Sunday, January 27, 2008


After KL, the pattern has been two nights in one place before moving on. After taking the bus up from the capital, I had two nights in Penang in old Chinese mansions turned hotels: the first marginally seedy but cheap, the second "The Cathay" definitely smart and a real hotel. I could happily hack the first on my own but felt that Jackie, arriving from the rigours of Sumatra, might appreciate the second. There was time in Penang to explore this very Chinese of Malaysian cities, with many old-style shop-houses surviving, such as would have been bulldozed in Singapore. And then, in the middle of Chinatown, lies Little India, a gaudier, more raucous reminder of that other Asian giant [and the one I prefer]. On my second day, when J arrived in the afternoon, it was Thaipusan, a festival now banned in India but celebrated with enthusiasm in Malaysia and Singapore. Apart from firecrackers and a lot of loud chanting, the central activity involves a lot of vigorous body piercing - skewers through cheeks, hooks into backs and so on. [The little I saw went a long way.] Apparently, the ones that end up in hospital are the ones that fail to get into the necessary trance state first.

How to proceed from Penang? Train up into Thailand [you can get to Bangkok in 24 hours] we decided to re-visit the place we'd stopped off at en route to Australia four years before, the Malaysian of Langkawi. We'd been warned that it had changed a lot; we weren't warned that on the day after Thaipusan hordes of Indian men would be on the ferry [2 1/2 hours travel up the coast] and eventually have to be ordered below [OK, to the lower deck of seats] because their mobbing the outside decks was causing the boat to become somewhat unstable. Anyhow, we arrived safely and fairly easily found our old "Charlie Motel". Actually, the taxi driver didn't know it but J tracked it down with her infallible sense of direction. Pantai Tengah was quite as beautiful as before - as far as I could tell between bouts of jetlag. All that had changed there was a few more places to stay and much better road access. Good to find Charlie's relatively unspoiled although radically upgraded towards the top of the "mid-range" category. The sunsets remained unbeatable, framed between the offshore islands.

Next move was another ferry - this time an international one - one hour up the coast to Satun on the Thai side. A beautiful trip along the coast among the scattering of limestone islands. Not yet ready to say goodbye to the beach, we headed as far as we felt we could manage up into Thailand, to Trang, and then cut down to the nearest beach, at Pak Meng, a sort of downmarket proletarian version of the beach in Langkawi - facing the same way with limestone islands in a broad bay but altogether more accessible with a beach road dividing the sand from the food stalls and attracting typical Thai group outings, piled into a pick-up with food and drink, then spilling out to picnic under the tall casuarinas fringing the beach. The beach itself is a little disappointing under close inspection and very shallow shelving but the visual impact is appealing.

It is good to be back in Thailand, to be resurrecting my Thai, eating real Thai food, seeing that Thais actually still seem to be relaxed and benign. J compares them very favourably to Indonesians. The thing I'm having the most trouble adjusting to is the prices - but then I was first here almost 40 years ago! It's not surprising that bottled drinks, then 1 baht, are now 12 baht [still only 20p] and hotel rooms that were then 40B are now 400 or more. In those days, the readership of Lonely Planet consisted of the early budget travellers, who were attracted by the possibility of extensive and prolonged travel for very little money. Those days are going or gone, certainly in Thailand and Malaysia, where ease of access has brought the hordes , often for short stays, and inflated both quality and price. Maybe we'll find something of the former situation in Lao or Cambodia. [It still exists in places in India.] I know I shouldn't but I still hanker for the old days before mass-tourism when offerings were simple and bargain-priced and places were not overrun. At least here the overrunning is by Thais, so you don't feel as if you're on a tropical extension of the Costas. J's experience in Indonesia, certainly in Sumatra, has been quite different - a real decline in visitor numbers such that the few that do come are overwhelmed by the numbers and persistence of the touts.

The next "2" is train travel - a 48 hour dash from south to north in two stages, Trang to Bangkok on 28th January and straight on to Chiang Mai the next day. There'll be a meaty slice of the day in Bangkok to see around and have quite enough of the city before fleeing again. And I expect we'll flee Chiang Mai double-quick too.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mummy! I lost my dummy!

It has happened before but last time it was actually stolen - my Lonely Planet, that is, in Sri Lanka, that was. This time I simply left it on the plane. Last time I freaked out and tried to hunt down the culprit - a Kiwi who had "borrowed" it at the airport - and scoured Colombo for him. I was insensed. Then I gave in and tracked down a lone surviving copy of the old edition ("reprinting") at the Hilton, of all places for an LP guide. This time it was lost through my carelessness and I cared less. I tried to practise some non-attachment and learn non-dependence on the old dummy. Instead the well-tried arts of consulting the locals (but not taxi-drivers!) and of following one's nose. Last night in KL this led me to the "Y", convenient for the "Stesen Sentral" (the Malays could teach us a thing or two about spelling reform) and a spotless and utterly characterless room but conveniently located and perfect for a gradual adjustment to local conditions. Its blandness may have been suitable for Malaysia too, such an abject enthusiast for consumerist capitalism, such a typical ex-colony. As Sri Lanka is too but, thanks to its size, diversity, strength and depth of its culture, substantially not India. Post-colonials seem to be living out a sort of parody of the lifestyle they learned from their colonisers. Visiting your own country's ex-colonies is so much more uncomfortable (India, again, excepted) than visiting those of another European power. Hence the Frenchified Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam - whatever else has intervened - will (I hope) charm not taunt with half-familiar similarities.

And, of course, the next morning the first thing I did was to track down a replacement (and new) LP for Malaysia et al. It helps in being prepared for the new place, before your "nose" for what's where gets tuned in. It gives invaluable orientation through its maps and transport information, less essential information on where to stay and where to eat. Trouble is with dummies, you come to rely on them. As a result I assumed that the info about getting into town from the out-of-town bus station (stesen) was still valid from the guide published last year. Consequently I wasted at least an hour - whereas, without the guide, I would have asked around more (and definitely not the taxi-drivers, in this case) and got to my destination that much earlier. Except that, without my guide, I'd have had no map and no idea of where to look around for a place to stay. There must be a lesson there - something like: be selective in your use of the guide, try to wean yourself off the dummy, dummy!

Now in Penang, where history hangs heavier than in the green, new, often sparkling. Kuala Lumpur. Staying in Chinatown, in a bottom-end Chinese mansion for 4 quid tonight but moving upmarket to another Chinese mansion but spick-and-span (no other word in this colonial settlement full of architectural references to a bygone age of small merchants and exotic trading). The arrival of Lady J requires no less. Tomorrow also comes the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, banned nowadays in India but pursued with enthusiasm here - it must take enthusiasm in a very technical sense to induce devotees to pierce themselves with hooks, bamboo sticks and who-knows-what-else. Reportedly, the ones with insufficient enthusiasm are the ones that end up in hospital. I am trusting that the coincidence of Lady J's arrival and the festival of self-wounding remain just totally coincidental!

Then on the following day, heading north either to Langkawi and into Thailand that way or directly up the isthmus about as far as Surat Thani, giving a number of beach options, for unwinding before heading for the hills and rivers of Lao.

I am trying hard to hang on to the feelings of newness (despite the familiarity). It's all too well-known, that feeling of everything descending into sameness and visual cliché. The climatic transition from mild-but-dark-and-wet to hot-and-humid (sometimes wet) seems to have gone easily. (Who's complaining?) And even the let jag hasn't got me too much despite occasional Spoonerist lapses and the fact that I'm now in danger of declining into dwimbling even as I type. Enough before I do!