Upon deciding to head up to Hue after Hoi An, I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to do the Hai Van Pass by motorbike as everyone whose done it reports absolutely stunning scenery. This was an on going debate throughout my stay in Hoi An and it was only on the last day I decided I wasn’t confident enough to ride a motorbike or scooter the necessary 160 odd kilometres. In the end I caught a local bus to Da Nang and then got the train the rest of the way. This meant I got to see a little of the beautiful scenery but missed out on the best bits. On the other hand, I arrived at my hostel in one piece and without an Asian tattoo of gravel rash.
Cycling around Hoi An had given me the bicycle bug so the day after my arrival I rented a bicycle and set off to explore the sites around Hue. Within the city there is less to see but surrounding it are tombs and temples. I started off by powering along to the UNESCO Imperial City. Building started in 1804 but less than a century and a half later in 1947, Viet Cong and French fighting destroyed many of the buildings and burned the Imperial Palace to the ground. Then the Citadel was badly damaged in 1968 during the Tet Offensive and the South Vietnamese and American efforts to reclaim Hue. By the end of all this only ten of some 160 major buildings or sites remained. Fortunately, these have been or are in the process of being restored and preserved.
All this makes for a curious experience walking around the Citadel as some parts remain grassy ruins and others are perfectly solid (if a little weathered) buildings. While some of the weathering had clearly appeared naturally over time, there were a couple of places where it appeared intentional such as where doors had multiple layers of paint in different colours showing.
I eventually found myself at the exit and decided to move on to my next loaction: the Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda was magnificent but also interesting was some of its history as this was the home of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who famously self immolated in 1963 to protest the prosecution of Buddhists by the Roman Catholic government. The car he used to drive down to Saigon is on display at the pagoda and provided yet another insight into the build up to the Vietnam war.
Out of all the tombs, I decided to visit only one as the 100,000đ entrance fees to each would have quickly added up and the distant locations meant I wasn’t confident of fitting everywhere into one day. Hence, I went to the one that seemed to have the best reviews, the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc. While I cannot compare it to the other tombs I felt it deserved the reviews and enjoyed looking around the complex.
I spent the evening recovering from all my cycling over a cold beer with an Australian from my hostel and woke up bright and early the next day to finish packing.
Packing complete, I set left my backpack at the hostel and set out riding pillion on the back of a lass’s scooter to the abandoned water park. The Australian from the night before was with us and my excellent navigation skills saw us arriving in no time. We ended up paying the bribe fee to the entrepreneurial local security guard to enter the park as the large group of girls we were standing with all caved and our sheep-like natures won out.
The water park didn’t have tons to see but the huge dragon in the centre of the lake was really cool to climb up and look out from. A few small additions to the graffiti later and we came across some flumes and slides that had seen better days. Finishing our loop around the lake, we headed back into Hue for a rushed lunch before I caught my bus up to Phong Nha.
When I finally arrived in Hoi An, I was not in the most upbeat of moods so the crowding of tourists and price hikes to match in the old city grated somewhat against my nerves. I bought my ticket to the old city for 120,000đ and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around. The ticket allows one to enter any five of the twenty two sites or points of interest around the city but tourists are technically expected to carry the ticket with them at all times in the old city. This wasn’t something I saw enforced but apparently it does occasionally happen.
Having bought the ticket I realised I didn’t know which of the sights to use mine for so just soaked up the atmospheric streets and visited the central market. Entering the building that sold fabric and housed the cheapest of Hoi An’s famous tailoring services, I found myself walking through it with increasing speed because so much as glancing at a stall meant persistent calls to buy something, and in one case almost being herded into one. The outdoor section of the market, selling mostly produce and fish, was more enjoyable as being able to see the sky made the whole experience less claustrophobic.
After an early jaunt through the night market and dinner I watched the sunset from one on the bridges over the Thu Bon river. This proved to be a refreshing end to a stressful day of flat tires crowded tourist spots. As the light dimmed, new lights appeared on the river as the boats rigged silk lanterns and people released floating lanterns for good luck.
The next day I planned my stops in the city before setting out. My first stop was the Museum of Trading Ceramics. While the information provided was limited, the museum was situated in a beautiful old merchant house and it was amazing to read about just how long Hoi An had been a trading port before its decline. After looking around the second floor, I walked to Phuc Kien Assembly Hall where merchants used to meet it also seemed to be part shrine and I loved the huge spirals of incense that hung burning from the ceiling.
My final stop of the day was the Minh Huong Pagoda which was very quiet. I had hoped to also visit the Tan Ky house but by the time I got there after devouring some fresh spring rolls (a new favourite of mine) in the central market, they had closed for lunch. Being too impatient to wait, I wandered the shops of the city, debating whether to replace my rucksack (currently rather holey) with a nice leather one. I was strongly dissuaded when the shop keeper dropped from 2,730,000đ to 1,100,000đ in the space of a minute. While this could probably could have been a good deal, only £33 for a leather bag, having had my arm grabbed when I went to leave after turning down the bag because it didn’t have a zip closure had rather soured my mood and I returned to the hostel.
For dinner I had a life changing experience of bành mí from Bành Mí Phuong, a small stall made world renowned by Anthony Bourdain, who proclaimed it the best bành mí he had ever eaten.
The next day I left all valuables at the hostel and set out for the beach on a bicylce from the hostel. After the first busy stretch, the cycle was quite a bit of fun and the rice paddies were a pleasant change of scenery. The beach was crowded, even when I cycled further down it to avoid paying bicycle parking costs (an excellent piece of advice from my hostel). After a swim where my inner selkie rejoiced at being in the sea again, I lounged on a sun chair in the shade (still managing to get burnt despite reapply my sun cream) and read my book.
In hindsight I should have known my cycle to the beach was too easy as I cycled all the way back to the hostel with a headwind buffering me about. To round off my stay I visited the Tan Ky house that aftenoon. I got a nice little talk about the combination of Japanese and Chinese architecture used. My favourite bit was a series of stickers marking the heights of various floods over the years. The highest was in 1964 and almost brushed the ceiling. This reminded me of a story I heard about a pub that used to remain open during floods so locals could kayak over for a pint.
If there is one rule to travelling that must always be obeyed it is never ever whatever you do, think a journey is going well until you have arrived at your destination on time and in one piece. If you do decide to break this sacred rule, know that when you wake up at 0520 in the morning expecting your bus to have just arrived in Hoi An, you will in fact be forty five minutes outside of Hoi An with a flat tire. Naturally there will be no spare tire, the majority of the hold will be filled with packages mysteriously wrapped in black plastic – probably drugs you will joke. After a smoke and just as you exit the bus that is starting to turn into a sweatbox without the air conditioner running, one of the drivers will jump on the back of a motorbike and depart for destinations unknown.
It will only be as this point, when you observe the lean of the bus, that you will realise there is a flat tire and that it will be a while yet before you make it to Hoi An. Not to worry you will think, as the grandmother-mother-child combo that were next to you all the way from Saigon flag down a local bus and speed away, with only forty five minutes to Hoi An and allowing half an hour to fix the tire, you will be on your way again in a couple of hours (in reality you are only jinxing the situation further).
A couple of hours is still a long time though, so you will open up the hold to see if your bag is easily collectable, if it is you plan to follow the locals who are performing a gradual exodus with each local bus that passes. As you are closing the last door (you can’t even see your bag), the remaining driver will lean out the door and shout at you in Vietnamese. You presume he is telling you to stop but the language sounds so angry it is just as likely he is trying to discuss the weather (unlikely since he is such a miserable looking fellow).
Plans of escape thwarted, you will order an ice coffee at the nearby cafe, even though it isn’t yet six and the owner is still opening up. This is where you will remain for the foreseeable future, eventually joined by others as the heat of the bus becomes intolerable. Two hours will pass and the driver won’t have even returned (so much for that plan). At some point you will start playing a convoluted version of rummy where, since none of you know the actual rules, you just make them up as you go along.
At 0830 the driver will arrive bringing two tires and an air tank to power the jack and screwdriver as well as blow up the tires. Cheers all round. At 0850 the flat, rear tire and the front tire will have been removed and everyone who was fixing the bus will have disappeared. Fortunately a minibus driver who speaks English will arrive around this time and he will explain to you that the tires they bought back (probably from Da Nang you will now realise) are the wrong size so the driver has had to go twenty five kilometres down the road in the opposite direction to buy some new ones (why couldn’t he do that to start with if it is so much closer).
Some more cards and short walk up the road to see if there is anywhere selling something that can be approximated as breakfast (there isn’t unless you count crisps) later and the driver will return with two shiny new tires. It will be 0940 when you eventually leave and 1030 when you arrive in Hoi An.
There was no need to phone the hostel the day before and ask if you could check in early after all.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Escaping Bangkok for the day, I headed up to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand. I caught the 0820 train up from Hua Lamphong Station, arriving just before 1000. Picking up the requisite tourist map, I hopped across the river on the small shuttle boat and rented a bicycle for the day. I could have rented a motorbike for around an extra 50 to 100 baht but decided I rather liked being attached to all my limbs. That said I probably wan’t much safer on the bicycle, the chain of which slipped every time I started from stationary and whose back brake was questionable to say the least.
Describing how I cycled from one picturesque red brick ruin to another incredibly similar looking ruin is rather boring so I will instead sum up a few key points of my visit.
Plan for the early afternoon rain shower by eating lunch as you wait for the downpour to subside. I didn’t and found myself trying to outrun the storm as I sought shelter.
The six temple ticket was not worth the cost as I only used it at two of the temples I visited, otherwise it was a separate entrance fee.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet had a back entrance with no ticket booth. As some temples were free, I didn’t realise there was a ticket booth at the front until after the fact.
The Ayutthaya floating market is actually a tourist attraction with a 200 baht entrance fee and an elephant riding camp right next to it. In my opinion it is not worth the visit even if it is rather scenic since the touristy wares can be found at any normal market without having to pay an entrance fee.
Just cycling around the the more minor roads is rather enjoyable so take the time to enjoy oneself.
Finally, even the tourist police, can’t read the tourist map with ease, I had three trying to help me orientate myself after getting somewhat turned around.
And now for some more pretty photos:
Bangkok to Ayutthaya trains: 20 baht each way, 40 baht total.
Bicycle rental: I cannot remember exactly but think it was 120 or 150 baht for the day with a 1000 baht (or passport) deposit
Shuttle boat across river: 5 baht
Temple entrance: Typically between 20 and 50 baht each but some are free.
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.
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 LamphongStation. Why should I listen to her anymore? Or look at the map she is showing me? Why let her speakandexplain where she wants to go? I will saychuu chuutoher 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A hold over from my childhood and being island bound by fog or mechanical failure is that whenever I am changing locations, I obsessively leave as much time as possible between legs of my journey. Second leg an evening flight? No problem. I’ll get an early morning flight, barely restraining myself from catching the red eye, for the first leg.
Travelling in South East Asia it takes a certain level of self control not to take this to a whole new level with the constant delays and borderline horror stories passed by word of mouth down the traveller grapevine. There is always a friend of a friend of a guy someone met who got stranded next to a rice paddy somewhere.
Hence, I set out for Bangkok early on the day of my departure. I arrived at the ferry terminal from George Town to Butterworth around 0930 (apparently free in the George Town to Butterworth direction). By the time the “regular” ferry arrived in Butterworth it was 1030 and the “hourly” KTM Komuter train up to Padang Besar would not be leaving for another two hours. Finally boarding the train, I flopped into a seat and devoured my book until we eventually pulled into Pedang Besar station some time around two.
Navigating the border crossing was confusing, purely from the point of view that I and the small pack of other foreign travellers had no clue where we were going. Did we walk across the land border and find a different train station on the other side? Or were we somehow supposed to navigated the unmanned Malaysian and Thai border boxes on the floor below the canteen?
Eventually, we scraped together a vaguely straight answer that we were to wait until the boxes opened and then pass through the Malaysian and Thai boxes at the opposite ends of the ground floor. Next came another wait for the sleeper train that would carry us to all the way to Bangkok (naturally it was delayed by just under an hour). I passed the time playing card games with a lovely Swedish chap.
A few more games and dinner on the train passed the few hours before we turned in for a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. Just as we were leaving for the somewhat rickety dinner cart, the steward came through and converted each booth into a set of bunk beds, complete with pillow and blanket. While not huge, the top bunk was fine for my vertically challenged nature and I managed not to fall out despite only two straps to prevent me from doing so.
The next morning, the beds were converted back to seats and I tucked into my somewhat squashed roll that had travelled from a 7-Eleven in George Town with me the day before. Only about an hour and a bit late we were making good time into Bangkok when disaster struck. Driving through a cross between building site and railway siding the train suddenly shuddered to a halted to the accompaniment of much shouting and gesturing from some workers.
No information provided, we waited on the outskirts of Bangkok unsure if we were going to have to walk the remainder of the way. Eventually the passengers in the last coach relocated to ours, before theirs was disconected and we rolled back into motion. We finally made it to our Hua Lamphong Station only three hours late, so all in all, very good time was made.
A twenty minute walk to boat stop N3 and we got the boat up to near Khao San Road (N13) and out respective hostels.
Ferry from George Town to Butterworth: free
Train Butterworth to Pedang Besar: RM11.40
Train Pedang Besar to Bangkok: 870 Baht for a top bunk plus a online booking fee of around 30 baht
The traditional tourist tactic of heading from A to B with blinkers on is not an acceptable way to visit George Town. It is a town made to been meandered through aimlessly, drinking in the historical architecture and gorging on a delightful fusion of cuisines. With a whipstop a day and a half stay, the amount of food to be indulged in was somewhat limited but my artistic spirit feasted continuously throughout my time in Penang.
The architecture, the street art, the colourful signs, and aesthetic hipster cafes, there was always something to look at and admire. Utilising a map from the tourist information centre I quested out the most well known pieces of street art, keeping my eyes peeled for the amusing wrought iron “Marking George Town” cartoon pieces. This gentle rambling around eventually saw me devouring a plate of one of the local dishes, char koey teow, a kind of flat rice noodle with eggs, bean sprouts and prawns. With limited table space, I ended up sitting with another English traveller and chatting about out experiences of travelling solo.
The next day I ventured down to Fort Cornwallis and nosed around for about half an hour. Aside from a decent view of the Straights of Melaka, there was very little to see within the fort. There are a few cannons, the outer wall, and the old gunpowder storeroom but very little in the way of plaques explaining and expanding upon the historyof the site.
With an awkward amount of time before the tourist office’s free walking tour, I tested out one of the hipster coffee shops nearby, sipping a black coffee as I read my book.
The short walking tour was a little hard to hear at times but what I could hear was very interesting and had I had more time, I would have liked to visit a couple of the place we looked at in more detail such as the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, a house turned museum on Church Street that used to be used by a Chinese secret society, the Ghee Hin.
The Englishwoman I had met the previous night was also on the walking tour so we joined forces afterwards to amble through Georgetown, picking roads at random. We eventually found ourselves sampling some blissful eggtarts at Ming Xiang Tai. There was a brief moment of internal panic when I misread the sign as RM20 per tart but upon rereading the signs it was only RM2.20, so a slight difference there.
After that it was more wandering before we eventually called it a day and went our separate ways.
Sunday saw me departing from Kuala Lumpur for the Cameron Highlands. Stepping off the bus in Tanah Rata, it was a delight to not be immediately struck down by the furious heat and humidity that the majority of South East Asia is afflicted with. I fully understand the desire of the colonialists to escape here over a hundred years ago.
While agriculture is the biggest industry in Cameron Highlands, with the fruit and veg grown here shipped to much of Malaysia, there is still a tourism industry that cashes in on the colonial nature of the original town. This made it rather an odd experience as one of the main attractions were the strawberry farms where one could go and pick strawberries and many of the buildings in Brinchang were painted to try and emulate the Tudor houses of old.
After booking a tour to the Mossy Forest and BOH Tea Plantation for Tuesday since the plntaion factory was closed on Mondays, I set out to walk from Tanah Rata to Brinchang along trail five. While trail four was the more commonly walked route, it finished about halfway to Brinchang, leaving one to walk along the road the rest of the way. I eventually found trail five but upon seeing how overgrown it was and having already experienced the lack of signage, I decide I didn’t really fancy getting lost in the Malaysian jungle or the chance of meeting a snake. Instead I returned to trail four, I knew that in theory I should be able to branch off to trail six which would take me to Brinchang without having to walk along the road.
This was all well and good, however with a large number of unmarked paths leading off the trail, I reached the road before I discovered the start of trail six. This wasn’t the end of the world and walking beside the golf course was quite pleasant in the cooler climate of the high altitude. The real downside was it gave local drivers the opportunity to catcall at me as they drove pass, an issue that several women I’ve met have all encountered. Arriving finally in Brinchang, I slogged the remainder of the way up the the Big Red Strawberry Farm.
For RM25 (about £5) I picked half a kilo of strawberries, taking my time to be pedantic over colour and ensuring only the most perfectly ripe strawberries were deposited in my basket. There was little else to see at the farm but it was amazing to see the number of strawberry themed foods in the cafe and gifts in the gift shop. My favourite was a box of “strawberry white coffee” being sold in the shop.
In Brinchang I also visit the Sam Poh Temple. I was the only visitor and the temple had a wonderfully tranquil atmosphere permeating throughout. Even a potted tree that had some kind of beehive on it seemed less threatening and more fascinating (from a safe distance) within the confines of the temple.
Heading back to Tanah Rata, I stopped at the Smokehouse for a Devonshire cream tea. Approaching the somewhat incongruous old Tudor style building and walking past its gardens made me feel like I had walked through a portal to a distorted parallel of England. Enjoying the memories of a cream tea at La Sablonnerie in Sark. I slathered my scones in appropriately large amounts of cream and devoured them. The still warm scones were the perfect combination of fluffy and crumbly and so sublime that I requested the recipe, an action I have never felt moved to do before.
The next day dawned bright and early with not too many clouds, presenting the perfect weather for a trip to the Mossy Forest. The guide, Mr Satu, was a third generation local and he put his excellent knowledge to the test, there wasn’t a question asked that he couldn’t answer for us. Instead of visiting the tea plantation first as is standard for a lot of tours, we drove straight up to the Mossy Forest, arriving well ahead of the crowds. Walking along the boardwalk that is in place to help protect the moss and other fauna, Satu explain the uses of a variety plants to us, including showing us the ipoh tree that the local aborigines use for the poison on their blowpipe darts.
Ascending the watch tower, we were rewarded with a stunning view of the highlands stretching out before us. Having taken all our photos, Satu talked about some of the animals to be found in the Cameron highlands and I can only say I was increasingly glad not to have walked trail five the previous day when it came to talking about snakes. A final loop of the boardwalk and we started back to the carpark, just as the crush of tourists began to arrive and crowd the pathway.
Driving back down the mountainside we stopped at a viewpoint over the BOH Tea Plantation. It seem to stretch for miles and I cannot imagine how they manage to pick the whole plantation in the twenty one days before they start over at point A. The two person petrol blade that is dragged along the top of each plant probably helps somewhat but even then it seems a momentous task. Walking around the factory was interesting if very quick. Seeing how the mental imgage of a labour intensive manual process has infact been modernised and mechanised was a shift in perspective and an enjoyable knowledge gap to fill.
With the tea tasted and the tour over, we returned to Tanah Rata and a late lunch. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the hostel and planning the next stage of my journey.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A quick stop to look up at the Petronas Towers and I headed back to the hostel for the evening.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.