Saigon

The night before I left Phnom Penh, I came down with a rather horrible cold which I am still feeling the effects of now. This made travelling to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as locals still call it, a rather miserable affair but aside from a slight delay at the border it was mercifully an uneventful journey.

Two stores in Ben Thanh market, both selling suits for the best price.

My first stop the next day was the Ben Thanh market which was still setting up. However, this did not stop the calls of “miss, miss you want to buy T-shirt” following me around. It was fun to look at the souvenirs and some of the lacquerware was quite lovely. Grateful for my blocked nose as I passed through the butcher section of the market, I continued my walk up to the Siagon Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral. These were both excellent examples of the French colonialist architechture that Vietnam is so famous for but there is little to see inside the post office and the cathedral is closed to visitors during its renovation so they were both quick stops.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

The War Remnants Museum was where I next ventured and is, by all accounts, a must visit in Saigon. Unlike many museums that cover a specific war, the War Remnant Museum focused more on the aftermath of the “American war” rather than the timeline and individual events that occurred during the war. To walk through it in the intended order, one starts on the second floor and moves down towards the ground floor. The top floor was mostly about different photographers on both sides of the conflict who lost their lives or went missing. Information about American war crimes and massacres appear on this floor and the ond below with some very chilling quotes.

A poster about the charity MAG. I still remember their visit from when I was in primary school.

The first floor had a large exhibt about the defoliator agent orange and the long lasting negative impacts it has on the environment and more tragically, on the people who were exposed to it and their children. Seeing the wide range of mental and physical disabilities the dioxin containing chemical causes was disturbing given how liberally the Americans sprayed it on areas of Vietnam. From talking to other people, I think it is widely agreed that this was the hardest floor of the museum to visit. The final ground floor talked of the bombs dropped and the efforts to clear them as well as showing posters and articles from different countries in support of Vietnam.

This tank was outside of the Independence Palace. The chain didn’t seem to be doing a very good job, especially when people started climbing on it.

My last stop of the day was the Independence Palace which was fun to look around even if the explanatory plaques disappeared after the first couple of floors. I think I manage to see all the bits that were open to the public however with so many staircases leading to different sections it is hard to be sure.

Roof of the Independence Palace.

The next day I had booked onto a tour to go and see the Cu Chi tunnels. These tunnels were inhabited by southern Vietnamese rebels during the war years and stretched for over 250 kilometres on three different levels. Our toilet break on the way to the tunnels was at a lacquerware workshop for disabled artisans. While a lot of the artwork was beautiful, what was more impressive were the prices; one set of panels I saw cost over £2000. When we got to the tunnels, our guide reminding us not to lose our wives (a favourite joke of his), we disembarked and began the walk around the museum grounds.

Bolt hole at the Cu Chi Tunnels. It looks small but is surpridingly easy to fit into. 

Our guide was a veteran who had fought with the Americans but seemed to enjoy telling us of all the ways he had tricked them into doing stupid things and reminding us how fat we all are in comparison to the Vietnamese. This was particularly apparent when he told us of a woman who had go stuck in one of the bolt holes used in surprise attacks. While he revelled in stories I did find myself wishing for a more factual approach in some areas, such as the traps. Of these he was rather dismissive, saying how they could only wound a soldier and not kill them, instead of discussing their strategic uses of forcing troops to bunch up as they tried to rescue a comrade and how the points were barbed and covered in excrement to slow removal and encourage infections.

An array of traps utilised by the south Vietnamese rebels.

I elected not to have a go at the shooting range halfway around the grounds, instead trying to rehydrate and replace some of my electrolytes. Going through the tunnel was the last stop at the museum and being short proved to be an advantage as we passed through a stretch of it that had been widened for us western tourists to pass through. The air of the tunnel was so hot and humid, that exiting could almost make one feel like they were entering a temperate climate. The bus back stopped at a “very cheap, very good” restaurant for a late lunch with everyone too hungry to disagree. While the food tasted good, even with my blocked nose, I had paid less the day before for lunch at a mid level cafe.

A section of the Cu Chi Tunnels.

My last proper day was extremely relaxed and I spent a large portion of it at the hostel before venturing out to the Loft Cafe for an early lunch. The decor of the cafe was a well balanced blend of industrial chique and quaint rustic, I was particularly taken with the repurposing of bird cages for lamp shades. While my food was about average the lime juice was excellent and I had to restrain myself from buying a second glass.

A little motorbike chaos. Apparently around 95% of vehicles in Vietnam are of the two wheel variety.

From there I went to see the Ho Chi Minh City Museum which was almost deserted and in a lovely old building. It was enjoyable to potter through the exhibits and learn a little more about the history of the city and surrounding area. I was rather amused by the regular occurrence of the phrase “the American Diem puppet regime”. While I fully understand and respect the sentiment and history behind the phrase, I have never quite got used to the blatant propaganda some cultures employ, being far more used to the subtler hand of my preferred media outlets.

A diorama at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Aside from the hostel’s free evening food tour, which I attended every night of my stay, and a somewhat roundabout route back to the hostel, the museum concluded my forays into Saigon and the next day I set out to catch the bus up to Hoi An.

Watting it out in Bangkok

On the surface Bangkok does not offer much. There is a multitude of Wats and a fair number of museums but otherwise the standing agreement among backpackers is two or three days in Bangkok and then move on, maybe stretch it to five days. To an extent I agree, within the easily accessible parts of the city, there is little to do after the Wats have become a golden blur, each photo potentially belonging to a dozen different locations. However, Bangkok makes an excellent base of operations for visiting a number of other locations. In my case, I visited the Bridge on the River Kwai and Ayutthaya, which I talk about in two separate posts.

The Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit.

Upon dumping all my belongings at the hostel, I quickly left to fit in the famous solid gold Buddha at Wat Traimit. I bought my ticket and waited patiently to take my photos after climbing to the top. This took a while because the moment certain other tourists saw the spot directly in front of the Buddha was free, they were charging in and having a full blown photo shoot. The irony that they complained the moment I put a toe in their photos after they had just set up shop in mine was not lost on me. I was strongly reminded of the Chinese tour group I had encountered when taking photos of street art in George Town. Unfortunately, this is a part of being a tourist and when I find myself feeling frustrated, I take a breath, remind myself I am British and therefore that I know how to queue.

A couple of stupas at Wat Pho.

Something I was not aware of, and which wasn’t at all clear at the ticket booth, was that a different ticket to the small museum about the Golden Buddha on the floor below was needed. Hence, I decided to give the museum a miss since I knew the basic story of how the Buddha had been “discovered” when it was dropped while being moved and the plaster covering the gold cracked and fell away. Still tired from my train journey up to Bangkok, I called it a day and returned to the hostel for an early night via Chinatown and picking up some pad thai from a street vendor on the way.

The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho.

The morning of day two in Bangkok found me visiting the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho and the Grand Palace Complex with a guy from my hostel. Wat Pho was one of my two favourite wats. Whether because the design eased up on the gold paint or because it was the first wat I saw that day is hard to say for sure. Replacing all the gold were thousands of pieces of pottery, carefully arranged in intricate patterns. I was reminded of the Little Chapel back home, even if the pottery tiles here were each made specifically for the wat rather than random pottery shards slapped on at (mostly) random. The reclining Buddha was outstandingly huge. I particularly liked its lacquer and mother of pearl feet. Another winning feature of Wat Pho was that there was a reasonably large amount of it to see, unlike some wats where one feels that they enter, take a couple of photos, and then leave.

Wat Phra Kaew in the Grand Palace complex.

Despite plenty of offers, we declined a tuk tuk for the five minute walk to the entrance of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Getting in presented more of a challenge than we expected. First the guy I was travelling had shorts which were too short. Fair enough, they only just brushed his knees. So back across the road we went to pick up a pair of the colourful trousers, ubiquitous to backpacking tourists in South East Asia. I was wearing a top which covered my shoulders and had a T-shirt collar. However, it only had very short sleeves so I had covered my arms the rest of the way with a shawl. This had never presented an issue before and neither has it since. Apparently this time it wasn’t acceptable though, even as I watched half a dozen other female tourists walk pass with their shoulders barely hidden beneath flimsy scarves. Five minutes later and some quick improvisation on my part to adapt my shawl into a pair of sleeves, we re-entered the complex, me blending into a group of Chinese tourists who never seem to get stopped. With my height, an umbrella to block the sun, and big sunglasses this was not too difficult and we quickly made it to the ticket office, both sweltering from the crush of bodies and the sun.

Some more of Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew was undeniably impressive with most surfaces glittering gold and it was cool to see the Emerald Buddha but the heat was almost unbearable and we found ourselves taking “shelter” in the shade as often as possible. Personally, the sheer volume of people was beginning to border on overwhelming as at five foot one (two on a good day) it was impossible to see further than the back or head in front of me and I was at risk of getting carried along by the tide. Making it through to the palace was less crowded but beyond looking at the exterior, we couldn’t see anywhere to enter so went to eat some ice cream before parting ways.

Wat Arun

I caught the orange flag boat over the river to look around Wat Arun and Santa Cruz Church. Wat Arun had also avoided the gold craze and I enjoyed craning my head back to try and see the top as it reached towrds the sky. Even including the nearby ordination hall, there was not much to see but I think it is still worth a visit as it is very different to a lot of the other wats I visited. Santa Cruz Church was closed, I presume as it was a Sunday, but the outside of the building was nice and I had a lovely little amble from Wat Arun to the church and then on to the boat station.

Santa Cruz Church

From there I made way to the Golden Mount, pausing at a few wats I passed on the way. This was my second favourite wat. Not for its towering gold stupa but for the wonderful views of Bangkok that it offered in all directions. After descending the awkwardly shallow stairs, I realised I couldn’t stand the thought of another wat so walked past Democracy Monument and explored Khao San Road, collecting some mango sticky rice for a very belated lunch. Dinner was with another guest from the hostel and then bed.

The view from a bridge I crossed on my walk from Wat Arun to Santa Cruz Church.

I spent the next day and a half visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass, detailed here. Upon my return I had hoped to visit the Medical Museum however it was closed on Tuesdays and I ended up not going at all. Instead, I spent the afternoon getting a Thai massage (very relaxing) and a henna tattoo (a bit of fun).

The view from the Golden Mount.

Wednesday’s visit to Ayutthaya is also described in a separate post, here, but suffice to say it was a good visit even if it left me so exhausted by the time I got back to Bangkok that I slept half the next day away. To account for this, I only visited one place, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Entrance to here was included in my ticket to the Grand Palace from a few days before so it made sense to visit. The museum isn’t huge, with one section detailing the long and peaceful relationship between Thailand and the US, showcasing some of the gifts exchanged between the two countries over the years. The second section appealed to my inner seamstress and was a variety of restored pieces from Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe, the majority from her visits to the US and Europe in the 1960s.

Khao San Road.

My final day in Bangkok was spent taking a breather and resting up for my 0100 night bus to Siem Reap where I then transferred down to Phnom Pehn.

The Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass

My day and a half trip to the Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai started off less than smoothly. I had hoped to get the boat across the river and then walk the remainder of the way to Thonburi Station. However, I was informed that there was a fifteen minute wait for the boat and Maps.me reneged on its previous prediction of a ten minute walk from the pier, instead opting for a twenty minute slog. Reluctant to push my timings, I opted to grab a taxi. This would take four minutes according to Maps.me, which steadfastly ignores the existence of traffic, or twenty minutes according to the official advice online. With just under forty minutes until the train left, this seemed a perfectly viable option.

View from the train as we left Bangkok.

Despite my best efforts to say where I wanted to go, including vigorous pointing at my map and the Roman script of the station written down, I think the taxi driver closed his ears the moment I uttered the words train station. Ah, train station! Naturally this foreigner, this white girl, could only want Hua Lamphong Station. Why should I listen to her anymore? Or look at the map she is showing me? Why let her speak and explain where she wants to go? I will say chuu chuu to her and wave with my arms until she gives up and gets in the car. Perhaps not the politest picture to paint but if a city has more than one station, it makes sense to clarify which one is required and I fail to see how two stations on opposite sides of the city centre not to mention a river could be confused on a map.

Interior of the train.

Fortunately my lack of faith in the taxi driver meant that the moment I watched us drive straight pass the correct turning on my map, I knew we were headed for the wrong station. It took less than a minute for him to pull over and understand that I wanted Thonburi Station with me showing him exactly the same props as the first time. Imagine if he had just listened initially? Missing that crucial turning meant a long detour before we could join the major road that passes Democracy Monument and crosses over the river, all of which was spent stuck in traffic.

One of the many “stations” on our journey.

Creeping closer to the station with nose to tail traffic wreaked havoc on my nerves as I painstakingly watched the seconds tick by but thankfully we made it with two minutes to spare. Fortunately, Thai railway stations are a laid back affair and there were only a dozen or so metres between the ticket booth and train so I had plenty of time to buy my ticket to Nam Tok and board. Naturally the train did not leave for another ten minutes, but this was not a concern as I was onboard so, short of a breakdown, I would be making it to Hellfire Pass and the Bridge on the River Kwai eventually.

Crossing the Bridge on the River Kwai by train.

Riding the train to the end of the line was a relaxed affair as I alternated between reading and watching Thailand fly by outside the window. To visit both Hellfire Pass and the bridge within my rather constrained time limit I rode the train all the way to the end of the line in Nam Tok and visited the pass before catching a later train to return to Kanchanaburi and visit the bridge. This route meant I also rode the train across the perilous Wampo Viaduct. Watching everyone lean out of doors and windows with nothing to stop them toppling out as we crossed the sheer drop, I could not help but imagine the fit English health and safety would throw.

Travelling along the death railway. I think this section was the Wampo Viaduct.

Arriving just over half an hour late in Nam Tok gave me about two and a half hours to visit Hellfire Pass before the train left. I was initially confused as the websites I had read implied that the Pass would be right there when I disembarked however it was in fact necessary to get a taxi to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. This created another point of consternation upon my return to the station as it turned out the taxi driver who had said 300 baht for both ways, supported by his refusal to let me pay at the museum, actually meant 300 baht each way, a classic trick to pull and one I should not have fallen for but by that point it was rather too late to do otherwise without causing a scene.

Another shot looking down the outside of the train.

The Museum itself was under renovation but there were still boards to read about the plight of the 60,000 prisoners of war and 250,000 Asian labourers who were forced to work on the Burma – Thailand railway by the Japanese during the second world war. It was incredibly sobering to read about the forced marches, brutal treatment and horrendous hours worked all while the workers neared starvation and had little to no medical treatment.

Standing in Hellfire Pass, I imagined it lit with torches at night during the speedo period; listened to the hammers clanging onto the tap drills, forcing them into the rock, focusing on this rhythmic racket instead of the sounds of the guards administering a beating; smelt the caustic scent left by dynamite and exploding rock, tried to ignore the stench of festering wounds; felt the weariness and hopelessness seep into my bones, pain and gnawing hunger radiating throughout; and finally rolled the sour taste of bile and dehydration around my mouth.

Memorial plaque for prisoners of war in Hellfire Pass.

My imagination will never encompass the true suffering endured but it is enough that I will not forget the 12,399 POW and 70,000 to 90,000 civilians whose lives were lost to build the railway. I finished paying my respects to the fallen in the pass and solemnly made my way back to the train station in Nam Tok. With the misleading nature of the taxi driver and a slight cloud over my head from visiting the pass, I ended up giving the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall a miss, instead reading my book until the train back to the Bridge on the River Kwai arrived.

Hellfire Pass

The bridge was a somewhat less sombre stop, mainly due to the sheer number of tourists wandering back and forth across it and posing sitting on the tracks. I was almost surprised not to see a collection of pre-wedding photo parties claiming some of the lookout points. Nonetheless, it was an impressive feat to look at especially considering the limited materials and tools available during its building. I will confess that I remain unclear on just how much of the original bridge remains and how much has been replaced due to damage from bombs and time but to span the river was an undeniable feat of engineering.

Before walking the half hour to Kanchanaburi and my hostel, I tucked in to a particularly good plate of chicken and cashew nut stir fry at a small restaurant just off the main square. I chose it for the presence of locals (or patrons at all really) as all the other restaurants appeared to be deserted with the exception of the more expensive “floating” one on the river.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Knowing that to see both bridge and pass I would have to miss the last train to Bangkok, I had booked a hostel for the night next to to train station so I could catch the early morning train back. This resulted in an enjoyable evening where I finally got round to trying some durian, an experience I have know intention of repeating. While all bar one other in our group seemed to be able to tolerated the repulsive smelling fruit, I barely resisted the urge to throw the vile textured stuff straight back up, much to the amusement of the others. At least it can now be ticked of my somewhat cynical list of how to be a tourist backpacker in South East Asia.

The next day dawned bright and early and I and two other girls had the pleasure of a relatively on time train journey back to Bangkok. Sadly the Medical Museum, which I had intended to visit of the way back to my hostel, was closed on Tuesdays so I never did get a chance to visit it.

The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Taxi to Thonburi Station from near Khao San Road: 200 baht

All trains: 100 baht each, 300 baht total.

Taxi to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and back: 600 baht – a mistake on my part and should have been negotiated down.

Hostel in Kanchanaburi: 220 baht

Exploring Kuala Lumpur

From Melaka, I caught the bus up to Kuala Lumpur for a few days. Arriving on the first day of Ramadan, I was assaulted with the delicious aromas of curries and BBQs from the array of food stalls directly outside my hostel. They were set up and selling food every afternoon for the month of Ramadan. On my way to Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, I indulged myself in wondering through this small market in the process of setting up. Eventually finding my way to the reserve, I bypassed the Kuala Lumpur Tower, deciding that once one’s been to the top of one telecoms tower, one’s seen them all. Besides the visibility is normally much reduced and somewhat disappointing in comparison to the views promised in brochures and I imagine that the low hanging afternoon clouds of Malaysia do little to aid it.

Canopy walk in the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve.

Instead I ventured along the canopy walk, praying the looming storm would hold off long enough for me to finish the walk. Naturally I was halfway along the first bridge when the first roll of thunder peeled out like the battle drums of an approaching army. I picked up my pace and tried not to think about the warning signs not to enter the park during storms. Chased by thunder and darkening clouds, I found myself wondering about the likelihood of being struck by lightning and, if I survived, how cool the lightning scars would look. This was perhaps a tad morbid but standing on a metal bridge in the treetops with a storm rapidly approaching will do these things to you. I made it safely back to the main road just in time, with the rain still holding off.

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View of the National Mosque from the Islamic Arts Museum

Meeting a group who had entered the park just as I exited later that evening, they said how lightning had struck a couple of trees just over ten metres from them and I have now resolved not to be in any forests after about three thirty, the earliest thunderstorms normally start in Malaysia. Making my back to the hostel, I was admiring the lightning as it flickered on the horizon and waiting to cross the road when I felt the first drops of rain begin to fall. By the time I made it to shelter on the opposite side of the road, I was soaked through and a wall of falling water curtained off the outside world. Unwilling to venture out, I settled on a bench in the shopping centre I found myself in and read my book while I waited out the storm.

My first day in Kuala Lumpur finished with scrumptious samosas and a huge chicken and tomato skewer, devoured at the table in the hostel as I talked with other guests.

Model of the Dome on the Rock at the Islamic Arts Museum

Day two dawned bright and early and found me planning where to start my explorations. Setting off for the Islamic Arts Museum, I caught the purple line of the GOKL buses, a free bus system the runs in the Kuala Lumpur city centre. Getting off the bus at Pasir Seni I passed the National Mosque as I walked the remainder of the way to the museum. I was unable to enter the mosque because the time I was passing by coincided with prayers, but just walking around the outside was enough to be impressed by the vast scale and simple but elegant architectural style.

Book about astrolabes in the Islamic Arts Museum

The Museum cost MYR14 and was well worth a visit in my humble opinion. Unlike the art one would expect to find in the Louvre, Islamic art focuses more on making everyday objects into works of art themselves. Upon entering, I perused the models of famous pieces of Islamic architecture, including the Taj Mahal, as the melodic sound of a recitation of the Quran played in the background. The next section showcased breathtaking examples of illuminated Arabic script. In many cases the Quran but also a number of Firmans, edicts of sorts, from the Ottoman empire. Of particular delight to me is this section were a number of astrolabes and navigational tools as well as the intricately detailed ink pots and matching quill boxes.

Sri Mahamariamman Temple

Moving on there was a wide range of artefacts to illustrate the blending of different cultures with Islamic art, in particular, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian. This included everything from textiles and furniture to jewellery and weapons. While paintings and sculptures may be far less common in the world of Islamic art, there is no doubt in my mind that the objects created are just as beautiful as any painting, if not more so for their practicality.

Masjid Jamek at midday prayer

Exiting the museum, I made my way to Masjid Jamek, another mosque, via the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman Temple. The temple was pleasant to look around briefly and the mosque was certainly impressive from what I could see of it, even though I could not enter. Instead, I headed to Merdeka Square where Malaysian independence was declared and which is ringed by and impressive selection of colonial era buildings and headed by a huge flagpole, proudly supporting the Malaysian flag.

Merdeka Square

Continuing on, I backtracked past the National Mosque and made my way to the Butterfly Garden. At MYR25 I felt the cost was a little steep but enjoyed my time wondering around the miniature garden jungle even if there were less butterflies than I had expected to find. Halfway round I again found myself frantically dashing for shelter as it began to rain. Fortunately there were a number of small seating areas within the garden and I was able to read my book even as the rain poured down all around me.

More than just butterflies in the Butterfly Garden

A quick stop to look up at the Petronas Towers and I headed back to the hostel for the evening.

Petronas Towers

My last full day in Kuala Lumpur saw me teaming up with another guest to visit the Batu Caves. We set out around nine thirty in the hopes of seeing the cave while the temperature was still somewhere around sweltering instead of Mordor on a bad day. Sadly our cunning plan was not to be. Being backpackers on something vaguely resembling a budget, we had elected to get the train rather the a Grab car or taxi. We did not however account for the varying train times of Kuala Lumpur. I for one, am used to inner city trains running on a regular and frequent schedule and did not think to check train times. Then again, I am not convinced checking train times would have made a difference.

Statue of Lord Murugan outside Batu Caves

We waited twenty minutes for the monorail to KL Sentral while two went in the opposite direction. At KL Sentral we were redirected to a free bus shuttle that was running to KTM Sentul instead of the train. We sat on the bus (blessedly air conditioned) in the station for another fifteen minutes before being told to switch to a different bus. Upon making it to Sentul we waited a further half hour before the train drew out of the station on the last leg to Batu Caves. We finally arrived a mere one hour and forty five minutes after we had set out compared to the fifteen/twenty minutes it would have taken by car.

Inside Batu Caves

Thus we found ourselves climbing 272 stairs up to the main cave with the sun doing its best to cook us alive. The cave was impressively huge, even with most the manmade structures within it cocooned in scaffolding. However, for me the cave was a little disappointing because aside from the size, the geological features were not amazing and almost everything else was behind tarpaulins. Furthermore, the smell of monkey urine was rather unappealing. Neither of us was particularly inclined to see all the insects and bats that call the Dark Cave home so we skipped over visiting it.

Thean Hou Temple

The journey back was somewhat quicker and we parted ways at KL Sentral, agreeing to meet again later. I had another long journey ahead of me. This time walking to Thean Hou Temple where the nearest public transport spots were all a uniform forty minutes away. Despite this I really enjoyed walking around the temple, perhaps my favourite in a while. It offered excellent views of Kuala Lumpur and had counteracted the fading and peeling of paint that strikes all buildings in this hot and humid climate with a fresh coat of paint. This meant lots of brightly coloured dragons perched on the eaves looking as if they could come alive at any moment.

Trying to pose gracefully at the Heli Lounge

With the long journey times these were the only attractions I visited during the day, venturing out with the same young lady that evening to watch the sunset at the Heli Lounge. Our plans were foiled once more, this time by the weather. A light shower meant we could only go up to the top deck for a brief round of photos before being ushered back down into the bar. With clouds blocking the sunset, it was something of a wasted trip although my gin and tonic was quite pleasant. The day ended with delicious feast of mango and mangosteens from a nearby food market.

A Day in Melaka

View of the Malacca River from the bridge into Dutch Square.

Arriving in Melaka the evening before, I eventually resorted to getting a taxi to my hostel instead of the bus as it seemed the majority of buses had stopped running for the day. Another thing that seemed to close extremely early was the majority of restaurants, which all seemed to be closed by six. Fortunately not everywhere closed and I had some noodles in a little cafe on Jonker’s road. The rest of the evening was spent chatting with other guests and the staff on the rooftop of my hostel, a group of mostly solo travellers making for a sociable crowd.

The Clock Tower in Dutch Square, Melaka
Christ Church in Dutch Square, Melaka

Breakfast devoured, I set out into Melaka. It was something of a false start as about five minutes later I found myself huddling in a five foot way sheltering from a sudden downpour. A chapter of my book later and the rain cleared so I was able to resume my exploring. There is not a huge amount of things to see in Melaka, unless one has a deep and passionate love for all kinds if museums, so I very quickly saw the key sites which were of interest to me.

A fountain to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
The remains of a fort just off Dutch Square.

Not yet willing to return to the hostel, I went to the Maritime Museum. This was a lot of fun as the first half of the museum in a replica of the Portuguese vessel the Flor de la Mar that sank off the coast of Melaka. It was also fascinating to read about the rise of Melaka from a fishing village to a major port of trade. How the colonisation of Melaka, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British, combined with their varying religious persecutions, changed the port from one of free trade to a state monopoly of declining significance was well explained. However, the order of reading for the information plaques a little unclear in some cases.

St Paul's Cathedral
The ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A (very) late lunch of scrumptious pork satay later and I spent the rest of the afternoon reading my book before getting ready for the hostel’s cycling trip to Masjid Selat Melaka, the “floating” mosque, for sunset. On our way, we briefly stopped via a group of locals play a cross between volleyball and football with a wicker ball. Kicking the ball back and forth over the volleyball net required an impressive level of flexibility and foot eye coordination. At no point were hands used to hit the ball but there were a few well aimed headers.

The view over Melaka from St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Maritime Museum in Melaka

Watching the sun set as we sat next to the Straits of Melaka as the call to prayer rang out, was a beautiful experience. The lights of the Masjid Selat Melaka gradually strengthened as the light of day slid from the sky which faded from blue to orange to purple and finally black.

The Flor de la Mar replica at the Maritime Museum
Another view of the Malacca River.

Heading back to the hostel with a flat tire rattling my joints out was slightly less fun and mildly terrifying as all road signs were ignored by our guide and most other road users. The solo travellers from the bike tour grouped together for dinner. Electing for an Indian place the hostel owner had recommended, we all satiated the appetites we had worked up cycling with the self serve plate, none of us quite brave enough to pick something unknown off the menu. This was just as well a fish complete with heads and tails was a menu option I saw someone ordering and is a meal I intend to never eat again if at all possible.

Foot volleyball.

The day concluded with a round of beers and Cards Against Humanity on the hostel roof, so while there may not have been much to see in Melaka, there was still a great many people to meet and laughs to be had.

Sunset at the Masjid Selat Melaka

Chiang Mai’s Thai Silk Village

For me, the best part of visiting Chiang Mai was the opportunity to look around the Thai Silk Village. This tourist stop teaches about how Thai silk is made, with a large selection of working looms. Fortunately for my dignity, I just about manage to stop myself from bouncing up and down in pure joy as the amateur seamstress in me first heard the rhythmic clicking and thunking of the looms. Sadly this self restraint did not last for the entire visit and I found myself grinning like a fool and vibrating with happiness when I left clutching a five meter bundle of the most gorgeous green silk to my chest.

The silk worms are fed on mulberry leaves and will shed their skin four times before forming their cocoon.
An example of the cocoons being formed. There were both yellow and white cocoons, presumably spun by different species.

Before we made it the gift shop of many colours however, we first looked around the factory section. Along one wall was a series of baskets, displaying the life cycle of the silk worms and moths. It was a little hard to tell for certain, but from what I could see, two different species of silk worm were on display. TexereSilk provides a reasonably good explanation of the full silkworm lifecycle and initial thread making. Next to this display a woman carefully unravelled the cocoons, spinning several filaments into the initial threads. Further on, these threads were dyed and spun into their final strands before being transferred to the looms.

Unravelling the cocoon and forming the first threads of silk.
An partially completed bolt of silk.

The looms are passed down through generations of weavers and possess a look that suggests they are just waiting to give one a splinter. However, despite their less glamorous appearances, these Thai silk looms have be instrumental in producing what is argueably some of the finest silk in the world, remaining constant as they pass from mother to daughter. I can only imagine the years of practice it mast take for the weavers to perfectly time the raising and lowering of the warp thread with the foot pedal while pulling on a rope to transport the shuttle as it carries the weft back and forth.

One of the looms in use.

Entering the gift shop, we were assaulted with a rainbow of colours as we perused first bolts of silk and, deeper in, everything one could conceivably make from fabric. My interest was in the bolts and I spent a huge amount of time humming and hawing over the the breathtaking fabric on offer, before finally settling on a two tone green and black silk which I look forward to transforming in to a cocktail dress when I am reunited with my sewing machine at the end of my exchange.

Singapore’s Chinatown Heritage Centre

With the conclusion of midterms and completion of assignment left to the last minute due to said midterms, I finally have the opportunity to write about a bit of what I’ve been up to in the past couple of weeks. Since recess week offered the opportunity to revise in a more interesting place than the library, my mother came out to visit me and see a little of Singapore for herself before we spent the week in Thailand.

Singer sewing machine at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. This one was in the front of the tailor shop.

While I did not spend much time with my mother during the Singapore section of her trip, those cursed midterms interfering again, we did take the opportunity to have a Singaporean breakfast at Keong Saik Bakery and visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre. The iconic toast dipped in half boiled eggs was suitably delicious and I have found the eggs becoming an increasingly regular occurrence in my day to day life. However, I will confess that we steered clear of the sweetened coffee, something I doubt I will ever truly adapt to as a black coffee lover.

The coolies’ room at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. The platforms are beds and would have been shared by multiple coolies. Note the opium pipes.

From the bakery, we headed over to the Chinatown Heritage Centre which had been recommended to me on several occasion but which I had not been able to find until recently due to having the wrong name. Tickets paid for (S$15 for adults) we collected our multimedia guides and wondered into the Tailor’s Shop. The Heritage Centre consists of three restored shophouses on Pagoda Street that tell the story of what it was like to live in Chinatown in the 1950s as well as give an overview of the life of Singapore’s earliest Chinese settlers.

Another of the eight by eight living quarters. This one belonged to a family. The wife worked as a street hawker, selling deserts.

The first shophouse house been restored to its original 1950s interior. On the ground floor is a tailor’s shop, workshop, living quarters and kitchen. Once I had finished being overly excited about the old fashioned Singer sewing machines and listening to the fractionally too long audio guide, I drifted back to the living quarters that the tailor’s family and apprentices would have inhabited. To me it seemed inconceivable that these two eight by eight foot cubicles, separated only by thin boards were the entirety of the space, especially for the apprentices who would end up sleeping on the floor of the workshop when there too many to fit in the cubicle.

This is the sandal makers room. It is his workshop as well as the home for his family.

Ascending to the first floor, I was therefore even more shocked to see the tiny kitchen, shower and toilet bucket that was shared by the entire floor. Here were yet more of the tiny living cubicles each inhabited by either a family or, in a cases, groups of workers. Is was fascinating to step back in time to catch a brief glimpse of the room the sandal maker shared with his family or that of the coolies, complete with opium pipes. The dissonance of knowing this shophouse was from the 1950s not the 1850s was undeniably jarring and I am amazed by just how far this once colonial port has come in these brief, intervening years.

The slightly larger room at the front of the first floor doubled as a doctor’s surgery by day. Here is his medicine cabinet, the pink slips detailing prescriptions.

The remaining two shophouses delved further back in time, discussing the formation of Chinatown. Hearing the plight of newly arrived Chinese workers and the vices that gripped Chinatown – gambling, opium, and prostitution – was fascinating, particularly the roll secret societies played in organised crime. Talk of death lane was offset by the positivity of a bakery’s success story and the groups that eventually came to counteract the negative impact of Chinatown’s vices and help its residents.

A sort of street library or shop common in the past.

All in all, the Heritage Centre is a must visit, the only downside being the length of some of the audio descriptions left everyone awkwardly standing in one spot and didn’t really offer time to chat. I am extremely happy to have learnt a little more of Singapore’s history and have a newfound appreciation for the size of student accommodation.

Gardens by the Bay

I have a confession to make. Despite having been in Singapore for the better part of five months, the observant among you may have noticed I still haven’t been to the famous Gardens by the Bay. This was not for a lack of trying. However, the weather seemed to conspire against me and whenever I had a deadline free afternoon set aside to visit them, the rain would thunder down in true tropical climate fashion. Even when I finally fitted in a visit recently, I did not succeed in fully escaping the rain.

The gardens were wonderfully laid out and even though relatively small, one could meander around for as long as one can stand the Singaporean heat and humidity. For me this wasn’t long and I was happy to enter the eternal spring of the flower dome. It showcased a delightful array of flowers and plants from a variety of Mediterranean climates, many of which I recognised by sight if not by name. I was particularly fond of the driftwood animals hidden away amongst the foliage, notably a dragon perched overhead.

I was immediately taken with the cloud forest dome, it reminded me of a cooler version of the Eden Project back in England. Another reason for my excitement was the large number of dragons tucked away for the observer to find. I many grow old one day but I will never stop loving dragons. It is probably best that I study Physics and not Biology or else I suspect I would already be trying to create a dragon.

Descending through the clouds along aerial walkways and reading about the human impact on the world was as interesting and enjoyable as reading about an upcoming mass extinction can be. I also enjoyed looking at the stalactites and geodes on one level of the mountain.

I had hoped to walk along the famous OCBC Skyway in the Supertree Grove but by this point it had start to spit and the walkway had been closed due to the risk of lightning so I made do with craning my head back to admire the towering artificial “trees” that make up the grove. With the rain getting worse, I gave up on my original plan of seeing the trees light up as the sun set and returned home.

Taroko Gorge

Today proceeded in a relaxed manner. Unlike one of my fellow hostel guests, who veritably sprinted out the door to go to Taroko Gorge, I had a relax, slightly singed breakfast before teaming up with a Swiss couple from the hostel. After a large amount of hemming and hawing and the consulting of timetables, we opted to rent a couple of scooters on which to drive along Taroko Gorge.

Scooters rented for the next 24 hours, we set off out of Hualien towards Taroko National Park, only getting lost twice while trying to leave the city behind us. In light of our first few misadventures, I was tasked with giving directions because I was riding pillion. As someone who could probably get lost on a straight road I was a little reluctant to assume this role. However, once we were out of Hualien City, it was smooth travelling up highway 9 and straight into the gorge.

The Taroko gorge was absolutely beautiful to drive along. I frequently found myself wondering why I had decided not to study geology at university (the answer being that I would have had to suffer through two years of A-level chemistry first). The “partly cloudy” weather forecast was one word too long with clouds shrouding all the surrounding peaks. By the time we reached the top of the gorge, it was considerably colder than it had been when we set out. This was odd as I barely noticed an incline and can only assume that we entered the cloud base for such a dramatic temperature change.

We headed all the way to the top of the gorge and after looking around Xiangde Temple, intended to stop at a number of short trails on the way down. We knew in advance that a number of the trails were closed due to rockfalls or ongoing efforts to stabilise the cliff faces. Sadly the other trails we tried also seemed to be closed, most likely due to all the recent rain. For instance, we could only view the Changchun Shrine from the road. Nonetheless, the drive was still stunning, with sheer cliffs eroded away over the course of eons and places where the road curves, allowing views down long stretches of the gorge.

The sun setting, we left Taroko behind and drove a little further up the coast to Qingshui Cliffs. Here the mountains drop into the turquoise ocean which stretches out to the horizon and beyond. With sheer cliffs behind and only ocean ahead, one feels like they are standing at the edge of the world and that maybe anything is possible.

Darkening skies saw us heading back to Hualien and the Dongdamen Night Market. This was very different to most night markets I have seen. For starters the stalls were much more spaced out and permanent. The stalls were also different in terms of what they offered. While there was a wide rage of food as one would expect, there were very few stalls selling goods and instead a large number of old fashioned arcade games where one has to pop balloons or some other variation. All the same, it was an enjoyable end to a delightful day.

Taipei, First Impressions

My first though on seeing Taipei through the train window is “grey”. This was mostly likely because of the rain and a severe lack of sleep. Walking to my hostel to drop of my luggage, I was once again struck by the lateness that everywhere opens at in East Asia. Despite it being almost nine, the only open cafe I passed was a Starbucks and so my breakfast consisted on a cinnamon roll and the largest feasible sugar and caffeine monstrosity. After recovering from some minor brain freeze and dropping of my luggage I made my way to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

The huge square in front of it was almost deserted, the early morning and light drizzle deterring most tourists. An amusing observation was seeing so many people in winter coats even though it was somewhere around 18 degrees, practically shorts and T-shirt weather after the biting temperatures and wind of Japan. I dread having to readapt to Singapore’s humidity in just over a weeks time. The art exhibition halls within the memorial building were very nice, I particularly liked the information they had about other museums and memorials that remember the darker events of the 20th century.

The little I could see of the changing of the guard (aren’t tall people annoying?) was very impressive, almost perfect synchrony without a word spoken and lots of guns twirling. There were also a couple of pieces of snazzy footwork where I could hear the K-pop music playing.

I next had a look around the 2/28 Memorial Museum. This gave a really good explanation of the events that took place in 1947 between the people of Taiwan and Mainland Chinese. The English signage was limited but the museum provides a free audio guide so it is still worth going. The only downside was the length of each audio clip meant one was left awkwardly hovering around waiting to move on.

After the museum I wondered around a little more of Taipei, visiting a couple of temples, notably Longshan Temple with appropriately cool dragons on its roof, and looking around the historical Bopiliao block and Dihua Street with its huge bags of dried mushrooms, fabric shops and a few souvenirs. I also visited the red house which showcases a number of local artisan stall ranging from melted bottles and leather work to jewellery, clothes and homemade soaps. It was very stylishly put together and would be a could place to by something for an alternative souvenir.