Spending a little less than two weeks in Malaysia was a great little get away. We flew in and out of Penang International Airport and spent the next ten days in the nearby Cameron Highlands, Ipoh, and Taiping. It was a sweet tip, but we couldn’t have chosen a worse time. The end of Ramadan coincided with a two week school holiday and every Malay who had the opportunity to travel was on the road and in the hotels. This caused hotel prices to double and bus trips to be more than twice as long.
The first couple of days in Penang, Laurel and I just tried to figure out what was going on in Malaysia. We were both here about ten years ago, but that didn’t really help with orienting ourselves. We stayed in a pretty fancy hotel in Georgetown and spent a lot of time at the Indian food restaurants which are far superior and cheaper than those in Thailand.
We also got a chance to see Penang from above as we took the funicular tram up Penang Hill and walked down the long and step wooded hike back to a large botanical garden. We even saw a monkey in the wild. As far as we could tell, it was trying to destroy a roadside mirror. If you are thinking of walking down from Penang Hill, remember that it is a pretty far walk and can get incredibly slippery in the rain. Luckily we made it alright, although getting a cab home was pretty difficult (holidays and the buses were way off schedule).
From Penang we headed to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. This area is pretty much where they make all the tea Malaysia. Now, with the availability of hydroponics and electricity being cheap and widespread, strawberries also are taking over as the main tourist draw. Aside from tons of opportunities to see tea plants and drink pulled tea, there is really some amazing hiking.
The trails are filled with butterflies, lizards, and flowers in a variety of shapes and colors. We saw wild orchids and giant squirrels. Also, when hiking, it seems like you have the whole place to yourself. Laurel and I spend two full eight hour days hiking and we never saw another person on the trails. Most hotels and guesthouse will have simply maps that show trail routes, though seemingly never to scale. Also, we drank a ton of water, so be careful to stay hydrated!
After having a great time in Tanah Rata, we bused back out of the mountains down to Ipoh. This city is a very funky place to visit, but I am glad I did. There are some amazing Buddhist temples carved into old limestone caves that are really amazing. Also, like this whole area of Malaysia, there is a strange mix of old colonial architecture and 1960s square box buildings that seem to all be decaying at an equally alarming rate. Also most tourists who visit the caves do it as a stop on their way to somewhere else and do not stay in the city. Apparently this is why most people will stare at you if you are walking around in town. And I mean stare. Usually, if you smile at them, people will realize they are staring, smile, and look away. But, just as often people will continue to give you a deadpan stare as if you are from another world. That being said, we meet many friendly people and even got several dollars of free durian and great conversation with the owner of possible the best coffee shop in Malaysia.
After a couple days in Ipoh we left for Taiping. Only about an hour and fifteen minutes away by bus, this location felt totally different. Malaysian Chinese, and apparently the Chinese expat community in general, seem to flock to the city for retirement. This leads to a city that feels a lot like you are in Taiwan or southern China. The best part about Taiping by far was the Night Safari at the local zoo. They let you in to the zoo at night and you can walk around all by yourself looking at the animals and getting really up close and personal while they are all awake and active. Most Malays seem uninterested in walking around and take loud, fast-moving trams around the park. It is a little annoying and crazy because they don’t even really get to see anything. Walking however was fantastic.
After Taiping, we few back to Bangkok and now I am just getting back to work. National Archives here I come…
Mae Salong may be my favorite place in Thailand. Not only does it grow and produce wonderful oolong teas in the Taiwanese style, but it is also filled with funky modern history and is more than twenty degrees colder than Bangkok or even neighboring Chiang Rai.
This northern town was founded in the mountains outside Chiang Rai and near the border with Burma by semi-retired/post-civil war KMT (Kuomintang or Guomindang or Nationalist Army or 中國國民黨 you take your pick). These Chinese soldiers and their families fought in Southern China during the civil war that followed World War II. As the tides of war change and the Nationalists saw their positions fading, many escaped, retreated, and regrouped in Northern Burma and continued to fight despite the victory of the communists in the capital and Mao’s proclamation of the Communist Chinese state in October 1949.
These Nationalist soldiers did not fare much better in Burma than they had in Southern China and were forced to relocate again, this time choosing Northern Thailand. Here they built a community of (primarily) yunnanese-speaking, tea-drinking, high-mountain-living folk. Also they tended to smuggle opium across the border on donkeys, but that is only natural. What are borders for if not illicit exchanges? Many of the old nationalist soldiers are buried in elaborate tombs around the many little valleys.
These days, most of the illegality is gone, but the cold, Chinese community, and tea remain. Laurel and I spent multiple days enjoying the cold, if a little rainy, weather with cup after cup of nice hot tea. I also bought about four kilos/nine pounds of tea to bring home.
We also hiked around up and down a bunch of hills and valleys and even saw some giant walking sticks.
It was fun trying to talk to people in a mix of Thai and Chinese. At times I was pretty unsuccessful, but that is part of the fun, right? Actually I was surprised by how well my Thai stood up despite the heavy accents.
The most amazing part of visiting this city may be the views. Mae Salong sits almost a thousand meters higher than Chiang Rai and the long and winding ride up to the top has some amazing lookouts. The city itself is thin and straddles the ridgeline. I really haven’t been to a place like it before. If you happen to be reading this deciding whether or not to go, I cannot recommend it enough.
Who has two thumbs, missed his flight, and is covered in sewage water? This guy. But today I have learned a couple valuable lessons about sticking to plans and getting around Southeast Asia. Never wait out the rain and never get out of the tuk tuk.
The day started off great I had a nice Indian food breakfast and met up with my friend Jess for coffee and deep thoughts. After she took off to buy bus tickets I decided I would hang out at the coffee shop for a couple hours until it was time to head to the airport.
Around four hours before my flight it began to rain heavily and I thought “no problem, I can just wait out the rain.” Wrong, wrong. It rained for a solid hour and as soon as it let up I got my bill and started moving toward the airport with plenty of time. No sooner was I in the tuk tuk than the rain started thundering down again. Within minutes there was a foot of water on all the roads. A few minutes later two feet. The tuk tuk could barely make it through the now engine high water.
As the water continued to rise, we came to a particularly deep river/road that we had to cross. Only it was not meant to be. The engine of the tuk tuk went totally underwater and died. As we sat in the newly formed waterway, the river/street continued to rise. A giant SUV passed us by and caused a wave that lifted the tuk tuk up off the street. Water came in one side and out the other as we started to bob. I thought for sure we were going to capsize.
I got out of the tuk tuk and helped pushed it back to dry land. While wading in the street/river, I became joyfully aware of all the things other than water floating about. Not so sanitary. After a twenty minute wait (trying to get water out of the engine/gas), we tried again. Twice more the driver tried to cross the waters only for the engine to die. On the fourth time we made it across and up to a high road. Unfortunately we went straight into a giant traffic jam. I arrived at the airport at 5:40. Alas, my plane left at 5:05. It had taken us more than three and a half hours to get six or seven miles. In the end, I was able to get another flight, took a train home, and showered for an excessive amount of time.
Also, my Thai came in handy on the train. When I heard two women snickering about what was surly a very unpleasant odor coming from my clothes and person, I was able to apologize and embarrass them a little. And isn’t that what learning a language is all about?
My last full day in Cambodia already! Well, at least it was fun and I saw a bit more of the city. Jessica and I hit the markets in the afternoon and sort of ate our way across town. We tried some delicious street foods again. Yeah.
I also had a chance to once again drink a delicious set of iced coffee and tea, the best in the city according to a plaque signed by “three Danish coffee lovers.” The older man running the stand had been in business there since 1980 which is actually pretty amazing especially considering the history of the period.
Pretty slow and easy day here. I got up a little late and walked around the corner to a great Indian food restaurant that I have been eating at a lot. It seems like many Indians from Tamil Nadu and Kerala live here, so the South Indian food is great.
After eating breakfast, I walked around the city for a while. I went to a big wat that way focused around Angkor stone monumentalism and the cosmic Buddha. I am not sure why the cosmic Buddha is so much more popular here than in other places, but it seems to be.
I went to an expat coffee shop that caters to the white, wealth, and sometimes snobbish coffee drinkers about town. I have to say it was good coffee though. I continued to get my caffeine on throughout the day as most small snack meals and street food come with unlimited tea if you go to the right spots.
After walking around for an hour or so I found myself in some of the older housing projects that are starting to disintegrate even as they continue to be inhabited my many many people. While in the area I picked up a bunch of sour cherries for a street vendor and proceeded to eat them all as I walked around.
In the evening I went to a local bar that was hosting “nerd night,” where many expats, young academics, and NGO workers meet to present on their topics of interest. I watched my friend Jessica give a great Pecha Kucha talk about the golden age of Cambodian film. Pretty fun night out really.
Amazing day today! I started out early by heading off to the old Royal Palace. It was very cool and just as shiny and grand as I remember. Inside the compound there are several buildings and a few temples that were used by the royal family and in the affairs of court. There is also a wraparound mural that is several hundred feet long and, despite its state of decomposition, is actually really cool to walk along and look at. The Royal Palace seems to be a big hit on the tourist circuit. I looked back at my old photographs and memories from my visit about ten years ago and there was absolutely no other tourists around except for a few monks. This time there were hordes…wait is that offensive… of Chinese tour groups. It was almost as impressive a transformation as the palace itself.
Next stop was the National Museum which has a number of great holdings from around Cambodia. It also does a great job displaying the contemporary nationalist narrative of the Cambodian nation through semi-outrageous maps and historical claims. I also found out that the museum building itself is a UN World Heritage Site. Pretty fancy, eh?
After my morning out, I met up with my friend Jessica from the University of Hawaii, Manoa. She is here studying Khmer and doing research for her M.A. thesis on Cambodian film in the 1950s and 1960s. She has been living here for several weeks, so I totally leaned on her local, and linguistic, knowledge. We walked around the city for several hours eating local street foods, finding a currency exchange, and generally having an awesome time.
One particular highlight was our visit to Olympic Stadium, a large public space created for sports and recreation in the 1950s (or 1960s maybe?). As we climbed to the top of the stadium, a massive rain and thunderstorm broke out and we had to run around to a covered food area with all the other locals. We spent about forty-five minutes under a concrete roof looking out at the city as rain poured around us. It was great fun and we used the time to eat ice cream, drink orange drink, and sample pressed sugarcane juice. After the rain stopped there was a great rainbow that stretched in a high arch above the stadium. It was pretty fantastic.
Well, I have come to Cambodia. My Thai visa expired and Phnom Penh seemed like a great destination for the aptly-named “visa-run.” I will only be here a few days, but because I am returning by air, I will get a new full month visa. This way when Laurel gets here, we can relax for a while before we make plans to leave the country again.
When I arrived I really didn’t have any plans or a place to stay, but I thought it would be pretty easy to figure out. The taxi in from the airport seemed really expensive so I tried to quickly make some new buddies and share a ride toward town. I ended up meeting a group of French expats who live in the city and work in a French program at a private university. Curiously, they informed me we could not go straight into town. First we had to swing by the Burger King and get hamburgers. You see, as they informed me, there is only one Burger King in Cambodia and it is there in the airport. How these Frenchmen and women’s love for Burger King relates to the well known sense of French linguistic and culinary superiority or anti-Americanism, I am not quite sure. However, as we ate they did regale me with the benefits of French language programs in Cambodia.
I got into the backpacker distract a little late and many places were full. I had to go to four guesthouse before I found a room. It is actually really nice place and despite being called the Goldie Boutique Guest House, it is really not too expensive and has nice furnishings. It is somewhat arts and French. At least I would like to think so. Well, tomorrow is a big day!!!
Well, I finished the language program in the north and now I am heading down to Bangkok to start phase two of my time here in Thailand. Now comes the research, Ph.D. work, and general “getting it on” that might eventually end in my getting a degree and a job. Or at least that is what I like to tell myself.
The train ride back to Bangkok was fun as the night trains usually are. I made some friends and even managed to get a little sleep.
When I arrived in Bangkok I headed over to an apartment building that a friend of mine used to live in and rented a room for a couple of months. It is in a little neighborhood close to the Surasak Sky Train stop. It is quite and pleasant with both a large wat and mosque nearby. The building is also pretty nice. There is even a roof top swimming pool. I went out last night and there was no one there but me. Pretty awesome really.
Really big day today. Got up early in Chiang Rai, found a nice vegan restaurant and ate my first vegetarian meal since arriving in Thailand, and boarded the bus for Laos.
After a two and a half hour bus ride I made it to the (no longer so little) border town of Chiang Kong. I quick hoped on the ferry and made it in to Laos. As I was on the boat I made friends with another traveler named Chris. He was quite the interesting fellow. We were the same age and seemed to have a lot in common, with the exception that, up until seven months ago, he had been a high-priced lawyer in San Francisco.
When Chris and I got to the Lao side of the river I suggested we stay at this cool hotel that Laurel and I stayed in about a decade ago. This hotel was once a French colonial office and has tons of interesting features and old teak wood everywhere. It is probably too fancy for me. Whenever there is a towel folded into the shape of an animal I realize that I could definitely paid half as much somewhere else. That being said it was great and still not very expensive.
After chilling out for a bit, my new friend Chris and I went out to explore the town. We climbed up a giant hill and looked around at a cool wat with many interesting and lifelike murals. Then we walked a bit along the ridge to an old French military fort. Unfortunate the fort was closed for the day.
Fortunately I decided to snoop around and found a caved-in wall that allowed up to go in to the empty fort and look around. Pretty awesome really. We were the only ones there. We even climbed up a broken down tower to get a great view of the city. I don’t think that would have been possible if the fort was open at the time.
After that we headed back into town to try and figure out Chris’s plans for tomorrow. He wanted to take the slow boat to Luang Prabang, so we walked to the pier to figure out the trip. On the way back we saw a neat restaurant with a large deck overlooking the river. Inside a large party was drinking and singing Karaoke. Chris and I decided to check it out. It started very casually with a few drinks and a bucket of ice, but we soon were invited into the party. The director of Laos’s Ministry of Finance had done an inspection of a local office and apparently it went well. The whole office including the minister decided to celebrate. We started it out real classy with me singing “Hello” by Lionel Richie. Things quickly went downhill.
Chris and I got a lesson in Lao culture. Apparently when your senior or superior orders you to “bottoms up” you must down however much is in your glass at the moment. Many of the workers were drunk before we even arrived. Luckily I can control myself to some extent, and, despite the fact that there are now images of me being ordered to dance “ram” style with the hostesses, I kept my composure under fire. The night ended with me bringing it home with the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way.” It was quite the hit.