs
was a grueling 'Anything to declare? No? Okay.' Then we figured out
by process of elimination which was Evelyn's check slip. She went off
with someone and came back in a few minutes with the news that her
suitcase was found in Phuket. It would be in Chiang Mai the next day.
Now the adventure really began. We had to navigate in a country with a
foreign language. I mean really foreign. You go to Europe, even
Russia, and at least the language is like something you've seen before.
The Thai alphabet is an incomprehensible (to me) set of squiggles. If
you saw the same word two different places it would take a fair amount
of effort to verify that it was the same word. It is easier to
recognize the same Chinese ideogram two different than the same Thai
It was 8 PM and we needed a place to stay so the next step was to
go looking for a phone. The second step was to tell a taxi driver we
didn't want to go anywhere yet. Third step was to find our list of
hotels. Fourth, fifth, and sixth we told taxi drivers we didn't want to
go anywhere yet. Then we called a place. We discovered that their
rates had gone way up. We spent a couple of minutes shooing away taxi
drivers and we tried the Montri Hotel. They gave us a good price. We
told them we'd be there shortly. Next was the question of how to get to
the hotel. As it happened there was a taxi driver right there. How
much to the Montri? For five people, 20 baht per person. Binayak said,
'Too much.' He tried to bargain the driver down.
When I am negotiating prices, Evelyn occasionally used to jump into
the argument on the other side. When we were trading in our last car to
get the current one we'd agreed on a price, then the dealer claimed he'd
found something wrong with the old car and he would not give us the
agreed trade-in value. I said we'd agreed on a price. I had heard of
this strategy being used before. Evelyn argued that if there really was
something wrong they should pay us less for the old car. With Evelyn
arguing against me I lost. This was a problem more than once and
finally I got Evelyn to agree to a rule. If someone is negotiating for
your side you support them or remain silent.
A baht is pretty close to four cents American. The driver was
asking for eighty cents apiece for a fifteen-minute cab ride.
Considering all the luggage we had that sounded like a fair price and
the driver would not budge from it. I decided not to enter the
negotiation on the driver's side and just clammed up. I think Binayak
eventually realized that he was arguing over a very small sum of money,
less than a dollar, and we were off. The one problem is there was
seating for only four passengers so Evelyn sat on my lap.
Driving to the hotel the difficulty of our position became more
obvious to Barbara. She said we cannot speak the language or even read
a menu. We are in seriously foreign territory. My father worked with
some Japanese at one point who spoke and read no English. (Well, there
were members of their group that was true of.) They learned to go to
the grocery and get along quite well. They were, however, warned that
in the grocery they should not buy any cans that had pictures of dogs or
In the dark it looked like I could make our someone at a bar who
looked of European descent, so I was not much worried. I saw an
American sitting there. There must be a way for us to get along. The
hotel was quite comfortable and encouraging. We settled into our rooms,
turned on the air conditioning, and were home, at least for a while.
First thing we wanted to do was to see the night market. We got
instructions and headed out. We passed tantalizing, fascinating-looking
Buddhist temples and, yes, a few more Americans.
Then we got to the night market and my heart sank. The first
analogy that came to mind was 'Southern California,' but later I changed
that to 'Tijuana East.' There were more Americans (or Europeans) than
Thais. There was rock music blaring from stands selling cassettes. No
Thai music, all American rock. Most of the sellers were Thai but
everybody walking around looked American. I told Barbara if she was
worried about how we could read the local menus we could ask one of the
teenagers passing by. Or maybe someone in a local restaurant we saw
with the quaint name 'Burger Hut.'
I don't know where they all came from or what they were all doing
here. Barbara said she'd heard that a lot of American hippies liked
Chiang Mai. They are attracted by the proximity of the Golden Triangle
and cheap drugs, perhaps. You see a lot of tourist agencies offering
treks to the Golden Triangle region. I'm not sure if they are mostly
for drug runners or not. And I am not sure how many really were
Americans, as opposed to Australian or other people of European descent.
There really is a bordertown feel to Chiang Mai with things ranging
from just nice to just a little sleazy. You get a lot of Americans
throwing around money and a fair number of Thais who are willing and
happy to stock whatever is necessary to make Americans feel comfortable.
After looking around at what was being sold, we bought some bottled
water (about a third of the price of what it was in Hong Kong) and
headed back to our hotel.
October 10, 1990: The first thing I did when it got light was to
look out the window to see Chiang Mai by day. Most of it looked like
inexpensive housing and a few high buildings. Off to one side was a
chedi, a spike Buddhist spire. To another side I saw a temple with
three red parallel roofs decorated with nagas (serpents). Yeah, this
was the real thing, all right.
Breakfast was at the restaurant next door to the hotel. They could
accommodate the most prosaic American taste but they also had Thai
breakfast food. I had boiled rice and cuttlefish. There were two or
three piquant condiments to choose from. Good stuff. And I had a
couple of glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice.
After that we set out to change money and find the local tour
situation. It was, admittedly, already very hot but it was a nice wet
heat. Real steambath weather.
Street crossing seemed a real problem. The traffic never seems to
let up. You can wait a long time for a gap. Later in the day a German
who lives here saw us having trouble and showed us the secret. You have
to be careful of the motorcycles and mopeds who often don't yield the
right of way to pedestrians. But vehicles with three or more wheels
seem perfectly happy to yield to pedestrians. You just start to cross
the street and make shooing motions with your hands and the cars stop
for you. The German says he's been living in Chiang Mai for years and
he's never had a problem. It was pretty good advice.
We stopped at a modest temple and made a small contribution, and
saw a not very well-made Buddha. This was a fairly ornate sanctuary (a
'viharn'). We continued on to the Tourist Agency of Thailand (T.A.T.).
We picked a couple of tours we wanted to try. Both were recommended by
the T.A.T. One was to be that afternoon, one the next day. The walk to
the T.A.T. had completely washed us out in the heat so we took a seelor
back to the hotel. A seelor is like a small pickup truck converted to a
minibus. In the cargo section there are two parallel benches running
lengthwise. Then there is a roof over it, but the back seems
dangerously open.
Back at the hotel the elevator was out of order so we climbed the
stairs to our room. Four flights in this weather is no picnic. Evelyn
called the airport and they had her suitcase.
We took a seelor to the airport. On the way I looked at my
situation. Plain old Mark Leeper is here in the back of a pickup truck
being bounced around roads decorated with amazing Buddhist temples.
Yeah, I can dig it.
We got to the airport. Evelyn went to Customs and they got her
case. The Customs agent asked her, 'Anything to declare?' She said no.
He felt the side of her bag and said, 'Okay.' For that ritual we had to
come back.
We rode our seelor back to the hotel. The others had been able to
sit around the hotel when we had to drag out to the airport. I think
our ride was more interesting than what they did. You've picked a good
trip when all your bad luck keeps turning out better than the good luck.
Binayak picked a restaurant from the Lonely Planet book that he
could actually see from his window. For once a restaurant description
was of a restaurant still around. It was pretty good. We got chicken
curry, a fish in hot sauce, a minced pork dish, and a couple of others.
We paid maybe US$1.25 each.
Then we returned to our hotel to await the 1:30 PM tour that had
been arranged. This was the Temples and City Tour. This was billed as
four temples:
- Wat Chiang Man
- Wat Pra Sing
- Wat Chedi Lueng
- Wat Chet Yot
and the market place. Wat Chiang Man is the oldest of the wats in the
area, having been builtin 1296. One of the more remarkable aspects is
its chedi (or spire) supported by fifteen elephants. Chedis tend to be
solid. They are more monuments like obelisks than enterable buildings.
Wat Pra Sing is the Wat of the Lion. The lion is the symbol of
strength. There are several statues of lions. They are even more
stylized than Chinese lions. You see many snake images at Buddhist
temples. These are Naga, the mighty snake who brings the rain. Like
the Chinese dragon he is a good fellow in spite of his fierce looks.
And unlike the Chinese dragon he is as fierce and ugly as the artist can
manage. Often he is portrayed as if he were being eaten. In fact, it
is just the opposite. He is being spewed by Mogala, the dragon who gave
birth to him.
The Wat Chedi Leung has a massive chedi that was at one point three
hundred feet high but was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1546.
It is now being restored to its original magnificence--assuming they
have some record of how it is to look. In England they preserved the
spot in Westminster Abbey where a bomb fell in World War II; that is a
piece of its history. So is the damage that the earthquake did to Wat
Chedi Leung. And that damage is more a part of history since it has
been that way for almost four and a half centuries. But the Buddha
deserves a perfect chedi and it will be restored.
Wat Chet Yot should have been next. And it is the most important
in the area. Instead we were taken to a rather dull open-air wat called
Wat Suan Dok. It is distinguished by the open-air construction and by
the vendors out front. Up till now the tour had been pretty good, but
this substitution, which we only later realized had been made, was a bad
touch. At this point, about ninety minutes short of the projected tour
length, the guide said the tour was over. This did not go over well.
The brochure said we'd be going to a market and we hadn't done that.
For me the market was not a big attraction. The others seemed to think
it was a major part of the tour. I am not sure what 'seeing a market'
means. The guide appeared not to know either. Essentially it was
interpreted as 'you're supposed to go shopping with us.' So for an hour
the driver parked the car and the guide went shopping. When we had
shopped we found our van and then came the difficult task of getting our
van out of the parking lot. It is like a block puzzle. All the regular
spaces are filled and the aisles are also filled with cars that are
locked but left in neutral. If you need to get out, you push cars out
of your way ... often as not right into another car. Getting out was a
real mess.
From there it was back to the hotel to freshen up and then out
walking. Binayak chose a place from the guide book and we walked for
about ninety minutes. The place was closed and a less promising
restaurant had taken its place. We took a seelor to get back toward
things and picked a restaurant we passed. I think the waiter was
illiterate. He would take one person's order, go and get that dish,
then move on to the next person. I was hot and in the heat not very
hungry so I just had a pineapple fruit snake and a banana split. Nice
cool energy.
Evelyn had the Spicy Thai Salad. She found it was too spicy for
her. I took some and it seemed okay. After eating for a while I
realized my mouth was really burning. It was too spicy for me, which is
rare in a dish I don't make for myself. Binayak tried some, had no
trouble. Five minutes later Binayak too found his mouth on fire. We
established the culprit was a tiny green pepper about a quarter of an
inch long and fairly narrow. It was a killer. Over dinner we discussed
how bad things were going. I still don't know what they were talking
about. Other saw serious personality conflicts and bad organization. I
actually had thought things were going well. I think we were all tired
of long pointless walks. I suggested that rather than picking a place
to eat out of the guide book, we keep track of where we see a choice of
restaurants. Binayak said he was tired of leading. My contention was
that he kept choosing to lead and we acquiesced. We often also ran
things by democracy, easy to do in a group this size, and things work
out fine that way.
We also decided to do less city-hopping. That cuts down on the
organization necessary. We'd planned to stay in some hotels just one
night. That was going to be a lot of arranging. Instead we will stay
in two or three base cities per country. Then we will take day trips.
We were eating at a hotel's restaurant. We thought we'd see what
trekking tours they had. They had one we liked. The problem was, could
we book our train to Bangkok if we were out trekking the next day? I
suggested we use the next day for booking and both trek and travel to
Bangkok on the same day. Sure enough that was the best plan. Ah,
democracy in action. We returned to our hotel.
October 11, 1990: The morning was spent taking a seelor tour of
local industries. (We first took the seelor to the train station to
book a sleeper to Bangkok.) Silk, celadon, umbrellas. Lots of shops
but we did little buying. American spending very welcome.
For lunch we decided to go back to the same place as the day
before. It was, after all, the only restaurant recommended in the guide
book that hadn't been closed. Today it was closed. We ate at the hotel
coffee shop. It actually was not bad as a restaurant. Lots of Thai
dishes. We'd been having breakfast there each day and I'd had boiled
rice with cuttlefish. Very nice. This time I had what turned out to be
a mediocre shrimp croquette ('shrimp patty in plum sauce,' they were
called, I think). We took a seelor to the previous night's restaurant
and booked our trek for the next day. On the way back Evelyn and I took
a side trip to try and find a wat I had seen from our hotel window. We
had to do a little wandering but it turned out to be two blocks away and
one of the most beautiful of the wats I'd seen. Looking at the map I
think it was the Wat Pan Tao. If you look at the illustrations on the
walls they are all demons fighting each other and monsters. Yet the
feel of being on the grounds is one of incredible peace and serenity.
The main building had a Thai triple roof: a long roof, then a shorter
roof above it, then a shorter roof above that. The walls below the roof
are white and look like stucco. Inlaid are carved wood panels covering
the windows. Somewhere there is a bell rhythmically tinkling. Here we
are trespassing within temple grounds and the monks just look as if we
were clouds.
From there it was back to the hotel for a rest, then about 5:30 PM
we took a seelor to the night market. Barbara got all tied up in a
negotiation over a bedspread that was claimed to be king-sized but
wasn't. We found a restaurant by the side of the river and I ate light.
I had egg and meat with fried noodles. It turned out to be like Beef-
a-roni made with chow fun noodles with a fried egg on top. It was a
good place to eat. We weren't the only ones who thought so. A bunch of
mosquitoes thought so too.
Through and after dinner I was not feeling well. I had sweat,
chills, and a stomach ache. After dinner we walked back to the night
market. We stuck with Steve, who bought sandals, then Evelyn, Steve,
and I bought water and returned to the hotel. I went straight to the
bathroom where I was entertained by a gray lizard (a gecko?) who'd
stopped in our bathroom on its insect-eating rounds.
October 12, 1990: Up early to pack and check our luggage.
Breakfast at the coffee shop. Then we were picked up by Noy, our guide
for the day's trek. We packed into the back of his seelor and headed
out for the hill tribe area. Our progress was soon stopped. The street
was blocked by a police parade. This was Annual Police Day. I later
asked Noy if this would have been a good day to stay in town and rob a
I think it was Barbara who commented how very easy-going and laid-
back the dogs seemed to be in Thailand. It may be the climate is too
hot and humid for them to get into much mischief. But they don't seem
to bark or fight. They just seem to take it all in their stride. We
saw some from the seelor. The seelor had a speaker system and Noy
played dull American music. When we stopped at one point I asked if he
had Thai music and he did play us some.
We stopped and got some candy to hand out at the village. I got a
bag of candy bars and a bag of Bi-Po Jelly Cones. These are plastic
cones about two inches long, one inch wide at the top, filled with
Jell-o. Technically Jell-o is candy, I suppose. Barbara saw Steve
getting two bags of candy bars and told Steve that it was going to run
into big bucks. The bags of candy bars turned out to be about 15B (or
US$0.60) each. In the rural areas of Thailand there are no big bucks.
As the seelor got to more rural roads we saw more rice paddies and
brahma bulls and even a water buffalo or two in the field. When we got
to unpaved road the seelor slowed down and we took turns hanging off the
back. The scenery changed from farm to jungle.
It is easy to hear 'jungle' and let your imagination run riot with
images of lush tropical plants, snakes slithering in the trees, humidity
dripping off of things. That was sort of what I expected in South
America. Those jungles probably exist someplace, but I haven't seen
them. I guess they are called rain forests. Aside from some broadleaf
plants, the jungles we saw in Thailand look not a whole lot different
from the jungles of Massachusetts, only thicker. A jungle is just a
thick forest.
As we were slowed down on a bumpy road a man jumped onto the back
of the seelor. He was an old man missing most of his teeth. We smiled
at each other. He made signs with his hands that he had been to a
doctor (at least he showed us a hypo and some drugs) and that he had a
bad knee. At least he kept holding it. I have read enough science
fiction in which people try to talk to aliens and Neanderthals that I
had the procedure down pretty well. You start with 'My name is ...' in
sign language and build up to 'Help me repair my space ship/time
machine.' First things first. I put my hand on my chest and said,
'Mark.' I pointed to Binayak and said, 'Binayak.' I pointed and said,
'Evelyn.' Then I pointed to the old man. He grinned in
incomprehension. I started over naming people. Same grin.
Communicating in sign language is harder than it looks. We tried Thai,
but the hill tribes don't speak it. We ended up smiling a lot at each
other. Eventually he jumped off.
We stopped to see a waterfall. This turned out to be a few hundred
yards down a slope on which a path had been cleared. Places there were
actual steps that had been dug, but others there was just a mud slope.
Since I have a small foot size for my weight and not much tread on the
shoes I brought, steep mud embankments were a real problem. Going down
it was mostly just keeping my balance and at one spot I just slid down
on the seat of my pants. Better my pants get a little muddy than my
face. At the bottom there was about a forty-foot waterfall. There also
was some trash strewn around so this place had been discovered. Going
back up sliding became a serious problem and I needed a hand once or
twice. By the time I got to the top I was really sweaty. The trip log
was pretty wet on the outside from sweat. The most valuable thing I
take on a trip is my passport. It is always with me. The second most
valuable thing I take is my trip log. It often goes through a lot but
it is nearly always with me. B y the time I have finished one notebook
(I go through one a week or so) the cardboard of the cover is pilling
and a layer or so has been rubbed away. I could even feel the first
page was wet from sweat. Of course it isn't just the jungle that makes
us sweat. Just about everywhere we go is over 90o and very, very humid.
I have been turning up the air conditioning in the hotel just to get
away from the heat. Poor Evelyn practically freezes at night.
We took the seelor a little way down the road and stopped at a Red
Karen village. The Karen are a hill tribe. These were called Red Karen
because red is a color that married women tend to wear. Unmarried women
wear white. Karen are a peaceful agricultural people. All the hill
tribes were heavily into opium production. When the government told
them to stop growing opium they had a real fight on their hands, with
pretty much all the hill tribes but the Karen, who were peaceful enough
not to want trouble and who were good enough at farming that they could
afford to give up the lucrative crop. There are six major tribes
representing about a half million people but more than half are Karen.
When I say the Karen are good farmers, that strictly speaking is not
true. All the hill tribes are semi-nomadic slash-and-burn farmers and
the government tries to teach them better styles of agriculture. We
visited a village of about seventy Karen. We walked down a side of a
hill from the road and the path led past a stream in which some children
were playing, some clothed, some naked. We crossed the stream at a
bridge that was little more than long bamboo stalks, cut in half
lengthwise and tied together by cable. There is very little support,
the whole bridge bounces when you walk on it, and the bamboo shifts.
Very tough to cross for one so unsurely-footed as myself. The village
itself looks extremely poor and ramshackle, with wooden shacks loosely
built on stilts. One of the bigger buildings did, however, have a
television antenna. They had some home-built machines, including a big
lever-like device for pounding the rice and separating it from the husk.
Most of the adults were out working. There were only about ten or
fifteen people in the village when we visited. One old man saw us
passing from the side but when he saw my face he gave a big grin. It
was our nameless friend from the seelor. He had us sit down and we
smiled at each other while the guide talked to him. His lips were
bright red, having come back from the doctor and sitting down to chew
betel nuts. We saw a very young calf and Barbara was able to call it
over to us but a grunt from mother called it back. We handed out candy
to the children and talked to two or three families before heading back
to the bridge--a little easier to cross the second time--and the seelor.
We drove a little way, then we stopped and were told to leave
everything on the seelor and climb down an embankment. There were four
rafts made of bamboo (what else?). They were not very wide, about
twelve feet by three feet, and when you stepped on them they sank below
water level--so much for the one pair of shoes I brought, traveling
light. They put us on two of the rafts (Binayak and I shared a raft),
each with a steersman at each end, and sent us down the river. Warning:
this ride gets wet. Very wet. But in the heat it felt good. Generally
the water was calm though there was some white water and a couple of
times we hit rocks pretty hard. A couple of times we tipped at about a
30o angle though, of course, it felt like a lot more. Early on we hit a
low branch and a green spider fell onto my leg. It was about an inch
and a half across though, of course, it seemed a lot bigger. Now the
problem was how we could get the spider back some place where it could
survive. We considered flipping it to shore but we were never really
close enough. I am pretty sure at this point that it was the spider's
last day, but I thought if I could keep it isolated from the water long
enough we could put it ashore when the trip was over. Then came a big
drenching splash and no spider. Well, as Binayak pointed out later, it
had jumped to my head. Well, I don't know which spiders are dangerous
around here. Binayak asked if he should flick it off and I told him
yes. I expected a light flick to the boat but instead it was a heavy
flick into the water and suddenly the number of legs on the boat dropped
from sixteen to eight. It was all over for my little green friend.
The trip lasted about thirty-five minutes. Then we climbed a bank
to the 'Elephant Ridding Camp,' as the sign described it. They had a
bunch of box lunches. They included a chicken drumstick. The batter
was good and spicy but the meat itself did not taste very good so I gave
it a miss. There were also salami sandwiches, tasteless brownies, an
orange, and a banana. While I was eating a warm, wet vacuum cleaner
snuffled my arm. It seemed I was being panhandled by 500 pounds (or
more?) of baby elephant. We fed him some orange slices provided by
Barbara (mine were gone already). The baby went over to have a drink
from Mama. This did not fit into one of the elephant handlers plans and
he hit the baby with a bamboo switch. Baby made an angry half-charge on
the handler but stopped himself. We also saw an old bull elephant being
walked around camp with his two front legs chained together so he could
only limp. Lined up near where we were eating were the three elephants
we'd ride. I tried to feed one grapes and orange slices but he could
not seem to get them to his mouth.
Eventually came the time to ride the elephants. There was a W-
shaped wooden frame with seats placed above it. This is placed on the
elephant's back. A rope goes from it around the elephant's neck;
another goes to a ring around the elephant's tail and is cinched up
tight. We climbed to a high platform, stepped on the elephant's head,
and stepped into the seat.
I had ridden well-trained horses along a path and they had been
reasonably co-operative. That was not what this was like. An elephant,
and an Asian elephant in particular, is a very intelligent animal, much
more than a horse. (An elephant who sees a monkey trapped in mud will
pull the monkey out and set it free, which implies to me a high order of
intelligence.) In any case, the elephants were not co-operative as
horses would be, so they had to be driven by five or six drivers.
The drivers would hit the elephant with bamboo switches. One stood
on the ground and repeatedly threw a rock bigger than his head at the
rear flanks of the elephant. The same rock was thrown at the elephant's
face several times. All this was done with all the force the boy could
muster. Our elephant kept wanting to leave the path so was singled out
for particular attention. Even when he seemed to be behaving, as far as
we could tell, the driver kept hitting the elephant. Then our driver
got the hook. It was a device about the size of a hammer that looked
like apiece of climbing gear. It had a big metal half-crescent. Our
driver hit the elephant on the top of the head and the side of the neck
with this tool, sometimes with the stalk of the tool, sometimes with the
pointed end. He also poked the hook in the elephant's ear. They were
blows hard enough to kill a man, but of course an elephant isn't a man,
is he?
Riding an elephant sounded interesting in the brochure and once we
were strapped on the elephant we were pretty much captive ourselves for
about seventy-five minutes. I found myself wishing I could demonstrate
to the driver how to use the hook. I wouldn't have needed an elephant.
I was looking forward to the elephant ride and it turned out to be a low
point of the trip. We were offered a trip to an elephant show a day or
so later and Steve's response was, 'No more elephants.' I quite agree.
From where we got off the elephants we were only a short walk to
the Meo village. The Meo are descended, it is claimed, from Genghis
Khan's Mongols. Premarital sex is actually encouraged as part of
courtship and when a couple decides to tie the know sex temporarily ends
and the prospective husband gives five silver ingots to the girl's
parents. The village was nearly deserted. In fact, the only ones who
came to see us at first were a couple of dogs. I fed them a little
candy to win them over. Binayak suspected that it might not be taken
well by the villagers that we were giving candy to the dogs and not
people. At this point a few of the villagers made their presence known.
We did not find them as communicative as the Karen but they were happy
to take candy.
Then we started the walk back to the van. We started about 4:05
PM. I asked the guide how far we were walking and he said about twenty
minutes. After about five minutes of walking he pointed across the
valley to a tiny red spot that was our seelor. We all had the same
thought: This is not a fifteen-minute walk. That sucker was a long
distance away. I guessed it would take another forty-five minutes. It
turned out to be about eighteen minutes away from that point, meaning I
am a very poor judge of my own cross-country speed. I guess a lot of
the trek was downhill.
As if we were not already dusty enough, the trip back was through
clouds of dust. It got so that even when we sneezed, we sneezed dust.
We sucked the warm water we had with us.
Back at the hotel we rented two rooms for half an hour and
showered. We had a quick dinner at the coffee shop. I had another
banana split to cool me off and to rebuild my sugar level. If it was
what my body needed, I felt it best to oblige it.
After that it was back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and then
find a seelor to take us to the train station. We had not been able to
get an air-conditioned car for the night run to Bangkok. There was only
a second-class car and we were not sure what to expect. One thing sure
was that it was hot in the train station and we were afraid it would be
even hotter on the train. The train that pulled in didn't reassure us
either. It was dusty and not very comfortable-looking. Barbara pointed
out that they were unloading chickens. Steve went to look for our car
and discovered it wasn't even on the train. They would be adding more
cars later. They did. We boarded. Not too surprisingly the cars were
very cramped and quite warm. Otherwise they were comfortable enough.
The car was about half tourist and half Thai. We had been able to get
four uppers and one lower. Three of the uppers were near each other.
The other two were isolated. The two women got two of the three nearby
uppers (I am not sure of the reasoning) and we had drawn tickets for the
other three berths. I had drawn the isolated lower. Actually, that
berth might have made sense for Barbara, who is the only member of our
group traveling with multiple pieces of luggage. We guys each have
essentially backpacks, Evelyn has a piece of luggage with a strap,
Barbara has two pieces which she tends to strap onto a luggage trolley.
That is an inconvenient way to travel because she has to keep setting
the thing up and disassembling it. That slows things down a bit.
Barbara has a different approach to travel than Evelyn and I do.
Hers is more the grand tradition of travel. She travels in style, or at
least tries to, while we travel in more a vagabond, utilitarian manner,
everything on our back, that sort of thing. We tend to look for ancient
and historic sites; Barbara likes market places. We each like some of
the other, of course, but it is a different mix. Prior to the trip
Binayak talked about half about just being among the people, one quarter
about seeing the historic culture, and about one quarter about
marketing. However, on the first day in Chiang Mai he said he was
'watted out.' From that point his tastes were closer to Barbara's,
which to some extent made things a bit easier. While Binayak and
Barbara are doing the same sort of thing, we can have Evelyn and I doing
historic things. Steve can choose between them if he wants, or do a
third thing. But it makes things a bit easier with a bit less planning
while their interests are in common as they are. I referred the this at
one point as the 'Barbara-ing of Binayak.' Bad choice of words since
Barbara still seems to think we look down on her marketing, but it is
really a good thing since it is better than fragmentation.
But I digress.
The berths were small but there was a rotating fan for each group
of four and when the train was moving they were sufficiently
comfortable. I settled down to write in my log when I heard Evelyn
saying, 'Where's Mark?' I stuck my head out. I had the shortwave and
she wanted me to get the news. Somebody on the train had heard a rumor
that war had broken out in the Middle East. She wanted me to find the
news. It took me about an hour to establish that there was nothing I
could get in the train car on any of the shortwave bands and the local
AM and FM stations did not have English news. I reported that to Evelyn
and went to bed.
October 13, 1990: The sleeping was not as good as in a hotel room,
but not bad either. The bed got shaken a bit. I used foam earplugs and
the noise didn't bother me. I woke up about 5 AM and wrote for a while.
At a little after 6 AM Binayak woke up and came to sit in the seat
opposite me which had remained empty. He suggested that we open a
window which had an opaque screen over it. I was not sure it opened,
but it did. In the pre-dawn light we could see rice paddies going past
the windows.
We saw a mix of fields and towns going by. The towns were drab and
some even ramshackle. When we pulled up to a town people would come by
the train window selling breakfast. I got a sweet bean paste bun. More
Chinese than Thai, I thought. But there is, of course, a strong Chinese
influence on the culture in Thailand.
There were some spectacular views through the morning. Some
limestone formations were impressive and reminiscent of China. Then one
place there was a tall stand of trees and peering over the top was a
huge head of the Buddha.
We were due to arrive in Bangkok at about 10:30 AM, but were better
than half an hour late. We went to a phone booth and started calling
hotels and guest houses in the cheap range. A rotund gentleman came
over and asked if we wanted a cab. We told him we didn't need a cab.
He seemed to find that funny. We found a guest house--not our first
choice--that did have rooms. We started looking for a cab. The rotund
fellow was still there and we bargained a price with him. It turned out
he was not a cab driver at all. He either managed a fleet of cabs or
was some sort of self-appointed expediter. We said we really wanted a
seelor because there would not be enough room for all of us in a cab.
He assured us it would be a very big cab. It turned out to be a little
compact. The trunk had to be roped down to hold all our luggage. I sat
in front with the driver since I happen to have a wide skeleton and am a
bit wider than the others. (Evelyn constantly confuses having a big
frame with being fat because she has a little wiry frame and does not
fill it out as well as I do.) The other four sat in back. One leaned
forwarded, the next leaned back, in sort of a snaggle formation. Now
the driver really was fat. And on top of that he was on a program to
lose five pounds a week by the clear-your-throat-and-spit method.
We arrived at the Central Guest House. To get to it we pretty much
had to crawl over a trash heap. The place looked very run-down.
Barbara said what I was thinking: 'Have you lost your mind?' The three
guys went up to see the rooms, not expecting much. We didn't see the
rooms; all we saw was the public shower and said, 'Sorry, no.' So here
we were in Bangkok dehydrating ourselves carrying around all our
luggage. We set up a base in an open restaurant, had lunch (I had fried
noodle with beef), and planned what to do next. It turned out we were
right near the Royal Hotel. It was in the moderate range, a little over
1000B a night. Steve and Binayak went off to scout it. At the price
they thought it was okay so we took a taxi and settled into our rooms.
It is a big hotel that was probably very nice once. There were big
mildew stains on the ceiling. The toilet did not completely flush. Our
room was cavernous with a big wooden closet. I turned on the television
to see if I could get some Middle East news. Instead there was some
sort of a martial arts film in which a young man was fighting an old man
who looked like a Chinese version of Takashi Shimura. In spite of leaps
that defied Newtonian physics he was losing, then a book or amulet he
was carrying (I didn't catch which) started acting strangely. It had a
picture of four women in white-face with white tights, red-orange lips,
and matching fright-wigs. They came alive and grew to full size and
started beating up on the old man. At one point the boy was in a pose
with curbed hands and one of the nixies tapped him on the shoulder and
told him to straighten his hand. With five-against-one odds the old man
was quickly trounced. Cut to end title. I must say that martial arts
films don't do much for me.
After a while of getting rested up the five travelers set out for
the T.A.T. (Tourist Authority of Thailand).
I am used to walking around in places in which the drivers are
mild, courteous, and sane--like Manhattan. I guess what is most
unnerving is the speed of the traffic. You really feel you are taking
your life in your hands when you cross a street. On some streets the
crosswalks are controlled by lights that stop the traffic for walkers,
but the cycle is very long and you can stand there a long time if you
don't take the risk. When you do take it, you really have to run across
the street the first gap you get.
Steve stopped to exchange some money at the window of a bank. The
transaction ahead of us took at least fifteen minutes. When Steve got
to the window the teller said, 'Just a minute,' and walked away. After
about another five minutes in the heat we gave up. People seem less
friendly here than in Chiang Mai. Finally we found an ATM that would
accept Steve's card and he got some money. Steve was the only one on
the trip who remembered to bring his Personal Identification Number for
the cash machines. He has found three categories of cash machines.
Some do accept his card, some reject it as if it were a library card
he'd inserted by mistake, and some say, 'Welcome, Steven Goldsmith,' and
then 'Sorry, your card has been damaged.' Steve figures that the
protocol is similar but part of the encoding is different so that they
can read his name but not some of the other information.
The walk to the T.A.T. was a long one in the heat and frankly the
scenery of Bangkok is just not as interesting as that of Chiang Mai,
other than the occasional temple. We see big white buildings that are
hotels and government buildings, and you see a lot of ramshackle
buildings that use corrugated metal a lot. There isn't much exotic
architecture. It is just a big hustling city.
We walked past the Democracy Monument with its four big wing-like
pylons. We also walked over one of the khlongs. Near the center of the
city the smell of a khlong is really pretty bad. It smells of what is
at best garbage and is probably cloaca.
After a great deal of walking we found the T.A.T. in a big
official-looking building, though the T.A.T. itself was just a small
part. We picked up some brochures but didn't really use too much of the
service. Then we went out to walk to a local market. Actually the main
thing we saw in the local market was a huge department store called New
World. The thing is ten stories high built around an empty atrium like
a Hyatt Regency. On one side parallel diagonal escalators take you up,
on the other they take you down. We took the escalators up to the food
court on the ninth floor. There you buy tickets at a ticket booth and
then take them to dozens of stands serving food. You pick the food you
want, pay in tickets, then sit down to eat in areas that give you a
commanding view of Bangkok. The stand with fruit had a line of ants
crawling over it. Where do ants come from nine stories up? We also
tried some of their ice cream, but it wasn't very good. Barbara got a
sundae, but instead of whipped cream it had popcorn to create the right
look. Instead of cherries it had fake cherries made from gelatine. The
latter seems to be a common substitution made in Thailand.
After dinner we went up to the top floor which was supposedly an
amusement park. They had two movie theaters, a tiny zoo, a pet store, a
toy store, some penny arcade sorts of concessions, etc. Saddest sight I
saw was a rabbit cage in the pet store. There were two rabbits. One
was dead and lying with his eyes open, the other shocked and perhaps
sick backed into a corner of the cage. On the way down I stopped at the
complete working supermarket and I bought a little candy. It is a
Japanese brand popular in Thailand. Superlemon is lemon candy covered
in a citric acid powder that makes it taste very sour. There seems to
be an international mix of brands that show up on the shelves here,
though United States and Japanese seem to predominate. This store has a
big market for their numerous stands of Dunkin' Donuts.
By this point it was past dark so we went back to the room to
freshen up a bit. The television was showing a Thai cartoon of how the
Wright Brothers invented the airplane. The Thai vision of Dayton, Ohio,
made it look a bit like a town in China. I used to live in Dayton and
it did not look like the Thai cartoon artist thought, even given the
time difference.
A little later we all got together in the bar for a drink. The
service was very slow. Rather than a drink I got baked Alaska, never
having had it before and being pretty sure that I would never see it so
cheap again. There was live music with about seven different women
signers taking turns. Five were mediocre. One was actually very bad
and one was really very good. The good one wore a mini-skirt she didn't
really need and gyrated to songs in an artificial way, but she also
really belted the songs and while the songs were all in Thai for each of
the singers, hers had the most interesting melodies that changed meter
and were the most interesting to listen to.
October 14, 1990: Binayak, who'd been in Thailand a couple of
years before, had a recommendation for breakfast, a restaurant across
from the hotel he had stayed in. They turned out to have only Western
breakfast and I had a roll, juice, and 'lassie,' which I usually see
spelled 'lassi.' It is an Indian yogurt drink.
Not too surprisingly our first stop was to be the Grand Palace. We
started walking, became unsure of where we were, started drifting, and
all packed into a tuk-tuk. That's like a motorcycle converted to be a
cab. It is one of the styles of samlor (literally, three-wheeler; a
seelor is a four-wheeler).
Walking in the front a guide offered to take us around for 300B.
That isn't cheap for an hour or so of work, but the group agreed.
Our first stop was the coin museum on the grounds that also gave us
a thumbnail history of Thailand and the two great kings, Rama IV (born
Mongkut) and Rama V (born Chulalongkorn). Prior to the rules of this
father and son, Thailand wished to be left alone to do things her own
way. Rama IV understood as no king before that the West was going to
come to Siam and things would be very different. The West knows him
best for hiring an English governess, Anna Leonowens, to teach his
children and himself about the West. Leonowens turned around and wrote
a one-sided book about her experiences, taking credit for many of
Mongkut's improvements. This, of course, is Anna and the King of Siam,
which was filmed with Rex Harrison as Mongkut, then was adapted into the
Broadway play The King and I which was also filmed. The films have
never been shown in Thailand because of their vast inaccuracies.
The two kings brought in bold reforms, but stopped short of
democracy. In 1932 a bloodless coup ended absolute monarchy and turned
Thailand into a democracy. Siam was renamed Thailand. Thailand
nominally sided with Japan in World War II to regain lost territory the
French and English took. They, however, did not take an active part in
the war and the Americans in return treated them as an occupied country.
The whole political situation is still in some ferment with military and
civilian politicians running the country with some democratic reforms.
The King is now a sort of figurehead ruler of the country and of
Thailand's Buddhists. He was born in the far-off land of Cambridge,
Massachusetts. He is a jazz musician and composer, an award-winning
yachtsman, and still does work for the country. One of his daughters
gave up her title to marry a commoner from Puerto Rico whom she met
going to school in Southern California.
The coin museum has coins from Thai history, weapons, vestments for
the Emerald Buddha, etc. Curiously, the windows are sealed with sealing
wax that is stamped with the Royal Seal. My guess is that this is to
foil attempts to break in and replace items with counterfeits. If an
item is missing you wouldn't need a broken seal to tell you. From there
you go into the wat area. The first thing you see are fifteen-foot
statues of Yaks, Indian demons from the Ramayana (here called the
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha was built in 1783 by Rama I and
houses a Buddha made of jade. Among the other sights are murals
depicting scenes from the Ramakien. One shows a demon sleeping in a
place where he is damming up a river. A heroic demon fights him in the
next mural and we see the water flowing by. Later we saw buildings done
in a more European style. They really stand out as not being as
interesting as the classic Thai styles. In the palace there are Nagas
on the edges of the roofs and at the peak is a point supposedly
representing 'a phoenix,' according to one guide, but I suspect it was
really another bird.
When the tour was over we went on to the National Museum. This is
actually a fair-sized museum by Asian standards. You begin be seeing
exhibits of Thai pre-history. Included are nice dioramas of incidents
of Thai history. There is a portrait of Mongkut, who looks nothing at
all like Rex Harrison or Yul Brynner. He is a thin wizened-looking man.
B&B decided that was all they wanted to see and the other three of us
went on to see the main museum. First there was a viharn containing an
image of the Buddha and with the complete story of the Buddha told in
paintings on the walls. Out front there are guards that look to be part
man and part rooster.
Continuing on there are rooms with royal insignia, rooms with
weapons, exhibits of Thai music, elephant tusks--just a heck of a lot of
aspects of Thai culture. One of the strangest things was a small
cannon. Picture a revolver out of the American West, but scale it
larger so it is about eighteen inches or two feet long. Now take off
the handle and mount it on wheels. The gun was just a giant revolver
used as an artillery piece. It had about room for twenty bullets, but
other than that it seemed just like a big version of a smaller gun I'd
never seen. We saw an exhibit of pre-Thai sculpture, but it was all
Buddhas, or just about all Buddhas. Well, just about all the Top 40
songs in the United States are about love. It is understandable that a
lot of their art would be representations of the Buddha.
The Red House is the former residence of Princess Sudarek. It
seems a bit spartan by Western standards. Whether it was moved or
whether the museum was built around it, I am not sure.
We met up with B&B again at the hotel and set out for the weekend
market. It is a big bustling pushy flea market with the Thai
equivalents of what we would find in American flea markets. And a lot
of American equivalents also. In addition to phony designer imitations
one finds a lot of phony non-designer imitations. There are T-shirts
advertising American brands that do not exist. Some have slogans in the
English language but which make no sense. Most were cleverer forgeries,
but I did see one professing to be from 'Cololado State University.'
Another spelled 'State' as 'Staty.' There is a tremendous thirst here
for American culture. It isn't just to serve the American tourist. It
is tough to recognize words written in the Thai alphabet but the tourist
who does not recognize the words for 'Coke' and 'Sprite' has been
traveling with his eyes closed. A street peddler, to get on my good
side, said he wanted Thailand to become the 51st American state. Sure,
he was just snowing me, but it is not so hard to look around Thailand
and imagine it has already happened.
And guess who else is jumping into the American system? On the way
over on the plane we saw ads for the spectacular new floating hotel in a
place called Ho Chi Minh City. And the Vietnamese are asking the United
States for help in entering world markets. A recent U.S. News & World
Report had a photo taken at the first Vietnam beauty pageant. The real
tragedy of the Vietnam War was that nobody realized what a spectacular
winning hand the Americans had from the beginning. Economically and
politically we were destined to win without ever firing a shot. The
North Vietnamese were like a wave breaking on the shore. The wave is
impossible to stop. It floods the sand. Then some recedes and some
sinks into the sand and soon you cannot tell the wave hit at all. By
2010 if you look at Vietnam's economic system you may not be able to
tell which side had the military victory.
Anyway, we were walking around this market and we decided to get
something to eat. There was a stand with a wok and some tables and
chairs and we walked into it. Now the rub. They spoke almost no
English, we spoke less Thai. A young woman offered rice. Then she
pointed to hard-boiled eggs. Not quite what we wanted. We pointed to
the wok. That didn't help. Both sides were giving up when we got an
audience, someone who was just watching the goings-on while she ate her
plate of beef and fried noodles. I smiled and pointed to the plate of
food. Steve held up three fingers. The server smiled and showed us to
a chair. We each had a dish. They had only one Coke, so we had two
Sprites and a Coke. It was a meal for three for 54B. That means we
each paid about US$0.72. And the food was good.
A lot of the prices were similar. You could buy a terrycloth
washcloth for sixteen cents.
A stand was selling video cassettes and showing a movie which I
identified immediately as Godzilla '85 Well, it was the combination of
color and an ugly Godzilla.
We were walking around with Steve and his attitude was very much
that he wanted to experience the culture. If I said I wanted to try the
'squid on a stick,' he did also. I haven't said much about Steve this
log but he has turned out to be just precisely the kind of person you
want to take on a trip like this. He is very uncomplaining and open to
any experience that comes along. He is also very organized. We have
put him in charge of taxing us in the local currency and paying for
things like cab rides and dinners.
We did get squid satay. It was three pieces of squid (really three
small squid) on a brochette dipped in a spicy sauce. The price was 3B
or US$0.12. Good eating. A soda costs 7B. It is served in a plastic
bag so you don't have to take away the bottle.
When the five of us got together again we tried to find a cab back
to our hotel. We found one but the driver spoke no English and did not
know our hotel. We showed him the area on the map and he took us to
within a block or two of the hotel. There we were in sort of the
American quarter. People were really an international set of Europeans
(including Americans who are generally considered to be Euros since they
are of European descent). A lot of them were what Barbara calls 'aging
hippies.' Prices are a little higher here but we supplemented our
dinner with grilled beef-on-a-stick at 5B and grilled chicken leg at
10B. We shopped a little, then returned to our room.
October 15, 1990: Evelyn, Steve, and I arranged for a trip to
Ayutthaya. This area had Burmese-style temples already when in 1378
Ramatibhodi, a Thai prince, moved his capital there from Sukothai to
escape smallpox.
Ayutthaya became the capital during a period when Thailand was a
strong military power. Thailand controlled territory from Malacca to
Angkor. The Burmese fought back and seized Ayutthaya in the 16th
Century but they could not hold it long and the Thai general Naresuan
the Great recaptured it. In 1763 the Burmese put together a huge army
and set siege to Ayutthaya. The siege lasted two years and when the
Burmese finally captured Ayutthaya they smashed the city flat.
Everything flammable was burned. The citizens became Burmese slaves.
Some has been restored, but the city that Louis XIV's contemporaries
called larger and grander than London or Paris is no more.
Many of the wats have been restored and much that was stone stands
there, impressive and ageless. There are some beautiful Khmer prangs.
While chedis are concave up like horns, prangs are phallic, shaped more
like cucumbers. They are majestic, like the pre-Columbian ruins of
Traveling with us were two other Americans, Ted and Sheryl Truske
of Albuquerque. The ride out was a couple of hours. We stopped and I
bought some prepared taro fish strips. The fish is dried and salted,
then cut into thong-like strips about an eighth of an inch wide. In the
United States we get cuttlefish cut that way in Chinese groceries.
The trip was about ninety minutes or so. Our first stop was Wat Ya
Chai Mongkol. This is a Thai-style chedi, but unlike many we have seen
it is not solid but has an internal chamber you can enter by climbing
some steps that appear more treacherous than they really are. This
chedi is in the middle of a pavilion surrounded by figures of the
Buddha. People contribute money to the monks, who buy cloth and drape
it on the Buddhas. I find the custom a little confusing. Presumably
when the statue is made the Buddha is represented clothed. But the
local custom is to assume that Buddha looks better wearing real cloth
and not statue cloth. Yet surely they do not subscribe to the belief
that it is the clothes that make the avatar. You would think that they
are drawing attention to the clothes and away from the Buddha. More
logical would be to leave the statue with the clothes the statue-maker
gave it but to hang human flesh on the flesh parts. This might pose
other philosophical problems, but, hey, philosophical problems are at
the heart of religion. I think they just decided that dressing up the
statue is really the way to go.
As we were climbing around, Evelyn started to feel faint. The
guide and I tried to help her down the stairs. Next to the chedi is a
small Buddha hall called Uposaka Hall. Like most viharns its center is
a Buddha statue--as if there were not enough outside. There were joss
sticks burning in front of the Buddha. On either side of the Buddha
were two large standing clocks. Certainly that is an unusual
Coming out we decided to get Evelyn a drink that would restore her
blood sugar and electrolytes. Luckily there was such a thing there
formulated for athletes. I had a more ordinary soda. From there it was
back to the van when we realized that Ted and Sheryl were missing. We'd
last seen them at Uposaka. The guide and I went looking and found them.
Next stop was Trai Rata Nayok. It is another temple. You walk in
the front door and it is dark. In an instant you see a huge Buddha
looking down at you from the darkness. The statue is 26 meters high and
37 meters wide. As I walked around the base I could see the shell
cracked. The interior of the statue is very unimpressive stuff. It
looks like cheap concrete. Still, I cannot deny that the overall effect
is dramatic.
We then saw a reclining Buddha statue that used to have a building
around it, but the building was destroyed by the Burmese siege. The
Buddha has a silly vacuous grin on his face. The guide book says the
image of Buddha was heavily restored in 1956. A second huge Buddha
awaited at Viharn Pra Mongkol Bopit. This is Thailand's largest Buddha.
The final and by far the most impressive stop of the morning and
perhaps the while trip was Wat Pra Ram, a Khmer-style prang and a
magnificent ruin, ranking with some of the most impressive we have seen
on our travels. It was built in 1369 to be the final resting place of
Ramatibhodi. We climbed over and around it for half an hour taking
After that, back in the van and we were taken to a local restaurant
for lunch. Usually on these tours, lunch is the bare minimum they can
get away with giving you. The box lunch on the Chiang Mai trek was out
and out bad--worse than was necessary for its portability. Here they
stopped at a very nice-seeming restaurant, on a river, marched us
through the restaurant to the river and across planks to a long boat
docked at the front of the restaurant, and we ate on the boat a multi-
course meal that was quite tasty. I think it was mostly seafood. There
were several dishes. The final dish was pineapple quartered and sliced.
Ted was in a playful frame of mind and stuck a small pillbox on one of
the pineapple rinds and two skewers in and it looked a bit like a
Chinese junk. We put sugar packets on the skewers for sails. Ted said
we should fold a bit of origami for some part (I forget which). I
wasn't able to do that but I did fold an origami crane to sit on top.
Apparently Ted had played with origami in the past. I told him on the
trip back I would should him some of my own figures.
We then headed back for Bangkok and for our next stop which was
Bang Pa-In. Chulalongkorn, trying to convince the Western powers that
he was enlightened, built this summer palace/park. It is built in
European style for all but about two of two buildings. Much of it looks
like Versailles. Frankly, that makes the palace much less interesting
than sites built in purely Thai style. There are subtle reminders,
however, that Thailand is not the West. There are two memorials for
very Eastern sorts of deaths. Chulalongkorn's first wife drowned in
full view of her entourage who could have save her but for a law that
said on pain of death no commoner could touch someone royal. The second
memorial was for a boatman who was carrying Chulalongkorn when his boat
his a bad current and slammed into a rock. Nobody was hurt but the law
said that he must die for the accident. Chulalongkorn offered a pardon
but the boatman always believed in the importance of the law and refused
the pardon, said good-bye to his family, and was executed.
There are two non-Western buildings in Bang Pa-In. One is a Thai-
looking building in the middle of a lake that houses a statue of
Chulalongkorn. The other is a building provided by the Chinese to
cement Thai-Chinese relations. If you know what to look for there are
subtle insults. All the dragons are four-toed; whenever they use a
dragon in art, it is a four-toed dragon. Imperial dragons are five-
toed. In China you could put five toes on a dragon only if the art was
intended for royalty. Curiously, there is something else wrong in the
architecture. There are Foo Lions guarding the building but they have
two Emperor lions and no Empress lions. Generally you get one of each.
The Emperor has his food on an orb; the Empress has her foot on a cub.
There are two orb lions and no cub lion.
This whole area would have been peaceful and idyllic but for the
sounds of motors running. There were speedboats running on the water
and the lawn was being mowed. Mowers here look like carts with two big
bicycle wheels on the side and smaller wheels toward the front. Inside
the cart is a gasoline engine.
On the way back, to demonstrate my origami, I folded the Truskes my
nicest origami invention, the bat with the moving mouth. They showed it
to the guide. Apparently the guide knew some origami also. He liked
the bat and said he had not seen the figure before. I explained it was
my invention and he said I should patent it. He also said he would take
it home and try to figure out how to fold it himself. The bat always
gets a good reaction. It even seemed to impress Lillian Oppenheimer,
who runs the Origami Society in New York.
The guide wanted to take us to a lapidary factory to see stones
polished (a very transparent kickback opportunity), but we were less
than interested so we skipped that. We threw in a little extra tip,
We were going to try another Lonely-Planet-recommended restaurant
near the hotel when we met up again with Barbara and Binayak. Leaving
the hotel is always a bit of a bother. You run a gauntlet of people
asking you, 'Taxi?' I don't understand why a driver who has just seen
you turn down four taxis has to ask you, 'Taxi?' a fifth time. I
suppose you have to be an incurable romantic in that job. You have to
hold out hope that you will run into the right tourist, the one who will
say, 'Yes. Yes. I have just turned down four taxis because it is your
taxi I have been waiting to ride in all my life.' Then Mr. Right
Tourist enters the cab and cabbie and tourist would ride together
happily ever after with the tourist forking over incredible sums of
money. I suspect it doesn't work out that way very often. We were
The restaurant was not there any more. No surprise there. We ate
instead in the same cafe we ate in our first day in Bangkok. It had
been fairly decent.
After dinner we walked to the tourist night market. This was the
same street we had 'grazed' on the previous night after the weekend
market. This is all touristy stuff. Every half-block or so there is a
sand selling cassettes at 25B each. These look from the outside to be
the same cassettes sold in the States for many times the price. They
are, however, rather obvious pirated copies. You open them up and the
label on the cassette doesn't even tell you want is recorded. It just
says 'High Precission [sic] Cassette.' Many are in fact low-precision
cassettes that play with an obvious wow-distortion. But what do you
expect for a buck a cassette. I paid US$3 and got three volumes of the
score to Amadeus. I figure Mozart would make good listening. And I
figured that the music was in public domain so the cassettes might have
been a tad more legal than some of the others being sold. We also got a
couple of postcards at the surprisingly low 2B each. 3B was usually
considered a good price. There was even a used bookstore but their
prices were high. We repaired to our room to write in our logs and to
listen to Mozart. Amadeus I had distortion, but II and III plated fine.
October 16, 1990: Our last day in Bangkok. Several pieces of
administrivia to take care of this morning. The others are putting
together a box of stuff they are mailing home rather than carrying.
There is also the perennial quest to change money at a good rate. And,
of course, there is breakfast.
Walking through the streets there are a number of observations I
might make (not all observed this walk, but this might be a good time to
mention them). Traveling in Asia you are bombarded with sensory input.
Generally you report what you see, hear, and taste. Not much coverage
is given to what you feel and smell. Feeling? You feel hot. Just
about all the time during the day. It is hot and humid. The sun is
merciless. You walk someplace a few blocks away and you are drenched in
sweat. I sweat more than most of the others, in fact. Then at night
you freeze. I am not sure what it is but we have not been able to find
air conditioners we could adjust right for the night. Turn them to the
lowest setting and it is darn cold at night. If you turn them off it is
too hot to sleep. Smell? Smells are interesting here. Some are very
nice; many are unpleasant. The khlongs smell of raw sewage. There is
garbage in the streets and in the heat it rots quickly. There are lots
of insects in the air and often in the food. I was served soup at one
point with an ant in it. Little hexapods add protein to the rice.
Other things that seem to take Westerners aback a little is nose-
picking. Here it is just at about the same level of acceptability as
scratching your head. It is not at all uncommon to see industrious
nose-picking on the street. Hairy moles are a point of pride here. You
see people with hair six and eight inches long growing from a mole on
their face. The proprietor of the Shanghai-style restaurant in Hong
Kong had a long proud tuft of mole hair.
The guide books told us that sandals and thongs are considered rude
in Thailand. Actually it is not true. You see them worn on the street
a lot by Thais as well as by foreigners.

A very popular beverage, Vitagen, is a vitamin tonic sold as a soft
drink in a little rectangular amber bottle. I can't imagine vitamin
tonics being sold as a soft drink in the United States. I mean, it's
like seeing cold Geritol being sold next to Coke and Pepsi. I asked
around our group if anyone remembered the name of this drink and
apparently I am the only one who noticed that it was even being sold.
There were even television ads showing a jock exercising relaxing with a
refreshing bottle of vitamin tonic. I wonder what the stuff tasted
One of the books told us that shorts and sandals were both
considered low-class in Thailand. That certainly doesn't seem to be the
case any more. That seems like standard apparel. A little more about
standards. The most common tour book used is the Lonely Planet guide to
Thailand. You see about five or six of these little devils for every
other tour book you sight. I have not looked in detail at the Lonely
Planet Thailand guide. We carry the Southeast Asia Handbook which is
heavy and covers a lot of places we don't need on top of the ones we do,
but otherwise I like it a lot.
One more observation. Esperanto was invented to be the universal
language that everyone would speak as their second language. Very nice,
very regular, very easy to learn. The one problem is that everyone
would have to learn it because nobody spoke it as their first language.
The experiment may yet succeed, but I have my doubts. One reason is
there already is a very widely used second language. That is, of
course, English. We have traveled reasonably widely and only in China
eight years ago could you not get along in English. I suspect you can
Any country that seriously is trying to attract tourists teches a
lot of English. You can get along on English. We've head Germans who
speak German and English talking to Thais who speak Thai and English.
Neither speaks or understands the other's native language. They use
English. Barbara's fears the first night in Chiang Mai were groundless.
She has never really had a language barrier that was insurmountable.
It is plain rude to go to a country and not be able to say 'Thank
you' and 'hello' and a half-dozen phrases like that in the native
language. Also, you lose a lot of the friendly contracts you make when
you show the respect of learning the native pleasantries. But you can
travel to any tourism country without fear that there will be an
impossible language problem. (Note: the above statement may not be
operative in France.)
The Lonely Planet listed a good place to have breakfast and it
wasn't there any more. We picked a place called the Nat though perhaps
the Gnat might have been a more accurate description. It seemed to be
like most places, decent but perhaps not perfectly clean. Barbara
looked at one of the three people sitting in the restaurant and
identified her as an 'aging hippie.' One certainly wonders what these
people who have been living off Thailand's low prices are going to be
doing with themselves when they are 40 and the money starts to run out.
This lifestyle does not prepare one for much.
The Nat is associated with a guest house. Look through the back of
the restaurant and you see a doorway that has a Buddha shrine and a sign
that says, 'Residents are requested not to bring Thai ladies up to their
The breakfast was not really very good. Barbara, who had ordered
Muesli, was not happy that there was not enough muesli in the fruit and
yogurt. She end up talking to a waiter who had little English. 'Where
Muesli? There fruit. There yogurt. Where muesli? Just a little bit
of muesli.'
From there we went to the post office where the others were packing
boxes to send home. We had acquired only very little, so we borrowed a
corner of one of the other boxes.
And money got changed.
Binayak suggested I but some tamarind since I like sour fruit. It
was interesting and certainly sour enough but the flavor was not that
good. The seeds come cleanly away from the fruit in your mouth and look
like they are made of mahogany.
Back to the hotel, we packed up our luggage, observed that the trip
was now just about half over, and grabbed cabs for the train station.
We dropped off our luggage at the train station and headed out for our
last day in Bangkok.
Bangkok is very much a Thai Los Angeles. For one thing, the title
means 'City of Angels.' But it has the vitality, the crazy traffic, the
pollution, and all the strange architecture. It was founded in 1782 on
the Chao Phraya River by Rama I. He called it Rattana Kosim.
So that was the city we were seeing the last of. Our first stop
was Wat Trimit in Chinatown.
In 1932 Wat Trimit, a modest temple, got permission to move a
plaster Buddha from Sukothai to Bangkok. It was a cheap plaster Buddha
statue and if the truth be know a rather ugly one. But they needed a
Buddha statue and this was the one they were getting. Somebody at the
time probably noticed that the statue was also a real son of a bitch to
move. But nobody really commented on it.
In 1953 they were again moving the ugly plaster Buddha. Again it
was a real pain to move. The crane had a chain around it and lifted it,
but it slipped, fell, and it cracked.
In the 16th Century the monks of Sukothai had a real problem.
Invaders were coming. And the first thing the invaders would steal
would be their precious Buddha. They could hide their Buddha, but where
do you hide a Buddha? And Buddhas should be adored, not hidden. The
best place to hide a Buddha is in a Buddha. That way believers could
still stand before the Buddha. Only a few people would know the secret.
Perhaps they were killed by invaders; perhaps they could not pass
the secret to anyone they trusted. Nobody knows, but the secret was
In 1953, workmen were looking at an ugly plaster Buddha that had
slipped from their crane and was now broken. There was metal inside.
Inside an ugly plaster Buddha was one of the great treasures of Asia.
It was a Buddha, three meters high, five and a half tons. It was solid
We saw US$83 million worth of Buddha in a wat that had surprisingly
little security. I am now sure how they are protecting the Golden
Buddha, but it must be something non-obvious. I frankly would have been
happy with a few fingernail parings from the Buddha.
Well, after seeing the Golden Buddha of Wat Trimit we headed off
for lunch. Walking into the heart of Chinatown we asked directions.
Someone told us there were restaurants in the direction we were going,
though we might have to eat with chopsticks. I think four of us said in
unison, 'No problem.'
We went off in that direction and eventually did find a restaurant.
The restaurant we found was not all that good unfortunately. Not that
we had problems communicating, though we did. To get chopsticks we had
to hold the knives and forks like chopsticks. But the food was only
mediocre with small portions and not a very auspicious final meal for
Bangkok. Barbara and Steve went off to see the local zoo. Evelyn,
Binayak, and I went to see the Royal Barge Museum. That involved
walking a fair distance through Chinatown to the river and there
catching a ferry up the river a way. The Chao Phraya River is sort of a
rapid summary of Bangkok. You see some skyscrapers, but a lot more you
see corrugated metal shacks and every once in a while you see a
beautifully ornate wat or a Burmese prang. The ferries come up to the
piers for just a moment or so and passengers jump on over what is often
a widening gap. The deck is generally crowded so you have to jump fast
and aim well.
We docked at the proper place and from there did not know the
proper way to get to the Royal Barge Museum so inevitably 1) went the
wrong way and 2) were better off for having done things wrong. What
they were expecting is that, like most tourists, we would take a water
taxi to the museum. We could not figure out how to do that so instead
walked the distance the narrow back way through a poor Muslim
neighborhood. The community lives in moderate poverty in what are
basically shacks. There were dogs who looked a little sick running
We found the barge museum and it looked a little like a submarine
pen with ten or twelve parallel barges dry-docked. Each told when it
was used. They would have decorations like fierce-looking Naga snakes
at the front of the barge. They each were very long and narrow, maybe
sixty feet long but only eight or ten feet wide, rowed by muscle power
with oars. They gave the impression of water serpents. Several were
equipped, incongruously, with a cannon sticking out of a hole in the
figurehead. I am not sure what sort of battle these boats were expected
to get in, but they were hardly maneuverable to be much of a threat to
any attacker. It was like giving a ninety-year-old woman brass
knuckles. The concept of a boat aimed mostly by oarsmen maneuvering
about is not going to strike terror into too many people's hearts.
Apparently it is a family that runs the museum and lives at the
back of the barge pen. We could see that there were rooms back there
that I at first took for being part of the museum but someone was
cooking back there. At one point two kids came out and walked around
carrying a puppy who was still very young. On this trip Evelyn and I
are the only people who do not own cats. There are few mammals I don't
like and I like cats, but I am not as fond of them as many people are.
Dogs, on the other hand, I both like and respect (I don't respect cats)
and through some biological glitch I am fonder of puppies than of human
babies. This was an unexpected place to find this little ball of fur
and it really upstaged the Royal Barges of Thailand.
We came out of the barge museum and found Binayak was in the
process of bartering with a water taxi driver. The deal he struck was
for one hour of taxiing around the khlong. So we hopped in and got a
chance to see what it life is like on a bangkok khlong.
The khlong seems to be all water but drinking water to these
people. At one point we saw a child sitting over a hole in a dock using
the khlong as a toilet. Further on we saw a woman washing her hair in
the same water. While none of the houses on the khlong will ever show
up in House Beautiful, some looked quite comfortable. Others seemed
very poor. The people were all pretty friendly. Many of them waved.
We started experimenting with waving and seeing who waved back. About
two-thirds of the American boats going by would have at least someone
wave back but 100% of the groups of Thais would wave back. The Thais
are a very friendly people.
Actually we saw the least sanitary usage of the khlong was furthest
from the Chao Phraya but it smelled the worst as you got closer to the
main river.
The taxi-man's tip-maker is to take passengers downstream of their
actual disembarkation point and past the Grand Palace and the Wat Arun,
an 86-meter Khmer-style prang across from the Grand Palace. The taxi-
man then guns his engine and speeds past these majestic sites giving the
passengers a cool ride and a most impressive one. It is really essence
of Thailand in one short dose.
Well, it's now about 4:15 PM and we'd agreed to meet the others at
the train station at 5:30 PM which was a full hour before our train
leaves. We have better than an hour to kill. SO what does Binayak
suggest but that we take the ferry all the way up the river to the end
of the line and then turn around. Evelyn is game so I am too. I am a
little concerned about the time but I figure my pals know what they are
doing so I keep my mouth shut. We go quite a ways upstream and it
starts getting to be 5-ish and Evelyn suggests we had better forget
about getting to the end of the line and go directly to the train
station. We get off and wait a while for the boat in the other
direction. Binayak says the other direction will go faster since it is
downstream. By now everyone is concerned about getting back in time.
By 5:20, it is clear we ain't gonna make it. The ferry is taking about
three minutes between stops and at this rate it will be 6 PM when we get
to our stop. Gee, I wonder how Steve and Barbara are taking our
absence? Probably not so good, huh? The trip drags on with the smelly
fumes and the noise of the engine only making things worse. I re-
estimate still 6 PM before we get to dry land.
5:54 PM we dock at our stop and jump off. We start to run toward
the street. The back of the pier is flooded. There is only a narrow
board to walk and people coming in the other direction are carefully
edging their way. We jump sideways, splash a little, and come by
another route. The three of us run to a tuk-tuk--a converted
motorcycle--and jump in the back asking to be taken to the railway
station. Something in our tone must have conveyed some urgency to the
driver, perhaps more urgency than we really felt. The race to the
station can best be described as 'madcap.' The man had incredible
control over his vehicle whether it was on the right side of the street
or not, whether it was cutting into lines of oncoming traffic. The man
could see an opening and take advantage of it. It could be that he was
just trying to have a good time for himself. Maybe he just wanted to
scare the tourists. Maybe he just enjoyed proving that there could be
lanes in the road where one doesn't conventionally think of them.
Suffice it to say that we went a fair distance in ten minutes. And I
got a lot older.
When the ride was over I suggested Binayak run and tell Steve and
Barbara that we had arrived. Evelyn paid the cabbie. My natural
inclination was to kiss solid ground. Apparently Evelyn, who had not
paid sufficient attention to the ride, was more concerned that we might
miss our train than in giving thanks that the taxi ride was over.
We rushed to the left luggage area where Steve and Barbara had just
hit panic mode. It a wild struggle to get the luggage ready to go, the
elastic rope on Barbara's luggage carrier came lose and popped her a
good one right in the mouth. It put her in a bad mood. We rushed to
the train and were in our seats a good ten minutes before the train
started to roll. They came by with menus but the group decided instead
to stroll over to the dining car. How was this a mistake? Let me count
the ways. This was a long train, we were at one end, the dining are at
the other end. It must have been at least twenty cars away. It was a
hot and unpleasant walk. It was interesting in that you saw the inside
of other cars. You saw people stretched on the floor under their seat
on a piece of cardboard. You saw a lot of people very uncomfortable.
There were no first-class cars; we were in a second-class car but it
looked far more comfortable than the third-class cars with four seats
across. We got to the dining car and it was a counter with stools and
the food did not look very good to the group. We ended up going back to
our seats and ordering from the menu. Even then it took a very long
time to be served, probably because the food had to be carried the
length of the train. Barbara was not happy. It also took a long time
for the porter to set up the beds. They seemed to give us service an
hour after everyone else in the car. We finally got bedded down
October 17, 1990: I always wake up early on sleeper trains. While
we traveled the topography started having a lot of limestone karsts. I
had heard karst formations occurred only in China and Yugoslavia, but
here they were in Thailand.
Karsts are limestone formations. Pressure on a limestone bed
causes it to buckle and to force up what looks like huge limestone
teeth. They can easily be 100 or 200 feet high and often green with
trees or bushes that somehow survive with what little nutrient they can
pull from rock. We passed rubber plantations and the occasional water
buffalo. When they came around and offered us breakfast the choice was
American or Continental. I would have liked the Thai breakfast, which I
saw later, but they did not offer it. I wish they would not assume
American tastes are so narrow.
We had been told that we should bring toilet paper which would not
be available most places in Asia. That time has passed. Every bathroom
we've seen has it and in addition it seems to be in common use as table
napkins and Kleenex. Breakfast this morning included a couple of sheets
of toilet paper as if they were napkins. I think it was in Hong Kong
that all the truck drivers had rolls of toilet paper on their
dashboards. I assumed it was because they did not want to be caught in
a bathroom without, but now I think it was just there for general
Our next destination was Krabi. This is a provincial capital. It
is near Phuket. Actually its claim to fame is as a resort area where
the karsts hit the water. The result is giant limestone outcroppings
sticking out of the water. The effect is very pleasant.
One of the train attendants talked to us a while to find out about
us. We told him about ourselves. Eventually he started to ask about
how much we made. I was willing to tell him in general figures but the
others said I probably should not tell. It created an awkwardness and
he walked away.
The train arrived at our disembarkation point, Trang. We tried
calling to reserve a place near Krabi but had problems making the phone
call. We decided to go ahead and bus to Krabi. The bus was four seats
across with an aisle down the center--nothing unusual there, but the
seats were numbered with tags as if they were six across. Sure enough,
they packed the bus with three people in each pair of seats. On the hot
bus it wasn't pleasant.
As we were loading the bus, we bought some chicken and rice from a
hawker. They sell it in a tetrahedron wrapped in palm leaf (or banana
leaf). Someone also asked for a soda without ice. It was clear they
thought the Americans were nuts to drink warm soda, but we were afraid
of the water. You hear rumors that the water is safe in Hong Kong, in
Malaysia, and in Singapore. You even hear water is safe in Thailand. I
guess the real question is whether you are willing to risk your vacation
on a rumor the water is safe. From the beginning of the trip I have
been assuming that the water is safe nowhere.
Trang, we are told, is the perennial winner of the cleanest town in
Thailand award. In the heat and dust we were a little afraid we might
lose that award for Trang this year.
It is a long and dusty ride from Trang to Krabi, but some of the
vistas with the limestone outcroppings as background are worth it.
After about 150 minutes we pulled into Krabi.
Though you could not tell it from the first views, Krabi is a
prosperous town and right at the moment in the throes of election fever.
Trilors go up and down the streets with billboards on each side painted
brightly with political messages and a loudspeaker on the truck carries
the message to all the people. It is really tough to get away from
these noisy nuisances. You pass one on the road, you find another. By
calling we found there were rooms at a little beach resort called Ao
Nang Villa in the town of Ao Nang about a half-hour away by seelor. It
is right on the Andaman Sea, which is a beautiful setting even if beach
resorts aren't really my thing.
There are bungalows with three hotel rooms each. There are a few
problems with the room (so what else is new?). There is a constant line
of tiny ants in the bathroom up the wall of the shower. Also the toilet
does not do a really great job of flushing, but then few toilets seem to
in Southeast Asia.
The food is pretty good and pretty cheap and the service
occasionally borders on slavish. After dinner was a walk on the beach.
Barbara walked around looking for shells. Binayak and Steve went off
exploring. Evelyn and I just walked. After that we went to the bar
attached to the restaurant. Everyone else was watching The Package with
Gene Hackman. We were having a spirited discussion of politics and I
think one of the workers came over to quiet us down, though ostensibly
it was to meet her. He name was Kuhn (Thai for 'shrimp'--Thais all have
nicknames, she said). Kuhn likes going into Krabi for the disco. She
undoubtedly is popular there. She is very attractive.
October 18, 1990: We were up well before the projected breakfast
time. I suited up and went out for a morning swim. The water was
already warm and while sunrise was blocked by a karst, seeing the sun
rise over a karst is nothing to sneeze at.
For breakfast I had boiled rice and seafood, which was nice with
chili and vinegar. I tried to ignore the ant that was floating in it
(or more accurately, to forget about it after I fished it out). By
unanimous consent the morning's activity was to be swimming. If the
truth be known, the water is not all that clear--it is a bit murky--but
the scene is still beautiful.
It was with some trepidation that I go swimming when the sun is up.
I always burn badly. Either I cannot put on the lotion uniformly or it
gets washed off but if I swim in the sun, I will burn.
We lay down two bamboo beach mats we bought for the exorbitant
price or about US$1 each. I carefully painted myself with #15 suntan
lotion and went in swimming. After about 45 minutes I came out, lay
down on the mat, and once again applied lotion. As I was lying there
Evelyn asked, 'What did you do to your leg?!' I had felt no pain but
there was a huge red welt covering most of my leg. It just matched the
colors of the temple painted on my new one-dollar beach mat. On that
the picture was now less distinct. The paint was water-soluble. Nifty.
I jumped back in the water and got at least some of the paint off my
leg. I think at the same time I washed off the second application of
suntan lotion. I lay back in the sun and without realizing it gave
myself a nifty burn. Steve also got a good burn that morning.
Lunch was in the local restaurant. There were some dishes in Thai
that were not translated into English. I ordered one and the waiter
told me I didn't really want it. He suggested another. I let myself be
switched. However, he came back and said they couldn't make the second
dish. I said I would take the first dish. 'It has chilis,' he told me.
'Fine,' I said. It took forever to get the forbidden Thai dish.
Everyone else had finished. Finally it came. It was boiled rice, fried
peanuts, and a dish of a purple garlic and chili sauce. Pretty deadly
spicy. I ate it all and told the waiter it was 'a-roy' (delicious). It
felt as if someone had flayed my tongue with a potato peeler. It was
just okay and too hot for me, but a macho guy like me doesn't admit
We went our separate ways that afternoon. I had a lot of log
writing to do. Evelyn napped. It turned out there was a power failure
so writing was neither that easy nor that comfortable. The sunburn was
starting to hurt a bit. That is one problem the Southeast Asia. The
rooms are either hot or freezing. Almost every night the rooms are too
I expected I would get all caught up in my log, but no such luck.
There is just too much to write about and the whole afternoon I didn't
get a full day covered on the log.
We had decided to meet and go into Krabi for dinner. We did so and
grabbed a seelor into town. It was pretty much dark by the time we got
there. Steve wanted to see if he could get Listerene. We picked a
place for dinner recommended by the Lonely Planet and it was still
around. It was a restaurant owned by a Chinese. He was impressed that
we wanted local dishes and that we ate everything that he served. I
found that I was coming down with a cold (probably the same cold Evelyn
had a couple of days before), but I still gave a good account of myself
at dinner. We had, among other things, fried tofu, seafood in oyster
sauce, and clams in the shell.
After that we walked around town. There was a night market where
we got some sweets. I got some cookies to pass around. We passed a
movie theater and looked at the posters. Both films looked like they
had something to do with lost civilizations in the jungle with sexy
women. One had ten warrior women in brief leopard-skin outfits. The
other looked like a rip-off of H. Rider Haggard's She.
We went to some stores. In one Steve bought a bathing suit.
Getting back to the hotel proved to be more of a problem than we had
expected. The seelors stopped running at 6 PM. Most of the possible
rides we found were more than we really wanted to spend. We eventually
decided we had to pay a bit extra. We went back to the hotel, freshened
up a bit, and had a drink (I had a fruit shake). Then we went to the
office and arranged for a tour to Phang Nga for the next day. While we
were in the office I noticed that a newspaper had an ad for the UNIX
operating system with a Philips Electronics product. But UNIX has come
to Thailand. A woman in the office couldn't figure out why we were so
interested in the ad. We told her it was our company's invention.
October 19, 1990: After a quick breakfast we grabbed a seelor for
Krabi and the tour of Phang Nga. Only four of us went. Binayak had
rented a motorbike the day before and had to return it, so decided to
meet us in town. He did.
The rip to Phang Nga is a long one on bumpy roads. It is most
likely getting dull hearing about karsts, but they were there in
abundance. There was lots of farmland. I guess this is as good a place
as any to note how they tether a cow in Thailand. They apparently drill
a hole between the cow's nostrils. To tie up the cow they thread a rope
between the nostrils and tie a knot in it. Must be painful for the cow.
We got to Phang Nga about mid-morning. This area is supposed to
have the most impressive limestone mountains in the area, many growing
right out of the sea. The tour takes you to so-called 'James Bond
Island.' It is called that because it was used as Scaramanga's island
in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun.
The minibus pulled up to a small town with lots of hawkers offering
Coke and Sprite and beer. You file into a narrow boat where you sit two
abreast. It takes you into a mangrove swamp that looks like something
out of Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the background you can see
distant limestone out-croppings.
Eventually you get to a karst with a natural water tunnel under it.
It looks like something out of Land That Time Forgot (okay, last film
analogue for a while, I promise). It opens out onto an open waterway
punctuated with dozens of karst formations rising right out of the
water, with little or no beach. As the boat continued we started to see
the tops of some of the karsts shrouded in clouds. It had been a hot
two weeks and a little rain might feel good. In another few minutes it
did. A cool rain blew through the boat. Just when it was becoming too
much of a good thing we got to James Bond Island, really three karsts
including one only a few feet across at the base and maybe twenty-five
feet high. It was called Nail Island though it was really part of Bond
Island. On Bond Island were a horde of souvenir hawkers with their
wares covered with cloths to keep them dry. More tourists stood huddled
in the protection of indentations and caves in the limestone. Some of
the hawkers walked among the tourists trying to sell their goods. Boys
carried monkeys and hawks for those who would pay to be photographed
* UNIX is a registered trademark of UNIX Systems Laboratories.
with the animals. Most of the tourists were waiting out their sentence
on the island. We had been given a half an hour which under normal
circumstances might have been too much and with the hiding from the rain
was considerably more than we wished. I bought some dried squid while
we waited and handed it to the group. When our half hour was over it
was back into the squall. By now the rain and cold had become
unpleasant and in fact the cold wind blowing through the boat was
becoming very unpleasant. I had a cold and a light cotton shirt with
nothing under it. Everything was getting drenched.
Cold and miserable, we stopped for lunch at a Muslim fishing
village and had a mediocre lunch of seafood. More bugs in the rice.
There was a soup, some fried shrimp, a whole boiled fish, and pineapple
for dessert.
After lunch we were given a half hour to walk around the souvenir
stands (providing kickback opportunity to the tour company).
After our half hour we boarded our boat with dampened seats and
enthusiasm. I think that they probably cut the sight-seeing a little
short because none of us were really in the mood to see more karsts in
the rain. They returned us to the dock and we reboarded the minibus
where we were told we would be seeing a reclining Buddha in a cave.
There was a fence in front of the cave and monkeys climbing around the
entrance shaking down the visitors for peanuts which could be had for a
modest contribution. Now it is bad enough when you see a lone adult
monkey putting out his hand for a peanut. What really frosts my cupcake
is when a mother monkey comes along with a baby hugging her chest and a
plaintive look on her face. I don't know how monkeys ever learned to
mimic human plaintive looks. Anyway, the monkey comes complete with sad
plaintive look. So you fork over a peanut and--guess what--the mother
eats it. You ever see one give the pender to the papoose? No! If you
ever see the mother give the peanut to the baby you can call me to tell
me about it ... collect.
Anyway, we get into the cave and there is a big reclining Buddha.
Big Buddha, maybe twenty feet long. Overhead you hear a noise like a
bunch of pulleys that need oiling. Every once in a while you see a
shadow flutter across the ceiling. Still, I could not see what it was
that was living up there and it was driving me bats.
There are sections of the cave to climb on rough-hewn steps and
generally they lead to a statue or two. Sometimes they don't seem to
lead anywhere. I don't know. There seems to be a natural affinity of
Buddhists for caves. Tiger Balm Garden also had fake caves to explore.
Maybe there is some symbolism I am missing.
On the way out, I bought a bag of peanuts for the monkeys and paid
with 10B; the woman shook her money box to show she had no change and
gave me my change in peanuts. I thought that was very sneaky. It was
worse than that. Before I had fed half a bag to the monkeys the van
started to go. Worse yet, when I asked about the peanuts a day or so
later, Evelyn had eaten them. And I didn't even get a chance to see.
I'd have been willing to feed them to her, but she ate them behind my
Next we were told we would see a waterfall. In fact, that was not
really what was advertised. It was a sort of a park built around a
small stream. There was a small fall in the stream where the water
dropped about eighteen inches. The others seemed somewhat disappointed
but it was a sort of pleasant park to walk around. It seems that just
about any attraction, no matter how minor, will have an assortment of
food and drink hawkers outside. I think we got fruit.
Next came for me what would have been one of the more memorable
incidents of the trip. On the van Evelyn asked for some water. Steve
started to open a plastic bottle of filtered water for her. You will
undoubtedly be happy to learn that 'easy-opening' containers in Thailand
are just as frustratingly difficult to open as 'easy-opening' containers
are in the United States. The water bottles had a quick-pull tab to
unseal the cap. The easy-opening cap really required needle-nosed
pliers to remove safely, but generally tourists who bought the water
worried about local microbes would take this tab that, God only knows
where it had been, put the end in their mouths and, risking dental
mayhem, tear at it with their teeth like a dog tearing at a chew toy.
Steve started this dignified operation but I stopped him. I didn't
have needle-nosed pliers but I had the next best thing ... the orange
peeler on my Swiss Army knife. It was perfectly designed to cut open
the tab as I had demonstrated to myself earlier that day. As I tried it
now with one quick slice the bottle was one-quarter open. Another quick
pull and both my left index finger and the bottle were half open. I
found myself losing interest in the bottle and becoming more concerned
about my finger. It, in fact, had my undivided attention since it was
leaking fluid faster than the bottle was. I jammed my finger into a
facial tissue which magically changed from white to red to maroon.
There had been better moments on the trip.
Our next stop was a rubber plantation. Actually a small farm would
be more accurate. Holding the tissue over my finger I got out of the
van. They brought us over to a rubber tree. My finger still hurting
and bleeding, they showed us how they slice open the trunk of a tree and
let the sap drip out into a collecting bucket a drop at a time. It's an
odd sensation, feeling sorry for a tree.
You can recognize these rubber farms as you drive along because
they seem to have what look like diapers hanging in nice even rows in
front of the farms. How they form the rubber into such nice even forms
I don't know, but they take the collected rubber sap and dry it and roll
it on rollers, forming it into these sheets. The sheets are about
fourteen inches wide and maybe thirty inches long.
That was our last attraction of the tour. The trip back to Krabi
was picturesque but it was scenery we'd seen that morning. Actually the
trip from Krabi to Ao Nang was more interesting. We had grabbed a
seelor. Now picture this: a really small pickup truck with two six-foot
bench seats in the back and a roof over them. This was rush hour and we
discovered that the truck would carry pretty much as many people were
willing to pay. This one hit a record of twenty-two people. There were
four in the cab, five hanging off the back, and six people on each of
the bench seats, including a mother with a child in her lap. I suspect
that if six more people wanted to come, the seelor would have stopped
for them. The limiting factor is only how many are willing to try to
squeeze on.
We talked to a couple and asked what country they were from. 'West
Germany.' 'Oh, you know it isn't there any more?' Yes, they
acknowledged, there was no more West Germany. I asked if they were not
sorry they were not home for the re-unification. Yes, they were a
little sorry to miss it. But they had been in Berlin when the Wall came
down. The guy had been one month old when it was put up. There were
parties on every corner with food and drinking. East Berliners were
coming through and just staring at everything around them in wide-eyed
amazement. Some from the West bucked the current to go into East Berlin
but there was less to see. There was, however, not all that much
fraternization between Easterners and Westerners. They did not really
Back at the hotel we had grilled fish for dinner (everyone but me-
-I ordered off the menu). This was our last night in Thailand.
October 20, 1990: Today we were taking a van to Penang. It might
have been nicer to take a plane, but as yet there is no air travel to
Krabi. It is very isolated. When they build an airport in Krabi, it
will bring more tourism to the area.
Steve was up early wanting to call to the United States. They had
promised him there would be someone in the office at 6 AM but it was
locked and dark. We were going to be picked up at 6:30 AM by the seelor
and as 6:30 drew close, he became more steamed. Finally at about 6:30
he found someone to complain to. She smiled. In Thailand a smile has
many meanings but apology is one. 'She just smiles,' Steve said
angrily. The woman went over to the office door and banged on it.
Inside a sleepy clerk woke up from behind the desk. Well, they did have
someone there; Steve just didn't know the rules. Well, it was too late
now. The seelor was not nearly as crowded this morning, perhaps because
it was so early on a Saturday morning. We had only eighteen people. By
the time we got to Krabi it seemed in full swing with a crowded morning
market. I think Barbara was surprised to see so many people up so early
and shopping. In poorer countries, I told her, you don't waste daylight
hours and then spend money to light the night. Our country is more
geared to never getting up while it is still dark out and always getting
up at the same time, so our standard awakening time is the latest dawn
in the year, even though that wastes a lot of daylight in the
We got to Krabi and had a few minutes before we left. I got a
small yogurt drink for breakfast, figuring that we would probably not be
stopping again.
That turned out to be only sort of true. After about an hour we
did stop for gas and at the gas station they had a case of hot food. We
got steamed buns that had a sort of mincemeat pork filling--very tasty.
There was also sticky rice with the same filling wrapped in tetrahedrons
of leaves. We also got some packages of prawn chips and caramel corn.
On the road we saw fewer and fewer of the limestone karsts. There
were more of the flooded rice paddies with people working in them, often
up to their waists. I tried to get pictures of water buffaloes.
Around lunch time we stopped in Hat Yai, apparently for lunch,
though they told us to take everything off the van. Sure enough, we
were changing vans. We were to wait, we were not sure how long, in a
combination restaurant and travel agency. Now when I refer to a
restaurant in this part of the world, perhaps it is conjuring up
inaccurate images in the reader's mind. We are used to something called
a restaurant here that is enclosed and has a kitchen someplace out of
sight. That kind of restaurant is quite rare in Thailand and is quite
touristy. First of all, there is a roof on this kind of place but no
walls. You walk into this place and your first reaction might well be
that it does not look particularly clean. In fact, these places are not
very clean by Western standards. You often see flies lighting on
uncooked food. Luckily I have come prepared. As it happens, I have a
staff of antibodies who are on my payroll for no other reason than to
fight off bacteria and contagion I might ingest. I would prefer not to
tax them and overwork them too much, but I have them there so I don't
have to worry too much about eating in Thai restaurants. The place was
really what we have come to call 'shop-houses': the upstairs is a house;
the downstairs is a shop or restaurant.
Anyway, we sit down at a table with stools around it. There are
four or five people cooking at various places around the room. Most
have glass cases with food like pre-cooked noodles on the shelves. I
point to the kind of noodles I want and they drop them into the soup
they have cooking there. I am not even sure that all the people cooking
in this room are not in competition with each other. I had a point-to-
what-you-want sort of meal. It was sort with rice noodles.
I finished the meal and walked around Hat Yai. Next door was a
video store. The films all had titles in Thai and English, but the
films were all American or English. Things like James Bond films or old
adventure films. I was really looking for film, but could not find it
in three adjoining blocks.
A new van picked us up. The passengers were just the five of us
and someone new who looked Chinese. About an hour later we got to
Malaysia. We stopped at a checkpoint on the Thai side. The driver took
our passports and went off with them. It seemed we were waiting there a
while. To pass the time, we sweated. Another group came along and was
waiting also. They asked us how long we'd been waiting here. I fought
the urge to tell them 'July' to see their reaction. About that time our
driver came back and we crossed the border into Malaysia. Almost
immediately there was a Customs check. We had to carry our suitcases
in. They were less friendly toward Americans here. I was at the front
of our group and I started to put my bag up where the locals were having
their bags inspected. They told me rather curtly to stop holding up the
line. I guess it was silly of me to think they might not trust me.
On the way out of the shed I looked at a vending machine that had
cans of the standard U.S. sodas and something called 'Sarsi.' I guessed
'Sarsi' might be sarsparilla. The Chinese passenger asked if I'd like a
can of soda. I thanked him but told him no. He got two cans of Coke
and offered me one anyway. We passed it around but it broke the ice and
I started talking to him. His name was Tee. He was an engineer for
office products.
We talked to him about the local politics. As it was in Thailand,
we were arriving in Malaysia just before an election. One of the major
parties was the National Front, whose symbol was a pair of balance
scales. I guess there is basically a two-party system with the other
party being in this election a coalition of two parties, the Sun Party
and the 46 Party. The symbol of this alliance was a yellow square with
a white circle inscribed and a '46' inside the circle. The National
Party is also called the New United Malays Nation Organization, or UMNO
Baru. It essentially represents the Malay people. 46 is a Muslim unity
movement. DAP--the Democratic Action Party--represents the Chinese
more. (Notice the acronyms for the parties' names are rendered in
English. English again is the common language shared by the various
ethnic groups.) Their symbol is the rocket.
Malaysia seems more prosperous than Thailand. At least the roads
are smoother. It looks a little more like home, at least on the roads.
Butterworth and Georgetown are sort of twin cities separated by a
narrow (two-mile) strait of the Andaman Sea. Georgetown is the city on
the island of Penang and people often call it Penang. Butterworth is
the closest city on the Malaysian mainland. It looks fairly modern and
sports an air force base currently used by the Australians.
We pulled into a gas station, and while the tank was filled the
driver got out and vigorously shook the van back and forth for three or
five minutes. We speculated that it helped to get more petrol in the
tank, but that is just a guess.
The ferry to Penang is reminiscent of the Star Ferry in Hong Kong.
The city on the far side looks modern, perhaps not so modern as Hong
Kong, but with a few skyscrapers. The air as you cross is not as cool
as we'd hoped, but it was better than being in the van.
At the far end we drove into Georgetown (a.k.a. Penang). Penang
was once a pirate island, the base of pirates who preyed on ships
carrying goods to and from Malacca. The British wanted it as a base,
leasing it from Sultan Abdullah of Kedah, though supposedly both sides
knew he had no claim to the island. The Brits were anxious to lease the
land from someone and the Sultan obligingly accepted their money,
anxious to be paid for something.
Not far from where we were dropped was the Cathay Hotel listed
among the moderately-priced hotels. Mr. Tee helped us find it.
The place was run down but clearly was some sort of a showplace in
the 1920s. Binayak told Mr. Tee to wait while we got cleaned up because
he was going to show us where to eat dinner. Tee, seemed obliging
enough, though Evelyn and I were concerned we were taking too much of
his time.
Our room was sparsely furnished but cavernous. It looked like
something out of an Indiana Jones movie. At some point the place had
been electrified but all the wiring was external. You entered the room
through a big double door with two feet of window above the door. Just
outside the double door were bar-room-style swinging doors. In previous
days, you would open the double doors and the swinging doors still
afforded a modicum of privacy. The room was post-fitted with an air
conditioner and a ceiling fan to keep it cool now.
Mr. Tee patiently waited for us to take us to dinner. When we were
all together we went out on the streets. We found a street where there
were several vendors. They seemed to share some common sitting space.
We went to their carts and ordered soup and noodle dishes and fishball
dishes and a duck. For some of the dishes Tee tried to pay,
occasionally succeeding, but we managed to head him off for most.
We had a whole feast spread out on the table under an overcast sky
when we saw the first bolts of lightning. 'No, it's just bluffing,' we
thought. 'What possible motive would it have for raining on our meal?'
It found one. As our soup became weaker and our duck turned to duck
soup, we rushed to find a protected table and to move our food onto it.
We found a table just under the roof of the restaurant. We all ordered
Pepsi and tee ordered Coke. 'I thought Americans like Coke more than
Pepsi,' he said. 'Some do, some don't,' we explained. This led me to
ask him, 'Do people in Asia think Americans push their own culture too
much onto Asia?' We'd seen a lot of American brands around and a lot of
American restaurant chains. 'Many Americans are sorry to see so much of
their culture exported to Asia.'
'Japanese people push a lot harder than Americans,' he said,
diplomatically leaving the question unanswered. We talked a while
longer. Tee's parents were from Kuang-chou--the city we call Canton.
Eventually we bid farewell to Tee. I told him it had been our good
fortune to meet him.
Steve wanted to find the telephone office so he could complete the
call he failed to make that morning. We found the office. Both he and
Barbara called the States. I thought of calling my parents but it would
have been too early. It was 9:45 PM in Malaysia, so it was 9:45 AM in
New York and 6:45 AM in California. We killed thirty minutes on the
street. People were still coming up to the open restaurants. Some
people eat late. I tried calling my parents but they must have been out
for the weekend. I left a message on their machine and we headed back
for the hotel.
October 21, 1990: There were noises in the walls. Perhaps it was
a Chinese ghost but at 4 AM we heard some very active sounds above our
heads. We were on the top floor so there were no rooms up there. It
was a little mysterious but the racket whatever it was made was amazing.
It was something pretty vigorous, making all that noise.
In the morning we went out on the street for breakfast. We had a
Muslim roti. This was sort of like a thin layer of bread over meat and
onions. It was okay, but I wouldn't want to have it too often. An ad
on the wall informed us in English that Lucky Strike is 'an American
original'--whatever that is. It did not appear to be a tourist
restaurant--they just get the same advertising we get in the United
States. I wonder how many of the locals are impressed that Lucky is an
'American original.' While eating I read a newspaper which reprinted a
New York Times editorial suggesting that Israel had been duping the
United States. Sentiment here is strongly anti-Israel, not
It was election day in Penang and so many of the shops were closed.
Steve found a place to change money. We next had to go to the train
station to get tickets for the sleeper the next night. We could not
find a cab that would take all of us so Steve and Binayak took a
trishaw--it was like a bicycle with a carriage at the front. Some say
that is politically better than a rickshaw because of the mechanical
advantage. It still bothered me to have someone slaving in the sun to
transport us. Later we would ride a trishaw; for now we rode a cab. We
rode faster than a trishaw can travel and we were riding for a while. I
was sure we were well and truly separated from Steve and Binayak. There
is a sort of market by the train station and Barbara went to check it
out while we watched from Steve and Binayak. It was a good two or three
minutes before their trishaw pulled up to the station. I cannot figure
out why their trishaw got there so much faster than we would have
expected. Our cab was not metered and we'd determined a price before
the ride. There was no advantage to the driver to take a roundabout
route. Apparently he must have anyway to save us from a long wait at
the station. We bought the train tickets from a woman clerk in full
Muslim apparel, covered so we could see most of her face but that was
about all. Nonetheless she seemed happy and smiled at us. In Egypt the
women dress in much the same way but dourly avoided foreigners. Perhaps
Allah is not quite so strict in Malaysia as He is in other parts of the
From there we walked to Fort Cornwallis. It was Captain Light who
negotiated the lease of Penang Island from Sultan Abdullah and he did
that in 1786. He built a wooden fort to defend his leased island.
Between 1808 and 1810 convict labor was used to rebuild the fort i stone
so that the Big Bad Wolf, who at that time might have been Napoleonic,
would have a harder time huffing and puffing. The Big Bad Kangaroo,
however, would have less trouble because the walls were only about
waist-high. A number of cannons still stand, including one that local
women put flowers into for fertility. It was here that I first became
aware of the alarming numbers of cats in Penang. They were all over
everywhere, but their numbers were particularly great in the fort. I
think there is a secret in Penang that nobody wants to talk about that
the cats are in control. We saw the contingent that held the fort.
Penang Island is now run by and for the cats.
Incidentally, in both Thailand and Malaysia we noticed that the
cats all had docked tails. The tails were of various lengths but
usually they were cut short to some extent. Some had bulbous tails,
possibly from a docking that went wrong. We later read of a local
belief that a cat with a docked tail cannot jump over a dead man. And
you don't really want cats jumping over dead men. Kitty jump over dead
man, dead man get up and walk around. And one thing that transcends the
culture barrier is that none of us wants dead men getting up and walking
around. It leads to all sorts of negative complications.
From there we took trishaws to Khoo Kongsi, a Chinese clan house.
It was considered too ornate for mere mortals, decorated in the ancient
Chinese style with statues and carvings and lanterns all over. It was a
bit too ornate for my taste but then--though it has yet to be proven--I
suspect I am a mere mortal. Across the way from this ornate building
was a stage used to put on Chinese operas.
Next our fleet of three trishaws visited Sri Mariammam Temple.
There most of the ornateness is reserved for the roof but that is also
garishly ornate with statues of Hindu deities. It is dedicated to the
goddess Mariammam, whose architectural taste was suspect. Notable are
statues of Ganesha (?), the elephant-headed god. I have to say one
aspect of the Hindu religion is unique. From what I heard it rarely or
never has a concept of a different religion. If they find a god someone
else prays to, they adopt it as a lesser deity. It is just a sect of
Hinduism. So we all are already Hindus without realizing it. If
another religion took the same approach, each religion would subsume the
other and you would end up with a very strange structure. I wonder how
Hindus would treat a religion like Scientology.
It being excessively hot and approaching the hottest part of the
day, we went back to the hotel to rest and sort of siesta. The streets
are fairly empty and most things closed due to election day.
About 3-ish we went out again in the hot sun. We walked around the
shop-houses of Muntri and Stewart Streets. Most were closed. We saw
the Malay Mosque, at least from the outside. Non-Muslims were not
permitted in.
We ended up back near Sri Mariammam Temple and had lunch in a
shop-house across the street. We tried to order Indian dishes; the
owner kept trying to steer us to his version of Western dishes which he
apparently wanted to try out on us. 'If you don't like it, you don't
pay.' He ended up serving us an unordered plate of fried chicken on
that basis. It was not as good as his Indian food but it got eaten. We
stayed there a little longer than planned because the rains came.
Afterwards we wandered the streets a bit on our own, but this was one
dead city. The combination of the Sunday afternoon and the fact it was
election day meant things were pretty dead. We ended up at the Komtar
Centre, a shopping mall in the tallest building in Penang, a fair-sized
skyscraper. It was well air-conditioned, which meant it was a blessed
relief. Being about the only thing open in Penang, it was a beehive of
activity. There were a lot of Western chains serving food that was
guaranteed halal (the Muslim equivalent of kosher). There was A&W,
White Castle, McDonald's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Not very exotic,
but it was at least cool. Afterward we went back to our rooms to write.
The others went out to a bar for a drink but Evelyn and I did not go.
October 22, 1990: Overnight I think we established our Chinese
ghosts were playful cats living either on the roof or in the attic above
our heads. They were very noisy. Apparently they were above our room
only. Nobody else heard them.
This was another day that Barbara and Binayak were going a
different way that we and Steve were. The three of us had breakfast in
a Chinese place. Our lack of local language did sort of get in the way.
When we thought we were asking for three seats we were requesting three
bowls of seafood with noodles. Well, so it goes. It was tastier than
yesterday's roti.
After breakfast we headed out for the local botanical gardens.
This is a 75-acre valley. As we got out of the taxi there were kids
selling bags of peanuts to feed to the monkeys. The gardens are mostly
jungle. Not jungle like we saw in Northern Thailand that looked a lot
like a North American forest. This was more rain forest with
broadleafed plants and exotic creatures. There were a number of nature
trails into the jungle. As we were walking I saw a four-inch green
scorpion walking in a gutter. I started to take a picture and Steve
jumped in front and got two or three shots. Then he moved out of the
way and I started to get the picture. 'Buzz,' my camera told me I
needed a flash. I popped up the flash and waited for the light to come
on. And waited. By the time the flash was ready the scorpion had
hidden himself under a cement block. I considered asking Steve to pull
him back out but decided it wasn't any use. We walked a nature trail
but saw no animals. Most of the animals we saw were in the concrete
gutters. We saw a small and harmless snake. We saw ants at least an
inch long and daintily articulated so you could see every part. It was
sort of like seeing 'The Visible Ant.'
The big attraction was the monkeys who were smart enough to come
out of the jungle into the more park-like areas of the gardens. We had
peanuts but could not compete for their attentions with some Japanese
tourists who'd brought the local bananas, which were about four inches
in length--just about the right size for a monkey with a sweet tooth.
When the Japanese had gone, some of the monkeys stayed around to
take our peanuts. There were young monkeys, and mothers with babies
clinging to their chests, and some of the braver males. We soon
discovered that they would pretend to be interested in the peanuts we
were handing out but would grab for the bag and pull at it with
unexpected strength. I was the first to be so mugged by the monkeys and
I only let it happen once. I warned the others and Evelyn never got
mugged. (That's not surprising for anyone who knows her.) Steve was
mugged at least twice. Once he was taken by a surprise attack in spite
of my warning. Once he knowingly left a bag of peanuts in the open to
watch the monkey take it. First he stole my scorpion picture; then he
contributed to the delinquency of a monkey. In his defense I should
also point out that he yelled at some local school boys who were
throwing rocks at the monkeys. They stopped until we moved on or they
thought we weren't looking. We might have thrown rocks at the boys, but
were a little afraid the law would be on their side.
After the botanical gardens we took a taxi to Penang Hill. This
hill is about 2800 feet high overlooking Georgetown--the city of Penang
Island. There is a funicular railway going up the side. I got a soda
when we arrived and in that much time we missed the railway up and had
to wait for the next one about a half hour later. We sat down to rest.
After while we were on the railway. There are really two trains
that meet halfway up the hill. In this way they can have a train leave
each half hour for what is a half hour trip. As you go up the railway
you get increasingly better views of Penang island. For the first
stretch we talked to a Malaysian of Indian extraction who'd been up
three times and was taking a friend up for the first time. Somehow I
found I felt comfortable talking to him and only while talking did I
realize that in spite of being Indian he looked a great deal and had
many of the mannerisms of my cousin Aaron. He was more darkly
complected but he really looked a lot like he could have been from my
cousin's family. Anyway, he was affable. He asked how we liked the
local food. I said we liked it. He asked if it wasn't too spicy. I
said that at homer I had a reputation for liking food spicy but in
Thailand I'd had a couple of dishes that were too spicy even for me.
For the sake of my honor I ate them and pretended nothing was wrong. He
thought that was funny.
On the second stretch we found ourselves sharing our car with,
among others--there were about ten to a car--an older British couple
from Derby. He had been stationed at Butterworth during the war when it
was an RAF base. He was, as he said, a cryptographer. He broke down
under questioning, however. He did not actually get to Malaysia until
after the Japanese surrendered. He was not exactly what I would call a
cryptographer either. He decoded what were then increasingly rare
encoded British messages. He decoded them by formula rather than by
actually trying to break any encoded messages from the enemy.
At the top of the hill it was supposed to be several degrees cooler
and it probably was about ten degrees cooler, but that wasn't enough to
make it comfortable. We took some shots of the city below. There was
also a small mosque at the top of the hill. On the way back I talked
more to the Derby couple. He had been an accountant for the British
Railway and talked about how precise and exact he had to keep the books.
After this we headed back toward the city. We took a cab and
talked to the driver about the elections. To nobody's surprise, the
National Front had won. As I later read about the election, the DAP
party--which represented local Chinese interests--was in disarray. A
popular young politician whom everybody expected to be the future of the
DAP had just resigned. With our government, the leaders have to look
like the best alternative to the people every four years or they get
voted out. In Malaysia's parliamentary government, the prime minister
just has to have his party look good over a fairly long interval, like
thirty years. When he thinks he looks good, he dissolves Parliament and
holds new elections. With the DAP floundering suddenly the Prime
Minister decided it was a good time to hold elections. All over Penang
we saw political ads and cartoons saying, 'This is our only chance to
vote out the National Front.' Well, DAP did make gains in Parliament,
but to nobody's surprise the Prime Minister won the election. Penang
tends to feel they get very little of their tax money coming back from
the government since they tend to back the DAP rather than the
Our next stop was the Penang Museum, a museum of the history and
culture of the island. We had saved this for the hot part of the day
since the guide book said it was air-conditioned. It turned out to be a
small museum with some rooms air-conditioned and some not.
You start with a display of the founding and political history of
the island. Then you go to a section that still has some history, like
a newspaper reporting two rival Chinese gangs, the Teh and the Ghee,
fighting and putting the whole island under siege. One of the guide
books said there were displays of the Tong Wars and if there were any,
this was it, but if so I am not sure these could be called the Tong
Wars. The Tongs, if I remember right, were a single secret society,
like the Mafia. Today the Tongs are still around but they are more
generally called the Triads. In some cases, Triad societies are only
fraternal; more often they are a criminal syndicate featuring Mafia-like
loyalty ordeals. The same newspaper had an article claiming that Jews
were trying to lead believers away from the true Islamic faith. This
was in the 1800s. I did not realize that ill feelings between Muslims
and Jews went that far back. I thought it might have happened
considerably earlier and somewhat later, but I would have thought there
would have been no reason why 19th Century Malaysian Muslims hated Jews.
If one of these two gangs represented the Tongs, there was no such
indication. Other exhibits included a Chinese opium bed, a section on
Chinese opera, a display of railway history, and another on building the
funicular railway up Penang Hill. They had the Rolls Royce that one of
their dignitaries was assassinated in. One room upstairs was devoted to
the kris, a Malaysian style of dagger. The kris is a very special sort
of dagger as important in Malay culture as the samurai sword is in
Japanese. Its odd shape makes it look inconvenient to use when, in
fact, its shape has been described as being ideal for its function. It
is generally twelve to sixteen inches long and highly decorated. It is
bound up in mythology and mysticism. Tradition says each man must have
several, including one he inherits from his forefathers, one he is given
by his father-in-law, and one that is his own. They are ornately
decorated. There are whole rituals for how a kris must be made. Each
kris must have a wooden hilt, also highly decorated. Some krises have
straight blades, others have wavy blades. There is a great deal to
understand about the kris and all its features, and very few real
experts. The kris room would have been one of the major attractions if
the museum had we known we were going to see it and had sufficient
materials to study the kris beforehand. There was, however,
insufficient information at hand for more than modest interest for us.
(The new 'golden' dollar coins show a picture of a kris and its
scabbard, incidentally.) There was also a modest art museum.
Because most of this museum was actually not air-conditioned we
were quite hot and getting hungry, so we decided to head out for a haven
of cool air, the Komtar Centre. Sad to say, we had lunch at A&W where
cold root beer tasted surprisingly good. We also had chili dogs. After
recharging our batteries, Evelyn and I went our separate way from Steve
to see some of the shop-houses of Penang. I got a good price on a stick
puppet to decorate the house. Evelyn went into a used bookstore and
found a very rare piece of Sherlockia, one of the Mycroft Holmes novels
of H. F. Heard. This one was nearly impossible to find. This would be
a good area to look for used books. Since they have much slower supply
and slower demand they might well have some low demand books that have
become rare in the United States and have sat on the shelves a long time
Some of what is sold in the shops is as common as toothbrushes and
razor blades or dinner. Some is more exotic. One store advertises '4
DIGIT NUMBERS FORECAST.' Where else could you turn a random number
generator into a business? Kind of like the old cartoon of a bum with a
pocket calculator and a sign reading, 'Square roots--5 cents.'
We returned to the Cathay. We'd kept one room for a half-day so we
could all get together and clean up. Steve got back first, Evelyn and I
second, and Barbara and Binayak about an hour later. We shared another
pomelo. Binayak was anxious to try the local dish 'Chicken rice' so he
led the way for dinner. We found a restaurant shop-house that boasted
'Famous Chicken Rice.' It turned out to be a fairly uninteresting dish.
It was just what it said without any interesting sauce. Binayak, who
led the way, was the greatest critic, in fact. We also got some
pastries at a local bakery, checked out of our hotel, and taxied to the
ferry to Butterworth.
We'd been looking forward to the ferry ride after sundown as being
a relief from the heat. No such luck, as it was very hot on board and I
drenched myself in sweat. Barbara complained of bathroom smells, but I
didn't notice.
At the other end you get to a station in Butterworth that is both a
bus and train station. There was a little kid, maybe eight years old, a
lot of personality, asking people where they were going and directing
them how to get there. We said we were taking a train and he gave us
very complete instructions on how to get there. We set up camp in an
open train station, little relief from the heat. Most of our group
walked around. There was a grocery and some shops over in the bus
station and B&B went off that way. I bought a bottle of filtered
mineral water. In Malaysia you cannot get distilled water very easily.
You can get mineral water. I think the assumption is that tap water is
safe, but I still try to drink only bottled water and the carafes of
drinking water in our hotels. I use the water bottles we got in Hong
Kong as canteens. They have twist caps rather than the ones we have
gotten since which once you pull off the plastic caps, you have what are
basically plastic stoppers. I also bought an issue of Asia Week that
had an article on Malaysia's elections.
I talked a bit with Steve while we waited. I can't say exactly
what made me think so but I have slowly come to understand a little
better why he is a supervisor and the rest of us are not. I have really
come to have more respect for his demeanor and personality this trip
than I had before. He is very well suited to dealing with different
personalities. In a lot of very subtle ways he is a peacemaker.
Barbara came back laughing. Apparently she had been walking on the
dark concrete walkway back. Some guy going the other way crossed over
to her and asked her, 'Where you going, Missy?' She gave him a stern
look and said, 'Don't ... even ... think ... about ... it!' He just
sort of wilted and walked away.
Off we went to the sleeper car. The train was long and it was a
long way down the platform. And it wasn't worth waiting for. We were
all right next to the bathroom, which Barbara noted. She must have a
more acute sense of smell than mine. The berths had no lights in them.
The window was either all the way open so you got a wind blowing the
curtain in your face or it was closed. There was no middle ground.
Worst of all, the rotating fan did not rotate. A very important of your
comfort was that rotating fan, particularly for the upper berths, which
Evelyn and Barbara ended up with. We tried getting the fan to work, but
it was to no avail. We pointed the problem out to the conductor.
'Lucky,' he said. 'That's not very lucky,' Barbara said. 'You
... unlucky.' Thanks, guy. I opened my window and in doing so spilled
a bottle of water on the bed. It may have helped a little but it looked
embarrassing. By morning it looked like sweat. I tried to write for a
while but the ride was very jerky. I tried to sleep, but that was
really tough also. I kept waking up and checking my watch. I remember
seeing every hour but 3 AM.
October 23, 1990: The conductor came around tapping his keys on
the bed to wake us at 6:30 AM. At 6:50 we pulled into the capital of
Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.
K.L. is a city with a wild if not particularly ancient history. It
was established as a city in 1850 when two mining chiefs, Raja Jumaat
and Raja Abdullah, founded it and persuaded Hakka miners to go get them
tin. (Again the Hakka pop up in this log.) Eighty-seven poled up the
Kelan River to mine tin; sixty-nine of them died in the first month.
The Chinese never did have it very good in Malaysia. K.L. remained a
sort of wild mining town for several years. Then in 1895 it was made
the capital of Malaysia. As a result it looks considerably more modern
than, say, Penang. Most of the buildings are no older than those in
Chicago or San Francisco. One difference is the Islamic architecture.
You get some amazing combinations with the filigreed Moorish style on
skyscrapers. It looks pretty weird.
Oh, so it is about 7 AM and we have gotten off a hot train into the
hotter air of Kuala Lumpur. We dragged our luggage to the first
platform and the waiting room which was air-conditioned, thank goodness.
In Malaysia you get this feeling that you are walking into a wall of
comfort when you walk into a building with air conditioning. Of course,
when you leave it you walk into a wall of hot humid air that hits you in
the face.
We had hoped to stay in the hotel at the train station, but we soon
established it was closed, for renovation it appeared. Steve and I
started looking through the books to find someplace to stay. We called
one hotel, found it was no good for some reason that escapes me. We
settled on the Puduraya. (To me the name still sounds like the Puta-
rama, which is a great name for a hotel.) It had rooms in the
appropriate price range and on calling they did have rooms. The
downside was that it was over the bus terminal. It was kind of like
electing to sleep in the Port Authority in New York, a less than savory
We grabbed cabs and headed for the hotel. It did very much look
like a modern city in spite of the seemingly incongruous Muslim
architecture. Some of the brand names we saw were also interesting.
There were ads for Brylcreme. Now there is a company I thought went
four-paws-to-the-moon long ago. Brylcreme was the original 'greasy kid
stuff.' You put this stuff in your hair before you combed it and it
held your hair in place and made it look greasy. I was still a kid when
I saw the last ads for it. Yet here it is, alive and well. I guess
some companies survive entirely on foreign markets. That's what the
tobacco companies expect to be doing by the turn of the century.
The cabs that picked us up did so making an illegal stop so we had
to rush in, so we had no chance to make arrangements where we'd meet at
the far end. Our cab left the train station first so we waited at the
cab stop for Steve and Barbara's cab. You could not even walk across
the street to the place. There were walkways over the street because
the traffic was so fast. After waiting a while I decided to scout for
the others and left Evelyn and Binayak at the cab stand. The bus
terminal was noisy and less than inviting. I had a bad feeling. I took
the elevator to the fourth floor to get to the hotel. I was amazed.
You walk into one of those walls of cool air and the hotel really looked
nice. Steve and Barbara were there already sitting on the nice soft
seats in the lobby. I decided I could live with this. I dropped off my
backpack feeling relieved I'd found Steve and Barbara and the hotel was
better than I'd expected. I went back into the heat and motioned the
others in.
The rooms were perhaps not all that fancy but they were definitely
comfortable, and after the previous night I told Evelyn that I could see
there were definite advantages to comfort. Our initial philosophy was
that we could save money on the rooms since you were only in them for a
short time each day. Perhaps I am getting older but I can now see the
advantage of having a nice place to retreat to and be comfortable.
After freshening up we went for breakfast. B&B had seen a nice
buffet in the back part of the lobby. I was more anxious to try my luck
on the street. Steve and Evelyn decided that might be a better approach
so we split up. We found a nice Muslim place, basically a shop-house
but nicer than most, right across the street. We had another roti, as I
remember. It might not have been as palatable as B&B's hotel breakfast,
but it was very probably more interesting. From there we met back at
the hotel and then headed back to the train station, this time on foot,
to make arrangements for the next night's sleeper car to Singapore. As
we got to the train station, someone walking in the other direction
asked us, 'How was the fan?' It was our conductor of the previous
night, though it took us a few seconds to recognize who he was.
It was bad news at the train station. We were all set to spring
for first-class cars after our uncomfortable experience the night
before. First class to Singapore was all booked already. 'Okay, do you
have air-conditioned?' 'No.' It turned out if we all wanted to travel
together there were only non-air-conditioned upper berths. Well, it was
out last sleeper ride. We could stand it one more night, but we were
not very happy about the situation.
B&B were anxious to hear a musical group called 'Asia Beat' which
mixed traditional Asian music with modern jazz. There was a tourist
agency right in the train station, so we went there and took a while,
while they tried to find where the group might be playing. That was a
dead end. Actually, not being a jazz fan I was a little relieved.
Next we headed out to find the National Museum, considered to be
one of the best museums in Asia. Once again it took some wandering.
It actually was a fairly good museum, though somehow I found that I
was not giving it the attention I would have liked to. First, I was
extremely dehydrated from the walk and was kicking myself for not having
brought water. In my imagination I may have been making myself more
thirsty than I really was. Also, after nearly three weeks of constant
stress and particularly after the previous night, I was just finding my
energy running out. I gave some superficial attention to the exhibits
but not what they deserved.
They had a collection of pieces of Baba culture. 'Baba' is what
they call the local Chinese culture. There was a nice exhibit of shadow
puppets from each of the local cultures. Each seems to go in for shadow
plays. On one side of a white cloth is an audience; on the other side
is a light. Between the light and the cloth, flat puppets are
manipulated. The museum also had typical Malay costumes, but what
struck me as odd was that the mannequins displaying the costumes were
all Caucasians. I guess there is not much local industry to make
something like clothes mannequins.
The exhibit I am really sorry I did not get more out of was an
optional exhibit with an admission price on the attitudes toward death
in many cultures. There would be descriptions of funeral customs and
death superstitions from all over the world: odd superstitions from
places like the Pacific islands, the descriptions of a Viking funeral.
(This is now quite familiar to me. I first heard the description on my
Scandinavia trip, but it was based on the description by Ibn Fadlan that
he wrote in 922 A.D. It is one of the eyewitness accounts included in
John Carey's excellent anthology of historical eyewitness accounts,
Eyewitness to History.) There were Eskimo burial customs and Incan
customs. There was a big section on the Egyptians and mummies. Evelyn
pointed out there was even a panel of posters and publicity stills from
mummy movies. You exit via a reproduction of catacombs from ancient
Rome. There is fodder here for a lot of fantasy and horror stories, but
we had to move on.
After a well-appreciated can of Malaysian soda--which has a sour
flavor that ours does not--we went to see the Central Market. This was
something of a disappointment. The way to judge the interest value of a
market is to look at three hypothetical shoppers:
A) a local grandmother
B) a local hip teenager
C) a tourist
You now have a scale on which to measure markets. The gift shop in a
hotel is obviously a C-market. You can have it. The market we saw when
we went one stop too far in the New Territories of Hong Kong--that was
an A-market. Walking through was a cultural experience. The Central
Market was built in 1935 and was an A-market. It dealt in produce. As
the city built up people wanted a more productive (read: profitable) use
of the space so it was going to be torn down. There was a save-the-
market movement which resulted in it being 'saved.' Saving here means
it was gutted and downgraded to a BC- or a CB-market. You can get some
traditional Malay food, but you are more likely to find ice cream and
soda. We had lunch and found the same relation to Malay food that one
of our mall pizza stands has to Italian food. I think we could have
gotten better food had we looked a little harder, even in the Central
Market. But at least it was better than going to the White Castle next
door to the market. We drifted around the market, which still has the
ambiance of a produce market rather than a mall for the most part, for
what that's worth. Not quite so much polish, I guess. The Malaysian
stick puppet I paid about US$8 for before would have cost about twice as
much here. High prices are another aspect of B-ish and C-ish markets.
The others bought T-shirts, a staple product in C-markets. I bought
souvenirs: a couple of small carved wooden figures of demons carved by
the Asli people, a local indigenous ethnic group. There was a booth run
by two teenagers selling plaques of Quranic quotations written in florid
Arabic calligraphy. We saw a lot of this sort of thing in Egypt. I
decided that would make a good souvenir. I found one in plastic. This
was a perfect 'chatchka.' A 'chatchka' as I use it is a souvenir that
is cheap, characteristic of the country, and something a local might buy
for himself. The price was fairly cheap. There were two that were
similar. 'What does it say?' I asked my salesman. 'They are quotes
from the Quran,' he said smiling. 'I'm sure. But what do they say?'
The smile fades. He consults with his girlfriend. She apparently knows
or at least can fake it. I took the one that said, 'In the name of
Allah who is merciful.'
We agreed what time we would meet for dinner and headed back to the
hotel by different paths. On the way we passed what I can only guess to
be some sort of a fortune teller. There was a crowd of people around
him and he was speaking very fast in the local language. At various
points, money seemed to change hands and not always in his direction.
Also, pieces of paper were being handed out. Also pieces of paper
seemed to be handed back to him. We watched for a while, but while I am
sure there was a simple explanation for what we were seeing, nobody was
explaining it to us. I sort of know how my dog used to feel. He used
to see a lot of interactions in a language he didn't understand. He
also used to watch a lot of hand motions that made no sense to him. My
only advantages were that I could watch with an eye higher than seven
inches off the ground and I wasn't burdened with the assumption that all
human interactions have something to do with food.
Back at the hotel we rested and around 6 PM we met for dinner. In
the interest of saving our dignity I will not give a detailed account of
how we went looking for dinner. Suffice it to say that members of our
party wanted to go for dinner at a place they'd heard was an artists'
hangout. Then no taxi driver wanted to take us to this place for some
reason we could not figure out. Finally we got to this place which was
way the heck away through bumper-to-bumper traffic in really heavy rain.
I asked our driver why nobody wanted to drive us to this place and he
pointed out how heavy the traffic was. When we got to the place it was
a hotel and restaurant and we immediately decided no artists were
currently hanging out there. I mean, you can tell when you're hanging
out with an artist, can't you? He has an easel up or something, doesn't
he? 'Aha!' we decided. 'It's 6:30 PM and artists don't start hanging
out until about eight o'clock, we bet. Now where is a cab to take us
back?' Are you kidding me? We were in the city bus terminal and could
not find a couple of cabs to bring us through the traffic here. You
think we're going to find two cabs willing to take us back? Good luck!
Allah was at least a little merciful to stupid tourists. He shut off
the water tap up in the sky. After that we were on our own using
private transport involving shoe leather. In parts of Hong Kong or
Thailand it might have been a nice piece of sightseeing. But the part
of Kuala Lumpur we were in looked a lot like any other urban area. It
was about a ninety-minute walk. Maybe more like two hours and we passed
within about a five-minute walk from our hotel on the way to the
Chinatown night market. We got there and I, for one, felt a bit
We hit a Western-style bookstore. I was hoping to find the Chinese
novel Pilgrimage to the West. About the best I could find was a sort of
'Classics Illustrated' version in four books and they were darn heavy in
my luggage. We ate at a Chinese restaurant we passed where they jumped
in front of us and pushed a menu in our hands as we were passing.
Probably not the best way to choose a restaurant. However, the food was
reasonably tasty. WE had fried noodles, squid in oyster sauce, and
chicken in a clay pot. As with almost all our meals, there were no
left-overs though some of the food did get fed to passing cats.
My big purchase of the evening was a Buddhist prayer wheel. It was
probably more representative of Tibet than of Malaysia. It is a stick
the size of a pencil and at one end is a cylinder about two inches long
and maybe an inch and a quarter in diameter. There is a chain affixed
to the cylinder and at the other end of the chain is a marble, or so it
looks. You take the stick and swing the marble around in a circle as if
you were holding a small mace. The cylinder spins on the spindle and a
prayer is inscribed on it goes by. Tibetan Buddhists think each spin
sends a prayer to heaven. You get the thing going and you can start
sending out prayers. I can get the usually get the thing revved up to
about 300 ppm. When I think how long it took me to do 300 prayers the
old-fashioned way, the thing is really a good investment. After a
little more shopping we called it a day.
October 24, 1990: Barbara ate breakfast in the hotel; the other
four of us went out to eat on the street but ended up eating in the bus
terminal. Bus fumes were a problem with the open architecture. We had
soup with pork or chicken.
Our goal for the morning was the Batu Caves outside the city.
After a little wandering around trying to find the right bus, we caught
it next to the nearby McDonald's with a big 'Halal' sign. I wonder if
there are McDonald's in Israel with 'Kosher' signs.
The drive gave us a good look at the city. I can remember seeing a
film poster in Malaysian for 976-Evil. I wondered how many of the local
people would understand the title. 976 is an American exchange.
Anyway, so we got outside of the town and saw a big limestone
cliff. We saw more of the same sort of thing up north in Thailand. We
were let off on the far side of a busy street from the caves. Crossing
streets seems to be a problem a lot of places in Thailand and Malaysia.
And there's rarely a traffic light where you want one. Cross the street
and you go through a gate and there you see a long stairway in front of
you a few hundred yards away. That walk is a gauntlet of hawkers all
anxious to give you cold drinks at a modest price. (Beer? Jeez, it's
ten in the morning and they're trying to sell me beer!)
Binayak thought there was some sort of trolley to the top and went
to ask about it. Nope, not there any more. There is no royal road to
There are 272 stairs, so it is like climbing to the top of a
twelve-story building. Except, of course, you rarely find monkeys
begging on your way up in a twelve-story building. Evelyn still had two
bags of peanuts, each with about fifteen peanuts--they weren't big bags.
She gave one to Barbara with a warning not to let the monkeys grab the
bag. Well, to make a short story even shorter, it wasn't long before a
monkey climbed her leg to beg. 'How cute!' thought Barbara. A moment
later the monkey was gone and so was the whole bag of peanuts. At least
I was able to get some pictures of Evelyn feeding the monkeys. Well, at
least she was warned!
At the top of the huge stairway is a huger grotto. I estimated it
was roughly 250 feet high. This cave is sacred to the Hindus, who have
shrines in the cave. At the back of the cave there is a natural room
maybe one hundred feet high (or more) with an open ceiling that lets
some daylight in. The strange limestone formations look almost
biological. Everything looks like the inside of somebody's ear or
pancreas or something.
The main cave is free but there are side caves with an admission,
but it is worth it for amusement's sake if nothing else. This place is
sort of a Hindu answer to Tiger Balm Gardens. You walk on a bridge over
fetid waters. The water looks like pea soup but it is a slightly
brighter green. Occasionally in the muck you can make out fish or the
head of a turtle. There are plaster animals such as tigers and goats
pretending to drink the green soup. One cave has just a shrine in it,
but the other has plaster dioramas from Hindu mythology and folklore.
There are dancing snake goddesses and elephant-headed Ganeshas. There
are women with four faces or four arms. And they are all lined up so
you don't do all the climbing you do at Tiger Balm Gardens.
After some confusion we caught the bus back to town. It's about a
45-minute ride back to the heart of the city. I smiled and made some
pleasantries with some Muslims. In the United States you get the
feeling that all Muslims are pretty militant. In Egypt we may have felt
much the same way, but Egypt is right there next to Israel so there may
be stronger political feeling there. Here people seem a little more
laid back and friendly, less distrustful and maybe a bit more courteous
about strangers.
We got off the bus near the Central Market where some of our
numbers wanted to shop. I think Binayak wanted to get Kampung Boy, a
cartoon autobiography of a popular Malay cartoonist. We were given time
to wander around. A bookseller had a tremendous pile of romance novels
from America. I had been told that romance novels were against the
Muslim religion. Apparently that is not the case, or at least romance
novels can be sold here. (There was a book drive for the soldiers in
the Persian Gulf, but they did not want romance novels because
supposedly the Saudi government objected on religious grounds.) I
snapped a picture of the piles of romance novels and the store owner
asked me if this was for an article. I set his mind at ease. No
article. (I don't think he'd count this log as an article.) We got
together again for lunch and after some looking around and disagreement
we settled on the White Castle next door. My resistance must be really
wearing down. After we ordered they told us to sit upstairs and they
would bring the unfilled part of the order, including my two burgers, up
to us. It took almost fifteen minutes and pretty much everyone else was
When I was growing up, my mother used to make meatloaf. I hated
meatloaf; so did my brother. My father ate it and from this I concluded
that as you grow up either your tastes change or your discretion becomes
stronger than your revulsion. Anyway, if my mother made meatloaf, I
tried to avoid that side of my plate as if I'd seen ants crawling on it.
My parents had an answer, though. They'd tell me to put the meatloaf on
white bread and then it would taste like a hamburger. It was like
saying if you put A-1 Sauce on earthworms, they'd taste like sirloin. I
wasn't fooled. There is a big difference between what a hamburger
tastes like and what a meatloaf sandwich tastes like. That's what I
thought until I ate a White Castle hamburger. It wasn't quite the same
but a White Castle tastes a lot like meatloaf on bread.
After lunch once more Binayak and Barbara split off. Steve,
Evelyn, and I went off to see the National Mosque.
At the Mosque they insisted on giving Evelyn a blue coat that
looked sort of like a lab coat. They also gave her a shawl to put over
her head. This was to counteract the immodest ways Evelyn was sporting
about. The Mosque has a circular dome and beside it a minaret. The
minaret is 245 feet high and can be seen at quite a distance. As we
entered we faced the narrow edge of a long walkway. At the far end was
a mausoleum with marble coffins for dignitaries. There were some
flowers but not much other decoration. Turning around on the walkway,
on our left was a grand prayer hall. There was grillwork around it, but
it generally was open-air. Though a sign said that it was off-limits
for non-believers, we did see some tourists enter to look around. I
stayed out but did use my pocket field glasses to look around from a
distance. No pictures were allowed anywhere in the mosque, of course.
Across the walkway from the great prayer hall were what looked like
schoolrooms which appeared to be being renovated.
After the National Mosque we went to the National Art Gallery. In
the front was a soda machine that dispensed cups. I got a Sarsi and had
it half drunk when I noticed there was a dead ant floating in it. That
took the edge off my thirst really quick, I can tell you. Evelyn is a
practical girl. She took the cup and drank the soda in such a way that
the ant stayed in the cup. I didn't feel like kissing her right away
after that, but then I probably wouldn't have kissed her in the art
gallery anyway.
I quickly found out what made this a gallery and not a museum.
Every item had a year on it and every time the year was 1990. Frankly,
after seeing so many of the classics on our Holland and Belgium trip two
months earlier, these did not stack up. The first part of the exhibit
was modern design. You know, the sort of thing: chairs and sewing
machines made to look impractical or ugly but at the same time chic and
In the upper floors we saw paintings. A couple were striking; the
rest you could use the Evelyn Wood Speed Art Appreciation techniques on.
While we were walking around we heard a familiar voice coming up
the stairs. It emanated from Binayak. He and Barbara wanted to see the
art gallery also. They did. Then we all headed back to the hotel to
rest up, none of us looking forward to another night on the sleeper car.
Everyone but Steve had checked out that morning. We saved one room so
there would be a place to crash. And crash we did. We all slept. We
woke up about 6 PM. Meanwhile it had gotten really ugly outside. This
was the worst rain and lightning storm of the trip. When the sky opens
up here it can be impressive. We'd allowed plenty of time to get to the
train station.
We checked out and asked the hotel to call us a cab. To my relief
they did not respond, 'Okay, you're a cab.' Not to my relief, however,
was the fact they could not find us a cab because of the rain. We sat
in the lobby with our bags as they kept trying but no cabs. 'Don't
panic. Still plenty of time,' we told ourselves nervously. The hotel
kept retrying. We kept not panicking. After about an hour we decided
there must be a better way not to panic. The way we were trying was not
100% effective.
We went down to the bus station and tried there. Yes, there were
taxis there but they wanted M$15. Coming in the other direction it had
been about M$7, Barbara pointed out. We started off to try to find
other cabs. The Steve said we'd take it if we could get two cabs, not
one. They agreed.
We went to the cabs. Barbara was still bothered that we were being
gouged. I am usually the cheap one of the group, but I told her, 'They
are charging us each US$1.20 and the standard price is $US0.60. Should
we go back to worrying if we can get to the train station?'
She said, 'You're right. I'm thinking crazy.' I thought that was
a nifty response. It is tough to think about what these prices really
are in American dollars.
For the extra US$0.60 we got to the train station in time to get
dinner. But the moment I was dreading, and probably all of us were, was
when we'd have to get on that sleeper car.
Our first view of the car was a pleasant surprise. There were
small windows for the upper berths. They were about six inches by
fourteen inches. These could make much of the difference. As it turned
out, the weather may have also been a bit cooler. I was actually too
cool and someone else was actually complaining that it was too cold. I
think we all agreed this was our most comfortable sleeper and I was able
to tell the others that I didn't know why upper-berth people had been
complaining; based on a sample of one, upper berths were quite
comfortable. Every couple of cars they even had storage space so I
could get rid of my backpack.
October 25, 1990: In the morning I woke just a bit early, but I
needn't have bothered. The train, which was supposed to have gotten
into Singapore at 7 AM, was something like two hours behind schedule. I
went over to where the others' berths were (Evelyn and I were separated
from the others). We talked for a while. I was somewhat amused to see
a Buddhist monk, orange robes and all, sitting there and listening to
our conversation. I would have liked to talk to him, but do you just
talk to a Buddhist monk? I wasn't sure. I knew they were not supposed
to come in any physical contact with women. If they are to be handed
something by a woman they spread a cloth between their hands. The item
to be handed them is laid on the cloth without touching them. I more or
less figured I should not push matters. Then Priya threw a comment
about trains or something into our conversation. I figured it was 'open
season.' I started a conversation with him. I asked where he was from
and he said he lived in Malaysia and Singapore. Originally he was from
Bangladesh. I mentioned that one of our party was from Calcutta.
Binayak asked if Priya still spoke Bengali. He did and they talked a
while. At some point I noticed that Priya had a large tattoo of a bird
on the inside of his right forearm. I don't think I have ever seen a
monk with a tattoo before. I asked Priya what his responsibilities were
as a monk. They seemed to be just that he takes care of himself.
Doesn't he have special prayers he must make? No. We told him some of
our country. I remember telling him how much I dislike snow. I doubt
if Priya had even seen snow, so I thought that would be something he
would want to hear about. We talked about Singapore, which he said 'was
fine for fines.' Steve thought he meant it was a nice place for nice
people. No, he meant fines. There are warnings of fines all over.
True enough, Singapore had a liberal dose of signs up warning about
fines. Every minor infraction seemed to have a heavy fine posted.
Littering, jaywalking, everything. Some even threatened caning. What
20th Century country still has whipping as a punishment? Who do they
get to administer the caning? It is an anachronism. I asked Priya how
long he'd been a monk. Three years. Was this part of a five-year
compulsory monkdom. I am not sure he knew what I was talking about
about five years. He said he was a monk for life.
I was a little surprised that Singapore's outskirts were as much
like Malaysia's as they were. I suppose I was expecting a very modern
city to have covered the island. Much of Singapore looks no better off
than the poor parts of Malaysia or even Thailand. Of course, Singapore
was once part of Malaysia ... for about twenty-three months. It got
un-annexed because of dissident opinions, much as Penang has a lot of
dissidents. The Muslims and the Chinese really do not get along very
well. Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia and had to fend for itself
which it did rather handsomely. This abortive merger occurred from 1961
to 1963.
By far the strongest party in Singapore is PAP, the People's Asian
Party, which has been in power for over thirty years under Prime
Minister Lee Kuan Yew. In the elections of 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1980,
PAP won all the seats in Parliament. There are some signs of change.
In the 1988 election, things went against the PAP party and they won
only eighty of the eighty-one seats in Parliament. Lee still holds a
lot of power. PAP is nearly a totalitarian party in spite of democratic
elections. We pulled into the station 9-ish and got in a very long
Customs line where we must have stood for twenty-five minutes. Of the
Americans, I got the most thorough going-over--I actually had to open up
luggage. However, Binayak seemed to get a very complete examination. I
think they looked all through his luggage and asked him a lot of
questions. They found in his luggage my copy of Asia Week and
confiscated it. It was the first time I had ever seen something
genuinely confiscated by Customs. I'd had a science fiction book
confiscated by the Soviets going into Leningrad. I was told it was
forbidden. Three or four border guards had handed it around until it
got to one who looked as if she was about college age. She leafed
through it, reading five or six pages and then without explanation said,
'Here's your book,' handing it back to me. I suspect what I was seeing
was curiosity, not Cold War distrust. I did not begrudge them a five-
minute confiscation.
This was a different matter, however. What got confiscated, even
if it was only a magazine, was kept. And when we got to the train
station they were selling Asia Week at newsstands. But these, as it
turned out, had been approved by the government. Some issue of Asia
Week had the audacity to criticize Lee Kuan Yew. So now only approved
issues were allowed into the country. The incident left a bad taste in
our mouths.
I will not go into detail about our search for a hotel, but it was
the toughest of the trip. It was very hard to find unbooked hotels in a
moderate price range. In the end, we stayed at the Bencoolen Hotel on
Bencoolen Street. The staff was curt and unpleasant. The rooms were a
bit better than spartan, but not very much. To make matters worse, the
hotel had noisy construction going on.
From there it was out on the street to find breakfast. Actually it
was almost close to lunchtime--must have been about 11 AM. After
walking a while, we found a Chinese place where you pointed to food in a
case. When the bill came and we figured the price in American dollars,
it was a shock. Not a bad price for the United States but high compared
to Thailand and Malaysia.
Next stop was changing money. Evelyn suggested we change US$200 to
be safe. We did. Then we put a big chunk in the common fund and set
aside a piece for departure tax. I looked at what was left and started
wondering if we should start looking for a place to change money. Here
I was still in the bank and wondering where to change money. We changed
US$100 more. Prices in Singapore were high. However, after having
worried if we'd brought enough money back when we were in Hong Kong, it
had turned out to be a fairly inexpensive trip. I don't mind having a
little extra in my pocket in Singapore.
The plan was to see Orchard Road, a posh shopping area. I was sort
of two minds since it was supposed to be something unique to Singapore.
On the way we passed a synagogue. Evelyn had been anxious to see it
since they are rare in this part of the world. The building looked a
lot like a lot of others but it had a Star of David on the front. I was
less than enthralled.
We continued on toward Orchard Road, passing a row of used
bookstores fairly close to our hotel. We went in one and I found a rare
British science fiction play, Quatermass II, which I picked up cheaply,
as well as an Edmund Cooper science fiction novel, Seahorse in the Sky.
Since we left the bank the sky had gotten grayer and more ominous. As
we walked we were pelted by drops of cold rain which I found a welcome
relief from the heat. I knew, however, the rain would not be welcome
for long. Sure enough, it let go in a very heavy torrent. We spent
about forty minutes under the marquee of a theater. It has a whole wall
painted as a giant ad for Total Recall. Here, as in China, most of the
film posters are locally painted from a printed model. I got a good
picture of Evelyn next to a giant Arnold Schwarzenegger face. Her feet
are next to his chin and her head comes up to the bottom of his nose. I
passed the time reading the Cooper book.
Finally the rain let up and we were moving again. It was still
sprinkling and we ducked into a three-story mall, the Singapore Plaza.
We ended up going through it and looking at the bookstores. Right in
the middle of a bookstore a very unpleasant thought dawned on me. Due
partially to circumstances beyond our control, and partially to
circumstances within our control, we had already spent about a third of
our time in Singapore doing things we could have done in new York City.
Why come to Singapore and shop in American-style malls? I started
getting 'ootsey.' Well, we were meeting in about an hour. I could wait
until then. But then the group decided to go to Swensen's for ice cream
and I got even ootsier. The service was not very good and we really
didn't get what we ordered and I kept asking myself, is this the best
use of our time? I suggested we forget about Orchard Street and go look
at Chinatown. Evelyn and Steve agreed and the three of us took the
Ah, yes. The Metro. It has to be one of the most amazing in the
world. They had the stored-value magnetic cards. The tracks are sealed
off behind glass walls with doors that coincided with where the doors of
the trains would stop. That made jumping on the tracks impossible. The
train cars themselves were very modern and very clean. They were
protected from litter by heavy fines. There were no dividers between
cars so that it looked like you were in one long articulated car that
ran the length of the train rather than many shorter cars.
And for people waiting for the trains, where the United States
would have ads (London also), they had signs up with brain twisters.
One was the old puzzle about the hunter who shoots a bear, walks a mile
south, a mile east, and a mile north, and is back where he started.
What color is the bear? (In fact, there are more points that he could
have started from, but he might have had to bring his own bear. There
are more points on the Earth's surface you can walk a mile south, east,
and north, and be back where you started.) That was the easy puzzle.
The harder one was five 'complete-the-sequence' puzzles. I am pretty
good with this sort of thing and figured out three of the five. Steve
figured out a fourth. One none of us figured out.
In the United States if somebody puts brain twisters in a public
place (as opposed to publishing them in a book), they are trivially
simple. Generally they are aimed at children. HBO had a program called
'Brain Games,' but the questions were all aimed at an eight-year-old's
mind. In the United States, the popular culture tries to send a message
to people not to think quantitatively. People who do are usually
portrayed by the media as weird or nerds. With very few exceptions,
mathematicians are portrayed as people who are out of touch with
reality. The sciences are generally shown in the media as being at best
misguided and more often evil. The media have the attitude that we all
know deep down that scientists are useful at times, but they are
enjoyable to laugh at, particularly because they are not well
understood. As of several years ago, we turned out twice as many
lawyers as engineers in our schools, Japan turned out twice as many
engineers as lawyers. I am sure the ratio has gotten worse since then.
Asia has a much greater respect for the human intellect, or so it seems
on first brush. Having no children, I can watch this whole situation
with detached amusement. There is enough momentum in the economy to
keep it from crumbling badly in my lifetime. Not that I won't feel the
pinch, of course, but the next generation will feel it a lot worse than
I do. At least I expect it will. Perhaps it is my values that are
screwed up.
Much of Singapore still feels the influence of Sir Thomas Raffles
of the East India Company who more or less founded modern Singapore.
Raffles organized a Chinese section of town with different sections for
each of the clans. In a sense it became like many ghettos closely tied
together. People on a given street would be from the same part of
China. Sometimes they would form into secret societies like the Tongs.
As I mentioned earlier, Tongs were often fraternal but more often went
in for the same sorts of things the American organized crime went in
for: drugs, gambling, prostitution, loan sharking. They were sort of
their own Mafia. Their power continued until the Japanese moved on
Singapore and occupied it. By the 1950s there were just too dang many
people trying to live on too small a place in Chinatown and the younger
generation started heading out to the suburbs. With them went most of
the money that maintained Chinatown and conditions went downhill. The
government wanted extensive urban renewal, but found it was too
expensive and let things go downhill.
We got off the Metro and pulled out a map to try to find our way.
A young local stopped and asked us if he could help us find anything.
Steve seems to think this is a relatively common occurrence even in
Manhattan. My suspicion is that is not true.
The Southeast Asia Guide had a walking tour of Chinatown and I am
not entirely sure why we did not take that tour. We probably just did
not think of it. Instead we sort of wandered around. Much of Chinatown
is made up of shop-houses. The bottom floor is a shop; the top two are
houses. A city block will be one huge building with one roof, but it
will be subdivided into shop-houses with a dozen or so on each side.
Somehow in the middle of all this is an Indian temple. It is another
Sri Mariammam Temple. The doorway is about twenty feet high but above
it is a steep pyramid structure fifty or sixty feet high that is divided
into five levels and a roof as if it were stories of a building, though
exaggerating perspective to make it look even taller. On each of the
levels there are statues of deities crowded together like a New York
subway. On the lowest level they are life-size, or nearly so, assuming
that Indian deities can be said to be life-sized. On the fifth floor
they are about half scale. This whole thing is overlaid with chains of
flowers. This structure is a gopuram. Then to the sides are roofs
nearly as decorated with plaster cattle and with gods protected with
halos that look like fancy bathtubs upended. This temple is done in a
Dravidian style and is dedicated to the Mother Goddess Devi. Inside you
find yet more plaster statuary brightly painted in little individual
buildings, each a shrine. One we saw off in the distance had a head
five or six feet high.
On the street we visited more shop-houses. We walked around
Chinatown center where there are still lots of street merchants and the
shops sell things like kites and brightly painted fans. On the street
women sell vegetables from portable shops that are spread blankets.
There is a large building actually called 'Chinatown Centre' that is
like an open-air mall with shops selling the inevitable T-shirts. I got
one with an old Chinese poem (in Chinese; I had to have it translated
for me):
Morning rains wets the dust
A small hotel with young green willow trees
My friend, let's have one more drink of wine
Before you go West, beyond the wall
to where you have no friends.
That is considered a very sad and sentimental lament by Wang Wei of
the Tung Dynasty. When you were sent beyond the Great Wall you were in
a different world with no communications back to anyone you knew before.
Evelyn also got a T-shirt. It said 'Singapore' and had a picture of the
Merlion. This should set to rest any remaining questions about which of
the two of us had all the class.
Steve got a coolie hat with a fake queue, a Chinese opera mask, and
a silk robe. This was to be his costume at a party his first night
From there we left Chinatown and walked to Elizabeth Walk. This is
sort of a park on the water. You look across the water and see the
Merlion, the symbol of Singapore. It is a statue of a chimera, half
lion and half fish. As twilight falls the eyes of the Merlion light up.
Somewhere about this time who should come along but Binayak and
Barbara. We were on what was really our last full night in Singapore
(if you didn't count the airport as really being in Singapore), and
Barbara wanted to go someplace fancy for dinner. We really could not
come up with a single idea that all of us liked, so B&B went their
separate way.
We walked around the park a little longer. There was a section
that was just satay vendors. There was some sort of memorial that
looked like four chopsticks in a vertical position. On the way back we
passed an upscale shopping s=center called Raffles Place. We went in to
look around. They were having a camera show. Steve had some interest
and went around to a couple of the vendors and picked up some brochures.
We were interested in finding a place to have dinner. There was a
Chinese restaurant there but it looked pretty fancy for sweaty tourists
like ourselves. The manager was by the doorway trying to get us to come
in so we obliged him.
We had seafood, pan-fried steak, and braised black mushrooms. The
service was quite good. It may have cost a bit more than some of the
other places we have eaten, but it was worth it.
We walked back to our hotel. I wrote for a while and turned on the
television. They had a peculiar quiz show from Canada. But what sticks
out in my mind is that they had ads for children. No, not ads aimed at
children--ads for adults saying that nothing is as fulfilling as having
children. They are concerned that they will be outnumbered by the
Malays so they run the ads for upscale audience saying that richer
television owners should have more children.
October 26, 1990: This is really it. We have now packed our bags
for the last time. Next time we open our bags we will be home.
Breakfast was at the hotel next door. We could have had it at the
Bencoolen but the hotel was sos crewed up in so many ways, I don't think
we dared. I was able to order Indonesian style, which was quite good.
Very spicy, but I like spicy food in the morning, and we finished off
with pineapple chunks that were quite good. Steve, Evelyn, and I then
set off for Little India. The neighborhood looks like something out of
old Johore. Like the Chinese were brought to the United States to build
railroads and today are a major community, the Indians were brought to
Singapore to drain the swamps and clear the jungles and today they have
grown to be a major political force in Singapore. Like the Chinese they
are also distributed on streets pretty much where they came from in
Serangoon Road in the morning is a feast of smells. The shop-house
restaurants are serving breakfast. Big flat drum-like grills are baking
bread. You pass by the noisy buildings and they are making and
packaging spices and a variety of spice smells fill the air.
We passed the Perumal Temple. This is another temple with a big
gopuram. That's the six-layer pyramidal structure over the doorway.
The guide book says it is twenty meters high. We tried to go to the
Gandhi Memorial, but it was closed. We might have kicked our way in and
thrown rocks at the windows, but we decided to be non-violent.
In the nearby Arab quarter we visited the Sultan Mosque. This is a
big mosque with onion-shaped doors. Again Evelyn had to don modest
apparel by putting on a robe and shawl. It is an amazing sight to see
Evelyn modest since it definitely is not her natural state. If they can
perform miracles like making Evelyn modest, perhaps there is more to
Island than I realized. Just kidding. Ha, ha, ha. Hey, I have the
deepest respect for Islam. Yes, sirree! Great religion, Islam. That's
what I always say. Besides I am just one little guy and hardly worth
the efforts of anything like a death squad. Oh, yes. And Evelyn, I am
just kidding too. You followers of the Ayatollah don't have to dispatch
any death squads either. Sheesh!
We had to walk around the mosque to enter it. Of course, it is
situated so that when you pray you face Mecca. I don't know how
accurate that is. With mosques they are probably careful. At the
Puduraya they had qibla arrows on the ceiling in each room. Extending
the arrows in two of our rooms I calculated that the true location of
Mecca was somewhere in the bus station downstairs.
Entering the mosque you see in front of you what looks like a clock
with six digital times of different times of the day. Of course, these
are times to pray. A Muslim prays five times a day. So what's the
sixth time? We asked that on the way out later to a friendly man who
was asking where we were from. Apparently there is an interval in the
morning during which it is forbidden to pray. I don't really understand
that, but it is close to being an explanation. The main sanctuary is
for Muslims only but there is a second floor you can climb up to and
look down from either side. It is funny to see a religious sanctuary
with big clocks at the front, but presumably exact time is important.
Leaving we stopped to look at the clocks and one of the believers asked
about us and where we came from.
From there we headed back to the hotel to meet the others and to
check out. As we walked the skies turned dark and we knew we'd probably
not get back to the hotel before the rain let go. True enough, we had
another torrential rain. We ended up sitting in the entranceway of a
bank huddled hiding from the rain. Under the same shelter was a woman
who talked with us about travel. She says she used to travel a lot but
found it difficult. Now she finds it much easier to send her spirit
traveling now that she has learned to share God's Holy Light.
Apparently someone in Japan discovered how to share God's Holy Light and
now the movement has over a million followers. I guess sending your
spirit traveling would be a heck of a convenience. Each time there was
a bolt of lightning she said, 'Thank You, God.' It was not clear if she
was thanking Him for sending the lightning or for not hitting her. She
gave us a nice brochure showing wholesome, successful people sharing
light by holding their hands cupped like parabolic reflectors. If they
were emitting light it was not showing on photographic film. Maybe it
was a frequency that film does not capture. The woman said that she
comes to Singapore several times a year to study the sharing of light.
That is a problem because the Singapore government does not want to let
her in that often. I am not sure why she didn't just come in
spiritually and leave her body home. It is her spirit she wants
educated and it is her body that needs the visa from the government.
There probably is some very good reason, like the body was needed to
carry money. With the weather as gray and ugly as it was, it would have
been nice to have a little light, but she wasn't in a sharing mood
apparently. Eventually she went away which, incidentally, was just fine
with us.
Eventually we got a cab to the hotel, joined the others, checked
out, and went to the noodle house across the street for lunch. We took
a double-decker bus to the cable car station for Sentosa Island. This
is a recreation island of about a thousand acres. It is supposed to be
a very pleasant place to visit with a host of different recreations.
There is a fort to visit; there is swimming, boating, jogging, roller
skating, and tennis. There is a maritime museum. There is an
underwater world with tunnels to watch the sea creatures.
To get to the island you take a cable car high over the water. The
cable car goes in two directions from the World Trade Centre (not as
impressive as the one in New York). It goes to Mt. Faber in one
direction and to Sentosa Island in the other. We took it and paid to
get onto the island. We took a nature walk. There was lots of flora
but very little fauna. Unlike the jungles of Northern Thailand, this
really looked like what we think of as jungle. It looked a bit like
Kong's Island from King Kong. From there we were going to see a
butterfly collection that Steve was excited about. However, when Steve
discovered the expensive admission price had an additional surcharge if
you brought in a camera, he soured on seeing the butterflies. Instead,
we took the monorail around the island. From there you can get a better
look at the island. And what we discovered was that the island looks
tacky. There is sort of a phony 'lost civilization,' there is a plastic
dinosaur, there is a sort of artificial lagoon. Fort Sentosa is real
enough but still quite touristy. We sort of soured on Sentosa and took
the cable car back. Our ticket included a cable car ride to Mt. Faber.
That provided an okay but not all that impressive view of Sentosa Island
and some of Singapore. It also had an overpriced souvenir shop. We
returned to the World Trade Centre and took the bus back to Orchard
A fancy hotel with the unfortunate name 'The Cockpit Hotel' had a
culture show of local dancing at 7 PM. We decided that would be a
fitting final activity. Before the show we went out for dinner. We
found an al fresco restaurant and decided to try it. They had a singer
who sounded a lot like Elvis Presley. When we actually saw him he
turned out to be Chinese. Binayak and I each ordered a local specialty,
chili crab. It was crab served in the shell with a chili sauce over it.
That made it a real mess, but it was tasty.
The show at The Cockpit included a drink. Presumably it was to be
a Singapore Sling. This place claimed to be the home of the Singapore
Sling. We had heard that the Raffles Hotel was the real home of the
famous drink, but the Raffles was closed for another year or so due to
renovation. Maybe they leased out their title for a year or two. I got
a pineapple juice instead.
The show had Malay, Indian, and Chinese dancers. It opened with a
Malay rice planting dance done to a sort of rock beat. Really
disappointing. The steps may have been authentic but the music
certainly was not.
Next some Indians came out and did an Indian dance. That was
reasonably well done.
The two young Chinese women came out and did an excellent ribbon
dance. I have seen the ribbon dance before. It looks not too difficult
but on reflection keeping eight feet of cloth moving so it does not
collapse and dancing at the same time is probably pretty tough. The two
women had an incredible grace.
That was sort of how the evening went. When the Malay dancers were
up, nothing was serious. They would play a traditional song on folk
instruments and it would turn out to be 'When the Saints Come Marching
In' or a Japanese tune. They would have audience members coming up and
dance with them and one apparently drunk Japanese tourist (though I
don't rule out the possibility he was planted in the audience) would get
up and clown around. They did a pole dance with bamboo poles slapping
together. That normally would be impressive, but it should be noted
that they slapped the poles only on alternating beats, giving the
dancers more time to get their feet out of the way. The Malays were
pretty amateurish.
The Indians did a good job, though I do not know as much about the
nuances of Indian music. The Chinese, who unfortunately did only two
dances, were very good. In fairness finding Chinese women who can dance
their national dances well is probably not all that difficult. The
Chinese take a great deal of pride in their culture and a high
percentage of girls probably start learning the classic dances from an
early age. In China we went to a kindergarten and young girls danced
there with a grace you will not see in this country in children of the
same age.
So that was about it. We walked back to the Bencoolen and got our
luggage and grabbed taxis to the airport. We thought our adventures
were pretty much over but fate still had one curve ball to throw us.
Our plane was at 7 AM the next morning. That meant we had to check in
at 5 AM. We could have slept at the hotel for 31/2 hours, but that
hardly seemed worth it. Evelyn had heard there might be day rooms
furnished with beds at the airport, so she called and sure enough, it
was true. So our plan was to rent day rooms at the airport.
My worry as we headed for the airport was that we would get
separated and not find each other. Evelyn and I were in one cab; the
others were in another. That turned out not to be a problem. It did
give me a chance to tell our cab driver, 'Follow that cab.' I always
wanted to do that. That's supposed to be a cabbie's dream of adventure.
Unfortunately, our cabbie hadn't seen the same films. He just went
anyway he pleased at the airport and we arrived a few minutes apart.
That was not a problem; it was fairly easy to find each other. Evelyn
went off to verify they had day rooms.
Fortunately they did have them just a short walk away.
Unfortunately they were in the secured area. You needed a boarding
pass to get to them.
Fortunately we were flying so we should be able to get boarding
passes. We just had to get them a little early. Now where was the
Northwest Orient desk?
Unfortunately there was no Northwest Orient desk or desks for any
airline. They used common check-in facilities. One hour it would be
Northwest Orient; later another airline would be there.
Fortunately the airlines do set up early at the check-in so we
could get our boarding passes early.
Unfortunately that means getting them about 4:30 AM. It was now
about 10 PM.
Well, gang, we've done it to ourselves again. Are there hotels in
the area? Will they have rooms? Evelyn wanted to open the beach mats
and sleep on the floor. I think Barbara was in favor of going to a
hotel. I still believed in fighting jet lag by staying up all night
before a long flight anyway. And Evelyn can sleep anywhere--she has no
pride. The two of us said we would stay, but the others were free to
go, of course. I guess they all decided that by the time they found a
hotel and settled in, it would be too late to get any sleep. We decided
to do a little final shopping and then find someplace to sack out for a
few hours. Well, as it turned out, all the stores closed just as we
were getting to them.
There was one cafeteria that stayed open all night. After a while
we settled in that. The sign going in said, 'No studies allowed in this
part of the cafeteria.' That was puzzling. I assumed they mean that no
polls could be done. Not so, as we were to find out.
October 27, 1990: We settled into our seats and some of us grabbed
some food. I got an oriental noodle soup with slabs of meat and fish.
Off to the side there was an area with a bunch of teenagers. I
couldn't figure what high school kids were doing in an airport at 12:30
AM. It turns out they were studying. They come to the airport because
there is food to buy and they don't have to be really quiet and they
were there studying until about 4 AM on a Saturday morning. I took a
look at their books and they looked very technical. I think what I was
seeing was spherical geometry. I am not particularly confident that our
students are anywhere nearly as well-educated or dedicated.
Well, the night went faster than I had expected, with various
people sacking out at various times. I think I fell asleep for about
fifteen minutes but I mostly kept myself awake.
There is not much to tell. A little before 5 AM we checked in and
Binayak got another hassle from the officials on leaving. Our plane
took off pretty close to on time. They served us a small breakfast,
showed the film The Freshman, and gave us a very good lunch. It seems
that flying from Singapore to Tokyo they figure they have a lot of
Japanese on board so they offered two bland choices and something called
mataguchi. That was a styrofoam bento box filled with Japanese
delicacies. There were green noodles, omelet, pickled vegetables,
wasabi, etc. I think there was also a shrimp ball. Good stuff. I
think it was not going well and then five Americans seated in a row all
ordered it. We had an hour or so layover in Narita. Back on the plane
for the long trip from Narita to New York.
The flight back to New York was not greatly eventful. Lunch was
fish or steak. Evelyn got the fish but thought it might actually have
been chicken. I got the steak and thought it was terrible.
Unfortunately, there was no mataguchi choice.
The movies they showed were Bad Influence, which I thought was
pretty lousy, and Men at Work which was stupid and lousy and luckily I
fell asleep on it. They also showed The Secret Life of Ian Fleming and
Pink Panther just in case we slept through them on the way.
The flight was, of course, a very long one, lasting about fourteen
hours. Toward the end someone came around asking Binayak to go with
him. Binayak never returned. We looked around for him when it was time
to get off the plane but no Binayak. The crew professed to have no
knowledge about what happened to him. Evelyn wouldn't stand still for
that. She asked how somebody can be taking people from their seats with
nobody knowing. The stewardess, who was on our trip out as it turns
out, said he'd already gotten off the plane.
They loaded us onto a van. There was a rather large fellow (not
fat, but large) carrying a script for Fiddler on the Roof. I asked him
if he was going to be in some production. No, he was the dance captain
for the production that was soon to open on Broadway with Topol. We
talked about the various versions of Fiddler. He thought that Topol was
hard to work with. You could not tell him anything.
We were getting more concerned about Binayak. Passport control was
for us a walk-through. We passed a guy who looked at our pictures
quickly and checked that we were the same sex and race as the person in
the picture.
Luggage was a struggle, as always, and while we were standing there
Binayak joined us. It was unclear why they took him and put him in the
front of the plane, but when we landed he just walked off. It gave him
a head-start through the line. He had to go through a more difficult
check and his head-start got us all out quicker, which might have been
the idea. We piled all our luggage on a cart. Customs asked to see
Binayak's luggage. We said it was at the bottom of the pile. They
waved him through.
It was funny--everyone else seems to have fallen asleep in the limo
on the way home. I was able to get pictures of each of them asleep.
That was just after I woke up one of the times. It was the most
comfortable place we had been in 48 hours. When we got home I kept
myself up till midnight and slept till 7 AM, about the most normal hours
I'd slept since well before the trip.
So what was the best country? Hard to say because we rushed so
much through Malaysia and Singapore, but certainly we found the most of
interest in Thailand. I would say this mode of travel is far more
exhausting than would be a guided tour. It was, however, cheaper (the
whole trip for two cost about US$4600 for absolutely everything
including film and developing), and it is by our mistakes that we
learned the most.
Second only to our trip to China, this was the best trip we've
taken. There were minor conflicts, but considering how different we all
were from each other, we ended up surprisingly friendly. We got home
Saturday and Monday night we all went out for pizza. As I write this we
have been back 23 days from our 24-day trip. It has taken that long to
complete this log. Tonight the five of us again had dinner together and
showed each other our pictures. For the last three and a half weeks, I
had lived halfway between Asia and home. Half of my mind and thought
shave been in this log. Now, at last, for the first time in seven weeks
I am really home.
Copyright 1990 by Mark Leeper

Mark R. Leeper , (908) 957-5619 Fax: (908) 957-7014
Lucent Technologies/Bell Labs - MT3E-433, 200 Laurel Ave, Middletown, NJ 07748
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Read about this trip from Evelyn's perspective