Escaping Bangkok

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.

The back entrance to Wat Ratchaburana.

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:

Wat Phra Mahathat with Wat Ratchaburana sticking up in the background.
Wat Phu Khao Thong and also the moment I realised I was about to be rained on.
Wat Si Sanphet
I’m really not sure which wat this photo belongs to. I think I just snapped the photo as I cycled past.
Wat Ratchaburana again. It was the only wat people could climb up and look inside.
The three stupas at Wat Phra Si Sanphet

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.

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

George Town to Bangkok by Sleeper Train

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.

The ferry from George Town to Butterworth.

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?

Seats on the sleeper train.

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.

Upper bunk on the sleeper train to Bangkok. Not the anti fall out of bed strap.

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.

View from the window as we waited to start off again.

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.

On the orange flag boat to Khao San Road.

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

Boat (orange flag fixed fare): 15 Baht

Chasing Street Art in George Town

My first glimpse of George Town street art.
One of the marking George Town sculptures, these were often humorous.

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.

A Chinese Temple I stumbled across. I’m not sure which one though.
Some street art outside the Ming Xiang Tai egg tart shop.

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.

Children on a swing, just avoid the lady selling souvenirs next to it.
I found this piece at the same time as a tour group and had to wait ten minutes before I could get a photo.

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.

The Straights of Melaka as seen from Fort Cornwallis.
This style of street art where a painted picture was coupled with a 3D object was very popular.

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.

This was a cute little tag that kept cropping up.
Another of the amusing marking George Town sculptures. The trick was not getting run over while taking photos of them.

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.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Street art appeared everywhere.

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.

An old trishaw outside the Ming Xiang Tai egg tart shop.
A particularly big piece.

After that it was more wandering before we eventually called it a day and went our separate ways.

Many five foot ways are less than five feet but this is the narrowist in George Town.
And finally a nice coulourfull one.

The Cameron Highlands

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.

The start of trail five.

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.

Walking alongside the golf course.

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.

The cafe at the Bid Red Strawberry Farm.

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.

Outside Sam Poh Temple.

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.

The death tree of bees.

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.

Ye Olde Smokehouse.

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.

Our guide’s freshly painted land rover, BBT.

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.

The ipoh tree.

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.

Interior of the Mossy Forest.

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.

Part of the BOH Tea Plantation.

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.

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.

2018-05-20 05.27.38 1.jpg
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

How (not) to Pack at the End of a Year Abroad

Packing is always a palaver, especially when packing a year’s worth of stuff into two bags. Here is how I packed the bag I shipped back the the UK. I used Send My Bag luggage shipping company. They seem pretty decent although I don’t want to speak too soon with my bag still in transit. My only complaint is that it would have been nice to have been told they didn’t ship to Guernsey while I was booking instead of a couple of weeks later.

Now, without further ado, the list:

1. Clean a year’s worth off dust off bag

2. Fill in the bottom of bag with underwear and scarves.

3. Add dryer sheets.

4. Roll up all T-shirts.

5. Tea break to contemplate how many black clothes you own.

6. Skirts next. Then dresses.

7. Unpack and repack as you realise you forgot your sun hat.

8. Pack remaining clothes and squishy objects

9. Realise you also forgot two draws.

10. Stuff bag with all remaining items while panicking about how much room isn’t left.

11.Use far too much cellotape to attach postage labels.

12. Leave bag next to door where it will present a trip hazard until it is collected.

13. Repeat packing process with items that are travelling with self.

14. Improvise with packing tape to squash items down.

15. Throw out everything that doesn’t fit in a bag.

16. You’re done!

Being Beachy in Bali

My Easter trip to Bali mostly consisted of sitting by the pool and on the beach in the north of the island while alternating between studying and revising. I knew even as I was booking that I would have little time for anything else. However, rock fever had taken hold of me and I needed a change of scenery from the cityscape of Singapore that a hike along the Southern Ridges wouldn’t satisfy. Fortunately, on my last whole day I arrived back in Denpasar early enough to make the short trip to Uluwatu beach.

Cave or beach?

This idyllic tourist trap of a beach runs straight onto a reef, creating paddling pools for all in addition to fabulous waves that the surfer in me wishes I was brave enough to surf. Descending into the initial amalgamation of beach and cave, I was a tad sceptical but as I emerged into the sunlight, the reef stretching before me, the view blew away the final cobwebs that the routine of Singapore had weaved in my mind.

A small part of me is very jealous of the surfers who had enough experience to hire a board and surf here, even if I know I would have barely lasted five seconds before being spat back onto the reef.
I eventually made it away from the majority of tourists.

Keen to stretch my legs and get away from the biggest throng of tourists, I meandered along the reef to the end of the beach, enjoying the sun and waves. I normally find the waters of South East Asia leave a slight residue of grime and pollution on my hair and skin, at fact that means the beaches here hold little appeal for me. Uluwatu beach was a rare exception to this, although I did not go out any further than the tidal pools. With sunset still a little way away, I headed back up the cliffs to a café perched precariously above the rocks below and devoured some delicious fried rice, looking out over the ocean and, eventually, the sunset.

Perhaps I should have studied geology, then I could explain how this rock formed. Instead I can only admire it.
Precariously balanced. I’m not sure this would pass health and safety muster back home but can’t quite bring myself to be concerned.

Uluwatu beach and Bali in general was a wonderful balm to my soul. The only downside was the taxi service of Uluwatu who possess a monopoly of the area, not allowing other companies, including Uber and Grab, to operate out of the area and so charging a premium which was twice what I paid to reach the beach. The only exception to this being the hotel cars who naturally match the taxis in price. The taxi service wouldn’t allow me to ride with a lovely couple who suggested I share the cost of their private driver from Denpasar with them, after I found out just how much they wanted to charge. With the driver unable leave with me in the car, I was forced to get out and walk until I was able to arrange a covert pick up further down the road with the asistance of an extremely kind chap at a cafe.

The end of a beautiful day.

Operation Extract Tourist went off without a hitch. A short motorbike ride further up the road to a darkened layby. A black car pulling in smoothly (after a slightly awkward U-turn). The door being opened for me. Tinted windows concealing me from prying eyes and we were off. Total time: three minutes and twenty two seconds. Next stop: the airport for a night on the floor. The kindness of the people who had helped me overshadowing the blatant extortion and monopoly of the taxi drivers.

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.