Sunday, January 27, 2008

2+2+2+2+?


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] or....so 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.

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